The Outer Hebrides is the geographical name of the westernmost chain of islands in the Hebrides, west of the Scottish Highlands. They're sparsely populated with poor soil and few resources; historically they were separate local government areas, which hindered their development and culture. But during the 20th century many islands became linked by road, and politically they were linked into the Western Isles (Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan Siar), so nowadays they're usually called by that name.
Many of the islands are nowadays linked by road. From north to south (which roughly corresponds to largest to smallest) the island groups are:
- Lewis and Harris have always been the same island, but divided by mountains with (until modern times) only rough tracks across. It was easier to sail between them, as if they were divided by sea, so they became separate counties. Lewis, the northern and larger section, is mostly low-lying. Inland is infertile heath, but the east coastal strip is farmland. Here is 1 Stornoway, the only place in the entire Hebrides that you could call a town, with an airport and ferry port. To the south (by what is nowadays a good main road) is Harris. It's rugged but more scenic, with the small port of 2 Tarbert as its main village. 3 Leverburgh is a tiny but historically important village nearby. Off the northwest coast of Lewis, 4 Great Bernera is a small island that is nowadays linked by road.
- This series of islands became linked by road during the 20th C, to create one very long island. They are mostly low-lying heathland with a myriad small lochs. Berneray is small, and was obscure until it became linked - Prince Charles (HRH Prince of Wales) once spent a week working as a crofter here, and no-one noticed him. On North Uist, 5 Lochmaddy is the main village and ferry port. Next south, 6 Benbecula has an airport and the little village of Balivanich. South Uist, the longest island, has a ridge to the east and the highway and crofts to the west: the ferry port of 7 Lochboisdale is the largest settlement. The last link in the chain of causeways joins the island of Eriskay.
Thus, these three island groups all have settlements, regular public transport to each other and to the Scottish mainland, and visitor amenities. They're quiet except at the height of summer. Around them are even smaller islands, innumerably many: the Hebrides have a fractal terrain so however closely you focus in, more islands swim into view. A few have private dwellings but most just have sheep or sea-birds. Little islands important for wild-life, sometimes visited by boat trips, include the Shiant Islands south of Lewis and the Monach Islands off North Uist.
- Lonely, uninhabited St Kilda lies 40 miles west out in the Atlantic.
- This is an archipelago, and there's no island called "St Kilda". The largest island is 9 Hirta with towering sea cliffs; the three main others are Dùn, Soay and Boreray. Their tiny population led a precarious existence, crofting and gathering birds' eggs from the cliffs, until illness and other hardships forced them out in 1930. Nowadays volunteers work on the islands to preserve the habitat and ancient farmsteads; there's no visitor accommodation and you can only get in by boat in very favourable weather.
The Outer Hebrides are a fascinating destination. The scenery is beautiful. The landscape is rocky and mountainous, but also lush and verdant - due in no small part to the large amounts of rain which tend to fall. It is easy to find a quiet peaceful spot.
The Gaelic language and culture is appealing. At a practical level this means that place names on road signs are in Gaelic, but the bus timetables use the English names!
Religion still plays an important part in many people’s lives. In Lewis and Harris this is often in the form of Protestant Churches. As a result the Sabbath (Sunday) is respected, so you are unlikely to find shops etc. open on a Sunday. Activities happening on a Sunday often are opposed locally. In contrast Barra and South Uist are mainly Catholic, and many businesses typically open after midday on a Sunday. Benbecula is half-Protestant and half-Catholic, and one can still find businesses open on a Sunday there.
The main languages are Gaelic (Gàidhlig) and English, with Gaelic (pronounced in English as 'gallick') being the dominant language in people's homes. However, outside their homes, Gaelic is mainly used as a social and cultural language. Virtually all Gaelic speakers over the age of 5 speak English to a near-native fluency.
Most modern maps and road signs show the local place names in Gaelic with the English name shown below, usually in a smaller and often illegible font. However, bus timetables will exclusively use their English names as will locals when speaking English.
Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) operate car ferries throughout the Hebrides. On the mainland, which nowadays includes Skye, buses connect between Glasgow and the ferry ports. (No similar connections at the island ports since the ferry lands in what passes for the central metropolis.) The ferry routes are:
- Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis two daily, 2 hours 30 mins (Nov-March only one on Sunday).
- Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris one or two daily, 1 hour 40 mins (Nov-March some days in just one direction).
- Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist one or two daily, 1 hour 45 mins (Nov-March some days in just one direction).
- Oban to Castlebay on Barra daily, 5 hours (Nov-March not Thurs or Sun).
- Mallaig to Lochboisdale on South Uist daily, 3 hours 30 mins (Nov-March not Tues or Thurs, and on some days sailing from Oban instead of Mallaig).
See "Get around" for the ferries linking between the Outer Hebridean islands.
There are three airports in the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway (SYY) on Lewis is the best connected, with direct flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness on the mainland, and to Benbecula in "The Uists". Benbecula (BEB) has flights to Glasgow and Stornoway; Barra (BRR) only to Glasgow. All flights are operated by Loganair.
- Caledonian MacBrayne run the two short ferry crossings between island groups:
- Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris 3 or 4 every day, one hour.
- Eriskay to Barra up to 5 per day, 40 mins.
Buses reach all corners but are sparse M-Sa with nothing on a Sunday.
The Western Isles Overland Route is a linked bus / ferry service the length of the Outer Hebrides through Barra, the Uists and Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, and M-Sa it's possible to go the whole way in one day. There are half-a-dozen services part-route (eg Lewis to Harris), but for the full route you need to set off from Castlebay Barra at 06:20, Lochboisedale South Uist at 09:00, Benbecula at 11:10, Lochmaddy North Uist at 11:30 and Tarbert Harris at 16:20, to reach Stornoway by 17:30. Going south, you leave Stornoway 09:30 to reach Tarbert at 10:45, Lochmaddy at 13:45, Benbecula at 14:25, Lochboisdale at 15:25 and reach Castlebay at 17:35.
The Outer Hebrides are popular for cycle tourists, generally taking around a week to cycle from Barra to Stornoway.
- Ask Car Hire, Creagorry, Benbecula,, ☏ . From £31.
- Mackinnon Self Drive, 18 Inaclete Road, Stornoway, Lewis, HS1 2RB, ☏ . From £30 per day.
- Car Hire Hebrides, Stornoway Airport, Lewis (Offices in Stornoway Airport, Stornoway Ferry Terminal, Tarbert, Balivanich Airport and Barra Airport.), ☏ . Car, people carrier and camper van hire. From £43 per day.
- Wild Isles Camper Hire, 17 Backhill, Berneray, HS6 5BD. 2 VW camper vans for hire. Can deliver to Uist ferry terminals. Van sleeps 2. from £250.
- Alda Taxis, Lochmaddy, North Uist. tel: +44 1876 500215.
There are many fine sandy beaches, mainly on the Western shores of the islands.
- The islands are good places for birdwatching, with a RSPB reserve on North Uist as well as many informal opportunities. On land this is one of the last places to hear (and maybe see) corncrakes. Seabirds can be see on beaches and on sea cliffs. St Kilda is an extremely good place for seeing seabirds.
- In summer wild flowers can be seen. The most colourful display is the medley of coastal flowers on the machair (sandy soil near the sea), which is usually in bloom in July.
- Seals and occasionally otters can be seen on coastal rocks.
- Historic Scotland Properties:
- Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway
- Garenin Historic village - a village of black houses in Lewis
- Bostadh Iron Age House on Great Bernera
- Western Isles Overland Route - the bus and ferry journey from Barra to Lewis.
- There are several banks on the islands in Stornoway, Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Balivanich, Lochboisdale and Barra. The Royal Bank of Scotland also runs mobile banks (in a van) from Stornoway and Lochboisdale.
- Stornoway is the only town on the islands with a selection of shops comparable to a mainland town. It is the only place that you will find chain shops other than Co-op supermarkets. Stornoway has two large supermarkets, a chemist, hardware store, book shop and clothes shops.
- Elsewhere in the islands there are several small Co-op supermarkets, and many independent stores which often sell groceries along with clothes or hardware. Although the shops are generally small, they manage to carry quite a varied stock.
- Newspapers arrive on the islands by ferry and so are often not available until lunchtime or later.
- Except in Stornoway, there are not many restaurants serving evening meals, and the local hotels may be the best (or only) option. In summer it is often advisable to book a table for dinner. There are also a few cafes which add to the daytime selection, or you may prefer to buy your own bread and cheese and make sandwiches.
- The seafood caught around the shores of the islands is excellent, and in particular it is worth trying the local shellfish such as scallops.
- Stornoway is famous for its black pudding (blood sausage), and you are likely to find this on breakfast menus.
- There are two good local bakeries whose products are sold in all the islands - Stag Bakeries in Stornoway and MacLean's Bakery in Benbecula. Their products may be more expensive than larger mainland bakeries but the extra is worth it.
- Pubs are not common, and in some places the only choice may be the hotel bar.
- Pubs often have live music on Friday and Saturday nights. In Lewis and Harris observation of the Sabbath means that Saturday night music and drinking will cease by midnight, and Sunday has no entertainment. Barra and South Uist are much more relaxed about the Sabbath.
- The Abhainn Dearg Distillery in northwest Lewis produces whisky, while the Isle of Harris Distillery in Tarbert distils both gin and whisky.
- Camping is widely available, but think twice about it if you react badly to midge bites.
- Hostels are in several villages and in some wild strange places, such as Rhenigidale on Harris.
- Most settlements have B&B, and self-catering cottages are dotted all over.
- There are small hotels especially in Stornoway and Tarbert. The grandest splurge is at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle near Tarbert.
- You may well cross Skye going to & from the Western Isles, taking the ferry from Uig. Skye's scenery is spectacular especially on Trotternish peninsula but it will feel very touristy and crowded after the Uists.
- Reaching the other Inner Hebrides will mostly involve a long backtrack via the mainland. But if from Skye you take the ferry to Mallaig, this is the starting point for the Small Isles of Rhum, Canna, Muck and Eigg. Driving south from Mallaig across Ardnamurchan brings you to Mull.
- Crossing from Stornoway to Ullapool brings you to Wester Ross: go north along the wave-dashed coast towards Thurso, where you can cross to the Orkney Islands.