We recently spent a week-long holiday in the stunning island chain that is the Outer Hebrides – often referred to as the Western Isles – of Scotland! They sit off the northwest coast of mainland Scotland and the main islands are, from south to north, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, and Isle of Lewis & Harris. (Lewis & Harris are often referred to as if they are separate islands but they are in fact one single island with varying landscapes.)
The Outer Hebrides are probably best known for its white sand beaches and amazing landscapes, which we saw plenty of! We also happened to be there during the latest European heatwave, which of course is not a good thing, but it meant that we could actually utilise a beautiful beach on Lewis in 24 degree weather!
In this blog post, we’ll delve into some of our must-visit places in the Outer Hebrides!
1. Barra Airport
For a truly unique experience, take a flight from Glasgow to Barra on a Twin Otter plane – which seats a maximum of only 19 people! – and land on the world’s only airport with a beach runway! We’d been on a Twin Otter plane before in the Maldives so we knew what to expect on the actual plane, but landing on the beach and stepping off the plane onto the beach was something else. We do believe that the clear blue skies we were offered definitely helped in enhancing the experience!
Even if you decide not to fly to or from Barra, it is very cool to witness the landings and take-offs. As well, you can explore this unique airport that uses a bus shelter as the baggage reclaim area and where there’s no control tower or security!
Be sure to check out our YouTube video on landing at Barra Airport!
2. Beach Behind Barra Airport
Be sure to walk behind the wee grassy hill behind Barra Airport to the expansive beach.
It has incredible white sand and if you’re lucky, you might see cows chilling on the beach!
3. Kisimul Castle in Castlebay
Kisimul Castle is a small medieval castle just off of the area of Castlebay in the south of Barra. Its name from Gaelic means “castle island” and it is the only medieval castle to survive in the Outer Hebrides.
Depending on the weather, you can take a boat there via Historic Scotland.
4. Traigh Shiar in Vatersay
Vatersay is a wee island to the south of Barra connected by a causeway. Head to Traigh Shiar, another incredible white sand beach with turquoise water.
5. Hercules the Bear Statue on North Uist
Hercules was a trained grizzly bear from Scotland who appeared on TV. He became popular in the 1980s when he escaped while filming a TV commercial on Benbecula and was lost for 24 days. Eventually, he was found swimming by a crofter and brought back to his owners.
Hercules had lost almost half his body weight as he didn’t know how to fish and seemingly refused to feed on the various wildlife on the island! This made him ever so popular in the media. He eventually passed away around the age of 25, which is the normal lifespan of a grizzly bear.
A life-sized statue of Hercules was unveiled in Langass Woods on North Uist in 2013. Located next to the statue is Hercules’ final resting place.
6. St Clement’s Church in Rodel
On the south end of Harris is St Clement’s Church, a medieval church by the sea. Its original purpose was as a burial place for the MacLeod Clan and many sculptures and carvings are inside this free church.
7. Harris Gin and Tweed in Tarbert
If you fancy gin, there is the Isle of Harris Distillers in Tarbert, the main community on Harris. You can go on tours or browse their gift shop and eat in their cafe.
Across the road is a Harris Tweed shop and warehouse. The shop sells everything from jackets to notebook covers to hats and scarves.
The warehouse offers a wide variety of Harris Tweed colours and patterns if you want to make your own Harris Tweed items.
8. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
The Gearrannan Blackhouse Village features a museum with a restored blackhouse as well as accommodation – both a hostel and self-catering accommodation – and traditional activities. Visitors can see how people lived and also watch the weaving of Harris Tweed on a loom.
A blackhouse is a traditional house commonly seen in the Outer Hebrides. They were generally made of dry-stone walls packed with earth, and the roofs were made of cereal straw.
This blackhouse village dates back to about the late 17th century. As the modern way of life progressed though, the blackhouses were soon left with a few elderly residents who couldn’t continue to maintain the blackhouses. The remaining residents were then moved in 1974 to council houses nearby.
In 1989, the village was restored to be what it is today.
9. Callanish Standing Stones
This very impressive set of standing stones is over 5,000 years old, making them older than the pyramids in Egypt as well as the famous Stonehenge in England. The stones were likely moved with rollers, wooden frames, and simple brute strength.
No one knows exactly why they were built, but many stone circles were built around Scotland in the past, though not all of them preserved. Some theories as to the stones’ purpose include giving people a common identity, being a place of worship, or for astronomical purposes.
There is a ring of stones surrounding a bigger central stone and a burial chamber within that. There are also stones that resemble a cross that sit outside of the main circle.
The best and most important piece of wisdom that we can impart is this: DO NOT TOUCH THE STONES! There are 2 gates upon entering the stone area that specifically ask visitors to not touch the stones as they would like the site to be preserved for future generations. We are privileged to be able to walk right up close to the stones – unlike Stonehenge – so we should not be abusing this privilege.
Also be sure to stop by Callanish 2 & 3, which are slightly smaller versions of the Callanish Standing Stones nearby!
10. Beaches in Luskentyre, North Tolsta, and Uig
As previously mentioned, the Outer Hebrides are known for their stunning white sand beaches, and Lewis & Harris have a number of impressive beaches.
On our first visit to Luskentyre Beach – which has been named one of the UK’s best beaches on TripAdvisor – the sky was overcast and very grey, so we were left a bit unimpressed.
However, when we went back a second time, we were greeted with sunny skies and it was like a completely different place! What stunning white sand and turquoise water!
Traigh Mhor in North Tolsta on Lewis seems to have sand that is a bit more gold but is also very nice. On the 24 degree day we experienced, we chose to spend some time sitting on Traigh Mhor.
It’s also a lovely walk from the car park to the beach.
The area of Uig on Lewis also has some beautiful beaches.
11. Lewis Loom Centre in Stornoway
In Stornoway, the main town in the Outer Hebrides and the capital of Lewis & Harris, is the Lewis Loom Centre, a shop that sells a wide array of Harris Tweed items.
Online, it says that they offer guided tours and a lecture on how Harris Tweed is made, but it didn’t seem to be offered when we were there. However, the owner is very nice and is happy to answer any questions you may have.
12. Butt of Lewis Lighthouse
Last but certainly not least, the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse sits on the northern tip of Lewis surrounded by beautiful cliffs. The lighthouse is made of unpainted red brick, which is apparently unusual for lighthouses in Scotland.
Also in the nearby area is Port of Ness, a village with a nice beach and harbour.
Of course, we only just scratched the surface of these incredible islands, but we hope this list gave you some ideas and inspiration for your trip to the Outer Hebrides! Which place do you most want to visit? Let us know in the comments!