We’re on the northernmost tip of the island of Lewis, which in turn is the most northerly of the Outer Hebrides. A ghostly grey bird, its wing tips seemingly dipped in ink, flutters past at head level.
“Hen harrier!” exclaims Thomas, almost self-combusting with excitement. He knows it’s a hen harrier because he’s already seen several further south, on the island of Benbecula. Later, he and his brother Oscar will almost come to blows over whether they’re looking at golden or sea eagles. A snowy owl behind a beach on North Uist proves easier to agree upon.
Birds are just part of the fabric of this wonderful skein of islands that flutters south from Lewis, through Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, and Barra to Vatersay. Even getting here has proved to be part of the holiday. In Edinburgh, we’d boarded the Highland Chieftain train for Inverness, then taken the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Ullapool across the Minch to Stornoway. Home feels — and, indeed, is — a long way away. When we finally depart, reluctantly, we’ll lift our spirits by taking the Caledonian Sleeper night train back south.
The sense of isolation is augmented by the beauty and astounding solitude of Hebridean beaches. The fine white sand and blue water of these seemingly endless strands make comparisons with the Caribbean far from ludicrous (though I won’t say the same for the water temperature). In good weather, the waters are shallow and sheltered, perfect for children to play in, and we spend many hours just wandering dreamily along the shore.
On Uig Sands, we look up and find Hannah, our oldest, a distant speck, 800m away, high on the dunes. This is not the first time we have had a beach to ourselves. Over the years, we’ve been able to treat beaches on North Uist, at Horgabost and Northton on Harris, Bhaltos on Uig and on Vatersay and Barra as if they were our own private playgrounds. It all adds up to a wonderful opportunity to spend undisturbed, aggravation-free time together, something altogether more meaningful than the cheesy cliché of ‘quality family time’.
Accommodation is another factor that makes us warm to the Outer Hebrides. For a treat, we stay one night at Langass Lodge Hotel on North Uist. At first, it looks a little smart, as though it might be aimed at guests looking to escape children. Instead, the welcome is friendly and informal, and the family room opens out onto a terrace that drops down to heathery hills where our kids spend an hour playing at being hen harriers, while we order drinks from the snug bar.
The ‘grown-up’ excursions go well. We visit the Gearannan blackhouses on Lewis, sturdy stone dwellings topped with thatch and turf where occupants would share floor space with cattle. Although they date back several centuries, our children are fascinated by a way of life that survived until 1974. Across the islands, this interpretation of the past is something that is done extremely well.
The warmth of the people is striking, too. On Uig we book into Taigh a’ Chreagain, a B&B at Bhaltos. The owner, Catriona Macleod, insists that she turns her house into a temporary self-catering cottage to give us more space. She moves discreetly into an annexe and will not have it any other way. The kids play in the garden until 11.30pm that night, while we settle into Catriona’s conservatory and gaze at the dreamy views across Loch Roag.
Every time we visit the Outer Hebrides, Lucy and I talk long into the night about relocating up here. But you have to think hard when the siren call of living the Hebridean dream becomes almost irresistible.
On our last day, we take a boat excursion with Fish ’n’ Trips, operated by Lewis Mackenzie (a Lewis who lives on Lewis), nudging around the lochs of Keose, spotting seals, sea eagles and pulling up creels with crabs to take home for supper. I share our dreams of escape with him. Yes it’s remote and yes the weather’s unpredictable — it’s certainly not for everyone. But Lewis’ laid-back living certainly takes a bit of beating.
Best for: Children age 4 and upwards.
Highs: “The giant milkshakes at Annie’s post office cafe in Lochboisdale. And you can see otters from the window!” Thomas, 7.
Lows: “There’s sometimes a lot of driving and we argue about who sits by the window. My brothers always grab those seats before me.” Hannah, 9.
How to do it: East Coast’s Highland Chieftain service (eastcoast.co.uk) to Inverness. Fares from £68 return from London. Caledonian MacBrayne (calmac.co.uk) ferries from Ullapool to Stornoway, and Uig to Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist. Around £270 return for a family of four on the Caledonian Sleeper. scotrail.co.uk Taigh a’ Chreagain, Bhaltos, Uig (T: 01851 672209) has B&B from £60 per double room, or £400 per week self-catering. Langass Lodge, Locheport, North Uist (T: 01876 580285). Hebrides Fish ’n’ Trips. hebridesfishntrips.co.uk visitscotland.com visitouterhebrides.co.uk
Mark Rowe travelled with his wife, Lucy, and their children Hannah, 8, Thomas, 7, and Oscar, 5.
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family