I thought I would share my thoughts with you of the islands we visited. I won’t go too much into the sites we visited as I will do this when I work my way through my field notes – this may take some time!
South and North Uist – despite the near perfect weather we had I found these islands to be pretty bleak (I dread to think what they would be like in the winter!) Other than the very southern tip of South Uist (which was pretty) there is little to recommend in way of scenery – it’s all flat stony, peat land interspersed with lots of small lochs.
Harris – this was the prettiest island we visited. I have never been anywhere where there is such a high concentration of beautiful beaches in such a small area. If it wasn’t for the fact that the water is so cold you could be on a tropical island!
Harris really is a beautiful place and somewhere I would return given the chance.
Lewis – nicer than Uist but not as nice as Harris. Lewis is a lot bigger than it looks on the map and it takes a lot longer driving from site to site than you would think (excluding the close proximity of the Callanish sites). This is an island of flat fields and high hills with some lovely coastal sections along the west coast.
The biggest problem we had on the Western Isles was trying to find somewhere to eat! Other than Stornoway there were very few places where you could get something to eat. We were based in Callanish and would have had to make a 60 mile round trip each night to get food. We spent most of the week living on crisps and biscuits in the evenings!
If you do plan on a trip to Lewis you will need to either base yourself in or near Stornoway or take plenty of sandwiches! The B+Bs on the Western Isles were a lot more expensive than on Orkney and Shetland – the Uist islands particularly so. What was £60 per night on Shetland was £100 per night on Uist!
My overall impression of the Western Isles (in particular Uist) was one of (relative) poverty. There just didn’t seem to be much money about. For every habited house we saw there were perhaps 2 or 3 ruined buildings. There were also a lot of cars going to rust simply abandoned in fields – this did little to improve the scenery! In saying that there were some very nice buildings here and there so obviously not everyone was struggling.
The highlight was of course Callanish and we were luck to stay in a B+B which was a 15 min walk away. In fact you could see Callanish from the bedroom window! This meant I spent a lot of time there which I will talk more about in my field notes.
If I do ever return to these Islands I would go back to Harris (for the beaches), Lewis (for the old stones!) and Shetland (for the wildlife)
All the people we met were very friendly and made us feel welcome. Strangely enough we didn't see any other child 'tourists' in 3 weeks, everyone seemed to be mid 50s or older. Dafydd certainly had a few starnge looks as he ventured into yet another burial chamber with his head light on. Even little Sophie visited a few of the easier ones!
There is no need for me to talk about all the fantastic prehistoric sites that Orkney has to offer – you will have to wait for my field notes! What I will say though is that it felt very surreal being surrounded by all these sites which are so familiar from photos, film and books. You can almost get blasé about it at times – very surreal in a good way.
Mainland Orkney reminded me a bit of Lewis but flatter – and windier! We stayed near Kirkwall so food outlets weren’t a problem but as you moved around the island to the more rural places it was a bit hit and miss as to where you could get food. There certainly wasn’t much available on Hoy or Rousay!
Compared with the Western Isles Orkney appeared to be more affluent and was overall a more attractive and interesting place to visit. The bleakest place we visited was north Hoy – it reminded me of Uist!!
Everyone we met was very friendly – in particular when we visited Banks chambered cairn and The Tomb of the Eagles.
(Prehistoric sites apart) our favourite island.
We stayed near Lerwick so again eating out wasn’t a problem but as with Orkney / Lewis the further away from the capital you went the harder this became.
The wildlife on Shetland was easily the best with plenty of seals to be seen sunning themselves on rocks and beaches (the beach at the back of Tesco was the best place to see them!) as well as puffins (they really are cute) and of course plenty of Shetland ponies about. There are also some great beaches around St Ninian Isle.
Shetland is an island of hills, valleys, beaches and fantastic coastal scenery. Another thing that stands out about Shetland is the quality of the roads. We didn’t see a pot hole in a week. Even the most minor road is perfectly tarmaced and it was easy to drive just about anywhere. There are also several very good leisure centres scattered about and driving around it ‘felt’ like this is quite a prosperous place. (Apparently the island receives money from the oil companies each year to pay for the roads / leisure centres etc)
As with the other two islands the people were very friendly although you would need to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford the knitwear! I was planning on buying a jumper but the one I liked was nearly £200 – I decided on a book instead!
So in summary;
The prettiest island we went to was Harris, the best prehistoric site was Callanish, the best wildlife we saw were the puffins and the bleakest place was Uist – just beating north Hoy! Non-prehistoric places we visited which were very good include the Arnol Black House on Lewis (it was a real eye opener to think that people lived in these houses as recently as the late 1960s), the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, the ice cream parlour near Stennes and the ‘Shetland Bus’ memorial in Scalloway on Shetland.
Was the trip worth my life savings – oh yes! I was not disappointed in any way although we could have done without the tummy bug we all got the first week. We were extremely fortunate with the weather as the waterproofs and wellies never left the car. In fact at the start of the week we all got sun burnt!
My only advice to anyone considering a trip to the islands is to either base yourself near Stornoway, Kirkwall or Lerwick or take plenty of sandwiches and a big flask for the tea!