Scotland // Skye and the Western Isles //

The Western Isles

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.

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.

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