We opened the curtains. One half of the view resembled a lunar landscape – massive boulders and curving contours, gently glistening in the morning sun. The other offered a panorama of white sand and turquoise ocean. The only sign of human habitation, nestling unobtrusively into the middle distance, was a white house. No trees, no lights, no sound – except the whisper of wind. The invitation was clear: relax and explore.
Welcome to the Isle of Harris – not, despite the name, an island in itself, but the mountainous southern part of the largest of the Hebridean islands (the northern part is known as the Isle of Lewis). We had arrived in darkness after a 100-minute ferry crossing from Skye, having driven five hours from Glasgow through spectacular highland terrain (the alternative is to fly from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Stornoway, on Lewis). After disembarking at Tarbert, a village on the sheltered eastern side of the island, we clung nervously to the narrow road across to the western side until, after 30 minutes, we reached The Rock House, our small, self-contained holiday home on the Borve Lodge Estate.
Harris is one of Britain’s – no, the world’s – least-known paradises. You might not choose to visit in the dead of winter, when darkness reigns and Atlantic winds howl. But in spring or summer, as hours of light extend into the night, it offers the chance to enjoy a landscape shaped by millennia, not by man. The resident human population of 2,000, tripled in summer and heavily outnumbered by wildlife, is dwarfed by the topography.
On the 12-mile drive to Tarbert at morning “rush hour”, we encountered just one car. The beaches are long and plentiful: you will probably find yourself alone. Harris has no tourist trails, no signs advertising “visitor attractions”, no pubs – except for the hotel in Tarbert. There is a quaint golf course, but like the grocery store and Harris Tweed shop, it is shut on Sundays.
This is the context in which the Rock House and its neighbour, The Broch, are set. Both are newly built properties that merge with the surrounding landscape. Fronted by local rock beneath roof coverings of heathery moss (reminiscent of The Flintstones), they blend the traditional and the elemental, while taking the self-catering experience to a level of sophistication previously unknown in the Hebrides. Here are all domestic comforts, perched at the very edge of Britain.
While their drystone cladding emphasises local building expertise, floor-to-ceiling windows give 180-degree views, complemented by underfloor heating and a well-equipped kitchen with solid slate surfaces. Interior furnishings follow a theme of driftwood and “vernacular” stonework. There are no straight lines: everything is angled or curved.
The Rock House is on one floor, with a cosy living room on the seaward side, bedroom with landward view and a central kitchen/dining area embracing both. It makes a bigger impression from inside than out. The Broch, named after the highland word for stone watchtower, works the other way round. With similar accommodation arranged on three circular floors, it is more confined. Both properties are targeted at high-earning urban couples – just one double bed in each. No dogs are allowed.
But “self-catering” is not the whole truth. We were greeted by a fridge full of goodies, including the far-famed Stornoway black pudding and locally farmed salmon. Linen and towels are provided, as are maps, binoculars, and logs for the wood-burning stove.
In style and design, the Rock House and the Broch are the inspiration of Adam Kelliher, a New Zealand-born entrepreneur and owner of the Borve Lodge Estate, which straddles the coastal road in West Harris. Kelliher was a BBC foreign correspondent before founding a food supplements business, which he recently sold to BASF. Now concentrating on other interests, he wants to make Borve more sustainable. Two years ago he bought Taransay, made famous by the BBC reality TV programme Castaway. The island, clearly visible from the Rock House and the Broch, is uninhabited, but Kelliher is exploring ways of making it more accessible.
That may take time. The Rock House and the Broch took nearly four years to complete. The ground had to be blasted; rock forklifted from the shore and craned into position. The effort has been worthwhile. Set above the shore, they occupy a grandstand position without feeling exposed.
Such bold entrepreneurial spirit is unusual in the Hebrides, but thanks to incomers who have made a home there, previously sleepy islands have woken up to their earning potential. Much of West Harris is owned by a community trust, and whenever parcels of land are put up for sale, there is a rush to buy.
On a gentle drive round the island, we steered past sheep on single-track roads and were distracted by the Atlantic on one side and the distant mountains of Skye on the other. From Leverburgh, a small car ferry winds its way south through an archipelago of islands to Berneray, allowing a day’s tour of North and South Uist.
At the southern tip of Harris, we visited the quietly impressive St Clement’s church, dating from the 15th century. At Finsbay we conversed with ceramic artist Nickolai Globe, owner of The Mission House, where he makes his geologically inspired creations in winter and puts on Beethoven quartet recitals in summer – a rare shaft of metropolitan culture.
Thanks to Croft 36, a food delivery service, our self-catering skills were not greatly tested. We feasted off delicious seafood lasagne one night, seafood thermidor the next, both delivered ready-to-eat and bang on time. As the sun set beneath the Atlantic horizon, we put our feet up and dreaded our return to “civilisation”.
Andrew Clark was a guest of Borve Lodge and Caledonian MacBrayne. A three-night stay at the Rock House costs from £400, or £434 at the Broch (or £850 and £900 respectively per week). Both sleep two. For further information on Borve Lodge and other accommodation in the Hebrides, visit www.sawdays.co.uk