The landscape of Lewis and Harris is special — even the bleak parts have their own magic — but at risk of stating the absolute bleeding obvious, it’s the beaches that make it.
Everyone has their personal favourites but most folk will agree that, when you get the weather, there’s nowhere better on Earth.
When I lived in Glasgow, I remember missing ‘weather’. You know, the proper kind. Not just the sunny days, when you can walk along the beach and feel the warm sand between your toes, but the wild weather too and all of its drama.
The crashing and banging, howling and swooping. The kind that invigorates you, quite possibly soaks you to the skin, and clears the head.
It’s not like this in the city.
There, you can only see scraps of sky between the tenement tops — not like the big skies in Lewis and Harris, which go on for eternity — with the sheer mass of the buildings serving as a giant windbreak. In many ways, city living is more benign. You can get by without a scrap of North Face if you want to, but it’s not so elementally exciting.
Some of the beaches on the island — think Eoropie or Mangersta — are awe-inspiring in wild weather and there’s something about who we are as islanders that responds deeply to that experience.
My top five of beaches has changed over the years. When I was younger, but old enough to have a driving licence, most of my favourite beaches were on the West Side and that’s where I would go.
I always loved Cliff beach at Valtos. Its location is dramatic, with the perpendicular cliffs on either side and the road rising so steeply behind it, up past the old outdoor centre (happy times).
There was Reef too, also in Uig — the main ‘big beach’ of my childhood and the first place I think I ever swam in the sea. I remember jumping up, gasping with the shock from the cold. I realised this summer that the sea hasn’t warmed up any, but more of that later.
Dalmore and Dalbeg between Carloway and Shawbost were also favourites. When the surf’s up, they are particularly soulful. And a little bit more off the beaten track, if you want to increase your chances of getting some beach to yourself.
There’s Luskentyre, too – probably and understandably the most famous beach on the whole of the island. It was too far away to visit very often but is beyond compare. The curve of the white sand round the headland, the North Harris hills in front of you, the gentle waters…
This year, though, I decided to seek out some new ones.
It was part of creating a sense of adventure without having to really go anywhere. A way to make the school holiday more of a ‘holiday’ for the kids and to make the most of the good weather when it came, because you never know, living in Lewis, when it’s going to come back again.
Carpe diem and all that.
First up was the Traigh Mhòr, which we actually ended up at by mistake. I was meaning to go to Garry but — it’s been a while — I turned off the road too early, just before that headland where everybody takes those Instagramtastic pictures of their cars.
I’m so glad we did. I hadn’t been on this beach since I was a child and could hardly believe my eyes. A whole mile of white sand, beautiful blue sea and great visibility to the mainland. It was such a clear day, you could pick out the distinctive mountains on the other side of the Minch.
It’s a shorter drive to the Traigh, just past North Tolsta, than it is to Uig, so I think we will be adopting it as our default beach.
What a day we had there. Michael, now seven, says that was the best day of his whole summer holidays. Does anyone remember that beautiful Tuesday, on July 18? It was properly hot.
I had been due to meet a client that day (I work freelance) but had rescheduled — “I’m doing a very work-life balance thing and taking my kids to the beach,” I explained — and off we went.
The kids were in their element. They didn’t have wetsuits but they were fine without them and the sea bed slopes very gently so it wasn’t too, too cold. They splashed, they basked, they rolled about in the sand. We ate jam sandwiches and it was all very slow and satisfying.
One thing I did notice, though, was how busy it was. I think everyone must have had the same idea about not missing out on a rare good day.
Our next summer beach was Eoropie in Ness and this was quite a different experience. It was a couple of weeks later and we were really just there for the afternoon. We’d been to the dunes play park first — great fun was had on the slide, the zip wire and the basket swing — and then headed down to the beach itself, through the pass in the dunes.
The dunes here are massive! The kids had great fun running along the top and then sliding down to the bottom.
We hadn’t planned on going swimming but when they saw the sea they were determined to go in.
Eoropie is a surf beach and you really feel the power of the ocean, here. The day we went, the sky was magnificent and I often look back on the pictures of our afternoon there.
Michael was happy to go in the water in his pants but James dispensed with clothes completely and ran off in the altogether.
I thought maybe they had the right idea. After all, I’d missed out at the Traigh because I hadn’t taken my swimsuit. This time I thought, ‘sod it — there’s nobody around that I know’ … and made a run for it in my pants and a vest top.
It was baltic. Just as cold as I remembered from being in the sea as a child, and much colder than the shallows at the Traigh. Colder, no doubt, because the sea bed falls away much more steeply here and it’s rolling straight in off the Atlantic. You also definitely have to keep a much closer eye on the children.
It was a lot of fun, though. I managed a few strokes without hyperventilating too much and could see what the appeal is with sea swimming (next year… provided I get a wetsuit).
Our third and final beach of the summer holiday was Horgabost in South Harris and we made a camping trip of that one. This was just before the schools went back and involved me taking the kids and our two-man tent and a whole lot of stuff down to Harris.
The bigger tent would have been more suitable but I knew it would be too difficult to get that one up by myself and the hubby wasn’t coming with us because he was working.
I was surprised how busy Horgabost was, with camper vans, caravans and some very impressive tents, complete with blow-up couches, fancy fire pits and all the rest.
It was a bit of a revelation. This must be where lots of visitors head to but, to be fair, they have the right idea. What a beach and what a view!
Again, we went in the water — everybody had their swimsuits this time — and Michael and I were able to properly swim while James mucked about at the water’s edge.
This was much, much warmer than Eoropie but when you look at the geographical location — it’s much more of a sheltered bay and much shallower water — you can see why. It also has the most amazing pontoon.
I know lots of friends whose (older) kids love jumping off the pontoon and I’ve promised Michael that he can do this next year, when James can also swim properly without armbands and when they’ve both got wetsuits. It’s pretty deep off the end of it and will be cold.
We bought a takeaway tea from the food van there — run by Richard and Lena, who also run the campsite, and you can get anything from burgers and baked potatoes to herring in oatmeal — and ate it beside our tent on the edge of the machair.
That evening the sunset was beautiful. The next morning, the weather was not so beautiful. A heavy downpour just after breakfast meant we got thoroughly soaked. There was nothing for it but to strike camp and make a quick getaway. Typical island camping.
There was just one last trip to make. We killed some time at the nearby St Clement’s church in Rodel — a beautiful, historic and atmospheric ‘must see’ — before heading to the Temple Cafe in Northton for coffee, the most amazing cake and hot chocolate.
With its low-lying stone walls and rustic wooden interior, it’s like a wee hobbit house with a charming view over part of the Scarista sands. I think it might be the nicest cafe I have been to — ever, anywhere — and they make the best cakes. It was our summer beach tour cherry on top.
I noticed that the Temple Cafe is closing up for the season, today, as I write this. There are hardly any camper vans on the road now and the next time I set foot on the beach it will probably be wild.
But that’s all good, too. You just need the North Face.