December 2023
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The Magic of the Scottish Islands: Outer Hebrides…

Among the many islands we visited in Scotland, the Outer Hebrides are among those which left the greatest impression on us. We always come back from our Hebridean journeys (Inner and Outer Hebrides) with new, wonderful, unforgettable memories. But there is a specificity of the Western Isles. Each island of this distant Scottish archipelago, to which St Kilda belongs, adds its touch of magic. No wonder it has always been a great source of inspiration for artists, poets and writers.

A few years ago, I wrote a page about JM Barrie’s stay on the island of North Harris. This gave me the opportunity to bring out all the magic of the place.

We have wonderful memories of our trips in the Outer Hebrides in 2003, 2004 and 2006 which led us from Lewis in the north to Barra and Vatersay in the south. We’re eager to go back there to immerse in the wild and colourful ‘lunar’ landscapes we’ve passed through, to get in closer touch with the elements on wintry shores.

We miss the solitary mountains, the rocky landscapes interspersed with patches of colours, the shining lochs reflecting the barren slopes sometimes covered with purple heather, the turquoise-blue waters of the pink sandy beaches, the green salt marshes where sheeps are grazing, the thick and flowery green carpet known locally as the ‘machair’, the peat fields, the wild flowers and the birds… in a word we miss the whole place !

I couldn’t say it better today and our wish to return there has never been so strong!

Ferry to Outer Hebrides Oban-Barra © 2004 Scotiana

“Viennent les goélands
Les ailes parfumées de versets inconnus.”

(From the poem ‘Le grand livre’ – Lumières – Marie Laugery – 2009 )

The charm begins to work from the ferry crossing, whatever the route chosen and the weather conditions. We’ve experimented four out of five itineraries to go from Scotland Mainland to the Outer Hebrides, in good and bad weather. The ferry crossing is a journey in itself, whether you are on the deck or sheltered inside the boat when the weather is bad… and, last but not least, you can enjoy excellent fish & chips and delicious scones on board 😉
Travelling on the CalMac Ferries is indeed one of our favourite activities in Scotland. It’s a good way to discover Scotland differently, from the outside!

Oban-Castlebay ferry © 2004 Scotiana

calmac-ferry-routes – Scotland Info Guide map

This colourful map comes from Scotland Info Guide, a very interesting site about Scotland. I’ve made a list of crossing times for the different routes we took:

May 2003:

  • Uig→Tarbert (1 h 40)
  • Stornoway→Ullapool (2 h 45)

September 2004:

  • Oban → Barra (4 h 45)
  • Stornoway → Ullapool (2 h 45)

May 2006 :

  • Uig → Tarbert (1 h 40)
  • Stornoway → Ullapool (2 h 45)


Isle of Barra – Kisimul Castle © 2004 Scotiana


Our favourite ferry trip, which lasted about five hours, was the one that took us from Oban to Barra, in 2004. The crossing could not have been better. The weather was fine and we could linger on the deck, taking lots of photos of some of our favourite places…

Arrival of the Ferry Clansman at Castlebay on the island of Barra © 2004 Scotiana


The garden of the Hebrides

Not your average garden, though: Barra has 1,000 species of wild flower, and some of the rarest birds in Scotland, including the elusive corncrake. On the approach to Castlebay on the ferry, look out for the dramatic profile of Kisimul Castle, built on a tiny rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay. On land, there’s the 12.5-mile run, the barrathon, at the end of June, and a visit across the causeway to Vatersay will reward you with a long stretch of white sand and turquoise seas. For a more seafaring adventure, go on a boat trip in search of common and grey seals, dolphins, and the occasional killer whale in the seas around the island.

We were surprised to see that Castlebay Tourist Information Centre was still open when we arrived aboard the Clansman Glasgow. We could get some information there and learned that as there was no campsite nearby, wild camping was tolerated. Night was falling quickly. To cheer us up, we bought a big bag of local fudge ;-).

Barra airport Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana

We could have arrived to Barra by plane. Barra small airport is quite unusual, with flights landing  directly on the beach. At high tide the runway disappears beneath the waves.

Sunset on the isle of Barra © 2004 Scotiana

Before leaving Castlebay to start looking for a place to pitch the tent, we lingered for a long time to admire the sumptuous sunset.

Barra wild camping in the dunes © 2004 Scotiana

After following the coastal road for a few kilometers we finally pitched the tent in the dunes, a wonderful place from where we could watch the sun slowly disappearing into the horizon.
Barra Outer Hebrides Western Islands of Scotland © 2004 Scotiana

Isle of Barra Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana


There was even a bench to sit on in front of the ocean…

Wild camping on the isle of Barra – Outer Hebrides © 2004Scotiana


After  a good and peaceful night, lulled by the sound of the waves, and a good outdoor breakfast…

Vatersay beach in the Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana

Vatersay beach in the Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana

… we decided to go back south and visit the lovely  island of Vatersay.

Dunes on the island of Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana

Then we resumed our route northward, with the aim to reach Stornoway, in Lewis, where we intended to take the ferry to Ullapool.  Along the way, we discovered that there were many causeways connecting the islands. These causeways are true masterpieces of road infrastructure, built in a difficult environment. They must have improved considerably the daily conditions of life of the islanders but they have been much questioned recently after the tragedy which occured on South Uist in 2005, during an extremely violent storm.

North Ford causeway in the Outer Hebrides © 2004Scotiana

No problem for us when we crossed these causeways, driving slowly to better enjoy the magic of the place.

The magic of the Outer Hebrides


Two sheep amidst blooming heather on the island of Lewis © 2003 Scotiana

Two sheep amidst blooming heather on the island of Lewis © 2003 Scotiana

The scenic qualities of the islands are reflected in the fact that three of Scotland’s forty national scenic areas (NSAs) are located here. The national scenic areas are defined so as to identify areas of exceptional scenery and to ensure its protection from inappropriate development, and are considered to represent the type of scenic beauty “popularly associated with Scotland and for which it is renowned”. (Wiki)

There’s a magic, specific to the Outer Hebrides and quite different from that of  the Inner Hebrides, Orkney… indeed each island has its own magic.

Misty atmosphere on a wonderful beach of the western coast of Harris © 2006 Scotiana

Many elements combine to create the magic in the Outer Hebrides:

  • The beauty of contrasted wild landscapes under changing skies: vast areas of lonely moors, heather and rocks, fabulous beaches…
  • The quality of light and a great variety of colours, following the seasons (we went there in Spring and autumn).

Outer Hebrides area of machair on the isle of Vatersay © 2004 Scotiana

  • The well preserved fauna and flora, a unique wildlife reserve on the European continent.
  • A simple way of life based on crofting, fishing, weaving and of course the tourist activities with an emphasis on green tourism (bird watching… hiking and cycling  and sports leasure ( golf).

Lewis Gearrannan village © 2004 Scotiana

  • A rich cultural and historical heritage which we discovered all along our journey…

Lewiss chess game National Museum of Scotland © 2015 Scotiana

A few geographical notes


  • “The Outer Hebrides”, also known as “The Western Isles”, form an archipelago of about 70 islands, of which only 15 are inhabited with a population of about 27,000.  The major islands are Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra.
  • The distance from Barra Head* to the Butt of Lewis is roughly 210 kilometres.

*Barra Head, also known as Berneray is the southernmost island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.)

  • Lewis and Harris are frequently referred to as individual islands, although they are connected by land. They are generally referred to as “Lewis and Harris” or “Harris and Lewis”. With an area of 2,179 km² “Lewis and Harris” is the largest island in Scotland and the third-largest in the British Isles, after Great Britain and Ireland.


  • Lewis is rather flat, and mainly consists of vast areas of treeless moors dotted with rocky outcrops. The highest eminence is Mealisval at 574 m in the south west.

map of North and South Harris in Outer Hebrides

  • Most of Harris is mountainous, with large areas of exposed rock and Clisham, the archipelago’s only Corbett, reaches 799 m in height.

Glen Meavaig, (Gleann Mhiabhaig) Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides Scotland © 2004 Scotiana


  • North and South Uist and Benbecula (sometimes collectively referred to as “The Uists”) have sandy beaches and wide cultivated areas of machair to the west and virtually uninhabited mountainous areas to the east. The highest peak here is Beinn Mhòr at 620 metres.
  • The Outer Hebrides is home to more than 7,500 fresh water lochs, which is almost a quarter of all the lochs in Scotland.
    The waters around Lewis were believed to be home to a water-spirit, or ‘Kelpie’,called Seonaidh, who could only be pacified by throwing a cup of beer into the sea
  • Considering their northerly latitude and thanks to the influence of the North Atlantic Current, the climate of the Outer Hebrides is remarkably mild and steady. The summer days are long and May to August is the driest period.
  • The average temperature for the year is 6 °C in January and 14 °C in summer. How I would like to live there when in the South-West of France the summer temperatures often go beyond 40°. We’ll soon be in October and yesterday it was 33° !!
  • A key feature of the climate is the wind and we can but agree with that 😉. According to W. H. Murray (1913-1996), a well-known Scottish writer and mountaineer, if a visitor asks an islander for a weather forecast he will not, like a mainlander answer dry, wet or sunny, but quote you a figure from the Beaufort Scale : “There are gales one day in six at the Butt of Lewis and small fish are blown onto the grass on top of 190 metre (620 ft) high cliffs at Barra Head during winter storms.” The Butt of Lewis is considered as being the UK’s windiest spot. We never went to this point but the view seems to be breathtaking. The lighthouse we can see on the following picture was built by David Stevenson in 1862.


A paradise for geologists

  • Most of the islands have a bedrock formed from Lewisian gneiss. These are amongst the oldest rocks in Europe, having been formed in the Precambrian period up to three billion years ago (3 milliards in French)
  • These rocks are largely igneous in origin, mixed with metamorphosed marble, quartzite and mica schist and intruded by later basaltic dykes and granite magma.
  • The gneiss’s delicate pink colours are exposed throughout the islands and it is sometimes referred to by geologists as “The Old Boy”.  😉
  • Granite intrusions are found in the parish of Barvas in west Lewis, and another forms the summit plateau of the mountain Roineabhal in Harris. The granite here is similar in composition to rocks found in the mountains of the Moon. No wonder the landscapes of the Outer Hebrides are described as being “lunar” 😉

A gold mine for archeologists


Aerial view of Calanais Stones in Lewis

  • The Callanish Stones, made from Lewisian Gneiss, were erected 5,000 years ago, about 2900 and 2600 BC, before the famous Stonehenge monument in England and more than two thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. They consist of a central circle of 13 monoliths with a surrounding cross shape of 5 rows of outer stones overlooking the great western Ocean.

Callanish stones © 2004 Scotiana

  • The stones were built for ritual purpose and seem to have been used as such throughout the Bronze age over a span of some 3,000 years. Sometime around 1695 Martin Martin visited the site and was told by the local people that “it was a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism, and that the chief druid or priest stood near the big stone in the centre, from whence he addressed himself to the people that surrounded him.”·
  • Scientists believe the site was abandoned around 800 BC. Between 1000 and 500 BC the site became covered with a thick layer of peat about 5 feet deep (1,50 m)!
  • In 1857, Sir James Matheson, a wealthy resident of Lewis, had the peat dug up around the stones and as the peat was removed the massive size of the stones was revealed. The main stone is estimated to be up to 7 tonnes in weight and is 4.8m high.
  • As it is always the case with the vestiges of the past, the Callanish Stones are surrounded by legends and lore. The ancients believe that the stones were petrified giants turned into stone for having refused to convert to Christianity.
  • A kind of calendar? Callanish Standing Stones seem to have been constructed to be in line with the movement of the Sun and the moon, built to align with astronomical events, like the winter and summer solstice.

There are still miles of underexplored areas in Lewis (and elsewhere) covered by thick layers of peat. Callanish and the whole of Scotland (think of Orkney for example) is a paradise for archaeologists who are very active in the field and make lots of discoveries every day, from the litle things such as mere cooking pots to mysterious and fascinating sacred sites. Who knows what other secrets we could find lying beneath the surface ? One can dream.

 A long history

While travelling from south to north of the Western Isles we discovered a lot of ancient vestiges testifying to the long and rich history of the Outer Hebrides:  stone circles, brochs, ruined houses, churches and castles, memorials…

From the first settlers to the Viking raids and Norse control, from the Scots rule to the British era marked by the bloody Jacobite risings and the heroic adventures of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald in the Hebridean Islands during the Prince’s escape, from the sad page of the Clearances to the modern times there is a long page of history to remember and write about…

Dun Carloway Lewis Outer Hebrides © 2004 Scotiana

Teampull na Trionaid in North Uist © 2004 Scotiana


Memorial to the heroes of Lochs © 2004 Scotiana


A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland Ca 1695 Martin Martin

Samuel Johnson & James Boswell Journey to the Hebrides Canongate 2001

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell spent the autumn of 1773 touring the Highlands and the Western Islands of Scotland. Both kept detailed notes of their impressions and later published separate accounts of their journey together. The account of their great tour is one of the finest pieces of travel writing ever produced: it is a magnificent historical document and also a portrait of two extraordinary personalities.
In the vivid prose of theses two famous men of letters, the Highlands and the Western Islands spring to life. The juxtaposition of the two very different accounts creates an unsurpassed portrait of a society which was utterly alien to the Europe of the Enlightenment, and straining on the brink of calamitous change. This great masterpiece, entertaining, profound, and marvellously readable is also our last portrait of a lost age and people.

Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson -1773

An old book with a lovely cover, illustrating a scene taking place on the isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., by James Boswell

Dr Johnson had for many years given me hopes that we should go together, and visit the Hebrides. Martin’s Account of those islands had impressed us with a notion that we might there contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we had been accustomed to see; and, to find simplicity and wildness, and all the circumstances of remote time or place, so near to our native great island, was an object within the reach of reasonable curiosity. Dr Johnson has said in his Journey, ‘that he scarcely remembered how the wish to visit the Hebrides was excited’; but he told me, in summer, 1763, that his father put Martin’s Account into his hands when he was very young, and that he was much pleased with it. We reckoned there would be some inconveniencies and hardships, and perhaps a little danger; but these we were persuaded were magnified in the imagination of every body. When I was at Ferney, in 1764, I mentioned our design to Voltaire. He looked at me, as if I had talked of going to the North Pole, and said, ‘You do not insist on my accompanying you?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Then I am very willing you should go.’

The Higlands & Islands – Smith Moncrieff – A & C Black London 1906

Born in 1846 in Edinburgh, Robert Hope Moncrieff (1846-1927) was a prolific Scottish author, predominantly of children’s fiction and travel guides (among them the famous ‘Black’s Guides’). Sometimes writing under the pseudonym, ‘Ascott R. Hope’,  he published over 100 books and short stories. Moncrieff travelled extensively which contributed not only to the background for his books of fiction, but also supported his books on geography and history.

I have been offered three wonderfully illustrated books by Robert Hope Moncrieff:  Bonnie Scotland, The Heart of Scotland and The Highlands & Islands. A chapter of The Highlands & Islands is devoted to the Outer Hebrides  and contains several beautiful illustrations, watercolours by WM. Smith.

Though I’ve only read a few pages of The Highlands & Islands, I’m not sure I will completely agree with Robert Moncrieff’s point of view  but we must remember that his writing dates back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and that life on the islands has much changed since.

The Standing Stones of Callernish Lewis painted by WM Smith Jr

Anyway the book’s illustrations are lovely 😉

The Scottish Islands Hamish Haswell-Smith Canongate Books 2015


41 ème Foire du Livre de Brive – 2024


I would not end this post without quoting Peter May, one of my favourite Scottish crime fiction authors. I should say a “Scottish-French” author since, a few years ago, he decided to adopt French nationality. 🙂 This very popular writer currently lives in the Lot which is a neighbouring department of the Dordogne, our own departement.  He is often present at la Foire du Livre de Brive-la-Gaillarde and we hope to be able to meet him in the next one in november. Well known for his “Scottish Trilogy” which is set in the Outer Hebrides, Peter May is also the author of a wonderful book about Scotland (mainly about the Outer Hebrides). Nobody could describe the place better than him not only because he loves the place and often travels in the Western Isles but also because he has spent a lot of time there to make a documentary film .


The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May – Quercus edition 2011-2013

“Long stretches of empty road linked bleak and exposed settlements huddled around churches of various denominations. The Church of Scotland. The United Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)—the Wee Frees, as the free churches were universally known. Each one was a division of the one before. Each one a testimony to the inability of man to agree with man. Each one a rallying point for hatred and distrust of the other.”
Peter May, The Blackhouse
“Those amazing sheer rock faces, stacked up in layers, as if they were God’s archives, a geological history of the Hebrides. Seams of rock like the rings of a tree, but taking you right back to the very beginnings of time.” (Peter May)




Hoping to have inspired you to go and experience for yourself the magic of the Outer Hebrides I wish you une bonne lecture.

Á bientôt.


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