It’s fair to say that a food revolution is taking place in the Outer Hebrides and that cuisine has come a long way in a short time. Long gone are the days when islanders would catch seabirds and boil them up for soup. While filling and calorific meals of the meat and two veg variety still predominate, recent years have seen the emergence of a trend for fine dining and for using island produce rather than imports from the mainland. Some eateries tend to over-egg matters: there are only so many ways to skin a cat, and you may be left wondering how many more ‘towers’ or ‘gateaux’ of Haggis you will encounter (cat or cat skin, just to be clear, are not among the ingredients to be found in Haggis).
On every island, you will have the choice of meat from animals reared locally or fish caught just off shore. Venison is common and drawn from island herds of red deer. Stornoway black pudding was given Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a par with Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese or Cornish sardines.
Other dishes you will often come across include cranachan, a traditional Scottish dish of oats, cream, whisky and raspberries, and crowdie, a soft and crumbly cream cheese with a slightly sour taste that is said to mitigate the effects of drinking too much whisky. Oatcakes are another ubiquitous offering, usually served with salmon as canapés or with cheese as a dessert. Several curing and processing outlets have taken the finishing of salmon to something approaching an artform. You are unlikely to taste better salmon in the UK than you do on these islands.
Every pub and hotel bar has an extensive selection of whiskies. For now, there is just the one single malt, from Abhainn Dearg distillery in Uig on Lewis, which will be followed by a concoction in preparation at the new Isle of Harris Distillery in Tarbert. Beers from the Hebridean Brewery Company in Stornoway include Clansman (a golden bitter), the ruby-coloured Islander, Celtic Black (a dark porterstyle ale), and Berserker, a stronger India pale ale. The microbrewery phenomenon has not yet reached the islands, but craft ales from Orkney, Shetland and the Black Isle (north of Inverness) are commonly found.
A frequent misconception that the tourism authority is always eager to correct is the widely reported claim that there are no pubs on the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway has plenty, and although country or roadside pubs that characterise much of the UK are few and far between, you will find one on each of North Uist and Eriskay. Meanwhile, most hotels have bars that most definitely serve as the local pub. Most places accept credit cards but, as is the case with accommodation, it is worth checking ahead.
Cafés and restaurants are also increasingly upping their game and are geared up for special dietary requirements. On the subject of the former, a curious feature of the Outer Hebrides is that the elemental nature of the landscape is in inverse proportion to the cosiness of its cafés.
One of the joyful quirks of the islands is that you can go into the post office to send a postcard only to discover a first-rate café operating out of the back room (such as on Scalpay and at Lochboisdale on South Uist). This has given rise to the concept of the ‘tea-shop safari’, whereby you can enjoy salmon pâté and oatcakes to the gentle background melodies of mandolins, bodhrans and pipes.