A procession of Hebridean islands, islets and reefs off the northwest shore of Scotland, Skye and the Western Isles between them boast some of the country’s most alluring scenery. It’s here that the turbulent seas of the Atlantic smash up against an extravagant shoreline hundreds of miles long, a geologically complex terrain whose rough rocks and mighty sea cliffs are interrupted by a thousand sheltered bays and, in the far west, a long line of sweeping sandy beaches. The islands’ interiors are equally dramatic, a series of formidable mountain ranges soaring high above great chunks of boggy peat moor, a barren wilderness enclosing a host of lochans, or tiny lakes.
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Each island has its own character, though the grouping splits quite neatly into two. Skye and the Small Isles – the improbably named Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna – are part of the Inner Hebrides, which also include the islands of Argyll. Beyond Skye, across the unpredictable waters of the Minch, lie the Outer Hebrides, nowadays known as the Western Isles, a 130-mile-long archipelago stretching from Lewis and Harris in the north to Barra in the south. The whole region has four obvious areas of outstanding natural beauty to aim for: on Skye, the harsh peaks of the Cuillin and the bizarre rock formations of the Trotternish peninsula; on the Western Isles, the mountains of North Harris and the splendid sandy beaches that string along the Atlantic seaboard of South Harris and the Uists.
Skye and the Western Isles were first settled by Neolithic farming peoples in around 4000 BC. They lived along the coast, where they are remembered by scores of remains, from passage graves through to stone circles, most famously at Calanais (Callanish) on Lewis. Viking colonization gathered pace from 700 AD onwards – on Lewis four out of every five place names is of Norse origin – and it was only in 1266 that the islands were returned to the Scottish crown. James VI (James I of England), a Stuart and a Scot, though no Gaelic-speaker, was the first to put forward the idea of clearing the Hebrides. However, it wasn’t until after the Jacobite uprisings, in which many Highland clans backed the losing side, that the Clearances began in earnest.
The isolation of the Hebrides exposed them to the whims and fancies of the various merchants and aristocrats who bought them up. Time and again, from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day, both the land and its people were sold to the highest bidder. Some proprietors were well-meaning, others simply forced the inhabitants onto ships bound for North America. Always the islanders were powerless and almost everywhere they were driven from their ancestral homes. However, their language survived, ensuring a degree of cultural continuity, especially in the Western Isles, where even today the first language of the majority remains Gaelic (pronounced “gallic”).