Isle of Lewis & Harris - 36 Hours Visit

To Learn about travel to Lewis & Harris, read this blog.

I know, this title sounds insane, it’s way too fast to see and do anything of consequence, but it can be done! I was able to squeeze this little journey into the end of my Scottish road trip and while quick it was absolutely worth the extra effort.

So you’ve arrived, now what? Well if you are me, you go to your Airbnb as fast as humanly possible to “check in” and then get back in the car to try to catch the sunset at the Callanish Stones. Yes my day was insane, from Orkney all the way to Lewis in one day, (2 ferry crossings, and 150 plus miles through the mountains on the NC500) but it was worth every mile to me.

One of the best things about traveling to Scotland in May is that there are a ton of daylight hours. As a solo traveler, I often gage and plan my day by daylight hours. I don’t love driving after dark anymore and I’m usually exhausted by then anyways and you know, safety. So it was awesome to have twilight start at 4 am, the sun rise by 5 and sunset 930 pm and after with additional twilight until close to 11 pm by the time it was truly dark. It was awesome. Where I am from that is longer than even our longest summer day, and it was only May. I relished the daylight, although after my long dark New England winter it was a little disorienting (which is kind of confusing because I’ve seen midnight sun in Iceland. I digress.)

Cut back to me racing across this island I just landed on to find a Neolithic monument to ogle at sunset. As I drove across Lewis, I was surprised at how much nothing there was. I mean I knew the Outer Hebrides had some sparse population, but wow. I kept looking at the time and the distance I had driven thinking I have to be close now. Then as I came over this little hill I got this pulse through my body, there’s no other way to describe it and I thought I must be near. Sure enough, as I came down the next hill I could see Callanish I up on the hill. The light was just starting to change as the sun dipped behind the clouds at the horizon.

Callanish Stones at Sunset
Callanish I at dusk

There are two ways to enter the site and I wished after I had chosen the first one, that I had chosen the alternate one. As you drive in there is a right hand turn up a hill that sends you up the hill to a very small little parking area and a pull off area. There is a gate you can enter from there. It gets you very close. I did not choose that one. I went to the parking area next to the visitor center and then walked up and around a small hill and over to the site.

There was a gentle calm and silence over the whole area. There were so many stones, it has to be one of the most complete sites like this that I have ever seen. Even the processional route remains intact. I was in awe. Not surprisingly at that hour, 9:30 pm, it was me and 5 or 6 other photographers clicking away. The light was gorgeous, a deep blue hue had settled over the whole area with little wisps of pink and orange scattered about. I was so happy I decided to make the 40 minute journey to be there at that moment. It felt right and I was excited to be there during the golden hour.

Callanish Stones at Sunset
Callanish I at sunset

After I had had my fill, I hopped in my car and pledged to come back the next morning for sunrise, ya that did not happen, the weather was horrible. But driving back up the road I noticed a very small sign that said Callanish III. As my eyes followed the direction of the sign, I was just able to make out another circle in the darkness up a tiny hill. I put that on my list as the first stop of the following day.
I woke up to a rather gray, windy landscape the next morning. My super nice Airbnb host tried to drown me in food before I left for the day. She literally laid out a spread for 4 people, it was overwhelming. I took a doggie bag for my day, which I was very happy about later.

I didn’t realize how bad the wind was until I was once again crossing through the center of Lewis. It was raining off and on, spitting more like, but then also going sideways because of the wind. I had worn extra clothes because I knew I would be outside and left some dry clothes in the car for the likely necessary midday change. (One of the benefits of having a car with you, you can carry extra stuff for the day). Callanish III crept up faster, now that I knew the route. I pulled over on the side of the road and tried to get out of my car only to be slapped back by the wind. I decided to go anyways. I walked over to the sign and then found out that there was also a Callanish II in the next field, which I could just barely see from where I was standing. I rolled up my trousers and prepared for the muddy mess that awaited me as I trudged up the small hill trying not to get blown over by the wind. I had to turn around many times so that I could take a break and have the wind at my back instead of in my face.

Who's idea was this? Oh right, mine. Soaked, freezing and wind knocking me over. Worth it. 

Callanish III is significantly smaller than the main site at Callanish I which can be seen clearly across the hill, and Callanish II is even smaller than that but they all seem to line up in a way and each have their own energy to them even though they are clearly linked in some way. It turns out that sites like these can be found all across the Outer Hebrides and that they are still finding and excavating them. It remind me in a way of Peru in that sense, there are so many sites that not all of them are getting excavating because there isn’t enough person power or money to work on them all.

Callanish Stones III
Callanish III

The walk down and over to Callanish II was boggy, muddy and a bit treacherous because of the wind. There were these mini boardwalk sections of wood planks with chicken wire over them to, I assume, help with the most boggy areas but sometimes it was better to just walk through the mud because so many of the planks were broken and dangerously sharp. By the time I got down there, probably a five minute walk in normal weather, I had to stand behind some of the stones to get out of the wind for a break. Standing against and behind one of the stones, in hiding, I seriously considered what my next course of action would need to be in order to get me safely back to my car. Going back the same way seemed rather risky at that point. As I surveyed the area, I soon realized there was an alternate route. I saw little gate not that far from me at what appeared to be an abandoned property. The yard was so much easier to walk through and then I was able to hit the pavement driveway and get back on the street to walk to my car, making a loop instead of backtracking. The wind was still horrid but I made it and then meditated in my car for 10 minutes with the heat blaring before I moved on.

Route to Callanish II

I visited Callanish I again and actually went in the visitor center this time, had a hot chocolate in their lovely little café and looked at their little exhibit which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it had its cheesy parts. The vibe was so different in the full cloudy daylight as opposed to the night before but it still retained its utter mystery of purpose. I walked the whole site before I dipped in to take some more pictures. By the time I left the place was packed. I didn’t even know that many people visited Lewis! And there weren’t even any buses, it was just intrepid travelers who made it to this unique outpost.

Callanish Stones
Callanish I

Callanish Stones
Callanish I

I had so many things on my list from Callanish all the way up to the Butt of Lewis light house, essentially all along the west coast of Lewis, but owing to the weather and barely being able to walk, I decided to forgo most of that list and head down to Harris instead. I’m not entirely sure why but it felt like the right decision and it ended up being the best decision of the day.

Before I drove south I went to the Blackhouse Village just north of Callanish. It was kind of a pass for me unless you are going to do some walks in the area or are interested in croft life. I took a few pics and poked around the museum but my whole visit including getting a take away coffee was probably only 30 minutes.

As I drove further and further south, it got more mountainous and I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m not sure why but I did, ok yes, I love the mountains. The roads started to twist and turn as the road climbed higher and then sloped starkly down again. I love a good mountain drive. But again, very few villages or towns or people. One thing to note about this drive is that the sheep often free graze here. The sheep are fine, they mostly don’t get freaked out and run into the road but since it was lamb season, you have to be extra careful.

 I was driving down a hill and I literally saw what can only be described as a lamb committing suicide after being spooked. I was inching down the hill and I saw out of the corner of my left eye a swiftly moving lamb. It was really really running which was weird since lambs kind of jump and bounce and use their legs in such a different way. The car in front of me was far enough up the hill that it was able to slow almost to a stop as it ran across the road. The car coming in the other direction was no so lucky and did not have the vantage point we did. It had slowed but not enough and the lamb ran straight across the road into the front of the car, was lifted up in the air, flung around and plopped down on the other side of the road. Somehow, it got back up and ran off, probably in shock. One of the sheep then ran across the road in the opposite direction. It was a whole kerfuffle and the woman driving the car that hit the lamb pulled over obviously shaken. I pulled over down the road myself to take a beat, shed a tear, and reset my mode of driving for the rest of the day. It was something I had been warned about while in Orkney and this was reinforced it. When I drove back up island I saw no evidence of sheep or lambs in that spot. So strange.

The drive through Harris to Tarbert, one of the main towns was stunning and looked more like the West Highlands of the mainland than what I had seen on Lewis or on Mainland Orkney. I had a few items on my list for Harris, in case I made it there, it had been 50/50 in the morning when I left. Two were beaches and one was visiting Harris Tweed for my Mom. But I pulled into Tarbert and realized Harris Tweed basically shares a parking lot with the Harris Distillery so it quickly got added. Sadly the tours were all sold out for the rest of the afternoon, who knew it was a hot spot? But they have a nice café and gift shop so I just milled around and looked at everything and had a snack.

Harris Tweed was different than I expected and maybe I should have stopped at Carloway Mill when I passed it in Lewis because this was really just a shop and a fabric shop. It was cool to see all of the variations of the rolls of the fabric fiber but besides the old loom in the corner, there’s not much to see there. But I was able to get some tweed for my Mum. The coolest part was that they don’t cut it like normal fabric, they tear it and it tears in a straight line each time. I was more fascinated by this than should be normal. The guy goes to tear it and I was like wait what just happened. He said that people are always surprised by that but then he described that it works because of the nature of the natural fiber. Kind of cool.

Harris Tweed

The shop next door has every possible color scheme of tweed you could ever imagine and every possible item you could ever imagine, so if tweed is your thing, you should check it out.
My day was book ended by my favorite activity of the day, the beaches! I drove over to Luskentyre which has an increasingly famous beach. It is famous because of the color of the water which one would think shouldn’t be found in Scotland but is actually found washing up on a number of the islands. It also has white sand. For me it was so much more than that though, it was the mountains at the edge of beach, the dunes, the way the waves met the beach, the shells, and the air. The whole area was out of this world for me. I meditated, walked, picked up shells, took a boat load of pictures and just enjoyed every breath.

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre Beach

A short drive across the bay is Seilebost beach which is also known for the dramatic water color. It is best seen from above on the hill just beyond it although it is good for walking too depending on the tides. This whole area which is really just minutes apart were really the highlight for me, especially since the sun decided to come out once I reached Tarbert and continue shinning for the rest of the day including my drive back to Stornoway. It was magnificent.

Seilebost Beach
Seilebost Beach

The drive back to Stornoway was shorter than expected clocking in around 1.5 hours from Seilebost when driving direct. Which when you look at the map doesn’t seem possible. I headed to bed as soon as it was dark so that I could catch the early ferry in the morning and complete my mini adventure on Lewis and Harris.

There were many places that I didn’t get to visit during this quick dip in that were recommended to me like the castle in Stornoway, other distilleries and breweries, the eagle center, the butt of lewis, coastal drives and beaches. I wouldn’t hesitate to come back for a longer trip but I think I would try to come over via ferry from Skye next time for a different viewpoint.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy the journey! 

Please note - Some pictures with Lumix GX7, some with Iphone 6S