Ceol na Mara & Harris

by Phil MacDonald

The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) of Scotland are the very centre of Gaeldom. The Gaelic language is spoken in places around the globe but it is most widely spoken in the Hebrides where it is the native language. Incredibly poetic the language contains the most amazing phrases for things such as the sound of the sea which is “Ceol na Mara” (the closest English translation of Ceol na Mara is “the music of the sea”).

The Isle of Harris can be found off the west coast of Scotland separated from the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland by a ruthless stretch of water known as the Minch. Once part of the Norse and Manx kingdoms the Isle of Harris has a strong culture based upon it’s Celtic and Nordic past. The islands of the Hebrides have a strong association with the sea and there have been many Gaelic songs written about the sea and sea journeys.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit this part of the world you will immediately notice how clean and pure everything is. The Outer Hebrides must be one of the least polluted places in the United Kingdom with the air so clean and fresh that you immediately feel relaxed. The waters of the many lochs and the sea are so clear that you can see far down and diving is a wonderful experience. However it is the beaches that most people find most beautiful. On South Harris are some of the most beautiful shell sand beaches in Europe.

The Hebridean culture has a long, and sometimes troublesome, past. At one time the islands of the Hebrides we ruled by the Lords of the Isles. These rulers, especially Somerled, were incredibly powerful and something of a threat to the kings of Scotland. It was during this period that the unique mix of the Nordic and the Celtic cultures helped create the wonderful Hebridean culture. Both cultures have a deep understanding of poetic writing and even today the ‘Bard’ is an important member of society who writes poems and songs, often influenced by Ceol na Mara and the countryside.

The beaches of South Harris should be top of your list of places to visit on the Isle of Harris. Both the east and west coasts of Harris are incredibly beautiful but they are very different, to the west are the beaches and machair but the east coast is incredibly rocky with pebble beaches and rocky inlets. The medieval church at Rodel, found at the very south of Harris, is one of the most interesting places to visit and well worth picking the key up for from the local hotel. North Harris is very, very hilly.

One of the best places to enjoy Ceol na Mara is on the Isle of Harris and, luckily, the island is far more accessible than it was in the past. Today it is possible to fly to Stornoway airport which is over on the Isle of Lewis but, fortunately, Lewis and Harris are joined together so you are able to drive down to Harris. The most popular mode of transport used to get to the Isle of Harris is the ferry which comes into the main town of Tarbert from the Isle of Skye. Another ferry travels between the small village of Leverbrugh and the Uists.

Ceol na Mara is commonly used as a name for a guest house on the Isle of Harris, especially if it is close to the shore. Bed and breakfast accommodation on the Isle of Harris is absolutely wonderful and, if you are lucky enough to stay in a guest house near to the shore you will find the sounds of the sea incredibly soothing. Sometimes it is possible to hear the sea from your room and drifting off to sleep to the sound of the waves is something to be experienced.

You will also be amazed at the quality of the bed and breakfast accommodation available in a Harris hotel. There are only a few Harris hotels and one of the finest is a small hotel found just outside the town of Tarbert known as Ardhasaig House. Sadly you are unlikely to hear Ceol na Mara at Ardhasaig House but you do get some of the best views available from hotel accommodation on the Isle of Harris. Another way to stay on Harris is camping or you could bring a caravan. However there is really only one camping site/caravan park on the island and it is basically a field alongside one of the beaches.

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