Taking the road less travelled on a west coast Scotland road trip through Wester Ross, Skye, Harris and Lewis
Recently I undertook an epic adventure around the North West Highlands and Islands on a west coast Scotland road trip. Starting in Wester Ross, I crossed over the sea to Skye before taking a ferry to Harris and continuing on my journey to Lewis. The circular driving route around the west of Scotland eventually brought me back to Wester Ross where I finished off my trip at one of my favourite places.
This particular road trip took me through some of the most attractive parts of the country and some places that I thought I knew pretty well but it turned out there was plenty more for me still to discover. This was a journey with a difference as it was part of partnership to promote the #WestCoastWaters Campaign which encourages visitors to take the roads less travelled around western Scotland and find ways to immerse their senses along way.
I do believe that too many people rush around Scotland trying to tick as many things off as possible and don't take the time to really absorb their surroundings so I relished the opportunity to slow down and explore in bite-size chunks.
Although this west coast route will take you through some of the most popular Scottish tourist haunts, it will also take you off the beaten track and provide you with an original itinerary for exploring these well known places.
MY WEST COAST SCOTLAND ROUTE
It is worth noting that I started in the north of Wester Ross and travelled south, however this itinerary can easily be adapted so you start in the south at Plockton, cross to Skye and include the Wester Ross section at the end of your trip.
It is also worth adding that I did this trip in 9 days due to time constraints, however I would make it a 2 week itinerary if you can by adding extra nights in Ullapool, Gairloch, Plockton, Skye and Harris.
FURTHER READING - 15 ACTIVITIES YOU CAN DO ON THE SCOTTISH WEST COAST
DAY 1 - ULLAPOOL
I really like Ullapool, it is an attractive little town with whitewashed cottages lining the shores of Loch Broom. It has lots of quality independent shops and nice places to eat and drink which makes it a popular base for tourists visiting this part of Scotland. In fact, I have spent 2 separate holidays there myself recently and thoroughly enjoyed both.
The town has a long connection with the sea and was originally founded as a herring port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society. Although the industry has declined, fishing still remains at the heart of the town and the Ullapool Museum is a great place to find out more about the history.
I arrived on a warm September day and the waterfront was lined with fellow tourists soaking up the autumnal sun. I joined them for a while, sitting at a picnic table with a harbour view and snacked on my tasty haddock wrap from The Seafood Shack. A place I regularly buy lunch from when I'm in the area.
Although Ullapool can be a busy wee place, it is still possible to find a little oasis of quiet just a short distance from the town. I took the small ferry boat from nearby Ardmair jetty to Isle Martin, which is currently uninhabited and looked after by the community of Lochbroom and Coigach. Although no-one has lived permanently on the island since 1949, many people have lived and worked on Isle Martin over the previous centuries.
There is a little museum, walking trails and a quiet beach with views over to the Summer Isles. It definitely ticked my criteria of taking the road less travelled and getting a new perspective on a familiar place. Sitting on a rock with a 360 degree view of the surrounding loch, mountains and islands was also the perfect spot to immerse my senses.
I didn't put myself under any pressure to rush around exploring everything in the Ullapool area. Instead I was happy to spend a bit longer on Isle Martin to gain a deeper understanding of the history and people who once called this island home. I do recommend adding another night in Ullapool if you can and I have listed more things to do in the area below.
FURTHER READING - More things to do in and around Ullapool
WHERE I STAYED - Aschcroft Bed & Breakfast in Letters was just perfect. Natasha is a brilliant host and the space is beautiful, clean and comfortable. The self contained apartment has 2 large bedrooms, a sitting room and shower room. A connecting door to the kitchen of the main house provides access for making drinks and this is also where breakfast is served which was generous and delicious.
Natasha's dog was my new best friend and I actually felt sad leaving her! If you like to temporarily adopt dogs on your holiday then this is the place for you! The accommodation is also situated in a quiet area overlooking the loch which meant I got a great night's sleep.
I highly recommend staying here and if you've not used Airbnb before you can get a £25 discount off your first booking with my personal discount link.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND ULLAPOOL
DAY 2 - ULLAPOOL TO GAIRLOCH
The following day I set off along the dramatic coastline towards Gairloch. The scenery along this route is the gift that just keeps on giving and I found myself stopping on a regular basis to jump out and capture the views as the ever changing light swept across the landscape.
Some of my favourite photo spots on stretch include the car park viewpoint over Little Loch Broom, Little Gruinard Beach which also has a viewpoint overlooking it just further along the road and the viewpoint overlooking Loch Ewe and the Isle of Ewe.
A short distance from Gairloch, I stopped to take a walk around the pretty Inverewe Gardens which sit on the shores of Loch Ewe. The colours, smells, sights and sounds as I followed the many trails were a treat for the senses. The warming currents from the Gulf Stream allow rare and exotic species to thrive. It is one of the more surprising ways you can enjoy the west coast of Scotland.
Gairloch is a series of communities that surround Loch Gairloch, with a number of hotels, shops, cafes, a museum and information centre. However, the biggest tourist attraction in the area has to be the numerous boat trips which run from the harbour.
I joined owner and skipper, Tim, for a glass bottomed boat tour of the loch. This must be the most unique way to explore the surrounding waters and I was thrilled to view the wildlife and scenery under the water as well as everything that lives above the surface. However, this is much more than a scenic boat trip, I also got to hand feed a seal, was able to see the crabs and lobsters from Tim's creels, had a fishing demonstration and even got a wee shot of the boat controls.
Tim is very passionate about his passengers experiencing the full spectrum of life found in and around the loch. His enthusiasm, knowledge and interactive tour was a highlight of my trip which was unlike any boat tour I've been on before.
That evening I enjoyed a delicious Monkfish Curry at the restaurant of the Myrtle Bank Hotel while watching the sunset over the water. There are definitely worse ways to end the day!
WHERE I STAYED - The Myrtle Bank Hotel in Gairloch was a good choice. All the staff were very friendly, the service was excellent, the food was really good and my room had a nice sea view. The only downside was a bit of noise from the neighbouring room but nothing that would stop me from staying here again as my overall experience was very good.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND GAIRLOCH
DAY 3 - GAIRLOCH TO PLOCKTON
The next morning I embarked on another scenic drive, this time from Gairloch to Plockton. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make as many photo stops as I had a day of activities planned once I reached my destination. However, I couldn't drive this road without stopping at the viewpoint that looks down over Glen Docherty towards Loch Maree, one of the many beautiful lochs in this part of the world.
If you have more time than I did, then Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve has woodland and mountain trails with fine views. History enthusiasts should stop by the remains of Strome Castle which has a great vantage point overlooking Loch Carron. Once occupied by the Macdonalds of Glengarry, it was besieged by the Mackenzies of Kintail who let the Macdonalds leave before blowing up the castle.
I arrived at the pretty wee village of Plockton just in time for my first sea kayaking lesson. I will admit to being a little bit apprehensive but also excited as sea kayaking is something I have wanted to try for a long time. Under the expert tuition of Alison from Sea Kayaking Plockton, our little group of beginners was soon kitted out and sliding in to the water.
Over the next hour we learned some basic manoeuvres before heading out in to more open water. The weather conditions couldn't have been more perfect and being able to get close to little islands and bays that are normally out of reach was a treat. The sound of the waves, the bobbing of the kayak, the breathtaking surroundings and being able to skim my hands through the salty tasting water meant all my senses were well and truly stimulated.
Sea kayaking is not the only way to immerse yourself in the Plockton landscape. After my outing, I joined one of the legendary local seal boat cruises run by Calum Mackenzie. If you don't see any seals on the trip, you don't pay. Needless to say it is pretty much a guarantee you will spot seals when you are out in the water. Much to the excitement of my fellow passengers, we slowed down to get a close up view of a group of seals swimming and basking on rocks out in the loch.
In the evening I enjoyed a scenic stroll along the palm-lined waterfront. I have a real soft spot for Plockton, a place I first stayed at over 20 years ago when it became famous as the filming location of the fictitious town of Lochdubh in Hamish Macbeth. I've been back to stay in the area a few times since and it is a place that always invokes a feeling of relaxation and I was so glad I got to explore it in new ways on this visit.
Too many tourists are so focused on heading to the Isle of Skye that they miss gems like Plockton. It is a village not only worth stopping at but also staying in so you can really savour what it has to offer. I only had one night on this trip but I would extend that to two nights if you have the time.
I finished off my day with more local seafood, this time at The Plockton Inn. I opted for locally landed skate wing, cooked in the classic way, with foaming butter, lemon and capers. This simple way of serving the fish really allowed the flavour and melt in your mouth texture to become the main star. Another quality dish.
WHERE I STAYED - The Haven Guest House was another great place to stay on my travels. The owner Lynne is super helpful and the accommodation is modern and comfortable with everything you need. The breakfast choice is superb and there are even little bags to fill up with home-baking for later!
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND PLOCKTON
DAY 4 - PLOCKTON TO THE ISLE OF SKYE
The following morning I set off to cross the sea to Skye via the convenient road bridge. The Isle of Skye is the Scottish island that I get asked about most and it would be fair to say its popularity as a tourist destination has soared over recent years. However, that is not always a positive thing as visitors generally rush around a handful of locations in a bid to tick them off their list.
I always give the following advice for those planning to visit Skye - firstly, it is impossible to see all of Skye in 1 day or even 2. Secondly, there is much more to the island than the few attractions that the majority of tourists plan on visiting. So what are the solutions? If you only have a short amount of time, pin down one area of the island and take the time to explore it on a deeper level. I also recommend looking beyond the well known sites to discover the many other gems Skye has to offer. You don't have to copy everyone else's itinerary to have a memorable experience on the island and you will leave with some unique memories rather than the same stories and photos as the majority of other visitors.
Practising what I preach, I opted to limit my short time on Skye to the Waternish Peninsula. In the past I have spent time in the south, thoroughly exploring the Sleat Peninsula so it was nice to head to the north for a change. My entrance to Waternish was marked by the Fairy Bridge, an old stone bridge where the fairy wife of the Chief of the MacLeods left him to return to her own people.
Before I set out on a further exploration of the peninsula, I took the road, or in this case the waterway less travelled, across to the nearby uninhabited Islay Island. I met up with Gordon and Aileen MacKay, who run Divers Eye Boat Trips from Waternish and joined them for one of their 'Go Ashore' Trips. I love getting the chance to explore abandoned islands and hear the stories of the people who once lived there. As Gordon and Aileen have both lived in Waternish for decades, they are also a great resource for local tips and advice.
Gordon is a great storyteller and as we sailed across to the island, he really brought to life the history and sometimes dark tales from not only Isay Island but also the other places we passed. We also spotted lots of wildlife including white tailed eagles on our journey
Once on the island, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to walk around a place that most people don't normally get to visit. It was easy to make out the ruins of a long row of waterfront cottages and the laird's house which has a murderous past. Divers Eye offer a range of boat trips from wildlife watching to sunset ceilidh's, diving trips and more. I will definitely try another themed tour when I'm back in the area.
Like most parts of Skye, Waternish Peninsula is home to artists and crafters, some with studios you can visit. I enjoyed a late lunch at the pop up yurt at Skyeskyns which also runs free guided tours of their workshop. You can find out how real sheepskins are made using time honoured methods of leather making. It is also a great place for picking up a special sheepskin gift.
Later that afternoon, I came down with a virus which put an end to my adventures for the rest of the day. However, watching the deep orange sunset from a waterfront picnic table outside my accommodation was a real tonic.
WHERE I STAYED - The Stein Inn is the oldest inn on the Isle of Skye and it has recently been taken over by well known chef, Paul Rankin. My original plan was to eat there but due to feeling a bit under the weather I had to skip my meal and breakfast so can't personally comment on the food unfortunately. The pub and restaurant are characterful and cosy, so even if you are not staying overnight, it is still worth a visit.
I stayed in a single room which was well equipped and had a lovely view across Loch Bay. The decor was rustic and the Inn encourages relaxation which means no TV, mobile phone signal and pretty much no Wi-fi to distract you during your stay.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND WATERNISH
DAY 5 - ISLE OF SKYE TO ISLE OF HARRIS
The following morning I spent some time exploring around Waternish, including a visit to the ruins of Trumpan Church. The church was the scene of clan revenge and murder back in 1578 when the local MacLeods were barricaded in during their Sunday service by the MacDonalds of Uist. The MacDonalds set fire to the thatch and sadly only one young girl survived. An army of MacLeods arrived and killed the MacDonalds in retaliation.
There are more stories and legends connected to Trumpan Church which make this a fascinating wee place to visit. You can read more about them on the Visit Waternish website.
Next to the church is a Dark Sky viewpoint, which I would love to visit at night but even during the day, the views across to the Outer Hebrides were superb. I could easily spot Harris where I would be heading later that afternoon.
The ferry for Harris leaves from Uig on the Isle of Skye. Uig is a pretty little village and port which is worth a visit even if you're not taking the ferry. I spent some time wandering around the shops and if you want to pick up a last minute souvenir of your trip to Skye, Uig Pottery and Isle of Skye Brewing Co. are both popular options.
There is something about boarding a CalMac Ferry that always fills me with excitement. The anticipation of crossing the sea to a place that you can't reach with ease increases the sense of adventure. The ferry journey is always a big part of my travel experience and wildlife spotting and scenery gazing are two of my favourite ways to pass the time. On this trip, I was also able to keep up my local seafood theme by ordering a smoked salmon bagel which I enjoyed in the restaurant with ever changing sea views out the large windows.
Just over 90 minutes after leaving Skye, I drove off the ferry in Tarbert, the main hub of activity on Harris. Before heading to my accommodation, I stopped in at the Isle of Harris Distillery which has the local waters to thank for its award winning gin. Locally collected seaweed and water from a local stream are both key ingredients. I also popped in to the recently opened Loomshed Brewery which also takes advantage of the local Hebridean waters to produce its craft beers. Before leaving I also had to stock up on some of my favourite candles from Essence of Harris. It is great to see so many successful independent businesses creating vital employment on the island.
WHERE i STAYED - I stayed at Sandview House Bed & Breakfast overlooking Scarista Beach and if possible I would add a second night here if you can. My room had a beautiful sea and beach view, with a large private bathroom opposite. I had everything I needed in my room and there are public rooms where you can chill out or watch TV if you prefer. It is worth noting that this is traditional Harris accommodation where Sunday's are reserved for rest and worship so guests are requested not to have the TV on and to pay in advance in they are departing on a Sunday. Payment is also by cash or cheque only.
The owners, Donald John and Mary Ann, are a lovely native couple with loads of local knowledge. The breakfast is served at 8.30 am and was delicious and plentiful. I had the best night's sleep of my whole trip and I would definitely recommend staying here if you want an authentic Harris experience.
DAY 6 - ISLE OF HARRIS TO ISLE OF LEWIS
The following morning I had been due to go on a boat trip with Sea Harris to either St Kilda or the Shiant Islands which are both on my bucket-list. However, as I still wasn't feeling completely better I decided that spending hours on a boat might not be the best idea so I opted for Plan B and an easier day exploring the world famous beaches of Harris. Although I felt gutted at missing out on the boat trip, my disappointment was soon forgotten as the white sands and turquoise waters of Seilbost and Luskentyre filled my horizon. Not only have these beauties been voted some of the best beaches in Scotland, they have also topped various worldwide polls.
I also took up an invite to visit Scott, the owner of Borvemor self catering cottages. He was kind enough to show me around his properties which are adjacent to a hidden beach which I wandered along for a wee bit. As with all the other Harris beaches I visited, I was the only person around. Then Scott took me back to his own house where he gave me a Harris Tweed weaving demonstration on one of his traditional looms. This was a real treat, especially as Scott is a certified weaver and it always surprises me that this world famous fabric is produced by solitary weavers like Scott, working away on historical machinery at home, usually in their sheds or garages. Scott often runs these demonstrations for visitors so keep an eye out for his banner when it is open.
One of the best ways to appreciate the story of Harris Tweed is at the Harris Tweed Exhibition in Drinishader. Exhibits include catwalk designs, photographs and weaving demonstrations. Be warned though, if you are a Harris Tweed lover like me, the shop is a danger to your bank account as there is literally every kind of Harris Tweed item you could ever want even if you don't really need it. I may have made a purchase or two (or five!).
From Harris, I made my way to Lewis which involves a drive through some of the most scenic roads in Scotland. A quick stop for takeaway squat lobster scampi from Taste n'Sea, which overlooks Loch Seaforth was the perfect choice to keep my local seafood tradition going before I left Harris.
Despite their names, the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris are not separate islands but two parts of the one island mass which might seem slightly confusing. Lewis is in the north and makes up about two thirds of the land mass and Harris makes up the remaining third in the south. There is no obvious separation as you cross from one to another other.
In Lewis I made my way to Stornoway, the main town and the place where most of the main facilities can be found for both islands including supermarkets and a cinema. It is also a busy sea port and the name comes from Sjornavagr, which is the Old Norse term for ‘steering bay', a reminder that much like my home islands of Orkney, these western islands were also once under Viking rule.
I planned to return to Stornoway before leaving Lewis so I only stayed long enough for dinner at the recently opened Harris & Lewis Smokehouse restaurant which is modern and funky. Although their in-house smoked salmon is a speciality, the simple menu featuring local produce really appealed to me. The food was fresh, light and delicious. If I had time, I would have chosen to eat here again.
WHERE I STAYED - I spent 2 nights at The Decca Bed & Breakfast in Ness which is in the north of Lewis. The owners, Louise and Peter, are very welcoming and the accommodation had a nice relaxed feel with seating areas and lots of local info in the public spaces. My room was well equipped and also had a little couch where I could relax and watch the TV which was a nice extra. It also had a en-suite shower, a comfy bed and open views out the window.
My breakfast was excellent and Louise also cooks evening meals and is highly commended for her home-cooking. I was also interested to hear about the special evening entertainment they run in the summer which includes music or a local themed talk with your supper. These evenings are also open to non-residents so they are an option for a local night out even if you're not staying there and something I would be really interested in doing myself.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND HARRIS
DAY 7 - LEWIS
When I last visited Lewis, I didn't mange to get to Ness at the northernmost part of the island, so I was very happy to be based there on this visit. My B&B hosts, Louise and Peter, have written a great wee guidebook to the area which also acts as a treasure hunt. I had a fun morning searching out the places and finding the answers to their questions.
I started at the Sporsnis community hall which is next to the accommodation and home to the 'Wild About Ness' exhibition. I enjoyed learning about the coastal environment and marine wildlife in the area before going off to explore it for myself. From there I walked to Eoropie Beach which boasts giant sand dunes, machhair and a pristine shore. I can honestly say that the beaches on Lewis give Harris a run for their money. From there I drove to the unusual red brick lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis and walked along the cliffs. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the windiest place in the UK but I was fortunate enough to visit on a calm day.
I continued to The Temple of St Moluag which dates back to the 12th century. It is open to the public and I had the atmospheric little church all to myself. My next stop was at the pretty Port of Ness which has a picturesque harbour and beach. I popped in to The Harbour View Gallery which is owned by artist Anthony J Barber. I love his bright coastal paintings and couldn't leave without buying some cards and prints as a reminder of my trip. It was also nice to be able to chat with Anthony in person about his work and life on Lewis. My morning explorations around Ness finished at the tiny but photogenic Skigersta Pier.
In the afternoon I headed across to North Tolsta on the east coast. This is where I was based for a week on my last trip to Lewis and most days I spied horses from the local riding school pass by the window on their way to the stunning Traigh Mhor beach. Unfortunately I never found the time to try it for myself, however this coastal themed trip seemed like the perfect excuse to get a different perspective of the scenery with some pony trekking along the golden sand. I couldn't have asked for better weather and my instructor Leigh was superb company. She runs Traigh Mhor Pony Trekking and her passion for horses and infectious enthusiasm for the area is the perfect combination.
We spent about 2 hours pottering around the coast, across the sand dunes and along the beautiful beach which was an experience I won't forget. Leigh can cater for complete beginners to advanced riders so if you've always wanted to explore Scotland on horse back, this is an amazing location to give it a try.
I should also add that on my previous visit to North Tolsta I walked along the cliffs on the coastal walking trail from the Bridge to Nowhere and spotted Minke Whale, Dolphins and Porpoise all within a short space of time.
After a busy day exploring and riding, I had built up quite an appetite so made my way to Digby Chick in Stornoway for dinner. My 3 course early menu was excellent value, with lots of local produce, including a range of seafood. This is a popular restaurant choice and booking in advance is highly recommended.
You might also like to read my recommended things to do on the Isle of Lewis
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND LEWIS
DAY 8 - LEWIS TO ACHILTIBUIIE
Although I had already visited 5 islands on this trip, there was one more I really wanted to squeeze in. Great Bernera can be reached via a small road bridge that connects it to Lewis. It is a beautiful wee island and a place that I instantly fell in love with.
As soon as I crossed the bridge, I was greeted by some striking standing stones on the hillside. I obviously had to stop and take a closer look. The short walk led me to the stones and a stunning view down Loch Rog. There was no information about the stones, however I have since found out that the site is referred to as Cletir or Callanish VIII. Other than that, I haven't been able to find out much about their history, however, there is something really magical about them. I've visited a lot of standing stone sites but this one instantly entered my list of favourites, mainly because of their impressive position but also because the gnarly texture and bent shape of the stones gives them the appearance of ancient guardians.
The next 'wow' stop was Bosta Beach with its typically white Hebridean sand and turquoise waters. However, the interesting rocky outcrops and tidal bell that rings in different tones as the tide rises make this an extra special gem. Next to the beach are the remains of an Iron Age village where a replica Iron Age house has been constructed to help you imagine what the place once looked like. I also can't miss out mentioning the Highland Cows that were just hanging around the car park which were the icing on the cake.
I wish I had longer to explore Great Bernera and I will definitely be back for a future visit but I had a ferry to catch in Stornoway that afternoon which would transport me back to my starting point in Ullapool. Before departing, I bought some gifts in Stornoway from An Lanntair Arts Centre and some Harris Tweed cloth from the Lewis Loom Centre.
My top tip for the CalMac ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool is to head straight for the front observation lounge and get a front row seat at the panoramic windows if you can. From my vantage point I lost count of the porpoises and dolphins that I spotted on our journey back. Once we reached the Summer Isles I headed outdoors to immerse myself in the elements as we sailed towards Loch Broom and I wondered how my time had gone so quickly as we passed by Isle Martin where I had arrived at exactly one week before.
From Ullapool I drove to my final destination at Achiltibuie. If you have read my blog before, you will know how much I love the Coigach Peninsula and this little village in particular. I arrived just in time to savour the sunset before eating the best meal of my trip at the Summer Isles Hotel. I had already had some of the best seafood ever on this trip, served in so many creative ways but the flavours of my Sea trout dish was mouth watering and the accompanying crispy oysters were a revelation!
WHERE I STAYED - I also stayed over at The Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie. My room was modern but with plenty of character. The sea view from my window allowed me to watch the final embers of the sunset from the comfort of my well equipped room.
The lounge and restaurant have an upmarket yet informal feel and although I never made it to the bar, I understand it is a lively local haunt. My breakfast was delicious and service was attentive. Overall a faultless stay and I would happily recommend the hotel to anyone visiting the area.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND ACHILTIBUIE
DAY 9 - ACHILTIBUIE TO HOME!
The following morning I left the west coast beaches behind and wound my way through the rugged Wester Ross landscape as I headed towards home.
This had been a journey like no other for me, I had visited so many familiar places but from a new perspective. In many ways this was my most adventurous trip yet, not just because of the activities involved but also because I was challenged to think outside the box even more than I usually do. I've always prided myself on seeking out the hidden gems and avoiding the typical tourist route when I can. This time I wanted to show that you can visit popular places like Skye and the NC500 but still avoid the crowds and explore the Scottish landscape in a unique way. I think I achieved that and I hope my itinerary has given you some original inspiration for these places.
Disclaimer - My trip was part of a business partnership to promote the West Coast Waters. However, as always, my blog post is based on my personal opinions and experience.
The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the Visit Scotland Growth Fund - more information at
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