A Complete Guide to the Outer Hebrides
A Complete Guide to the Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides is an island chain off the west coast of Scotland.
These far-flung isles have a unique character and charm. Tranquil white beaches, rugged landscapes and a fascinating history make these islands an amazing place to visit.
Whether you choose to spend some time really getting to know just one or two islands, or make your way from one end of the island chain to the other, you will find plenty of natural beauty and a range of interesting attractions to explore.
These windswept and beautiful islands offer a peace and tranquillity that can rarely be found in the British Isles and there are plenty of beautiful locations to discover.
The main islands of the Outer Hebrides are in three groups, each of which are connected and so can be explored without the need to make a ferry crossing. Each group of islands could be considered as a stand-alone holiday destination, or included on a tour of all the isles.
For the ultimate, bucket-list holiday, we recommend taking time to explore the island chain from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, all the way up to the Butt of Lewis, in the north. In this brief guide, we will take a quick look at what exactly each of these main island groups has to offer.
Barra & Vatersay
Barra and Vatersay are now the most southerly inhabited islands of the Outer Hebrides island chain and are the most westerly reaches of the UK. The community here is said to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming in the country.
How To Visit
You can reach Barra by ferry from Oban, or from other islands in the Hebrides, or fly in to Barra's amazing beach airport (pictured above).
As with most of the ferries in the Hebrides, the ferries to Barra are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. Information about timetables and fares can be found on the Calmac website. (Note: if you are planning to take a number of ferry crossings during your holiday, you could save by selecting an island hopping or 'Hopscotch' ticket.)
The ferry from Oban to Barra takes just under five hours.
Things To Do On Barra & Vatersay
Ben Heaval is the highest peak on the island, standing to 383m. A hike to the summit affords breathtaking views over the islands and surrounding water. The ascent from Castlebay is short but very steep, mostly on grass. The walk can be completed in around 2-3 hours in summer conditions.
There are a number of fishing lochs on Barra, of which this is one of the most attractive and productive. The loch is home to wild brown trout and is also a good spot to see more of the islands wildlife.
The loch is an easy walk down the hill from the road at Kinloch. The ruins of a small castle can be seen on an island near the south shore.
Jokingly called 'Barra-dise' or 'Barra-bados' – Barra has no shortage of breathtaking beaches. One look at the pristine white sands and sparkling turquoise waters and, if it were not for the temperatures, you could easily imagine you were in tropical climes. Here are some of the top spots:
Barra Beach Airport (Cockle Strand)
It is not often that one would describe an airport as a natural attraction, but in this case, it is a truly stunning spot. If you do not arrive by air, paying a visit to see planes landing on the sand of this beautiful beach is a not-to-be-missed experience.
To the west of the airport, this Atlantic-facing beach has some of the highest sand dunes in the UK. Wonderful yet wind-swept, this is a wonderful place for a stroll. To reach it, park near the airport terminal and walk across the machair. Behind the beach is a home that was built by Compton Mackenzie, author of 'Whisky Galore'.
Reached by a short stroll across the machair from a roadside car park, this is one of the wildest and most dramatic beaches on Barra. It is close to the main settlement of Castlebay.
Vatersay's Three Beaches
Reached by means of a causeway from Barra, Vatersay boasts three stunning strands. The east beach is the most sheltered. It is here that local fishermen keep their boats. This is also a good spot for shell seekers.
The west beach, of silky white sand and polished pebbles of gneiss is best known as the spot where, in 1858, the emigrant ship, Anne Jane, was wrecked. The 348 people who died in the tragedy were buried in pits at the back of the beach and there is a monument here to remember them.
A short walk from the end of the road, Vatersay's south beach gives views across to the uninhabited island of Sanday. The Sound of Sanday is a great place to spot dolphins and porpoises.
Dualchas Heritage Centre
This heritage centre, a short walk from the main street of Castlebay, looks out over the southern isles. It has two main galleries which show displays on local history, art and culture. Exploring the fascinating collections is a great way to learn more about the history and culture of the island and its people.
This archaeological site has revealed evidence of human occupation here at Bentangaval overlooking the sound of Vatersay going back around 4,500 years.
Neolithic work platforms, circular stone structures, remains of an Iron Age wheelhouse, an 18th Century blackhouse and byre and other archaeological evidence of the different periods of occupation can be seen here.
A number of ancient standing (or fallen) stones can be seen across the island. These include one upright and one fallen stone above Brevig Bay, and an interesting assembly on Vatersay near Ben Rulibreck.
This archaeological site was inhabited between 100 BC and 800 AD. Here you can see the remains of a broch, into which later, cellular houses were built.
Down on the shore of Loch Obe, near the small village of Balnabodach you will discover the remains of two earlier settlements.
While now only grassy humps now remain to mark where most of the houses once stood, you can also see the stone wall remnants of one blackhouse, which was excavated in the 1990s.
The poor people, eight families who once crofted here, were forcibly removed during the Clearances and shipped off to Canada.
Here you will find a fascinating graveyard in which evidence was found which showed that the Vikings were here long enough for some to turn to the Christian faith.
A stone was found which had runic inscription on one side and a Celtic cross on the other. The original stone is now in Edinburgh but a copy can be found in the north chapel. Nearby is a ruined church dating from the 12th Century.
Tucked away in a valley above Borve you will find a well-preserved, neolithic burial chamber of impressive size. The tomb is 5 metres high and 34 metres in diameter. The capstone, which has now been broken in two, measured 3m square.
An Dudharaidh (former Thatched Cottage Museum)
Walk up the track from Craigston village and you will find yourself at a restored white house in an idyllic, tranquil setting, formerly the Thatched Cottage Museum. Continue on and you can see more archaeological sites that hint at the many years of human occupation in this area.
This is the most visible and best known of the historic sites on Barra. Sitting on a low, rocky island in Castle Bay, this mediaeval tower house is the seat of Clan MacNeil of Barra. The castle is the first thing you will see if you arrive here by ferry, and can be visited by means of a very short boat ride from Castlebay.
As you can see, Barra and Vatersay may be very small, but there is still plenty to see and do here.
The Uists, Benbecula & Berneray
If you started your adventure on Barra, you could next take the ferry north to Eriskay. This island is best known as the setting for the story behind the novel, later a famous Ealing Comedy, 'Whisky Galore'.
The stunning white sands of this island were also where Bonnie Prince Charlie set foot on Scottish soil.
A causeway from Eriskay will lead you to South Uist. South Uist offers hillwalking and other outdoor adventure, as well as an interesting range of flora and fauna. Next comes the Isle of Benbecula, where the spectacular scenery is woven with myth.
Benbecula has a long military history and an airfield established on the north of the island during the Second World War is now Benbecula Airport. Aircraft here are involved in missile tests on the Hebrides Test Range.
Driving north you can cross Grimsay to visit North Uist, where more breathtaking scenery, beautiful Atlantic beaches, bird reserves and cultural attractions await. Drive as far north as you can drive on this island grouping, to see the stunning island of Berneray.
How To Visit
As well as reaching these islands on the Barra to Eriskay crossing, which takes just 40 minutes, visitors could also consider taking the longer ferry ride from Castlebay to Lochboisdale on South Uist.
You can also travel by ferry to Lochboisdale from Oban. Alternatively, visitors can reach North Uist by taking the ferry to Lochmaddy from Uig on the Isle of Skye.
Things To Do on the Uists, Benbecula & Berneray
On Eriskay, look out for the Eriskay ponies. These ponies are the last remaining native ponies of the Western Isles of Scotland. Numbers were dwindling, as few as 20 remained in the 1970s. Locals decided to save them, however, and now there are over 400 of this hardy and people-friendly species.
Relics and Photos of the 'Whisky Galore' Wreck
The SS Politician was wrecked off the shores of the island in 1941 and the story became the well known one in the book by Compton Mackenzie, made into an Ealing Comedy of the same name. Relics and images related to the story can be seen at the Am Politician pub and restaurant on Eriskay.
This nature reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas on the islands, and a prime spot for birdwatching. The birdlife here is rich, and includes such species as redshank, dunlin, lapwing and ringed plover. Over 200 species of flowering plants have been recorded here.
West Coast Beaches
Frobost and Askernish beaches are two of the popular stretches of sand that make up the 20 miles of wonderful white beaches and machair along the west coast of the island.
Frobost beach is a great place to admire wildflowers in the summer and Askernish, nearby, is wonderful for walks, cycle rides or simply a spot of wildlife watching.
Bheinn Mhòr is the highest peak on South Uist, with an elevation of 620m. It is also the only 'Graham' in the Outer Hebrides not on Harris.
A challenging hike leads to the impressive summit ridge of Beinn Mhòr and also allows walkers to bag the nearby peaks of Hecla (which has an interesting magnetic anomaly) and Beinn Corradail.
This cultural hub for the community includes a museum, a craft shop and recreational and utility spaces for the local people. The museum is a great place to learn more about the island's inhabitants and their history.
Cladh Hallan Roundhouses
This is the only place in the British Isles where prehistoric mummies have been discovered. Two Bronze Age bodies were unearthed here in 2001, under the floors of a roundhouse. Depressions with sections of stone wall from the roundhouses that once stood here can be seen on the site.
The ruins of Ormacleit Castle have stood here for a lot longer than the complete castle did. Built in 1708, the castle was only intact until 1715, when it was accidentally burnt to the ground. It was intended as the home of the Chief of Clan Ranald but was never rebuilt or restored after this time.
Flora MacDonald's Monument
Flora MacDonald is remembered for helping to protect 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' from government forces after the battle of Culloden. She was born on the island of South Uist and this monument shows the location believed to be her home, though some dispute that this is the case.
A signpost marked 'Rueval Footpath' by the council building just to the east of the crossroads on the A835 will show the way to one of the most scenic spots on Benbecula.
Visitors can walk to the summit of this modest hill (with an elevation of just 124m). On a clear day, you can see St Kilda out to the west, and Skye to the east, with 360 degree views of mountains, beaches, islands, sea and sky that are hard to beat.
Lovely beaches on Benbecula, with stunning views, include Newton Beach, Liniclate Beach, Balivanich and Borve Beach.
Balranald Nature Reserve
This RSPB nature reserve is a point of pilgrimage for keen bird watchers. Many birds can be seen here but the most famous is the corncrake – now one of the most endangered birds species in Europe.
There are many breathtaking beaches around the coastline of North Uist, and the coastline also offers some of the best chances in the Outer Hebrides to spot sea otters.
Amongst the best beaches on the island are Traigh Udal, Traigh Iar, Hosta, and Clachan Sands – though there are plenty of almost unbelievable sandy stretches which visitors can often have all to themselves.
This 5,000 year old burial chambers is one of the most important prehistoric sites on the island. A Neolithic chieftan is believed to have been buried here.
Though the chamber has partially collapsed, you can see inside if you shine a light into the hole. The cairn on top of the chamber can be seen from the road, though if you want a closer look, you will have to pass over some very boggy ground to reach it.
Nearby, after a short walk, you can see a small stone circle known as Pobull Fhinn (Finn's People). The walk is worthwhile not just for the stone circle but also to reach the dramatic location, overlooking a beautiful loch.
Trinity Temple, Carnish
The historic ruins of Trinity Temple were a mediaeval monastery and college – possibly the oldest University founded in Scotland – started by Beathag, daughter of Somerled. The building was used and extended until the 16th Century, but was destroyed during the Reformation. The ruins here are very interesting to explore.
Off the south west coast of North Uist, the small, low lying tidal island of Baleshare is connected to the island by a causeway. A good picnic and parking area on the island gives access to beautiful beaches on its western side. To the north-west are stunning views towards the Monarch Islands.
Nurse's Cottage Visitor Centre
This visitor centre is a great place to learn more about the rich history and heritage of the island of Berneray. Local volunteers here can provide help and advice for your visit to the island. You can also see seals basking on the rocks below.
West Beach & Traigh Beasdaire
Of the beautiful beaches on Berneray, perhaps the most stunning is that on the west of the island. West beach is a wonderful stretch of white sand backed by machair. On the other side of the island is blustery Traigh Beasdaire, which is perfect for windsurfing and kitesurfing.
Circular Walk from Borve
Another great way to get to know Berneray is on the circular walk from Borve, which provides another fantastic introduction to the island's human and natural heritage and history.
Harris & Lewis
Harris is an island whose shifting, magical scenery must be seen to be believed. You can drive the amazing 'Golden Road' to see a gloriously winding stretch of this land and sea scape.
Discover the stories and traditions of this island on the edge and perhaps take home a piece of Harris Tweed.
Heading north, Lewis offers a dramatic, sweeping landscape over which the wind whistles. Beautiful beaches show the full force of Atlantic waves and crofting communities show you what life must have been like over the century for the tough and determined people who made their home here.
Lewis is an exciting place of great contrasts and adventure.
How To Visit
Should you wish to make your way across from Berneray, you can do so on the ferry that leads from there to Leverburgh on Harris. This journey takes approximately 80 minutes and details can be found on Calmac's website. Alternatively, you can make your way directly to Harris on the ferry from Uig, on Skye, to Tarbert.
Things To Do On Harris & Lewis
The Golden Road
Those in search of Harris' famed scenic beauty will find it across the island, though one of the most beautiful drives (or cycles) on the island is the 'Golden Road' – a single track road between Rodel and just south of Tarbert.
This road is extremely winding, and is called the golden road because it was so expensive to build. It winds its way around a series of stunning bays and inlets, through a rocky landscape littered with craggy rocks jutting out from the carpet of heather.
Harris's most famous natural attractions, however, and most scenic spots, are undoubtedly the beaches of the west coast of the island. Seilebost, Luskentyre and Horgabost are all stunningly scenic strands that must be seen to be believed.
While there are many wonderful boat rides that can be taken from the Isle of Harris, and a number of other smaller islands to explore, perhaps the most impressive is the boat ride to St Kilda.
St Kilda is not only a beautiful island, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site – listed for both its natural beauty and cultural importance.
St Kilda is home to the largest sea bird colony in Europe, including gannets and puffins and has a wide range of unique animal and plant species. The island was also home to humans for four or five thousand years before it was finally abandoned in the 1930s.
This lighthouse was the first lighthouse build on the Western Isles and was one of the earliest in Scotland. Scalpay is a small island to the east of Tarbert, accessed over an impressive bridge. The views over to the Isle of Skye and the Shiant Islands are particularly spectacular from here.
Isle of Taransay
You may be familiar with the Isle of Taransay from the television programme, 'Castaway 2000'. The island is now home only to sheep and deer, and can be visited by boat ride during the summer months.
Seallam Visitor Centre
This visitor centre is a great place to learn more about Harris. It has a series of exhibitions on local life and island history, a well-stocked book shop and tea and coffee. It is also home to a research centre and is a great place to research Hebridean ancestors.
Built to celebrate a local man, William MacGillvray, who was important in the natural sciences. Here you can learn a little about his life and work from a series of interpretive boards. The centre is in a scenic spot and is also a great place for a picnic.
Bunavoneader Whaling Station
On the banks of Loch a Siar you will find the ruins of an old whaling station which dates from the early 1900s. It was set up by a Norwegian family with links to the Norwegian Whaling Fleet. Foundations of buildings, jetties and slips can be seen here, as well as a large brick Boiling Chimney, which can be seen from the road.
Church of St Clement
This church, in Rodel at the southern end of the island, was built in the 16th Century. Narrow, steep steps lead to the top of the tower.
Other points of interest in the church include three tombs carved from black gneiss depicting knights, and the tomb of the man who had the church built, Alexander MacLeod, who was known as Alexander Crotach (Humpback) due to a sword wound.
Like the other Outer Hebridean Islands, Lewis also boasts a number of excellent beaches, all around the island. Ness Beach, Tolsta Beach, Bostadh Beach, Valtos Beach and Uig Beach are amongst the most attractive.
Uig beach is also of note as this was the location where a Viking chess set was discovered. The Uig chessmen are believed to have been made in Norway in the 12th Century.
Butt of Lewis
Another notable scenic spot on Lewis is the Butt of Lewis, at the very far north of the island. This is the windiest spot in the British Isles.
There is a lighthouse here, and breathtaking ocean views from the 60-80ft high cliffs. Look west and there is nothing between here and North America, look North, and there is nothing but open ocean all the way to the Arctic. This place really does feel like the edge of the world.
Stornoway is the largest town in the Hebrides, with a population of around 8,000. Here you will find all the amenities you need during your stay on Harris and Lewis, and also a number of historic and cultural attractions, including Lews Castle and the recently restored Latta's Mill, a corn mill dating from the 19th Century.
Isle of Great Bernera
Connected to Lewis by a bridge, Great Bernera has a wonderful beach but is most notably home to an Iron Age village.
One of the houses has been superbly reconstructed to during the summer you can enter to see what life would have been like during this period. There are also a number of other ancient and historic sites to explore around the island, and an interesting island museum.
Other than caves, crannogs are amongst the earliest forms of human habitation. Man made islands, these were linked to the store by means of a causeway.
Wooden crannogs were more common on mainland Scotland, though on Lewis, these artificial island homes were usually constructed from stone. You can see the remains of these intriguing structures across the island.
Callanish Standing Stones
A number of standing stone sites can also be discovered across Lewis. The most important is the megalithic complex of standing stones at Callanish. There is a visitor centre here where you can learn more about this fascinating ancient site.
Another of the most notable historic sites on the island is Carloway Broch. This Iron Age structure is one of the best preserved brochs in the Hebrides and is believed to be over 2000 years old. A visitor centre, open during the summer months, sheds more light on the history of the structure.
Shawbost Norse Mill & Kiln
The Scandinavian history of the island is explored at this site, where two thatched buildings used to process barley grain into meal have been reconstructed. The mill was powered by water from the stream running into nearby Loch Roinavat.
Ness Historical Society
This interesting little museum in a former primary school has displays on a number of different elements of island culture, including wool working, crofting, home life and much more. This is a great place to learn more about the people and culture of Lewis.
Blackhouses At Gearranan
Here you can see a collection of the traditional dwelling houses known as blackhouses, some of which have been renovated. The design for these homes dates back several thousand years. The site also has a museum and a cafe.
Summary of the Outer Hebrides
The above guide is intended only as a starting point, and to give an idea of just how much these enticing islands have to offer. The Outer Hebrides are an amazing holiday destination, and there is far more to discover as you explore this enchanting isles.