Peak mid-winter! Bracing walks and warming whisky await when you brave Scotland's beautiful Outer Hebrides
Oh, how the wind blows in the Outer Hebrides. Speak to someone a yard away and the sound is whisked off before it reaches them; long hair dances above your head like a charmed snake; laundry hanging in gardens gets a more effective treatment than it would in a turbo tumble dryer.
Only nature's hardiest can handle the blasting gales. Seals battle the thrashing surf and spiky grass is grazed by the fluffiest sheep I've ever seen. Most human inhabitants endure two winters and then leave.
It might paint a godforsaken picture, but the Outer Hebrides are far from bleak. The elements have carved out swirling white beaches and thousands of mini lochs between the hills. On the craggy coasts, seaweed drapes over rocks like liquid gold and the roads are lined with blue shells, where gulls have smashed open mussels.
Remote beauty: Glorious views abound on the Isle of Harris, 40 miles off the coast of Scotland
Best of all, you'll rarely see another soul — especially out of season. In fact, winter here is pure exhilaration.
I'm staying at the Borve Lodge Estate on the Isle of Harris, 40 miles off the north-western edge of Scotland, where the Atlantic is an intense Caribbean blue.
Harris is joined to the Isle of Lewis; together they're the largest of the Outer Hebrides' 200 islands. The estate is an hour's drive from the tiny airport in Stornoway, Lewis's main town.
Almost a third of the Outer Hebrides' 28,000 residents live in Stornoway, but when I arrive on a Sunday it's deserted, with shops closed for the Sabbath.
No one's in a hurry. Roads are single tracks with passing spaces — and we have to make regular stops to let sheep shuffle across our path.
The white pebbledash villages get smaller until we reach Borve — a neighbourhood of 20 people that doubles when the estate's accommodation is full.
Luxury in the wilderness: Borve Lodge on the Borve estate has been lavishly refurbished
Cosy: Warm up after a day in the elements with a hot bath and whisky by the peat fire
Couples can hide away in The Rock or Broch self-catering homes, camouflaged on the hillside thanks to their turf roofs. The main dwelling is nine-bedroom traditional Scottish house, Borve Lodge, which was lavishly renovated this summer.
With its deep baths, whisky dished out by the peat fire and a private chef serving hearty locally sourced food, my wind-whipped face starts to thaw.
Two stag heads on display in the banqueting room make me feel guilty about tucking into the venison, but there's no place for sentimentality.
Borve is a sporting estate and in season (August to February) lodge guests are given the chance to shoot two deer.
With estate manager Steve's encouragement, I find myself lying Action Man-style on the grass, rifle butt tight against my chest, tracing my quivering crosslevel up a deer's front leg and over its heart.
But don't mourn for Bambi ... my target is a poster nailed to a board. Even so, Steve assures me that stalking keeps the herd healthy. 'This is as free-range and organic as it gets,' he says.
Most stalking is done on the uninhabited island of Taransay, just across the crashing sea from Borve's deserted beach.
If the island's 3,500 acres of machair meadows look familiar, that's because this is where Ben Fogle and 35 others lived for a year as a cut-off community in the BBC TV show Castaway 2000.
Get outdoors: Guided activities and meals are included when you hire Borve Lodge
Not everyone stayed for the whole project. I can't blame them; they arrived in January, when the mercury plummets and the winds are at their fiercest.
Here, you're at the mercy of the elements, and on my three-day stay it's too choppy to get to Taransay. Foamy white horses charging through the sea could flip a boat. But there's plenty to keep me occupied.
Lodge staff are on hand for guided activities such as lobster potting and grouse, snipe and pigeon shooting — or for more passive outdoors lovers, wildlife watching and hill walking.
I spend a few hours in my wellies sinking into the bog on one of the estate's fisheries, learning to cast a line under the watchful eye of the fishing ghillie, Finlay.
He has the typical hypnotic islander accent that's got a hint of Viking about it. Like all of Harris's residents, he can tell me the name and occupation of everyone who passes by.
I drop in on Harris Tweed weaver Donald John Mackay MBE, who listens to Gaelic music while he works his loom beside beautiful Luskentyre beach.
He's an unlikely character to be in the fashion spotlight, but tweed-clad Nike and Clarks shoes sit among the jumble of yarn.
Isolated: The uninhabited Isle of Taransay, where the TV show Castaway 2000 was filmed
Recently, a Chanel design team tottered up to his tin workshop to choose material for handbags. How did these big labels discover him? 'I haven't got a clue!' he chuckles.
Keeping traditions alive is important to islanders. Crofting, ceilidhs and community events bring people together and children are more likely to know how to round up a herd of sheep than play with an Xbox.
No one locks their doors or cars. There's a freedom in knowing everyone for miles around. And it's a freedom that makes the harsh winds and bitter winters a small price to pay for island life.
It's also an excellent excuse for a whisky — or two — around a roaring peat fire.TRAVEL FACTS
BORVE Lodge (borvelodge.com, 0044 7810 023 255) costs from £16,000 for a week and sleeps 14, fully catered except alcohol, including activities and staff (stalking extra). The Rock or Broch (sleeps two) cost from £514 for three nights self-catering. British Airways (ba.com, 0344 493 0787) flies from Heathrow to Stornoway via Glasgow from £177 return.