IT’S close to mid-morning, but the clouds are still bordered by the golden remains of the sunrise. Before me, in their ancient, ethereal splendour, are the famous Callanish Standing Stones. I’ve seen them in photographs, on television screens, in art. But in real life, imposed against Hebridean mountains, hills and distant crashing waves, they’re even more breathtaking than I imagined.

I’ve left the glitz and the grind of London to travel to Lewis and Harris, the most northerly Outer Hebridean isle, known for its wild landscapes, spotless beaches, stormy skies and ancient monuments. Despite such marvels, it’s not the weekend break destination of choice for most – the remote location makes travel here something of a mission. But embarking on a Scottish island adventure has become a tradition for my old university friends and I, following a memorable trip to Islay last year. Keen to experience another slice of idyllic island life, we each embark on our own epic journey Northwards from our homes across the British Isles. Neither plane cancellations or a rocky two-and-a-half ferry journey from Ullapool across the Minch – the notoriously exposed Atlantic sea channel between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland – can dampen our spirits.

We unite on Stornoway to find an island enveloped in darkness and we head towards our home for the weekend: the newly-renovated Lews Castle. Overlooking Stornoway harbour, this Gothic-revival castle was built in the 1800s by opium baron Sir James Matheson. The turreted building served as a hospital during both world wars, and was later a boarding school – until it closed its doors in the 1980s. For decades it lay abandoned, a ghost of its former grandeur. But in March 2017, Lews Castle reopened, managed by Natural Retreats, a holiday company specialising in renovating historic buildings. Now the castle offers luxury self-catering apartments within the confines of the historic exterior.

Entering the building we admire the cobalt blue ceiling, emblazoned with gold stars. We peak into the inviting grand ballroom, currently in the midst of party preparations. Greeted by friendly staff, we are lead through corridors and winding staircases towards our home for the weekend.

We’ve been put up in “Matheson”, one of the castle’s deluxe, three-bed apartments. Named for the original owner – this expansive, open-plan space mixes the modern and the old. In fact, the room still contains Matheson’s original safe. (“There’s no longer any opium inside,” manager Markus Carrington reassures us).

The renovated room has preserved its enviable high ceilings, views over Stornoway harbour and, in carefully framed sections, original wallpaper. Otherwise, it’s a minimalistic, modern aesthetic dream: the color pallette is muted, complemented with splashes of pastel.

Carrington says it was a conscious decision to cater to modern tastes. “It hasn’t been a Victorian castle for most of the time, it’s been whatever was modern at the time,” he says. It is in fitting with Lews Castle eclectic history that the castle’s interior is always changing.

There’s a dining table to seat six and the well-equipped kitchen comes complete with modish tiles. The three bedrooms have Harris Tweed headboards, marble walls and very comfortable double beds. Bedrooms have underfloor heating and powerful showers. We’ve also got a lovely welcome hamper with local delicacies and toiletries provided (unfortunately for five girls, there’s no conditioner, but we later purchase this locally). Lews Castle is a popular spot for weddings and parties. On the weekend we stay, the castle is hosting several parties – so the accommodation is not as quiet, or as secluded, as some of the island’s more rural options. But thanks to the high level of comfort, it’s still a great place to unwind after a long journey – and to rear up for a weekend of exploring.

Our morning begins driving westwards to visit Kenny Maclennan, a veteran Harris Tweed weaver who works from home twisting and knotting the dyed wool, before it’s passed onto the factories for finishing.

Harris Tweed has been an integral part of life for centuries, becoming a booming business in the Victorian period. Flashforward to the present and it’s still fundamental to island life. Weaving is often passed on through generations.

“My mum taught me how to weave and I've been weaving for most of my working life,” says Maclennan, explaining that the island’s culture is still intertwined with the loom. “All the process the dying of the wool, carding, spinning. Everything has to be done on the island before you can call it Harris Tweed,” he says.

Over his career, the weaver has seen Tweed circulate in and out of fashion. Over the past eight years its been consistently chic – and demand for Harris Tweed has been high. Maclennan isn’t concerned if fortunes change. “It's the way fashion works. It'll come round again,” he smiles.

But whatever the current catwalk trends, there are always tourists keen to get a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Tweed’s creation. On the walls of his weaving shed, Maclennan has photographs of high profile visitors including pop-folk band Mumford and Sons and comedian Bill Bailey.

We wave goodbye to Maclennan, although not before admiring the clear views from his home across the Lewis landscape. We head to the Callanish stones – only a short drive away. This arrangement of standing stones are thought to have been erected in the Neolithic era, circa 4000 to 2500 BC. They were the focus of rituals and gatherings during the Bronze Age, but the meaning behind the stones remains unknown. Legend say the stones were once men, turned into boulders as a punishment. Today, they are marvelled by visitors from across the world. The popularity of the American TV series Outlander, about a woman who travels back in time through a Scottish stone circle, has only brightened their allure.

We avoid traveling back to 1745, but spend over an hour admiring these majestic monoliths. We are alone, which only adds to the magical ambiance.

The sun has come up, contradicting all the warnings about Hebridean weather, so we head to another ancient Lewis landmark: Dun Carloway Broch. This spectacular ruin is the best-preserved remainder of a broch – a prehistoric stone tower that was used as both accommodation and a fortress. Situated atop of a rock overlooking Lewis’ sun, sea and sky, it’s a stunning site. We crawl inside the stone walls and it’s not hard to imagine the Broch’s former life.

Another architectural blast from the past is the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village: a coastal crofting village with original properties preserved: complete with drystone masonry and thatched roofs. Locals lived here until the 1970s, after which it fell into disrepair. In 1989, the local community trust rras nan Gearrannan (the Garenin Trust) made the decision to regenerate the homes. Now they’re available to rent, just walking distance from two of Lewis’ spectacular beaches Dalmore and Dalbeg. The Blackhouses are pretty exposed, facing out to the Atlantic. When we clamber down to the beach, we realise the closest bit of land is North America, 5000 miles away. The wind howling, we marvel at the isolation of this open sandy beach, the choppy ocean stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Piling back into the car, we’re ready for lunch. Fortunately local gem Horshader Cafe has hot drinks aplenty and a local delicacy called “super sausage,” which we’re keen to try. As we eat, the friendly owner chats to us about upping sticks from her city life and falling for Lewis and Harris. It’s easy to understand. The island combines an appealing sense of escapism with a caring, friendly community spirit.

Our evening is spent making use of the generous facilities to cook a meal, before playing a competitive game of scrabble. As night falls, we head outside to see the castle grounds at moonlight. It’s too foggy for the Aurora Borealis – which does make regular appearances over Lewis – but the castle still looks appropriately atmospheric.

An early Sunday start sees us embark on the road Northwards to the Butt of Lewis, the island’s tip and the most Northerly spot on the Outer Hebrides. Here, the eponymous lighthouse, built in circa 1860, still keeps a watchful eye over the tempestuous seas below. Standing on the cliffs, the sea foam circulating whirling before our eyes, it’s not hard to believe that the Guinness Book of World Records named this the windiest spot in Britain. After all, there’s nothing here between us and the Arctic. The nearby Port of Ness village is slightly more sheltered – but the unpredictable Lewis weather rears its head as we embark on a cliffside walk. It’s hailing, it’s sunny and there’s a rainbow up ahead. Somehow it’s still charming, still stunning, even when you’re dodging puddles.

On Lewis and Harris, Sunday is still observed as the traditional Sabbath day. “Last year, because New Year was from a Saturday into a Sunday there were no fireworks, because Sunday’s the Sabbath, you don’t work on Sunday,” explains Carrington, who describes the island as “in transition.”

There are now flights, ferries and a handful of places open on Sundays. One of them is Lews Castle. When we return to our turreted home, it’s full of excitable children playing in the grounds and exploring the endless corridors: “Out of season on a Sunday is probably our busiest day by a mile,” says Carrington.

Carrington gives us the grand tour and we admire the whisky bar and the front room used for afternoon tea, complete with the original – still stylish – wallpaper. We are treated to a generous Sunday roast in the affable Storehouse Cafe, adjacent to the Hebrides first and only Starbucks. I live in a city where there’s a Starbucks on every corner, but, as Carrington points out: “For here, it was a big deal.”

The grounds also prove worth exploring, stretching out towards the colorful houses of Stornoway and the picturesque harbour – which is due its own major restoration in the near future. There’s even a “fairy tree,” which we are all very charmed by, even if we’re all in our 20s. Lews Castle has that kind of vibe, it takes hold of your imagination.

Carrington previously lived in Edinburgh, but he’s a convert to Lewis. “The pace of life is different,” he says. “But it’s really interesting because people are friendly and open and approachable.”

He loved how intertwined Lews Castle is with Stornoway history – and how invested the locals are in its future. “When I started here, I thought I would show people around,” he says. “But it doesn’t happen that way at all, because they show you around.”

Carrington and his team hope it is this personal connection that guests will take away from their experience. “For me, this place is more about emotions and stories that are connected with it, rather than the actual fabric,” says Carrington.

Our early morning ferry journey is much smoother than the outgoing trip. We nap through the last dark hours of the night and wake to a sublime sunrise illuminating the Summer Isles and the mainland in front of us. The boat’s Saltire flies against the sky, which is ablaze a glorious shade of magenta. If you have to return to your everyday, we decide, there’s no better way to do it.


Francesca Street was a guest of Natural Retreats: Lews Castle, Stornoway HS2 0XP. Visit or call 01625 416430. Apartment rental from £150 a night based on two sharing on a self-catering basis.