The Western Isles
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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.
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.
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 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.
Four miles wide and eight miles long, Barra is like the Western Isles in miniature. It has sandy beaches backed by machair, glacial mountains, prehistoric ruins, Gaelic culture, and a welcoming Catholic population of around 1300.
Harris, south of Lewis, is much hillier, more dramatic and much more appealing than its neighbour, its boulder-strewn slopes descending to aquamarine bays of dazzling, white sand. The “island” is clearly divided by a minuscule isthmus into the wild, inhospitable mountains of North Harris and the gentler landscape and sandy shores of South Harris.
A mile or so from Rubha Reanais (Renish Point), the southern tip of Harris, is the old port of ROGHADAL (Rodel), where a smattering of ancient stone houses lies among the hillocks. On top of one of these grassy humps is St Clement’s Church (Tur Chliamainn), burial place of the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan in Skye. Dating from the 1520s, the church’s bare interior is distinguished by its wall tombs; look out, too, for the Sheela-na-gig (a naked pre-Christian fertility goddess) halfway up the south side of the tower. Unusually, she has a brother displaying his genitalia too, below a carving of St Clement on the west face.
The northernmost island in the Hebridean archipelago, Lewis is the largest and most populous of the Western Isles. Stornoway, on the east coast, is the only substantial town in the islands, but it’s really only useful for stocking up on provisions or catching the bus. Most of Lewis’s 20,000 inhabitants live in the crofting and fishing villages strung out along the northwest coast, where you’ll find the islands’ best-preserved prehistoric remains – including the Calanais standing stones. The landscape is mostly flat peat bog, but the shoreline is more dramatic, as is the south of the island. Here, where Lewis is physically joined with Harris, the land rises to just over 1800ft, providing an exhilarating backdrop for the excellent beaches that pepper the isolated west coast.
At Carlabhagh a mile-long road leads off north to the beautifully remote coastal settlement of GEARRANNAN (Garenin). Here, rather than re-create a single museum-piece blackhouse as at Arnol, a whole cluster of nine thatched crofters’ houses – the last of which was abandoned in 1974 – have been restored and put to a variety of uses. As an ensemble, they also give a great impression of what a blackhouse village must have been like.
Overlooking the sheltered, islet-studded waters of Loch Ròg, on the west coast, are the islands’ most dramatic prehistoric ruins, the Calanais standing stones, which occupy a serene lochside setting. These monoliths – nearly fifty slabs of gnarled and finely grained gneiss up to 15ft high – were transported here between 3000 and 1500 BC, but their exact function remains a mystery. No one knows for certain why the ground plan resembles a colossal Celtic cross, nor why there’s a central burial chamber. It’s likely that such a massive endeavour was prompted by the desire to predict the seasonal cycle upon which these early farmers were entirely dependent, and indeed many of the stones are aligned with the positions of the sun and the stars. Whatever the reason for their existence, there’s certainly no denying the powerful primeval presence, not to mention sheer beauty, of the stones.