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. Lewis (Gaelic Leòdhas) makes up the northern two-thirds, and is low-lying. Harris to the south is rugged. 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 separate counties.
Towns and villages
- 1 Stornoway is the only town. It has good transport and visitor amenities, and is the obvious base for touring both Lewis and Harris.
- 2 Point is a farmland peninsula just east of Stornoway.
- 3 Back, just north of Stornoway, is farmland along on the east coast, with the villages of Coll and Tolsta. The road ends at "The Bridge to Nowhere".
- 4 Balallan is a scattered community to the south, at the point where A859 climbs across the hills to Harris.
- 5 Valtos on the bleak west coast includes Uig, Timsgarry and Mangersta. The distillery is here, and the bridge to the island of 6 Great Bernera.
- 7 Carloway on the west coast has the Callanish standing stones, Carloway Broch and Gearranan Blackhouse Village.
- 8 Arnol further up that coast has the Black Houses museum, and the settlements of Barvas and Borve.
- 9 Ness at the north tip is the end of the road, with a lighthouse, a restless ocean and a distinct change in the rocks: here Scotland was once linked to Greenland.
During the 19th century Lewis, like much of the Scottish Highlands, became impoverished and depopulated. This reflected eviction of tenant farmers by the landowners (the "Highland Clearances"), harsh living conditions, famine in some years, and hopes of a better life in the Lowlands or America. Those left behind dwelt in squalour, alongside empty arable acres given over to sheep, deer-stalking or grouse-shooting. Eventually the government sought to reverse these trends by providing land for small farm settlements, allotments or crofts.
Violent agitation for land reform broke out, and on Lewis the farm of Coll was seized by land raiders in 1888. Agitation faded when the Highland economy recovered from its 1880s slump and when optimism grew about government action. But progress was very slow, and halted by the outbreak of war in 1914. After the war, there was high public expectation, and demand to deliver on the political promise that returning servicemen should enjoy “a land fit for heroes to live in” with priority for resettlement. Expectation turned to anger at official delay, and land raids resumed.
From 1917 the whole of Lewis was owned by Lord Leverhulme the soap tycoon. He had ambitious plans for it and was investing heavily, but as an industrialist, his vision of the island’s future was industrial – fisheries, tweed manufacture and the like. He even drafted the timetable for the railway he was planning! But he utterly opposed land re-settlement, seeing this as perpetuating an outmoded way of life, and so in March 1919 the farms of Tong, Coll and Gress were raided. By autumn the raiders were persuaded to leave, but in January 1920 they made new raids on Coll and Gress, and began to build houses there. Leverhulme’s response was to stop all his development work - a severe blow to the island economy that caused uproar. He claimed that Coll and Gress were needed as dairy farms to supply Stornoway, but as a compromise he offered land on the west coast, and the raiders were again persuaded to leave.
Several farms on the west coast were indeed re-settled, but in spring 1921 Coll and Gress were again raided, and again Leverhulme halted his developments. The government decided to invoke compulsory powers, and faced with this, Leverhulme conceded to resettlement of the farms of Coll, Gress, and Orinsay to the south. Conflict continued around Galson to the north, but by this stage Leverhulme was despairing of his plans for Lewis, and turning his attention to Harris. He was also becoming seriously overstretched financially. In 1925 he died and his many projects on Harris and Lewis were abruptly ended. His mainland business continued to prosper as Unilever, but his only Hebridean venture to carry on was Mac Fisheries, which lasted until 1979.
Some 60% of the population speak Gaelic, and place names on road signs are primarily in Gaelic. The English version beneath is much smaller, while the villages themselves may look smaller still. But everyone understands English, including most foreign tourists.
By boat: Calmac ferries sail to Stornoway from Ullapool on the mainland, taking 2 hr 30 min. There are two sailings year-round M-Sa, and on Sunday two Apr-Oct and just one Nov-March. Return fares are £108 per car and £20 per adult including driver (valid for 2020); bikes go free on all Calmac routes.
It's also possible to sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist, or even to South Uist or Barra, then work your way north by road and ferry. It's not the obvious route to Stornoway but could be part of a grand tour of the Hebrides.
By bus: There are 3 or 4 buses M-Sa between Harris and Lewis. A linked bus / ferry service runs up the Western Isles through Barra, the Uists and Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, so M-Sa it's possible to go the whole way in one day. There are half-a-dozen services part-route, but for the full route you need to set off from Castlebay Barra at 06:20, Lochboisedale South Uist at 09:00, Benbecula at 11:10, Lochmaddy North Uist at 11:30 and Tarbert Harris at 16:20, to reach Stornoway by 17:30. Going south, you leave Stornoway 09:30 to reach Tarbert at 10:45, Lochmaddy at 13:45, Benbecula at 14:25, Lochboisdale at 15:25 and reach Castlebay at 17:35.
Routes across Lewis all converge on Stornoway. They're sparse M-Sa with nothing on Sunday.
Bus W10 connects Lewis and Harris, running from Stornoway via Balallan and over the hills to Tarbert, then Luskentyre, Borve, Leverburgh and Rodel. It's part of the bus / ferry spine route all the way south to the Uists and Barra, see "Get in". There are five between Stornoway and Tarbert M-Sa but only one connection full-route to Castlebay Barra.
Bus W5 runs east along A866 to the airport, Melbost, Garrabost, Bayble, Shulishader and Aird out on The Point. About a dozen M-F and five Saturday. This bus continues north along B895 up the east coast past the hospital to Tong, Coll, Back, Gress and Tolsta.
Bus W2 runs to the west coast in a loop via the hospital, Barvas, Arnol, Bragar, Shawbost, Carloway, Callanish and back to Stornoway. There are about five each way round the loop M-Sa.
Bus W1 runs to the north tip of the island, via the hospital, Barvas, Borve, Galson, Lionel and Port of Ness; about 8 M-Sa.
Bus W3 runs to Great Bernera, via Lochganvich and Garynahine then across the bridge to Barraglom, Breaclete and Croir; about 6-7 M-Sa.
Bus W4 runs to the western corner, via Garynahine, Enaclete, Miavaig, Valtos, Timsgarry, Mangersta and Brenish; five M-Sa.
Bus W8 runs to the North Lochs (north of Loch Eireasort) via Leurbost, Crossbost and Ranish every couple of hours M-Sa.
Bus W9 runs to the South Lochs via Balallan, Kershader, Gravir and Orinsay every couple of hours M-Sa.
- Mackinnon Self Drive, 18 Inaclete Road, Stornoway HS1 2RB, ☏ . From £30 per day.
- Car Hire Hebrides, Stornoway Airport, Lewis (also at Stornoway ferry terminal), ☏ . Car, people carrier and camper van hire. From £43 per day.
- The road to nowhere: the district of Back, north of Stornoway, has some of the best farmland on Lewis, and was the scene of several land raids. B895 runs along the coast from town through a string of small places. Tong was the birthplace of Mary Macleod (1912-2000), mother of US president Donald Trump. Next is Coll then Gress where there's a memorial to the land raiders. Tolsta has a fine beach. Lord Leverhulme began to extend this road north towards Ness, taking it in a sweep over the valley by what's now called the 1 Bridge to Nowhere - then the road comes to an abrupt stop against the bleak moorland.
- 2 Mealista Beach. A beach with both rocks and sand near the former township of Mealista, which was cleared in 1838.
- 3 Uig Sands (Traigh Uige / Ardroil Beach). A large sandy beach, about 2 miles long and over a quarter of a mile wide at low tide. The Lewis chessmen were found nearby in 1831.
- 4 Traigh na Beirigh (Valtos Beach) (near Valtos, Uig). Long sandy beach on the west coast. There are also several smaller beaches nearby.
- The road to Great Bernera branches north from B8011. See the standing stones, Iron Age house and Norse Mill.
- 5 Callinish Standing Stones. always open. A 5000 year old impressive stone circle, which is said to be comparable to Stonehenge. There is a locally run visitor centre with cafe nearby, open M - Sa 10:00 - 18:00. free.
- 6 Carloway Broch (Dun Carloway). A pre-historic round castle, built around 200BC, and used until about 1000. This broch is about 9 m tall, and retains most of its original height, but it one of the more impressive examples.
- 7 Garenin Historic village. A village of black houses. The individual houses are not as accurate as Arnol, but you get the village effect better. Some of the houses are let as holiday homes.
- 8 Norse Mill and Kiln (near Shawbost). A restored flour mill built over a mill lade. This type of mill used to be common in the highlands and islands.
- 9 Black House Museum at Arnol., 42 Arnol. Apr - Sep: M-Sa 09:30 - 17:30; Oct - Mar: M Tu Th-Sa 10:00 - 16:00. A restoration of an old thatched black house, as was the main housing on the island around 100 years ago. The peat fire inside the black house really brings the place alive. A restored "White House" shows the sort of house people moved to from the black house. £5.
- 10 Steinacleit, Borve. always open. A set of boulders are all that remains of this chambered cairn. free.
- 11 Ness Historical Society, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, Cross School, Ness, ☏ . M - F 10:00 - 16:00, cafe opens at 11:30. Museum and cafe.
- 12 Butt of Lewis Lighthouse (about as far north as you can go on Lewis; about 1 mile from the bus stop at Eoropie). Red brick lighthouse built by David Stevenson in 1862. The lighthouse was automated in 1998. It is in the windiest spot in the United Kingdom, according to the "Guinness Book of Records". The nearby cliff are also worth seeing. From the road up to the lighthouse, the ground can be seen to have ridges from the old system of "Lazy Beds".
Kite surfing and buggying at Uig Bay.
Scotland is becoming increasingly popular as a surfing destination. Despite the lower temperatures compared to traditional surf spots, Lewis offers clean, beautiful and empty beaches and arguably the best breaks in Europe. Lewis offers both west and east coast surf spots, giving a good choice of locations for a variety of wind directions.
All the big stores are in Stornoway, which has two supermarkets. Small shops are dotted around the island, and often manage to pack a varied stock into a small building. Everything is closed on a Sunday except Engebret filling station in Stornoway.
- Uig Community Shop, ☏ . M-Sa 09:00-18:00. Shop, post office, laundrette and ATM. Petrol and diesel with out of hours payment terminal.
- Cross Stores, 7 Cross Skigersta Road, Ness HS2 0TD, ☏ . M-Sa 09:00-18:00. Licensed grocer and hardware store. The on-site butcher makes his own black, white and fruit puddings.
- Cross Post Office is 100 yards north.
- Swainbost Shop (Maclean Mair Nicolson & Co), 28 Swainbost, Ness HS2 0TA. Small shop and filling station.
- Buth Tholastaidh Ltd, North Tolsta HS2 0NL. Shop and Post Office.
- Borve Mini Market, Fivepenny, Borve HS2 0RX. M-Sa 08:00-20:00. Shop and filling station.
- Welcome In Filling Station, Barvas HS2 0RA. M-Sa 07:00-22:00. Shop and filling station.
There are several small shops for buying self-catering supplies, but you will have to go to Stornoway if you want a supermarket.
In many places the best place to eat in the evening may be a hotel - see Sleep for listings.
- 1 Cafe Sonas, Port of Ness, ☏ . seafood restaurant and coffee shop.
- 2 Loch Croistean Coffee Shop & Restaurant, ☏ . Jun - Sep: M-Sa 12:00-20:00; Oct - May: W-Sa 12:00-20:00.
- 3 Old School Tearoom, Balallan, HS2 9PN, ☏ . summer only. Tearoom run by the historical society. Also coin operated laundrette.
- 4 Uig Cafe, Uig Community Centre, Timsgarry, HS2 9JT. Apr - Sep: M-Sa 12:00-17:00. Cafe and small museum in the community centre.
- 5 The Edge Cafe, Aird Uig.
- You won't find standalone bars except in Stornoway, but most hotel bars are open to non-residents.
- If you see a local ceilidh advertised it is worth going along. These dances are typically held in village halls and are Scottish Country Dances, usually to a live band. Ceilidhs often don't have a bar, BYOB. On Lewis Saturday night events will finish very promptly at midnight, but Friday night events may continue well past midnight.
- 1 Abhainn Dearg Distillery, Carnish, HS2 9EX (Far northwest of island, take B8011 to Uig then lane south), ☏ . Tours M-Sa at 11:00, 12:00, 14:00 & 15:00 (closed Sa in winter). In the 17th century, Martin Martin reported that two spoonfuls was the maximum safe dose of whisky in these isles: "If any man exceed this, it would presently stop his breath and endanger his life." Maybe it was the adverse publicity, more likely it was the competition from Islay and Speyside, but Lewis ceased to make whisky for 200 years. This distillery, set up in an abandoned fish farm, began production in 2009, so they now have a ten-year malt. It's described as fruity, like schnapps, with a hint of barbecued fish. That'll be from the fish barrels used for maturation; it improves with a little water. Tour £10.
- There's another distillery on Harris. The Isle of Lewis Brewery has closed.
See Stornoway for accommodation there. More rural places are listed here. Bed and breakfasts and self catering can be found on the tourist board website. Renting a house for a week or more is a popular option. Such places are generally let from Saturday to Saturday.
- 1 Eilean Fraoich Camp Site, North Shawbost, ☏ . Tent and caravan site with kitchen, showers and WiFi. 1-person tent £6, caravan £20.
- 2 Mangersta Croft, 5 Mangersta, Uig, HS2 9EY, ☏ . 2 shepherd's huts sleeping two and 2 wigwam cabins sleeping four. £85 per cabin per night in summer, £65 in winter.
- 3 Ravenspoint Community Hostel, Ravenspoint, Kershader HS2 9QA, ☏ . Check-in: 14:00. Modern hostel open March-Oct, run by a local group. As it is small and sometimes booked out by groups, advance booking is recommended. Camping also available. Dorm £20 ppn.
- 4 Otter Bunkhouse, Uig, HS2 9ER, ☏ . 8-bed hostel. bed £20.
- Gearrannan Hostel, Carloway, HS2 9AL, ☏ . 10-bed hostel in a restored village of traditional blackhouses. If you have a bigger budget, the blackhouses are now luxury holiday cottages. No arrivals on a Sunday. bed £15.
- 5 Loch Roag Guesthouse, 22a Breasclete HS2 9EF (Pentland Rd off A858), ☏ , (mobile). Restful 6-roomed place two miles from Callanish Stones. B&B double £100.
- 6 Clearview B&B, 44 Balallan HS2 9PT (A825 between post office and Tomair lane), ☏ . 3-room B&B on Tarbert-Stornoway road. B&B double £90.
- 7 Baile-na-Cille, Timsgarry, Uig HS2 9JD (end of B8011), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Six rooms en suite. B&B double £150, dinner £35.
- Galson Farm is an attractively decorated small guest house open all year.
- 8 Broad Bay House, Back HS2 0LQ (5 miles north of Stornoway on B895), ☏ . Check-in: 16:00, check-out: 10:30. Upscale accommodation with great beachside location and fine dining. B&B double £190.
- 9 Borve House Hotel, Borve HS2 0RX (on A857), ☏ . 9-room country house hotel with bar and restaurant. B&B double £130.
- 10 Doune Braes Hotel, Carloway, HS2 9AA (on A858), ☏ . 16-room hotel with restaurant and bar. B&B double from £140.
- 11 Loch Erisort Inn, Sheildinish, HS2 9RA (near Balallan on B8060 to Kershader), ☏ . 5-room hotel, dog-friendly, plus restaurant. B&B double £100.
- 12 Wardicott B&B, Lighthill, Back, HS2 0LF (on B895 pass Gordon's filling station and turn left after Back Church), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Check-in: 15:00 - 22:30, check-out: 08:00 - 10:00. A quality, 3-bedroom B&B. £100.