North Uist (Gaelic Uibhist A Tuathis) is an island in the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It measures 20 miles north-south, 25 miles east-west, and is separated from Benbecula to the south by a tidal ford, nowadays bridged by a causeway. It's poor farmland, boggy, low-lying and dotted by innumerable lochans or small lakes. In 2011 the population was 1619.
Lochmaddy (Loch nam Madaidh) on the east coast is the ferry port and what passes for the main village, but most settlement is scattered along the west coast, where the machair provides grazing for crofting.
It is remarkable how many fights and feuds have contested this poor farmland, which lacks a fishing industry or mineral wealth. North Uist, like the rest of the Highlands and Islands, was drained of its population at first by gradual voluntary emigration, then in the 19th century by brusque eviction to make way for sheep farming. Its hills were also turned over to grouse-shooting and deer-stalking. In Sollas in 1849 there was a pitched battle between residents and evicting officers, but it didn't halt the process. The 20th century saw a slow revival of Gaelic language and culture, and of the crofting way of life.
The Outer Hebridean islands had fragmented governance until 1975 when the Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) was formed. There was also European funding for indigenous minority cultures, and later a sympathetic Scottish parliament, so today two-thirds of North Uist's population speak Gaelic. Ro-ro ferries made visitor and truck access from the mainland easier, and the island's Protestant Sabbatarians were unable to block the introduction of Sunday ferries in 1989.
The landscape is undeniably stark, it's not "picturesque" like Skye. But it has a haunting quality as the sea breeze ruffles the marram grass by long summer beaches, or winter dark skies display the stars and aurora.
1 Benbecula (BEB IATA) is the airport for the Uists, a short drive south across the causeway. Loganair fly daily from Glasgow taking an hour, and M-F from Stornoway on Lewis taking 35 min. Buses between North and South Uist run past the airport.
2 Lochmaddy has Calmac ferries from Uig on Skye, with one or two per day year-round taking 1 hr 45 min. Until end of March 2024, return fares are £67.70 for a car, £13.70 per adult including driver, and £6.90 per child. Buses from Glasgow Buchanan station connect with the ferries from Uig, which is effectively on the mainland since Skye is linked by a bridge.
Uig harbour is closed 30 Oct to 11 Dec 2023 and all those ferries cancelled. An alternative ferry will sail daily from Ullapool to Lochmaddy taking 4 hr 30 min, same fare. This is the second stage of works to enable new ferries to use Uig pier. The first stage in Jan-March 2023 overran so be cautious of sailings towards Christmas.
Another route is from Mallaig on the mainland to Lochboisdale on South Uist. This sails daily Apr-Oct taking 3 hr 30 min, then you have a long drive north up the causeways. From Nov to March there's no sailing Tuesday or Thursday, and some ferries ply from Oban (a 5-hour crossing) instead of Mallaig.
For your own boat, Lochmaddy has a small marina which charges £2 per metre of boat length per night. There are also some mooring buoys at £10 per night.
The Uists have long been linked by causeways. The road across these is well clear of the sea and passable in all tides and weathers except for the worst Atlantic winds and waves. Northbound (as B893) the road crosses to Berneray, the ferry port for Leverburgh on Harris, and ends. Southbound (as A865) it crosses to Grimsay then Benbecula, with the airport. It continues down the long thin island of South Uist to Lochboisdale, which has ferries for Mallaig. Lastly it crosses onto Eriskay, which has ferries to Barra.
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, though only one service per day plies the entire route. North Uist, being midway, has more connections, with four from Stornoway, six from Tarbert on Harris, six from Benbecula and South Uist, and three from Barra.
By road: The terrain is low-lying and easy for cycling, though the breeze is often stiff. All roads are single-track with passing places - drivers, please observe the traditional Highland etiquette. Translation: always give way to mad fellows in white vans who are driving at Mach 2 to try to catch the ferry.
There is no taxi or car hire on North Uist, see Benbecula for hire firms based at the airport. You can take the hired car to other islands and may be permitted to drop-off there, but may not take it to the mainland.
Bus W18 loops clockwise (twice per day) and anticlockwise (once per day) along the island's main road, from Lochmaddy and back. It doesn't cross to Berneray or Benbecula. There are additional part route services, some of which require a telephone booking the day before.
- Lochans are common on the Outer Hebrides but on North Uist the terrain is dotted with hundreds of little lochs. Some are inlets of the sea, others are peaty lakes, often just pond-sized.
- Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy HS6 5AA (by hotel 200 yards from ferry pier), ☏ . M-Sa 10:00-16:00. Excellent art centre with a museum and gallery, a cafe, post office and a shop. Built in 1741 as an inn, it became an arts centre in 1993.
- Sponish Suspension Bridge carries the footpath across a sea inlet north of Lochmaddy to the Camera Obscura. In 2023 it's in need of repair and officially closed, form your own judgement on whether to cross. Otherwise take the lane from the head of the inlet onto Siginish peninsula. This continues to Cheesebay.
- 1 Camera Obscura (Hut of the Shadows), Sponish HS6 5AF. The hut is open 24 hours but is only worth visiting on a sunny day. Enter the stone chamber and within is projected a view of Lochmaddy. Close the gate, or the sheep will get in. Free.
- Loch Portain is the convoluted bay east of the Camera Obscura, with over 200 islets and a mix of fresh-water and sea habitats. Please never let MV Loch Portain the Berneray-Harris ferry wander in here.
- 2 Cheesebay is the end of the road from Siginish, not so much a settlement as a crossroads of farm lanes. Islands in view nearby are Stromay west, Sursay north and Tahay east, all uninhabited since the 19th century.
- 3 Dun Torcuill is tumbledown but the best-preserved broch on North Uist, an Iron Age fortified dwelling on a loch islet reached by a causeway.
- 4 Dun an Sticir, Port nan Long HS3 5AZ. 24 hours, but access is tidal. A stout Iron Age broch, built circa 100 BC to 100 AD, but in the medieval period converted to a rectangular hall. It's on an islet reached by causeway from the larger islet of Eilean na Mi-Chomhairle, in turn reached by causeways from either north or south banks of the loch. Sticir means "skulker" - in 1602 Hugh MacDonald of Sleat was a fugitive here after planning to murder his clan chief. The loch is tidal, so the causeways flood at high tide and are in poor repair. Free.
- 5 Traigh Lingeigh is one of the island's best beaches, gleaming white from its crushed seashells and backed by sandhills. Reach it by the lane to Clachan Sands campsite. Lingay is the uninhabited islet close to shore. Boreray further out was uninhabited from the 1960s to 1999, when a crofter took up residence.
- Traigh Iar 5 miles west is another fine beach. Vallay is the uninhabited tidal island just west.
- 6 Scolpaig Tower, Scolpaig HS3 5DH. 24 hours but access is tidal. An octagonal Georgian folly built circa 1830, obliterating a broch. It's on an islet that can be reached at low tide, otherwise you see it fine from shore, it's derelict within. And they call this small tower a folly, when the council is considering spending megabucks to turn Scolpaig into a spaceport?? Free.
- 7 RRH Benbecula is a Remote Radar Head, a military radar originally operated by RAF Benbecula hence the name, but now run remotely from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland. New radar was fitted in 2015 that doesn't suffer interference from wind turbines, so these can now be sited on the hill. The point of coming up here is for the distant view of St Kilda, but you need your own binoculars as the viewing scope is corroded. The lane from the west is the easiest route. The radar tracks missiles fired from the test range on South Uist. It also monitors the skies to the north, the approach route over the Arctic for hostile fighter jets and bombers hurtling this way to test NATO's air defences. In the Cold War of the 1960s there were plans for huge air and missile bases to concrete over much of the Uists: lucky this was never implemented and the Soviet threat receded.
- South Clettreval Chambered Cairn 100 yards south of the viewing point is an example of a "wheelhouse", an Iron Age structure with cubicles radiating from the central hearth. There's a better one on Grimsay the island between North Uist and Benbecula.
- 8 Beinn a' Charra is a chunky standing, or rather leaning, megalith, at a jaunty angle. Park by the farm gate at the bend in Committee Road (don't block gate or passing places) then march east uphill a quarter mile. The approach is boggy.
- 9 Balranald RSPB reserve, Hogha Gearraidh / Hougharry HS6 5DL, ☏ . 24 hours. Where corncrakes can be heard, if rarely seen. Allow 2 or 3 hours for the circular walk. Free, donations welcome.
- 10 (Baile Sear) is a small tidal island off the southwest coast, connected by road to North Uist. It's a low-lying farmland with good beaches and a couple of B&Bs, and its machair and sandhill habitat make it a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The SSSI extends to the island of Kirkibost, which may once have been joined to Baleshare before being severed by coastal erosion.
- 11 Teampull na Trionaid (Trinity Church), Carinish HS3 5EH (near causeway to Benbecula). 24 hours. Ruins of a 13th-century church and Augustinian nunnery, derelict after the Reformation. The Battle of Carinish, fought nearby in 1601, may have been the last battle fought with bows and arrows in Britain. It was part of a feud between Clan Macleod of Dunvegan and Clan Macdonald of Sleat; the Macdonalds won the day and the overall conflict. Free.
- 12 Barpa Langass (on A687 by turnoff for Langass Lodge). 24 hours. A 5000-year-old burial chamber, partly collapsed but you can still enter. There may be two more chambers amidst the rubble. After seeing it, you can walk south past Langass Lodge to reach Pobull Finn. Free.
- Pobull Fhinn (path from Langass Lodge). 24 hours. A stone circle, the best on the island, not least for its setting. It's more like an ellipse, and dates to around 2000 BC. Pobull Fhinn means Finn's tent or shieling - same word as Peebles in the Borders. Free.
- 13 Hercules the Bear sculpture and cairn commemorates the long-ago days when bears stalked this land, the summer of 1980. See Benbecula#Understand for the story of how a tame grizzly was being filmed there for a Kleenex commercial when it broke its tether, ambled off and disappeared for 24 days. After recapture it resumed its media career until dying and being buried at its owner's house in Clackmannanshire. In 2015 Hercules was re-interred at this woodland spot.
- 14 Monach Islands are an archipelago 15 miles west of North Uist, nowadays uninhabited. The three main islands (linked at low tide) are Ceann Ear, Ceann Iar and Shivinish which has an automated lighthouse. The isles are protected for their bird life and huge breeding colony of grey seals.
- Check the tides, as several sights are on tidal islets. Get a free seven day prediction from Easytide using Lochmaddy as the reference port.
- Walk, cycle, and watch for bird life.
- Beaches are sandy but exposed, however the gradual shelving of the shore means you don't get breakers for surfing.
- Fishing is from shore by the many freshwater and sea-lochs.
- Hebridean Way is a way-marked hiking and cycling trail the length of the Outer Hebrides. Stage 6 for hikers starts from Carinish near the causeway from Benbecula. It heads north around Locheport to the prehistoric monuments at Langlass then joins the road into Lochmaddy. Stage 7 continues north by road then over the heath to the next causeway, to end at Berneray ferry pier. Cyclists simply follow the west coast road around North Uist to join this causeway.
- North Uist Highland Games are at Balelone Farm near Scolpaig Tower, with the next probably on 19 July 2024, tbc.
- North Uist Agricultural Show is held at Hosta, a mile south of Balelone. The next is probably on Th 25 July 2024, tbc.
- All the shops in North Uist are shut on a Sunday, but some shops on Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay are open on Sunday afternoons.
- Morrison J, Lochmaddy HS6 5AA (300 yards from ferry pier), ☏ . M-Sa 09:00-18:00. Small supermarket with Nisa groceries (no alcohol) and newspapers once they arrive about noon. Gulf self-service filling station is across the road.
- Bank of Scotland by Morrison's is open Tu and Th 10:00-14:30 and closes permanently in Feb 2024. It has an ATM outside.
- 1 Co-op Food, Sollas HS6 5BS, ☏ . M-Sa 07:00 - 22:00. Supermarket with 3 aisles.
- 2 Bayhead Shop, Bayhead HS6 5DS (on SW coast), ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-18:00. Convenience store with a good selection, and microwave for reheating purchases.
- Hebridean Smokehouse, Clachan-a-Luib HS6 5HD (jcn A865 / A867), ☏ . M-F 08:00-17:30, Sa 09:00-17:00. For excellent peat-smoked salmon and other smokery gifts.
- Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy has a cafe. See also the hotels.
- 1 Hebridean Kitchen, Chircebost / Kirkibost HS6 5EP (within Kirkibost Community Centre). Closed until April 2024. Good cafe for a lunchtime stopover or coffee and cakes. It also has a small shop selling postcards, knitwear and local books etc. It's in an old schoolhouse now used as a day nursery.
- 2 Westford Inn, Chircebost / Kirkibost HS6 5EP, ☏ . Bar daily, kitchen W-Su 12:00-14:00, 17:00-20:00. Well-stocked inn with good meals, dog-friendly. They no longer have rooms.
- Lochmaddy Hotel bar is open to non-residents.
- Westford Inn bar is open seven days a week, see above.
- North Uist Distillery is actually on Benbecula, two miles south of the airport. They make gin and whisky.
- Campsites are at Clachan Sands (two miles SW of causeway to Berneray), Balranald (west tip of the island), Tractor Shed (SW coast, see below)) and Moorcroft[dead link] (near bridge to Benbecula).
- 1 The Tractor Shed, Paible HS6 5DZ, ☏ . Bunkhouse, campervan pitches and camping pods. Open all year, dog friendly. Bunk £22, pod £40.
- Lochmaddy Hotel, Lochmaddy HS6 5AA (200 yards from ferry pier), ☏ . Simple friendly hotel open all year with 15 en suite rooms (9 with sea view). The restaurant serves non-residents, good local cuisine plus bar-meal takeaways. They also issue fishing permits, with priority to their own guests. B&B double £150.
- Redburn House is a B&B 500 yards from the ferry pier.
- 2 Hamersay House, Lochmaddy HS6 5AE (half a mile north of ferry pier), ☏ . Comfy hotel open year-round, dogs welcome. The restaurant serves non-residents, quality hit-and-miss. B&B double £165.
- Maddy B&B is opposite Hamersay House.
- 3 Langass Lodge, Locheport HS6 5HA, ☏ . Cozy hotel, dog friendly, good restaurant open to non-residents. B&B double £155.
- 4 Temple View Hotel, Carinish HS6 5EJ, ☏ . Small friendly hotel on coast near causeway to Benbecula, open all year except mid Dec to mid Jan. B&B double £160.
- 5 Vallay Sands, 5 Malaclate HS6 5BX, ☏ . Pleasant B&B in a cottage on the north coast. B&B double £110.
- Self-catering cottages: several available, they usually book Saturday to Saturday.
As of Sept 2023, North Uist has 4G from EE but no signal from other carriers. 5G has not reached the Uists.
- North the road leads to Berneray, a small island with ferries to Leverburgh on Harris, which is connected by road to Lewis.
- South the road crosses Benbecula (for airport), South Uist (for ferries to Mallaig on the mainland) and Eriskay (for ferries to Barra).
- East the ferry from Lochmaddy sails to Uig in the most scenic part of Skye, the Trotternish peninsula.
- West in the Atlantic lies lonely St Kilda. Boat trips visit in summer from Leverburgh, there are no boats from the Uists.