Experience Hebridean Culture on Isle of Harris
The Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is a place with stunningly pristine white sand beaches and mesmerizing blue hills that have inspired a rich culture deeply connected with the landscape. Harris itself is not technically an island but rather is the lower third of Lewis and Harris, which together span 100 miles in length, making it the largest isle in Scotland. Lewis and Harris are both part of what is also known as the Western Isles, which includes North and South Uists, Benbecula, Barra and Vatersay. This chain of islands is located 24 miles off the upper northwest of mainland Scotland.
Lewis and Harris are separated by a range of mountains but share a heritage that dates back to the Bronze Age and melds Celtic and Norse influences. Today, that heritage lives on; the Gaelic language is spoken by about 75% of the 20,000 islanders and "trad" music and dance is enjoyed at ceilidhs, gatherings that get their name from the Gaelic word for party.
Harris can be reached by taking the ferry to Stornoway in Lewis from Ullapool on Scotland’s west coast. From there, Harris is 1.5 hours to the south. This drive will take you through the distinctly different landscapes of the two adjoining districts. Lewis is mostly covered in low-lying peatlands and moors while Harris has a wildly diverse set of vistas that can be appreciated in a three-hour drive around its circumference: in the north, more than 30 hills that surpass 1,000 feet; on the west coast, world-class beaches and a habitat known as machair (more to come on this); and on the east coast, a barren landscape so lunar-like that it that stood in for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey.
We'll take you to four locales on Harris and its tiny neighbor of Scalpay and introduce you to residents who share their Hebridean culture. First, we offer a grounding in the history of the Outer Hebrides with a visit to Seallam! Visitor Center is located in Taobh Tuath, also known as Northton, in the south of Harris. From there, take a twenty-minute drive to Finsbay in the east, where you can admire the art of the creators at Mission House Studio, who are inspired by the surreal landscape in which the gallery is set. Next, head north to Scalpay, a 50-minute drive. This island is only 2.5 miles wide and is considered part of the Isle of Lewis and Harris. Our final stop is Tarbert and the Harris Tweed Company, famous the world over!
Isle of Harris Beaches
Lying on the very outer edge of Europe, the Isle of Harris not surprisingly has many glorious beaches that are regularly ranked among the best on the planet and yet you may well have to yourself. There are a number that offer translucent aquamarine waters and golden sands, like Huisinis in the northwest of Harris, which is your reward after making the trek down to the end of a 12-mile single-track road. Further south but also on the west coast is Luskintyre Beach, one of the largest swaths of beaches on the island, with views of Taransay, Scotland's largest uninhabited island. A bit further down the west coast, Traigh (Gaelic for beach) Scarasta offers dramatic views of the North Harris mountains in one direction and in the other Ceapabhal rises from a peninsula. The neighboring 9-hole Isle of Harris Golf Course is recognized as one of the most picturesque in the world.
Bill Lawson and Seallam! Visitor Center
For visitors interested in exploring family roots in the Outer Hebrides, genealogical research company Co Leis Thu? (Who do you belong to?) is based at the Visitor Center. Founded by genealogist & author Bill Lawson, the tracing service is now administered by Northton Heritage Trust, for which Bill consults.
"The Outer Hebrides, windswept islands on the Atlantic edge of Europe, can be incredibly beautiful, and the Isle of Harris is the most beautiful of them all!” Bill said. “Alright I am biased, but the office manager here at Seallam Visitor Centre agrees with me! Pure white shell-sand beaches, impressive mountains and sheltered creeks and sea lochs provide holiday destinations for almost all tastes for the outdoors."
"But there is much more to Harris than just the views, however spectacular,” he observed. “It is rich in history, from archaeological sites dating back to the Bronze Age, to, in the medieval church of St Clements in Rodel, one of the most impressive examples of church architecture of its age in the west of Scotland. You will hear the ancient Gaelic language still spoken in shops and homes, and children can opt for Gaelic-medium education in the schools.”
Highland Clearances and Diaspora of Lost Culture
In the hundred years between the 1700s and the 1800s, there lies a bitter and dark time for many Highland natives. Anyone familiar with Scottish history would be familiar with the Battle of Culloden and various acts of rebellion from the Jacobites. But what about the average folks? Unfortunately many families were forced from their homes in acts known as ‘clearances.’ Much of Scottish culture was lost during that time. It’s thought that the clearances are the reason that so much diaspora exists for those of Scottish ancestry.
"You are conscious of history all around you here, from the ruins left from the days of the clearances, when many families were evicted to create sheep farms, to the cultivation beds on the hillsides, where people grew crops and reared their livestock,” he continued.
Highland Culture Engages with Land
“The machairs (sand-meadows) of the west coast are fertile, but the rest of the island is rugged, often likened to a moonscape! You would wonder how people ever managed to make a living from such land – and of course, the answer is that they did not, but relied on the sea for most of their food."
"With a nation of sea-men, on the edge of the Atlantic, it is little wonder that great numbers emigrated from the Hebrides, especially to Canada and Australia, as well as the cities of the Scottish mainland, and much of our work at Seallam! The Visitor Centre lies in tracing the island origins of these emigrant families,” he said. “In the summer there is a never-ending trail of visitors to the Centre looking to trace their roots, and even in the winter, internet queries keep us busy. It must seem odd to strangers to find such an international center at the farthest edge of Europe!”
“In the church there are four stones with sword carvings which date from the 1400s and 1500s. They once marked the burial places for members of Clan MacLeod, either here or in the graveyard. The beautiful carvings illustrate the high status of the family and their prominence on the island. The swords represent their strength and power.”
Mission House Studio | Art Culture
After learning about the genealogy of the Outer Hebrides, pay a visit to The Mission House Studio in the south to the Bay of Harris, 20 minutes away. This drive will have you meandering through small crofting villages while also taking in views of the surrounding Isle of Skye as well as gorgeous views of the western coast of Scotland. If you’re lucky, on your way to Mission House Studio, you might spot some native wildlife like seals, golden eagles, and even an otter if you’re lucky! While at Mission House Studio, visitors can immerse themselves in the unique perspective of artistry inspired by the surrounding landscape.
In the Hebrides, collaboration is a way of life, and this is much in evidence at The Mission House Studio, the creative wellspring of husband-and-wife artists Nikolai and Beka Globe. The couple’s work space and gallery are located in a former church, set in a spot overlooking the Bays of Harris. The Mission House brings the art of the new age into a space of old in a way that is provocative and moving.
Mission House Artists Find Inspiration in Landscape
Beka, a fine art photographer, embodies the liminality of nature, those in between places where sky, sea, and land meet. Her photographs provoke an emotional response, truly portraying the binaries of this earth. Nikolai’s medium is ceramics, along with other physical materials such as glass and raw minerals. Geological in feel, Nikolai’s work truly reflects the harshness and beauty of the Hebrides terrain. From stoneware bowls to other vessel forms, Nikolai’s work is created to reflect the nature of the Hebrides.
Nikolai described how the couple came to find Harris and Mission House Studio. “We moved to the Highlands to make that fresh start, and based ourselves in Inverness where we could both work and look for that “Tabula Rasa”. We discovered an abandoned church by chance, through word of mouth. It was as if it was just meant to be, and it somehow removed “choice” from our minds. It was our ticket. Then it was merely a matter of how, and a few years of hard work to get it to what it is now.”
“The building has a beautiful and simple geometry, designed for worship, no frills, no embellishments, just a quiet contemplative space, understated and more barn-like,” Nikolai described. “It is very conducive to our work. Bare stone walls, windows onto the glaciated lunar landscape, our worship being nature and the elements, the cosmic order and chaos, the forces that shape nature.”
“The landscape of Harris itself is very lunar, and in fact is made up of some of the same rock as the moon, anorthosite. It is a bare geological landscape, glacial, desolate, remote and elemental. By being immersed in it, my work is an echo or reflection, through a kind of dialogue or osmosis. The landscape here is laid bare and eroded, revealing the process that forms the land, which in turn reveals its ancient histories, eons, deep time, and the dynamic processes of change. So my work is more about those inquiries than traditional romanticized ‘Landscape’.”
Emma Macleod Shares Connection to Gaelic Music
Less than an hour’s drive from Mission House is Scalpay, where Gaelic is spoken--and sung. Singer Emma MacLeod grew up on Scalpay, and considers the cultural landscape to be part of her DNA.
“I have been singing since I was very very small,” Emma said. “Gaelic was the main language spoken in my house so I picked up little Gaelic songs/nursery rhymes. Once I started school we did quite a lot of Gaelic singing, especially on a Friday morning with Mr. Iain “Costello" MacIver.”
Emma explained there is a Gaelic festival called the Mòd. A Mòd is a Scottish Gaelic culture festival, referring to a type of event rather than a specific one. There are local Mòds and a national one, which all celebrate the arts, culture, and music of Gaelic. The Royal National Mòd is held every year in October. Founded in Oban in 1891, the Royal National Mòd maintains the heritage of Gaelic culture through a widespread community of artists across Scotland for over 100 years.
“There are local Mòds that I have competed in since the age of 5 and the Royal National Mòd occurs every year, hosting a week's worth of competitions and performances that celebrate Gaelic culture.” “I am not a professional musician but I love singing and love performing,” she said. “I quite often sing at ceilidhs or occasionally at pubs and I am a member of the Lothian Gaelic choir. The Gaelic world is quite a tight-knit community so I know a lot of traditional musicians and perform with a lot of them regularly.”
Native Tongue and Childhood for Emma
Emma went on to explain how Gaelic influenced her own childhood. “Gaelic was the main language spoken in the house when I was little. I used to sing along to various cassette tapes - two of which are most memorable are "Am Bodach Beag Annasach" and "Donnie Dotaman". Once I started school I used to do a lot more singing at school concerts and various Mòd competitions. My seanair (grandad) had loads of old cassette tapes with various people singing Gaelic songs and I suppose music just ran in the family. My great uncle was in a band and the majority of my relatives can sing. It has always been something that I have thoroughly enjoyed.”
“Gaelic music has always been extremely special to me. I guess it has just always been a part of my life and I associate it with home. Gaelic music manages to speak to me on an entirely different level - there is so much more feeling in the songs and always gives me an insight on the history and traditions of the islands. I have always admired the skill folk have to be able to write poetry so beautifully and meaningful.”
Within the world of Gaelic music, there is trad music and the ceilidh, both significant to the culture. “Trad music is a hard thing to describe because I feel like it means something completely different to everyone. I feel like trad music expresses the identity of a community. Music played/sung in a particular style that begins to form a part of the culture. In the islands this style of music is mainly ceilidh band music and Gaelic singing as this is what brings people together. As for a 'ceilidh', this for me is a warm social gathering within a community where you share music, dances, songs and stories. Typically, a ceilidh was held in someone's home but today they are now more traditionally held in a local community center or town hall.”
Maintaining Highland Music Culture
“In the islands, the continuation of the culture is very much reliant on oral tradition. Songs, poems, stories and tunes were all passed down through generations without ever being written down on paper. At the time of the Highland Clearances, a lot of musical instruments were banned so they relied on singing songs in order to have music to dance to. These songs were often just made up nonsense known as Puirt-A-Beul (mouth music).”
“Gaelic songs were written about funny incidents, heartbreak, love, war, loss of a loved one and particularly 'cianalas', which is the Gaelic word for homesickness - but I feel like it means so much more than that. It is difficult for me to find an English equivalent to describe it. It's nice to see that the audience for the music has changed from a gathering in someone's kitchen to main stages all over the world. Very heartwarming to see.”
Meaning Behind Music in Gaelic Songs
“One of my all time favorites is a song called " O 's ann tha mo Ghaol-sa Thall". This song was written by Eachann MacFhionghainn (Hector MacKinnon) on behalf of Catriona Morrison. Catriona lost the love of her life in the horrific Iolaire Disaster,” Emma explained.
“In the early hours of 1st January 1919, the naval yacht HMY Iolaire, which was carrying sailors returning from war, hit the rocks as it approached Stornoway and sank where more than 200 people drowned just yards from the shoreline and safety of home. Only one man from Scalpay was killed in this incident and his name was Finlay Morrison, aged 25. He was hoping to marry Catriona and I believe came back from the war with a ring he was intending to give to her. “I cannot imagine the heartbreak Catriona went through. Hector wrote this hauntingly beautiful song from Catriona's perspective and it is one song that just pains my heart every time I sing it. I sang this song as my final piece for the Traditional Gold Medal at the Royal National Mòd last October - where I was full of a cold but still managed to get the highest marks of the night. It has such an unusual tune but I feel like it is very fitting for the song.”
“A ceilidh favorite of mine is " Tiugainn do Scalpaigh", meaning ‘Come to Scalpay’. It is a very cheery song that talks about the beauty of Scalpay, from the people to the scenery. It is a crowd favorite at a ceilidh and one of my signature songs.”
“A song that reminds me of home or I identify with home is "Eilean Scalpaigh na Hearadh", which literally means Isle of Scalpay, Harris. This is a very powerful song where the bard talks about his love for the island, the different parts of the island he treasures and the language he loves dearly. Whenever I tell someone that I am from Scalpay, they will burst into song with the first line of this song, every time!”
Carrying on Tradition in Scalpay | Crofting, Fishing and Weaving
Donal MacLeod is a crofter, fisherman, and Harris Tweed weaver who with his wife Catherine and two children lives on Scalpay. If you noticed that musician Emma has the same last name as Donal, they are actually cousins! Furthering the Scottish heritage definitely runs in the family.
"Harris Tweed is a fabric that has stood the test of time," he said. "Growing up as a young boy in Scalpay, Harris, I was surrounded by the sound of the Hattersley loom. For many families it was the main income, doing a job they loved. Nowadays there are very few weavers on the island but I am excited to be producing Harris Tweed in the same village I grew up in and sharing these traditions with my young family. I appreciate the older generation passing down their knowledge to me and helping me further my skills in producing this beautiful material."
"As a fisherman and weaver, I draw inspiration from colors that I see on both the land and the sea,” he explained. “We can go from the deep shade of turquoise that encapsulates the sea to the fiery orange of a morning sunrise coming up over the island. Harris Tweed is truly a wonderful material to work with, from the start of the process in the shearing and wool gathering to the cloth getting stamped with the Orb for authenticity by the Harris Tweed Authority.”
Governing Authority for Highland Tweed
The Harris Tweed Authority is the governing body over the cloth. There are three main mills, which do certain processes in the completion of the tweed but all of the weaving is still done in the home which is why this is classed as a cottage industry. Many weavers are commissioned by the mills to weave particular patterns to supply retail stores.
There are then a number of private weavers who design their own patterns and make their own tweed, which must be taken to the Harris Tweed Authority for quality control and to be stamped with the historic orb. This symbol guarantees the highest quality tweed, dyed, spun and hand- woven by islanders of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in their homes to the laws outlined in the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament.
Among the private companies selling are Harris Tweed and Knitwear Ltd., which operates a retail shop at the mouth of the harbor in Tarbert on Harris. Harris Tweed and Knitwear can be found across the narrows of Caolas Scalpaigh from Scalpay, just a 30 minute drive.
St. Clements Church | Isle of Harris
From Tarbert, make the 35-minute drive south to the town of Rodel on the very southern tip of Harris.
Here, we’ll pay a visit to St Clements Church, which Bill Lawson singled out as a must-see. And with good reason! Not only is the setting atmospheric but the interior is a virtual time capsule of ancient ecclesiastical sculpture, symbolism and history. Carvings represent goddesses giving birth, hunting scenes, and knights in armor protected by crouching lions, among many other exotic and varied scenes. The medieval tombs and grave slabs include the church’s founder, Alexander MacLeod, also known as the Humpback as a result of a sword wound he had received while fighting the MacDonalds on Skye.
"MacLeod clan chiefs of Dunvegan and Harris built this beautiful church as their burial place in about 1520. Although many of their tombstones survive, the exact location of the MacLeod graves is uncertain. St Clement's fell into ruin after the Protestant Reformation of 1560. It was rebuilt just over two centuries later by Captain Alexander MacLeod, but within three years substantial repairs were required after the church was damaged by fire. In 1873 the building was restored by the Countess of Dunmore.”
A visit to Harris offers a window into a timeless place, where the landscape and traditions invite and nourish meaningful connections.
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Header image courtesy of Chris Combe on Flickr.