Looking for restaurants in the Outer Hebrides? Want to know about foodie producers on these northern Scottish islands? Read about our foodie road trip, then check out where to eat in the Northern Scottish Highlands.
It’s not unknown for locals to re-purpose microwaves as letter boxes on North Uist, Kate MacDonald tells me. Midway up the Outer Hebrides – the 130-mile chain of islands off the north-west coast of Scotland that are strung together by single-track road and ferry – the low-lying Atlantic outcrop is hit as harshly by wind and rain as its neighbouring isles. If the microwaves offer letters secure shelter then the heather that thrives here offers similar protection for the island’s wildlife. At least, that has traditionally been one of its purposes. Now, the purple-flowered shrub serves another function.
Kate and her partner, Jonny Ingledew, recently set up the North Uist Distillery. When they were researching botanicals for their first release, Downpour gin, the couple worked with a forager to create a botanical library specific to the island. Having spent months playing with finds such as pineapple weed, the couple plumped for sustainability: no rare plants would be destroyed in the gin’s making, instead they would focus on foraged heather, which is both abundant and adds a honeyed note to the gin.
Named after its strength of flavour rather than the local climate, Downpour gets its gutsy taste from a high ratio of botanicals (lemon, grapefruit, clove, cardamom and coriander among them); dispersing oils from these are what give the gin its distinctive clouding when tonic is added, a reflection of the shadows that skitter across the wide local skies. The gin is a success but it’s also a side hustle, the consequence of a long wait while the distillery’s first whisky matures.
“The island, with its watery lochs, peatlands and barley-growing crofts, provides the ideal ingredients for whisky,” explains Jonny when I meet the couple at Hamersay House, in Lochmaddy, for a lunch of fat seared scallops (hand-dived by the hotel’s owner, Niall) with grilled Stornoway black pudding, samphire hollandaise, chorizo and steamed samphire.
That barley isn’t just any barley, either. It’s bere, the oldest grain still in use in the British Isles. “Every whisky used to be made with bere but it’s rare now as most farmers have switched to crops with higher yields and pest resistance (but less flavour). In the Hebrides crofters never stopped growing it, as they use it on smallholdings as animal feed.” Kate and Jonny’s distillery will be the only one in the world to use this type of barley in its core line of whiskies. “Most distillers focus on wood, maturing in different casks to instil flavour, but we believe the grain will give our whisky flavour,” adds Kate.
The couple’s new distillery is being built up the road from Hamersay House, beside the Hebridean Smokehouse in Clachan, whose shop sells its own peat-smoked salmon as well as smoked scallops, gravlax, fish pâtés and more. Another must for seafood lovers on North Uist is the Namara Café, at Grimsay. If CS Lewis had been a foodie, Namara is what he might have dreamt up rather than Narnia. You don’t have to step through a wardrobe to find it but the entrance is almost as unlikely. You walk through the Kallin Shellfish shop (past shelves of woolly socks, fishing gear and tide charts) then pop out into a little space complete with binoculars for watching seabirds through the panoramic windows. The café is known for its bacon and scallop rolls but the crab rolls – squishy baps packed with crabmeat picked fresh from Kallin’s creels – are worth the journey alone. As I bite into sweet, pinky white crabmeat, tourists staying in one of the island’s holiday cottages arrive to pick up langoustines and lobster.
My own base on the island is Tigharry Schoolhouse, a 19th-century school turned holiday home. Within the soaring open-plan kitchen and dining room, a drinks tray includes a bottle of Downpour while a welcome hamper is tailored to individual guests; alongside breakfast basics you might find some Hebridean Smokehouse salmon or a black pudding from Macleod & Macleod in Stornoway.
Modern but full of warmth and character, the largely black and white interiors are brightened by scarlet dining chairs, velvety mid-century armchairs, an island kitchen unit made from colourful reclaimed boards and tactile kilim rugs. The kitchen is what draws foodie guests, though. From electric whisks to baking tins, chef knives to pans in every shape and size, luxuries are here as well as essentials. There’s even a choice of two barbecues (Weber on site plus a portable one for beach picnics). And the schoolhouse’s 1,000-strong library includes such carefully chosen cookbooks as The Forager’s Kitchen, by South Uist wild food expert (and local doctor’s wife) Fiona Bird.
It would be easy to hunker down here for days, making forays into the kitchen for salmon-dotted oatcakes. But I’ve pre-ordered a bag of cinnamon buns from Emma Axelsson of Uist Scandi Bakery and need to pick them up from her house in Lochboisdale, on South Uist.
Originally from Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden, Emma met her partner while studying at Glasgow University and, when he got a job in the Hebrides, she followed him north. “Both my parents were professional bakers so it’s in my blood,” she explains, as I swap a fiver for a trio of warm buns. When she arrived she found sourdough bread and cinnamon buns hard to come by so Emma decided to make them herself, along with Swedish specialities like dammsugare and semlor. I take my sticky haul to nearby Frobost beach and eat them while I walk.
From here, I island hop north to Lewis which, together with Harris, forms the largest island in the chain. Few people visit Lewis without stopping off at the serene stones that have been standing at Callanish for at least 5,000 years, though foodies tend to go via the Scallop Shack, at nearby Uig, to pick up scallops from the honesty shop (you can currently pre-order them via facebook.com/UigScallopShack).
My own route takes me through Harris, with its sweeps of floury white sand and swirls of electric blue water. In what is surely the world’s most spectacularly located workshop, Chris Loye makes his Flavour chocolates overlooking the coast at Niseaboist. A private chef, he started making chocolates as petits fours then created some hand-tempered chocolates for a Christmas market. When they sold out in two days, Flavour was born. Made with single-origin Columbian chocolate, the range includes raisiny dark chocolate buttons, chocolate cubes flavoured with Scalpay honey and – the best-seller – Harris Gin and pink grapefruit ganaches.
I think back to those ganaches later, when I join guide Sandra Fraser for a tour of the Isle of Harris Distillery. Opened in 2015, the Tarbert distillery was established by musicologist Anderson Bakewell to create sustainable employment locally. It wasn’t an obvious concept in this religious region – production still ceases every Sunday – but the vision was as much a community project as a distillery and, from 10 employees the staff has grown to 40.
Like North Uist, there are plans for whisky, too – the gin was launched while the first whisky release, The Hearach, was maturing – but the gin has been a runaway success, helped by its moreish blend of nine botanicals (plus sugar kelp) and a distinctive rippled bottle that reflects the surrounding waves and rippling sands. “Look closely and you’ll see it also has the odd smooth ridge as though it’s been washed ashore after years at sea,” adds Sandra. The recommended serve is tonic with a pink grapefruit garnish and I get to try this in an unexpected way in the distillery’s café when baker Mairi MacKenzie delivers a crumbly gin and pink grapefruit bundt cake that not only tastes like the drink but looks like the bottle.
My final stop takes tracking down but eventually I spy a bright blue caravan near St Clements Church in Rodel: Sam’s Seafood Shack. Sam, a chef from the Isle of Wight who “likes living by the sea”, sought work that could cope with the seasonal ebb and flow of tourists, but wasn’t a traditional burger van. He decided to focus on fish, from Leverburgh and Stornoway, and to change his menu each day according to what’s been caught. When I visit, the menu includes a tomato-y, paprika-spiked fish soup, homemade fish finger rolls and gorgeously briny seaweed roast potatoes topped with crisp fried kale.
In this magical archipelago, where microwaves are postboxes and cocktails morph into cakes, why wouldn’t roasties come sprinkled with seaweedy fairy dust, I muse, as I wolf a box of them.
Rhiannon travelled (safely, before lockdown) on the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Glasgow and on to the Hebrides from there (sleeper.scot). Car hire was provided by Car Hire Hebrides (carhire-hebrides.co.uk) and ferry crossings by Calmac (calmac.co.uk). You can also fly from Glasgow to Stornoway, Benbecula, Tiree and Islay. Visit loganair.co.uk to book and find out more about protective health measures. Check gov.scot/coronavirus for updates on the lifting of lockdown in Scotland. For more info see visitscotland.com and #oliveeatsthehebrides.