Western Isles

Overview

Introduction

Scotland's Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, are beautiful, treeless, windswept islands with a mountainous spine, in an area where the land seems to blend with the water in countless lochs, rivers, inlets and pools. Located off the northwestern coast, this is a place for solitude and the contemplation of nature.

The best time to visit is the summer, when the rains are less frequent, although the Scottish Midgies (tiny biting flies) are out in full force. There's an almost infinite variety of wildlife for nature lovers, and not just in the nature preserve of Loch Druidibeg on South Uist. Otters, mink, seals, porpoises and even basking sharks can be found in and around the water.

Though primarily a land in which to marvel at natural rather than man-made things, people have lived on these islands for 6,000 years, and they offer some marvelous historical structures: Kisimul Castle on the island of Barra, Rodel Church on Harris, the Standing Stones of Callanish (Scotland's Stonehenge) and Dun Carloway Broch on Lewis. From more recent years, at Arnol on Lewis, you can find one of the few remaining blackhouses, the thatched dwellings that people traditionally shared with their animals—this one was still occupied in the 1960s. For information on these sights, visit http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.

The Gaelic language is still spoken widely in the Western Isles, and it's a place where old traditions of story, song and piping are still going strong. You can also see Harris Tweed being woven on Uist, Harris and Lewis or at the Lewis Loom Centre in Stornoway.

The Western Isles are a long way from most other tourist attractions, but a trip there can be the experience of a lifetime for those who appreciate nature at its most untamed. You can get there by ferry from Oban or Ullapool. The most spectacular way to arrive is by the Glasgow-Barra flight, which tumbles down onto a sandy beach. (It's the only flight on the British Airways timetable that includes the caveat, "subject to tides.")

A road trip is best accomplished by taking the ferry from Ullapool, exploring the attractions in Lewis, then driving south along the Golden Road through Harris. It's so called because of the cost of construction. It's a single track, windy and slow moving. But the scenery is awesome.

Then cross by a short ferry journey to North Uist. From there you can explore at will through North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist. All are connected by causeways. Even tiny Erisky, south of South Uist, now has a causeway. This is where the SS Politician ran aground in 1941 with a cargo of whisky, a commodity that was then in very short supply because of the war. The inhabitants plundered the ship, bringing ashore thousands of bottles, which they hid. To this day, there are believed to be caches of the stuff hidden on the island. This story formed the basis of Compton McKenzie's hilarious book Whisky Galore, which was in turn made into a movie by the famous Ealing Studios.

Afterward, return to Loch Boisdale on South Usit to take the ferry to Barra. From there, you can return via ferry to Oban.

For a truly remarkable sojourn, hire a boat on Barra to take you south to the uninhabited mountainous island of Berneray, where 1,000-ft/300-m cliffs plunge into the sea at Barra Head. Few visitors leave this impressive, though forgotten, corner of the world unmoved.

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