Exploring the Outer Hebrides: Stone Circles, Machair and White Sands
Walking down a lush green meadow half-way through a hike around Great Bernera, I make a beeline for the white sand beach beyond the Bosta Iron Age house. We’ve never had such fine weather in Scotland before. I could almost feel fine sand under my toes when I spot a big black Highland cow a few meters away. What a pair of sharp horns! The beast is grazing quietly between myself and the beach, slowly reducing the distance that I consider to be safe. Highland cow or Iron Age farm? I’m reminded of “Cake or death?” in Eddie Izzard’s Death Star Canteen skit.
Three other Highland cows have now appeared on the beach and four’s definitely a crowd. Fine, the swim can wait. I change course and enter the fenced-in area of the Iron Age farm that was discovered after a winter storm in 1993. Nothing wrong with a little culture before a swim, right? Only, the steps lead to a locked door. It’s 4.30pm and the house closes at 4pm. We’ve missed the peat fire and the tour inside but the beach isn’t going anywhere.
Swimming in crystal clear waters, once the cows have moved away, more than makes up for the missed Pictish opportunity. What stunning landscape, it’s unbelievable. Better yet, we’re alone on the beach.
That’s the Outer Hebrides for you.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
What’s the Outer Hebrides?
Northwest of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides is an archipelago of windy isles whose coastlines feature the finest and cleanest white sand beaches of Europe – no offense to Greece. Thanks to their geographical isolation and ancient history, these islands have forged a strong cultural identity that’s unlike anything else in the United Kingdom. In mid-June 2018, my father, my husband, my 12-year-old daughter and I explore the isles of Uist (North and South), Benbecula, Harris and Lewis on a 7-day trip and enjoy un-Scottish sunny weather for most of our hikes and swims. With neolithic stone circles, viking sites aplenty and old crofting traditions, we are surprised that the Outer Hebrides aren’t a big tourism mecca like Skye.
These isles are hard to reach. Ferries get fully booked regularly. The tourism infrastructure doesn’t match demand and tourist sights are poorly signed (if at all). Some parts of the isles are strict on Sabbath, which impacts Sunday activities. Last but not least, dining options are few and far between, compared with many areas of Scotland. Tourism just doesn’t seem to take off which is perhaps why the islands seem partially frozen in time, making them all the more desirable for adventurous travelers.
A ferry to the Outer Hebrides is part of the charm
On Friday night, we leave London with the Caledonian Sleeper, a night train, and reach Inverness on Saturday morning. From there, we drive over the sea to Skye and on Sunday morning, we hop on a ferry to Lochmaddy, Outer Hebrides. It’s so foggy that we can’t even tell where the sea ends and where the sky begins. “It’s good for your seasickness,” my father points out to me. “Fog means no wind which means no rough seas.” He’s right.
I get seasick easily but the 2-hour long crossing from Uig to Lochmaddy is smooth and only interrupted by an emergency drill involving the whole crew. For the record, their loudspeakers work perfectly well and we’re quite clear on the whole manoeuvre now.
First Impressions of North Uist
Once we drive out of the ferry on North Uist, we notice that there’s no mobile phone reception. No 4G. No 3G. No signal. Of course, we were planning on using Google Maps to find our way. “Don’t worry,” I say, “There’s only one road around the island and I’ve got directions to our holiday let.”
I don’t have the address but Ann, my local contact, tells me on the phone that it is the “third house on the left in Barnarald.” Surely, it can’t be that hard. We find the “Barnarald” village sign, but where’s the village? It’s not like we can ask people walking around. It’s Sunday.
I let that sink in because Sunday is sacred in the Outer Hebrides. At 11am, the church parking lot is full. Not a chance we’ll talk to anyone until after the service. We keep driving down a country road, past a handful of farms and wandering sheep, wondering where our holiday house is all the way to sand dunes and the sea.
We turn around. This time, we drive very slowly. Finally! The name is written in small-ish script on a sign on the fence. The back door is unlocked. We settle in, hoping that we haven’t just invaded somebody else’s holiday home but the information folder confirms that we’re in the right place. It’s lovely and cosy inside.
We open a big tourist map on the table to get an idea of the lay of the land. What’s where in the Outer Hebrides?
Geography – 0, Outer Hebrides – 100
The Outer Hebrides includes 100 islands and small skerries, 15 of which are inhabited. Given their Viking and Gaelic past, these islands bear great names though the way they’re named can be confusing.
- Between South Uist and North Uist, there’s an island called Benbecula. Why not Uist or Middle Uist? Go figure.
- Harris and Lewis are actually the same landmass, but are often referred to as different islands. You will read “the Isle of Lewis” or “the Isle of Harris” which is super confusing until you pull out a map and realize that they are separated by mountains and not by sea. How many islands are separated by mountains?
- Baernaraigh and Baernaraigh (Gaelic spelling) are two different islands in the Outer Hebrides. How do you know which is which? You use the English spelling. Berneray is north of North Uist in the sound of Harris. Great Bernera is west of Lewis in the Atlantic Ocean.
- Incidentally, the world-famous Harris tweed is mostly made on the Isle of Lewis but since it originated on Harris, it’s not called Lewis tweed but Harris tweed.
- Some islands are linked by raised roads called causeways. They are not bridges and rough seas can make them dangerous. Good to know if you visit in the winter.
After looking at the map, we conclude that North Uist doesn’t seem too tricky. We decide to go for a walk featuring a Neolithic stone circle and an Iron Age burial chamber.
Any old stone could be a Prehistoric monument
Archeology buffs, you’re in luck! In the Outer Hebrides, landscapes have been modified by humans for a very long time and today’s treeless landscapes often hide prehistorical treasures in plain sight. Take the most famous sight of the Outer Hebrides. It is a view of the Callanish standing stones circle, a Neolithic structure in close proximity to six other stone circles at the foot of a mountain range on the Isle of Lewis. It is a Neolithic monument of World Heritage standard, drawing visitors from all over the world (and probably a few Outlander fans pining for Craigh Na Dun).
When we head to the beach at Great Bernera, we walk through an Iron Age settlement. When we head to the beach at Borve on Harris, we walk past a Neolithic stone circle. Right before that, we visit Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis, a Scottish broch or defensive round tower dating from the Iron Age. On North Uist, our first walk goes through the Pobull Fhinn stone circle (super atmospheric in the heather overlooking the loch) and ends with a chambered cairn, a Neolithic passage grave cairn, in a meadow overlooking another loch.
Burial chambers. Duns. Brochs. Wheelhouses. Stone circles. Iron Age forts or houses. Prehistoric landscapes are everywhere in the Outer Hebrides. With each passing day, our indifference to old big mossy stones turns to respect.
Walking around Langass in North Uist works out a a healthy appetite. Fortunately, the Outer Hebrides feature some great food places and I’m going to give you a full list.
Food in the Outer Hebrides
First, let’s hope you like fish. The Outer Hebrides are islands, after all, and fishing has been a pillar of the local way of life forever. I’ll start with local delicacies. North Uist is the island where we find the famous Hebridean Smokehouse, serving some of the best Scottish smoked salmon we’ve ever tasted. We discovered them during a stay at the Gleneagles Hotel and loved the salmon at breakfast so much that we asked where it came from. An unassuming store on the only road going around North Uist, the Hebridean Smokehouse is busy when we visit and we leave with hot smoked and cold smoked salmon. Also on North Uist, the restaurant at the Langass Lodge serves fantastic food, sourced locally and seasonally. It’s not cheap but you pay for what you get.
When we explore Benbecula the following day, we stop at Maclean’s Bakery and Butchery. I’m a bit surprised at the combination of baking and meat but ok, why not. Inside, we pick a fruit cake and ogle at oatcakes but we already have a few in stock. The range of pies is interesting to say the least. Macaroni pie?
The next stop is pure food heaven. If you visit the Outer Hebrides, make sure to drive past any Co-op or chain food super market (without stopping) and stop instead at the excellent MacLennans supermarket, an amazing big food store stocking local suppliers. If more supermarkets did that, we could discover Scottish Highlands Granola that’s not a big brand name.
On South Uist, we eat a surprisingly good lunch at the Hebridean Jewellery Coffee Shop, a popular refueling place for cyclists and jewelry enthusiasts. The smoked salmon bagels are very yummy. Later, we stop at another smokehouse with raving reviews – the Salar Smokehouse. We drive through lovely countryside to reach the loch-side hangar and the shop also carries local food and gifts, from oatcakes to marmelades or tweed decor.
On Harris, we eat lunch at the Mote Bar of the Hotel Hebrides, easily the worst meal of the entire trip. Apparently the restaurant gets good reviews but the bar is a place you could easily skip.
Fortunately, we’re much more lucky on the Isle of Lewis where fresh fish and quirky dining options reign supreme. Since we have a self-catered place, we cook every day and make good use of the harbor’s fish shop for the catch of the day, MacLeod & Macleod‘s butchery for their prize-winning black pudding and the Hebridean tea store in Stornoway for tea. Since we can’t resist a local chippie, we also have lunch at Camerons Chip Shop, where they serve huge portions in eco-friendly cardboard boxes (no polystyrene!). Everything is cooked to order and super fresh. We take ours way and eat it on benches in the harbor, watched very closely by a seagull.
On our way to visit the blackhouses, we have lunch in the backroom cafe of a gas station called Lochs Petrol Station and Services. It’s not very sexy but it’s food, albeit not very fast (despite the fast food selection) as the guy behind the counter isn’t the best multi-tasker.
Regarding blackhouses, you have to visit them.
Blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis
Imagine stone houses with thatched roofs held in place by stringed stones to weather the elements and thick stone walls to stand a hurricane and keep the cold out. Inside, a smoking peat fire and tiny windows filtering very little daylight, two rooms for humans and one for animals.
That’s a blackhouse, a traditional style of house for crofters (farmers) in the Outer Hebrides. Eventually, people abandoned traditional lifestyles and built ‘white houses’, modern houses with thin walls and thin partitions, drafty and cold that many islanders, disliked, returning to live in their blackhouse. One blackhouse on the Isle of Lewis is well worth a visit with kids.
The Arnol Blackhouse , built in 1885, was lived in by an old woman until her death in 1966. She was in her 80s and the house has been left untouched as a time capsule since then. It’s quite fascinating to imagine someone living by themselves in the warm darkness of the blackhouse and going to bed every night on an elevated wooden platform. Kids can get a kick out of shovelling peat at the back of the house or can play hide and seek in the roofless blackhouse across the road. Combine that with a pleasant gift shop and restrooms and you’ve got a nice day out for the whole family.
If the weather is bad, it’s also an inside activity. Most activities in the Outer Hebrides are outside.
Go for a Walk on Machair
Every place that’s so specific when it comes to culture has to have at least one unique type of landscape or habitat. In the Bay Area, it’s chaparral. In southern France, it’s garrigue. In the Outer Hebrides, it’s machair, a flat landscape on the west coast of the islands made of coastal grassland and sea meadows. The Hebrides and Northwest coast of Scotland are home to 70% of the world’s machair, one of the rarest habitats on Earth and disappearing rapidly with climate change. It’s also associated with sand made out of seashells and means that you’re close to the beach. For outdoor lovers, it’s heaven to walk on, both springy and soft.
Late spring is also a great season to see it and we are lucky to see machair in full bloom under the sun.
Riot of orchids! This below is the marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza majalis subsp. occidentalis) a rarity and an orchid only found in North Uist. When my father, a soil scientist, tells us that it’s an orchid, we have a moment of disbelief. Orchids in Scotland?
We later find out that he’s completely right. If you want to see something truly special, go for a hike around Loch Druidibeg on South Uist in June, a 6-mile walk that starts in the moors with elevated boardwalks, reaches the sea and splendid carpets of machair, before returning by way of Drimsdale House and if you’re lucky…
…wild poneys! They are the cutest.
Since we are on coastal topics, we might as well mention the elephant in the room. The Outer Hebrides are famous for their white sand beaches. What to do when on a white sand beach?
Go for a Swim in the Sea!
It’s literally impossible not to swim in the sea in the Outer Hebrides if you visit on a sunny day. I suppose I might have different feelings in the dead winter during a gale but in mid-June, it is the perfect thing to do.
Great Bernera’s Bostad beach.
South Harris’ Luskentyre Sands beach.
Isle of Lewis, Butt of Lewis beach.
South Harris, beach between Scarista and Borve.
Doesn’t the crystal-clear water look positively Caribbean?
This concludes my overview of 8 days in the Western Isles.
Resources on the Outer Hebrides: Peter May and Guidebooks
If you’ve read that far, you have at least an ounce of interest in the Outer Hebrides or you’re one of my parents. It is an unusual destination and from a cultural point of view, it is very unique. It may be in Scotland but it’s nothing like Scotland as you know it. Forget castles, ghosts and tartan.
Here be standing stone circles, crofters and tweed.
Also, Gaelic natives.
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If you want to read on the Outer Hebrides, I highly recommend:
- Outer Hebrides: The Western Isles of Scotland, from Lewis to Barra by Mark Rowe (Bradt, 2018). An excellent guidebook including hikes and practical tips. We loved it. You can buy it here: UK | US
- The Blackhouse: The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May. Who doesn’t love to read a well-plotted novel before going to a new part of the world? This book, the first of a trilogy, is a beautifully-written broody and gritty crime novel set in the Outer Hebrides. The trilogy is so popular that the tourism authority has created a Peter May trail so tourists can visit locales mentioned in the books. You can it here: UK | US
Speaking of Gaelic, all road signs, street signs and signs are labelled in Gaelic in big print, English in small print. It looks like everybody uses the English names anyway, which sort of defeats the purpose of promoting Gaelic in the first place but in truth, Gaelic is not easy. Linden MacAoidh points out in a fascinating article that “each island has its own Gaelic however, sometimes the borders are less defined by the sea, other times there may be significant variation within one land mass. The dialects of South Uist and Eriskay are more or less the same dialect, even though Eriskay is separated from South Uist and it wasn’t until relatively recently that a causeway was built linking the two islands. On the other hand, the Gaelic dialect of Lewis is noticeably very different from other outer Hebridean dialects, even though Lewis is the same land mass as Harris, Harris Gaelic is more similar to Uist dialects.”
Stick to English and you will be fine.