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Introduction

The Hebrides are the most beautiful part of the British Isles. The landscape is rocky and mountainous, but also lush and verdant - due in no small part to the large amounts of rain which tend to fall. However, this should not put off the potential visitor, and many would say that the Hebrides are just not the same without at least some drizzle - just bring some rainclothes! When the sun does shine however, the resulting vistas are almost always stunning.

The Outer Hebrides have some of the most spectacular beaches, not just in Europe but in the world. Much of the west side of the 200-kilometre-long string of islands is one virtual long deserted and clean beach. Incredible beaches can be found on Barra, South Uist, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis.

Many of the other Hebridean islands, such as Coll, Tiree, Islay and Mull also have quite breathtaking beaches. Due to the beaches, tides and weather, the Hebrides are rapidly becoming a major fixture on the sea sports map, especially for surfing.

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Geography

The Hebrides can be divided into two main groups, separated from one another by the Minch to the north and the Sea of the Hebrides to the south. The Inner Hebrides lie closer to mainland Scotland and include Islay, Jura, Skye, Mull, Raasay, Staffa and the Small Isles. There are 36 inhabited islands in this group. The Outer Hebrides are a chain of more than 100 islands and small skerries located about 70 kilometres west of mainland Scotland. There are 15 inhabited islands in this archipelago. The main islands include Barra, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist, and St Kilda. In total, the islands have an area of approximately 7,200 square kilometres and a population of 44,759.

A complication is that there are various descriptions of the scope of the Hebrides. The Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland describes the Inner Hebrides as lying "east of the Minch", which would include any and all offshore islands. There are various islands that lie in the sea lochs such as Eilean Bàn and Eilean Donan that might not ordinarily be described as "Hebridean", but no formal definitions exist.

In the past, the Outer Hebrides were often referred to as the Long Isle (Scottish Gaelic: An t-Eilean Fada). Today, they are also known as the Western Isles, although this phrase can also be used to refer to the Hebrides in general.

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Islands

  • Inner Hebrides - Includes Skye, Mull, Lismore, Islay, Jura, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay and Small Isles.
  • Outer Hebrides - Includes Lewis and Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and St Kilda.

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Towns and Villages

  • Stornoway - on the Isle of Lewis
  • Bowmore on Islay
  • Castlebay - the main village on Barra
  • Craighouse on the Isle of Jura
  • Portree on Skye
  • Tarbert - the main village in Harris
  • Tobermory on Mull

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Sights and Activities

The Northern Lights are frequently visible from the Hebridean islands. Due to the low population, there is an absence of light pollution to affect this, and other night time views.

The Quiraing on Skye is a marvellous landscape formed by massive land slips that step from cliffs to sea. It includes the iconic 'Old Man of Storr' rock stack. The Cuillins in southern Skye are a spectacular mountain range offering views across to the mainland and rugged walking and climbing.

The Outer Hebrides - or Western Isles - are home to thousands of migratory wading birds from autumn through winter. In spring the delightful 'Machair' blooms along the western shorelines: one of the few places in the world where this profusion of coastal spring flowers can be found. Wild, windswept beaches abound along the west coast, while along the east coast numerous sea lochs and freshwater lochs create a landscape that is as much water and sea as it is land.

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Events and Festivals

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Weather

The Hebrides have a cool temperate climate that is remarkably mild and steady for such a northerly latitude, due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. In the Outer Hebrides the average temperature for the year is 6 °C in January and 14 °C in summer. The average annual rainfall in Lewis is 1,100 millimetres and sunshine hours range from 1,100-1,200 per annum. The summer days are relatively long, and May to August is the driest period.

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Getting There

The Hebrides covers a very large area. Careful examination of timetables is often prudent. However, it is possible to travel around the Outer Hebrides without your own transport. The nearest large city on the mainland is Glasgow, some way to the South East.

Most of the islands are reachable by ferries or other boats. Most of these ferries are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, otherwise known as CalMac, who have a full set of timetables and additional information on their website. Ferries are relatively cheap for foot passengers, but very expensive for motor vehicles.

The port of Oban on the mainland is a main transport hub, with a connection to the West Highland Railway and ferry connections to Barra, South Uist, Mull, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay and Lismore. Further north, the port of Mallaig has ferry services to the Small Isles - Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck, as well as Skye. It is also possible to drive onto Skye using the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh.

The port of Uig on Skye has short ferry connections to the Outer Hebrides islands of North Uist and Harris. Ullapool, in the far northwest of Scotland, has a ferry connection to Stornoway on the island of Lewis (note: this does not currently operate on a Sunday).

There are airports in Stornoway in Lewis, Benbecula and Barra as well as several inner Hebridean islands. Flights are all operated by Loganair, except for a couple by Eastern in addition. These airports provide direct flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. The airport in Barra is one of the most spectacular in the world, with planes landing on a three-mile beach at low tide. These flights however are often delayed due to weather problems, and are often very turbulent, and therefore are not for nervous flyers, due to small planes being used. The safety record however, is immaculate.

Many signs are bilingual, being in both English and Gaelic. In some parts of the Hebrides (i.e. north of Stornoway), most people speak Gaelic as their native language. The locals sometimes appreciate you learning a few Gaelic phrases as a sign of politeness - Goiresan (Toilet or WC) may come in useful!

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Getting Around

The road networks are small but tolerable and link all major settlements on larger islands. Many of the most beautiful roads are single track with passing places.

Local bus companies provide good bus links, also Royal Mail vans operating on schedule carry passengers.

Hitchhiking is usually a good option where there are no buses and is much safer and easier than on the mainland.

The best way to enjoy these islands is almost certainly on foot - the hiking opportunities are excellent, and the most beautiful and tranquil spots are often (unsurprisingly) located far from roads. The Isle of Skye is home to the Cuillins, the famous glacially cut mountain range. The lower reaches provide excellent walking terrain, while assailing the peaks is harder and depending on the mountain in question fit for very keen walkers up to skilled mountaineers with full climbing equipment.

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Eat

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Drink

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Sleep

Accommodation is often most rewarding if you stay somewhat off the beaten track - most villages will have chalets or bed and breakfasts. These will probably be cheaper than those in the more tourist-oriented areas. Due to the steep cost of advertising, most accommodation is not listed in official tourist brochures or through the monolithic VisitScotland service. Instead, ask locally, search on the web, or look at more locally focused community websites.

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Hebrides Travel Helpers

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This is version 2. Last edited at 10:56 on Jul 6, 17 by Utrecht. 3 articles link to this page.

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