The Danish word 'Hygge' has become a familiar term in recent years. It's defined as "a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being."
Pronounced 'hoo-guh', the word has no direct translation in English, although "cosy" comes close. In our native Gaelic, we might, if pushed, say 'blàths'.
So, as winter unfolds and the countdown to the big day gets underway, we thought we'd put a slight slant on the idea to help you find some island calm amidst the chaos…
1. The Peat Fire
We know that the burning of fossil fuels is a messy business, and the days of the fireside blaze are numbered. But, the peat fire is such a historical and cultural facet of island life that we're giving it one last outing. The aroma of the dark brown slabs as they burn sets off memories of decades past, and the warmth and gentle crackle of this local, hand-cut material simply can't be replicated in any other way.
2. A 'geansaidh' and a pair of bobbin socks.
Generations of Harris folk were, and many still are, prolific knitters of wool, their needles click-clacking away even while doing other chores. The geansaidh was a traditional woolen jumper, worn by everyone from fishermen to children to fend off the cold. They were often heavy, itchy, and a devil to pull over your head, but today are the epitome of warmth and winter wear. A pair of 'bobbin socks' will complete the outfit, thick, oversized, and hand-knitted to keep toes toasty indoors and out.
Every house here has a stash of candles, kept for emergencies when the inevitable power cuts caused by winter storms kick in. Once upon a time, every home would be lit by the 'crusie' or 'Tilley' lamp, fuelled by fish oils and paraffin, but these days it's more likely to be something far more aromatic. Our friends at Essence Of Harris have a lovely range of locally made candles or keep it simple by buying some good beeswax ones for burning. Either way, turn the bright lights off and let the small flames flicker.
4. A warming dram.
We love good whisky all year round, but there's something special about pouring a generous measure of uisge beatha when the days grow short, and the sun goes down early. We're looking forward to the day we can sit down with a glass of The Hearach single malt, but meantime we've been enjoying the likes of the new Raasay Single Malt and Glendronach 12 this winter. And if whisky's not your thing, an Isle of Harris Gin is also just the job at any time of year.
5. A good book.
Close your laptop, turn off that tablet, put away the smartphone, and lose yourself in the pages of some well-told stories instead. We'd recommend something with an island connection to keep you connected to this place, perhaps Bill Lawson's 'Harris In History And Legend' or 'Seasons On Harris' by David Yeadon. Peter May's popular series of Hebridean crime novels make for good comfort reading, as does The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford, and we love Donald S Murray's work, particularly 'The Dark Stuff: Stories From The Peatlands' too.
6. Some mellow music.
Ideally, the soundtrack to your setting would be the wild wind howling outside and rain battering against the glass of your well-sealed windows. But, with a bit of help from streaming services like Spotify, there's a whole world of music waiting to be listened to at low volume. Try the two Spell Songs albums, a musical evolution of books by Robert Macfarlane, creating a listening experience that intersects music, literature, language, and the art of the wild.
7. A sweet slice of something indulgent.
Shop-bought is fine, but there's nothing quite as deliciously comforting as home-baked cake. This year, we've enjoyed working with Coinneach Macleod, aka The Hebridean Baker, and we've some brilliant bakers on our team, too, like Marie Morrison and Mairi Mackenzie. Check out Coinneach's new cookbook or visit his online recipe page for inspiration. Keep it simple and stress-free, and you'll soon enjoy the sweet rewards of your mindful cake-making.
8. Srùbag - a cup of tea
If whisky or gin isn't your thing, then there's always a good cup of tea to hand in any true Outer Hebridean home. But, for something a little different, try the lovely, smoky backhouse tea from The Hebridean Tea Store with its heather blossoms and a subtle tinge of honey. Or steep and sample their Harris Distillery blend, a good, strong Assam blend with a hint of smoky Lapsang Soughing to honour the peat we use in our whisky-making. And, if you fancy something lighter, the Isle of Harris Gin blend by Eteaket is a refreshing botanical treat.
9. Friends, family, and four-legged foot warmers.
Quiet moments alone are wonderful, and spending time in good company is too. Sharing a simple meal, telling a tall tale or two over a cold beer, laughing at old memories with old pals…all remind us that the best things in life are often free. So, whether it's lively chat, deep conversation, or just time spent enjoying the silence, it's important to find connection with friends and family when and where you can. And don't overlook the healing power of a favourite pet to bring a little balance to this busy time of year.
10. Get out into the great outdoors.
Finally, all this warmth wouldn't be the same without a cold contrast. So wrap up well, step outside, and let the wild winds of winter blow the cobwebs away. Here in Harris, the west coast beaches are empty at this time of year, with nothing but crashing waves and the cry of oystercatchers to accompany your footprints. The sting of salt spray will bring colour to your cheeks, and the blaze of the peat fire will be all the better when you finally return home.
And there we have it, ten ways to enjoy some island calm as Christmas approaches, bringing all manner of chaos along with it.
Winter can be a beautiful time of year, and although Harris is gorgeous in summer, we think the bleak and barren days of December can bring just as much joy.
Wishing you a peaceful festive season ahead, and may it be full of Outer Hebridean hygge...