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Outer Western Isles, Hebrides Nah-Eileanan Siar

Outer Western IslesOuter Western Isles View slideshow

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.

St Kilda

Abandoned town on the Isle of St Kilda.
The storm-battered St Kilda Islands have been under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland since 1957. They lie 110mi/170km to the west of the Scottish mainland surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. The last inhabitants of this inhospitable archipelago left their homes and barren soil on the main island of Hirta in 1930. Now the sea birds including huge colonies of fulmars, gannets and puffins have the islands to themselves. Unique to the islands are the St Kilda mouse and the St Kilda wren. In addition, some 14,000 wild Soay sheep graze here. The breathtaking cliffs near Conachair (Gabbro) are, at 1,397ft/424m, the tallest cliffs in Britain. In 1986 UNESCO adopted St Kilda as Scotland's first World Heritage Site. Every year the National Trust for Scotland organizes research and working visits for enthusiastic birdwatchers.

Lewis

View over the Isle of Lewis.
There is only one town on Lewis (Leodhais), the northernmost of the Western Isles.

Stornoway

Stornoway Harbor on the Isle of Lewis.
Stornoway (pop. 7,500), the only town on Lewis, dates from the 17th century when it was established by the Clan MacKenzie of Seaforth. Its natural harbor is an important center for the fishing industry. Rigs for the offshore oil industry are fabricated at Arnish Point. Regular flights link Stornoway Airport with Glasgow. Loganair run services onward to Benbecula and Barra. Buses serve the outlying villages on the island.

Stornoway Castle

Lews Castle at Stornoway.
Stornoway Castle dates from the middle of the 19th C and was once the home of Lord Leverhulme the founder of one of Britain's biggest soap manufacturers (now Unilever). He acquired the islands of Lewis and Harris from Duncan Matheson in 1918 with the aim of setting up a modern fishing fleet. The idea was to transport fresh fish by road and rail to Harris where it could be processed for sale in the main Scottish centers of population. However, Lord Leverhulme's innovative project was not welcomed by the locals and in 1923 he was forced to abandon the scheme. He then set up a trust fund for Stornoway and sold the rest of the islands. The castle is now used as a technical college.

Stornaway - Museum nan Eilean

A museum in Francis Street displays archaeological finds and documents the history of the fishing industry and the traditional way of life on Lewis.
Address: Francis Street, Stornoway HS1 2NF, Scotland

Calanais (or Callanish) Standing Stones

View of the Standing Stones at Callinish, Lewis.
The mystery of the Standing Stones of Callanish has yet to be resolved. Probably the finest stone circle in Scotland, it lies about 12mi/24km west of Stornaway. The site has been dated at between 3000 and 1500 B.C. during the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. The monument consists of 47 stones arranged in a circle and also in lines radiating from the center thereby creating a Celtic cross. The northward line (268ft/82m) consists of 19 monoliths up to a height of 12ft/3.6m, the eastward line (75ft/23m) has five, the westward line (42ft/13m) four and the southward line (91ft/27.8m) five. In the center stands a 15ft/4.75m high megalith weighing about 5 tons surrounded by a ring of 13 stones (diameter 36-43ft/11-13m). The stone circle is thought to have the same function as Stonehenge in England and Carnac in Brittany: as a focal point for sun worship and to calculate the time of year. At the equinoxes, for example, the sun goes down directly behind the westward line. A burial chamber has been discovered near the central stone.
Address: Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Jedburgh TD8 6JQ, Scotland

Dun Carloway Broch

The ruins of Carloway Broch.
By the west coast stands Dun Carloway Broch (16mi/25.6km northwest of Stornaway). This Pictish fortified farm dates from the fourth century B.C. It stands at a height of about 164ft/50m above sea level and measures 52ft/16m in diameter. The double walls are 10ft/3m thick in places and on one side they reach a height of 33ft/10m. Several steps form a link inside the mortar-free double walls and four chambers can be made out within the inner wall.
Address: Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Jedburgh TD8 6JQ, Scotland

Shawbost Folk Museum

The A858 follows the coast northwards to Shawbost Museum which documents the Lewis islanders' traditional way of life.

Black House Museum

The term "Black House" (Gaelic = "tigh dubh") was first used ca. 1850 when the whitewashed exterior common on the mainland gained a foothold on the islands. This style contrasted sharply with the dark, dry-stone double-walled Hebridean houses roofed with thatch, where man and beast sought protection from the elements together. The Black House near Arnol dates from the mid-19th C and was inhabited until 1979. It has been faithfully restored and now serves as a tearoom and craft center.
Address: Arnol, Lewis PA86 9DB, Scotland

Steinacleit Cairn - Standing Stones

North of Black House a group of stones arranged in an oval can be seen near Ballantrushal. These standing stones are thought to date from the third or second millennium B.C.

Butt of Lewis

The black rocks at the exposed northern tip of the Hebrides Western Isles are formed from Precambrian gneiss.

Harris

Beautiful beach on Harris Island.
The A859 heads southwest from Stornaway to Tarbert, Harris' main town (pop. 500). Ferries arrive here from Uig (Skye) and also from the Western Isles further south.

Tarbert & Clisham

Rain clouds over Tarbert.
On a clear day it is possible to see the Scottish mainland from Clisham, the Outer Hebrides' highest mountain (2,622ft/800m). It is within easy reach of Tarbert and presents few difficulties for walkers.

Sound of Taransay

Dramatic sky over the Sound of Taransay.
The A859 continues south before returning to the wild western coast and passing the idyllic sandy beaches which overlook the Sound of Taransay. Scarp, an island off Hushinish Point, was the scene of a bizarre experiment in 1934. A German by the name of Zucker attempted to convey the island's post to Harris in a home-made rocket. The prototype exploded on landing and further experiments were abandoned.

Harris Tweed

The Harris island sheep - usually a crossbreed of Blackface and Cheviot - graze outside throughout the year. Colored brands on the fleece or cuts in the ear indicate the owner. Ewes and castrated rams are allowed to roam free, but other rams are not allowed to mingle with the ewes until the second half of November so that the lambs are born after the winter storms. Shearing begins in the middle of summer and the shearers must follow the guidelines of the wool board.
All fleeces that are not sold to buyers from the mainland are kept on the island for the production of the famous Harris tweed (from the French "toile" meaning "cloth").
Until the mid-19th C tweed (or "clo mhor" meaning "large cloth") as the Gaelic-speaking Hebrideans call it) was produced in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the local people but, during the famine of 1840, Lady Dunmore who owned large parts of Harris succeeded in interesting the Victorian gentry in tweed and it soon became the fashion among sporting men and women. The first tweed mill opened on Harris in 1900. Some 20 years later the wooden loom was replaced by the iron Hattersley model which is still widely used today.
The co-ordination of colors (created mainly by plant dyes made from mosses), carding and spinning are all under the control of the Harris Tweed Authority which has held the marketing right since 1930. Almost 75% of the hard-wearing material is exported. For a garment to show the coveted Harris tweed symbol of a globe and Maltese Cross, wool from Scottish sheep must be used and the material must be handwoven by islanders.
Address: 6 Garden Road, Stornoway HS1 2QJ, Scotland

Rodel

The hamlet of Rodel lies at the southernmost point of Harris and the tiny St Clement chapel which was built c 1500 and restored in the 18th century is certainly worth a visit. The remains of Alasdair Crotach, one of the famous MacLeods, lie beneath a splendid black slate stone. He commissioned the gravestone in 1528, 19 years before his death.

Calanais Blackhouse

The Calanais Blackhouse dates back from 1760 to 1800. A blackhouse was comprised of a long narrow building, usually with one or more additional buildings laid parallel to it and sharing a common wall. The animals lived under the same roof and in the byre area there would be earth flooring.

North Uist

To the south of the Sound of Harris lies North Uist (pop. 2,200) which is linked to Benbecula and South Uist by causeways. The rugged landscape is dotted with countless lakes, some saltwater and some fresh. With so many bays and inlets, the coastline extends for just under 360mi/580km. Bird watchers make up a large proportion of the island's visitors as diving birds, teal and shovelers are among the species that breed by the lochs. North Uist can also boast red deer, otters and seals and anglers will find the rivers and lakes well stocked. The inhabitants of North Uist live off the land and produce woolen goods to supplement their earnings. Seaweed is plentiful on the sandy beaches and some residents collect it to use as a fertilizer.

Lochmaddy

The main town on North Uist is Lochmaddy (pop. 1,800). Ferries from Uig (Skye) arrive here and it is an important center for the southern isles. A road runs from Lochmaddy to Carinish in the southwest of the island and then crosses a causeway (1960) through the North Ford to Benbecula.

Benbecula

Benbecula (pop. 2,000) lies between North and South Uist. Planes from Balivanich Airport serve Glasgow, Stornaway (Lewis) and Barra. Culla Bay has probably the finest beach on the island.

South Uist

A traditional cottage on South Uist.
South Uist (pop. 3,000) is the second-largest island in the Outer Hebrides.

Mingulay, Berneray & Pabbay

The islands were made a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1983 for the maritime vegetation, rock shore and cliff habitats as well as for the seabird population. Breeding species include seabirds, particularly razorbill, guillemot, fulmar, kittiwake and shag. All the islands have significant archaeological sites, with several designated Scheduled Ancient Monuments, including the village area on Mingulay.

Lochboisdale

The main town of South Uist is Lochboisdale (pop. 300) where in the summer the harbor receives ferries from Oban.

Our Lady of the Isles Monument

A good road runs from north Uist to south Uist. One of the first landmarks is Reuval Hill with its 33ft/10m high Madonna which was designed by Hew Lorimer in 1930.

Loch Druidibeg - Bird Reserve

Loch Druidibeg Bird Reserve lies at the foot of the Reuval Hill.

Flora MacDonald's Birthplace

A popular destination is the house near Askernish where Flora MacDonald was born. She is best known for her bravery in helping "Bonnie Prince Charlie" to escape from the English in 1746. A memorial to the courageous heroine stands in the ruined cottage.

Barra

Car ferries sail from Oban and Lochboisdale (South Uist). There is also a passenger ferry from Ludag (South Uist). During low tide planes land at the airport on Cockle Beach (Tràigh MhÓr). Anglers head for the trout-rich lochs that lie at the foot of Ben Heaval (1,260ft/384m).

Eriskay

It was at Eriskay on June 23, 1745 that "Bonnie Prince Charlie" first set foot on Scottish soil.
The tiny island off the southern tip of South Uist can be reached by passenger ferry from Ludag. In 1941 the "SS Politician" sank with a cargo of 20,000 crates of whisky which the inhabitants rapidly concealed. The full story was told in the film "Whisky Galore".

Castlebay

The main town of Castlebay (pop. 1,300) was once a flourishing herring port, but the fishermen now go in search of lobsters and prawns.

Kisimul Castle

Kisimul Castle in Castlebay on the Island of Barra.
The medieval Kisimul Castle perches on a rock in the middle of a bay. The clan McNeil of Barra, who made a name for themselves as skilled seafarers and feared pirates, lived here from 1314, but the building was ruined by fire at the end of the 18th C. In 1938 the 45th clan chief, an American architect, returned it to its original condition.

Small Islands

Although the scenery is similar to Barra, deserted beaches and bizarre rock formations characterize the coastlines of the small islands that lie to the south: Vatersay (Bhatarsaigh), Sandray (Sanndraigh), Pabbay (Pataigh), Mingulay (Miu' Laigh) and Berneray (Bearnaraigh) with Barra Head (Ceann Barraigh) marking the southern tip.

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