Boasting two of TripAdvisor’s ‘Best Islands in Europe’, the remote Outer Hebridean Isles beckon the intrepid traveller looking for the ultimate tranquil holiday. Each island is a gem that weaves a spell over visitors with ethereal landscapes, rich wildlife and deep history- and of course, the occasional ‘wee dram’ of island spirits.
The stunning landscapes, the geology, wildlife, heritage and scenery of the Outer Hebrides are truly awe-inspiring. The Outer Hebrides retain a culture that is different to mainland Scotland- Gaelic is often spoken as a first language and there remains a sense of culture and tradition on each of the inhabited Islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.
Barra Airport. Image courtesy of VisitScotland
From landing on the beach at Barra to walking among the Callanish Stones on Lewis, a trip to the Outer Hebrides offers some of the most breath-taking experiences on the planet.
When you discover the Isle of Barra, you’ll see that it lives up to its reputation as the ‘Garden of the Hebrides.’ The island boasts 1,000 species of wild flowers, and some of the rarest birds in Scotland, including the mysterious corncrake.
Winner of a ‘Most Beautiful Island’ competition, Barra is celebrated for its historic sites, white beaches and abundance of sea lochs brimming with brown and sea trout.
As you approach Barra’s port of Castlebay via ferry, the dramatic ruins of Kisimul Castle on a small rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay will greet you. Wildlife lovers will want to bring binoculars and take a boat trip in search of dolphins, seals, otters and even sometimes, killer whales, who swim around the island.
At the end of June, runners enjoy the 12.5-mile ‘Barrathon’ and golfers will relish a round at Barra Golf Club, the western-most golf course in the UK.
Barra is the most southerly of the inhabited Outer Hebridean islands and boasts the only beach runway in the world to handle scheduled airline services.
Traigh Mhor beach has been home to Barra Airport for 80 years and has been voted as the world’s most spectacular landing strip. The beach stretches between the villages of Ardhmhor and Eoligarry on the northern tip of the island. In between high tides and aircraft landings, the beach is open to the public. It is very popular with cockle collectors, photographers, walkers and those that want to just gather to watch the out-flight entertainment.
Over the causeway from Barra is Vatersay, renowned for its secluded beaches, where otters, seals and herons frolic. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flower, Calystegia soldanella, is found only in Scotland on Vatersay and Eriskay, where legend has it the Prince himself dropped seeds he brought from France.
Whisky Galore in Eriskay
For a small remote island, Eriskay has a lot to brag about, from the famous wild Eriskay ponies to the seamless Eriskay jersey. But perhaps the island’s biggest claim to fame is as the real location of Whisky Galore!
Eriskay is the ideal place to celebrate the joys of whisky, with stories now legendary of islanders recovering some of the 250,000 bottles of whisky stowed inside cargo ship SS Politician, which ran aground off the coast of Eriskay in 1941, taking over quarter million bottles of whisky and a large amount of banknotes to the bottom of the bay, inspiring the book and film Whisky Galore!
The film inspired a recent remake starring Gregor Fisher and Eddie Izzard.
So now, more than seventy years after the island became awash with a magical amber cargo, Eriskay is set to highlight the ‘uisge beatha’once more. Here, there will be a true Outer Hebridean welcome waiting and some great drams, too…chì sinn ann sibh!
Historical North and South Uist
South Uist has more than its fair share of history, scenery and wildlife. It boasts sandy beaches and crystal blue waters that rival the Caribbean and a dramatic mountain range. Settled since Neolithic times, it is home to the largest Viking settlement known in Scotland. Archaeology buffs are treated to many sites on the island, including chambered tombs, roundhouses, brochs and castles. Other attractions include the Kildonan Museum, which houses the 16th century Clanranald Stone, and the ruins of the birthplace of Flora McDonald, the Jacobite heroine who helped smuggle Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat at Culloden. Golfers looking for a challenge won’t want to miss a round at Askernish Golf Course, the oldest in the Western Isles.
History and natural beauty define North Uist. Water lovers swim and snorkel at Traigh Lingeigh, while wildlife watchers spot Arctic terns, gannets and corncrakes. Golfers can enjoy a round or two overlooking the shimmering Atlantic at Sollas Golf Course. And with half the island covered in fresh and salt-water lochs, it’s a fisherman’s paradise. Once the home of vast Viking settlements, history comes alive with primeval stone circles, burial cairns and one of the oldest crannog sites in Scotland.
Berneray and Grimsay belong to the sea
Connected to the Uists by a causeway, the Isle of Berneray is renowned for its serene setting. Sacred stone circles and remnants of Viking occupation remind visitors of Berneray’s ancient history. Beachcombing is a favourite pastime, with miles of unspoiled sand framed by lush green grass and vibrant wildflowers.
Also connected to North Uist via a causeway, Grimsay belongs to the sea. With a booming shellfish and traditional boatbuilding industry, this charming island is dotted by small crofts and fishing settlements.
Lewis and Harris- The Western Isles
The Isle of Harris and Isle of Lewis are ranked among the ‘Best Islands in Europe’ by TripAdvisor. The two isles are linked as one island and are otherwise known as the Western Isles – the largest of the Outer Hebrides. Fantastic natural produce from land and sea, including the internationally recognised Stornoway black pudding, are among the many other ingredients that make the Western Isles a must-see destination.
Called the “The Heather Isle” by ancient poets, Lewis makes visitors feel as if they have travelled back in time with ancient monuments, thatched cottages and peat cutting farmers. Archaeological sites dot the island, including the Callanais, or Callanish, stone circle, one of Europe’s most important Neolithic sites, as well as Dun Carloway broch, the best preserved in the Outer Hebrides.
The Callanais Standing Stones are an extraordinary cross-shaped setting of ancient monoliths, erected 5,000 years ago. They predate Stonehenge and were an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. Callanais is a big draw for tourists and the archaeology community alike, receiving almost 40,000 visitors arriving per year to see the silent grey monoliths, and wonder how ancient peoples conceived their construction so many millennia ago. South Lewis, along with Harris and North Uist, is designated as a National Scenic Area, where visitors can spot golden eagles, red deer, otters and seals.
Foodies find lots to love in Stornoway, home of the famous black pudding, the Hebridean Brewing Company, and traditional smoked kippers and salmon from Stornoway Fish Smoker.
For gin and whisky lovers, Abhainn Dearg is the only distillery in the Western Isles and is located on the far west coast of Lewis in Uig. The journey involves single-track roads that twist and wind through some of the most spectacular scenery. The drive from Stornoway is roughly an hour, but a lot longer if you meander to take in the views.
Adjoining the Isle of Lewis, Harris boasts some of the most varied landscapes in Britain, from sugar sand beaches to the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides- not to mention some of the oldest rocks in the world. The main settlement, Rodel, is home of the St. Clement Kirk, the finest surviving medieval church in the Hebrides after Iona Abbey.
Harris is famous for its spectacular beaches, and there is none more perfect, perhaps anywhere in the world, than Luskentyre Beach on the southwest coastline. At high tide it is submerged under crystal clear waters, looking across to Taransay -
made famous as the setting for BBC’s Castaway - and the mountains of north Harris. Accessible from a small single-track road that arches across the north side of the bay, Luskentyre is fairly easy to reach. You’ve arrived at arguably the best beach in Britain!
Benbecula and St. Kilda- dark and mysterious
Known as “The Dark Island” in Gaelic poetry, Benbecula lies between North and South Uist and is home to a legendary mermaid who is said to be buried here. Housing a military base, this tiny island offers one-stop shopping with supermarkets, local shops, eateries and coffee houses.
West of Benbecula is the most remote location in the British Isles, the archipelago of St. Kilda. Rugged and isolated, St. Kilda was abandoned in 1930 and the islands moved into private hands. Now designated a national nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is home to world’s largest colonies of gannets, puffins and fulmars in Britain as well as the highest sea stacks.
The romantic Outer Hebrides may seem like they are at the edge of the world- after all, isn't that their appeal? But it is easy to get there from Oban, the official Gateway to the Isles, which makes a perfect base for exploring. Caledonian MacBrayne ferries bound for the islands leave regularly from Oban, so why not take a 'Daycation' or spend a few days on one of these idyllic Hebridean islands? Escape the hustle and bustle to the far edge of Europe, where Gaelic culture thrives, Mother Nature puts on her best show and the ghosts of Vikings wander the machair!