The Outer Hebrides has been ranked the happiest place in Britain in a new survey. But what is so special about a remote archipelago where a 70mph wind is a breeze and no one escapes the menace of the midge?
The answer lies in a curious but happy paradox. The Outer Hebrides satisfies the deep and conflicting human need for solitude, space and freedom – and a longing for meaningful connections and friendship. It is a place where you can experience emptiness – and profound fulfilment. The Gaelic name Eilean nan Gall or Islands of Strangers aptly describes a land where so many outsiders return because they feel at home.
A collection of holiday snaps I took during a cycle tour in September 2016, attempts to capture the unique qualities of Europe’s remote Atlantic edge.
Sea Travel – It begins with the simple pleasure of getting on a boat. Being buffeted by the wind and rain and dictated to by the whims of weather, cannot fail to bring a change of perspective. Ditch the illusion you are in control. Look at this world through the eyes of the famous Viking seafarers, who conquered the islands in the 8th century – and dominated it for 500 years. Incredibly, the expanse of untouched coastline, has changed little since the days of the Norsemen.
Gorgeous beaches – With the exception of Stornaway, the largest settlements are a sparse collection of houses with a few shops, a ferry terminal and a public toilet. With so few manmade distractions, it is easy to lose yourself in white sands, big skies and the rhythm of the tides.
Phone boxes – These antique, weather beaten structures retain their value in a world where mobile phone signals are often non-existent. They are emblems of peace – a reminder that it is possible to escape the all pervasive reach of mobile communication.
Wild camping – forget the mod cons and discover your inner resources with a simpler lifestyle. The islands are full of beautiful, accessible places to pitch a tent. Beware – you may need to use rocks as reinforcements when the wind blows.
Gatliff Hostels – when you’ve had your fill of emptiness, head to the friendly charity-run hostels in stunning locations on Harris, Bernaray or Uist for the solace of company. They are based in charming traditional buildings and are run with a generous, open-minded, easy going ethos – offering shelter at all hours. There are few pubs or evening activities on the islands, so they fulfill an important social function for Hebrideans and travellers alike, attracting people from all walks of life and ages. A welcoming open fire, no phone signal or WiFi, and accommodation which obliges you to sit round a table with strangers, fosters a special ambiance. You may find yourself swept up in the birthday celebrations of girls from Barra, a boozy night out for fishermen from Stornaway or an art class from Lochboisedale. The place attracts extraordinary characters, and, you’ll be guaranteed soulful conversations and whisky fuelled hilarity. Few things can beat listening to the howling wind from within.
Gaelic Chanting – The soft, throaty sounds of Gaelic continue to flourish on the Outer Hebrides despite attempts to ban it. It remains an everyday language used by more than 50% of locals. Astonishing traditional singing can still be heard in Church on Sunday. You don’t have to be religious or speak the lingo to be touched by the depth of emotion in these vocals.
The Machair – A barefoot walk through lush, fertile coastal land, feeling the flowers between your toes, is a particularly delicious Hebridean pleasure. More than 40 different species flourish in soil which is composed of 90% shell. These include Orchids and quaintly named Mountain Everlasting, Spring Squill, Thrift and Eyebright.
Flight of Oyster Catchers – The thrilling aerial stunts performed by these black black and white coastal birds will make your heart flutter. They look their best against dull skies. The islands are a bird watcher’s paradise, you’ll be able to gaze at Gannets, Terns, Shags to your heart’s content. Watch out for the tiny but industrious sanderlings which dash back and forth across the beach, dodging the waves to pursue their prey.
Blessed Bus Shelters – I’m far from holy and never catch a bus, but I came to revere these simple structures. They give protection from the wind and rain and have an uncanny habit of turning up when you’re miles from nowhere in a gale and things are about to get desperate. It was a miracle when a big bag of unopened bag of Fruit Pastilles appeared on the floor of one shelter. It was Manna from Heaven reviving me when my spirits and blood sugar had reached a low point.
Lichen conquests – Nothing escapes the bearded fingers of this mysterious life form, which gives everyday things a magical appearance, such as this astonishing graveyard on Bernaray.
Stornaway Black Pudding – It is no wonder it is hailed a superfood, it is hard to match the warm feeling of being buoyed up by barley, blood and oats in a gale.
Standing Stones – Spend time in the company of the ancient megaliths that are icons for the islands and have been standing since 3000BC. It is good to see these dignified structures exist in their simplicity, without the excessive interference, ugly signage and barricades from the heritage sector.
Signposts – Names such as Seilebost, Losgaintir, Horgabost, Sgarista – come from Old Norse. They look and sound lovely and make interesting shapes in your mouth when you pronounce them. They are reminder of the cosmopolitan influences on the islands, which give them a distinctly different culture from mainland Scotland.
Shopping – The Outer Hebrides offers a alternative retail therapy due to the unique charm and scarcity of shops. Many are community run – which gives them a sense they are serving local interests – often providing a collection of important services on site – a cafe, heritage centre, public toilet, charity shop section, fuel. They always offer something to lift the experience out of mundane – a stunning view, a quirky jumble of goods in a small space, somewhere to practice your Gaelic or a herd of cattle passing the door.
With rare exceptions shops are closed on Sunday, an “inconvenience” which enhances their value because the absence of shopping is precious in the modern world ruled by retail. It obliges you to make arrangements that are out of the ordinary. Finding myself short of food one Sunday, I explained my predicament to staff at a local cafe thinking I could purchase a few items from their stock. Benny from the Temple Cafe on Harris, gave me his own groceries and refused to take a penny for them, a kindness I shall never forget.