The Isle of Lewis and Harris: Scotland’s Best-Kept Secret?

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If you had asked me two months ago about my favorite part of Scotland, I would not have hesitated to tell you about how much I love the Isle of Skye, the wing-shaped island in the Inner Hebrides that captured my heart on my first trip to Scotland.

But if you asked me today about my favorite part of Scotland? I might actually have to shift it to the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Isle of Harris, Scotland

I knew exactly two things about the Isle of Lewis and Harris before I visited in September with Haggis Adventures: I knew that it had a fairly famous circle of standing stones, and I knew that it was supposed to have nice beaches.

I didn't know that it required a nearly 3-hour ferry ride to get to. I didn't know that it's more or less two separate islands with very different landscapes (Lewis is the northern part of the island, and Harris is the southern part). I didn't know anything about its population, traditions, or other landscapes.

And I had no clue that I would fall head over heels for it.

Isle of Harris in Scotland

Isle of Harris in Scotland

The trip to the Isle of Lewis and Harris started out a bit rocky – literally. The ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway was lurching this way and that in rough seas, making walking around and keeping down food a challenge for many. It was also raining when we made it to our small hostel in Stornoway; not the welcome any of my Haggis Adventures tour mates had been hoping for for our introduction to the Outer Hebrides.

I was being careful to keep my expectations low. I wasn't expecting sun in this wild part of Scotland in late September, and I told myself I'd be happy to simply see the sights I was most looking forward to.

So when the next morning dawned cloudy, I wasn't too let down.

But then something happened on our way to Abhainn Dearg Distillery (the most westerly distillery in Scotland): the quickly-moving clouds began to break up and the sun began forcing its way through.

Isle of Lewis, Scotland

By the time we began our afternoon of sightseeing around Lewis, the sun was overtaking the clouds and everyone was in a great mood. And, lucky for us, the sun followed us around Harris the next day, too!

Along the Golden Road on the Isle of Harris

While I know the good weather definitely had an affect on my enjoyment of the island, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have loved it anyway, rain or shine.

Here are all the highlights from the Isle of Lewis and Harris that made me fall in love with it and be convinced that it might, in fact, be one of Scotland's best-kept secrets:

Callanish Standing Stones

Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis

Probably the most famous sight on the Isle of Lewis is the Callanish (or Calanais) Standing Stones. Located on the west coast of Lewis, the stones date back to the Neolithic age – meaning that they're about 5000 years old!! The standing stones consist of a main stone circle and rows of stones brancing off from this in a rough cross shape.

Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis

If you've ever visited Stonehenge in England (especially recently), more standing stones might not sound that exciting. But while Stonehenge's famous stones are now roped off and usually very crowded, the opposite is true at Callanish. We were more or less the only people there, and you can walk right up to and around all the stones.

Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis

There were plenty of Outlander fans in my tour group, and so of course we all took turns stepping up to the center stone of the circle to see if we would be able to fall back through time and find our own Jamie Fraser. Sadly, none of us turned out to be time travelers.

Amanda at Callanish Standing Stones

Dun Carloway

After the high of visiting Callanish, I didn't really care what else we saw on Lewis and didn't bother to read up on the other stops we were making that day. Which meant that I spent the rest of the day absolutely delighted by everything.

Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis

Our next stop was at Dun Carloway, the remnant of a stone broch (small tower) that's roughly 2000 years old. The broch itself is incredibly impressive, and the views of the nearby countryside were beyond beautiful.

Isle of Lewis in Scotland

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Next we headed to the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, which today is a cross between open-air museum and holiday spot. The village consists of restored blackhouses – long stone cottages with thatched roofs – and offers up both vacation accommodation and historical demonstrations.

Gearrannan Black House Village

If you've ever been curious about what a peat fire smells like (many Scots used to and still do burn peat instead of wood), they usually have at least one burning here.

Butt of Lewis

The Butt of Lewis on the Isle of Lewis

Our last stop of the day on the Isle of Lewis was at the very northern tip of the island, AKA the Butt of Lewis. We went on a short hike here along the coastal cliffs, taking in the amazing views out over the North Atlantic and keeping warm against the biting Scottish wind.

The Butt of Lewis on the Isle of Lewis

Luskentyre Beach

The following day saw us crossing over to Harris, the southern part of the island. Our guide, Mahri, told us that many people think Lewis is called after the Gaelic word for “marshy,” while Harris means something along the lines of “higher,” since this is where you find mountains.

Our major stop of the day was at Luskentyre Beach, which has been named one of the best beaches in the United Kingdom. And I can definitely see why.

Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris

Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris

We had free time at the beach to splash in the waves, frolick on the sand, and climb the rocky hill above the beach to get better views and visit with some hairy hielan' coos (hairy Highland cows).

Hairy Highland Coo on the Isle of Harris

This probably doesn't look anything like the Scotland you've imagined – but that's what makes it so special.

St Clement's Church

St. Clement's Church in Rodel, Isle of Harris

Our final stop on Lewis and Harris was at St. Clement's Church in the tiny town of Rodel. The church itself isn't particularly amazing, but the surrounding scenery definitely is. If you walk up the road from the church and climb a hill, you can see the Isle of Skye on a clear day.

Isle of Harris in Scotland

Knowing how much I love the Isle of Skye, I was really (pleasantly) surprised to love the Isle of Lewis and Harris just as much, if not more. Part of it comes down to the amazing landscapes and historical sites on Lewis and Harris, and the other part I attribute to the fact that this island isn't nearly as well-visited as Skye.

Since you have to take a ferry to Lewis and Harris (and because you just don't hear as much about it as the famous Isle of Skye), you'll find far less visitors here than on some of Scotland's other islands. There were definitely places where we saw no other tourists, and we were pretty much the only people staying at Heb Hostel in Stornoway.

Rodel, Isle of Harris

So if you want to experience the best of the Hebrides withOUT the crowds, definitely head to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Have you ever been to any of Scotland's isles? If not, do you want to head to Lewis and Harris now?

 

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*Note: I was a guest of Haggis Adventures on their 5-day Hebridean Hopper tour. But, as always, all opinions are 100% my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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32 Comments on “The Isle of Lewis and Harris: Scotland’s Best-Kept Secret?

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  1. Those pictures are unreal! I’ve never been to Scotland and honestly hadn’t heard of the Isle of Lewis and Harris until your post. It’s on my list for sure! Now I just need the time to travel more. Working on that!

      It’s certainly not a part of Scotland you hear a lot about, but I loved it so much! Glad to hear it’s made your list now, too. 🙂

    Hi Amanda! I love the picture of the brown cow. Did you really get that close to it? I went to Scotland 6.5 years ago. I went to the town on Dornoch and stayed in a 4 star hotel. The beaches in your pictures remind me of the beach that was in Dornoch. Glad you enjoyed your time.

      Yes, I really did get that close to the cow! They were so curious and not at all afraid of us!

    I really enjoyed reading this! I did a sailing trip in the Inner Hebrides this year and fell in love with the islands. I’ve already booked a trip to the Outer Hebrides next May, and this got me even more excited.

      Island-hopping in Scotland is now firmly on my bucket list – I definitely need to see more of the isles!

    Oh gorgeous Scotland!

    I’ve only visited the Isle of Skye and none of the other islands even though I have lived in the country for three years. Judging by your pictures I need to go back to experience more places in beautiful Scotland

      The Isle of Skye is very special, but there are definitely plenty of other beautiful places in Scotland to see, too!

    Wonderful post, Amanda! The Callanish Standing Stones looks like the Stonehenge. Wonder what the mystery is with all these standing rocks around the world. Hoping to solve it myself in the near future, or at least be part of the community. Great pictures. Looking forward to reading more of your post! Cheers

      There are SO many stone circles all over Britain. And the crazy thing is that still, after all the research that’s been done, no one can agree 100% on what the standing stones were for! Makes them all the more fascinating.

    You always find the most scenic spots! Thank you for seeking out these hidden gems for the rest of us. And, as always, that photography is top-notch. 🙂

      What can I say – I love pretty places! 🙂

    I love that picture of the highland cow so much! Really interesting post. 🙂 We have a similar set of stones here in Orkney. Skye has always been on my list and now this one is, too! 🙂

      There are so many stone circles all around the UK! I think they’re fascinating. And Lewis and Harris is right next to Skye, so they make a great combo trip!

    I just got back from a Scotland roadtrip but we didn’t make it here! Scotland is def a place I need to go back and explore some more and this has made the list for round two!

      Awesome to hear! Scotland is one of those places that I never tire of visiting.

    So cool that you got to visit the stones! I only started watching Outlander a few months ago, but I’m hooked on it; I would have been standing in line to try my hand at time travel too, haha. Also, your shot of the hairy coo is just perfect!

      I’m now obsessed with Outlander, too – I’m almost done reading all the books! They just make me love Scotland even more.

      And that hair coo shot is one of my favorites I’ve ever taken!

    Oh wow, that looks truly incredible. I’ve been to other Scottish Isles but never ventured that far North. It is definitely on my bucket list now!

      It was indeed incredible. I still have a lot of Scottish isles to visit, but I have a feeling this one will always be up there as one of my favorites!

    Great article Amanda! If you’ve not yet been to the Isle of Tiree then I highly recommend it. Beautiful beaches and supposed to be the sunniest place in Britain. I spent a month there earlier this year.

      That sounds lovely! I’ll have to add it to my (very long) list of isles that I still need to visit!

    Incredible pictures! When places are less crowded, it truly doubles the delight in exploration.

      I definitely agree! Plus, you feel kind of special for being there.

    Stunning beauty of the nature. Scotland is pure beauty with its green covering. This particular place seems so windy and cold but still very appealing. Enjoyed reading it!

      Yes, it can be windy and cold in Scotland, but the beautiful scenery makes it worth it!

    Nice trip down memory lane! Visited Lewis 2 years ago and LOVED it so much. Going back in a year or so and adding some more islands. The stones were my absolute favorite tied only with Pentre Ifan in Wales. Followed by Stonehenge and Ring of Brodger – I’m a sucker for those big stones.

      Stone circles are just so fascinating! But yes, the Callanish stones were definitely a highlight on Lewis for me, too!

    Shhhhh! Harris and Lewis is my favourite spot too. Please dont popularise it too much. I hope to live there someday.

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