Walk free-range coastal paths and mountain tops, swim and kayak off wild Atlantic beaches, be blown away by ancient ruins, gorge yourself in the delicious island larders and use the cycle trails and lanes to burn off your indulgence. Here we share the best that eighteen islands of this archipelago have to offer to inspire your holiday and adventure plans – all are linked to further details on our website, Islandeering.com.
When you go to the Hebrides, it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, you just know that life will be full of adventure
This 100-mile necklace of islands sits at the very edge of our nation. Here, the thundering blue Atlantic hurls itself onto the white powder beaches of their west coasts – each of which are backed by the glorious flower-infused strips of green machair. The draw for many visitors is the unique journey along this spectacular island chain; a 184-mile road trip which passes through remote and wild natural scenery that requires jumping on two ferries and sweeping across four causeways to complete the chain.
This would be an island bagging adventure in itself – but would miss so many other incredible islands in the archipelago? Just look at how many there are, each readily accessible and worthy of your bucket list.
The following is a fly through of the islands I’d recommend. Going from south to north, I’ve suggested what they are best for with links to further details at islandeering.com.
At the southerly tip of the chain, Vatersay makes for a breath-taking start. For the adventurous walker there is a free-range coastal circuit along its stunningly indented coastline, crossing beaches and a tombola each with fabulous wild swimming opportunities, especially at Bàgh a’Deas. Love wildlife? Here there are otters galore. For history buffs hike out the ruins of the homes of the much-celebrated Vatersay Raiders and for cake lovers try the Vatersay Community Hall Café. Some great wild camping on the beaches off the tombolo on the south coast.
Cycle the complete island circuit on the quiet single-track road to take in Barra’s full beauty. Hike to the island highpoint, Heaval (Heabhal) at 384 m, passing the large white statue of Madonna and Child on the way to enjoy spectacular views of Castlebay below. For the energetic take part in the Barrathon, the round-island half-marathon with its celebratory ceilidh afterwards. There’s seakayking galore to exlore the coastline and marine wildlife of the island. Take a boat to Kisimul Castle and climb to the top of the tower or dine Barra-style in my favourite Indian/Italian restaurant, Cafe Kisimul. Their scallop pakoras are to die for. If beaches are your thing, those of the west coast are wild and rugged with Baigh Halaman a personal favourite. Barra is nirvana for plane-spotters too. Head for Traigh Mhor/Cockle Strand in the north to watch planes land on the beach then grab a coffee and sarnies in the miniature Barra Airport cafe.
An island of true wilderness and astonishing wildlife. For adventurous hikers there is a rugged free-range coastal circuit. Expect to see whales, dolphins, sea eagles, golden eagles, all sorts of seabirds, and the rare Eriskay ponies on the way. Climb to the highest point, Ben Scrien, for incredible views of the surrounding islands. For free-spirits the Am Politician is the spot for a wee dram and re-living Compton Mackenzie’s, Whiskey Galore. This book was inspired by the story of the SS Politician running aground and the island locals mounting a highly successful, if unofficial, salvage operation of several thousand bottles of whiskey. Eriskay is a hardy skinny-dipper’s delight too with a wonderfully secluded beach in the north east corner, which is a great spot for a wild camp.
An island for the great outdoors. With rugged and wild mountains on the east side the highlight is a hike to the high point of Beinn Mhor, with its spectacular summit ridge and views of the Hebridean chain and the rugged peaks of Skye and the mainland beyond. Further walks are possible at Loch Druidibeg on boardwalks across the lochs and to one of the remotest bothies in Scotland at Uisinis. The whole of the island’s west coast is fringed by an almost continuous white-sand beach with Atlantic surf pounding and beautiful machair with plenty of opportunities to swim or wild camp in the dunes. Foodies don’t miss out. The hot-smoked salmon from the Salar Smokehouse is to die for, there’s all sorts of baked goodies from the Scandinavian Bakery and the superbly located Polachar Inn is great for a pint.
Hike to the highpoint, Rueval at 124 metres, for the best views of the watery landscape of this low-lying island and across The Minch to the jagged peaks of the Cuillin on Skye. Spot owls and eagles on the East Side’s lochs or head to the wild machair grasses that carpet the west coast and you might even spot a corncrake. You can also catch up with the latest films with the Screen Machine, a huge mobile cinema that seats 80, that visits Liniclate regularly.
Read more about Benbecula
This is the island for sampling local seafood. At Killin Harbour gorge on lobster, crab, scallops and mussels. An easy walk or ride around the circular ‘main’ road will help you burn it off.
Take a short walk to see the seals hauled out on the rocks almost within touching distance.
Read more about Floddaigh
So flat that Ordnance Survey have not given it a contour. It has an incredible 6 km of wild, shell-white sand and shingle beach perfect for surfing, kite surfing, hiking and wild camping in the dunes. Magnificent views from the island’s high point – the sand dune off the southern tip.
A cyclist’s dream with a full coastal circuit. Inland is a remarkable watery landscape of wildlife-filled peat bogs and black freshwater lochs whilst the west coast is bordered by miles of machair and sandy beaches with stunning views across to the Monach Islands and St Kilda. Watch the large short-eared owls hunt during the day, see the vast numbers of birds at Balranald Reserve or escape on the wild tidal beach of Traigh Bhalaigh. There’s plenty of sustenance en-route – my favourites being the characterful Westford Inn and the Hebridean Smokehouse. If ancient history sets your pulse racing, there are several prehistoric sites including the huge chambered burial cairn of Barpa Langais.
Superlatives fail to describe the wild white-shell beaches, views across to St Kilda and the mountains of Harris, the extraordinary machair and abundant wildlife here. Vallay is a remote and secret destination for nature lovers and pioneering outdoor enthusiasts – walkers, swimmers, surfers, kite-surfers, and windsurfers – you’ll rarely see another soul. After a fabulous crossing of tidal sands why not wild camp for the night for a magnificent dark skies experience.
Hike a stunning coastal circuit, including the highpoint of Beinn Shleibhe at 93 m and 5 km’s of stunning white sand beach. Whales and dolphins may be spotted along West Beach or from the higher ground looking into the Sound of Harris. You can stay in a blackhouse with the Gatliff Trust or there is superb wild camping on the West Beach with a great café serving local seafood (summer) and snacks close to the causeway – which is also a great place to spot otters.
Heather-clad mountains and some of the most spectacular beaches in Britain. Harris is also the jumping off point for other islands that you could spend a life-time exploring. Cycle through the geological wonders of the Golden Road and part of the Hebridean Way for a challenging and beautiful coastal circular around South Harris with show-stopper beaches and some excellent cafes and restaurants en-route. Think seaweed roast potatoes, lobster flatbreads or Harris gin overlooking the famed Luskentyre beach at sunset. Hike the Cliseum horseshoe or climb An Cliseum itself, at 799 metres it is the highest point in the Outer Hebrides with incredible views of the Hebridean chain, Skye and beyond. Amazing wildlife can be spotted with one of the best whale and dolphin spotting sites near Huisinis – reached by travelling down one of the most beautiful roads in the Hebrides with a stop at the North Harris Eagle Observatory on the way.
The rough coastal path here is a hike through the ruins and legends of Pagan, Christian and Viking times and some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the Hebrides. Climb the highpoint of Beinn Raah at 267 metres; relax on the pristine talc-white beaches; or explore the spectacular rock arch at Roagh. Amazing wild swimming beaches and plenty of opportunities for wild camping. One way to get here is to sea kayak across the sound, we paddled it surrounded by porpoise and diving fairy terns. This is a place apart – no wonder it’s Ben Fogle’s favourite.
Poking through the ruined buildings of the deserted village here gives a tremendous sense of what life was one like on this now uninhabited island. The Sound of Scarp was used in a failed experiment to send mail to Lewis via a rocket. Hike to the highpoint, Sron Romul at 308 metres. Scarp is a sea kayaker’s delight too with a lovely (possibly bouncy) paddle from Huisinis or do the island circumnavigation to explore the wild coastline. Plenty of wild camps in the south.
Read more about Scarp
Wonderful coastal hiking circuit taking in the highpoint of Beinn Scorabhaig, 104 metres, and the Eilean Glas – a peninsula on Scalpay’s eastern shore and home to a spectacular and atmospheric red and white-striped lighthouse. From its terrace there are great views over the Minch and the Little Minch and on clear days you can see the Shiant Islands, the home for a huge numbers of nesting seabirds. It’s also a great place to spot whales, dolphins and basking sharks. Café Bistro is a must do – expect dishes made with hake, halibut, turbot, sea bream, salmon or monkfish with local hand-dived scallops, langoustines and prawns galore along with Harris lamb and venison.
Visit the Guinness Book of Records windiest place in the UK at the Butt of Lewis which is also a great place to watch whales and dolphins – only beaten by Tiumpan Head on the Eye peninsula. Climb the high point of Mealaisbhal, 574 metres, or hike the trails along some of the island’s west coast from Bragar past sea stacks, arches and sandy beaches. Relax on the stunning Uig Sands, where the famed Lewis Chessmen were discovered, or taste the freshest of scallops in the Scallop Shack on Miavaig Pier. Stay in Mangersta Bothy, stunningly located on the cliff edge and enjoy the power of the waves crashing on its stunning white-shell beach.
Eilean Chaluim Chille
A small tidal island with the remains of medieval St Columb’s Church. Great foraging along the causeway amongst the huge array of seaweeds. Short tidal crossing.
Read more about Eilean Chaluim Chille
Hike a rugged coastal circuit and see iron age houses, the memorial to a riot that changed crofting history, a Victorian lobster pound and Viking grain mills. Take the Great Bernera Trail through the remote Valasay peninsula, past tidal lagoons rich in seaweeds, sea stars, anemones and shellfish – irresistible manna to the island’s otter population. Or just head to Bosta beach. It’s paradise on earth with its shell-white sands, unique tide bell that turns the changing tide into music and golden eagles soaring above.
There is a lifetime of islands to explore in the Outer Hebrides or you can use them as a jumping off point to discover others further afield – St Kilda, Pabbay, Flannan Isle, North Rona, The Shiant Islands, Monach Isles, Fuday, Mingulay and Bishop’s Isles. The fun is in planning the itinerary. CalMac ferries leave the mainland for various entry points in the chain of islands and also operate between islands.
This blog is first in a series about the Outer Hebrides. Look out for more top ten lists for wild camps, wildlife, adventures with kids, food and other outdoor adventure in the coming weeks. Get planning – this has to be on your UK bucket list.
For more information check out our book Islandeering: adventures around the outside edge of Britain’s hidden islands
So how about you? Have you been to the Outer Hebrides? What walks did you do? What wildlife did you see? What would you recommend? Would love to hear about it in the comments……