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Katia Fernandez Mayo January 6 2022

Picture pristine white sand beaches, mystical stone monuments, quiet roads through lochs and inlets, and wild waves crashing on a lighthouse. A colony of inquisitive puffins, distant ferries sailing by, and peaceful crofts and farmland with plentiful sheep. An icy cold wind reminds you that you’re on the far edge of Scotland. Welcome to the Outer Hebrides.

Absolute Escapes are award-winning specialists in self-drive holidays in Scotland, and we love the opportunity to use our knowledge and experience to design the perfect, bespoke holiday for our clients.

The Outer Hebrides is a destination close to our hearts and we’re delighted to share a bit of our first-hand knowledge. Read on to find out all you’ve ever wanted to know about visiting Scotland’s spectacular western islands.

General FAQs:

Getting to the Outer Hebrides:

Staying on the Outer Hebrides:

Touring the Outer Hebrides:

 

Where are the Outer Hebrides?

The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, are a chain of remote islands located off the northwest coast of Scotland.

The main islands that form this archipelago include Lewis and Harris (two ‘islands’ connected by land), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra. However, there are as many as ten more islands connected or attached to the main islands!

Tiny islands such as Berneray and Vatersay act as a link in the chain and are equally worth exploring, despite their small size.

 

What is the history of the Outer Hebrides?

The Outer Hebrides have been inhabited since Mesolithic times, and there is a range of fascinating prehistoric archaeological sites to discover. The most famous of these is the ancient Neolithic Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, which resembles its better-known younger cousin Stonehenge in England.

Also on Lewis you’ll find Dun Carloway – one of the best-preserved brochs in the country.

In addition to Neolithic stone structures, there are many other historic sites and interesting archaeological finds that reveal the fascinating history of the islands, from Medieval churches to mummy remains in the Cladh Hallan Roundhouses!

Celtic roots run deep within these island communities and Gaelic is an important aspect of life in the Outer Hebrides. Islanders are proud of their Celtic heritage, and this is reflected in the rich arts and music culture that stems from the islands.

Gaelic is still widely spoken and popular crafts such as Harris Tweed and Celtic jewellery are still handmade using traditional methods.

 

What’s the weather like in the Outer Hebrides?

With their soft white sand and clear turquoise waters, picture-postcard images of beaches in the Outer Hebrides might transport you to the Caribbean. However, you are far from the Caribbean warmth!

The weather in the Outer Hebrides is much the same as in the rest of the west coast of Scotland – a bit chilly, a bit windy, and maybe a little wet at times.

While lovely sunny days do exist, it is always worth being prepared to face the elements. A light waterproof jacket, boots and layers are your best companion on an island-hopping adventure.

Although, make sure you don’t forget your swimming costume (or wetsuit perhaps!).

 

When is the best time to visit the Outer Hebrides?

The Outer Hebrides are a very popular destination with limited accommodation on offer, so it’s always worth booking well in advance.

High summer months such as July and August tend to be the busiest, while May, June and September are great alternatives when the weather might be drier.

Summer days in the Outer Hebrides are long, giving you more opportunities to make the most of your trip and enjoy all that the islands have to offer.

 

What’s the largest island in the Outer Hebrides?

Lewis & Harris is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides, where most of the population lives. Stornoway on Lewis is the main town and commercial centre of the islands, home to approximately 8,000 people.

If you have limited time to visit the islands, then Stornoway or Tarbert in Harris might the best bases for you to explore much of the islands and do a couple of day trips.

 

Getting to the Outer Hebrides

Do ferries sail to the Outer Hebrides?

There are various ways to travel to the Outer Hebrides, but if you wish to explore the whole chain, then multiple ferry rides are involved.

From the Scottish mainland, you can travel to Barra from Oban, to North Uist from Skye (which is connected to the mainland by the Skye Bridge), or to Stornoway from Ullapool.

While there are daily sailings available, these are limited to once or twice per day, so booking in advance is important if you are taking a car on the ferry. You can pre-book your journeys on the Calmac website.

 

Are there flights to the Outer Hebrides?

Flying to the Outer Hebrides is also a tempting option as the flight to the Isle of Barra is an incredibly scenic and exciting trip! Barra Airport is unique as it is the only airport in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach.

Direct flights are available from most Scottish airports to Barra, Lewis and Benbecula. Trips are typically under an hour, so travelling by air can be quicker than travelling by ferry, but often more expensive and less environmentally friendly. You can check flight times and plan your journey on the Skyscanner website.

 

How do I get from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides?

From Edinburgh or Glasgow, you can either fly to Stornoway and/or Barra. While this might save you some time, the drive to the west coast of Scotland is spectacular and, in our opinion, unmissable.

We would recommend driving to Oban, following the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, and traversing across wild Argyll towards the coast.

If you prefer to start your island-hopping itinerary from the north to travel south, then travelling north across the Scottish Highlands to Ullapool will take a little longer. In this case, we would suggest splitting your journey by spending an additional night en route.

 

How do I get from London to the Outer Hebrides?

As there are no direct flights from London to the Outer Hebrides, we would recommend travelling to Edinburgh or Glasgow and making your way to the Outer Hebrides from there.

 

Staying on the Outer Hebrides

What kind of accommodation is in the Outer Hebrides?

There is a range of lovely places to stay dotted all around in the Outer Hebrides. For our self-drive packages, we will normally try to secure accommodation in a larger town or village with various amenities, such and Stornoway or Tarbert.

However, there are some special places to stay in more remote areas, which are absolutely worth a short drive.

 

Are there luxury hotels in the Outer Hebrides?

Proper luxury in the form of a 5* hotel is not available in the Outer Hebrides, but there are some truly spectacular and unique places to stay.

Scarista House in Harris is a very popular destination – an elegant yet rustic B&B and fine dining restaurant with lovely rooms featuring spectacular views towards the sea and nearby hills.

Another wonderful place to stay is Broad Bay House on the Isle of Lewis. Owners Sue and Tom offer a warm welcome to their beautiful 5* guest house which offers panoramic sea views, comfortable rooms, and some of the best local produce from the islands.

 

What are the best places to stay in the Outer Hebrides?

Scarista House and Broad Bay House are undoubtedly two of the best places to stay on the islands. However, we also work with a range of accommodation in our Budget and Standard categories, which offer good food, comfort and an all-round unforgettable experience.

For example, the small Heathbank Hotel in Barra has a great restaurant featuring some of the freshest seafood in the country, while Beul Na Mara in Harris sits near the specular Luskentyre Beach and offers clean, bright and airy rooms.

Langass Lodge in North Uist is one of our top choices of Premium accommodation and another great place to stay; this former hunting lodge overlooks Loch Eport and its kitchen serves modern Scottish cuisine featuring fresh island ingredients.

 

Touring the Outer Hebrides

What are the best things to do in the Outer Hebrides?

Have we mentioned heading to the beach yet? In addition to the many stunning beaches on the islands, there are plenty of other great activities on offer.

History fans will enjoy exploring Lews Castle in Stornoway; a Victorian Baronial mansion, or visiting the brooding ruins of Kisimul Castle in Barra.

The 5,000-year-old Calanais Standing Stones are a must for all visitors to Lewis (including Outlander fans!), while Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is a short drive from Callanish. Here, you can learn about traditional Hebridean blackhouses with their drystone walls and picturesque thatched roofs.

For those interested in wildlife and the outdoors, there are endless opportunities for walking, cycling, and sea kayaking on the islands. The Hebridean Whale Trail follows the best places in the Outer Hebrides to spot cetaceans, such as porpoises, orca whales, minke whales, as well as basking sharks and dolphins.

The Bird of Prey Trail spans the whole island chain and features location markers for the best places to see birds of prey, such as golden eagles, hen harriers and short-eared owls.

Inspired by stunning scenery and rich Celtic heritage, the Outer Hebrides are also home to some of the finest arts and crafts in the world. If it is a cultural experience that you are seeking, visit Sgeulachd a Chlò Mhòir – the official ‘Story Room’ of the Harris Tweed Authority. Harris Tweed is a luxurious wool fabric, exclusively handwoven in the Western Isles and you can find it in the many craft and gift shops in the islands. The art centres An Lanntair in Stornoway and Taigh Chearsabhagh in North Uist also host inspiring exhibitions, theatre and music events.

For those interested in whisky and gin, you might want to pop by the Isle of Harris Distillery which sits on the shores of East Loch Tarbert. While their whisky is still maturing, you can buy a bottle of the lovely Isle of Harris Gin, infused with sugar kelp.

 

Are there good walking opportunities in the Outer Hebrides?

Yes! The Outer Hebrides are a walker’s paradise, with magnificent beaches peacefully stretching for miles on end. The Hebridean Way is a long-distance route spanning nearly 200 miles across 10 breathtaking islands. It is very popular not only with walkers but with cyclists too.

For hillwalkers, there are also some mountain ranges in Harris. To the north, there is the most extensive and highest range of mountains in the Outer Hebrides—a wild conglomeration of ridges, glens and summits. Clisham (or An Cliseam) is the highest mountain at 799 metres high and it is the archipelago’s only Corbett. Further hillwalking opportunities are available in Lewis and South Uist.

If you are interested in learning more, you might wish to purchase a Pocket Mountains guidebook for walking on the islands. We would also recommend visiting our friends at Walkhighlands for inspiration on trickier routes and to help you plan your walks.

 

Where are the best beaches in the Outer Hebrides?

The spectacular coastline in the Western Isles is one of the main reasons the archipelago is such as popular tourist destination. The Outer Hebrides have a restorative quality, with endless quiet beaches, an invigorating sea breeze, and the relaxing scent of machair and wildflowers.

Often rated as some of the top beaches in the world, Luskentyre Beach in Harris and Uig Sands in Lewis are undoubtedly two of the most spectacular beaches on the islands.

There are many other tranquil beaches to explore such as Vatersay Bay; the small island of Vatersay is linked by causeway to Barra and boats a stunning sandy bay and a wide expanse of dunes.

Eriskay is another small island connected to South Uist by a causeway and it is host to the beautiful Coileag a’ Prionnnsa beach.

 

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What are the best boat trips in the Outer Hebrides?

As well as the trip to St Kilda (see below), Seatrek, which is based in Lewis, offers unforgettable boat trips around the Uig coastline.

Kilda Cruises also offer shorter trips off the coast of Harris, including fishing trips and excursions to the Shiant Isles.

 

How do I visit St Kilda?

St Kilda is one of the most unique and spectacular places one could visit in the world. This uninhabited isolated archipelago with rugged sea cliffs and impressive sea-stacks towers out of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

It is home to nearly one million seabirds, including the largest colony of Atlantic puffins in the UK. It is also one of the only dual UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. It is remote. It is wild. It is breathtaking.

A trip to St Kilda is certainly worth it, but not easy. It takes approximately 2.5 to 3 hours to sail to St Kilda each way from the Isle of Harris. Boat trips are available from Leverburgh with Kilda Cruises and Sea Harris, and booking well in advance is essential.

As these trips are often disrupted by the weather, our recommendation would be to spend at least three nights in Harris and book the trip on day two, so if the trip needs to be rescheduled, you can try again the following day.

 

Are there escorted tours of the Outer Hebrides?

Our friends at Rabbie’s Tours offer escorted tours to the Outer Hebrides departing from Edinburgh and Inverness. Rabbie’s are an award-winning company whose expert guides truly take you beyond the guidebooks to explore the stunning scenery and extraordinary history of this country.

Explore the islands in a modern, air-conditioned mini-coach touring with a maximum of 16 passengers. Please get in touch if you are interested in an escorted tour. Rabbie’s will do the guiding, and with our expert knowledge, we’ll make sure you stay in the best accommodation on each island.

 

Are there midges in the Outer Hebrides?

Midges are small biting insects and they can indeed be a pest. The good news is that they tend to not be too much of a problem in the Outer Hebrides as there is usually a bit of a sea breeze to keep them away.

Midges like cool, overcast days, and don’t like direct sunlight or wind. You might want to “smidge-up” if you are spending some time on the west coast upon your return from the islands though, particularly during high summer. Smidge is available almost everywhere in the Scottish Highlands, but we also recommend Avon Skin So Soft which is incredibly effective.

 

How do I book a holiday to the Outer Hebrides?

Our Hebridean Island Hopping itinerary is one of our most popular self-drive holidays in Scotland, but we can also create a bespoke itinerary based on your interests and requirements.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our expert team if we can help you plan an unforgettable Hebridean escape!

Katia Fernandez Mayo

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