Outer Hebrides - Gaelic stronghold and larger than you thought
The Outer Hebrides are sometimes the Western Isles, a more romantic name for this chain on Europe's edge. Question: Is Harris just a big art installation?
The Outer Hebrides used to be called the Western Isles - a romantic name for a long chain of islands lying out to the west of Scotland. Then someone decided they should be ‘Outer’ as opposed to Inner Hebrides, which makes them sound really far away. (At least I always think so.)
And the Outer Hebrides really are quite big in Scottish terms. If you ask Google Maps to take you from Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis, then it comes up with a figure of 174 miles to the Butt of Lewis, the lighthouse on the tip of Lewis in the north. There are two inter-island ferry crossings on the way though. However, get a ruler and do your own estimate and it looks more like 125 miles as the corncrake flies between the two points. Heck, I wish I'd never got into this now...anyway, there's a wee map further down the page.
The Outer Hebrides - like nowhere else in Scotland
The Outer Hebrides aren’t like anywhere else in Scotland, perhaps because the past is so visible: shadowy outlines of lazybeds (cultivation strips), roofless black houses with their modern successors adjacent, old creels or even tractor engines abandoned so long ago that they are literally sinking into the machair (the shell-sand pasture). There are hundreds of cameos of times past. It can be slightly unsettling.
Where are the Outer Hebrides?
Look at this map. Sometimes called the Western Isles and you can easily see why, the Outer Hebrides are way out west in a long arc of islands. There are plenty of connecting ferry choices to get you out and back: Ullapool (mainland) – Stornoway (Lewis); Uig (Skye) – Lochmaddy (North Uist) / Tarbert (Harris); Oban (mainland) – Lochboisdale (South Uist) /Castlebay (Barra).
On our most recent trip we went south to north – so that meant ferry from Oban to Castlebay (Barra) – then Barra to Eriskay. Then there are causeways linking the next few islands – so that’s Eriskay/South Uist/North Uist/Berneray taken care of. Our next ferry was from Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris. We came back to mainland Scotland from Stornoway in Lewis to Ullapool.
All this is more easily explained by looking at the CalMac website. Note in particular their Hopscotch ticket options if you are intending to put together your own itinerary. We acknowledge Caledonian MacBrayne’s assistance with this trip and thank them very much. This page is an introduction to some individual island pages, so just follow any of the links below.
Go to Barra first and hope the sun shines. The Outer Hebrides Oban to Barra ferry disgorges its usual contents of backpackers heading for the hostel, cyclists doing the island circuit and dogs who have been desperate to decorate the destination island since they went on board the ferry some five and a half hours before.
All this, of course, goes on in addition to the visitors who are heading for the choice of B&Bs etc within walking distance – never mind driving distance – of the ferry terminal. (It’s all very compact.) Anyway, it’s Barra for beaches, mostly, plus that famous airport, where the plane lands on the beach. Wait a minute, that’s beaches again… surely there’s something else to do on the Isle of Barra?
(Pictured) On a bright June morning, the CalMac ferry at Castlebay on Barra appears to dwarf Kisimul Castle, further out in the bay. If that seems an obvious caption then how about: meanwhile, on the right, Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew contemplate plunder. OK, sorry, I'll get a grip...
Assemble yourself at the north end of Barra and wait for the ferry to take you across. It’s a smaller one this time as the trip is only 40 minutes, across the Sound of Barra. Eriskay is lovely, but very small. The scratchy calling of the corncrake may drive you mad.
You don’t know about the corncrake? It’s a bird, a member of the rail family. What's a rail? Trust me here. It’s brown, dumpy and anonymous and most of its cousins are coots, moorhens or gallinules. The corncrake prefers it drier and lives in thick vegetation, hayfields and the like. It will not live in intensively farmed areas. It’s an Outer Hebrides speciality. It’s Latin name is Crex crex and – uniquely – that is approximately the noise it makes. All day and all night.
Meanwhile, the Am Politician pub is the only show in town. Except there isn’t a town. But the pub is very nice, friendly, with decent enough food. It’s worth climbing to the high point on the island and you may see the famous Eriskay ponies on the way. There are some good self-catering places here and there is a shop. Most of our Eriskay pictures were taken in a June trip a wee while ago – but the sun mostly shone that week too. Read my blog post on the famous film Whisky Galore - with lots of Eriskay connections.
(Pictured) The Eriskay ferry - distant, centre - approaching the pier head on the north-east side of Barra, not far from the airport. But then, nothing is very far from anywhere else on Barra anyway.
Glance right - eastwards - as you cross the Eriskay to South Uist causeway and you are looking up the Sound where the west-bound SS Politician was wrecked and caused quite a stir in 1941. It was a foggy night and the ship took a wrong turn. (More about this on our Eriskay page.) South Uist is part of the largest community buyout in Scotland to date. The area also takes in Benbecula to the north and Eriskay to the south. This means the area is managed by the community, rather than a private and usually absentee consortium or individual owner. More information on the Storas Uibhist website.
South Uist is kind of sparse in places. Big skies, long horizons. Beaches to the west, rugged hills to the east. Loch Druidibeg is a national nature reserve. And there’s a hen harrier – look. Oh, and a short-eared owl. Otters, too…all kinds of interesting Scottish wildlife - just be patient!
(Pictured) A flat calm evening and the ferry from Oban on the mainland approaches the pier at Lochboisdale, South Uist.
Flora Macdonald – the lassie that helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to Skye – was born on South Uist. You can see what is left of her birthplace at Milton plus learn more about the history of island life at the excellent Kildonan Museum, on the main road about 7 miles north of Lochboisdale.
Once upon a time, they say, the folk of the Uists and Benbecula’s main preoccupation and topic of conversation was the state of the tides that linked the three islands. Since the causeways have been built the residents have had absolutely nothing to say to each other. No, only joking. The locals are friendly folk – but do try, if you are booking accommodation, to find a local as it’s the best way of tapping into the whole heritage and community values of the place.
Otherwise, it’s sand, machair, distant mountains, fishing, lochans, birds, silence, wind, white houses on the horizon, peat cuttings and a damned fine cup of coffee at Hebridean Jewellery, back over the causeway on South Uist. And sheep. Main centre is Balivanich. And there is a beach called Stinky Bay – it’s the rotting seaweed, you see. But there are plenty more that are beautifully scented.
(Pictured) A typical North Uist landscape – big skies, white houses, interlaced lochs. Yes, it’s very watery.
I hope by now you are seeing a kind of Uists pattern develop, because that’ll save me bleating on about the beaches and the mountains and the wildlife and the…well, you must have got the picture by now. It’s lovely. No, really.
It’s also very watery. Mostly water in fact. But they do a lovely smoked mackerel pate at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Cafe– another example of these Hebridean situations where you drive for miles and suddenly come across a sophisticated art centre and a reasonable coffee. This one – Taigh Chearsabhagh – repeated because I need the spelling practice – is in Lochmaddy (ferry port for Uig on Skye) and is well-nigh compulsory if it’s raining and you can’t see the lochs, beaches, otters, corn buntings, big skies, oh stop me somebody…Anyway, there more on the Uists and Benbecula, those funny bits in the middle of the Outer Hebrides, on this link...
Harris is basically a very large art gallery with amazing beaches in between, plus a lot of rocks and mountains. The contrast between east and west is marked. Swathes of the east side look like a moonscape and it may even be true – it is certainly claimed – that in Kubrick’s movie 2001 A Space Odyssey he used a fly-over of an eastern chunk of Harris, suitably coloured up in the studio afterwards, as a representation of the surface of the planet Jupiter.
The Harris art galleries are evenly sprinkled between the west - with beaches galore - and the bare-bone rocky east side. Many galleries are also cafes. Some cannot make up their minds and you may find the soup is off without warning. Or you discover they only sell pictures of soup. And that famous eponymous tweed is also widely available.
(Pictured) Traigh Luskentyre - looking west from the main A859
Harris is truly rugged. So rugged that it is perfectly possible to see a soaring golden eagle from a visitor centre carpark. I certainly did at Seallam Visitor Centre at Northton, near Leverburgh. Yes, I really did. Blow me if I could get the camera-auto focus to pick it out though. Harris is different from the Uists. You can still expect some amazing beaches - and oh yes, the island of Harris has some rather nice accommodation options too.
You leave the Harris hills behind to cross the mysterious administrative border that marks the entry on to the Isle of Lewis. Missing or low profile signs is the only explanation as to how we ended up in the main town of Stornoway while otherwise bound for the west side and then north to the Port of Ness. But that way we re-acquainted ourselves with An Lanntair in Stornoway, the main cultural focus for miles around. And another fine coffee provider plus wifi!
(Pictured) Butt of Lewis lighthouse from the east, on the coastal walk between Port of Ness and the lighthouse.
Anyway, on the island of Lewis there is Calanais - Scotland’s Stonehenge and the big draw. Then, there is Dun Carloway, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village and the Black House at Arnol and then the road just goes on and on northwards with gentle troughs and rounded tops over and over until you arrive at the very end: Port of Ness and the other scattered settlements. And it’s all very nice and you must go to the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis.
Miles and miles of...
Please note though that somewhere on the north road you may have looked east and seen - nothing. Just some tussocky peaty stuff meeting the horizon. Nothing at all. Not so much as a wind turbine. And you may have thought that nowhere in Scotland is big enough to have that kind of nothing. But there it was. And you just drove past it. That was the truly outer part of the Hebrides.
The special meaning of Sunday hereabouts
Finally, remember that Sabbatarianism is still to be enjoyed in Lewis to some extent. That means that the expression ‘open daily’ found on shop doors, websites etc. has a specialised meaning in Stornoway. It can mean ‘open daily except on Sundays of course because what would people think'.
Stornoway on a Sunday looks like the way most Scottish towns looked on a Sunday in the 1950s. In short, most places are shut and nobody hangs out washing on a Sunday, in case their deity finds it offensive. Tumble-drying washing, indoors, out of sight, is probably fine. It’s all charming and characterful. There are, however, ferries out of Stornoway on a Sunday.