A fascinating history
Older than Stonehenge and just as enigmatic, the standing stones of Callanish on Lewis are the most popular attraction on the islands. Centred around a single, slender central monolith, they are sited on an elevated promontory that makes a visit a truly haunting experience.
On the west coast of Lewis, Geàrrannan Blackhouse Village is a restored traditional village that provides an insight into how many people lived up to the middle of the 20th century. The distinctive blackhouses – squat, thatched and designed for humans and livestock to shelter together – are open to explore. Shiny and new, Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean represents a technological leap into the 21st century for the islands, with interactive displays firmly oriented towards grassroots culture and first-hand accounts of history.
Pride of place goes to the display of a handful of Lewis chessmen. The tale of the Lewis chessmen discovered on a wild beach draws many visitors to Uig sands. Vast and graceful, the sands are just one point of interest here: others include mountainous skyline, dramatic coastal scenery, some great food, fine walks and important archaeological sites that emerge like apparitions on the marshy moors. The thoughtful and low-key Kildonan Museum gives a fascinating introduction to South Uist island culture and the heritage of song and storytelling.
The great outdoors
Ness, the isolated northwest tip of Lewis (and of the UK), is an elemental place. There is a fine beach, a dramatic lighthouse overlooking towering cliffs, and a community with a strong sense of local identity. The watershed between Lewis and Harris is marked by the North Harris Hills, a range that forms an ancient barrier between the two ‘islands’. This is fantastic walking territory.
On a clear day, a summit climb affords views of the entire island chain and the west coast of Scotland. In rain, the landscape is transformed into a waterworld. The waterworld landscape of North Uist, with hills rising from the shores of freshwater and sea lochs, is enchanting, as are the islands’ north-coast beaches. If you only climb one hill in the Outer Hebrides, make it Rueval. Just 406ft (124m) high, it rises abruptly above the flatlands of Benbecula to give spectacular views of the interplay of land and water that characterises these islands.
A truly mesmerising array of beaches radiates from the Sound of Luskentyre, with shell-sand bays, shallow lagoons formed by tidal waters and ever-changing dunes. Most remarkable of all is how the colours and patterns of the bays seem to change with the weather and the tides.
Often described as the Outer Hebrides in miniature, Barra has wonderful beaches and rugged inland scenery. Perhaps the most beautiful beach of all the islands – East Beach, Vatersay – can be found at the southern end of the archipelago. A huge sweep of rectangular sand overlooks a bay with shallow waters that on a sunny day really do look like the Caribbean.
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.
In any case, the islands have few ‘sights’ – such as museums or castles – in the conventional sense. A characteristic of the Outer Hebrides is that the sites are the landscapes, the beaches, the moors and archaeological ruins. The people you meet may also be part of your experience.
Unless you are staying for a good two weeks or longer, it makes sense to focus your time on one section of the islands – either Lewis and Harris, or the Uists and Barra. Here follow some suggestions for how you might prioritise your time.
With one week at your disposal, base yourself on Lewis (days 1–4) and take day trips to Stornoway and Callanish, Ness, and Uig sands plus the landscapes of the southwest of Uig, such as Mangersta. On days 5–7, explore Harris, taking in the beaches around the Sound of Luskentyre, visiting St Clement’s Church in Rodel and the Hushinish peninsula and walking up to the golden eagle observatory at Miabhaig. Spend a few hours in the small port village of Tarbert. Take a boat to either the Shiant Isles or Monach Islands (both accessible from Lewis and Harris).
If you have a second week available, spend days 8–10 exploring the beaches of the north coast of North Uist, then hike up Barpa Langass and follow the circular loop around the attractive island of Grimsay. Climb Rueval on Benbecula. Go to the Kildonan museum on South Uist and explore the lochs and paths around Loch Eynort and Loch Druidibeg.
On days 11–14, spend a couple of hours on Prince’s Beach on Eriskay and have a drink in the pub there before taking the ferry across the Sound of Barra. Roam or bask on Barra’s wonderful beaches, such as Tangsadale or Tràigh Tuath, visit Kisimul Castle and have a coffee overlooking the waters of Castlebay. Go for a walk on Vatersay above the glorious east-facing beach. Watch a flight from the mainland arrive at Tràigh Mhòr.
With the luxury of a third week, treat yourself to visiting several additional sites, such as Arnol blackhouse, and Point and the Lochs on Lewis. You could perhaps base yourself for a week in a single location, such as the Valtos peninsula in Uig, the Luskentyre area of Harris or Barra.