AN INTERWOVEN TALE, Part I
In the late Summer and Autumn of 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made a journey to the Western islands of Scotland. They traveled mostly on horseback accompanied by local guides, for there were not many roads. They held to hilltops and slept in barns, an 83-day odyssey which took them from London to St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Inverness, finally crossing by boat to the islands of Skye, Coll and Mull. At that time, the face of Scotland was changing, politically, topographically, socially. It was an era of mass emigration, deforestation, forced relocations, a prohibition on wearing of tartans, religious and cultural intolerance. Pirates still sailed the shores of the Western Isles.
Today you could follow their same itinerary in about ten days, through places where much of the strife is gone, but not forgotten. You cross an excellent system of modern roads, interconnected by modern ferries which shuttle vehicles and visitors across the windblown channels to the islands, where landscapes remain unchanged from the days when Johnson and Boswell visited.
But a new phenomenon is occurring, something which will affect the economy of the Outer Isles and create another historical marker: a transformation in the making of Harris Tweed, the hearty waterproof wool cloth famous throughout the world. Tweed, along with sheep farming and tourism, has long been a mainstay of industry in the Hebrides. In more recent history, traditional home weavers from the Isle of Harris sold their output to large mills on the northern island of Lewis, who acted as resellers, but now the craft is vanishing. In early 2007, to the horror of local people, a Yorkshire magnate acquired the last great tweed mill in Stornoway. He plans a gradual downsizing, along with reduction of the mill’s line to five types of tweed. To find the last of the great Harris Tweeds, this is the time to channel the spirit of Dr. Johnson, and head to Scotland for a ramble.
Johnson and Boswell started their quest in St. Andrews, today home of the world’s most famous golf course. An historic city with ruins of a castle and medieval cathedral overlooking the North Sea, the quaint downtown streetplan borders the oldest university in Britain. A small quarter down by the Museum of Golf is dotted with high-price shops selling every manner of golf accessories, equipment and paraphernalia. It’s an expensive, bustling place, with much international traffic. Edinburgh, less than two hours to the south across the Firth of Forth, hosts a yearly summer festival of the arts, and sends a constant stream of golfers north to fulfill their fondest fantasies. Relais & Chateaux operates the major hotel which overlooks The Old Course, easily the most desirable lodging location in St. Andrews. Walk out the back door, and you can wheel your clubs directly to the clubhouse and finish nearby on the historic 18th hole.
There are also a number of good B&Bs which cater to golfers. In high season expect to pay a minimum of £90 a night (US$180) for a simple, clean room with bath, including the traditional British breakfast of fried egg, overdone bacon, cooked tomato, two sautéed objects which appear to be mushrooms and some crunchy white toast. A low-cost souvenir (other than the coveted imprinted ‘Old Course” scorecard pencil) is a special edition £5 note issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which features the portrait of Jack Nicklaus.
The drive into the Highlands from St Andrews follows magnificent valleys and mountainous passes, threading through forests and open expanses of heather-covered fields, broad spectacular vistas. An easy northwest route with a dogleg through Laggan leads down into historic Fort William, home of Inverlochy Castle. The Castle is a perfect stopover for the night, a sumptuous property of only 17 suites, where Johnson and Boswell would have been well contented with the comforts and beauty to be found there as they were welcomed into the grand salon accented with Murano chandeliers. Set among the glens and lochs at the foot of Ben Nevis in the West Highlands, the great house has hosted travelers for over a century. The existing structure, built adjacent to ruins of a 13th century castle, was constructed around 1870. During a visit in 1873, Queen Victoria confided to her diary, “I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot.” A private residence until 1969, the Castle became the first Relais & Chateaux property in Scotland in 1971, and has since hosted international luminaries from all walks of life including Ansel Adams, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Sean Connery, HM Queen Elizabeth II, prime ministers, visiting royalty, and numerous ambassadors. Happily, the property operates more like a private home than a stuffy luxury hotel, with a 3:1 staff-to-guest ratio, fully occupied in high season, with much repeat business, average stays of 3-4 nights at the high price point of £300-600/night. The most desirable room in the hotel might be the Queen’s Suite, where Victoria slept; but suite #23, the highest in the Castle is easily the most romantic, with intoxicating views, a storybook bed and two lovely marble baths, accented by Penhaglion of London amenities and the usual abundance of plush towels, robes and slippers. In the cooler months of January and February the property offers a 2 for 1 special, a way to leverage a longer stay at this fine establishment.
Another plus is 24-hour room service, from the same kitchen as the hotel’s Michelin 1-star restaurant, the dominion of Chef Matthew Gray. The restaurant menu changes daily, allowing guests to sample the best of local delicacies in season. The Red Room, the main dining space, has windows overlooking the picture-perfect loch, where sheep graze against a background of dramatic moving clouds, mountains and the occasional rainbow. Two other opulent main floor rooms may be reserved for private dining. A recent menu in mid-August included four inventive amuses bouche, followed by lobster raviolis on fresh spinach, tuna and crab risotto with a delicate avocado mousse, a light and airy potato and garlic soup, scallops and gnocchi, a goat cheese mousse with tomatoes, completed by a truly perfect conical lemon soufflé. The wine list is excellent as to be expected, albeit pricey, though a fine half bottle of 1997 Chassagne Montrachet was easily chosen to balance the outstanding meal. Three times a year Albert Roux conducts cooking weekends at Inverlochy Castle, with tastings and demonstrations; be aware that bookings for these events can fill up rather quickly.
Management strives to make guests feel as if this is “their second home in Scotland,” and the formula works: a sensitive staff demonstrates the best of care and hospitality, unobtrusively rendering personalized service with particular aplomb. There’s an expressed policy of no tipping during one’s stay- on your way out simply decide what you want to leave for the staff, slip it into an envelope and give it reception. As with every other aspect of your visit, this will be handled with the greatest taste and discretion, the capstone to a magnificent hospitality experience.
The route from Fort William leads northeast along the wooded shores of Loch Ness. This area lives for tourism, thick with guest houses, hotels, B&Bs and souvenir shops. The best strategy is to cruise placidly through it all, avoid a stop at the Nessie Museum dedicated to the famous mythological monster, and head northwest to Inverness, then through the soaring passes which lead to the tiny harbor of Ullapool, a drive of less than four hours. You have arrived at the gateway to The Minch, the broad channel which faces the Isle of Lewis. Only two ferries a day leave Ullapool, mid-morning and late afternoon, reservations are a necessity. The ferries are not particularly cheap, £73 for a one-way passage which includes your vehicle and two adult passengers. As the mainland drops away, try and stand as long as you can on the windblown deck and look back at the rugged coastline, where rocky outcroppings and heather-covered plateaus meet the grey-blue sea. You may see whales, dolphins or sea lions. While Johnson and Boswell never got this far north or west, these are the same type of seas they crossed in small wooden sailboats. Now gigantic diesel-powered Caledonian-MacBrayne ferries ply these waters.
The port of Stornoway (6000 residents) is the largest city on the Isle of Lewis and represents about a third of the entire island’s population. Tourism leans to the rustic on the Western Isles, and lodging has traditionally been rudimentary. Some more modern hotels have been raised or renovated, but luxury travelers may prefer other options. Undoubtedly the best bet for lodging is the newly-constructed Broad Bay House, just 15 minutes to the north of town and operated by Ian and Marion Fordham. The house sits above an unspoiled beach, with direct access to the shore. The property boasts four luxury guest bedrooms, rated ‘Visit Scotland 5 Stars’. Stay includes free internet access, laundry, and traditional breakfast in the fully glazed dining room overlooking the bay. Broad Bay House has only been open since April 2007, and its architecture is inspired by traditional island design interpreted in a contemporary style. Bathrooms especially comfortable and modern. Ian serves as chef, and does a fine job preparing top quality sustainable local foods in an enlightened style for dinners every night, reservations necessary. There’s a surprisingly satisfying wine list which includes a lovely New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that perfectly complemented Ian’s tasteful presentation of a cold-smoked and hot-smoked local salmon entree, followed by organic salmon fillet, potato puree and cherry tomatoes as a main course. Save room for dessert. The price, for the UK, is quite reasonable, from £110/night for a double, with dinner £30. No smoking, pets or children under 12. Room 4 has a private terrace with ocean view.
While a well-visited annual Hebridean Music Festival turns out to be a principal tourist attraction on Lewis, the greatest year-around destination may be the famous Callanish Standing Stones, located a half hour south and west of Stornoway, on the A858 just beyond Garynahine. This much-frequented and impressive megalithic site, with its site plan arrayed in the shape of a cross, overlooks miles of peat bogs and lakes. In season tourists abound, tromping about the well-maintained site. Less traveled is a second ring of stones a kilometer to the east on a hilltop, visible from the road. It’s easy to hike up to this smaller circle, and the intrepid traveler will be rewarded with the gift of privacy while viewing menhirs which have dominated the landscape for the past 5000 years, a detour well worth the time. Along the road back to Stornoway one observes peat-cutting sites, still an active part of life in the Hebrides. The west coast of Lewis is more oriented to tourism, with a succession of artisan shops and little restaurants, striking beaches, and some other standing stone monuments.
In the quest for Harris Tweed, few options remain. Many small stores sell pre-made garments, scarves and hats, most rather traditional in style, at inflated prices, since there are no tailors on Lewis or Harris, and cloth is first shipped to the mainland to be fabricated, then returned to the islands for the tourist trade. Some stores on Lewis stock bolts of traditional tweeds, though the same limited patterns, colors and weights seem to be everywhere. The best possibility for raw cloth on Lewis is the Kenneth Mackenzie Mill Store about 5 minutes north of the town center. Over the years this mill has been the principal supplier to the world, and an entire warehouse room is devoted to mill roll ends. The selection is amazing, perhaps 1000 different tweeds arrayed on shelves, sold at the astoundingly low price of £16/yard. Comparable fabric, bought from a London tailor, might go for five times this price, with much less variety available. A trip to Mackenzie’s mill store to buy raw cloth is an expedition into a soon-vanishing universe, an opportunity to purchase at the best price artisan cloth that will last a lifetime. Inside information: there are three weights of tweed, heavy, medium and feather-weight; tweed has one good side and one rough side; always line a Harris Tweed garment; a gentleman’s jacket requires 3-4 yards of cloth. Among the fabrics at the Mackenzie store you occasionally come upon softer tweeds, remnants of rolls made on contract to German and Italian fashion houses, who demanded triple-washed cloth, rendering it lighter, and suppler. When the current warehouse inventory is gone, many of these tweed patterns will never be seen again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The drive south into the wilder parts of Lewis takes you through spectacular mountain passes populated mostly by fearless black-faced sheep, who lounge about on the road sides, well-aware that motorists will always yield. At the southernmost tip of the island lies the tiny port of Tarbert, which connects by a narrow isthmus land bridge to the isle of Harris, the last place on earth where tweed is woven on hand looms. In this area a few weavers make unique cloth, but most produce traditional herringbones and plaids which are then handed over to resellers in Stornoway. You can see weavers at work in traditional workshops along a remarkable stretch called The Golden Road, which wanders through near-lunar landscapes of stone and bog along rocky shores on the east side of Harris. These are one-lane roads with many blind hilltops, curves and “passing places” requiring one vehicle to wait patiently while the other creeps by in the narrow space remaining. It may take as long as three hours to navigate this 30-mile meandering road, but the scenery is worthwhile, and one can visit authentic workshops. Eventually you round the southernmost tip of the island at Rondel, home of a famous church and a decent hotel.
Continue northward along the west coast of Harris and you arrive at a point which feels like the end of the world, and very well may be. The great delight is that world-class lodging and dining can be found here at Scarista House, a cozy 5-room property which also enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of Scotland’s finest restaurants. It appears in all the guide books, so it’s fully occupied from May to October. Located in a Georgian former Manse above a three-mile long shell sand beach in one of the most remote and beautiful places in Britain, this establishment offers traditional comfort and well-furnished guest rooms. Chef Tim Martin aims for natural, skilled preparation of ingredients most immediately available. He carefully sources the island's excellent seafood, lamb, beef and game, using organic, local or home-grown vegetables and herbs, home-bakes all breads and cakes, and makes jam, marmalade, ice cream and yoghurt in the inn’s kitchen. To find such authoritative cuisine in such a beautiful and wild place is a marvelous experience. The wine list features over 50 choices, many surprising, priced £10-60/bottle. Dinner reservations absolutely essential, as the restaurant is always full. In March, November and December the property has a 3-for-2 night deal. While the average stay is 3-4 nights, some guests opt to hang out for up to two weeks. These leisure travelers, mostly young professionals, have a spirit of adventure and favor the great outdoors. The price point is high, rooms £125 and up, and dinner £39.50 for 3 courses, £49.50 for 4 courses, including canapes, coffee and petits fours. After dinner, retire to the upstairs sitting room, plant yourself in a cushy chair by the fire, and sample some 18-year old Caol Ila whisky, which comes from the Port of Askaig on the Isle of Islay. Scarista is one of those rare wild places, where you can see falling stars, and from September to November catch displays of the green, pink and white Aurora Borealis. An experience not to be missed.
To return to the mainland there are only two ferries per day from Tarbert. Build in enough time to savor some AD’s Fish & Chips (£4.20 a person) where the quality is incomparable, even if it is the only shop in town. The ferry to Uig returns you to the place where Boswell and Johnson’s itinerary can be recaptured. A 4-hour drive takes you across Skye’s magical landscapes, and into Glasgow for a final night in Scotland. Be warned that a major program of road reconstruction is under way in this region, so that delays can be encountered through the end of 2008.
Just south of the Scottish border, 100 miles from Glasgow, in Cumbria, the Quinion and Stevenson families have operated Farlam Hall since 1975. This exceptional Relais & Chateaux property has only 12 bedrooms, furnished in an elegant Victorian style, and set in an unspoiled, undiscovered part of the border region, a tranquil, quiet and verdant spot with beautiful grounds. Since the house is a protected building it cannot be altered structurally, but the many eccentricities of its original floorplan add to the charming atmosphere of the lodgings. Room 10, refurbished in 2005, has a rich homey feel, accented by golden wallpaper, and under-floor heating in the bath; Room 8 is small and cozy, with blue accents; Room 6 occupies a corner and has a spacious bath. The hotel sleeps up to 24, and is often booked in its entirety, especially by shooting parties through December. Twice a year the Samling Foundation takes over the entire property for operatic Masterclass Weeks, filling the hallways with remarkable music and song.
Farlam Hall is blessed with an outstanding kitchen where Chef Barry Quinion exercises his considerable talent with a rich menu of English country house food. He’s interested in the freshest local fare, ingredients which travel the fewest food miles, and the real craft of cooking. “Game is lovely to work with,” he confides, mentioning that the area has grouse, partridge, pheasant, wild duck and teal in season. A recent menu (which changes daily) featured choices from cream of watercress and pear soup, tiger prawns, a hot cheese beignet, seafood casserole, chicken with West Cumbrian Parma style ham, loin of local lamb, English cheese board, five dessert specialties and coffee for an attractive price of £37.50. A light lunch is served for residents only, and you may book for a full afternoon tea.
The hotel provides an environment of comfort, luxury and discreet care, as one would expect from a great country house. The area is both rich and undiscovered, and staff take particular pleasure in helping visitors appreciate the multitude of activities available nearby. Perhaps the most famous attraction is Hadrian’s Wall, a 117km barrier built 2000 years ago to control the large frontiers of the barbarian lands to the north. The most impressive remnants of the wall are minutes from the hotel, where a reconstruction of a Roman fort, and a museum containing important artifacts from that era can be found. It is a worthy way to end your trip to the Western Isles.
Boswell and Johnson returned from their Scottish odyssey armed with a multitude of impressions and both later wrote books describing their voyage. The dilemma of today’s traveler is a simpler one: now you have your Harris Tweed, so what will you do with it?
Torlundy, Fort William
Inverness-shire, Scotland PH33 6SN
+44 01397 702177
Broad Bay House
Near Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
Ian and Marion Fordham
Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd.
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
+44 01851 702772
No web site
Harris Tweed and Knitwear
4 Plockropool, Isle of Harris HS3 3EB
+44 01859 511217
Scarista House Hotel and Restaurant
Isle of Harris HS3 3HX
+44 01859 550238
Farlam Hall Hotel
Brampton, Cumbria CA8 2NG
+44 016977 46234