Benbecula (Gaelic Beinn Na Faoghla or Beinn nam Fadhla) is an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, with a population of 1300 in 2021. The name is a medieval mispronunciation: "pen" meaning 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 channels that you can wade across at low tide, and that are nowadays connected by road. The main settlement is Balivanich (Baile a' Mhanaich) next to the airport.
Grimsay the island just north is linked by the main road, a stepping stone on the way to North Uist.
Grimsay is also the name of an island to the southeast, parted by a channel so narrow you'll hardly notice as the road crosses; both names seem to indicate "green island". This road has been extended to Eilean na Cille, "island of the church", of which nothing remains.
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 century Benbecula was turned over to sheep and sporting estates, and much of the population was ruthlessly evicted. The island developed rapidly anew in the 20th century 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 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 maids' 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 appear in the James Bond film Octopussy, met Margaret Thatcher and caddied for Bob Hope at Gleneagles. He was buried at his owner's home in Clackmannanshire but in 2015 was re-interred at Langass, North Uist.
1 Benbecula Airport (BEB IATA), Balivanich HS7 5LW, ☏ . Daily flights from Glasgow take one hour, operated by Loganair. There are also flights M-F from Stornoway on Lewis: these connect to other destinations such as Edinburgh, but it's quicker to travel to Glasgow and fly from there. The terminal is small but clean and comfy, with toilets and cafe; one hour before flight is early enough to check in. Car hire needs to be booked. The buses across Benbecula run past the airport and village. The airport is also the base for flights such as air ambulance and coastguard.
Benbecula has long been linked to North and 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 from Uig on Skye (linked by bridge to the Scottish mainland). The road continues north to end on Berneray, which has ferries from Leverburgh on Harris, connected by road to Lewis.
To the south A865 crosses to South Uist, a long island with Lochboisdale near its south tip - this has ferries from Mallaig on the mainland (in winter sometimes from Oban instead). The road continues to cross onto Eriskay, which has ferries from 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 so 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 connections from Stornoway, six from Tarbert on Harris, six from North and South Uist, and three from Barra.
You need your own wheels to get around Benbecula and the Uists. No bike hire here, see the listings for North and South Uist.
Buses run six times M-Sa 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 transits by the main road, but it will loop the island lane on request.
A car hire office on any of the Western Isles will be relaxed about you visiting other islands in the chain, and may allow drop-off there, but will not permit the car to go to the mainland.
- Grimsay is the low-lying island to the north, nowadays a stepping-stone for the road to North Uist. Until the bridge was built in 1960, you either got here by ferry at high tide or sploshed across the North Ford channel at low tide, but not in between. The quiet loop of lane around it is a pleasant cycle ride. This lane connects to the smaller Fraoch Eilean (Heather Island) just north. There is no bridge to Ronay to the east, uninhabited since 1931.
- 1 Grimsay Wheelhouse is an odd structure from the Iron Age: stone cubicles radiate from a central hearth. There are few signs of domestic use and perhaps it was a ritual site.
- Dun Ban is an artificial islet, east end of Loch Horneray, half a mile southeast of the wheelhouse.
- 2 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, 24 hours.
- Balivanich watertower is a brutalist upside down cone on stilts outside the airport, built in 1970 to serve the RAF station and no longer in use.
- Teampall Chaluim Chille 200 yards south of the road past the airport was a medieval church dedicated to St Columba, now little more than a heap of stones.
- 3 Dun Buidhe is the best preserved of Benbecula's dozen or so Iron Age brochs. It's on an islet in Loch Dun Mhurchaidh, linked by a sturdy causeway. It's been partly built over by a 17th century village, long abandoned.
- 4 Shielings of the One Night (Airidh Na H-aon Oidhche) is the intriguing name shared by a series of ancient sites across the Western Isles. This one is a Neolithic chambered cairn which has been partly built over by shielings - shepherds' huts. The common feature of these sites is shielings associated with Gaelic folk-tales, perhaps where wide-eyed shepherd boys were warned of the underworld creatures that would emerge to carry them off, if they didn't eat up all their porridge and say thank you.
- 5 Cula Bay is the best of the long sandy beaches around the west coast. It's accessed from the main road at Nunton / Baile nan Cailleach.
- 6 Borve Castle, Torlum. Small ruin of a tower house, built from about 1350 and occupied until the early 17th century. It's also known as "Castle Wearie" and looks it - the structure is unsafe and the view from the lane should suffice. Free.
- Museum nan Eilean Lionacleit, Sgoil Lionacleit HS7 5PQ (next to Dark Island Hotel). Tu Th F 10:00-13:00, 14:00-17:00, W 10:00-13:00, Sa 10:00-15:00. This is a branch of the Stornoway museum housed within Liniclate School. It doesn't have a permanent collection but puts on exhibitions of island culture. Donation.
- 7 Peter's Port is the end of the B-road across southeast Benbecula, Grimsay (south) and Eilean na Cille. It's just a slipway for small fishing craft. Wiay is the low uninhabited island seen to the east.
- Uist Community Riding School, East Camp, Balivanich HS7 5LA (B892 just south of airport), ☏ . Tu-Sa 09:00-17:00. Horse and pony riding, including rides on the beach. Volunteer-run, open all year.
- Golf: Benbecula GC is on the airfield, 4359 yards, par 62, visitor day ticket £25.
- Hebridean Way is a way-marked hiking and cycling trail the length of the Outer Hebrides. Northbound, Stage 5 for hikers starts from Liniclate near the causeway from South Uist. It follows the shore to Nunton then cuts inland east (bypassing the main village) to ascend Ruabhal, then north to join the causeway. Cyclists simply stay on the west coast road to reach the causeway, which crosses Grimsay to Carinish on North Uist.
- 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.
- Liniclate Sports Centre is within the school, which also hosts the museum. The fitness centre is usually open to the public, the pool and games hall are open after school hours in term-time and after midday out of term.
- Eilean Dorcha is a music festival at Linaclate, on the southwest coast near the causeway to South Uist. Camping is available nearby; the ferries have an amended timetable and shuttle buses run from the ferry terminals. The next is probably on 25-27 July 2024, tbc.
- Bank of Scotland is by the roundabout entrance to the airport, open M-F 10:00-15:00. It has an exterior free ATM.
- Lovat's, Winfield Way, Balinvanich HS7 5LH (next to hospital), ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-21:00, Su 11:00-18:00. Nisa supermarket, tatty exterior but good stock within and a Post Office counter.
- Maclennan's, Balinvanich HS7 5LA, ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-20:00, Su 11:00-16:00. Well-stocked supermarket with a free ATM inside.
- Voove, Johnson Rd, Balinvanich HS7 5LA (behind Stepping Stone), ☏ . M-F 09:00-15:00. Internet access, electronic repairs and cables.
- Co-op Food, Creagorry HS7 5PG (quarter mile from South Ford causeway), ☏ . M-Sa 07:00-22:00, Su 12:30-22:00. Small convenience supermarket.
- 1 The Stepping Stone, Balivanich HS7 5LA, ☏ . W-Sa 11:00-20:00, Su 12:00-18:00. Mostly good reviews for this light spacious restaurant by the airport entrance. Dine in the formal "Sinteag" or in the casual "Food Base".
- Chinese Takeaway is in Balivanich behind the Stepping Stone, open W-Sa 11:00-20:00. It's hit-and-miss.
- The Airport Cafe (see above) is generally open whenever the airport is active, non-passengers welcome, and there's free parking by the terminal.
- 2 Maclean's Bakery, Uachdar HS7 5LY, ☏ . M, Sa 09:30-13:00, Tu-F 09:30-17:30. Small bakery for bread, pastries, pies and the like.
- 3 Charlie's Bistro, Dungenachy HS7 5LA, ☏ . Delightful little place east of the village. They may have rooms.
- The Low Flyer in Balivanich is the only stand-alone pub on Benbecula. Drouthy, run-down, and temporarily closed in 2023.
- Distillery: North Uist Distillery is at Nunton Steadings two miles south of Balivanich. They make gin and whisky.
- Hotel bars: The Dark Island Hotel and Isle of Benbecula House Hotel have public bars, see Sleep.
- 1 Nunton House Hostel, Baile nan Cailleach HS7 5LU, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. A four-room hostel with 4 bunks per room, in a beautifully renovated 18th century mansion. Bunk £30 ppn.
- Mornay B&B is at Aird HS7 5LT, half a mile south of the supermarket.
- Ceann na Pairc, 3 Baile nan Cailleach (Nunton) HS7 5LU (behind hostel), ☏ . Friendly B&B with one single and three double rooms. April-Oct minimum stay is two nights. B&B double £100.
- Borve Guest House, 5A Torlum HS7 5PP (by Borve Castle), ☏ . Welcoming four-room place.
- Otter's Edge or Shell Bay is a camping and caravan site in Liniclate between Borve guesthouse and Dark Island Hotel. It has good facilities and is open mid-April to mid-Sept.
- Orcadia Guest House is in Liniclate HS7 5PJ.
- 2 Dark Island Hotel, Liniclate HS7 5PJ, ☏ . Mediocre reviews for this small hotel and restaurant. B&B double £150.
- 3 Isle of Benbecula House Hotel, Creagorry HS7 5PG, ☏ . Comfy small hotel run by same management as Dark Island, with public bar and restaurant. B&B double £130.
- Self-catering cottages are dotted 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.
- North Uist is an island with similar low terrain, prehistoric remnants, and a haunting emptiness as its population was evicted. It has ferries to Skye, and the road north crosses to Berneray for ferries to Harris.
- South Uist is a long island with similar coastal terrain plus an eastern spine of hills. It has ferries to Mallaig on the mainland, and the road south crosses to Eriskay for ferries to Barra.