An emerald shore receding behind, a sea breeze on your face, a dolphin riding the bow wave as an escort. The magic begins as soon as you board the ferry from Scotland’s rugged west coast and head to the Hebrides, a collection of over 50 inhabited islands that admire the stirring mountainous landscapes of Skye and the green gem of Iona, the whiskey paradise of Islay and the severe old stones of Lewis.
There are few more beautiful places on Earth than the Hebrides. Some of the best beaches in Europe can be found on these Scottish islands (don’t expect to come home with a tan), while the remoteness and subpopulation means wildlife displaced elsewhere still thrive. That same isolation – Edinburgh feels like another world and London is outside the Hebridean solar system – means life has always been a tough, self-sufficient affair.
Buildings and cities are generally practical bases rather than an end in themselves. So slip on your hiking boots, grab binoculars or a paddle, fortify yourself with a local drink, and get ready to explore the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Best things to do in the Hebrides
To visit the Hebrides is to be in the great outdoors. All over the islands there are beautiful walks, from surveying the sublime sandy beaches of Barra, Tiree or Harris to battling the rugged challenge of Skye’s Cuillin Hills or Paps on Jura. For getting out on the water, sea kayaking is a great option on Barra, Skye and other islands. Bikes are easily transportable on ferries, although high winds can sometimes make pedaling difficult.
Seafood and whiskey
Scotland’s reputation for cuisine was more of a Michelin man than a Michelin star, but times have changed and it was the sustainable seafood of the Western Isles that led the charge. Freshly landed langoustines and crabs, hand-dipped scallops and tasty mussels and oysters make the Hebrides a seafood paradise. Lamb and beef from animals roaming free in the heather are delicious, while Stornoway is famous. for his black pudding. Try pairing your meal with one of the local single malt whiskeys. There is enough variety for you to match any flavor.
The Hebrides are a special refuge for birds and aquatic mammals. The northwest – especially Skye and the Western Isles – is great for spotting otters along the shore. Mull is one of Britain’s best places for whale watching, and dolphins and porpoises are also common. You are almost guaranteed to see seals, both the Atlantic Gray (look for its Roman nose) and the Harbor Seal (recognizable by its dog face). Bird watchers flock to Islay and the Uists to see corncrake, while Harris offers golden eagles. Seabirds – gannets, fulmars, puffins and more – thrive on the jagged coastlines, and geese of various species often outnumber residents.
The majestic stone carvings and crosses of this outpost of early Christianity honor several of the islands, most notably Iona. But these are modern architectures compared to Lewis’ 2000-year-old broch Dun Carloway and Callanish standing stones, weighing around four and a half millennia, roughly contemporary with the Great Pyramid of Giza. The castles dotted across the islands are relative newcomers, built by various chieftains – including the island lords, who ruled over all of the Hebrides and part of the Scottish mainland in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Tips for visiting Islay and the Jura
The friendliest of the islands, Islay (eye-la ‘) is home to several of the world’s finest whiskeys – many renowned for their peat – whose names resonate across the tongue like a pantheon of Celtic deities: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Bowmore. Stellar seafood and brilliant birding are other reasons to come. The adjacent island of Jura offers spectacular scenery, with its brooding twin hills, the Paps, providing habitat for a huge deer population. Corryvreckan’s fierce whirlwind turns north of the island, near where George Orwell wrote 1984.
Where to stay and eat in Islay and the Jura
Islay and the Jura run out of accommodations for the number of visitors they receive in spring and summer, so always book in advance. Get the best of Islay seafood and whiskey, along with very comfortable Victorian accommodation, at the Port Charlotte hotel.
How to get to Islay and Jura
Loganair flies up to three times a day from Glasgow to Islay, and Hebridean Air Services operates twice a day on Thursdays from Oban to Colonsay and Islay. There are two ferry terminals: Port Askaig on the east coast and Port Ellen on the south. The ferries are operated by CalMac.
A car ferry runs between Port Askaig on Islay and Feolin on Jura. There is no direct car ferry connection to the mainland. From April to September, the Jura Passenger Ferry connects Tayvallich on the mainland to Craighouse in the Jura.
Visit the Isle of Mull
Beautifully picturesque, with a mountainous backbone falling into crystal-clear waters, Mull has some of Scotland’s finest scenery in a small and varied ensemble, culminating in the dramatic angular hills falling almost steeply into Loch Na Keal. The enchanting sacred island of Iona just offshore is another huge attraction, while the main town of Mull, Tobermory, with its row of colorful houses and excellent pub, is one of the Hebrides’ most distinctive establishments. Hikes, whale watching tours, and boat trips to the bizarre Fingal Cave on uninhabited Staffa are the best choices for local activities.
Where to stay and eat on Mull
There is a good range of accommodation across the island, from rustic campsites to luxury inns, B & Bs and small hotels. One of our favorite Scottish hostels is Iona Hostel, a working sheep farm. For something more chic, Highland Cottage in Tobermory offers enchanting privacy. Cafe Fish is a star of sustainable seafood, while the Mishnish Hotel is one of the islands best places for a pint.
How to get to Mull
CalMac has three car ferries that connect Mull to the mainland: Oban to Craignure (the busiest route), Lochaline to Fishnish and Tobermory to Kilchoan.
Visit the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is the largest of Scotland’s islands and also one of the most spectacular. An ethereal light weaves its way through the clouds and bathes a savage splendor that reaches sublime levels with the Cuillin Hills. Skye is a place for everyone, with walkers plotting their routes over a dozen main hills, sea kayakers exploring the coves and coast, and visitors cruising the island’s castles or sheltering in the drizzle in some of Skye’s welcoming pubs.
Where to stay and eat on the Isle of Skye
Skye is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist areas, and it offers a wide range of accommodation, from basic campsites and hostels to luxury hotels. The latest trend is glamping (luxury camping), and in recent years many places have installed distinctive wooden camping ‘pods’. The popularity of the Isle of Skye means that it is always best to book in advance. For country-style hospitality, the Toravaig House Hotel offers the warmest of welcomes, while Three Chimneys combines stellar cuisine with comfortable accommodations.
How to get to Skye
The Isle of Skye became definitively linked to the Scottish mainland when the Skye Bridge opened in 1995. The crossing is free. There are buses from Glasgow to Portree and Uig via Crianlarich, Fort William and Kyle of Lochalsh, as well as a service from Inverness to Portree.
Despite the bridge, there are still some ferry connections between Skye and the mainland. Ferries also operate from Uig on Skye to the Outer Hebrides. The CalMac ferry between Mallaig and Armadale is very popular on weekends and in July and August. The Glenelg-Skye ferry operates a small vessel (six cars only) on the short crossing from Kylerhea to Glenelg.
Tips for visiting the Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles) are secluded, windswept, treeless places that have traditionally subsisted on fishing, weaving and ranching, although renewable energies are increasingly important. Scottish Gaelic is a working language here. The main island, its northern half called Lewis and its southern half called Harris, is spectacular, offering beautiful coastal scenery, ancient stone monuments, traditional black turf-roofed houses and the famous Harris tweed. To the south, the isolated islands of Uist are prime land for nature viewing and connected by a causeway, while Little Barra offers the best of sea kayaking and the chance to watch the flight from Glasgow land on the Beach. Religion is deeply important in the Outer Hebrides. There is a closure on Sundays as locals spend a day going to church, contemplating and reading the Bible.
Where to stay and eat in the Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides have all kinds of accommodation options, including base campsites, hostels, B & Bs and hotels. Many accommodations close from October to March. In an unspoiled village of traditional black houses on the Isle of Lewis, one has been modernized and can be rented. On North Uist, Langass Lodge Restaurant is one of the best restaurants in the Outer Hebrides. It complements the best of local seafood, beef and game with vegetables and herbs grown in its own organic garden.
How to get to the Outer Hebrides
Loganair flights serve Stornoway from Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow. There are also flights (weekdays only) between Stornoway and Benbecula. Daily Loganair flights connect Glasgow to Barra and Monday to Saturday to Benbecula. In Barra, planes land on the hard sand beach at low tide, so the schedule depends on the tides. There are CalMac two or three ferries a day to Stornoway, one or two a day to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, and one a day to Castlebay and Lochboisdale.
This article was originally published in May 2014.