Advice from an Islander
Guide books can be a great way of preparing for your holiday, likewise researching your destination online through sites like TripAdvisor can give you a great idea of what to expect on your stay. For the best information however, you have to speak to a local. So here are our best tips for enjoying the islands from the people who actually live there. Some helpful suggestions, wise words and local secrets from those in the know.
Sollas week has, over the course of the last 10 years or so become something of an institution on North Uist. Very few people outside of the island have heard of this event as essentially it is a community get together for expatriate islanders. Every July those who have left the islands for work or marriage return home with their families for a week of sports, children’s events, ceilidhs, concerts, barbecues and parties. It’s an inclusive atmosphere so visitors are welcome to join in but be aware that all accommodation in the area may be booked up almost as soon as the dates are announced. A number of local communities on the islands have similar things happening but the old fashioned nature of the organization is usually reflected in the fact that few have websites. A bit of research online may yield some details but a few words to the local shopkeeper or barman will likely lead to all the information you need to know.
Guga is often described by excited food journalists and celebrity chefs as a once in a lifetime culinary experience. For the vast majority of islanders it is exactly that. Despite it being part of the cultural identity of Ness on the Isle of Lewis, where locals munch on it from an early age the rest of the islands are largely ambivalent to its charms.
For a less challenging taste of the west coast I would recommend instead some carrageen pudding. The seaweed used to make this delicious desert can be gathered from certain beaches at low tide. It is not harvested commercially and is usually plentiful enough so that locals are generally happy to share the best spots for foraging.
Not many people would venture to the Hebrides for Asian food but believe it or not one of the best Thai restaurants in the country can be found in Stornoway. A local man and his Thai wife have for a few years now been building their reputation on authentic home cooked Thai cuisine that utilises as much as possible fresh local ingredients. Just the thing to get rid of that lingering taste of Guga.
Whisky is the drink of choice on the islands, in fact if someone offers to buy you a drink it is assumed you will want a dram and so you will likely find a Grouse or Whyte and MacKay on its way to you if you say yes. Although expensive malts are appreciated nothing will mark you out more as a tourist than ordering some rare or ancient bottling. The small jug of water to be found on the bar is the only acceptable mixer. On the mainland it may be normal to mix them 50/50 but on the islands a splash will be sufficient. It’s egalitarian and old fashioned but an endearing tradition that shows no signs of modernisation.
Before visiting the islands many have an image of Sundays in this Presbyterian heartland as a day of joyless reflection, where children are whipped for whistling and incomers excommunicated for smiling instead of going to church. The reality is somewhat different and it is possible to have fun on the islands without upsetting the local population. A kind of doublethink has evolved where even the staunchest church goers have accepted that visitors to the islands with different values are given slightly more leeway than they used to be.
A great example of this is Europie Dunes Playpark, one of the best places on the island to let the kids run free. It’s not technically closed on a Sunday it’s just that local children are discouraged from attending. Likewise the official Callanish Standing Stones visitor centre is closed on the Sabbath but anyone is welcome to go and walk around the site and touch the stones at any time.
Discretion is the key here but as someone who has been born and raised on the islands and visited for more than 20 years since leaving, there has been a perceptible change in attitude recently (Sunday ferries are evidence of this) from one of absolute adherence to the Sabbath for everyone to one of tolerance for those who choose a different path, provided they are respectful.
Calmac is the Islands lifeline and is held in high esteem by those reliant on its services. Cancellations are rare, even in winter bad weather but for the best and most up to date information on sailings then you should follow them on Twitter. This invaluable service is constantly updated and is by far the best way to learn of any delays or changes to services. For those travelling in the summer one of the nicest surprises is that you can take your bike on almost every Calmac boat for free. You don’t even have to book in advance.
The last and most pertinent bit of advice I could give to all those thinking of visiting the islands would be to book through LHH. Call now for some expert advice on a wide range of luxury properties throughout the Western Isles.