Why should you plan to visit the Outer Hebrides in autumn?
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 has been in evidence in the Outer Hebrides in recent years (for example with locals 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 (like a gin tasting at the Harris Distillery or North Distillery, or feasting at one of the best restaurants in Lewis and Harris), to the music nights in local pubs, 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!
This blog post was first published in 2018, and most recently updated in September 2022.
If you enjoyed this, you might like:
The Outer Hebrides Travel Guide
A Mini Travel Guide to Stornoway
13 Useful Things to Know Before Visiting the Outer Hebrides
Fabulous as usual, Katie. Agree with all your thoughts.
Katie MacLeod says
Thanks so much Marilyn – glad to hear you feel the same! 🙂
I’m liking the sound of that book festival. And the Northern Lights over the Callanish Stones? Now that would be a sight I’d like to see.
Katie MacLeod says
The book festival is fantastic – it’s one of my favourite events of the year in the islands. And the Northern Lights, if you catch them, are pretty spectacular!
Colette Mac Leod says
Reading this makes me feel homesick for the Islands. Always love the eerie beauty and the peace.
Katie MacLeod says
Aw thank you Colette, that’s so nice of you to say! There really is something special about the peace and quiet in the islands 🙂 .
Judith Ball says
This was really useful thank you! We were supposed to be visiting Lewis in August but have decided to cancel – I really don’t think it’s fair on the locals regardless what government advice is. September seems like a good idea when we rebook as by September next year I can book out of school holidays.
Katie MacLeod says
I’m so glad to hear you found it helpful, Judith! September is a lovely time to visit the islands. I’m also staying away for now ≠ which is hard because it’s home! – but it’s for the best. I hope when you do make it to Lewis you have a wonderful time! 🙂
We’ll be there in 10 days! It’s my second time there but the first for my husband ! We cannot wait
Katie MacLeod says
I hope you had a wonderful time!
Fiona McIver says
We have just spent three nights in Stornoway, and absolutely loved every minute! September was a perfect time to be there, and we will definitely return, hopefully for a bit longer next time!
Katie MacLeod says
I’m so glad to hear you loved your visit, Fiona – and that you’re planning on returning, too!
Helen Coghill says
My husband was a ‘Wicker’ and spent his childhood and youth in Ness after leaving his place of birth, Wick, for safety reasons. On his way home from school one day the street was attacked by enemy aircraft, and eight of his little mates were killed and many buildings destroyed. He was sent to his Aunt’s home in Ness and spent most of his formative years there and completed his Secondary schooling at Stornoway.
Eventually, he served an Apprenticeship in Marine Engineering on the Clyde and Stow College before setting off to see the world. I was a Registered Nurse at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and there we met at a party I was invited to. Three years later we married and as part of our honeymoon joined him on his cargo ship for two months sailing around the Australian Coast and New Zealand. Eventually, after many long separations, we settled in Sydney and in time welcomed a son and daughter and had a wonderful marriage. Sadly he passed away two years ago but the memories of his years on Lewis remained. Though I have not been there the stories and memories of Ness became so vivid in my mind. He never forgot his roots and I have literally hundreds of beautiful slides …yes! slides !of the Island all in perfect condition.
He was a Coghill from Wick, the MacLeod clan, and his Aunties and Mother were Murrays from Barvas. His brother wed a lovely lass from Stornoway . She was a MacLeod.I hope this is not too lengthy.!
Ruth Montgomery says
You, and most other sources, speak specifically about how September is a lovely, and quieter, time to visit the Outer Hebrides. You speak of autumn and seem to include October, but your specific examples all seem to focus on September. We are considering a visit to the Outer Hebrides in October of 2023, and would appreciate any advice you have about an October visit. One weather source seemed to show that October has the highest rainfall levels of the year. I also wonder about the birds and other wildlife.
What are the pluses and minuses of an October visit? How much of a difference is there between early and late October? Do you have any recommendations for an October visit? We are a family group with quite disparate interests.
Katie MacLeod says
Hi Ruth, thanks for your comment! That’s exciting to hear you’re planning a trip to the Outer Hebrides this year!
The one piece of advice I would give is that unfortunately you can’t really base your trip to the islands on weather, at any time of year, as it’s very unpredictable (you can get sunny dry weather in February, and grey skies and rain in August), and we joke that you can experience four seasons in one day. If you at least go prepared for rain with the appropriate clothes, you’ll still be able to get out and about on the beaches and for walks etc. whatever the weather.
In terms of wildlife, October is meant to be one of the best months to spot deer (although my photo of a deer in this post was taken in late November), and for bird watching, I’d recommend looking up the Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail for specific details. I would also check with the various boat tour companies to see when exactly their boat trips end for the season, but in general I would say you can see and do most things in October that you can do earlier in the year. I hope that helps!
Marilyn Roberts says
Ruth, I have no right to reply because this is Katie’s website, but I’d like to reiterate everything Katie has said and all the advice she has given. My personal experience of the Outer Hebrides was in the height of summer and for the first 5 days of my 2 week visit it rained – quite literally water poured from the skies so heavily that it was hard to see anything further than 5 feet away. I was preparing to cut short my visit and leave…and then the sun came out! And those stunningly beautiful islands set amid the clearest turquoise waters I have ever seen emerged. Everything from that moment on was quite literally breathtaking. I found myself gasping at more beauty than I have ever seen before. So if you go in autumn, you may get endless sunshine or rain. I hope it doesn’t rain for you, but if it does, remember the sun will come out some time, and there are so many things to see and do while you wait. There are lots of museums and lovely cafes and shops to enjoy – Stornoway just buzzes! Further south, there is a lovely little museum in Harris with letters and photos showing the history of the people who had to leave because of the clearances and go to Canada or America. So sad, but fascinating too when you read about such resilience. And those Hebrideans now! How do such remote islands produce such educated,laid back and friendly people?! Lovely Katie is an example of the inhabitants you will meet. I hope it doesn’t rain for your visit, but if it does, enjoy what you can indoors and wait for the sun to appear! If you get good weather, you are in for a treat that no other holiday can offer. I would highly recommend a walk from Lews Castle around the ocean front – seals leap and play and the silence is of the pin-dropping variety. Or walk on the white sands on the beaches in Harris that are so soft you sink up to your knees. Just my opinion!
Ruth Montgomery says
Thank you both for your responses. The other aspect I was concerned about is whether birds and other sea wildlife will have migrated south by October. I know I want to come sometime, the October visit to Scotland is with 8 other family members, so coming to consensus will be challenging.