The iconic images of the Outer Hebrides are always taken in the summer: blue skies above the beaches, the sun setting behind the Callanish stones, or the plane landing on the beach runway at Barra airport in perfect conditions.
In reality, the weather is not always perfect. And while I probably wouldn’t recommend you visit the islands as late as December (it can feel as if daylight barely breaks, which if you’re not accustomed to it, can take some getting used to), I’ll let you in on a little secret: autumn can actually be one of the best times to visit the Outer Hebrides.
Not only is September known for (relatively) decent weather – and a distinct lack of those pesky midges that descend in the warmer months – but the local calendar is still full of events and activities for you to enjoy long after the summer holidays end and well into the autumn and winter months.
So if you’ve missed the summer season and are debating booking a trip to the islands, or are simply looking ahead to next year’s travel plans, here are just some of the reasons why you should visit the Outer Hebrides in autumn.
It helps keep travel to the islands more sustainable.
“Sustainability” has become a bit of a buzzword in the tourism world, but it’s for good reason. Increased visitor numbers without an equivalent investment in infrastructure puts a strain on communities and natural environments, something that was in evidence in the Outer Hebrides this summer, when locals were unable to get access to lifeline ferry services because they were fully-booked with visitors. By visiting in autumn, you’re helping spread the impact of tourism throughout the year, and reducing the negative effects on the very place you’re coming to experience.
The beaches (and roads) will be quieter.
On a similar note, recent summers have seen the often narrow roads in the islands get busier and busier, especially with the influx of large camper vans. To avoid the (admittedly still small) crowds, and to help keep travel to the islands sustainable – after all, islanders still need to go about their everyday lives while visitors relax on holiday – consider visiting in September or October, when the beaches, roads, and hotels will be a bit quieter. Who wouldn’t want Luskentyre or Huisinis all to themselves?
Accommodation prices tend to be lower in the off-season.
With tourist accommodation at a premium in the Outer Hebrides, prices are rising, for everything from traditional bed-and-breakfasts to high-end luxury self-catering properties. Like elsewhere in Scotland, though, summer is the peak season here, meaning that as you move into autumn and winter, prices begin to drop.
If you’re worried about the cost of your Hebridean adventure, making the journey in the autumn might save you some money on accommodation (money that can then be spent enjoying all these must-have experiences in the Outer Hebrides!)
Heather is still blooming in September.
If you want to see the heather in all its purple glory, you can still catch it in early September. Given that most of the islands, from the Butt of Lewis to the Isle of Barra, are home to large swathes of moorland, you’ll likely see the heather blooming wherever you are.
You can still get a glimpse of the local wildlife
While the midges are (thankfully!) long gone, the rest of the islands’ wildlife are still roaming. This is a great time of year to keep an eye out for deer in the hills, see salmon jumping in rivers on their way upstream, and spot seals in harbours and coves.
Boat trips to the outlying islands are still running.
Two of my all-time favourite travel experiences – sailing to the Shiants and St Kilda with Sea Harris – are still available throughout the autumn. Boat tours to outlying islands and around the various coastlines tend to run from April to October, so you won’t miss out by visiting the Outer Hebrides in autumn instead of the busy summer months between June and August. (In fact, you’re more likely to get a coveted space on one of the boat trips at this time of year!)
There’s a better chance of seeing the magical Northern Lights.
Sightings of the Aurora Borealis, known as Na Fir Chlis in Gaelic, are never guaranteed. But as the nights draw in, leaving behind the almost never-ending daylight of summer, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in action increase. Watching them dance from my back garden back in 2014 was a truly incredible experience (as this photo from local photographer Colin Cameron shows!).
You can listen to world-famous writers at Faclan, the Hebridean Book Festival.
Faclan is hands-down one of my favourite events in the island calendar, and one of my all-time favourite book events. The Hebridean Book Festival, run by An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, takes place every year at the equinox.
Focused on a different theme each year (previous themes have included Pilgrimage, Second Sight, and the North Atlantic), it attracts writers and thinkers from around the world; in recent years the likes of Amy Liptrot, Peter May, and Jenny Colgan have all graced the stage. In Uist, the Taigh Chearsabhag arts centre also has a busy events calendar year round.
The leaves start to change in the Lews Castle Grounds.
Trees are hard to find in the Outer Hebrides, where most of the islands consist of rocky terrain, flat moorland, or grassy machair. The Lews Castle Grounds in Stornoway, however, are home to a wide variety of trees and imported plants, created in the 1840s at a cost of £49,000 to Lord and Lady Matheson.
It’s one of the few places in the islands where you can get that traditional autumn experience of watching the leaves turn from green to orange and bronze. A walk in the Grounds on a crisp autumn day is hard to beat, especially if it’s followed up with a coffee (or maybe a dram!) in the Lews Castle café or bar.
And of course, everything else that makes these islands a must-visit location is still there in autumn, too!
From the delicious food and drink (think 40 North Foods or the Harris Distillery), to the music nights in local pubs like McNeill’s, and the scenery that takes your breath away no matter the time of year, there’s always plenty to see and do in the Outer Hebrides – but maybe especially so in autumn, when you can cosy up by a fire and feast on hearty meals after your outdoor adventures.
Have you ever visited the Outer Hebrides in autumn? Would you like to, or do you prefer to travel in different seasons?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
For more information on visiting the islands, don’t miss my dedicated Outer Hebrides travel guide, full of advice and inspiration!