Where to Stay (and What to Eat) in the Scottish Hebrides

Where to Stay (and What to Eat) in the Scottish Hebrides

An otherworldly archipelago with wide sand beaches, medieval castles and a disproportionate number of world-class restaurants.

A fishing boat off the shore of the Isle of Lewis, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides.CreditCathal Mcnaughton/Reuters

The Hebridean archipelago, which hugs Scotland’s ragged west coast, comprises over 180 islands which extend out into the North Atlantic, forming the British Isles’ final frontier before Newfoundland. Divided into the Inner Hebrides, a coastal barrier of 79 islands, and the Outer Hebrides, a more far-flung cluster of over 100 islands and rocky skerries, of which only a fraction are inhabited, the area occupies a mythical place in Scottish culture. First settled in the Stone Age, the islands remain wild, heather-carpeted outposts of Celtic and Norse tradition, scattered with ancient croft fields, medieval castles and gray-stone fishing villages. The Callanish Stones, a cruciform arrangement of standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, predate the pyramids of Egypt.

While several of the more remote islands — including the outermost, St. Kilda, a windswept rock a further 100 miles west of the Isle of Skye — are near impossible to visit by boat, it is surprisingly easy to skip between the more easterly islands thanks to a network of ferry routes operated by CalMac. Skye, which is connected to the mainland by way of the Skye Bridge — Inverness Airport is the nearest international hub — is the unofficial capital of the Hebrides’ growing food scene. To the north, the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, attracts visitors to its Harris Tweed textile mill, and the Isle of Harris, its smaller southern neighbor, is becoming known for its locally made gin infused with native botanicals. The Hebrides Islands, with their enchanting lunar landscapes, windswept white-sand beaches and wide open skies — which offer views of the Northern Lights — are home to the last true wilderness in Britain.

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From left: Lews Castle on the Isle of Skye; one of the castle’s nine apartments.CreditCourtesy of Natural Retreats

Stay

Mint Croft

This luxuriously rustic bed-and-breakfast occupies a pair of restored Hebridean crofters’ cottages on a six-acre organic farm on the Isle of Skye. In the cozy breakfast room, the property’s owners, Shaz and Ali Morton, serve organic porridge drizzled with Highland Perthshire honey, Inverawe Smokehouse’s peat-smoked mackerel pâté on toast and eggs from the property’s own hens. The two guest suites, Blackhouse and Stonestore, retain the original buildings’ centuries-old exposed-stone walls, updated with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide views over Loch Snizort toward the islands of Harris and Lewis. From the main house, an old cliff path winds down to a pebbly beach, from where guests can spot white-tailed sea eagles, minke whales, seals and dolphins.

Lews Castle

Set within the woodlands of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Lews Castle is a Gothic Revival relic, complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles, that was first built as a country house for the Victorian opium baron Sir James Matheson. Newly reopened after renovations completed in 2016, the property has been restored to its original grandeur and equipped with 23 minimalist guest rooms, spread between nine luxury apartments — where locally woven Harris Tweed cushions contrast with sleek midcentury furnishings. On the ground floor is the Museum nan Eilean, home to six of the famous Lewis Chessmen, a centuries-old set of 93 game pieces carved from walrus ivory.

The Harbour Inn

Almost one third of the residents of the Isle of Islay — the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides — live in the town of Bowmore (population 863), so staying in one of the five whitewashed cottages or seven guest rooms at the town’s Harbour Inn feels like a family affair. Rooms are comfortably modern, with old-world touches, including Bowmore Tweed textiles developed at the nearby Islay Woolen Mill, and views of the horseshoe-shaped Loch Indaal. But the inn’s true allure is its access to the Bowmore Distillery, home to the world’s oldest scotch maturation warehouse, the legendary No. 1 Vaults. Visitors can go behind-the-scenes in the company’s cask room, which dates back to 1779, to taste 10- to 25-year-aged whiskies.


The kitchen table at the Three Chimneys restaurant, on the Isle of Skye.CreditAngus Bremner

Eat

The Three Chimneys

During its 33-year history, the Three Chimneys, on the Isle of Skye, has revolutionized traditional Scottish cuisine. Chef Scott Davies’s slow food philosophy is embodied in the restaurant’s hyper-seasonal ingredients, which he sources from local fishermen and crofters. Much of the seafood featured on the menu — crab, lobsters and langoustines — comes from Dunvegan Harbour, less than a mile from the restaurant, and even the wild game is local: Davies serves Skye red deer, along with charcoal-roasted beetroot and ash-baked celeriac sourced from a nearby farm. Nextdoor to the restaurant’s intimate exposed-stone dining rooms are six guest rooms, which all look out over Loch Dunvegan.

Loch Bay Restaurant

On Skye’s northwest Waternish peninsula, in the old Norse fishing village of Stein, chef Michael Smith serves contemporary Scottish dishes with French flair at his cozy Michelin-starred Loch Bay Restaurant. Choose the five-course seafood menu to sample lobster and prawns — served with apple, sorrel and a potato scone — as well as locally sourced Sconser Scallops harvested from the plankton-rich waters of Loch Sligachan. And don’t miss land-based dishes like the slow-braised short rib and chargrilled beef served with neeps, syboes — Scottish spring onions — and parsley relish.

Kinloch Lodge

Built in the 16th century as a hunting lodge for the Highland Clan Donald, Kinloch Lodge, on the Isle of Skye, sits at the edge of a native birch forest, on the shore of Loch na Dal. Decorated with MacDonald family portraits spanning 300 years, the hotel’s restaurant is a tribute to traditional Scottish ingredients, overseen by the Brazilian-Scottish chef Marcello Tully. Signature dishes include seared wild pigeon breast with Stornoway black pudding, beetroot and crème fraîche, and Black Isle lamb with cashew and black olive tapenade and pommes dauphinoises. Afternoon tea, served in one of the property’s three drawing rooms, stars Kinloch’s famous scones, layered with jam and whipped vanilla cream.


From left: A stoneware vessel by ceramist Louise Cook of Shoreline Stoneware on North Uist; Cook’s embossed stoneware with twisted seagrass details.CreditLouise Cook

Shop

The Carloway Mill

Harris Tweed is arguably the most famous export of the Outer Hebrides, and though the handwoven cloth is named after the Isle of Harris, the only three working Harris Tweed mills in the world are on the adjoining Isle of Lewis. At Carloway Mill, the smallest of the three, weavers use a 70-year-old Hattersley loom to turn pure virgin wool into tweed, a craft passed down through generations of Scots. Workshop tours and weaving demonstrations are available, and visitors can shop for authentic Harris Tweed suiting, checked scarves and tartan bedspreads at the mill’s store.

Shoreline Stoneware

On North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the ceramist Louise Cook sells organic sculptures and tableware inspired by the coastal surrounds of her studio and gallery, Shoreline Stoneware. After high tide, Cook collects driftwood and seashells — limpets, cowries and dog whelks — from the beaches of nearby lochs, and uses their natural textures to emboss clay bowls and vessels. Her rich natural glazes are made with rock sediment gathered from the fields of her family’s croft.


The Isle of Harris Distillery.CreditIan Little

See

Isle of Harris Distillery

Opened in 2015, the Isle of Harris Distillery is Harris’s first legal whisky-producing operation. Billed as a “social distillery,” it was founded by a team of 10 Harris islanders and boasts five local distillers, who each trained from scratch to become the island’s first generation of whisky makers. To curb demand while its single-malt whisky matured, the distillery began producing an award-winning Isle of Harris Gin. Go for the kelp-infused spirits, but don’t miss the sugar kelp water, an aromatic addition to a gin and tonic.

Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre

Perched on an outcrop overlooking the tidal bay of Lochmaddy, the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre occupies a former 18th-century inn and is the epicenter of the arts community on the two Uist islands in the Outer Hebrides. The museum features contemporary art, film and poetry by local artists, and hosts traditional music and literary festivals throughout the year. As part of its mission to preserve the islands’ regional culture, the museum also partners with a local university to provide courses in Gaelic.

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