The Hebrides – Legendary Beaches and Mystic Landscapes
The Hebrides are a 210 kilometer stretch of islands off Scotland’s north western coast. Also referred to as the Western Isles, virtually all 119 islands are uninhabited except for Lewis and Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Benbecula and Barra. North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula are connected by road causeways. The landscape is a near perfect blend of rocky and rugged on one hand and lush and scenic on the other.
Religion is an intrinsic part of local life particularly in the northerly Hebrides where Protestants are the majority. Here, many businesses close down on Sundays. The southerly Hebrides are predominantly Roman Catholic and comparatively less strict on Sunday openings.
The Hebrides beaches are legendary. Much of the western side of this string of islands looks like a single, long continuous deserted and pristine beach. That being said, the best beaches in the Hebrides are found in the islands of South Uist, Barra, North Uist, Harris and Lewis, and Berneray.
The Callanish Standing Stones on Harris and Lewis are one of Britain’s most comprehensive stone circles and a captivating prehistoric site. Its ageless mystic, imposing size and outstanding beauty leave a permanent impression on any visitor. The 13 gigantic stones are carefully arranged around a central monolith. The formation is thought to be between 4000 and 5000 years old.
The Northern Lights are usually visible from the Outer Hebrides, something that has been attributed to the low level of population due to the small permanent population.
While the Hebrides have a number of decent roads and single lane tracks, exploring any of the islands by car is inherently limiting. To see the most of what each island has to offer, hiking is the most practical alternative. The most serene and beautiful sections are usually the most removed from the main roads. The more adventurous (and physically fit) tourists can consider scaling the rugged mountain peaks – climbing equipment is available for hire close to most such sites.
Thousands of migratory wading birds descend on the Hebrides between autumn and winter each year – if you can bear the rain and cold, the birds are a breathtaking sight.
The Hebrides are connected by ferry to Scotland with the main ferry operator being Caledonian MacBrayne. The ferry ride is fairly cheap for foot passengers but can be prohibitively expensive for vehicles. The main departure points on the mainland include Oban, Mallaig, Ullapool and Skye. While ferry is the means used to reach the islands by a large proportion of visitors, the Hebrides have airports and Barra, Benbecula and Lewis islands. The three airports have direct flights to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow. Note however that the flights are often delayed due to difficult weather and the planes used are small (thus very turbulent).
If the British Isles are notorious for the nearly incessant rain, the Hebrides are on another level. That being said, the rain should not be a deterrent.
Accommodation is most enriching at the Hebrides if you stay off the beaten track. Most villages in the archipelago have bed and breakfasts as well as chalets all of which often cost less than the hotels in the more conventional tourist locations. Due to the high cost of advertising, most such establishments cannot advertise in the mainstream media or through the VisitScotland authority. You have to ask around among locals or search on community websites.
While the beaches are beautiful, the cold in the Hebrides means the islands would struggle to compete with beach destinations in warmer parts of Europe e.g. the Mediterranean. The prehistoric monuments and the rugged interior are great for anyone who loves to experience the outdoors but is ready to live with not having to take a dive into the cold sea water.