archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland

The Hebrides (Scottish Gaelic: Innse Gall) are the islands off the west coast of Scotland - an inner and outer archipelago are separated by the Minch sea channel. They are rugged and thinly populated, but scenic especially on the inner islands. They're far from the cities and feel even further, but straightforward to reach by air or ferry.

The Hebrides do not include the islands north of the Scottish mainland, the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos.

Main islands edit

The map points below are for the principal settlement on each island.
  Inner Hebrides
The islands nearer the Scottish mainland
  • 1 Islay has a scenic coast, a boggy interior, and over a dozen whisky distilleries. Bowmore is the main village.
  • 2 Jura is reached via Islay. It's bleak; Craighouse is its tiny village.
  • 3 Colonsay is rugged yet fertile.
  • 4 Mull has Tobermory as its colourful main village. Travel via Mull to reach Iona.
  • 5 Tiree is sandy and low-lying. Coll to its east is more rugged.
  • 6 Skye has dramatic mountain scenery. Its main town is Portree. Raasay is a short ferry ride east.
  Outer Hebrides
The "Western Isles", further from the Scottish mainland.

Understand edit

"The Western Islands of Scotland . . . were called by the ancient geographers Æbudæ and Hebrides; but they knew so little of them, that they neither agreed in their name nor number."
- Martin Martin from Skye in 1703 wrote one of the earliest accounts of this region.

The Picts are the earliest people we know of here (there were obviously predecessors) but they were supplanted by the Vikings from the 7th century, then by Dál Riata the Gaelic forerunner to Alba and Scotland. The Hebridean bedrock is impermeable so where it lies flat, it's covered in boggy heath, and elsewhere it rises as gnarly hills, equally difficult to farm. There was little reason for anyone to visit, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the population drained away, either voluntarily or driven out by the Highland Clearances to make way for sheep. This left an empty, treeless and impoverished region, though the bonus was that its natural scenery and prehistoric monuments were preserved.

The revival came with the development of modern transport and tourism, attracting new businesses. This most affected the Inner Hebrides, and scenic Skye and easy-to-reach Mull can feel frankly touristy in mid-summer. But the visitors only look many because their destinations are small, it's easy to escape, and there are long idyllic beaches and rugged headlands that you will have to yourself. Even Skye and Mull are tranquil outside July / Aug peak season.

Get in edit

By plane edit

Flying saves a long road journey to the mainland ferry port, though you'll need to book car hire at the other end. Most flights are by Loganair: they fly from Glasgow (GLA IATA) daily to Islay, Tiree, Barra, Benbecula and Stornoway; less often from Edinburgh or Inverness. (Barra is the airport where you famously land on the beach, tide permitting.) Hebridean fly from Oban to Coll, Tiree, Islay and Colonsay, but Oban has no connection to mainland air routes, and the service is basically a school bus in rinky-dinky BNF Islanders.

By boat edit

Kisimul Castle from the Barra ferry

All the main ferry routes are operated by Calmac. They carry vehicles and sail year round, though in winter the service is reduced and more prone to weather disruption. You always need to book vehicles, and foot passengers should book in peak season. (Island accommodation is limited, so confirm this first then book your ferry immediately.) The ships are comfortable enough but the fleet is ageing, with cancellations through breakdowns, and replacement vessels way behind schedule and over budget. However the main consideration for travellers is getting to the mainland ferry port: these are some distance even from Scottish cities, so you likely need a stopover.

  • Kennacraig is west of Tarbert in Argyll and has buses from Glasgow heading to Campbeltown. Ferries sail to Port Ellen or Port Askaig on Islay - the latter sometimes continues to Colonsay. You reach Jura by a short crossing from Port Askaig. The little island of Gigha is a short ferry ride from Tayinloan south of Kennacraig.
  • Oban is a substantial town with buses and trains from Glasgow. Ferries sail to Mull (Craignure), Lismore, Tiree, Coll, Colonsay and Barra, plus the inshore islet of Kerrara.
  • Mallaig has trains from Glasgow via Fort William. Ferries sail to Armadale on Skye (though most visitors nowadays use the bridge), to Lochboisedale on South Uist, to the Small Isles of Rùm, Muck, Eigg and Canna, and to the "island" of Knoydart, a mainland peninsula not connected by road.
  • Uig on Skye is effectively on the mainland, and buses from Glasgow run via Fort William, Skye bridge and Portree. Ferries sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on Harris.
  • Ullapool has buses from Inverness which connect with those from Glasgow and Edinburgh. The ferry sails to Stornoway on Lewis.

By road edit

Since 1995 Skye has been linked by road to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh, terminus of trains from Inverness. The A87 crosses two bridges (toll-free) and an islet to Kyleakin, Broadford, Sconser (for Raasay ferry), Portree and Uig.

Get around edit

Old Man of Storr

By boat edit

Inter-island ferries you might use are

  • Port Askaig on Islay to Jura
  • Fionnphort on Mull to Iona
  • Ardmhòr on Barra to Eriskay, most southerly of the chain through South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist to Berneray.
  • Berneray in the Uists to Leverburgh on Harris, linked by road to Tarbert and to Lewis.
  • Coll to Tiree is simply the continuation of the ferry from Oban.

Port Askaig - Jura and Fionnphort - Iona have local operators, no booking, just turn up and go. They may feature on Calmac timetables but that info is not definitive.

Other routes are boat trips rather than ferries. These include Mull to Staffa (for Fingal's Cave), and Leverburgh to St Kilda.

By road edit

Several islands are connected by road, the grandest example being the Uist chain between Berneray and Eriskay. Others are Great Bernera linked to Lewis, two islands both called Grimsay linked to Benbecula, and Vatersay linked to Barra; all are inhabited. The road causeways are well clear of the sea, passable at all tides and in all but the worst Atlantic weather.

The main bus routes are:

- across Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh to Broadford, Portree and Uig.
- across Mull from Tobermory to Craignure ferry port and Fionnphort for Iona.
- the length of the Outer Hebrides from Stornoway to Barra

The main roads plied by these buses are mostly two-lane, but sections on Mull, and almost all minor roads, are single track lanes with passing places. They're in good repair as they don't carry the pounding traffic of mainland roads.

See edit

Callanish stone circle
  • Callanish stone circle on Lewis is the outstanding prehistoric structure in the Hebrides. The Lewis chessmen were found nearby, but you'll have to visit the British Museum in London or the NMS in Edinburgh to see them.
  • Black houses were the traditional Hebridean hovel until late Victorian times. They had a single long room, a peat fire burning in the middle with no chimney, and cattle kept at one end. Several have been preserved as museums or living spaces, with examples on all the main islands. People decamped into cleaner "white houses" but Tiree adopted a curious hybrid, the "pudding house".
  • Castles are mostly gnarly medieval ruins; Kisimul on Barra is the best of these. Those converted into mansions that you can visit include Duart Castle at Craignure on Mull, Dunvegan on Skye and Lews in Stornoway.
  • Iona has an elegantly rebuilt cathedral amidst other ruins. The monasteries of the Hebrides were wrecked by the Vikings, restored by the Normans, then fell derelict again during the Reformation. However their graveyards continued in use, and some were incorporated into later churches, as on Lismore.
  • Trotternish the northeast peninsula of Skye has the most spectacular scenery of that island, with formations such as the Quiraing and Old Man of Storr.
  • Fingal's Cave on Staffa is the most dramatic of the basalt scenery produced by Atlantic eruptions, extending through Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland to the active volcanoes of Iceland.
  • The Northern Lights are frequently visible in winter, as the Hebrides are free of light pollution. But not in summer, as it never gets properly dark.

Do edit

"Pudding house" on Tiree
  • Hebridean Way is a hiking and cycling trail across the Outer Hebrides from Vatersay to Stornoway and the Butt of Lewis.
  • Beaches in many places are long, sandy and unspoiled, but the water is cold. You need a chunky wetsuit for activities such as surfing, windsurfing or kayaking.
  • Check the tides then walk to Orosay / Oronsay, it hardly matters which, as it's the generic Viking term for a tidal island. Examples lie off Barra, Colonsay (with a ruined priory), Coll and Skye, and the Uists have a dozen.
  • Music festivals are held on Mull in April, Islay and Skye in May, and Lewis in July. Look out also for Highland Games, clan gatherings and agricultural shows in summer.

Buy edit

If you bring a car, fill upon the mainland before coming over. The islands are quite large and you'll spend a lot of time in third gear.

The inhabited islands have small stores. Only Stornoway is big enough for a proper supermarket; it's closed on Sunday.

Sleep edit

Glengorm Castle near Tobermory is a hotel

Wild camping is a legal right in Scotland, so long as you stay away from houses and don't disturb livestock. But overnight parking is restricted - the police will fine and move on anyone parking overnight on the roadside. The Hebrides have a real problem in summer with caravans and RVs cluttering the lay-bys and passing places, so you may be turned back at the ferry port if you can't show you've booked accommodation at your destination.

Most islands have designated camping and caravan sites, though most close for winter. Don't camp in summer if you react badly to midge bites - they greet arrivals in hungry hordes.

All short-term accommodation in Scotland must be registered, otherwise it's illegal and probably a flea-pit or fire-trap. The law (which does not apply to England) comes fully into force in July 2024, so for the time being proprietors can reasonably say that their registration is still being processed. Be increasingly sceptical as the deadline approaches. It's unwelcome extra bureaucracy for B&Bs, campsites and so on but in the long-term should better protect travellers and honest providers.

Small independent guesthouses - B&Bs - are the mainstay of Hebridean accommodation; many close in winter. Chains such as Premier Inn have a presence at the mainland ferry ports but have baulked at the economics of setting up on the islands.

You can stay in a castle in Stornoway, Tarbert and Tobermory.

Stay safe edit

The Paps of Jura

Always beware traffic. The road may look like a deserted country lane, but any moment a truck will hurtle along in a rush to catch the ferry.

Take usual care of valuables. Island folk are honest but what about the visitors? - those roughnecks you saw getting liquored up on the ferry for example.

The Hebrides are on about the same latitude as Labrador. The Atlantic means it's never intensely cold, and the hills are of no great height, but the wind and driving rain can soon induce hypothermia, even in summer. You'll be in a sparsely populated area, often with no mobile signal to call for help. And the cold sea always demands your respect.

Pack enough of your usual medications and some spare, in case of disruptions to your homeward journey. Only the larger towns have a pharmacy, similarly low on stock if deliveries have been disrupted.

Go next edit

  • Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland are a complete contrast, low-lying with green fields and bright red bedrock. They're studded with Viking and prehistoric sites.
  • Shetland Islands further north are low-lying and treeless. Riven by fjords, they're Norse not Gaelic.
  • Islands in the Firth of Clyde, principally Arran and the Bute, are within a day-trip of Glasgow, so they get busy on summer weekends.
  • Mainland isolates: Knoydart has no road connection so you have to take a ferry. Ardnamurchan has a roundabout road link but the ferry is quicker.

This region travel guide to Hebrides is a usable article. It gives a good overview of the region, its sights, and how to get in, as well as links to the main destinations, whose articles are similarly well developed. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.