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The Stunning Beauty of Scotland’s Hebrides Islands

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Weathered seaside villages. Otherworldly vistas. An almost lost language. A seven‑day odyssey to another time and place in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland’s Western Isles.

The Outer Hebrides are Scotland, but they are not Scottish. They form a spine of islands, lounging off Britain’s northwest coast like a semi‑submerged crocodile. Across 40 isles and countless islets, of which only 15 are inhabited, the Outer Hebrides combine the limpid, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the grey severity of Iceland and, in the people, the reserved perseverance of Scandinavians. Then there are the coastal cliffs, which drop straight and red into the crashing sea – their ruggedness a reflection of a culture that is stoic and enduring, despite the relentless buffeting.

Hardship and strife are historical themes on these islands – and their coast‑hugging counterparts, the Inner Hebrides – wrought by forces both natural and man‑made. The anti‑feudalist Hebridean Land Revolt took place here in 1884, and it was from the Isle of Eriskay that Bonnie Prince Charlie launched his doomed Jacobite revolution to overthrow the British throne in 1745. Meanwhile, the Highland Clearances, a century of forced resettlement from the mid‑18th century, undermined the Gaelic clan system and pushed the population onto small tenements called crofts. Many chose to leave, fleeing to Canada’s Maritimes, where the Gaelic language and culture still survive in pockets. The crofts they abandoned for a new life fell into disrepair, their stone walls now crumbled and half hidden under tufts of moss. But that may be about to change.

March 11, 2021
The salt marshes and tidal pools of the Isle of Harris in Scotland
On the Isle of Harris, tidal pools in the salt marsh form intricate patterns of turf and sea.   Photo: Richard Gaston

Today, the Hebrides are on the cusp of regeneration. The “Become an Islander” campaign, launched in 2020, promotes the archipelago as a place of peace and opportunity, and Scotland’s choicest location to live. Two years ago, after settling on the Scottish mainland, my wife and I decided to explore this nearby otherness for ourselves. We made a seven‑day circuit of the outer islands, cycling northward from Vatersay, at the tip of the crocodile’s tail, through its spine of Uists, to its nostrils at the Butt of Lewis, a distance of some 300 kilometres along the Hebridean Way.

Our journey began on the hard emerald of Barra, where the Hebridean cultural difference from mainland Scotland is so clear that, after the five‑hour ferry journey, pitching through the dark waters of the Minch, I felt ready to present my passport. Gone is the flummery of Walter Scott’s sermonizing about bagpipes, tartan kilts and haggis that permeates the mainland. Also absent is the usual harsh Scottish brogue; in its place is a soft Norse lilt so melodic I felt compelled to harmonize with a fisherman, even as he grumbled about his meagre haddock catch on the pier in Castlebay. He spoke English to me, but switched readily to Scottish Gaelic when a fellow islander came along. This secret tongue is still spoken by the majority on the islands. Gaelic is a delicate language, and the locals speak it gently, as though their teeth might shatter their words. This soft‑spoken manner can seem at odds with the harsh reality of life on the archipelago. Hebrideans need to be tough to cope with the biting saline blasts, eking out a living from either the water or the thin, rocky topsoil. That harder edge to life comes through in the local poems and songs, like the Gaelic tune “Balaich an Iasgaich,” which tells of a fisherman, cold and numb, bedding down under the mast of his sailboat.

Two local fishermen in yellow raincoats on a boat on the Minch channel
Local fishermen challenge the northern seas on the once‑rich waters of the Minch channel.   Photo: Johan Hallberg-Campbell

That is not to say the islands’ remoteness and harsh landscape are prohibitive. They have also become a haven for artists from around the world, who escape their bustling cities to kiln pots on North Uist and craft jewellery on South Uist. Here, as on many islands, these “blow‑ins” (as the Gaels call them) are the most talkative. “I’ve lived here for 20 years,” a painter on Barra said. “And they still call me ‘the new girl.’” This twisted take on the passage of time, which is true of all rural places, takes on a different meaning in the Hebrides. Somehow, the centuries‑old abandoned ruins along the shores of Barra feel even older than the neolithic sites scattered throughout the archipelago. At 5,000 years old, the Callanish stone circles on the Isle of Lewis rival Stonehenge in age, yet are as sculptural and beautiful as anything in the Tate Modern, and the towering Madonna and Child statue on Barra’s hillock of Heaval feels positively Grecian.

From Barra, we caught the ferry to the small isle of Eriskay, where we happened upon the island’s herd of indigenous ponies nibbling on lichen between the walls of a dilapidated stone barn. The barns, leftovers from the Clearances, smacked of abandonment, but many are being reclaimed and repurposed to serve the growing tourism industry. Unfortunately, not all local history is reclaimed for visitors. When we visited Eriskay’s pub to rehydrate, the young barmaid allowed us only a peek at a hundred‑year‑old bottle of whisky saved from a nearby shipwreck before drawing it away and secreting it below the bar.

Two more days of cycling found us three islands north, on the narrow strip of South Uist. Under a bluebird sky, we pedalled against a strong westerly, our heads tucked into our jackets. We often found respite in the lee of some ruin, eating hunks of smoked Hebridean salmon, black pudding slices and cheese while watching skies that were always full of birds – crows and gulls, and scythe‑billed curlews, long‑necked reptilian cormorants and, higher than them all, spatulate sea eagles.

Two white ponies, one from Highland the other from Eriskay grazing in the sandy dunes of Scotland
Toby, an 18‑year‑old Highland pony, and Isla, a nine‑year‑old Eriskay pony, belong to a local family who live close to the sandy dunes.   Photo: Johan Hallberg-Campbell

There are few places better for birders than the Uists. At Balranald, we settled on the marram grass and watched congregations of bobbing plovers, lapwings and oystercatchers move with the water, running to and fro with the slap and retreat of each crashing breaker. Turning inland, we watched the birds float over the machair, a coastal meadow of daisies and buttercups, orchids and knapweed, eyebright and thyme. The peatier areas were a blend of heathers, milkwort and butterwort. Seeing the flowers is a tourist’s pleasure; knowing their names is a local’s. The heather was in bloom, giving narrow Uist the look of a plush purple bedspread. Pitching camp that night on a mattress of spongy heather, we fared far better than the Gaelic fisherman of old. Waking to a low tide, we found a forest of edible sea sprigs, sea truffle, sea spaghetti and pepper dulse carpeting the foreshore.

True trees in the Hebrides are as rare as hens’ teeth; those that manage to cling to the skimpy topsoil are twisted and gnarled by the wind. The land is dominated by absence, a dramatic “peat‑scape” that draws away to the horizon and, upon closer inspection, appears to be made entirely of water. When we were thirsty, we needed only stoop and press our cupped hands into the earth to collect a handful of water the colour of weak tea. The peat is a tree‑bereft land’s substitute for firewood – a peat fire here is as imbued with warmth and hospitality as a glass of uisge beatha, the local whisky.

Two people walking along the Traigh Iar Beach of North Uist
A machair, or grassy meadow, runs alongside the white sand of Traigh Iar Beach on North Uist and, in summertime, is home to wildflowers and the occasional rare wild orchid.   Photo: Richard Gaston

It is not all flat. North Uist is wild, with rugged mountains rising like earthen scabs, and on Harris, farther north, rises the rounded peak of An Cliseam. No wildness in all of Scotland prepared us for Harris. Whereas the southern islands are defined by light and openness, Harris is rough and dark and lunar, the most crocodilian of all the Hebrides, with small houses clinging to its jagged rocks. If Harris is the moon, low‑lying and lochan‑pitted Lewis has been swept by a finer cosmic broom. It is the largest island and the emptiest. Travelling its breadth a week after setting out from Barra, we were like two fleas on the haunch of a great hyena, two wind‑racked pedallers moving through a landscape of mottled oranges, purples and lichenous browns. These colours, along with the scent of the crottle lichen, are injected into Harris tweed, a cloth famous the world over but synonymous with the Outer Hebrides, the only place that it can be made – the genuine article is certified and stamped with an emblematic orb.

Each generation that journeys to the Outer Hebrides believes they are seeing the last of something, the vestiges of an antiquated life, but it is only a traveller’s conceit. Youths may be hard to keep on the islands, but they often return as adults with small children in tow, drawn back to the open skies and perfect light. The Gaelic word dùthchas describes their ancient, intrinsic connection to the land. As people resettle the islands, local crafts – crofting and fishing, knitting and gin‑making – are making a comeback. Those new to the archipelago soon learn the ways of the islander and develop their own tough, salt‑seared skin.

The Golden Road winding through the Isle of Harris with mountains in the background
The Golden Road is a single track that winds through a lunar landscape of lochs and inlets on the Isle of Harris, connecting village to village.   Photo: Richard Gaston

At the Butt of Lewis, we stood under the lighthouse designed by David Stevenson – uncle of R.L. Stevenson, of Treasure Island fame – whose lighthouses grace countless rocky shores across Scotland. Here, the dark sparkle of the Atlantic meets the swelling tide of the Minch, sending foaming waves booming against the hard skerries and zawns below. “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” wrote the younger Stevenson, “and the true success is to labour.” Tired but happy, we felt those words in our aching muscles after a week pedalling over mountain, moor and machair, pushing ourselves against the steady pressure of the wind. But it was the labouring islanders we encountered on our journey – the crofters plowing their fields, the weavers peddling looms, the artists stooped over easels – that were the proof he was right.

When You Go

Outer Hebrides, Scotland

A line of cottages at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in Lewis
   Photo: Visit Scotland

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Lewis

These traditional homes once worked double duty as barns, with both animals and crofting families bedding down under thatched roofs – the cozy interiors still carry the names of the families that lived there.
 

The Anchorage, Harris

Specializing in seafood landed at the nearby pier, this is the place to find Hebridean staples, including Cullen skink, Stornoway black pudding and Highland beef, as well as Gaelic music sessions that last long into the night.

The Harris Tweed label on a mustard yellow Macleod tartan fabric
   Photo: Harris Tweed Authority, Jane H. Macmillan

Harris Tweed, Harris

Protected by the Harris Tweed Authority, the tweed yarn is produced in three Outer Hebridean mills. Then, rolls of fabric are woven by up to 200 weavers in their own homes on the isles. Visit the shop in Tarbert for a demonstration, and choose your own slice of tweed to take home.

An exterior view of the geometrically shaped building of the Isle of Harris Distillery
   Photo: Isle of Harris Distillery

Isle of Harris Distillery, Harris

Award‑winning, hand‑bottled Isle of Harris Gin is sustainably made with sugar kelp gathered from nearby sea lochs and water from a nearby burn that’s distilled in a small copper still on site.