Close your eyes. What is your picture of the Outer Hebrides?
Walking along a deserted beach on a wild, stormy day? Climbing to the top of a heather-strewn hill with a wee dog by your side? Sipping a dram of whisky at a ceilidh as a Gaelic song is being sung? Or placing your hand on a 5,000 year old standing stone at Callanish hoping Jamie Fraser might appear?
Each island is unique, all have their own identities and idiosyncrasies, not to mention their different landscapes. But despite the apparent sparsity of souls, life here continues to be centred around connections to each other and the seemingly simple but often complex concept of community. There is a long history of working with one another to meet common goals. The age-old island traditions of crofting, fishing, weaving and peat-cutting all exemplified the benefits of mutual cooperation and many hands making light work.
Sitting by the peat-burning stove at my aunt’s house, I watch attentively as bags of flour, packets of suet, jars of dried fruits and tins of black treacle are pulled from the kitchen cupboards. At 92, my Aunt Bellag is still famous around the island for her Duff. She gives me a wink as she adds a tablespoon of her secret ingredient before it is wrapped in a floured muslin cloth and sat in a pan of simmering water on the stove.
This traditional steamed fruit cake with its distinctive skin is as synonymous with the Hebridean islands as the iconic Callanish Stones and our miles and miles of machair covered, sandy beaches. And while many folk visit our islands for the dramatic scenic beauty, many more are now realising the Outer Hebrides has some of Scotland’s very best seafood, smokehouses, distilleries and traditional baking. With artisan, independent producers showcasing the best that our Atlantic larder has to offer.
Lewis and Harris make up the most northerly and largest of the Hebridean islands, separated not by the sea, but our mountains. As I drive south from my village of Cromore, our highest mountain the Clisham is lost in clouds and surrounded by a horseshoe of peaks with tongue-twisting names like Mull bho Dheas, Mulla bho Thuath and Mullach an Langa.
After an hour driving through the hills, I arrive in the main village on the island of Harris – Tarbert. The name Tairbeart in Scottish Gaelic, is derived from the old Norse word for ‘draw boat’ and is the main arrival point on the island for the daily ferry from the Isle of Skye.
I open the door of the Isle of Harris Distillery, welcomed by the warmth of a burning peat fire, which is lit daily by the distillery team. Though their whisky is still maturing in barrels, there is a bustle of folk – some taking a guided tour, others queuing in the shop with two bottles of Harris Gin glinting in their arms. There is an immediate sense of a modern Hebrides, that the distillery has become a catalyst for positive change within the community, bringing a well-needed new vitality and sense of possibility to the island.
I meet up with Calum, one of the Storytellers at the distillery. We are working together to create a new signature cocktail The Ceilidh Martini using the distinctive sugar kelp seaweed-infused Isle of Harris Gin. And I think we might have got it just right!
As the old saying goes, today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky. And as I scurry back to my car under the gathering storm clouds (bottle of gin in hand), I’m thankful that providence and place have ensured that this vital supply for the island’s spirit-making will never run dry!
No trip to the Isle of Harris would be complete without a detour to visit Amanda, the owner of The Temple, a wee hobbit-like café in the village of Northton. I come for her delicious homemade Heather Biscotti and leave laden down with jars of Whisky Marmalade, packs of Wildflower Granola, while munching down an iced bun. Surely this is what cafes in heaven must be like?
‘Perfect timing’ is the call from the kitchen as I arrive back at my aunt’s house. The Duff (or Clootie Dumpling as it’s named on mainland Scotland) still warm, is being sliced at the table as a pot of tea rests on the stove. As stories are shared and the hearty slice of duff is eaten, my aunt says in Gaelic ‘Is olc an còcaire nach imlich a mheur’, which roughly translates as ‘It’s a poor cook who doesn’t lick their fingers’. Never a truer word was said.
Coinneach MacLeod, the Hebridean Baker, was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis. Inspired by traditional family recipes and homegrown produce, Coinneach launched the Hebridean Baker on Tiktok. Ten million video views (and counting!) later, Coinneach has inspired his followers to bake, forage, learn Gaelic, have a dram or two of whisky and to lead a more wholesome, simple life. His cookbook ‘Hebridean Baker’ will be released in September and is available for signed pre-order here