Isle of Harris – Eilean na Hearadh
Whilst the famous Tweed is Harris’ best-known export, the island offers a stunning range of other attractions for the visitor. Known and treated locally as an entirely separate island, Harris and Lewis are actually a single landmass, ‘separated’ physically by glaciation with Harris possessing the more spectacular geology. Scottish Gaelic is widely spoken here, and the culture and economy have been shaped by the use of this ancient language in everyday life.
- Landscape & geology
- Tarbert and other settlements
- History and economy
- The Islands of Harris
- Faith, family and culture
- Wildlife and environment
The Hebrides’ highest mountain, the Clisham, is located on Harris at 799 metres (2,621ft) above sea level. In most of Harris, the landscape is dominated by PreCambrian gneiss,some of the oldest rocks found anywhere in the world. The rocky outcrops of the east of Harris are likened to the Moon’s surface – indeed, there are rocks within the Harris landscape (anorthosite, a type of feldspar) which are commonly found on the surface of the Moon. And the film-maker Stanley Kubrick used tinted shots of Harris to represent the surface of Jupiter in his creation ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’.
Footpaths criss-cross the Harris hills and are widely used by walkers, climbers and mountain bike enthusiasts. The crags of Sron Ulladale, above the glen of the same name, offer high-level technical climbing challenges for world-class climbers. There are over 30 routes including a ground-breaking first-ever level E9 climb made by Scotland’s greatest living climber Dave Macleod which was broadcast live in August 2010 for the BBC TV programme ‘The Big Climb’.
The beaches of Harris are world-famous – from the road between Tarbert and Leverburgh (An-t-Ob in Gaelic) the stunning white sands of Luskentyre, Scarista and Northton can be easily reached. Bounded on one side by the clear waters of the Atlantic, and on the other by the flower meadows of the shelly machair grasslands, these isolated beaches are as wild and beautiful as those of the Carribean.
At the heart of Harris – on the narrow isthmus between the two sea-lochs of East and West Loch Tarbert – sits the small town of Tarbert. The town’s name derives from the Norse word ‘tairbeart’ meaning a portage point where longboats could be dragged for a short distance overland.
Tarbert is also the home of the regular sea ferry to the Isle of Skye. Tarbert has an excellent, modern sports centre and swimming pool, the island’s only secondary school, and some small general stores and specialist crafts outlets. Public bus services run regularly across isolated, rugged scenery to Huisinish, Leverburgh, Rhenigadale and Scalpay and to Stornoway in Lewis. At Leverburgh the ferry crosses the Sound of Harris to Berneray and North Uist.
The Golden Road down the east coast of Harris is a single-track tarred road which joins a number of small communities. There is some dispute about why it is called the Golden Road – one eminent local historian suggests that it may not have been as expensive to construct as is widely believed, and the term ‘Golden Road’ was a pejorative term coined by remote administrators who were unwilling to pay for the cost of any island village to be connected to another. Whatever the meaning of the expression, the name has stuck, and this route provides a golden opportunity to see the real Harris at a slower speed, and to appreciate the real beauty of the island.
Harris has fewer than 2,000 permanent residents, most of whom now live on land owned and managed by community trusts under Scotland’s recent land reform legislation. Whilst crofting, fishing and weaving remain significant in Harris, tourism has increased in importance to the economy.
Harris has a fascinating history as a whaling station during the first half of the twentieth century, and there are still traces of the whaling industry to be found. The whaling industry was one of the ‘boom-and-bust’ maritime activities which have periodically plagued the Hebrides: much like the kelping industry fifty years previously in Lewis. An enormous whaling station was built on Harris in 1904 at Bunabhainneadar and owned and operated by a Norwegian company until 1922, when it was acquired by Lord Leverhulme.
The station operated a whaling fleet, bringing in hundreds of whales each year, mostly Common Rorquals (also known as Fin Whales) and Blue Whales, but also Sperm Whales, Humpback Whales and others. The whale meat was butchered on the slipway in Harris, boiled, dried and re-exported to Norway for use as cattle feed. Leverhulme also started an ill-fated enterprise to produce canned whale meat for export to Africa. In 1925 Leverhulme died and the station stayed open for only another two years. There was a brief attempt in the 1950s to revive the industry, but now all that remains is the ruins of the whaling station just outside Tarbert. Whaling had its impact on society, too: some Hearachs with whale-hunting skills but no place to work, sought opportunities overseas in the whaling industry of South Georgia. The reverse was also true: whaling brought some Norwegian families to stay in the islands and family names such as Iversen and Engebretsen, still well-known in the islands, point to their origins in the whaling fleets.
Other notable buildings include the 16th century medieval-style St. Clement's Church at Rodel, the burial place of the chiefs of the Clan MacLeod from the 8th century. The building is in excellent condition after repeated restoration and now belongs to Historic Scotland. Amhuinsuidhe Castle, on the narrow and spectacular B887 from Huisinish to Tarbert, was designed in the Scottish Baronial style and built in 1867 by the Victorian architect David Bryce. The North Harris Estate upon which it stands is now jointly owned by the community and a private investor, Ian Scarr-Hall, and is run by him as a commercial venue. It was originally built for the 7th Earl of Dunmore and passed through the hands of a number of families, ultimately being owned by the Bulmer family before the community buy-out of the estate in 2003.
The western side of Harris is flatter, lower and less rocky. At Scarista there is a picturesque 9-hole golf course, now with its own isolated clubhouse, where an honesty box is available for players to pay their green fees. The golf course is closed on Sundays.
Off the coast of Harris are numerous small islands, including the most westerly isle of Scarp, which was last inhabited during the 1960s. The Isle of Taransay was briefly (if temporarily) re-inhabited during 2000 for the BBC TV series ‘Castaway’ and now plays host to an annual fiddle school for traditional music.
The acclaimed movie ‘The Rocket Post’, a Scottish love story set in the 1930s, was filmed on the Isle of Taransay in 2004, directed by the late Stephen Whitaker, which celebrates the real but failed attempts to use rocket power to transport mail from the Isle of Scarp and other remote islands by the German rocket enthusiast and confidence trickster, Gerhard Zucker. Zucker was eventually deported from Britain as a threat to British national security in 1935, whereupon he was arrested by the German authorities for collaboration with Britain. The scorched mail from the real rocket post experiment on Scarp and elsewhere in 1934 occasionally makes significant prices at auction.
The St Kilda archipelago also falls within the Harris administrative district. This stunning group of five islands, a UNESCO Dual World Heritage Site – lie 41 miles (66 kilometres) west of the Hebridean mainland – and are now owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. With the highest cliffs in the UK at 400 metres, and the highest sea stacs in the UK at 191 metres, St Kilda is one of Europe’s most important sites for seabird nesting. The archipelago can now be reached by day-trip boat in the summer months from East Tarbert on Harris and Uig on Lewis.
The story of St Kilda is long and fascinating – occupied for around 4,000 years, the population of the islands suffered extreme hardship and lived mainly on a diet of seabirds, plucked bravely from the cliffs by the agile men of Hirta, the main island. Subsistence farming, and some trade with the outside world kept the population balanced and content until the beginning of the twentieth century when out-migration, ill-health and an awareness of the outside world led to a drastic slump in the population. In 1930, after appeals to a largely disinterested Westminster government, the British public raised money to assist the evacuation of the archipelago. Deprived of their island home and the certainties of their familiar community, many of the remaining 36 St Kildans fared poorly once evacuated to Morven in Argyll.
However, administratively, St. Kilda belongs to Harris, and travellers wanting to be married on Hirta’s famous beaches or hills need to apply to the Harris Registrar’s Office in Tarbert. A St Kilda interpretive centre has been long-planned and after securing international multi-agency funding the new centre will now be built not on Harris, but in Mangurstadh in the parish of Uig on the west side of Lewis. This decision caused dismay and controversy in Harris.
Scalpay, (Scalpaigh na Hearadh in Gaelic) with a population of just over 300, has been linked to Harris by a spectacular bridge with spans over 170-metres long. A bridge was built rather than a causeway because of the needs of the deep water seagoing channel between the islands. The Scalpay Bridge began construction in 1986 and went into use in 1997, although it was officially opened by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 when he became the first serving UK Premier to carry out an official engagement in the islands. Subsequent major investments in Scalpay, and further community developments have been hailed as a success and attributed to the bridge.
Sunday observance remains strong on Harris, as in Lewis. Although the Sound of Harris ferry runs on Sunday, all other public facilities, fuel stations, restaurants and shops remain closed, with the exception of hotels which provide food and accommodation for travellers. As in Lewis, Sabbath observance is both a matter of pride and controversy.
The Seallam! Visitor centre at Northton in Harris, which opened in 2000, offers a permanent exhibition on ‘The People and the Landscape of the Hebrides’ and is also a well-known resource centre for genealogical research, and the history of the islands. Bill Lawson, the resident genealogist and celebrated local historian, works from Seallam! to assist visitors who wish to carry out their own ancestral research.
Harris boasts one of the most accessible yet diverse wild environments in the UK – a vast range of birds can be found across the Harris islands. The Shiant Islands and St Kilda are particularly renowned for their seabird colonies - Gannets, Fulmars, Shags, Cormorants, Great Skuas, Arctic Skuas, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Leach`s Petrels, Storm Petrels and perhaps the most famous occupants of all; Puffins. ??
The bird colonies present on the Harris islands are of tremendous environmental significance - for example, the colony of gannets present on St Kilda is the largest in the world. The puffin population on these islands also represents a very considerable percentage of the world total. There are approximately 300,000 breeding pairs in St Kilda and 200,000 in the Shiants. St. Kilda also has the UK`s largest population of Leach`s Petrels and plays host to the St.Kilda Wren, a rare and larger sub species of the mainland Wren. The Soay sheep which have been on St Kilda for up to 4,000 years, range free in a flock of up to 1,500 across the archipelago. They are a genetically unique rare breed; tiny,all-brown creatures compared with the typical Hebridean Blackface cross. They are hairy rather than woolly and do not need to be shorn.
Deer are prevalent across the Hebrides. On North Harris alone there is a herd of between 1100 and 1400 red deer, managed by the North Harris Estate. There are also opportunities to see mountain hare and otters throughout Harris.
Ten per cent of the European population of Scottish Common Seals live in the sea lochs of the Hebrides – many of these can be seen in and around the Harris coast. There are 24 species of marine mammals in the waters round the Hebrides, and the populations have begun to recover after the hunting of the last century. Two Fin Whales, now very rare in Hebridean waters, were spotted off Harris in September 2010.