Head off to the Outer Hebrides

With the Scottish Government currently subsidising all ferry travel between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides, now is the perfect time to visit this fascinating outpost of the British Isles. Brenda Watkinson explores the main attractions and activities on the islands.

The 19th century Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on the Isle of Lewis.

The 19th century Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on the Isle of Lewis.

Known for their beautiful white sandy beaches, natural beauty, abundant wildlife and rocky landscapes, the Outer Hebrides also offer a fascinating history, ranging from the ancient stone circles of Callanish to the modern technology of Abhainn Dearg Distillery.
Located off the north west coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) consist of 12 islands, which stretch 150 miles, bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and the Minch on the east. The main islands of Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra are connected by a series of roads, causeways and ferry routes. Each island is quite different, offering unique features and experiences, and so will appeal to groups with varying interests.

The grounds of Lews Castle are open to the public.

The grounds of Lews Castle are open to the public.

For the more energetic parties, there are activities such as hill walking, fishing, climbing and surfing, while others might prefer to explore the genealogy, religious history, wildlife, and flora and fauna of the islands.
We start our exploration of the Outer Hebrides on the northernmost Isles of Lewis and Harris.

Lewis and Harris

Stornoway, the largest town in the Outer Hebrides, is situated on the east coast of the Isle of Lewis. It is one of the main entry ports to the islands and is an interesting town in which to spend some time. Located on the waterfront not far from the ferry terminal, the Lanntair Arts Centre offers a number of services to visitors and locals alike with regular art exhibitions, workshops, live music and events. General admission is free.
Also in the town, Museum nan Eilean houses permanent displays illustrating the archaeology, social, domestic and economic history of the islands, together with temporary exhibitions. Until 12th September, ‘Lewis Chessmen Unmasked’ is of significant interest as it displays 30 of the 12th century pieces, discovered under a sand dune near Uig on the west coast sometime before 1831. General admission to the exhibition is free; guided tours and talks can be arranged in advance.
Another important attraction in Stornoway is Lews Castle, located on the west side of the harbour. Used as a college at present, the 19th century building is not currently open to the general public; however, guided walks around the grounds can be arranged with the Stornoway Trust Ranger Service. The extensive parkland features over 100 species of tree and there are exhibitions and a tearoom in the Woodland Centre.
A short drive north of Stornoway, on the most northern tip of the island, the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse was built in the 1860s and is now completely automated. Here, the scenery is very dramatic with rocks towering up to 80 feet high. It is also home to many seabirds, making it a magnet for birdwatchers. This location is a popular whale watching spot too, with regular sightings of minke and killer whales.

A view of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.

A view of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.

Not far from the Butt of Lewis, the Ness Heritage Centre is a good venue for groups interested in local history.
The centre contains an impressive archive of documents, genealogical records, photographs, video and audio recordings, and talks can be arranged for a charge. General admission is free.
Located in a dramatic setting near Carnish on the west coast, Abhainn Dearg Distillery is producing the first legal whisky on the island since 1840 when Shoeburn Distillery in Stornoway closed down. Launched earlier this year, the whisky is made solely from local produce. Guided tours of the distillery can be arranged in advance for groups, with the opportunity to purchase a bottle of the Spirit of Lewis. For the enthusiast, three-day whisky distillery courses are available.
One of the most visited attractions on Lewis, Callanish Stones & Visitor Centre, also on the west of the island, is managed by Historic Scotland and dates back over 4,000 years. Located on a headland overlooking part of a huge sea loch, it comprises 53 pale grey stones of Lewisian gneiss standing in a curious cruciform, with a central circle of 13 tall stones. Discounts apply to groups of 10 or more and advance booking is advised.

The ancient Callanish Stones.

The ancient Callanish Stones.

Not far from here, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is also not to be missed. This traditional crofting village dates from the late 19th century and features nine restored houses, a museum and interpretations centre, craft shop and restaurant. A small admission is charged.
Continuing your journey southwards, visitors will come to the Isle of Harris (actually part of the same expanse of land) which, unlike the relatively flat Lewis, is very hilly with seven mountains. It is also known for its strange lunar landscapes, sea lochs and pristine sand beaches. Tarbert is the main town in Harris and is one of the main entry ports from Uig in Skye.
Seventeen miles south of Tarbert, Seallam! Visitor Centre is well worth a stop. In addition to permanent and temporary displays focusing on the history and natural environment of the Hebrides, guided tours and talks can be arranged tailored to your group’s interests. Discounts apply.
For a scenic tour, follow the road along the west coast passing stunning beaches en route, through the port of Leverburgh to Rodel. Here, the medieval church of St. Clement’s, under the care of Historic Scotland, is well worth a visit. Built by the eighth chief MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, the church contains his fine carved tomb and is free to enter. From here, you can either return to Leverburgh for the ferry to the Uists or follow a single track road northwards through dramatic rock formations back to Tarbert.
For a little bit of adventure, a day trip to the islands of St Kilda can be arranged from Leverburgh. Lying 40 miles offshore, the islands are a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site due to their environmental importance and scenic beauty. This is the remotest part of the British Isles and the main island of Hirta is a fascinating place to explore. The church, schoolroom and museum detail the unique way of life of the islanders. Several operators run day trips from Harris including Kilda Cruises and Sea Harris. It should be noted that in this part of the world, boat trips can be cancelled and delayed at short notice due to adverse weather conditions.
If you are not able to visit St Kilda itself, an interesting viewpoint was erected in 2009 on the nearby island of North Uist. Located halfway up the hill of Clettraval at Hosta, 41 miles from the archipelago, the St Kilda
viewpoint boasts a powerful telescope and visual interpretations. On a clear day, the St Kilda archipelago can be seen as well as the Monach Isles. There are huge seal colonies on the Monachs as well as a wealth of birds and summer flowers, making them another popular day trip.
A short ferry ride across the Sound of Harris brings you to the southern lower lying islands, which are linked together by a series of causeways.

One of the spectacular beaches at South Uist.

One of the spectacular beaches at South Uist.

The Uists

Ferries arrive on the small island of Berneray, and it is just a short drive across the causeway to North Uist. From here, you can wend your way through moorland and gentle hills dotted with thousands of freshwater lochs towards South Uist, Eriskay and Barra.
On the east coast of the island, the town of Lochmaddy is the main ferry port for connections to Skye in the Inner Hebrides. In the town itself, the main exhibition at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre and Museum – ‘Communications and Transport’ – will run until 31st January 2012. There is a small charge to enter this exhibition.
Popular with birdwatchers, RSPB Balranald Nature Reserve is home to coastal waders and divers. Located on the west coast of the island, the reserve offers free general admission, but for groups a guide can be arranged in advance for a small charge. The minimum number for this service is 10 people.
Continuing southwards, you will cross several causeways and the islands of Grimsay and Benbecula before arriving in South Uist.
South Uist also offers some spectacular scenery, particularly if you travel along the west coast, where you will see dazzling white shell beaches and possibly glimpse whales, dolphins, seals and puffins out at sea.
On the north-west coast of the island, in the town of Iochdar, the Hebridean Jewellery Shop makes an interesting visit. Handcrafted Scottish jewellery has been made on the premises since 1974 and many of the designs date back to the Pictish and Celtic periods. Large groups are advised to book ahead.
To discover more about Scottish traditional music, Gaelic song and dance, the Ceòlas Music Festival is held annually on the island in July. It is essentially a music and dance summer school with tuition throughout the day and concerts in the evenings, held at venues in and around South Uist. It is advised to book in advance for tickets.

Young pipers performing at the Ceòlas Music Festival

Young pipers performing at the Ceòlas Music Festival

To appreciate nature at its best, Loch Druidibeg Nature Reserve is a good starting point to view much of the island’s wildlife. The reserve stretches across South Uist from the Atlantic coast almost to the Minch. Although there are no formal arrangements for visits, there is a self-guided walk around the reserve with a leaflet available at the local tourist office.
Crossing the short causeway to the island of Eriskay, it is a short drive to the port for the ferry ride to Barra. If you have some extra time, Eriskay is a lovely island on which to explore the local wildlife. You might even glimpse some native Eriskay ponies, which have been rescued from near extinction in the last 30 years.
The main town in Barra is Castlebay. Located in a dramatic setting in Castlebay harbour, Kisimul Castle, managed by Historic Scotland, is the restored ancestral home of the clan MacNeil with a main tower dating from 1120. Although no guided tours are available, groups are welcome; however, it is essential to notify the castle of your visit to make sure arrangements are in place for the short transportation from the quayside to the main entrance by boat. Discounts apply.
Also in Castlebay, the guided Herring Walk around the harbour – arranged through the local tourist board – is an interesting way to learn about the history of the area. At the height of the herring boom in the late 19th century, 2,000 people were employed in this industry on the island.
It would be a shame to leave the islands without continuing across the last causeway to the island of Vatersay. This tiny island is famous for its twin beaches of fine white sand often deserted except for a few local cattle.

HOW TO GET THERE

The majority of visitors to the Outer Hebrides travel to the islands by ferry. Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean and Clyde Ferries (usually shortened to CalMac) operates a total of five regular ferry routes between the mainland and these ‘outer’ islands – Ullapool to Stornoway (Isle of Lewis), Uig (Isle of Skye) to Tarbert (Harris) and Lochmaddy (North Uist), and Oban to Lochboisdale (South Uist) and Castlebay (Barra). There are also inter-island ferry connections, including Harris to Berneray and South Uist to Barra.
For groups staying on the mainland, Cal Mac also suggests a number of day trip itineraries using your own coach. For instance, those based in Skye might enjoy a day out to North Uist and Harris, while parties staying near Gairloch and Ullapool can easily spend a day exploring the Isle of Lewis. These day tours will give your members a good insight into the unique history, culture and wildlife of the islands and you will be able to adapt the itinerary to suit your group’s interests. There is also an opportunity for a full day non-landing cruise to Barra from Oban, with plenty of opportunities to spot bird and marine life.

A CalMac ferry traverses the islands

A CalMac ferry traverses the islands

If you would prefer to leave your coach on the mainland, CalMac offers a number of days out from the Isle of Skye. These include a ‘Grand Tour of North Uist and Harris’, where you will be able to enjoy the wildlife and scenery of these two quite different islands, and a ‘Callanish Tour’ that includes visits to the Callanish Standing Stones, Dun Carloway Broch and Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on the Isle of Lewis. Groups are met at the port by a guide who accompanies you on these tours. It should be noted that organised excursions are available only during the summer timetable; however, you can organise your own itinerary year-round. Vehicles are charged by overall length and the number of passengers, with rates available on application. Discounts apply to groups of 12 or more. It should be noted that the subsidised rates are on a pilot scheme until October this year and apply only to crossings from the mainland, not inter-island routes.
If air travel is preferable, there are also a number of options. If you are looking to fly to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Flybe operated by Loganair offers daily flights (Monday to Saturday) from Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh (there is also a Sunday flight from Glasgow), while Eastern Airways operates daily flights (Monday to Friday) from Aberdeen. Flybe also runs daily flights (Monday to Saturday) from Glasgow to Barra and Benbecula, with additional Sunday flights to Barra in the summer months.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

Keith Campbell, Local Campaigns Manager,
VisitScotland, 26 Cromwell Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis HS1 2DD

Telephone: 01851 702941
Fax: 01851 705244
Email: keith.campbell@visitscotland.com
Web: www.visithebrides.com
Web: www.visitscotland.com