The Harris Moon

Harris is bare as bare can be, but also marvelously unique and beautiful. I don't think that on the whole southeast side I spotted one single tree. Illustrative to this is that in Loch Plocrapoil, near Drinisiadar, there lies a little islet called the "Island of Trees", while in fact all that is to be found there are some seriously underdeveloped bushes. Harris is so bare that even the peatlayers are unable to fully cover the rock. And there we get to a point: the rock. The whole of the Outer Hebrides are made up of Lewisian Gneiss, the Methusalach among the rocks, since it was formed about 3 billion years ago; that's 3,000 million. As a comparison - Earth itself only dates back 4.5 billion years. The fun part is that you feel that the rock is old, I mean you can actually see what it means when geologists speak of metamorphic rock: over the ages it has been twisted, plied, turned inside out, melted, with all its different constituents being pressed into hard layers draped around eachother. No fossil is to be found in it, for life did not exist at the time, and anything that would have gotten stuck in the matter constituating the rock would have no trace left in the twisted rock. What is more bizarre, people have lived and actually are living there.

As with the rest of the Highlands, the Western Isles were not always bare. It's, as could be expected, entirely due to Homo Sapiens Lumberjackiensis. Deforestation has lead Harris and Lewis to become deserts of turf and rock, with only a small spot of ancient woodland remaining around Stornoway. Deforestation was so drastic since, contrary to what you might think, the Islands (just like the mainland) were once relatively overpopulated. This doesn't mean that there lived more people than now, but there lived just as many, most of whom were scattered around the islands in little crofter communities. The clearances and migrations due to famine had their way however, leading to a relatively underpopulated area. Nowadays, Harris has a population of just over 2,000 and is made up of South and North Harris. Trivial, were it not that where many often mistake Harris to be the little island south of Tarbert, with Lewis being the whole larger part, this is not the case. The smaller island is South Harris (Ceann a Deas Na Hearadh), while North Harris (Ceann a Tuath Na Hearadh) is the mountaneous area north of the isthmus where Tarbert is situated. At some point it becomes Lewis, which is hardly mountaineous at all. It's split up that way because of clanhistorical reasons. This makes Harris smaller, but more varied that Lewis in general - the inland of Lewis is as close as you can get to a bog-desert. You could consider Harris a desert too, but of an entirely different nature...

- an absolutely STUNNING piece of virtual harris coastal walk can be found HERE -

Moonscapes and swimming / Friday 13 September

Harris moonscape

Having arrived in Tarbert (Tairbeart) from Skye on Thursday 12/9, we spent most of our Harris days on South Harris, mostly out of convenience, but also because there's lots to be seen. Friday morning, while doing our laundry in the Rockview Bunkhouse YH, we'd studied the map and, still being addicted to the "up in the morning, doing a walk" routine, we'd decided that the best way to get a first impression of Harris was to explore it on foot. Bus services are not so frequent, but good (at least you can get everywhere), so we took the bus from Tarbert to Leverburgh (An-t-Ob) via the A859, and soon got off at the first big turn to the right, where the single track road which leads to the Golden Road takes off. From there on, we walked to a place (one house) called Ceann a Bhaigh and then crossed the inland NW to Seilebost and then a bit onward to Horgabost (all in all but a 12km), where we took the bus back later in the afternoon, spending another night in the YH.

What was it like? Well, we had the luxury problem of finding no shelter from the sun's rays - it was unrealisticly hot - because of the bareness of the Harris moonscape, but when arriving at the west coast, the huge and lovely beaches showed and the icecold water of the Sound of Taransay (Caolas Tharansaigh) finally provided refresment...

Near Loch Glumradh Beag
Across Traigh Losgaintir Tarasaigh (Taransay) from Seilebost Polar bear checking out the freeze Polar bear in Sound of Taransay

The Golden Road and Roghadal (Rodel) / Saturday 14 September

It being Saturday, this meant that the Sabbat was approaching, which meant no buses at all - in fact, nothing at all at all. Because we were a bit tired of doing everything on foot, we decided that car-renting time was here. Unfortunately, nothing available in Tarbert, the nearest car was waiting for us in Stornoway, so we took the bus in the morning, driving over the North Harris mountains mostly through dense mist and even the occasional drizzle - extremely local, for the weather in South Harris had been terrific, and it was blue sky in Stornoway as well. We (well, my girlfriend, since I don't have a driving licence) drove all the way back to South Harris, and headed straight for the Golden Road, drove all the way to Roghadal (Rodel), the southernmost point of Harris, to visit the St Clemens church (XVI), and then still further following the main westcoast road all the way up to Horgabost, where we camped for the first time on the journey.

Ob Mhiabaig Drinisiadar Pier Harris interior - Loch Plocrapoil

Q: What is the Golden Road? A: Originally, the only road on Harris was the road along the west coast with its dunes and relatively flat landscape, while the rocky east coast, interspersed with thousands of waterlily-covered lochans, remained as good as inaccessible. Still, many settlements were situated there (originally, because the inhabitants left the eastern grassy slopes to their sheep and went to live on the rocks themselves), so it was decided to construct a single-track road connecting all the little hamlets, bearing the utmost unpronouncable names of Miabhaig, Drinisiadar, Plocrapol, Scadabhagh, Greosabhag, Collam, Cliuthar, Caolas Stocinis, Leac a Li, Aird Mhighe (two of them!), Liceasto, Geocrab, Beacrabhaic, Aird Shleibhe, Manais, Fleoideabhagh, Cuidthinis, Fionnsabhagh, Boirseam, Ceann a Bhaigh, Lingreabhagh and finally Roghadal (Rodel). This came down to draping a giant tagliatelle over and between the hillocks and the turf, curving around every sea- or inland loch, twisting and turning, going up and down like a rollercoastertrack. It cost a fortune, however - hence: the Golden Road, though this might equally apply to the views.

Golden Road in low mist
Boats on sea loch
Gravestones Alasdair Macleod's grave (1528) St Clement's at Roghadal (Rodel) bis St Clement's Church at Roghadal (Rodel)

Coming back from Stornoway, the weather seemed to have cleared and we took several breaks to admire North Harris. But, starting off on the nothing less but fantastic Golden Road, we soon encountered a bizarre phenomenon: extremely local mist. As some of the pictures show, the layer of mist was but a couple of metres thick, but what made it so strange was that is was also incredibly dense. Suddenly you drove into this wall of mist and you could hardly see more that a couple of metres in front of you, but, since it didn't reach very high, the sunlight penetrated, so it wasn't dark at all... leading to the bizarre sensation of being immerged in pure tangible white light, out of which suddenly a small lochan or settlement would appear when you emerged from the fog. In the evening however, we again missed the sunset because of it, and had to camp in the fog dense as black hole matter. Not that there's an actual 'campsite' in Horgabost - the new OS map spells out its only camping-attribute in the letters "PC" - public convenience.

Misty sheep at hightide

Beaches and coos / Sunday 15 September

On Traigh Scarasta Traigh an Taoibh Thuath Sgeir Leomadail and Taransay Oystercatchers

The mist had been an announcement of deteriorating weather, and the Horgabost morning was grey, though dry - so we decided to take it easy on the Sabbat and explore the greatest of Harris' beaches, by Scarasta, and venture beyond Ceapabhal to the ruin of a small chapel. The beach itself is not a place for the agoraphobic - it takes more than twenty minutes to cross at certain points, and everything around you looks antlike - once on the southwest shore, views across the sound of Harris (Caolas Na Hearadh) to North Uist (Uibhist Atuath) are grand. On the way back at Na Buirgh we finally photographed some lovely highland coos, one looking especially like Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain reincarnates
Locals near Scarista The lady has a lovely hairdo More locals at Na Buirgh Kurt from a distance
Fluffiness illustrated

In the evening we drove on past Tarbert to Drinisiader, where the only unofficial Harris campsite is situated. This venue looks on first sight like a place where people dump old caravans, and on second sight too, were it not that one of those dumped caravans, liable to imminent collapse, houses the shower... as the picture shows, the toilets/bathrooms weren't exactly Waldorf Astoria either. Not that it matters, but 5 quid for the night was too much, and especially the 50p for the shower, which I diagnosed as the legendary, long-sought-after Spider Cemetery. Anyway, not complaining, considering that we arrived on the Sabbat. We took a stroll around Loch Plocrapol and were off early Monday morning.

Fluff with mom Don't mess with the club members Paleolithic car repair shop Luxuriant facilities at Drinisiadar

Reinigeadal YH / Monday 16 September

We wanted to do one walk in North Harris, and, uninformed as always, knew nothing about it. But, blessed are the unprepared and the bad weather, because, not being able to climb Harris' highest mountain An Cliseam (Clisham), we miraculously decided upon doing a circular 18km walk which afterwards turned out to be a classic. Very conveniently, at some point in the walk there was a youth hostel in a place called Reinigeadal (Rhenigidale) - otherwise known as Absolutely Nowhere.

Reinigeadal and its YH (midleft)
Cattle grid near Maraig Gleann Lacasdail with Loch and distant sea Old An Tairbeart (Tarbert) to Reinigeadal road A bit of peat on Beinn Tharsuinn

The car proved very useful again, as we drove the remote single track road to the place, consisting of a mere four houses or so. Again, little did we know that this hostel is part of the four Hebridean hostels runned by the Gatliff Trust, all of which are old traditional crofters cottages turned into very pleasant hostels (all hostels are mixed on the isles, which I found utterly bizarre, this being such a religious community - maybe they're really good Christians: we believe and let others live their own lives - massive respect!).

At the hostel, we put on our weatherproof stuff and started off on the tarmac road we came on, and which dates less than 15 years back, towards Maraig. We then went south again through wonderful Gleann Lacasdail, and completed the triangular walk by taking what has been described as one of the classic walks in Britain: the old road from Tarbert to Reinigeadal; you can actually see a bit of the road on one of the pics. And, people, it deserves its classic-label. Downright one of the most beautiful of our Scotland-walks, the splendid sulitude, silence and seals in Loch Trolamaraig hardly having been surpassed during our month's stay. True, the weather wasn't splendid and I did become closely acquaited with Mr. Midge, but it made the landscape all the more intimate (the weather, not the bloodsuckers).

Only four stayed in Reinigeadal YH that night, so we had our room and the two cyclists we met (a German and a munro-bagger who had an ankle injury and therefore was cycling instead) each had their own. It was grand. Silence had no name and a black face. Next morning, we were off to Lewis and rain came down.

Loch Trolamaraig and Trolamul
East from Loch Trolamaraig
In the YH after the shower

 

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