Aye, she has an icy lick, doesn’t she? Come along now, and my bonnie lass will get a cheery fire going,” James Dickson held out his hand to me with this greeting.
I had parked my car and walked down to Cnip beach in a remote corner on the Isle of Lewis to gape at the Atlantic Ocean. I had been standing on a rocky outcrop gazing towards Newfoundland, 3,000km away, when suddenly a renegade wave defied the law of physics, spurned the pull of the tide, reared up around 8ft like a frisky liquid mare and broke right where I was, soaking me from head to toe.
Dickson had been fishing by the sea and came running up with his jacket as I stood gasping, stunned by the unexpected deluge. He knew that the icy cold water, coupled with the freezing wind, could chill a man to his bones in seconds.
Within 10 minutes we were in his house and I was toasting myself in front of a roaring peat fire as he handed me a heavy glass tumbler with some amber liquid shimmering inside. I took a sip of the Cragganmore 12-year-old Speyside malt and savoured the grand afterglow as it smoothly glided down my gullet. The drenching by the Atlantic suddenly became worth it, just for this moment: The spontaneous hospitality of the Scottish farmer was as warm as the wind blowing in from the ocean was cold.
Scotland’s Outer Hebrides—an archipelago, with Lewis and Harris being the major isles—are rugged islands tempered by the sea and strong cold winds. The morning papers arrive here in the afternoon and cigarettes are unpopular because everyone has the time to painstakingly pack shag tobacco into a pipe.
Also See Trip Planner / Outer Hebrides (Graphic)
“You see, dear, there’s always time for some friendly banter and real ale,” his wife Eileen Dickson smiled at me as she bustled about, preparing a hot meal.
In addition, the islands also offer some superb driving roads, a rugged, sea-swept landscape and secluded golden beaches. And so, I had driven my Toyota Prius on to the Caledonian MacBrayne morning ferry, sailing from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.
I’d planned to sail across the previous evening but was lulled into inaction following a visit to the Talisker distillery, the only one on the Isle of Skye. Whisky-making is a passion here and the old Scotsman behind the tasting bar was talking about the Talisker 10-year-old single malt as if he was a proud father of a class X student who’d just topped the matriculation exam. One sip, and I knew that the old connoisseur was justified in blowing his own bagpipes—the whisky was divine. Not just me, Robert Louis Stevenson said much the same in his 1880 poem The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad: The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it/Talisker, Islay or Glenlivit.
Ancient vistas: The islands of the Outer Hebrides had some of the earliest human habitation in the British Isles. Rishad Saam Mehta
I should have moved on and caught my ferry then, but my interest was piqued and one of the staff, Fiona McIntyre, took me on a little tour of the distillery, explaining how barley, yeast and water came together to make this fine whisky. What I loved the most was the smells in the different sections. The fragrance of the whisky seemed to evolve at every step. The strong alcohol reek that hung over the mash vats gave way to a robust whisky scent around distinctive swan-necked copper pot stills. And finally, there was that lovely aroma that turned many visitors dreamy-eyed as they sniffed the matured product in the tasting room.
Now, I thanked the Dicksons and set off to explore the western coast of Lewis, as they had suggested. This part of Scotland was inhabited 7,000 years ago and, for the sceptics, wears the evidence easily. Off the A858 at Calanais, the Callanish Standing Stones has all the atmosphere of Stonehenge without the “look, but don’t touch” feel. There are no barriers here, as there are around the monument in southern England, and one can wander around and position oneself at the centre of the 40ft circle formed by the huge stone columns and speculate about ancient man and alien construction.
I revelled at the wheel as I carried on, driving on narrow tar that was sandwiched between the Atlantic on the left and rugged landscape dimpled with tranquil lochs on the right.
But it was Blackhouse village in Garenin (Geàrrannan, in Gaelic) that made me wonder how harsh habitation must have been here before the advent of internal plumbing and oil-fired central heating. Inhabited till the 1970s, this is a cluster of nine primitive buildings made out of dry stone walls and thatched roofs and coated black by peatfire smoke, because there were no chimneys. One blackhouse is fully furnished from a bygone era and now serves as a museum. The most interesting display is a vintage radio set, bigger than a modern microwave oven, the size perhaps denoting its importance in this remote hamlet.
That evening at the local pub, parked on a high stool against a very well-worn bar counter, I soaked in the cheery vibe of a village watering hole. Loud guffaws bounced off the walls tacked with vintage posters of ales and whiskies. Humphrey Bogart’s “I have loved and lost” face stared out from a 1940s poster of Casablanca, a sharp contrast to the ruddy smiling faces all around. I was still a little chilled from the Atlantic’s sudden splash and I had asked the buxom bartender for a single malt. She poured a generous (“We aren’t all wee all the time”) dram of my new favourite, the Talisker 10-year-old.
The next day, I sailed on the early ferry from Tarbert to Uig in the north of the Isle of Skye, drove 62 miles (around 97km) to Armadale in the south and took another ferry to drive out at Mallaig on the Scottish mainland, at the head of Scotland’s most scenic road, the A830, lined by serene lochs, rolling glens and sturdy castles. Pretty, all, but peripheral to the picture of sitting with the Dicksons at the edge of the Atlantic, eating haggis, sipping fine whisky and enjoying their conversation.
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