The Outer Hebrides are the most westerly islands of the Hebrides, west of the Scottish Highlands. They're sparsely populated with poor soil and few resources; historically they were in separate local government areas, which hindered their development and culture. But during the 20th century much of the island chain was linked by road causeways, their air and ro-ro ferry links improved, and they became the combined local government entity of the Western Isles (Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan Siar). In 2021 their population was 26,830.
The populated islands are linked by road into three groups. From north to south these are:
Lewis and Harris are the same island, but divided by mountains with (until modern times) only rough tracks across. It was easier to sail between them, as if they were divided by sea. Lewis, the northern and larger section, is mostly low-lying. Inland is infertile heath, but the east coastal strip is farmland.
- 1 Stornoway on Lewis is the only place in the entire Hebrides that you could call a town, with an airport and ferries from the mainland.
- 2 Great Bernera is a small island off the northwest coast of Lewis.
- Harris to the south, linked by a good main road, is rugged but more scenic.
- 3 Tarbert is the main village on Harris, with ferries from Skye.
- 4 Leverburgh is a small village further south, with ferries from Berneray.
This series of islands became linked by road during the 20th century, to create one very long island. They are mostly low-lying heathland with a myriad small lochs.
- 5 Berneray is small, and was difficult to reach until it became linked - the future King Charles III once spent a week working as a crofter here, and no-one noticed. It has ferries from Leverburgh.
- 6 Lochmaddy is the main village on North Uist, with ferries from Skye.
- Grimsay is a farming island crossed by the highway.
- 7 Benbecula has an airport and the little village of Balivanich.
- South Uist, the longest island, has a ridge to the east and the highway and crofts to the west.
- 8 Lochboisdale the main settlement on South Uist has ferries from the mainland.
- Eriskay the last in the Uist chain has ferries from Barra.
- Barra has an airport where planes land on the beach, and ferries from Eriskay to Àird Mhòr on its north coast.
- 9 Castlebay is the main village, with ferries from the mainland.
- Vatersay just south is linked by road.
Thus, these three island groups all have settlements, regular public transport to each other and to the Scottish mainland, and visitor amenities. They're quiet except at the height of summer. Around them are even smaller islands, innumerably many: the Hebrides have a fractal terrain so however closely you focus in, more islands swim into view. A few have private dwellings but most just have sheep or sea-birds. Little islands important for wild-life, sometimes visited by boat trips, include the Shiant Islands south of Lewis and the Monach Islands off North Uist.
- St Kilda is a lonely archipelago 40 miles out in the Atlantic, with an army outpost but no permanent residents.
- 10 Hirta is the largest island, and the only one formerly inhabited; there is no island called St Kilda. Its tiny population led a precarious existence, crofting and gathering birds' eggs from the cliffs, until illness and other hardships forced them out in 1930. Nowadays volunteers work on Hirta in summer to preserve the habitat and ancient farmsteads; there's no visitor accommodation and you can only get in by boat in favourable weather. The other main islands are Dùn, Soay and Boreray, only ever used for grazing.
- 11 North Rona: is it Hebridean, part of the Orkneys, or a piece of the Faeroes that's somehow gone astray? Away north of the tip of Lewis, this island is even further out than St Kilda. The last resident left in 1844. Boats rarely visit, it's too far for a day trip.
The bedrock of all these islands is gneiss laid down 3 billion years ago, very hard-wearing and impermeable. On Lewis this lies flat, so a peat bog has built up over it, and on Harris it's contorted into gnarly hills; the Uists further south are a mixture more flat than gnarly. They are all a dismal prospect to farm. People have nevertheless lived here since prehistoric times, leaving their burial cairns, "dun" fortresses, and standing stones. They got about by sea in small craft that could draw up in little coves, as did the Celts and Vikings. During the Middle Ages the Vikings transitioned into the nation of Norway, and were forced to cede the Hebrides to Scotland after their defeat at Largs in 1263. Clan chiefs feuded with each other and with Edinburgh or London authority, but their battles were elsewhere. One such battle, at Culloden in 1746, broke the feudal Clan system and brought in a capitalist economy and distant landowners looking to increase their profits. In the 19th century this lead to ruthless evictions - "Clearances" - of the tenant smallholders, and the stark empty scenery you see today was created in that era. The hillsides are haunted by ruins of abandoned farmsteads and entire villages, and the furrows of potato plots.
There was never large-scale industry here - weaving textiles such as Harris tweed remained a cottage industry, and fisheries were hampered by the distance to market. The population has therefore remained small, with no influx of mainland workers. One result is that Gaelic language and culture is preserved, and is the primary language on road signage. Everyone is fluent in English but learning a few Gaelic phrases will boost your welcome. There is religious gradient: Lewis and Harris are dourly Protestant and sabbatarian, so almost nothing stirs on a Sunday. Churches. Barra and South Uist are Catholic, and you may find shops open after midday on a Sunday. Benbecula is in between. Other faiths are only found in penny numbers.
Summer is short, May to mid Sept, with long midge-ridden days. The islands are quiet the rest of the year and some amenities shut down, but the flights and ferries run year-round, as they're essential to Hebridean life.
There are three airports in the Outer Hebrides, so each populated island group is served. Loganair operates all the flights.
- Stornoway (SYY IATA) on Lewis is the best connected, with direct flights from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness on the mainland, and from Benbecula.
- Benbecula (SYY IATA) has flights from Glasgow and Stornoway.
- Barra (BRR IATA) only has flights from Glasgow, which land on the beach.
Calmac car ferries sail throughout the Hebrides. Buses run from Glasgow to the mainland ferry ports, and trains run to Oban and Mallaig. The routes are:
- Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis two daily, 2 hr 30 min (Nov-Mar only one on Sunday).
- Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris one or two daily, 1 hr 40 min (Nov-Mar some days in just one direction).
- Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist one or two daily, 1 hr 45 min (Nov-Mar some days in just one direction).
- Oban to Castlebay on Barra daily, 5 hours (Nov-Mar not Th or Su).
- Mallaig to Lochboisdale on South Uist daily, 3 hours 30 mins (Nov-Mar not Tu or Th, and on some days sailing from Oban instead of Mallaig).
See below for the ferries between the three island groups.
Calmac ferries cross between the island groups:
- Berneray north tip of the Uists to Leverburgh on Harris 3 or 4 daily, one hour.
- Eriskay south tip of the Uists to Barra 4-5 daily, 40 min.
Buses reach all corners but are sparse M-Sa with nothing on a Sunday.
A linked bus and ferry service runs the length of the Outer Hebrides through Barra, the Uists and Harris and across Lewis to Stornoway, and M-Sa it's possible to go the whole way in one day. There are half-a-dozen services part-route (eg Lewis to Harris), but for the full route you need to set off from Castlebay Barra at 06:20, Lochboisedale South Uist at 09:00, Benbecula at 11:10, Lochmaddy North Uist at 11:30 and Tarbert Harris at 16:20, to reach Stornoway by 17:30. Going south, you leave Stornoway 09:30 to reach Tarbert at 10:45, Lochmaddy at 13:45, Benbecula at 14:25, Lochboisdale at 15:25 and reach Castlebay at 17:35.
Some visitors bring their own car, but it's a long drive to reach the mainland ferry ports. Even from Glasgow or Edinburgh, you need an overnight stop before joining the ferry. You'll appreciate having a car to get around, as sights and amenities are scattered, and the car gets you out of the wind, rain and midges.
The three airports have car hire, which you should book as the rental fleets are small. They allow you to drive to another of these islands and may allow drop off, but you may not take a rental car to the mainland. Keep an eye on the fuel gauge, distances may be greater than you expect and filling stations are sparse.
The island roads are mostly single track with passing places and are in good repair, since they're not pounded by heavy traffic. They're double track on the inter-island causeways, which are toll-free and passable in all but the wildest Atlantic weather.
The roads are pleasant to cycle, if you're prepared for an occasional drenching. With sight-seeing it takes a week to cycle from Barra to Stornoway.
- Castles: Lews Castle in Stornoway is an Edwardian mansion, now a museum and event space.
- Dùn Èistean near the north tip of Lewis is the scraps of a 16th century redoubt, on a sea stack that you reach by footbridge.
- Amhuinnsuidhe Castle 15 miles west of Tarbert on Harris is a posh hotel for shooting parties.
- Borve Castle on Benbecula is the ruin of a medieval tower house.
- Ormacleit Castle on South Uist is the fragments of an 18th century mansion.
- Kisimul Castle is a medieval bastion perched on an islet off Castelbay on Barra.
- Prehistoric sites abound, as the lack of population and mainland farming methods saved them from plough and pickaxe.
- Callinish standing stones on Lewis are the must-see. This is the chief site of a Neolithic ritual landscape, so nearby are Callanish 2, 3 and so on.
- Dun Carloway on Lewis is a broch, a sturdy Iron Age fortress.
- Bostadh on Great Bernera is an Iron Age house, though the original has been re-buried and you visit a replica.
- Pobull Fhinn is the best stone circle on North Uist.
- The wheelhouse on Grimsay is Iron Age, probably ritual not residential.
- Pollachar standing stone on South Uist is more accessible than most megaliths: they're often on soggy moors.
- Blackhouses were traditional Hebridean dwellings, with the cattle kept at one end, and a fug of peat smoke as they had no chimney.
- Arnol on Lewis is a blackhouse village - many are ruined but one is restored as a museum.
- Garenin is another such village. Some are now holiday cottages and one is a hostel.
- The hostel on Bernaray is a restored blackhouse.
- Howmore on South Uist has several, and one is a hostel.
- Natural world: the islands are good places for birdwatching, with a RSPB reserve on North Uist, and many migrant and resident species. St Kilda is the stand-out if you can reach it.
- Seals and occasionally otters can be seen on coastal rocks.
- Eriskay has a distinctive breed of wild pony.
- The brief summer brings out wild flowers, most colourful on the machair, the sandy terrain near the beaches.
- Dark skies in winter display a profusion of stars and sometimes the aurora. But not in summer, as it never gets properly dark.
- Local culture: and note the museums above.
- Museum nan Eilean is in Stornoway, and An Lanntair is an art centre there.
- Taigh Chearsabhagh is a cultural centre in Lochmaddy on North Uist.
- Hebridean Way (Western Isles Overland Route). This is a trail up the island chain from Vatersay to Stornoway, taking about 12 days to hike. It is also possible to cycle the route.
- Climb: the hills are of no great height, but even a short climb opens out a great view. Clisham on Harris is the highest at 799 m / 2621 ft.
- Golf: there are courses on South Uist, Benbecula, Harris and Stornoway.
- Sing to the seals: "Hoiran, oiran, oiran, oiro..." is a traditional air sung to the seals as they bask upon the rocks. Jean Redpath (1937-2014) was one singer who reported success in charming them out of the water, on Barra. But given what the blubbery creatures do every day of their lives, it's equivalent to a song to make rats scurry off or seagulls decorate your windscreen.
- Events are Hebcelt music festival at Stornoway in July, North Uist Highland Games in July, Eilean Dorcha music festival on Benbecula in July, and the MacNeil biennial clan gathering on Barra in August of even-numbered years.
- Stornoway is the only town with a range of shops comparable to a mainland town, with two supermarkets, a chemist, hardware store, book shop and clothes shops.
- Elsewhere in the islands there are several Co-ops, and independent stores selling groceries along with clothes or hardware. These are small but manage to carry a varied stock.
- Newspapers arrive on the islands by ferry and so only become available by afternoon.
- There are banks or ATMs in Stornoway, Tarbert, Lochmaddy on North Uist, Balivanich on Benbecula, Lochboisdale on South Uist and Castlebay on Barra. A Royal Bank of Scotland mobile bank in a van transits the Uists on Tuesday and Lewis and Harris on Thursday.
- There are several daytime cafes, but few places for an evening meal outside Stornoway, try the hotels. You do well to book any time of year: they probably have plenty of vacant tables, but they can't subsist on walk-ins and will only buy ingredients and set on staff if they know customers are coming.
- Local seafood is excellent, try the shellfish such as scallops.
- Stornoway is famous for its black pudding, a blood sausage, and you are likely to find this on breakfast menus.
- There are local bakeries in Stornoway and on Benbecula.
- There are several pubs in Stornoway but few elsewhere, try the hotel bars. They often have live music on Friday and Saturday nights, which on sabbatarian Lewis and Harris will cease promptly by midnight on Saturday.
- Abhainn Dearg Distillery in northwest Lewis makes whisky and Isle of Harris Distillery in Tarbert makes gin and whisky. North Uist Distillery is actually on Benbecula: it makes gin, and is expected to launch its whisky in 2023.
- Camping is widely available, but think twice about it if you react badly to midge bites.
- Hostels are in several villages and in some wild strange places, such as Rhenigidale on Harris.
- Most settlements have B&B, and self-catering cottages are dotted all over.
- There are small hotels especially in Stornoway and Tarbert. The grandest splurge is at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle near Tarbert.
The main hazards are natural: Lewis is on the same latitude as the north of Labrador. The sea is cold and the breeze brings in sharp showers. You need stout footwear for the boggy island footpaths. The midges are a confounded nuisance in summer.
Pack enough of your usual medications and some extra in case of delay to your return ferry or flight.
Island folk are honest but that can't be said of all the visitors, so take usual care of valuables.
- You might cross Skye going to and from the Western Isles, taking the ferry from Uig. Skye's scenery is spectacular especially on Trotternish peninsula but it will feel very touristy and crowded after the Uists.
- Reaching the other Inner Hebrides mostly involves a long backtrack via the mainland. But if from Skye you take the ferry to Mallaig, this is the departure point for the Small Isles of Rhum, Canna, Muck and Eigg. Driving south from Mallaig across Ardnamurchan brings you to Mull.
- Crossing from Stornoway to Ullapool brings you to Wester Ross: go north along the wave-dashed coast towards Thurso, where you can cross to the Orkney Islands.