Outer Western Isles, Hebrides Nah-Eileanan Siar
The gneiss and granite of the windy and weather-beaten islands of the Outer Hebrides are, in geological terms, an extension of the mainland. These hilly and mainly treeless islands display a rugged beauty with the layer of peat above the barren topsoil a prominent feature. The landscape to the east is typified by expanses of moorland and heather, while the western coasts which are exposed to the Atlantic winds can boast unspoiled white, sandy beaches. The characteristic sand-blown machair pastures that have been used for centuries by crofters not only as grazing land but also for cultivating oats and potatoes are mainly found on the western side of the islands. The Hebrides are popular chiefly with nature lovers, anglers and archaeologists who have uncovered some unique pre-historic remains here.
Altogether there are 12 inhabited islands: Lewis and Harris, Bernera, Scalpay, Berneray, North Uist, Baleshare, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay. Together they support a population of about 31,000. Since 1974 the islands have been administered by the Comhairle nan Eilean in Stornoway. The people of the Western Isles, most of whom speak both English and Gaelic, are descended from the Celts. In the ninth century the Vikings occupied the islands and retained them until 1280 when Norway handed them back to the Scottish kings under the Treaty of Perth. Cultural traditions have been passed down through the generations via the music played for celebrations such as the feisans, mods and ceilidhs. Fishing, agriculture, salmon farming, tourism and Harris tweed provide the inhabitants with their livelihood.
Up until 1885 the farmers, shepherds and fishermen on the Western Isles were given practically no rights by their landlords. Anyone who did not fit in would be driven from his land by the so-called inspectors. Many of the wealthy lords and merchants who discovered the islands for themselves in the 19th century and bought out the clan chiefs showed little concern for the native crofters. Famine followed and in some parts of the islands emigration left whole villages deserted. The "Small Crofters (Scotland) Act" of 1885 protected the islanders from eviction.
Although most road signs show English and Gaelic place names, since the renaissance of the Gaelic language on the Western Isles it is not uncommon to find signs written in Gaelic only and a detailed bilingual map will prove invaluable.