There’s more to the Outer Hebrides than the guidebooks would have you believe – but don’t just take my word for it. Visit these islands for yourself, and take this list of essential travel experiences with you!
See the sunset (or the Northern Lights) at the Callanish Stones.
The Callanish Stones are older than Stonehenge, and in my opinion, much more atmospheric. From the air, the stones are laid out in the shape of a Celtic cross, and up close, you can admire their varying shapes and sizes.
As if the stones themselves weren’t enough, their location on the West Side of Lewis is stunning, offering panoramic views across hills and moorland. Visit the stones at sunset, when the changing light makes the place seem almost magical; or brave the cold winter nights for a sighting of the Northern Lights dancing above the ancient pillars.
Walk on the Caribbean-esque beaches of West Harris.
Luskentyre, Seilebost, Horgabost, Scarista: the beaches on the west coast of Harris are regularly listed as some of the best in the UK (and even the world). Once you’ve visited them, it’s easy to see why. You’ll find pure white sand, azure seas, and the entire place all to yourself. The only difficult part will be choosing which ones to spend your time at. My advice? Stop at every single one.
Watch planes land on the beach at Barra Airport.
Barra Airport is the only airport in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach runway. Due to the tidal nature of the airport, the planes aren’t always on time – but watching one land on the sand is more than worth the wait. If you want to fly into the airport yourself (and who wouldn’t?), FlyBe offer a £75 day return ticket for tourists travelling to Barra from Glasgow. You can bet it’s on my bucket list!
Sail to St Kilda, the ‘islands at the edge of the world.’
The isolated archipelago of St Kilda lies 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, and is home to the highest sea cliffs in Britain – not to mention some of the largest wild bird populations in Europe (hello, pufflings!). The last inhabitants were evacuated in 1930, and their abandoned village feels weighted with history. This double World Heritage site is unlike anywhere else on earth, and visiting St Kilda with Sea Harris in 2014 remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.
Enjoy a dram (and some scones) at the Harris Distillery in Tarbert.
The Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd only opened in the autumn of 2015, and it’s already earned its spot on the must-visit list for tourists. Take a tour of the distillery to learn the ins and outs of the process, and to see just how intertwined with the local community this ‘social distillery’ is. While the whisky is still in production, you can leave with a beautiful bottle of their Isle of Harris Gin (and a scone from the canteen – they’re the best I’ve ever tried!).
Taste Stornoway Black Pudding at the source.
Don’t think about the ingredients that go into making the (in)famous Stornoway Black Pudding – just eat it! This delicious ‘blood sausage’ (known as a ‘marag’ in Gaelic) is protected under EU law, and can be eaten in a myriad of ways.
I like mine sliced and fried on a breakfast roll with some rashers of bacon and a potato scone (the perfect way to start the weekend), but I’ve also enjoyed it deep fried in small nibbles and served as a starter with seaweed and chilli sauce, at Hotel Hebrides in Harris. Everyone has their own favourite supplier, so make your way into any of the butchers in Stornoway to buy a marag straight from the source.
Smell the peat smoke at the Arnol Blackhouse.
My Dad loves to tell the story of the first time I visited the Arnol Blackhouse, a traditional thatched Lewis house typical of those lived in until the early 20th century. Right in the middle of the stone floor is a peat fire, with a kettle dangling on a chain over it – I thought it smelled marvellous, and asked why we didn’t live in a house like this.
Unsurprisingly, most visitors to this museum take a slightly different view of the smell. Peat smoke aside, the Arnol Blackhouse is a fascinating insight into a long-gone way of life in the islands.
Feast on a 40 North Foods picnic at Dal Beg Beach.
Everything at 40 North Foods – a small, takeaway only, croft-to-table food business – is out-of-this-world delicious. Whether you opt for a salad box filled with a variety of smoked meats (and maybe some actual salad), or one of the freshly made sandwiches, there’s plenty to choose from for your picnic.
If you can refrain from tucking in straight away, drive ten minutes further down the road until you reach the signs for Dal Beg, where you can find a chair-shaped stone on the beach and enjoy your lunch to the soundtrack of pounding waves.
Invest in some Harris Tweed, the champagne of fabrics.
Harris Tweed is the only textile protected by an Act of Parliament: only tweed that has been hand woven by weavers in their homes in the Hebrides can be designated Harris Tweed. The depth of colour is achieved by dying the wool first, and then weaving it into lengths of material that is transformed into everything from Chanel jackets to hotel furnishings.
The tweed mills don’t (usually) offer tours to the public, but you can get your shopping fix in Stornoway (at the Harris Tweed Hebrides flagship store, or quirky independent designer By Rosie), or in Tarbert at the Harris Tweed Shop.
Indulge in luxurious isolation at The Broch at Borve Lodge.
This luxurious self-catering property in Borve on the Isle of Harris is the definition of secluded. Created for couples, and built in the style of an Iron Age broch, the tower blends perfectly into the landscape, making it easy to miss from the road. Inside, you’ll find high-end touches like under-floor heating, slate counter tops, and a four-poster bed that sits below a skylight – perfect for star gazing before drifting off to sleep. (I stayed here for a ‘holiday at home‘ a few years ago, and it was absolute bliss.)
Get a taste of the crofting life at Air an Lot in Ness.
Crofting was once a way of life for every family in the islands; these days, the number of crofters is smaller, but they’re no less dedicated. Domhnall ‘Sweeny’ MacSween opened up his croft in Ness in the north of Lewis to visitors, allowing them to get a hands-on experience of crofting, whether that’s peat cutting, feeding animals, or even clearing out the hen house! Whatever your age, you’ll have a fun – and informative – crofting experience here. (Just don’t drop the Air an Lot ducklings like I did!)
Meet the Lewis Chessmen in Uig.
While you can see a selection of the Lewis Chessmen in London’s British Museum, Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and now Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean, a visit to the spot where the intricately carved ivory chess pieces were discovered in 1831 is worth the drive.
The tiny figures were found by a terrified crofter who thought he had stumbled across the fairies, and when you’ve experienced the strange but peaceful isolation in the sand dunes of Uig, you can begin to understand the poor man’s reaction.
(And if the giant oak statue of the chess King in Uig looks familiar, it’s because the Lewis Chessmen were the inspiration behind the wizard’s chessboard in the first Harry Potter film, the Philosopher’s Stone.)
Stroll around Stornoway Harbour.
On a sunny day, there are a few things more enjoyable than grabbing a takeaway coffee (and cake) from Delights, and crossing the road to stroll alongside Stornoway Harbour. If you follow the pier out to the small footbridge at Bayhead Street and into the Castle Grounds, you’ll be rewarded with picturesque panoramic views of the harbour and the colourful shops that line it.
Cross the bridge over the Atlantic to Great Bernera.
Fancy driving across the Atlantic? Then look no further than the bridge between the Isle of Lewis and Great Bernera, which crosses a (very small) sliver of the ocean. It was the first bridge of its kind in Europe, built in 1953 after pressure from Bernera residents.
But don’t stop once you’ve crossed over to the other side: drive a little further and you’ll be rewarded by the beauty of Bosta Beach, a sheltered shell-sand beach framed by dark rocks and green, green grass.
Keep an eye out for otters in Benbecula and Uist.
The Outer Hebrides are one of the best places in Europe to see the European Otter, and in the southern portion of the islands they’re so common that there are road signs warning of their presence. You’ll have to drive slowly anyway, so why not stop the car at one of the many sea lochs to take a closer look?
Follow in the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Eriskay.
Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) may have left the Western Isles by going ‘over the sea to Skye’, but the first place he apparently set foot in Scotland was on this beach on the island of Eriskay. Follow in his footsteps with a stroll on the beach, and then recharge at another storied spot, Am Politician.
The island pub is named after the cargo ship full of whisky that sank here during WWII, and caused all sorts of calamities. For a funny fictional account of the escapades that followed, read Whisky Galore by Compton Mazkenzie (or watch the new film when it comes out later this year).
Get acquainted with the wild ponies in Loch Skipport, South Uist.
I found out about these unbelievably friendly ponies by accident, and I’m so glad we turned off the main road to say hello to them. The minute they spot you, the ponies will come running – and stick their noses right into the car, if given the chance!
Explore the sea stacs and caves of Garry Beach.
Garry Beach in Tolsta on the Isle of Lewis is a favourite among children – the many sea stacs and caves that are accessible when the tide is out bring to mind adventure stories of smugglers and pirates and 10-year-olds that save the day (can you tell I was bookworm growing up?). It’s a great spot for big kids too, and when you tire of playing hide and seek between the rocks, there are a few picnic tables to rest and recuperate at.
Dance the night (and day) away at the Hebridean Celtic Festival.
The atmosphere that invades the streets of Stornoway at festival time is infectious. Known simply as ‘HebCelt‘, the annual summer music extravaganza sees tourists flock to the islands from across the country (and around the world). But it’s not just the musical acts in the big top tent that draw the crowds, but those in the pubs – and even on the streets – of Stornoway.
Buy tickets for this, and prepare to ceilidh through all hours of the day and night! (This year, the line up is spectacular, with the likes of Runrig, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, and Julie Fowlis taking to the stage. Let’s just say I’m more than a little jealous of everyone heading to the tent this July!)
Discover the secrets of the Lews Castle Grounds on a Segway Tour.
Segways don’t always have the best reputation – but that’s from people who’ve never tried an off-road segway before. Segway Hebrides operates out of the Woodlands Centre in Stornoway’s Castle Grounds, and their hardy segways take you on tours of the grounds, from rushing rivers to steep climbs on narrow woodland paths. It was freezing cold, pouring with rain, and blowing a gale the day I went on a tour – and I still loved it, so I can only imagine how much fun it would be on a sunny day.
Conquer your fear of heights at the Butt of Lewis.
Admittedly, this is an experience I’ve only had once or twice in my life, as I have not conquered my fear of heights (which is why you see a photo of the sign for the Butt of Lewis, Rubha Robhanais, not the cliff edges themselves).
For visitors to the Outer Hebrides however, this is an incredible location to visit. The most northerly point of the island chain is rocky and dramatic, with a lighthouse beaming out its warning from cliffs of about 80 feet high. But don’t risk visiting on a bad day: in winter, wind speeds regularly reach more than 100mph.