There may be no better place in the world than the Outer Hebrides to have a true Island Adventure.
Comprising 75 individual islands, with only 15 inhabited and a population of approximately 26,000 people, they stretch 130 miles from the Butt of Lewis in the north to Barra Head in the south.
The main islands are Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra with over 7,400 freshwater lochs a unique fertile low-lying dune pastureland called machair along the west coasts.
Lewis is largely flat whereas Harris is mountainous (the highest point Clisham is 799 meters). North and South Uist and Benbecula are connected by causeways and bridges and Barra has a mainly rugged interior. All boast stunning golden beaches and clear blue sea, some of the best in the world and often deserted!
There are a variety of ways to get there. Start in the north go to the pretty port of Ullapool on the shores of Loch Broom – one of the most attractive spots in the Highlands – and sail to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
From Uig, on the Isle of Skye, you can get across to Tarbet on the Isle of Harris or Lochmaddy on North Uist. A shorter drive is the ferry to Castle Bay on Barra, Lochboisdale on South Uist (reached from Oban or Mallaig).
Not to be missed on the Outer Hebrides
Island hopping has to be near the top of the list and is a perfect way to experience this idyllic wilderness. The contrasting islands’ terrain offer wildlife enthusiasts one of the greatest bird-watching sites in Britain, with basking sharks, whales, dolphins, seals and otters also regularly spotted along the coast.
A very special place to go is St Kilda. Sheer cliffs and sea stacks tower out of the Atlantic and provide a home to nearly one million seabirds. Look out for a unique wren and species of mouse twice the size of a British field mouse. St Kilda is also the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can brave the conditions and sail to the ‘edge of the world’ for an experience of a lifetime.
Land on a beach on Barra. One of the most unusual airports in the world; flight land on the beach at Cockle Strand, and when the tides comes in the runway vanishes! Even if you don’t arrive here by plane, just pay a visit; it’s a wonderful place with a great cafe to boot!
Barra is small but packs in a lot and famed for its beauty, stunning beaches, hills, machair and moorland.
The islands are a sanctuary for Arts and Culture and packed with hidden away shops, galleries and studios with wonderful local crafts on display. As well as pottery there are amazing paintings of local landmarks. Visit An Lanntair in Stornoway which hosts the best in the arts, music, cinema and entertainment.
The islands were once part of the Norse kingdom but returned to Scotland in 1266. In spite of the Highland Clearances in the 19th century, residency is on the up with many people wanting to escape the rigours of the mainland to become involved in tourism, crafting, fishing, weaving or just living a slower pace of life.
You can discover ancient archaeological treasures such as the Calanais Standing Stones on Lewis, or the Bosta Iron Age House on Bernera, a village uncovered by chance after a storm in the 1993. The coast offers some breath-taking paths with gorgeous stretches of the kind of sandy beaches you would only expect to see in faraway places. Climb one of the many hills for magnificent seascapes and get high above soaring eagles.
The Golden Road, (named by the locals because of the high construction cost), winds and twists along the coast of Harris connecting tiny hamlets with Viking or Gaelic names. You’ll see spectacular scenery sometimes described as a lunar landscape with rocks glistening in the sun and beautiful glass-like lochs and inlets where seals bask on the rocks.
Uig is not just known for glorious golden sands and inviting azure blue shallow water but also for a Viking Chess set discovered on the edge of the beach in a small stone chamber. The 93 chess pieces are made from Morse ivory, husks of Walrus teeth and thought to have been made in Norway in the 12th century.
They are amongst the top 10 archaeological finds in Britain. Eleven of the pieces are now in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland and 82 in the British Museum in London. Visit Triagh Uige (Uig Beach) to see the carved wooden sculpture of the King chess piece by Stephen Hayward.
Other standout attractions on the islands…
The beach at Luskentyre is the largest and most spectacular on the Isle of Harris and listed as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. There are stunning views across the turquoise sea to Tarransay which was home to Castaway, one of the first TV reality shows! The views to the north of Harris and mountains make this such an extraordinary place.
Visit the Arnol Blackhouse at Stornoway to see what life was once like. It had no windows or chimney but a peat fire lit all the time between the kitchen and living area.
Carloway Broch is one of the best preserved in the Hebrides. Dating back 2,000 years, there you will find very resilient structures, designed by tribal leaders to impress and defend with thick walls of stone. Take a picnic, stay a while and take in the stunning 360 degree vistas.
At Stornaway is Lews Castle built in the mid-1900s for Sir James Matheson who bought the whole island with his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade. In 1918 the estate and castle was bought back by Lord Leverhulme who gave the castle to the people of Stornoway in 1923. After various other uses it now an interactive museum and cultural centre.
Many people come to the Hebrides to experience the Machair which is a Gaelic word meaning low lying grassy plain and one of the rarest habitats in Europe. Sand and crushed shells blown in from the Atlantic combine to provide a perfect place for wildflowers, birds and insect life. Between June and mid-August up to 40 plants can be found in one square metre.
Look out for the rare Great Yellow Bumble Bee and the unusual Belted Moth. Corncrakes are often easier to hear than see with their distinctive rasping and they arrive here in spring along with breeding waders and large flocks of geese. Lapwing and plover also like to make the Hebrides their home in winter.
Foodies can sample locally prepared delicacies in many of the cafes, hotels, pubs and restaurants, including hand-dived scallops, freshly smoked kippers and craft beer. The Isle of Harris Distillery cannot go without a mention and is where they take great pride in distilling world-class spirits. With a fire burning and the warmest of Hebridean welcomes, make sure you drop in and have a taste of whatever you fancy!