Leverburgh: Go west and then further west
‘You’ve come this far.’ The taunt of a poster selling a cruise to St Kilda - the mythic group of islands and sea stacks 40 miles further west than even the Western Isles.
During my trip to the Outer Hebrides, high Atlantic winds meant the trip was off. Disappointing, yes. But this just meant that I was free to explore Harris - an island whose warm people, staggering scenery and tangible history make it so much more than a jumping-off point for boat trips.
The RNLI opened a lifeboat station at Leverburgh, on the south coast of Harris, in 2012. Everybody in this close-knit village seems to have some connection with the lifeboat, and all were happy to give tips on things to do in the area - rain or shine.
This far north, Summer days are long. Lifeboat Operations Manager Chris Ross assures me that, in mid-June, ‘you can read the paper at midnight’. So how to fill all those daylight hours?
Things to do
When the weather’s on your side, it’s a full day’s trip to St Kilda. The islands are interesting from both natural and historical points of view. Nearly a million seabirds colonise St Kilda’s sea stacks, including puffins, gannets and petrels. Visitors can also see eagles, whales, dolphins and sharks, before going ashore and exploring what remains of St Kildan civilisation. The islanders were evacuated by the government in 1930, as life on the islands was deemed too harsh. You can walk along Main Street and see the homes, church and school of the last of the islanders. Further afield, there are also the remains of older settlements. There are two companies running trips to St Kilda out of Leverburgh - Kilda Cruises and Sea Harris.
The Harris Outdoor activity centre is run by lifeboat crew member Bart Van Den Bosch and his fiancée Alicia. When conditions allow, Bart can take you sea kayaking in the Sound of Harris, or rent you a bicycle to explore inland. He can also set you up with a local walking guide, mink trapper and fellow crew member Mike Dunbar. As Dutch-born Bart says: ‘In the UK, you’ve got the right to roam. So roam! Get out of the car and walk.’ Alicia adds: ‘You don’t see the island unless you walk.’
Ever the lifeboatman, Bart can’t resist adding some safety advice: ‘Before you go out, check the weather forecast, and take waterproofs.’ And if that forecast looks dismal, you can still get your fix of adventure sport through an indoor archery session with Alicia.
Clò Mòr - Harris Tweed Exhibition, Drinishader
Take the single-track Golden Road through the rocks and lochs to Drinishader, where a small museum takes you through the history and process of making Harris Tweed. The island’s tweed is beloved of Ralph Lauren and Madonna, Yohji Yamamoto and Nike. You can feel the wool fibres at each stage of the tweed-making process, and have a go at carding (separating the fibres) the fleece yourself. Mannequins wear high-fashion pieces that have been been paraded down catwalks in New York, London and Tokyo. This gets you nicely in the mood to call in to the shop next door and see to your own tweedy needs - everything from glasses cases to posh jackets.
St Clement’s Church, Rodel
This place is old. Dating from the early part of the 16th century, St Clement’s is home to the tombs of the Dunvegan MacLeod clan chiefs. Alasdair Crotach (‘Hunchback’) MacLeod’s tomb is the main attraction and most intricate of these, considered by those in the know to be the best surviving examples of late medieval sculpture in the Hebrides. Even if, like me, you’re not in the know, it’s an atmospheric place to hide from the wind, climb the tower steps, and immerse yourself in a little clan history.
Where to eat
The Butty Bus, Leverburgh Pier
Grab a bacon, sausage or black pudding sandwich and eat it onboard the Butty Bus, with a view over the harbour and Leverburgh’s gleaming Mersey class lifeboat. Chris behind the counter is the Lifeboat Operations Manager. The hungry lifeboat crew have been known to call ahead when coming back in from a shout or training exercise to place an order for a warming round of tea and bacon butties.
The Anchorage, Leverburgh Pier
The first sign that this was going to be a good dinner came when I was told they could squeeze me in, though they were nearly fully booked. That’s pretty good going at 6pm on a Thursday in a remote island restaurant. The second sign was when the waitress told me that there was no lobster that night ‘because it’s not in season yet’. Food at the Anchorage is seasonal and fresh, and the specials board is a good bet. Looking at the rain outside, I plumped for the pie of the day. The adjoining bar has a fine selection of malt whiskies for a sundowner on the pier, looking west and watching the inter-island ferry steam off for Berneray.
Hebrides Art, Seilebost
A clean, bright café-gallery overlooking the sweeping golden beaches of West Harris. It’s run by local artists, husband-and-wife team Alisdair and Lesley Wiseman. Lesley’s on the RNLI Fundraising Committee - and as well as a kind heart and a way with a paintbrush, she bakes some very delicious cakes. I had the Lemon Drizzle. Local art is available to admire and buy, instore and online. The Wisemans are also happy to advise on nearby scenic walks - walks that may well inspire you to pick up a brush yourself. Get there quick - Lesley and Alisdair are selling up at the end of 2016.
Croft 36, Northton
On the side of the main road through Northton, this unmanned farm shop relies on the honesty of passers by. The owners leave fresh fish, eggs and baked goods in cool boxes and baskets, and we hungry tourists leave our money in the box. On the day I called, there were bread rolls, curry vegetable pasties, Scottish bridies (like a potato-free beef pasty, typically made with flaky pastry) and gluten-free muffins. The lobster still wasn’t in season. Croft 36 can also deliver freshly prepared meals to your holiday cottage, tent or hostel - I'm told the curries are good.
Where to stay
Budget: Am Bothan Bunkhouse, Ferry Road, Leverburgh
Facing west for the most spectacular sunsets, Am Bothan is a warm and friendly place to bunk. There’s a basket of eggs (freshly laid by the hens next door) in the large, clean kitchen. Pop 35p in the honesty box and you’ve got something to scramble - perfect with a bread roll picked up from Croft 36. Bedding is provided, the showers are hot, and the communal living room is lively with hikers and bikers in the evening.
Mid-range: Harris Classic Campers
See Harris in vintage style in a classic 1960s VW camper. Choose Vera or Nora, deck yourself out in something floral, and hit the single-track road. The vans sleep 2-4 and are restored and beautifully finished by lifeboat Mechanic Alan McDougall and his wife Ellen. If pit stops and peace signs aren’t your thing, the McDougalls also rent out a holiday cottage, La’al Bothy, in Scarista on the west coast.
Luxury: Rodel Hotel
Just metres from the historic St Clement’s Church, Rodel Hotel is steeped in MacLeod clan history. Stay in Jessie’s Room, where Jessie of Balranald was found after an attempted elopement with a dismissed member of the MacLeod staff. I called in for dinner and a drink, and Donnie (whose brother is Lifeboat Operations Manager in the neighbouring station of Stornoway) helped me choose the Talisker, distilled nearby on the Isle of Skye. (When I visited, there was no whisky distilled on Harris, but that’s about to change.) The menu included Marmalade Pudding with Drambuie Custard, which was the most Scottish sounding dessert ever until the specials menu arrived: Whisky Tiramisu with Tablet Dust. Rough weather meant the scallops weren’t on, but my veggie risotto came with a side of bread still warm from the oven, with a distinct Nordic caraway flavour.
Good to know
Wi-Fi: Leverburgh Post Office
Diane runs the local Post Office Monday to Saturday, closing for lunch to tend to her sheep. The Post Office offers free wi-fi - a valuable service as 3G doesn’t seem to have reached South Harris just yet. You can also withdraw money at an ATM or over the counter. Sweets, gifts, wool and books are on sale.
Supermarket: Harris Community Co-operative
The Co-operative is a well stocked supermarket downstairs. I was not expecting to find so many pomegranates on the Hebrides in May. Upstairs in the craft shop you can buy Harris Tweed caps, bags and cushions, as well as books on the area, and local knitwear and candles. The Co-op is also home to the Harris Tapestry, created by local craftspeople and the Harris Community Trust. It tells the island’s history, one intricate wall hanging at a time.
Kenny MacLeod is a manager in the co-op. He says: ‘Being on the crew is a bit of craic and good experience. You learn skills you would never have learned. I’ve met a lot of new people. It’s all about the camaraderie and bringing the community together.’
Note: Every one of these local businesses had an RNLI collection box on display.
The RNLI in Leverburgh
On 2 May 2012, the day the lifeboat arrived in her new home of Leverburgh, the sun shone down from a bright blue sky - leaving a village full of happy Hebrideans with sunburn.
On the fourth annual Lifeboat Fun Day, 16 May 2015, we huddled in the hail-belted village hall. Teas and coffees, trays and trays of home baking, a raffle, a tombola, an auction (‘Six fresh hand-dived scallops - who’ll give me £10?), orange and blue bunting from the local Knit and Natter group, a bustling souvenir stand and kids dressed up as lifeboat crew playing in a liferaft - the community came together to back their lifeboat and crew.
Second Coxswain Mike Green says: ‘The fundraisers are brilliant. They average £20,000 a year in a small community. It’s amazing how much they do raise. It’s testament to the local community.’
When asked why he signed up, Bart from Harris Outdoor says: ‘I’m always on the water myself. My grandad was on the lifeboat in the Netherlands, so you could say it’s in the blood. It was also about being part of a community project. And I’m in love with the water and with boats, so it’s quite simple. And the RNLI training has helped, with the lifeboat and with my company.’
Rescue calls tend to be less frequent but more dramatic in wild places like this. That wilderness and drama is evident in the landscape and the seascape - and part of the reason people are drawn to the Western Isles. People like Bart from Holland. People like me.
The west keeps calling and I’ll be back. When the seafood’s in season. And hoping for the good luck to get to St Kilda next time.