Outer Hebrides

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Introduction

island of Lewis, Hebrides

island of Lewis, Hebrides

© Rika884

The Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles) are a chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The chain is part of the Hebrides and is separated from the mainland and the Inner Hebrides by the stormy waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. You should definitely visit the Outer Hebrides if you enjoy good scenery and the outdoors. The Outer Hebrides are a fascinating destination. The scenery is beautiful. 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. It is easy to find a quiet peaceful spot.

The Gaelic language and culture is appealing. At a practical level this means that place names on road signs are in Gaelic, but the bus timetables use the English names!

Religion still plays an important part in many people’s lives. In Lewis and Harris this is often in the form of Protestant Churches. As a result the Sabbath (Sunday) is respected, so you are unlikely to find shops etc. open on a Sunday. Activities happening on a Sunday often are opposed locally. In contrast Barra and South Uist are mainly Catholic, and many businesses typically open after midday on a Sunday. Benbecula is half-Protestant and half-Catholic, and one can still find businesses open on a Sunday there.

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Islands

Many of the islands are nowadays linked by road. From north to south (which roughly corresponds to largest to smallest) the island groups are:

  • Lewis and Harris and Great Bernera - Lewis and Harris have always been the same island, but divided by mountains with (until modern times) only rough tracks across. It was easier to sail between them, as if they were divided by sea, so they became separate counties. Lewis, the northern and larger section, is mostly low-lying. Inland is infertile heath, but the east coastal strip is farmland. Here is 1 Stornoway, the only place in the entire Hebrides that you could call a town, with an airport and ferry port. To the south (by what is nowadays a good main road) is Harris. It's rugged but more scenic, with the small port of 2 Tarbert as its main village. 3 Leverburgh is a tiny but historically important village nearby. Off the northwest coast of Lewis, 4 Great Bernera is a small island that is nowadays linked by road.
  • Uists and Benbecula and Eriskay - This series of islands became linked by road during the 20th C, to create one very long island. They are mostly low-lying heathland with a myriad small lochs. Berneray is small, and was obscure until it became linked - Prince Charles (HRH Prince of Wales) once spent a week working as a crofter here, and no-one noticed him. On North Uist, 5 Lochmaddy is the main village and ferry port. Next south, 6 Benbecula has an airport and the little village of Balivanich. South Uist, the longest island, has a ridge to the east and the highway and crofts to the west: the ferry port of 7 Lochboisdale is the largest settlement. The last link in the chain of causeways joins the island of Eriskay.
  • Barra and its neighbours. Barra has Castlebay as its main village, and is linked by road to Vatersay.
  • Uninhabited St Kilda lies 40 miles west out in the Atlantic. This is an archipelago, and there's no island called "St Kilda". The largest island is 9 Hirta with towering sea cliffs; the three main others are Dùn, Soay and Boreray. Their tiny population led a precarious existence, crofting and gathering birds' eggs from the cliffs, until illness and other hardships forced them out in 1930. Nowadays volunteers work on the islands to preserve the habitat and ancient farmsteads; there's no visitor accommodation and you can only get in by boat in very favourable weather.

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Geography

Geologically, the islands are almost entirely composed of ancient Pre Cambrian Lewisian Gneiss, representing some of the oldest rocks in Britain. The islands were scoured by glaciers and, away from the great expanses of heather moorland, which covers much of the centre of Lewis, the soils are often thin. Once heavily forested, the effect of human settlement has removed all of the natural woodland. In general the west coast is fertile and there is a strip of land called the machair just in from the coast that is rich in wild flowers. There are many sand dunes. The east of the islands is far less fertile. When the highland clearances took place to make way for sheep, many west coast settlements were destroyed and many of those who did not emigrate moved to a hard life on the eastern side.

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Towns

The main towns, if you can call them all that are:

Lewis

  • Stornoway - This is certainly a real town on the east coast with a ferry link to Ullapool.
  • Breasclete
  • Carloway
  • Coll
  • Laxdale
  • Leurbost
  • Sandwick
  • Shawbost
  • Tolsta
  • Uig - Some ancient chessmen were found in a dune here after a storm. They are now in a museum in Edinburgh.
  • Valtos

Harris

  • Tarbert
  • Leverburgh
  • Rodel

North Uist

  • Lochmaddy

South Uist

  • Lochboisdale - Calmac ferry links to Castlebay (Barra) and Oban on the mainland.

Barra

  • Castlebay

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Sights and Activities

  • On Lewis, the west coast is extremely beautiful - particularly south of the island of Great Bernera around Uig (not to be confused with the port of the same name on Skye) and Valtos.
  • Callanish is reckoned to be second only to Stonehenge in England among the UK's henge monuments. Carloway is the site of one of the best broch ruins in Scotland.
  • At the Butt of Lewis, the far northern tip, the lighthouse was one of the last in the United Kingdom to be permanently staffed.
  • At the south end of Harris Lord Leverhulme was attempting to create a major port at Leverburgh but this did not survive him and there is little left to see. Rodel, however has a church of unusual quality for the Hebrides.

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Getting There

By Plane

Loganair is the airline for the Outer Hebrides. It has flights from Glasgow to Barra, Benbecula and Stornoway. Stornoway is also reached from Edinburgh and Inverness.
Barra has the only beach landing in the United Kingdom.

By Train

Scotrail has very scenic lines from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Oban and to Inverness From Inverness there is a line to Kyle of Lochalsh, from where a bus runs to Uig on Skye - see By Boat below.

By Car

Car ferries are listed below. There are no bridges from the mainland but it is possible to drive up many of the islands using bridges or causeways between them. It is well worth while for drivers who want to go to more than one island to look at Calmac's islandhopping

By Boat

Caledonian Macbrayne operate car ferries throughout the Hebrides. On the mainland, which nowadays includes Skye, buses connect between Glasgow and the ferry ports. (No similar connections at the island ports since the ferry lands in what passes for the central metropolis.) The ferry routes are:

Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis two daily, 2 hours 30 mins (Nov-March only one on Sunday).
Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris one or two daily, 1 hour 40 mins (Nov-March some days in just one direction).
Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist one or two daily, 1 hour 45 mins (Nov-March some days in just one direction).
Oban to Castlebay on Barra daily, 5 hours (Nov-March not Thurs or Sun).
Mallaig to Lochboisdale on South Uist daily, 3 hours 30 mins (Nov-March not Tues or Thurs, and on some days sailing from Oban instead of Mallaig).

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Getting Around

By Bus

Buses reach all corners but are sparse M-Sa with nothing on a Sunday.

The Western Isles Overland Route is a linked bus / ferry service the length of the Outer Hebrides through Barra, the Uists and Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, and M-Sa it's possible to go the whole way in one day. There are half-a-dozen services part-route (eg Lewis to Harris), but for the full route you need to set off from Castlebay Barra at 06:20, Lochboisedale South Uist at 09:00, Benbecula at 11:10, Lochmaddy North Uist at 11:30 and Tarbert Harris at 16:20, to reach Stornoway by 17:30. Going south, you leave Stornoway 09:30 to reach Tarbert at 10:45, Lochmaddy at 13:45, Benbecula at 14:25, Lochboisdale at 15:25 and reach Castlebay at 17:35.

By Boat

Caledonian MacBrayne run the two short ferry crossings between island groups:

Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris 3 or 4 every day, one hour.Eriskay to Barra up to 5 per day, 40 mins.

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Eat

Except in Stornoway, there are not many restaurants serving evening meals, and the local hotels may be the best (or only) option. In summer it is often advisable to book a table for dinner. There are also a few cafes which add to the daytime selection, or you may prefer to buy your own bread and cheese and make sandwiches.
The seafood caught around the shores of the islands is excellent, and in particular it is worth trying the local shellfish such as scallops.
Stornoway is famous for its black pudding (blood sausage), and you are likely to find this on breakfast menus.
There are two good local bakeries whose products are sold in all the islands - Stag Bakeries in Stornoway and MacLean's Bakery in Benbecula. Their products may be more expensive than larger mainland bakeries but the extra is worth it.

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Drink

Pubs are not common, and in some places the only choice may be the hotel bar.
Pubs often have live music on Friday and Saturday nights. In Lewis and Harris observation of the Sabbath means that Saturday night music and drinking will cease by midnight, and Sunday has no entertainment. Barra and South Uist are much more relaxed about the Sabbath.
The Abhainn Dearg Distillery in northwest Lewis produces whisky, while the Isle of Harris Distillery in Tarbert distils both gin and whisky.

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Sleep

Camping is widely available, but think twice about it if you react badly to midge bites.
Hostels are in several villages and in some wild strange places, such as Rhenigidale on Harris.
Most settlements have B&B, and self-catering cottages are dotted all over.
There are small hotels especially in Stornoway and Tarbert. The grandest splurge is at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle near Tarbert.

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This is version 22. Last edited at 13:05 on Jul 8, 20 by Utrecht. 9 articles link to this page.

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