Tarbert is the main port and capital village of Harris. Tarbert is a fairly common name across Scotland and, here as elsewhere, it comes from the Norse tairbeart meaning draw-boat. Tarbert lies on the shores of Loch Tarbert, and South Harris avoids becoming an island by just a few hundred yards of land over which the Vikings would drag their longboats into West Loch to avoid sailing around via the Sound of Harris.
Little existed here until Tarbert was founded as a fishing settlement from 1779. From 1840 a new pier in Loch Tarbert was the destination of weekly mail steamers from Uig in Skye, serving a new post district called Harris (to distinguish it from Tarbert in Argyll).
By 1894 Tarbert was the main settlement on Harris, and a Harris Tweed mill had been set up here by 1900. In the first decade of the 1900s, Bunabhainneadar, a few miles north-west of Tarbert, became a centre for whaling: but the industry suffered setbacks in the 1920s and then operated only intermittently until its final closure in 1952.
The mailboat service from Uig continued, with increasing frequency, until 1963 when the MacBrayne car ferry Hebrides entered service on the Tarbert, Lochmaddy and Uig route. Cars drove on via side ramps in front of the bridge and were then rotated on a turntable and lowered to a vehicle deck in the bowels of the ship capable of holding 50 cars.
This may sound primitive to a roll-on roll-off generation, but in 1963 it revolutionised transport to and from the Western Isles, making them for the first time a practicable tourist destination. The service was vigorously marketed under the banner of Hebridean Highways.
These days, Tarbert is a community of some 500 people still tightly gathered on the north side of Loch Tarbert and on the isthmus between it and West Loch. With the success of the Sound of Harris ferry from Leverburgh, Tarbert is no longer the main port for travel from Harris to North Uist. But the importance of the Uig ferry, offering by far the shortest crossing to the Western Isles from mainland Scotland, remains.
In previous times Tarbert served primarily as a back door to Harris and Lewis. Now the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra ferries are fully operational, Tarbert lies at the centre of a chain of islands that is much more unified and accessible than ever before. For the first time, it is now just about possible to drive in a single day from the Butt of Lewis in the north to Vatersay in the south. Tarbert is ideally placed to benefit.
Tarbert itself focuses on its harbour and the ferry terminus. Close by is the Tourist Information Centre and the main car park. A range of small shops are available, including the Harris Tweed Shop overlooking the main access road to the ferry terminal. You can also find a number of accommodation options here ranging from the Harris Hotel and Macleod Motel to a number of guest houses and B&Bs. Those wanting to experience outstanding accommodation and dining need look no further than Ardhasaig House, two miles to the north-west of Tarbert.