Lewis and Harris are a single large island in the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland. It's the third largest island in the British Archipelago, only Great Britain and Ireland being larger. Harris (Gaelic Na Hearadh) is the mountainous southern third of it, with a population in 2021 of 1795, while boggy low-lying Lewis makes up the northern two-thirds. Only in modern times were they connected by road: historically you could only travel from one to the other by boat, as if they were individual islands. Moreover their transport links were to different mainland ports, so they became parts of separate counties: Harris with ferries from Skye joined Inverness-shire, while Lewis with ferries from Ullapool joined Ross & Cromarty. In 1975 a single local authority was created for the Western Isles.
- Harris is divided by the deep notches of West and East Loch Tarbert.
- 1 Tarbert is the main village and ferry port, and the obvious base for exploring all of Harris.
- 2 Leverburgh on the west coast is the main settlement of south Harris
Harris and Lewis are made of very old rocks, gneiss laid down three billion years ago. It's impermeable and where it lies flat as on Lewis it forms a boggy plateau, while on Harris it's contorted into gnarly heights. Both terrains are infertile, supporting little more than rough grazing. There's no mineral wealth and inhabitants scratched out a living with sheep, garden crops such as kale and later potatoes, and fishing.
Roads didn't exist until modern times and you had to get about by sea. In the early Medieval period this brought the Outer Hebrides under Viking / Norse control, so place-names reflect this even though they've later been Anglicised or Gaelicised. That control weakened in the 13th century and after their defeat at Largs the Norsemen ceded the Hebrides to Scotland, while retaining Orkney and Shetland.
Until 1746 the Gaelic clan chiefs governed a feudal system, with little cash involved, but with service required from their clansfolk in peacetime and in war. That system died at Culloden, and land ownership became something to be traded for money. That money might be made far away, by people who lived almost as far and had no roots here. In the 19th century these landlords evicted much of the population - the "Highland Clearances" - so the emptiness of Harris today reflects that. In the early 20th century the whole of Lewis and Harris was owned by Lord Leverhulme the soap tycoon, who had grand plans and began to invest heavily. But his visions of Hebridean industry were at odds with community demands for land reform, and on Lewis there was a great falling-out. He fared better on Harris, where Leverburgh was renamed for him, but died suddenly in 1925 and his many ventures folded.
One industry that has prospered is Harris Tweed, as this sturdy practical wear for islanders became fashionable in Victorian society. Many mainland mills took up production and there was a risk of the market being swamped with cheap shoddy versions. The "Orb" trademark was granted in 1909, and further legal protection afforded in 1993. These require sourcing and manufacture in the Outer Hebrides, but not just in Harris as there was scant difference between Lewis, Harris and Uist products.
Calmac car ferries sail:
- from Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris, twice a day taking under two hours (Nov-March some days in just one direction).
- from Berneray (linked by road to North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist) to Leverburgh on Harris, four a day taking an hour.
- from Ullapool in Wester Ross to Stornoway on Lewis, twice a day taking 2 hr 30 min (Nov-Mar only one on Sunday).
Harris has no airport. The most convenient air route is from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Stornoway then drive south. Another way is to fly to Benbecula then take the ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh.
There are five buses M-Sa between Harris and Lewis, taking 75 min. A bus / ferry service runs up the Western Isles through Barra, the Uists and Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, so M-Sa it may be possible to go the whole way in one day.
Car is best in this remote area.
By bus: Bus W10 is the Western Isles "spine route" from Barra and the Uists. It runs along the west coast of Harris on A859, from Leverburgh via Northton, Borve, Seilibost, Luskentyre turnoff, and Golden Road turnoff into Tarbert, 45 min. It continues across north Harris to Stornoway. There are six per day M-Sa.
Bus W13 runs up the east coast lane from Leverburgh via Rodel, Ardslave and Geocrab then either direct to Tarbert or meandering through Grosebay and Drinishader. Two run M-Sa, another four are school buses.
- The lighthouse on Scalpay island, linked by road to Tarbert.
- Rodel church, south of Leverburgh.
- Luskentyre beach.
- Climb Clisham, north of Tarbert, the only "Corbett" in the Western Isles.
- Hike the "Postman's Path" above Rhenigidale, past abandoned villages.
- Take a boat trip to lonely St Kilda.
- Take a half day boat trip to the Shiant Islands to see seals, sea birds and during spring and early summer puffins
- Drive or cycle the "Golden Road" along the east coast between Tarbert and Rodel.
- Various cafes along the main road such as Skoon Gallery and Temple Cafe in Northton, but the best dining options are the two hotels in Tarbert.
- There are no pubs but the Tarbert hotels have public bars.
- The Isle of Harris Distillery in Tarbert produces gin and scotch whisky and is open for tours.
- Camping sites are around the island, some extremely picturesque, some not official.
- Hostels are in Tarbert, Leverburgh plus remote locations such as Rhenigidale.
- Hotels and B&Bs are mostly in Tarbert and towards Leverburgh. The most luxurious splurge is at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle on the lane between Tarbert and Huisinish.
- Self-catering cottages are dotted around and mostly let Saturday to Saturday.
- North to Lewis, less scenic but with a richer history and prehistory.
- South by ferry to Berneray then by road to North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay.
- East to Skye by ferry - you land in the most scenic part, the Trotternish peninsula.