Many travellers – and even those who just enjoy a good jaunt – are guilty of the same sin: taking their hometowns for granted. Once you’ve wandered around that World Heritage Site or explored another culture, coming home can leave you with those just-back blues.
But stepping outside your front door and using the eyes of an outsider to look locally can throw up some interesting experiences. This week the sun was shining on my edge of the Atlantic, so in honour of my childhood home, here are some tips on how to spend a day or two in the beating heart of the Outer Hebrides…
Stornoway, the small Scottish harbour town with a population of 7000, serves as the artery of the Western Isles archipelago, the most north-westerly outpost in the British Isles. Located on the Isle of Lewis, the ‘capital’ of the Outer Hebrides has plenty to offer those willing to make the journey.
To start your day, navigate the Narrows – the streets in the centre of the town, like Cromwell and Point Street – and browse the independent shops that line them. There are new businesses and local entrepreneurs starting up all the time, showcasing the island’s creativity at its best.
A favourite is By Rosie, a cute and quirky Harris Tweed accessories shop run by a sunny seamstress of the same name. Rosie Wiscombe hand crafts all the bags, purses and bits and pieces available for purchase, artfully displaying them in vintage suitcases and on antique dressing tables in her studio-come-shop. Seek out more souvenirs at Stornoway’s outpost of VisitScotland, or at the artsy gift shop in the An Lanntair arts centre – you can admire the artwork in the gallery while you’re at it.
Grab a coffee at Delights to keep you going – the ladies behind the counter are lovely – and ask for it to go; savour the flavour as you take a walk by the harbour, breathing in the strong salty air and counting the myriad colours of the fishing boats by the dock.
After your amble, cross the river into the Castle Grounds and escape into near-seclusion at the Woodlands Centre Cafe, all wood framing and floor-to-ceiling windows, with Gaelic poetry imprinted into the glass. Sandwiches, soups and tasty sweet treats are all on offer here – the scones with clotted cream and jam are something special.
When you’ve had your fill, wander around the Castle Grounds to work off your lunch. Here you can enjoy the greenery, spot some wildlife and encounter the remains of local history and legend, like the mournful-looking statue at Lady Matheson’s Memorial.
As evening approaches, head to HS1 or its upmarket sister restaurant The Boatshed for dinner, and indulge in the local seafood: mussels, prawns, scallops, and salmon. Don’t miss out on Stornoway’s speciality, the famous Black Pudding, sold far and wide and now protected under European Law. For something more exotic, try the Thai Cafe; the restaurant’s generous portions, fabulous flavours and ‘bring your own bottle’ policy make for an excellent evening out.
Afterwards, enjoy a drink or two in McNeill’s. In the summer months you’re likely to be surrounded by patrons from across the country and the continent enjoying the atmosphere and Open Mic nights. Alternatively, watch the Cal Mac ferry return from the Scottish mainland, glass of wine in hand, from your vantage point in An Lanntair. The art centre’s name means ‘lantern’ in Gaelic; appropriate given the architectural appearance of the place.
Finally, once you’re satisfied with all Stornoway has to offer, use it as a base: there’s a whole archipelago of history, culture and other-worldly landscapes out there to explore – something I plan on doing until it’s time to embark on the next foreign foray.
Getting Here: Stornoway is easily accessible seven days a week via Flybe flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness airports, as well as the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service to and from Ullapool.
In The Know: Collect a copy of the free monthly newspaper, EVENTS: What’s Happening in Lewis and Harris (found in various outlets around town) for an insider’s guide to what’s going on in the islands at any one time.