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Outer Hebrides - Eating and sleeping
© Mark Rowe, www.markrowe.eu
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.
From modern to traditional, high-end to basic, accommodation on the islands will collectively meet all budgets and tastes. Recent years have seen a scramble for renovation and updating in response to rival new properties that have injected some much-needed higher standards.
The only problem with accommodation is that there is not enough of it, with just 5,100 beds (plus self-catering options) to welcome 218,000 people every year. It’s also true that some places can divide opinion: traditional can mean cosy and friendly, but it can also mean wonky plumbing or inflexible arrival and departure times, or asking you to keep out of the property during the day.
Always ask ahead whether accommodation providers take credit cards. Many places close between October and March or Easter; even places that advertise as opening all year sometimes close if things are quiet. Just about everyone shuts for Christmas and New Year.
Always keep an eye on the weather. If a storm blows in and the ferries can’t put to sea, then accommodation quickly clogs up. In such an event, what usually happens is that most people stay in the same place for an extra night; if not, a bush telegraph seems to come into operation and your hosts will call around for you. The most problematic day and place to be stranded is a Sunday on Harris or Lewis, as the tourist offices will be closed, and south of Stornoway you will struggle to get a mobile signal.
At times, you may also feel that accommodation costs more than you might expect and certainly more than you would pay on the mainland. Undoubtedly, a few providers, aware of the demand for accommodation, try it on; generally though, higher prices reflect the higher costs of materials and provisions that need to be shipped across the Minch. It is very rare to find high prices combined with bad service.
If you don’t mind sharing rooms, toilets and showers, hostels can be both good value and a delight. Many have been refurbished recently in response to what is seen as a growing demand for substantial kitchen facilities and games rooms. They also tend to be passionately and efficiently run by people full of great ideas and suggestions for visits and trips. The Gatliff hostels on South and North Uist and Harris, in particular, get consistently good feedback.
Many B&Bs are child friendly, and some can even feel geared more to kids than to adults. It’s always best to speak to an accommodation provider in advance as you will get an idea of whether children are fully welcome, or merely expected to be seen but not heard. One bugbear is that many B&Bs and even hotels seem to think that families comprise no more than one – at a push two – children and can demand what feels like punitive charges for extra beds. Accordingly, many families will opt for self-catering, hostels or camping sites. At the other extreme, some B&Bs can be hugely accommodating, flexible and happily give your family the run of the whole house. Many hosts will also convert a B&B into self-catering or a self-contained family area if you request it. Guesthouses prepared to do this will generally mention this on their websites.
The campsites of the Outer Hebrides routinely find their way into UK and even world compendiums of great places to pitch a tent. That’s with good reason, though generally this will be more for reasons of location than the quality of facilities, which can – with a few exceptions – be basic or minimal. Some campsites have electric hook-ups but, more often than not, drivers of motorhomes or camper vans will need to be self-sufficient. Not all sites have provision for chemical disposal, so ask on arrival or when booking for the nearest location. Bear in mind that campsites are also often a long way from local stores and almost none have a shop on site. There can be few more rewarding experiences, however, than waking up to a view overlooking the Hebridean coast. In addition to the more formal campsites, under Scottish open-access rights, wild camping is permissible at most locations across the islands. Wild camping does involve some boundaries: it must be done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place. While you can camp in this way wherever access rights apply, you should not camp in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals.
Renting a cottage is extremely popular, particularly with families faced with the high cost of eating out every night. Many are wonderfully positioned, overlooking the sea or moors, often enjoy thrillingly isolated locations and are well equipped and characterful. Damp, however, can be a real issue with older properties, and you should always check this when booking.
At the other end of the scale, five-star self-catering has definitely arrived on the Outer Hebrides, and ‘Grand Designs’-style constructions with floor-to-ceiling windows, built into hillsides or modelled on Iron Age brochs are popping up all over the place.
In contrast to most costs, prices are lower than on the mainland – roughly half what you might pay for equivalent accommodation in Cornwall, for example. A cottage sleeping five people will typically cost £400–£800 per week in high season, although luxury properties can break through the £1,000 mark. A handful of selfcatering properties can be found at www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk and the various community-run island websites.