Words and photos by: Nina Zietman
It’s 4pm on a Friday. I should be in the office. Instead, I’m sat on the edge of a cliff looking over a deserted beach with a beer in hand, watching the surf roll in below. This is the Isle of Lewis and Harris, the most north-westerly island in Britain, and there’s not a soul in sight.
It all started with a competition. One Wednesday night after a few beers, I entered a competition to win a weekend’s stay in a high-tech inflatable tent from Heimplanet. You just had to pick a destination in the UK you’d like to visit and say why.
I pulled up Google Maps. With the same deliberation that a monkey might give a dart flung at a dartboard, I chose the Outer Hebrides. A week later, I received an email saying I’d won. “Oh my god” I texted my boyfriend Ed, “Now we actually have to go to the Outer Hebrides.”
21,000 people live here. That’s 25 people per square mile. There are 13,870 people per square mile in London…
I’d done no research. The flights were gobsmackingly expensive. All I knew was it’s very far away and they chain swings up in playgrounds on Sundays so children can’t play on the ‘day of rest’ – and I wasn’t even sure if this was true.
Three months later, we touched down in Stornoway airport on a tiny 36-man propeller plane. Air Traffic Control was waving to the pilot as we came to a halt. I could tell already this was going to be a place like no other.
Our plan was to hire a car and spend four days touring the island, camping and surfing in a different spot every night. The beauty of Scotland is their wild camping laws, allowing you the freedom to pitch your tent on any land that’s not privately owned.
Once we’d crammed our gear and supplies into a compact Vauxhaull Corsa, we bought a map and hit the road.
I was right. The Isle of Lewis is like nowhere else I’d ever visited. There are no hotels, no pubs and no chain shops outside Stornoway. A handful of main roads will take you from the top of the island to the bottom in around two hours.
It’s totally undeveloped. 21,000 people live here, which equates to 25 people per square mile. Just to put that into perspective, there are 13,870 people per square mile in London.
As far as surf adventurers go, we weren’t particularly experienced. In fact, we’d never really ventured further than the comfortable bays of Devon and Cornwall. After a few tips from local surfer Derek Macleod, we made our way to Dalmore, a well-known beach break on the west side of Lewis.
Instead you’ll find rolling marshlands dotted with miniature lochs, rocky mountain landscapes that look like the surface of the moon, waterfalls tucked away from the roadside. And then there’s the coastline. This is what really brings people to the Outer Hebrides – miles of untouched white sandy beaches sliding away into a turquoise sea.
When I say well-known, there wasn’t a single surfer in sight when we arrived. Two men were mowing the grass around a graveyard when we will pulled up to the beach. Aside from that, it was just us, the seagulls and the sheep.
It was unnerving as much as exhilarating paddling out. The surf was pumping with two foot waves building into chunky four footers. We stayed central, wary of getting caught in one of the rips or strong tidal currents sweeping through the bay.
After much hesitation, I caught a wave. My first one in Scotland. I whooped, claiming it and disturbing the misty calm surrounding the bay.
We paddled until our arms couldn’t cope anymore before calling it a day, and heading towards the shore to pitch our tent for the night. We chose a spot on top of a cliff with a picture-perfect view of the surf and the sun setting.
Now the Heimplanet Cave is an inflatable ten, which does sound like something you’d find in Toys ‘R’ Us. In fact, it’s super high tech with a geodesic dome construction designed by Germans, making it super sturdy and obviously very efficient. It’s been toured around Iceland, tested in winds of up to 160km/ph and (most surprising of all) it’s incredibly easy to put up. From flat to pegged first time round, we had it up in five minutes flat.
Tent pitched, we cracked open a few bottles of local ale – Orkney Blast being one of a few we picked up in Stornoway – cooked up a pan of chilli con carne, and lit a bonfire while watching the sun set over the cliff top. It was one of the few moments in life when it really does seem too good to be true.
After a dry night’s sleep and no sign of sheep rubbing themselves up against our tent for warmth (as we’d previously been warned), we cooked up some breakfast burritos, got soaked trying to wash the dishes in the sea and set off towards Harris in our underpants, shorts drying on the back seat of the car.
The number one place to eat according to Trip Advisor? A takeaway food shed outside someone’s house…
One thing that struck us was that all the road signs are in Gaelic. This made asking for directions somewhat challenging – “Which way is it to An Taa-oo-bh Too-ath, please?” – but all the more entertaining.
Harris is the more picturesque end of the island. Mountains rise out of the marshland, forming deep emerald glens, like the kind you see in adverts for Visit Scotland.
We stopped off on a windy bay to hike to a Golden Eagle Observatory. There were no golden eagles in sight. The last entry in the guestbook said: “Saw some sort of bird on top of mountain. Could have been a sparrow though.”
Back in the car, we decided it was time to visit the southern tip of the island. After hurtling down the empty roads and stopping a few times for stubborn sheep traffic jams, we came across the number one place to eat on the island, according to Trip Advisor.
It was a little takeaway food shed called Croft 36, built outside someone’s house in the village of Northton. Ed looked confused. “Is this it?” he asked. We poked out heads inside. All of the fresh fish, pasties, buns, bread, everything was sold out. “More on Monday!” called a cheery woman in an apron, jostling through the door. She dropped a lobster into a food container and left us to eye it up.
We eventually decided – much to my dismay – that our mess tins probably wouldn’t be able to cope with a full lobster and set off to buy some salmon from the only grocery store in the area.
Then it was on to Luskentyre Bay. Now this beach is famous for a reason. Out of all the beaches I’ve visited, Luskentyre is by far one of the most beautiful. When we arrived, once more it was completely empty.
Miles of pure white sand stretched as far as the eye could see, overlooked by a warren of sand dunes where we pitched our tent for the second night.
The clouds started to roll in. The sky darkened. We sought shelter in our Cave. Then the rain came. It didn’t stop for ten hours. 30 mph winds battered the sides of the tent. Going to the loo at midnight isn’t any more pleasant when you’re backside is being sandblasted. Amazingly, the tent stayed perfectly upright through the whole ordeal.
The wind was still howling the next morning. We packed up the tent in record time, piled our sandy belongings into the car and drove to the only cafe open on a Sunday, the Temple Cafe in Northton. The tiny Hobbit den-style cafe was rammed with drenched campers in raincoats looking for hot coffee and breakfast.
"If you like driving, you'll love this road. It's like a rollercoaster ride, twisting through landscape that looks like a cross between the empty test driving roads from Top Gear and the moon..."
Stoked up on caffeine and breakfast muffins, we drove down to the tip of Harris but we weren’t prepared for the journey in store.
Up the east side of Harris runs the Golden Road, nicknamed because it cost so much to build. If you like driving, you’ll love this road. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, twisting through landscape that looks like a cross between the empty test driving roads from Top Gear and the moon. It’s said that Stanley Kubrick filmed scenes from Jupiter for 2001: A Space Odyssey here.
We passed lonely bus stops, abandoned farmhouses, winding side tracks and an old man sat in a phonebox outside his house surrounded by geese. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
After stopping at the loneliest petrol station ever visited and clambering over a hidden waterfall off the side of the road, we pitched up ourselves at Valtos on the east coast of Lewis for our final night. The sun was turning the mist golden as we dunked into the sea for an evening surf. The waves were a bit blown out and the current was strong. I took four waves on the head and decided to call it a day.
As we inflated the tent and hung up our wetsuits to dry for a final time, it was sad to think of returning to the land of urban sprawl the following night. We’d come to the Outer Hebrides to get away from crowds, concrete, phone signal, television, beeping dishwashers and all the other irritations of modern life. It’s amazing how much you don’t miss it. Apart from showers. Everyone needs showers.
Our final day started with a whistle-stop tour around the Abhainn Dearg Distillery, the only whisky distillery in the Outer Hebrides. “The one legal distillery, mind you,” said the tour guide handing us a shot of their single malt. It was only 11 o’clock in the morning.
We had to ask her why there wasn’t a single pub on the island. She didn’t know, but said it didn’t stop people drink-driving around the narrow country lanes. “They’ll just come back the next day, pull their car out of the ditch with a tractor and drive it home.”
Before the airport, we whisked past the Callanish Stones, a 5000 year old stone circle built around the same time as Stonehenge, before stopping at a beach just north of Stornoway.
As we rounded the top of the sand dunes, we were confronted with an unexpected beach break of perfect glassy peelers. We didn’t expect to find surf like this on the east side of the island.
But by now, our wetsuits were packed and our flight was leaving in just over an hour. There was no time to surf, just enough time to stare longingly at the waves before turning out backs to head back to reality. At least we’ve got a reason to come back.