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Outer Hebrides - When and where to visit
The Outer Hebrides are regularly exposed to the extremes of wind and rain but – relatively speaking – enjoy a mild climate, with frosts rare. Many places where you stay will helpfully print out the weather forecast for you to peruse over breakfast: it’s not uncommon for such forecasts to predict winds to be ‘minimum 2mph, maximum 58mph’. Not only can you experience all four seasons in one day here; stand on a headland in sunshine watching hail across the sea, and it can feel as though you can experience them all at once.
In Stornoway, winter temperatures average 7°C by day and lows of 1.8°C at night; spring time temperatures climb to 9.9°C in the afternoon with overnight lows of 3.8°C. Summer’s average high temperatures are 15.2°C, though they can reach the mid-20s°C any time between April and September, with lows of 9.3°C. Come autumn, temperatures typically drop to 11.5°C during the day and lows of 6°C.
Rainfall averages 46.2 inches (1,173mm), and Harris and Lewis – with the exception of Ness – have had significantly higher rainfall over the past 30 years than the southern islands; they are also wetter than most places on the mainland, with the exception of the western Highlands, the Lake District and Snowdonia.
On average, there are 1,234 hours of sunshine per year: Stornoway sees just 50 minutes sunlight per day in December. On Midsummer’s Day the islands enjoy 18 1/4 hours of daylight, the sun rising at 04.20 and setting at 22.35, though the nautical twilight continues all night, so it doesn’t ever really get pitch black.
The islands on the edge of the British Isles offer great extremes – not only of interest throughout the year but also of weather. Late April to the end of June is probably the best time to visit. The days quickly become much longer – although you are some way south of the midnight sun, it never gets completely dark in mid June – and wildlife, on a mission to breed and rear young, is at its richest. April can often be a fine month for weather. A ridge of high pressure driven by anticyclones is a recognised, if not consistent, phenomenon across the islands at the end of May and the start of June.
July and August are the best months to visit if you're a fan of wildflowers © Laurie Campbell Photography, www.lauriecampbell.com
July and August herald the striking spectacle of carpets of wild flowers along the grasslands, known as the machair, along the west coast. Summer also brings many outdoor events, such as Gaelic singing festivals, agricultural shows and local versions of Highland games. It can be hard to get accommodation at short notice during the summer holidays (Scotland’s school holidays run from the start of July to mid August), and there is even more pressure on car rental, with prices to match.
Autumn triggers a mass shift in the wildlife of the islands, with birds either migrating south or fleeing the approaching Arctic winter. The dark days of winter are not for the faint-hearted but bring a sporting chance of seeing the Northern Lights and are a superb time to see hardy wildlife toughing things out. At this season, time your visit for a break in the stormy weather and you may witness some of the most extraordinarily wild and battered landscapes you’ll ever see. The low winter sun can also show off the distinctively corrugated appearance of undulating moors and age-old farming furrows.
February and March are the prime time to witness the territorial behaviour of golden eagles, which pair-bond at this time, soaring together and locking talons in a breathtaking display. For walkers and cyclists, the same opportunities and guidance that are relevant elsewhere in the UK apply here: check the weather whatever the season, and acknowledge that a good day out in winter can be as wonderful as anything in summer.
A fascinating history
Explore traditional living at the Geàrrannan Blackhouse Village © Kenny Lam, Visit Scotland
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
The North Harris Hills create an ancient barrier between Lewis and Harris © Laurie Campbell Photography, www.lauriecampbell.com
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.
East Beach in Vatersay is quite possibly the most spectacular stretch of sand on the islands © Spumador, Shutterstock
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.