Little bit of timelapse here – going to tell you about the food and drink on my recent holiday in Harris, from which I returned two weeks ago. Have needed time to digest!
Harris is joined on to Lewis – something I didn’t realise until I read Peter May’s great Hebridean trilogy a few years ago. I’d never been there – although the epic journey taken by my friend Marian and me, aged 18, took us quite close – Skye and the Uists back then, by bike! This time, 45 years later, three of us drove four hours to Ullapool then got the ferry for Stornoway, and then drove on down to join our friends in a lovely holiday home in Scarista Bay, down the west coast of Harris. That is to say, the coast with the turquoise waters, golden sands and crashing waves. And lowish temperatures! But hey, this is not just Scotland, it’s the Outer Hebrides! No such thing as bad weather, if you’ve got the clothes right.
The Ullapool-Stornoway ferry takes about three and a half hours, and on our way out it was pretty choppy. As in, emergency lifeboat drill being undertaken by staff on the poop deck (there’s a special seated section on board for dogs and their owners; I know that’s not the original meaning of poop deck but it seems appropriate). Any chairs which had escaped being tethered were sliding across the floor. Many passengers went ashen, and some were throwing up. Despite all that, the cabin crew managed to provide a range of hot meals including a couple of vegetarian options: this is mine, pictured left. Now it might look like your standard Scottish fish-and-chips, but I must point out that the fish is Isle of Barra hake goujons, no less, with a light crispy batter and a sweet chilli dipping sauce. It was tasty, and being a hale and hearty passenger, I enjoyed every last morsel.
This theme of locally-sourced, with good vegetarian options, was a standard feature of the fare made available to us on our week’s holiday. That’s not big news in normal (i.e. mainland) life – but it takes the long drive to Harris to realise how very isolated this community is. All too often across Scotland, lunch menus are very samey and unadventurous. So Harris’s offerings are noteworthy and to be applauded. Take this little hut for example – ‘Croft 36’ – it’s an open shed with some shelves and fridges and freezer space inside, loaded in the morning with home-made produce and an honesty box. The sign inside tells you that the bread is baked daily; the lamb comes from the island where the sheep graze by the shoreline on the machair, or salt-marsh; and the rabbits are shot to keep them from ruining the crofters’ hard-earned harvests – and as such, are a completely sustainable source of meat. We discovered that if you don’t get to Croft 36 early in the day, your choice is limited – even though the honesty box is still awaiting collection. Since most tourists camp or self-cater, this kind of venture is obviously very popular. There aren’t many places to eat out and once you get snugly home at night, you might not want to go back out again. Especially if you fancy a dram or two, because pubs are few and far between and Scotland’s drink-driving laws are a bit fierce.
Here’s another honesty box – a little sentry box by the roadside, selling mustard and mustard-related craftworks like little wooden spoons and pottery jars. Again, a handy additional source of income for ingenious crofters, and a money box bulging with notes and coins. No doubt it wouldn’t be worth paying someone, or using your own precious time, to stand there all day waiting for the odd customer. And I have to say I might not have stopped to look, or been so ready to part with cash, if a bored shopkeeper were standing on guard. But it was so charming and trusting, and made you feel very welcome as a tourist. You knew your contribution would be making a difference to island survival.
Having said we self-catered, very enjoyably, we also had some excellent lunches out. Firstly there was The Anchorage in Leverburgh, where we had some great vegetable tempura, a great Cullen Skink, and a delicious monkfish with garlic mussels. Then there was The Temple – the only place open on a Sunday! I had my first sirloin steak in many years, and it was tender and altogether delightful. Then there was the ‘Taste’n’Sea’ fish truck, parked at a viewpoint on the road leading up from Tarbert into Lewis, where we had a great mixed fish box with chips for £12. And another fish truck down towards the bottom of the island by St Clement’s ruined mediaeval church, where we had battered anchovies and a fresh lobster sandwich, with potatoes roasted with sea kelp.
I’m not being sponsored by any of these outfits – I wish! – but again and again I was struck by how well they managed to provide given their northern isolation.
The realities of isolation were well illustrated, and addressed, by the Harris Distillery‘s 1916 Club. It seems that in the most recent census, the island’s population was 1,916 – half that of sixty years previously. And so the funds from the distillery’s 1916 club are used to enhance facilities which might, just, give youngsters the opportunity to stay at home. Since I work in a small independent distillery as a tour guide, I’m always keen to see how others do it; and I was charmed by this one. There’s no doubt that it is providing local employment and encouraging tourism and other business to the island, and doing this with great style. I hope my purchase of the magnificent Harris gin contributes to the 1916 Club’s worthy aims; it’s a tasty drop of stuff!
After a week I felt I hadn’t been in Lewis and Harris nearly long enough, and do hope to get the chance to return. I see the local college in Stornoway – Lews Castle – does creative writing courses so maybe next time, that’ll be my excuse. It was raining when we left, and this herring girl was patiently standing by the harbour, getting drookit, waiting for her boat to come in. I share her hope for a safe return.