The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles or the Long Island, consist of a narrow chain of islands 209 kilometres (130 miles) long, lying around 64 kilometres (40 miles) off the northwest coast of the Scottish mainland. The archipelago’s name comes from the Viking term hav bred ey, meaning the islands at the edge of the sea.
Lying far out in the Atlantic, these islands are an austere paradise, where tweed is woven and seals frolic in the bays and coves. Much of the interior of these islands is bleak and barren, while the coast offers stunning cliffs and some of Britain’s finest beaches. Remote crofting communities are scattered around, with 5,000 year old architectural remains in their midst.
The northern part of the Outer Hebrides is made up of Harris and Lewis. Many people consider these two places to be two separate islands, however they are in fact part of the same land mass. At one time it was easier for people to travel by boat between the two, rather than traversing the harsh landscape, which led to the common belief that they were separate islands.
The southern part of the island chain is made up of four main islands; Benbecula, North Uist, South Uist and Barra. South Uist, also known as Uibhist a Deas, is the second largest of the Outer Hebrides, measuring 35 kilometres (22 miles) from north to south. The west coast of South Uist has over 32 kilometres of spectacular, white shell beaches running continuously down its length, backed by incredible areas of machair and dunes. The area is brimming with flowers and wildlife. The eastern side contains a vast number of small, freshwater lochans, and a series of dispersed crofting settlements.
See how we plan to visit these places in a one week road trip!
Lewis’ capital, Stornoway, has a surprisingly urban feel with its population of approximately 8,000. However, the mountains to the west of Lewis are home to one of the wildest areas of this beautiful land. Great mountains crowd around the track that leads up a wonderfully wild glen. Adventurous hikers can leave the path and head up Mealaibhal, over the Hebrides rockies hills, before dropping down on the south side towards Loch Tamnabhaigh. Red-throated divers regularly nest in this area and the moorland is also a good place to spot dunlin and golden plovers. Pairs of golden eagles can often be seen hunting on the hills. On a clear day the Flannan Isles can be seen from the peak of Mealiabhal. The Butt of Lewis lighthouse is the island’s most northerly point and the 19th century lighthouse appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the UK’s windiest place.
The hills of north Harris is the most mountainous part of the Western Isles, while the island’s craggy, rock-lined shores reach up 700 metres (2,300 feet) and the sea is the colour of the Caribbean. Long ridges stretch away into the wilderness, each cut by deep glens with dashing waterfalls and hidden lochans. A single track tarmac road, known as the Golden Road, winds through the rocky landscape of Harris. Good ridge walks lead hikers into the heart of the mountains, where the only other living things are golden eagles and red deer. Clisham, the highest mountain in the Hebrides at 799 metres (2,621 feet), provides a route into much finer mountain country. At the point where Abhain Leosaid flows into the loch the most amazing orange rock beaches can be seen and sandpipers are often spotted here during the summer months. The hidden bowl that holds Loch Maoglaig is also a good spot for seeing red deer. The golden, fine sand Scarista beach in western Harris is a beautiful and romantic spot to watch the sun set.
Approximately 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west of north Harris is a remote collection of huge rock stacks, which is part of the St Kilda archipelago – a nature reserve since 1957 and now a world heritage site. Ever since the Neolithic era, people have tried to settle on St. Kilda but no civilisation has managed to live there permanently. In the 1930s the last 36 islanders moved to the mainland, leaving behind them feral sheep and legions of seabirds. Basking sharks and whales cavort in the surrounding waters, while puffins and Soay sheep cling to the steep cliffs above the coastline. Abandoned houses and crumbling church ruins bear testimony to attempts to make the rough land habitable. Motorboats from South Harris offer day trips.
South Uist – The Wild Eastern Coast
Howmore, on the coastal strip of the west coast of South Uist, is the starting point of a track that leads through the beautiful wildflower machair and into the 1,677 hectare nature reserve at Loch Druidibeag. A path leads through the lochans and moors before climbing to the rocky summit to Beinn Tairbeirt. The track then continues to the east coast to ascend Hecla, one of the most distinctive hills in the Outer Hebrides. Howmore is home to one of Scotland’s best collections of thatched buildings, as well as a remarkable collection of ruined churches. It is believed that the original church was built as early as the 600s and ruins of the Tampull Mor, the ‘Large Church’, probably date back to the 1200s. Magpie moths are often seen in stone walls in Howmore and the quiet lochans provide a haven for the distinctive plants and birds of the Uists, including the corncrake and day-flying short-eared owls.
The Balradald Nature Reserve on North Uist is a bird sanctuary with 183 species, among them are oystercatchers and plovers. In the east of the island, the village of Lochmaddy offers kayaking, diving and rock climbing.
Isle of Eriskay
The Isle of Eriskay is the place that inspired the world-famous story of ‘Whisky Galore’, when islanders retrieved a cargo of 250,000 bottles of whisky from a nearby shipwreck in 1941. The Eriskay ponies, which are thought to be the descendants of the original Scottish ponies, can be seen on the island. The island is also home to the white sands of Coileag a’ Phrionnsa (The Prince’s Strand), where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish land. A pub named The Politician, after the whisky-laden ship, has pictures of the ship decorating the walls and exhibits three bottles from the wreck.
The island of Barra is synonymous with endless sandy beaches, high mountain peaks, pre-historic ruins and Gaelic culture. The most southerly of the main islands, more than 1,000 species of wild flowers adorn the landscape. Castlebay is its main town with its 13th centure Kisimul Castle, which is built on rocks just a few hundred yards from the shore and is one of Scotland’s finest castles. Barra’s airport is known to be one of the world’s most stunning landing spots and the site of the only scheduled service in the world that uses a beach. The Twin Otter aicraft uses the beach as a runway at low tide and at high tide or in stormy conditions the island is completely cut off as no planes or ferries operate.
Callanish Standing Stones
This 5,000 year old place of worship consists of 50 standing stones laid out in the shape of a cross around what once may have been a tomb. These stones predate Stonehenge and it is thought that they were erected as a sort of astronomical observatory. Patrick Moore, who excavated the stones in the early 1980s wrote that “…every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting earth.” It’s full magic unfolds at sunrise.
Great Bernera, once a large Norse settlement, is an island off the north-west coast of Lewis. With less than 300 people living there, it is an undisturbed are of natural beauty. The Great Bernera trail takes visitors past an array of derelict houses and along the western coastline, by lobster pools and alongside the hills of Uig, a range of imposing inland mountains. The trail then leads to a stretch of beautiful white sand beach at the foot of the glen, where a reconstruction of an Iron Age house sits. The Time and Tide Bell, which rests at sea, rings at high tides as part of an art project that is implemented across the whole of Britain.
During the summer months many seabirds can be seen along the coasts of the Hebrides islands. Fulmars, shags, rock doves and kittiwakes nest on the cliffs, while puffins, guillemots and razorbills are also often seen. A small population of otters can be spotted along this coast – these otters are governed by the tides and hunt on a rising tide, regardless of the time of day (or night). Out at sea occasional pods of pilot whales and sperm whales can be seen when the waters are very calm.
- Information provided by Silverseas Cruises
- Marco Polo: Scotland with road atlas and pull-out map
- Backpacker’s Britain: Volume 3 – Northern Scotland – The Highland and Islands. A Cicerone Guide by Graham Uney
- Peter May – Hebrides
- Images – Pixabay unless otherwise stated