The other day, I was lucky to interview (and then, even better, sit next to at lunch) the fascinating Neil Oliver, Scottish archaeologist and host of the stunning TV series Coast. He’s here in Australia launching Coast Australia which is rather gobsmackingly spectacular. For lunch, we both ordered the barramundi, but when the food arrived, we both wished we’d ordered the ocean trout.
He is thoroughly charming, naturally, and delightfully self-effacing. I asked him all the hard questions like:
“What’s in that bag you always have over your shoulder?” and “Do you find it ironic that you don’t live on the coast?” He showed me a picture of his kids and I showed him a picture of my bearded collie puppy. We got along famously.
And then we got talking about one of my favourite topics: our recent trip to Scotland, in particular our jaunt out to the Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles, as Neil calls them). I mean, really. What else would I talk about to the Scottish host of Coast but the coast of Scotland. He was pretty impressed that we’d ventured out to the Western Isles, to be honest, as apparently not many people do. But for us, they were the highlight of our trip. So I thought that was as good a reason as any to tell you a bit about our Outer Hebridean jaunt.
We caught the ferry from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist, then drove all the way down to the very bottom of South Uist where we stayed at the thoroughly delightful Lochboisdale Hotel. We wandered along a stretch of sandy beach where the water was so still it looked like glass. We ran our hands along the stones at Flora Macdonald’s birthplace (we later used our new found Flora Macdonald knowledge to impress some locals at a pub quiz in Broughty Ferry, but that’s another story), we stared down some highland cows and poked around some abandoned blackhouses.
On the islands of Lewis & Harris (actually just the one island, but I was too polite to say anything!) we pondered the relevance of the Callanish standing stones, before venturing to the truly amazing Auberge Carnish for one of the most magical evenings of our trip. On the west coast of Lewis, we ducked into restored black houses, with peat fires still burning and imagined the family that had lived there until only forty years ago. We followed a rough path down to a tiny cove and marvelled at an iron age house that just appeared there after the ferocity of a storm had washed the sand away, uncovering it. We peered over the edge of the Butt of Lewis (and giggled, naturally, because at our hearts, we’re quite immature and the word “butt” is always funny). We posted some postcards at the Butt of Lewis in a little red postbox in the middle of nowhere.
On the moors, the locals were cutting peat and stacking it to dry while the weather was good, making sure they’d have enough to burn throughout what I imagine are particularly brutal winters. In Stornoway, we dined on fresh, local fish and chips.
There is something bleakly beautiful about these islands. There are stark contrasts in the landscapes, from soaring mountains to bare, misty moors. The coastline is rugged, jagged and surprising, with perfectly lovely surf beaches appearing unexpectedly on the west coast. We met some wonderfully warm people, from the guy walking his border collie on the beach at Lochboisdale, to the incredibly warm French host at Auberge Carnish, to the lady who worked in dark in the iron age house, stoking the peat fire and answering a lot of ridiculous questions from weirdos like us. She was very patient. It takes a bit of planning to head to the Outer Hebrides, because you have to co-ordinate your ferry crossings (and hope for flat seas. We were rather blessed in this department – barely a ripple on any of our crossings) and depending on the season, accommodation can be hard to come by. But it is thoroughly worth it. We loved it so much that we named our puppy Lewis. And tributes don’t come much greater than that.
Where we stayed:
Lochboisdale Hotel, South Uist
Auberge Carnish, Lewis
Holm View Guest House, Stornoway
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Man, how cool you got to chat to him!