If you’re headed to Scotland–and especially if you’re headed to the famed Isle of Skye–please, please leave time in your itinerary, hop on the ferry, and head to the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. We had the opportunity to spend an idyllic month on Lewis, and I want to share some of our family’s favorite places to visit, shop, and eat on the island with four children aged 11 months through 12 years old. Fair warning: there are a lot of pictures in this post.
As the largest island in the Scottish archipelago of Western Isles, the Isle of Lewis is the northwestern-most place in all of Europe. Joined in one land mass but separated geographically by mountains, the Isle of Lewis in the the north connects with the Isle of Harris in the south. Lewis is miles and miles of beautiful moorland, peat fields, and grassland with some rocky outposts like the Uig peninsula. Harris is a stretch of mountains surrounding a series of beaches that rival or surpass those of the Caribbean. Lewis, however, has beaches that are gorgeous in their own right, and Stornoway, the largest town in the Scottish Isles, is completely charming, situated on an inlet on the eastern edge of Lewis.
The only way to get to Lewis is by ferry or plane. We wanted (and you will want) a vehicle on the island, so we chose to travel by ferry. Also, because I wanted to stop on the Isle of Skye for a few days (you can read about that here), we decided to take the 1 ½ hour ferry from Uig on Skye over to Tarbert on Harris. I booked these ferry tickets well in advance over the phone. (It couldn’t be done online with my US credit card, unfortunately. I think I booked at 5am my time when they were open in Scotland, which was good since I ended up being glad I had a quiet house to concentrate to understand his island accent over the phone.) Even though our final destination was Stornoway, I am soooo glad that we decided to go from Skye to Harris! I would absolutely do that again. Not only did we get to visit Skye, but the ferry trip was half the time as the ferry from Ullapool (on the mainland) to Stornoway, which is a three hour crossing over, from everything I’ve heard, very rough waters. Despite our original crossing being cancelled due to stormy March weather, we had a smooth and easy crossing from Skye to Harris on the CalMac ferry, where our kids watched a kids’ movie playing on a big screen in a seating area. There’s also food and a play area on the ferry. The drive from Tarbert up to Stornoway is about an hour through gorgeous scenery.
We were originally warned that it’s pretty remote and we might not have much to do, but we didn’t mind, as we wanted the rest. However, though the pace of life is refreshingly slower (it was a bit like stepping back in time, where nobody locks their doors and people just walk on in to your house–because everybody knows everybody), we found plenty to do for a month, and we would go back in a heartbeat. There’s still plenty more to see! Be prepared for lots of single track roads where you’ll be pulling over to let someone through who’s going the other direction.
Here were our favorite things to do with kids.
Places Not To Be Missed:
1) Callanish (or in Gaelic, Calanais) Standing Stones
We didn’t do Stonehenge in England, but we did go to this less famous stone circle (though apparently more well-known in recent days due to its part in a popular television show, which I’ve never seen). Get there early before the tour buses arrive so you can have the stones completely to yourselves. Unlike Stonehenge, this stone circle allows complete access, so the kids enjoyed running around amongst the stones and playing hide and seek. However, it was really windy in its elevated position, so when the bus full of elderly tourists arrived, we blew back into the car and left.
2) Dun Carloway Broch
Far and away my kids’ favorite place on Lewis, this Iron Age broch (built between 100 BC and 100 AD) was used as a lookout/defense outpost and a village hiding place/living quarters during Viking invasions. It’s one of the best preserved brochs of its kind and allowed lots of scope for the imagination with its passageways and secret chambers! We got there early and had it to ourselves for most of our visit. My kids named it one of their top adventures of our trip!
3) A blackhouse village
There are two. The Blackhouse at Arnol is owned by Historic Scotland (reciprocal with English Heritage, if you’re a member or have a visitor’s pass). This is a preserved blackhouse, in which animals and people lived under the same roof all the way up until 1966! The traditional peat fire burned in the middle of the house as we walked through.
The other, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, is an entire reconstructed blackhouse village. The first time we went, Call the Midwife was there filming their Christmas Special so we couldn’t go in. The second time we went, we could walk around the village, but the blackhouses were closed. We were guessing that they’re only open during the main tourist season. Going inside the houses would make this a lot more fun, as they’re set up with different things like someone working a spinning wheel and things like that. With the doors locked, we only walked around for about 15 minutes. I think I’d go to Gearrannan if you’re there in summer and Arnol at any other time of year.
4) A beach drive through Harris
The beaches of Harris are incredible and not to be missed! Here are the beaches we hit on a mini road trip.
- Luskentyre (This is the most famous and my favorite for beauty; as we couldn’t really get above it like some of the other beaches, we couldn’t do it justice with the lens we had–but…wow! And we had it to ourselves! It’s a bit of a walk through a dune path from the parking to the beach.)
- Horgabost (This was the kids favorite, probably because we left time here to let them build sandcastles; it was, however, also the most family friendly with bathroom facilities and nearby parking.)
5) Sea Stacks at Garry Beach
This was another favorite place. We spent a whole morning there, and the kids would’ve stayed longer. There were iridescent sea caves with mussel-lined walls, a big sandy beach, and craggy rocks to climb. Check the tide schedule online to be sure to go at low tide! We spent so long there that some of the places were inaccessible by the time we left, and one of the older kids almost had to swim for it!
Not to be confused with Uig on Skye, Uig on Lewis is most famous as the place where the Lewis Chessmen were discovered. You drive into the peninsula through a mountainous pass. An hour from Stornoway, it’s rugged and beautiful and seems cut off from civilization, though there’s a thriving small community there. This is the place I would pick to live on Lewis. We stopped for tea in the community centre and then went to the Uig museum and on to the beach. Plan to go to Uig between mealtimes as there isn’t really any place to eat on the peninsula (at least not in off season). The one big souvenir I wanted from Lewis was a Lewis Chessmen chess set, which we were able to get at the museum in Uig. (Tip: If you want one, it’s cheaper in Uig than at the British Museum! Plus, they have several sizes of pieces to choose from in Uig.)
7) Port of Ness and Eoropie Dunes Play Park
This was where Scott would pick to live on Lewis. Ness is a lovely community on the northern tip of Lewis, and the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis is the most northerly point in Europe. You really do feel like you’re at the edge of the world. I’ve heard it can be quite windy, but we had a calm and sunny day to visit. We stopped at the beach at the edge of town, then drove up to the lighthouse, and ended our visit at Eoropie Dunes Play Park, which was the best playground I’ve ever been to anywhere in the world. The kids loved it!
8) Lews Castle
We spent a fun day at the castle in Stornoway, and the kids would’ve liked to go back again. Inside is a nice little cafe and a free museum highlighting the history and culture of the Outer Hebrides (with a special exhibit dedicated to the wreck of the Iolaire). Outside, the grounds are surrounded by a gravel path bordering the harbour (one of our favorite walks in the UK) and lots of woodland trails.
9) Finally, if you have the chance, get out on the water. We put out to sea on a friend’s speedboat and got to see some of the island from the water. Breathtakingly beautiful!
Shopping (for survival and souvenirs):
These are all in Stornoway. Most shops close at 5, so don’t plan on strolling through town after supper to do some shopping.
This very chic shop is owned by my friend Catriona and her sister. There I was in the Outer Hebrides with only two suitcases and a whole shop full of lovely things–women’s clothing in the latest fashions from London, jewelry (I did bring home some earrings) and other accessories, home decor, and more (even Annie Sloan Chalk Paint)! Catriona, I’ll be back for those blue goblets someday!
2) Lewis Revival
Next door to Influence, this little antique shop had a nice little selection of vintage British children’s books. We picked up an Enid Blyton nature book. I had a good chat with the owner, who’s American.
3) Lewis Loom Centre
Smelling like wool and damp earth, this labyrinth of tweed feels like homespun Hebrides. The owner sits outside chatting with passersby, and he lets well-behaved children work his old fashioned till (cash register).
We didn’t stop here until our last day, but it was where I found a Harris Tweed Christmas tree ornament. If you’re looking for a small tweed souvenir, this is the place I’d recommend.
If you need proper shoes or outdoor gear or men’s clothing for your explorations, find Underground, owned by our favorite Hebridean Baptist elder.
6) No. 10
This is new since I’ve been there, but it’s run by our favorite island Baptists (who have great taste!), so I’m guessing it’s a winner! Check it out and report back!
7) The Co-Op for groceries
One of two supermarkets in Stornoway, I preferred the Co-Op to the Tesco, which always seemed to be crowded with throngs of teens from the local boarding school. Be aware that it is not open on Sunday, so plan ahead for your food needs. (For that matter, plan ahead period; the whole island shuts down for the Lord’s Day. Isn’t that refreshing?!) The aisle signs are in both English and Scottish Gaelic. If you swallow your tongue and make a gargling sound and leave out a bunch of sounds…maybe…nope.
Before I launch into recommendations, let me just say that there is tourist Lewis and local Lewis, and on the off and shoulder seasons, be prepared for things not to be open. There were multiple times where I felt like we were Lucy and Ricky and Ethel and Fred driving to California, seeing the sign for “Aunt Sally’s Pecan Pralines,” getting closer and closer while my mouth watered, only to have it closed for the season upon arrival (or out of business). That said, we found plenty of tasty places to eat…when I wasn’t filleting a fresh catch from a local man, who frequently dropped a whole fish inside my (unlocked) front door. (Haddock, ling, and salmon, among others, are local to the island.)
1) Harbour View Restaurant in the Crown Inn
This was our favorite spot–child friendly and good, simple food in Stornoway and open all day. I loved the “daily special” pies (as in chicken pie, beef pie, etc.), and Scott enjoyed the pizza. The fish was great too.
2) Good Food Boutique
This isn’t a restaurant but a tight little deli and specialty foods shop in Stornoway. However, we loved the sandwiches we ordered from the counter. They have beautiful breads and cheeses, especially.
3) Croft 36
This isn’t a restaurant either, but it’s so cute. It’s down in Harris as you’re nearing the Sound. You have to know to look for it, but it’s basically a little shack where a local lady puts homemade food (breads and hot soup and sweets and things). She lives behind the shack and restocks as needed throughout the day. The prices are on the wall, and there’s an honesty box (!) where you pay. It’s cash only, so come with coinage. There’s change in a basket if you need to make change. I can’t even imagine such a thing here in the States! We didn’t have too much cash with us, so I just picked up a couple loaves of crusty homemade bread and some water bottles after our morning at Luskentyre.
4) Anchorage Restaurant
Overlooking the Sound of Harris (where, incidentally, you can catch the ferry south to the other islands), this family-friendly restaurant was a great place to pick up fish and chips after a long day before heading back up to Stornoway. (It’s also one of the few places to eat in Harris.)
5) Eleven at the Caladh Inn
This was a great treat for a family–buffet style carvery in Stornoway. Lots of food choices and desserts, salad bar, the works! There was also a playhouse right in the restaurant, which Christopher (2) loved.
6) 40 North
This is a place we didn’t make it to–the hours were never right to go with our kids when we were on the west side of the island. But it’s been highly recommended both online and by our Lewis friends. Stop by if you’re heading to the standing stones or Gearrannan village near a mealtime.
I hope that everyone reading this has a chance to visit Lewis and Harris at least once! Put it on your bucket list for some April in your future (after the gales, before the midges and tourists). You won’t regret it for a minute!
I’ll leave you with a picture of the highland cattle that gave us a chase (and then came right up to our car window).