The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles or Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Gaelic, are a chain of inter-connected islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. You will probably have seen Stornoway, the main settlement, in the top left-hand corner of the weather map on TV. On these unique islands, Gaelic is still spoken by the majority of the population and crofting is a big part of Hebridean life.
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The Gaelic language is an important part of the Outer Hebrides’ identity. At the beginning of the millenium, the census revealed that over half of the residents of the Outer Hebrides speak Gaelic. You will no doubt hear the traditional Celtic language being spoken by locals around the islands but why not attend a Gaelic concert too. This is a unique experience which should definitely make it onto your list of things to do on the Outer Hebrides.
The Outer Hebrides islands are home to some wonderfully creative and talented people producing some unique things that will make a beautiful holiday memento or gift for someone. When we’re on holiday we like to shop local and buy handmade. Keep your eyes peeled for signs around the islands to home studios and community centres where you can pick up something special.
When you think of Harris, you think of the famous Harris tweed. Watch as this beautiful material is woven by local crafts people and then buy a souvenir created from this wonderful fabric. There are gifts to suit all budgets such as purses, cushions and coats. If you’re not going to the Western Isles soon and can’t wait to buy some Harris tweed, Handmade in Bernera has some wonderful Harris Tweed bags and accessories for sale online.
Many artists have moved to the Outer Hebrides and it’s easy to see why with the quality of the light and a land filled with inspiration. You can see their work in galleries, community centres or home studios dotted around the islands.
These islands celebrate their culture in so many different ways. Gaelic music and song is celebrated traditional music festivals such as the HebCelt (Hebridean Celtic ) Music Festival which takes place every summer in Stornoway. You can also experience it at the Harris Arts Festival, Barra Live, Celtic Connections or at various Fèisean (festivals). Every visitor to the Western Isles should try to attend a ceilidh. Check local listings for details of events and shows held in arts centres, community halls and pubs. Shop noticeboards are a good place to start to find out what’s happening in the local area.
Balranald will feature on every birdwatcher’s list of things to do on the Outer Hebrides. The RSPB reserve is famous for corncrakes and skua migration. The reserve is so beautiful though that everyone will enjoy walking on the track through the machair which leads to the incredible beach. Keep your eyes open for otters too.
Raptors (birds of prey) thrive on the Outer Hebrides. Golden eagles can sometimes be seen sitting on fence posts. The hills around the port of Lochmaddy on North Uist are a good place to spot white-tailed sea eagles. For many people the birding highlight is to see a hen harrier which are increasingly rare on the mainland due to persecution. We’ve been fortunate to see five of these birds at once on the Committee Road on North Uist.
The seas around the Outer Hebrides are famous for their seabirds and marine wildlife including seals, otters, whales and dolphins. You can watch from the land or go on a wildlife boat trip. Lighthouses tend to be good viewing places so you could try Tiumpan Head near Stornoway.
The beaches of the Outer Hebrides deserve their own section as I’m confident that you will be blown away by these incredible places, whatever the weather. A Western Isles beach wouldn’t look out of place on a Caribbean island with blindingly white sand and sea every shade of blue depending on the weather.
Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris is considered to be one of the best beaches in the world with its dazzling white sand, turquoise sea and mountain backdrop.I think you should visit but if you spend some time exploring the rest of the Outer Hebrides, you will be rewarded with your own piece of paradise. And you could quite easily be the only people there…
The history of the Outer Hebrides is everywhere in the landscape of these remote islands. Discover ancient sites of Iron Age brochs and standing stones. Take a boat trip to explore Kisimul Castle, the ‘Castle in the Sea’, the only significant medieval castle to survive in the Outer Hebrides which lies off Castlebay on Barra. The landscape is dotted with ruins of blackhouses and homes which have been abandoned in more recent decades.
With some people saying they are better than Stonehenge, you should make sure visiting the stones of Callanish is on your list of things to do on the Outer Hebrides. A must-see historical attraction the standing stones of Callanish are one of the most complete stone circles in Europe. The site is in the care of Historic Scotland. The Callanish stones are made of Lewisian Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in Britain dating back 3000 million years. Soak up the atmosphere at sunset or sunrise and take a beautiful photo with the sun behind the central stone. Whatever time of year or day you visit, you will find this to be a truly special place.
Stornoway is famous for black pudding and you can buy it from butchers and food shops around the islands or if you can’t wait for your next trip you can pick up some on Amazon. The seafood and fish is some of the freshest you’ll ever taste. As gin has grown in popularity so has the Isle of Harris Gin and you can visit the distillery in Tarbert. I’ve had some of the best homemade soup and cakes in the cafes of the Outer Hebrides.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast then the Outer Hebrides is your perfect playground. Take to the water and indulge in canoeing, kayaking, surfing, windsurfing or kitesurfing. Explore the islands on foot or by bike. Try a spot of fishing in one of the many lochs.