Beyond Skye, across the unpredictable waters of the Minch, lie the wild and windy Outer Hebrides or Outer Isles, also known as the Western Isles, a 130-mile-long archipelago stretching from Lewis and Harris in the north to the Uists and Barra in the south. An elemental beauty pervades the more than 200 islands that make up the Long Isle, as it’s sometimes known; only a handful are inhabited, by a total population of just under 27,000 people.
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The interior of the northernmost island, Lewis, is mostly peat moor, a barren and marshy tract that gives way abruptly to the bare peaks of North Harris. Across a narrow isthmus lies South Harris, presenting some of the finest scenery in Scotland, with wide beaches of golden sand trimming the Atlantic in full view of a rough boulder-strewn interior. Across the Sound of Harris, to the south, a string of tiny, flatter isles – North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist – linked by causeways, offer breezy beaches, whose fine sands front a narrow band of boggy farmland, which, in turn, is mostly bordered by a lower range of hills to the east. Finally, tiny Barra contains all these landscapes in one small Hebridean package, and is a great introduction to the region.
In direct contrast to their wonderful landscapes, villages in the Western Isles are rarely very picturesque. Stornoway, the only real town in the Outer Hebrides, rarely impresses. Many visitors, walkers and nature-watchers forsake the settlements altogether and retreat to secluded cottages and B&Bs.
Gaelic in the Western Isles
The Outer Hebrides remain the heartland of Gaelic culture, with the language spoken by the majority of islanders, though its everyday usage remains under constant threat from the dominance of English. Except in Stornoway, and Balivanich on North Uist, road signs in the Western Isles are almost exclusively in Gaelic; the English names can often provide a rough pronunciation guide. Particularly if you’re driving, it’s a good idea to buy the bilingual Western Isles map, available at most tourist offices.
North Uist (Uibhist a Tuath)
Compared to the mountainous scenery of Harris, North Uist – seventeen miles long and thirteen miles wide – is much flatter and for some comes as something of an anticlimax. More than half the surface area is covered by water, creating a distinctive peaty-brown lochan-studded “drowned landscape”. Most visitors are here for the trout and salmon fishing and the deerstalking, both of which (along with poaching) are critical to the island’s economy. Others come for the smattering of prehistoric sites, the birds, or the sheer peace of this windy isle, and the solitude of North Uist’s vast sandy beaches, which extend – almost without interruption – along the north and west coasts.
South Uist (Uibhist a Deas)
South Uist is arguably the most appealing of the southern chain of islands. The west coast is blessed with some of the region’s finest machair and beaches – a necklace of gold and grey sand strung twenty miles from one end to the other – while the east coast features a ridge of high mountains rising to 2034ft at the summit of Beinn Mhor. However, the chief settlement and ferry port, LOCHBOISDALE, occupying a narrow, bumpy promontory on the southeast coast, is only worth visiting to catch the ferry.
One of the best places to gain access to the sandy shoreline is at TOBHA MÒR (Howmore), a pretty little crofting settlement with a fair number of restored houses, many still thatched, including one distinctively roofed in brown heather. Close by are the shattered, lichen-encrusted remains of no fewer than four medieval churches and chapels, and a burial ground now harbouring just a few scattered graves. From the village church, it’s an easy walk across the flower-infested machair to the gorgeous beach.
In addition to jerseys, ponies and Bonnie Prince Charlie, Eriskay’s other claim to fame came in 1941 when the 8000-ton SS Politician or Polly as it’s fondly known, sank on its way from Liverpool to Jamaica, along with its cargo of bicycle parts, £3 million in Jamaican currency and 264,000 bottles of whisky, inspiring Compton MacKenzie’s book – and the Ealing comedy (filmed here in 1948) – Whisky Galore! (released in the US as Tight Little Island). The real story was somewhat less romantic, especially for the nineteen islanders imprisoned in Inverness for helping themselves to the whisky. The ship’s stern can still be seen to the northwest of Calvey Island at low tide, and one of the original bottles (and lots of other related memorabilia) is on show in the island’s modern pub, Am Politician, on the west coast.