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.

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.

Brief history

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”).

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Scotland features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

The most beautiful country in the world – as voted by you

There's nothing like an amazing view to inspire you to book your next trip, whether you're drawn by rolling countryside, isolated islands or soaring mountain …

30 Aug 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
On the fringes of Edinburgh: 8 ways to explore the city's quirky side

On the fringes of Edinburgh: 8 ways to explore the city's quirky side

During August, all rules and social conventions are put to one side when Edinburgh hosts the world’s biggest arts festival. Actors perform improvised solil…

30 Aug 2017 • Greg Dickinson insert_drive_file Article
A taste of Glasgow's grit: a foodie's guide to the city

A taste of Glasgow's grit: a foodie's guide to the city

Neil McQuillian embarked on a foodie tour of Scotland's "second" city and discovered just what makes the place tick. 

10 Aug 2017 • Neil McQuillian local_activity Special feature
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month