Benbecula (Gaelic Beinn Na Faoghla or Beinn nam Fadhla) is an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, with a resident population of 1300. The name is a medieval mispronunciation: "pen" ie flat land turned into "ben" for mountain, which it doesn't have. "Becula" means "of the fords" - the island is separated from North and South Uist by shallow channels that you can wade across at low tide, and that are nowadays crossed by a road. The main settlement is Balivanich (Baile a' Mhanaich) next to the airport.
The island just north, Grimsay, is considered part of Benbecula, as it's tidal and you can walk not wade there, and the main road crosses it. It's just heath and farms.
The island is predominantly Gaelic-speaking - English is universally understood - and Roman Catholic. The main road cuts north-south across the boggy interior, while the airport, settlements and amenities straggle along a loop of road along the west coast. Always a poor prospect for arable farming, in the 19th C Benbecula was turned over to sheep and sporting estates, and much of the population ruthlessly evicted. The island developed rapidly anew in the 20th C for military bases and missile ranges, gaining its airport and other facilities, the road causeways, and many ugly buildings. This means that most visitors use it to fly in, but skip on quickly elsewhere. It's not notably scenic, but its lochs and beaches are tranquil and deserted.
In 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788) was cast up here, a fugitive after the collapse of the Jacobite Rebellion; Flora Macdonald disguised him as an Irish maid and got him away to Skye. Another famous visitor was Hercules (1975-2001), a tame grizzly bear that in 1980 was being filmed here for a Kleenex commercial when his tether broke and he ambled away. There was no sight of him for 24 anxious days - "Have any of the Irish maid costumes been taken?" - but then he was spotted and tranquillised. Being used to cooked food, Hercules had eaten none of the island's many fish, sheep or chickens, and had lost 95 kg, half his weight. He went on to feature in the Bond film Octopussy.
There are direct flights daily from Glasgow taking an hour, operated by Loganair. They also have direct flights (M-F) to Stornoway on Lewis: these connect to other destinations such as Edinburgh, but it's generally quicker to fly to Glasgow and take the train or other transport from there.
- 1 Benbecula Airport (BEB IATA), Balivanich. Small but adequate terminal, with toilets and cafe. Car hire but do pre-book. The north-to-south buses across Benbecula run past the airport and village.
It may seem odd for a road to be the main way onto a Hebridean island, but Benbecula has long been linked to North & South Uist and doesn't have its own ferry port. The road across the causeways A865 is well clear of the sea and passable in all tides and weathers except for the worst Atlantic storms. To the north it crosses to Grimsay then North Uist, where Lochmaddy has ferries to Uig on Skye (which has a bridge to the Scottish mainland). The road continues north to end on Berneray, which has ferries to Leverburgh on Harris - from there you can drive to Lewis.
To the south the road crosses to South Uist, a long island with Lochboisdale near its south tip - this has ferries to Mallaig on the mainland (in winter sometimes to Oban instead). The road continues to cross onto Eriskay, which has ferries to Barra.
Buses run regularly across Benbecula (see "Get around") and connect with the ferries. Bus W10 / 16 / 17 runs M-Sa along the chain of islands, integrated with ferries as part of the Western Isles Overland Route - you can travel in a day between Stornoway on Lewis and Castlebay on Barra. Only one service per day plies the entire route, but Benbecula, being central, has more connections, with four buses from Stornoway, six from Tarbert on Harris, six from North and South Uist, and three from Barra.
A car rental office on any of the Western Isles should be relaxed about you taking the car or even dropping it off on another island in the chain.
You need your own wheels to get around the island and elsewhere. No bike hire on Benbecula, see listings for North & South Uist.
Buses run six times Mon-Sat down the causeways from Berneray and North Uist onto Benbecula then onward to South Uist and Eriskay. The route through Benbecula is along the main road causeway via Grimsay to Gramsdale, turning onto the west coast road B892 past the airport and Balivanich village, then south through Nunton and Linaclate to rejoin the main road at Creagorry. (On Grimsay the bus normally skips in and out along the main road, but it will loop the island lane on request.)
- Beaches skirt the west coast of the island, and are easily accessed from the coast road. Culla Bay is about the best, between Nunton and Aird.
- 1 Gramsdale Standing Stones are near the start of the causeway to Grimsay and North Uist. There's one large stone and ten smaller ones in a circle some 30 yards across. An ornately carved Pictish stone (now in the National Museum in Edinburgh) was found here - an important find, as evidence of Pictish culture in the Western Isles is rare. Free, generally accessible.
- 2 Borve Castle (OS map ref NF 773505). Small ruin of a 14th C tower house. Also known as "Castle Wearie", and looks it. Free.
- 3 Linaclete Museum (Sgoil Lionacleit), Linaclete School HS7 5PJ. Termtime Tu-Sa 10:00-13:00, 14:00-17:00. Has a small museum open term time, occasionally during holidays. The fitness and leisure facilities are available to the public out of hours, with a small cafe. Free.
- Uist Community Riding School, East Camp, Balivanich HS7 5LA (B892 just south of airport), ☏ . Tu-Sa 09:00-16:00. Horse and pony riding, including rides on the beach. Volunteer-run, open all year.
- Fishing: mostly trout fishing in the many small lochs.
- Snorkelling & freediving: you can have instruction and kit hire for around £75 a head, though half the point of these activities is that you can unroll your wetsuit from the back of the car and plunge in anywhere.
- Surfing is possible on Benbecula, but the breaks are better on Lewis.
- Lovats Supermarket is in Balinvanich (M-Sa 08:00-21:00, Su 11:00-18:00).
- Maclennan's Supermarket is in Balivanich (M-Sa 08:00-20:00, Su 11:00-16:00).
- Next door is 1 Macleans Bakery, Balinivanich HS7 5LY. M-Sa 09:00-15:00. Small bakery for bread and oatcakes with a shop onsite. They've another place a mile east at Uachdar.
- 1 Stepping Stone Restaurant, Balivanich HS7 5LA, ☏ . W-Sa 11:00-20:00, Su 12:00-18:00. Good food, reasonably priced. It is spacious and light, with large picture windows on each side. Its cuisine is a mixture of Scottish and international, and uses local produce wherever possible. Dine either in the formal, raised section "Sinteag", or in the informal section "The Food Base".
- An Caladh, Balivanich (East Camp just south of airport). Tu-F 11:00-15:00. Cafe (within a community health project) serves a range of meals and snacks at reasonable prices. Good value as the servings are more than the usual.
- The Low Flyer in Balivanich (see "Drink") does bar meals, and there's a Chinese takeaway round the side.
- The Airport Cafe (see "Get in") is generally open whenever the airport is active, non-passengers welcome, and there's free parking by the terminal.
- The Low Flyer in Balivanich is the only stand-alone pub on Benbecula. Drouthy, run-down, and hours erratic.
- The Dark Island Hotel and Isle of Benbecula House Hotel have public bars, see "Sleep".
- Camping & Caravaning: Shell Bay Caravan Site in Liniclate HS7 5PJ has good facilities.
- 1 Nunton House Hostel, HS7 5LU, ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. A four-room hostel with 4 bunks per room. £25 adult, £15 child.
- Mornay B&B is at Aird HS7 5LT.
- Ceann na Pairc Guest House, 3 Nunton HS7 5LU, ☏ . B&B with one single and three double rooms. May-Sept minimum stay is two nights. B&B double from £75.
- Borve Guest House, 5A Torlum HS7 5PP, has 4 rooms.
- Orcadia Guest House is in Liniclate HS7 5PJ.
- 2 Dark Island Hotel, Liniclate HS7 5PJ (by Liniclate School), ☏ . 3-star. Public bar open 11:00-23:00, restaurant 12:00-15:00 & 17:00-21:00. B&B double £120.
- 3 Isle of Benbecula House Hotel, Creagorry HS7 5PG. (on main road just before causeway to South Uist), ☏ . Small two-star run by same management as Dark Island. Public bar open 11:00-23:00, restaurant 12:00-15:00 & 17:00-21:00. B&B double £120.
- Several self-catering cottages around the island, including some called "guest house" that no longer run as B&Bs.
Midges! Midges, midges, midges! They're a real nuisance in summer, in silent pesky clouds, and even if you don't see them, you'll find lots of bite marks later. Think twice about camping if you react badly to bites. The only sure repellent is a strong breeze . . . and close that door before they all get in.
The other hazards here are likewise natural: weather, soggy moors, seas that can quickly turn rough. So it's standard advice about stout footwear and warm clothing, as if Captain Obvious was squiring your Auntie Morag.
Either north to North Uist, for ferries to Harris / Lewis and the mainland, or south to South Uist, for ferries to Barra and the mainland. If you travel via Skye, maybe best see it first: it's far more scenic, but will feel very congested and touristy after you've been on Benbecula.