A week in the Outer Hebrides

24/03/2020 15:07

Written by Mark Rowe

The key to exploring the Outer Hebrides is not to overdo things. The island chain may only run 130 miles or so from north to south as the crow flies, but any attempt to ‘do’ the whole lot in one brief visit is likely to leave you in need of a further holiday to recover from the tiring driving – and you will miss a good deal along the way.

To help you on your way, we've come up with the perfect itinerary for a week's holiday on the islands. 

Day 1 – Stornoway

For most people, Stornoway is their first and usually fleeting port of call in the Outer Hebrides. The majority of visitors drive off the ferry and disappear into Lewis’s hinterland but there is certainly enough to keep you here for a day, perhaps more.

Lews Castle Stornoway Outer Hebrides Scotland by Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland© Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland

An excellent museum of island life, inaugurated in 2016, has added to the town’s appeal: there’s a working quayside, shop-lined streets overlooking the marina and a Victorian pedestrian quarter. Much of this modest bustle is overlooked by the mock-Tudor Lews Castle, around which the River Creed meanders its way into the Minch. 

Day 2 – the northwest coast

The northwest coast of Lewis is the most visited part of the Outer Hebrides, visitors flocking – a relative term here – to the island’s chief attraction, the standing stones of Callanish. Archaeology is a dominant theme, as blackhouses, brochs and other standing stones are scattered along a coastline also characterised by beautiful secluded beaches. 

Callanish Stones Lewis Outer Hebrides Scotland by Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland© Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland

Blackhouses were the most common living quarters for islanders right into the 20th century and Geàrrannan Blackhouse Village comprises a collection of restored buildings. Constructed of stone or turf-faced protruding walls with an earthen core and covered with further layers of turf and a straw thatch, blackhouses face the wind and their thatched roofs are pegged down with boulders and ropes made from heather. 

Gearreanean Blackhouse Village Outer Hebrides Scotland by© Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland

At the end of the A857, Lewis tapers to a conclusion in the sprawling township of Ness, with its landmark lighthouse and edge-of-the-world atmosphere. From Callanish to Ness is around 25 miles and takes 45 minutes.

Days 3 and 4 – Uig 

Tucked away – if such a large area can be hidden – to the southwest of Lewis, Uig is one of the island’s great secrets. Its remoteness can make it easy to overlook and even the otherwise pedantic Ordnance Survey omits the name Uig from the title of the sheet that covers the region (OS Explorer 458 West Lewis, Callanish & Great Bernera). Much hillier than Lewis, Uig has a bit of everything: a mountainous skyline, staggeringly beautiful beaches, some great food, fine walks and important archaeological sites that emerge like apparitions on the vast marshy moors. 

Lewis Chessmen Uig Sands Outer Hebrides Scotland by Marcin Kadziolka, Shutterstock© Marcin Kadziolka, Shutterstock

For generations, Uig has been a place visited only by those ‘in the know’; it has long been a popular summer holiday destination for inhabitants of Stornoway. While this is broadly still the case, the secret of Uig’s magnificent landscape and coastline is getting out and every year that passes now brings a smattering of new places to stay or eat. 

Mangersta Harris Outer Hebrides Scotland Britain by Laurie Campbell© Laurie Campbell Photography, www.lauriecampbell.com

Places to explore include the Valtos (Bhaltos) headland and the stunning beaches at Cnip (Kneep), Uig Sands (scene of the discovery of the Lewis chessmen), the isolated and often violent scenery around Gallan Head on the Àird peninsula, and the southerly reaches of the B8011, which drift away through a series of scattered townships and breathtaking cliffs around Mangersta (Mangarstadh) to the road’s remote end at desolate Mealasta.

Here and there you will catch sight of wild North Ronaldsay sheep that were introduced here and live (like their counterparts on the Orcadian island whence they came) for the most part on seaweed, which gives their meat a delectably subtle salty flavour. 

Days 5 and 6 – Huishnish peninsula

It’s a mighty 14 miles along the single-track B887 that explores the Hushinish peninsula. The journey’s end is the beach and tiny community of the same name. The road twists and rises simultaneously, tightly following the contours of the land as it runs along West Loch Tarbert (Loch a’ Siar). This feels like a road to the end of the world, the kind you might expect to encounter at the bottom of Patagonia. Just a mile or so along the road, you pass the old Norwegian whaling station of Bunavoneadar (Bun Abhainn Eadarra), built in 1912. 

Bunavoneader Harris Outer Hebrides Scotland Britain by Laurie Campbell© Laurie Campbell Photography, www.lauriecampbell.com

Almost as unexpected as a whaling station, perhaps, is the Bunavoneadar tennis court you pass a mile or so further west along the road. This presents the unlikely opportunity of playing on what is claimed to be the world’s most remote tennis court. The surface is good-quality artificial grass, and you can hire the court along with racquets and balls. Should rain stop play, you may even shelter in the small wooden pavilion. 

Five miles from turning off the main road is the minuscule township of Miabhaig. This is the location for a gorgeous and spectacular walk, due north up the glen to the North Harris Eagle Observatory. Built by the North Harris Trust, the observatory lies in golden eagle territory. With careful planning, you can extend the walk into an epic traverse of the glens of the central Harris hills all the way to Bogha Glas. We recommend devoting a whole day to exploring the gorgeous scenery and stunning views of this landscape.

Day 7 – the Shiant Isles

Head back to Stornoway, but before getting on the ferry home take a boat over to the Shiant Isles. These are one of the great bird stations of the northern hemisphere, with an estimated 250,000 seabirds nesting here, including puffin, guillemot, razorbill, shag and great skua. Many people say that the puffin colony here is even more spectacular than that of St Kilda.

Puffins Outer Hebrides Scotland UK by Laurie Campbell Photography© Laurie Campbell Photography, www.lauriecampbell.com

The Shiants comprise three main islands: Gairb Eilean, Eilean an Taighe and Eilean Mhuire. The cliffs are spectacular and their basalt rock columns, rising 150m high, rival those of Staffa off Mull. A magnificent sea arch adds to the drama. 

Discover more of the Outer Hebrides with our guidebook, which has 10% off in our online store:

Outer Hebrides 2nd edition cover

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