So, there I was, wearing a floor-length hot-pink skirt, using the toilet as a seat, head resting against the side of the cubicle, eyes closed and stomach threatening to make yet another appearance. For an hour I stayed in that cubicle, afraid that if I left and attempted to seek out the cool air of the deck, I wouldn’t make it before unloading the contents of my stomach on the floor. I dozed and daydreamed, and there were moments where I forgot where I was, all because my mind was lost in the adventure to come.
You might be wondering: Bron, why are you telling us about this disgusting moment? Because no adventure is achieved without a little trial. No incredible moment can seem that incredible unless you’ve something slightly less shiny to compare it to.
Despite my queasy stomach, despite spending half the voyage in the women’s bathroom, my adventure clock was chiming. Like the moment before the grandfather clock strikes midnight and a deep, luring gong reverberates through a slumbering house.
By the time the ferry docked in Stornoway, my stomach had settled but my mind had not. After several hours on the bus and on the ferry with my new companions, nothing quite had a bonding effect like the shared seasickness we had all just experienced in one form or another.
I was on the 3-day Lewis, Harris & the Outer Hebrides tour out of Inverness. Our bus was full, our excitement and expectations high. This was the Outer Hebrides, after all. A place that seems so remote, it was hard to believe I - a girl from Australia - had found myself on the other side of the world, on a tiny island with strangers on a little white bus.
Two of my new friends – Rohini and Freda – remarked on how they’d taken nearly every mode of public transport to make it here. Plane, train, bus, taxi, and now ferry. I joked that they should steal a nearby bicycle so their list would be complete, but that would have slowed them down. There was much to see and our Rabbie’s bus was going to take us there faster than any bike could.
And across such a stark landscape, we came to worship the safe interior of the Rabbie’s bus, a shelter from the wind, rain, and occasional swarm of midges. Don’t let that deter you. We made a game of it, you see. At one stop, whenever someone returned to the bus, we’d hasten them through the door, slam it shut, and proceed to see how many midges we could swat. Rohini joked that we looked like we were doing a dance called qawali, so it became our midge-swatting war-cry for the day.
And with shared snacks, a Scottish playlist, and the inviting personality of the man upfront in the Rabbie’s jacket, every time I stepped onto the bus, it felt a little like coming home.
I was delighted by the friends I was making. As someone who regularly solo travels, it was an added bonus to bond with the five other young women on the tour bus – most of whom had come alone. There wasn’t a single person on that bus who didn’t bring a smile to my face, who didn’t have an interesting story or perspective. That’s something I love about travelling on tour. There was still the freedom of knowing I was on my own, able to do much as I please, treat myself to the adventure I wanted most, take myself out for dinner that evening. But if I wanted company, it was always there, eager and willing to befriend another.
Thirteen of us. That’s all. Thirteen people out of eight billion in the world and yet... the connection was instant. Why? Because we’d all taken time out of our lives – all from different walks of life, different countries, different lifestyles – to come all the way out here to the Outer Hebrides to discover her secrets. An instant connection, something a lifetime of friendship can take root in and grow from. By the end of the tour, I was standing at the drop-off point in Inverness in a small circle with my new friends, exchanging Instagram accounts.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even told you about the adventure yet.
Four wheels spun beneath us, pulling us deeper into the sandy isles. You might be surprised at my calling it that, when so far, I’ve used words like stark to describe it. But the Outer Hebrides might just surprise you. More on that later.
For now, we were coasting along a long and unending road, a line of dark and lifeless grey splitting the flat landscape right down the middle. Muted Scottish scenery bruised with the purple of late-Summer heather. That medley of summer colours clinging desperately to the edge of its season, one last defiant act before slumbering for the winter.
Portions of the ground shunted up out of the earth, dry and cracked and covered in purple heather, like the irritated skin of a giant. And yet it seemed as if the heather was Mother Nature’s way of making up for harassing the landscape.
Everywhere we looked, wee lochs spotted the side of the road. Inviting, tempting. Though the weather kept us at bay.
Before long, we were invited into a home. Not the one you’re picturing, I assure you. Not by some elderly Scottish man living in a quiet home in the Highlands, tea brewing and stories to tell. We were invited into a home filled with history and intrigue: Arnol Blackhouse.
Built somewhere between 1852 and 1895, this dwelling might seem primitive and cramped from the outside, but the moment I stepped inside, I was hugged by the warmth of burning peat, smoke-filtered light, and the notion of living under a thatched roof. The heart of the home was like history frozen in time. Large slabs of stone underfoot, a simple layout of bench and table, and a cast-iron pot suspended midair on a thick chain, hovering over a peat fire. A stream of angelic light cut across the room, adding some much-needed glow to the darkness. Like eyes letting in the sunlight so that the rest of the body could see. But inside, that peat fire burnt strong like the beating heart of some strange creature. And Scotland is full of those.
Clambering back onto the bus, we all agreed that the Blackhouse was something quite strange and beautiful. Something unexpected. Part of me felt a pull to go back inside, like the pull of desire to touch standing stones in the hopes you’ll be hurtling back in time. Luckily, we remained as we were, otherwise we would have missed the rest of the adventure.
That afternoon we headed to a place affectionately called The Butt of Lewis. I admit, several of us on the bus shared a wee giggle at the name, and all of us questioned why it was called the Butt of Lewis when it was actually the furthest northern tip of Lewis. Shouldn’t it be the head of Lewis? Alas, it’s somewhat of a mystery. But that’s alright, sometimes the appeal is in the question.
The view was everything you want the northern tip of a faraway Scottish isle to be. Jagged rocks like the earth’s teeth jutting up out of the land and the water, eagerly devouring our gazes of awe, posing pretty for the camera. A stoic lighthouse looming overhead, the deep blue waters crashing below, the wind cutting into us like shards of those rocks had been torn loose.
That night in Stornoway, I sat in my chosen Chinese restaurant somewhat perplexed. How did I end up here? How were the photos on my camera of real places that I had just experienced?
The next day welcomed us with playful Scottish heather and otherworldly views. Scotland has so much to give, like a grandmother smothering her grandchildren with love and tea and biscuits and hugs. Except Scotland has places like Harris instead. The Isle of Harris, that is. Joined at the hip with its brother the Isle of Lewis, Harris’ landscape was a little more prominent and proud. Hills and valleys bursting up around us, like a younger sibling attempting to show off.
And as we moored ourselves on the famous Luskentyre Beach, we ran around joyfully despite the enormous gusts of wind, like a crew grateful to have been shipwrecked there. One of the guys on tour even took a dip in the ocean, for which we applauded him later.
The thing about the islands of Scotland is they enjoy a lie in. Sunday is the day of rest, after all. So, with our third day approaching, we were instructed to prepare our own lunches for the day as the rest of the island would be resting.
She was a quiet wee thing as we set off to the west side of Lewis. And while the rest of the island slept, I went on to have my favourite day of the tour. They sure missed a lot. After a morning of beautiful views, itchy Highland coos, and proudly displayed whale bones, we found ourselves at the highlight of the tour. For me, at least.
Calanais. A mystical-looking word in itself, not to mention the stones themselves. More than 5,000 years old, erected across various sites. Places of worship perhaps? Or an astronomical observatory of some kind? A portal to the past, like in Outlander? The centre stone at the main site certainly echoes the stone used in the show.
Despite the rain, the stones had lured us all in. Many touched the centre stone; all stared and took photos. If there’s one thing that never fails to capture its prey’s attention, its standing stones.
Overall, we were lucky with the weather and the skies cleared just as we stopped by Luskentyre’s baby beach sister, Bosta Beach. We were alone, in a little cove that was so picture-perfect, I was sure we’d fallen into a storybook. With rocks to play on and friends to play with, it’s probably one of the nicest lunch breaks I’ve ever had.
I wasn’t sad that the journey was coming to an end. I guess that comes from a promise that Scotland’s made to all who visit that she’ll always be there, and she’ll always impress. As we docked the ferry once again at Stornoway, our journey for now coming to an end, a message in Gaelic hovered above us, a reminder of the time we’d shared together, a promise for more adventures to come.
Graesaibh oirbh air ais.
Haste ye back.
Bronwyn lives and breathes words. Before coming to work at Rabbie's, she spent 7 years in publishing and is a published author of YA fantasy books. Born and raised in Sydney, she was drawn to Scotland and affectionately calls it her 'soul home'. An avid traveller herself, Bronwyn's favourite places (so far) are Mongolia, Iceland, Morocco, and Scotland (of course). When she's not writing, she can be found exploring the Scottish Highlands with her camera, on the lookout for coos and men in kilts.