OUTER HEBRIDES

OUTER HEBRIDES crab potsWest of Scotland’s mainland, out in the Atlantic, are the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles, a chain of islands where Gaelic remains a working language and the fishing, crafting and weaving industries still form a large part of the archipelago’s economy. These relatively rural islands which are a stark contrast to the country’s urbanized cities seem to have found their way into the hearts of many travelers who love the delightful candescence of more traditional settings for a peaceful holiday.

The islands enjoy a mild oceanic climate and are home to numerous prehistoric structures which pre-date the first Roman and Greek written references to the islands. Occupied by the Norse for over 400 years before being transferred to Scotland in 1266 by the Treaty of Perth, the islands are now substantially modernized, benefiting from the discovery of deposits of North Sea oil and positive changes in government in the 20th century.

Layout
The Outer Hebrides are made up of over 200 islands stretching some 210 kilometers. Harris and Lewis are part of one island which is divided in two by a boundary of hills. The largest town of the archipelago is Stornoway in Lewis.
You’ll find tourist offices in every port which will provide information on air, bus and ferry services. If you do not hire a vehicle, be prepared to do a fair bit of walking and hitching.

Hire bicycles to explore the islands from Alex Dan’s Cycle Centre [67 Kenneth St (Stornoway, Lewis), Tel. +44 1851704025, www.hebrideancycles.co.uk, prices vary] in Stornoway, Sorrel Cottage [Tel. +44 1859520319, www.accommodationisleofharris.co.uk] in South Harris, Rothan Cycles [9 Howmore (South Uist), Tel. +44 1870620283] in South Uist and Barra Cycle Hire [29 Brendan’s Rd (Castlebay, Barra), Tel. +44 1871810284] in Castlebay.




OUTER HEBRIDES Northern peat moors and a cliffy coastline are just some of the natural ornaments on the isle of Lewis (pop. 19,000). A part of the largest island (Lewis and Harris) of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, Lewis nestles the largest settlement, Stornoway, and a diverse environment that supports a variety of plant and animal species, most of which thrive in conservation areas. Several archaeological sites are also preserved on the island, including the Callanish Stones, a group of over 50 stones that date as far back as 3000 BC, and the Pictish Carloway Broch.

The island, like most of the Outer Hebrides, observes the Sabbath (Sunday) quite religiously. Most shops, restaurants and petrol stations are closed on Sundays, and some strict locals do not do their chores. Instead, the day is devoted to bible-reading, prayer and worship. The more relaxed or less-pious locals also observe the day, often enjoying quiet quality time with their loved ones.

(Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] operates ferries to and from Lewis. The circular route along the A857 and A858 will take you around the island to most of its attractions.


OUTER HEBRIDES Gearrannan Blackhouse villageArnol
 The small village of Arnol on the west coast of Lewis was once a thriving town with many crofts. Today the village is more known for its Blackhouse Museum [Tel. +44 1851710395, £4/£1.60], about 3 kilometers west of Barvas off the A858.  A thorough look into the traditional crafting way of life that once dominated the area, the blackhouse donned a turf roof that was kept dry by a central fire inside the house. The fire also kept people and animals in the house warm. Widely assumed to be named after peat smoke stains and a dark interior, blackhouses on Lewis were named as such to distinguish them from the newer white houses – cottages with mortared stone walls.

Garelin
The crafting town of Garenin (pop. 80) on Lewis’ west coast is mostly known for is the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village [www.gearrannan.com]. Lived in until 1974, the blackhouse village is made up of nine preserved, thatched-roof blackhouses, including one that houses the Blackhouse Museum [Tel. +44 1851643416, ad/ch £2.50/ £1]. The museum exhibits authentic byres and working looms and has a small café. Some blackhouses are available for booking as self-catering accommodation cottages, while one houses Na Gearrannan Hostel, a warm and cozy option for budget travelers that is quite spacious.

OUTER HEBRIDES dun carlowayCarloway
Looking over a scenic loch and out to the southern mountains, Carloway (pop. 500) makes for a great trip if you are into history and nature. The town is part of the district of Carloway which falls in part within the parishes of Uig and Lochs. The Carloway Bridge that crosses the Carloway River and Pentland Road was built in the mid-19th century and is one of the oldest flyovers in Scotland.

The town preserves the ruins of Dun Carloway Broch, a 2000-year-old drystone tower of defense with spooky little entranceways. There is an interactive display at its visitor centre [Tel. +44 1851643338, admission free].

Stornoway
The burgh of Stornoway (pop. 9,000), is the largest settlement in the Western Isles, often dubbed the ‘capital’ of Lewis. It’s sheltered natural harbour was visited by Vikings who settled here, establishing two bases for subsequent raids. The name “Stornoway” is derived from its Old Norse name Stjórnavágr meaning Steering Bay. Although less attractive, it is an important port and major town of Outer Hebrides, and is also a good example of a town that observes the Christian Holy Sabbath; most shops and restaurants are closed on Sunday. When in town, be sure to try the Stornoway black pudding, praised as one of the UK’s top gourmet versions of the dish.

The Museum nan Eilean [Francis Street, Tel. +44 1851709266, admission free] is an intriguing stop which tells of the island’s history and culture and the impact of advancements over the decades. An Lanntair [Kenneth Street, Tel. +44 1851703307] is the cultural centre in the heart of town which features a theatre and cinema, a café-restaurant and contemporary art exhibitions. Since almost nothing is open on Sunday, opt for strolls in the wooded park across the river, the site of the Victorian Lews Castle.

Calmac [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] operates ferries to and from the harbour. MacLennan Coaches [Tel. +44 1851702114] operates a circular route to Callanish, Carloway and Arnol which make for a good day trip collectively. The airport [Tel. +44 1851707400, www.hial.co.uk/stornoway-airport] is just over 3 kilometers from town, next to Melbost.

Callanish
OUTER HEBRIDES Callanish stone circleCallanish (pop. 900), or Calanais in Scottish Gaelic, sits on the western side of the isle of Lewis. Just under 20 kilometers from Stornoway, the village is known for the Callanish Standing Stones, a cross-shaped megalithic structure recognized as one of the most complete stone circles in Britain.

The Calanais Visitor Centre [Tel. +44 1851621422, www.callanishvisitorcentre.co.uk, £2] provides information on surrounding monuments. It features the Story of the Stones walk-through exhibition explaining the stones' history and function. The Stones (Clachan Chalanais / Tursachan Chalanais) were largely built between 2900 and 2600 BC. Thirteen primary stones form a circle with an overall Celtic-cross layout. At the tallest stone is the entrance to a burial cairn, a part of the monument that was later added to the site.

Sitting on a headland that pokes into Loch Roag, Callanish is a somewhat linear settlement with a jetty. Contact the Western Isles Tourist Board in Stornoway (26 Cromwell Street, Stornoway, Lewis, Tel. +44 01851703088] for information on bus services to and from Callanish. 

B8011 road
The B8011 road from Garrynahine to Timsgarry winds through the wilderness to some of Lewis’ most scenic landscapes, including striking white, sandy beaches. A loop road detours north at Miavaig through the Bhaltos Estate towards the white Reef Beach that spans about a mile. Behind the beach there is a basic campsite [£2 per person].

From Miavaig, the B8011 moves on towards Timsgarry and the vast Traigh Uige (Uig Sands), the dunes where walrus-ivory chess pieces were found in the 12th century. 67 of the 78 pieces are in the British Museum of London while the remaining 11 rest in Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland. You’ll find a basic camping ground [£2 per person, toilet only; no showers] on the bay’s southern side.

From Timsgarry, a small road continues south, passing a few smaller beaches (waters can be quite rough for swimming) to Mealista.

 

 


 


OUTER HEBRIDES Harris tweedJoined to the Lewis in the north, the Isle of Harris (pop. 2,000) with its sandy beaches and mini lochs makes up part of the largest island (Lewis and Harris) of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, well-known for Harris Tweed – a hand-woven woolen cloth that was traditionally soaked and walked on in urine during production to make it soft.

Harris is naturally divided into northern and southern halves, connected to each other by a narrow isthmus at the main port and capital village of Tarbert, the arrival point for most visitors. North Harris is the southern tip of Lewis, a mountainous landscape crowned by the Clisham (799m) that is sparsely populated. A bridge links Harris to the island of Scalpay from the east coast.

South Harris commands a less-mountainous expanse with several untouched beaches on its west coast. The east coastal road is known as the “Golden Road” because it was expensive to build in 1897. Extending from Tarbert to Rodel, the road runs through Bays and a number of pretty coastal towns.

The main ferry terminal (Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] is in Tarbert.

Tarbert
The main settlement on the isle of Harris is Tarbert, a name which means isthmus – befitting as it sits on a thin strip of land between North and South Harris. This ferry port, which ferries cars to Uig on the Isle of Skye, is bordered on one side by rocky hills and enclosed by two sea lochs.

The ferry terminal [(Calmac) Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] and bus station are near Hotel Hebrides [Pier Road].


UK OUTER HEBRIDES Mountain stream, Isle of harris, Outer HebridesA859
South from Lewis, the A859 runs through a series of pretty landscapes and striking views as it circumnavigates Seaforth. Ascending past Bowglass and Ardvourlie, with Sgaoth Aird (557m) and Clisham (798m) rising above on either side. Clisham, the highest mountain of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides is a steep Corbett with unprecedented views over its surrounds, on which the A859 hits its peak.

Near Ardvourlie just off the A859 is the lovely Ardvourlie Castle amidst a postcard backdrop. Further on, the A859 runs southward until the turn-off to Rhenigidale, which had only become conveniently accessible after construction of the access road. Onward, the route steeply climbs Toddun (528m). Take in the fine eastern views of mainland across Minch and western views of North Harris’ mountain range before the A859 heads westward across the hills and then down to the turn-off for the B887 (single track).


Leverburgh
In the early 20th century, the village of Leverburgh, or An-T-Ob, on the Isle of Harris was planned as a major fishing port, but it never quite made it. These days, many of the feet wandering around the village belong to black-faced Cheviot sheep.

Less than 5 kilometers east, Rodel (Roghadal) nestles the 16th-century St. Clement’s Church [admission free]. Hardly used, the church was abandoned after the Reformation. Beneath an ornately carved archway donning images of saints, a niche holds the tomb of Alexander MacLeod.

Kilda Cruises [(Tarbert), Tel. +44 1859502060, www.kildacruises.co.uk, £190] runs half-day trips from Leverburgh to St. Kilda, a remote uninhabited western outpost of Britain. Here you’ll spot members of various colonies of seabirds that thrive on the isle.

Calmac [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] runs a ferry service to and from Leverburgh.


Scottish Islands Outer Hebrides Peat moors at dusk, South Uist, Outer Hebrides Isle of North Uist
A marriage of machair, moorland, beaches and lochs, North Uist (pop. 1,300) is friendly with migratory birds although its scenery lacks the charm of its southern counterpart. The RSPB reserve on the west coast looks out to the little Isle of Vallay, whose eerie deserted mansion is easily reached at low tide. Linked in the north by a causeway is the island of Berneray, while Benbecula is joined to the island’s south, with South Uist further down. The main town on North Uist is Lochmaddy, the entrypoint for visitors from the Southern Isles.

Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] operates ferry services to and from North Uist.

Lochmaddy, or Loch nam Madadh, is the largest population centre on North Uist. The village gets its name, which means Loch of Dogs, from the presence of rock formations on the isle that resemble the canine creatures.

Taìgh Chearsabhagh [Tel. +44 1876500293 / Tel. +44 1876500240, http://taigh-chearsabhagh.org, Galleries: admission free, Museum: ad/ch £2/£1] is a preserved 18th-century inn that has a wildlife display and a contemporary art exhibition. Its charming café with water views serves divine sandwiches – especially with local smoked salmon.

The Uist Outdoor Centre [Cearn Dusgaidh, Tel. +44 1876500480, www.uistoutdoorcentre.co.uk] offers services for all sorts of outdoor activities such as diving and abseiling. The centre has clean and cozy dorms.

Calmac [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] runs a ferry service to and from Lochmaddy.


Isle of South Uist
I
n the Outer Hebrides, the isle of South Uist (pop. 2,200) is one of the last remaining places in Scotland that preserves the Gaelic language. The island is connected to Benbecula, which connects to North Uist. The long and narrow island nestles a number of archaeological sites, including the site where the only prehistoric mummies in Great Britain were found. Beyond the main north-south road are scenic meadows, lovely beaches of the west coast, and otter-friendly sea lochs of the east coast.

Southwest of Loch Druidibeg, coastal Howmore, or Tobha Mòr, is a rustic village that has retained much of its charm. Dominated by Beinn Mhòr (620m), the town preserves crofters’ cottages and medieval chapels – appealing more to culture buffs. Needless to say, the beach fits well with most other visitors to Howmore.

Kildonan Museum [Tel. +44 1878710343, ad/ch £2/free] sits just over 9.5 kilometers south on the main road. Here, an interesting showcase of the life of traditional crofting is accented with furniture, tools and photographs.

You can hire bikes from Rothan [Tel. +44 1870620283, www.rothan.com, from £10 a day] to further explore Howmore and its surrounds. They provide delivery and pick-up services to certain areas for additional costs.

South-eastern Lochboisdale, or Loch Baghasdail, is South Uist's main settlement. Profiting from the herring trade in the 19th century, the ferry port is not quite the charmer in terms of sights and smells.

The tourist office [Tel. +44 1878700286] opens for late ferry arrivals on occasion. Calmac [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] connects Lochboisdale to Oban
.

 


OUTER HEBRIDES Benbecula Isle rural houseLow-lying Benbecula (pop. 1,200) rests off the west coast of Scotland’s mainland in the Outer Hebrides. Caressed by the Atlantic, the island is set between the isles of South Uist and North Uist, connected to both by causeways. Its name is presumably derived from the Scottish Gaelic term “Beinn Na Faoghla” meaning “pennyland of the fords”. 
The main settlement is northwestern Balivanich (“Baile a’Mhanaich” meaning “Town of the Monk”) which is also the administrative centre for the three islands. The town of Lionacleit on the main road of the west coast nestles a small museum and the Lionacleit campus of Lews Castle College. On Benbecula’s southwestern end are the preserved ruins of Borve Castle from the 14th century.

The airport [Tel. +44 01870602310 (Flight Information Desk)] is in the town of Balivanich. Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] runs ferry services to and from the adjoining isles of South Uist and North Uist.

 


OUTER HEBRIDES Castlebay, BarraThe predominantly Gaelic-speaking island of Barra (pop. 1,100) is the most southerly inhabited island of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Amassing roughly 60 square kilometers, the island’s western coast is blessed with white, sandy beaches while its east nestles rocky inlets and its main settlement is Castlebay.

The isle of Barra has strong ties to Clan MacNeil, claiming descent from the O’Neills of Ulster. It is believed that the island takes its name either from Saint Barr, the great-grandson of legendary 4th-century King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages or Saint Finbarr, the founder of Cork. Granted to the MacNeils in 1427 by Alexander, Lord of the Isles, Barra remained under the clan until 1838 when it was sold to Colonel Gordon of Cluny who expelled most of the inhabitants to make way for sheep farming. In 1937, the island was restored to the clan’s ownership when the Barra estate was bought by Robert MacNeil.

Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk] runs ferry services to and from Castlebay. The A888 is a ring road that runs on the island.

OUTER HEBRIDES Kisimul Castle, Barra Castlebay

Castlebay on Barra’s south coast is the isle’s main village that overlooks a bay in the Atlantic. As its name suggests, it is dominated by Kisimul Castle [Tel. +44 1871810313, £5], a 12th-century stronghold of the Clan MacNeil. Gifted to Historic Scotland in 2000 for an annual rental of £1 and a bottle of whisky, some parts of the castle have been modernized, but it retains its overall medieval character.

The main ferry terminal for the isle of Barra is at Castlebay, run by Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) [Tel. +44 1680812343, www.calmac.co.uk]. The A888 is a ring road that connects the village to the rest of the island. Rent bikes at Barra Cycle Hire [29 Brendan’s Rd (Castlebay, Barra), Tel. +44 1871810284] to get around when the weather is fine.