Red deer, unspoiled beaches and sublime seafood: The ultimate guide to the Scottish Hebrides
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A holiday to Scotland that doesn’t include Edinburgh always gets my attention. The Hebrides are an archipelago made up of inhabited and uninhabited islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. This is a great place to visit if you want to maintain social distancing, as it has some of the lowest population density in the U.K. For example, the Outer Hebrides has a population density of just nine people per square kilometre.
Divided into the Inner Hebrides to the east and the Outer Hebrides to the west, they are famous for rugged landscapes, untouched beaches, whisky distilleries and incredible wildlife. Home to remote Gaelic-speaking communities, Hebrides comes from the word Harbredey, which roughly translates to “isles at the edge of the sea”. Bearing in mind this unique location, be sure to pack for all weathers.
Here are our picks of where to stay on the Hebridean islands and how to get there.
Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides
There is a lot of discussion about whether Lewis and Harris are separate islands or not. Some say the distinction between the two dates back to a split in the MacLeod clan, and others simply point to the range of high mountains and where the island narrows between Lewis and Harris, turning them into virtually separate islands. Physically, Lewis is a lot flatter than Harris but just as pretty.
As the largest town on the archipelago, Stornoway is the ideal place to start your Hebridean journey. This is a place to explore the amazing food of the islands including Stornoway black pudding, peat-smoked scallops, kippers from the Stornoway Smokehouse and hot smoked salmon. Also look out for Lews Castle, which has a Starbucks, and Era, Stornoway’s only nightclub.
A drive along the west coast of the Isle of Lewis is a tour through the past few thousand years. There are the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish that are older than Stonehenge, the Iron Age Dun Carloway Broch and 19th-century blackhouse villages at Arnol and Gearrannan. Keep driving west to the beach at Uig where the Chessmen, a group of distinctive 12th-century chess pieces, were found and then on to the cliffs at Mangersta, which are just a bit farther off the beaten trail.
Where to stay
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
This is as authentic as it gets. Each blackhouse, or traditional Gaelic house, has its own character named after the family who once lived there. “Taigh Thormoid ‘an ‘ic Iain” is in the oldest part of the village with a sea view, solid fuel stove, underfloor heating, a double bedroom, shower room, kitchenette and a sitting room. It’s £303 for a three-night stay during high season.
The Doune Braes Hotel
Overlooking the lochan and tranquil countryside, this is the closest hotel to the standing stones at Callanish. The restaurant specialises in local seafood dishes with shellfish, prawns, scallops, lobster and whitefish on the menu. Double rooms are from £140 per night.
How to get there
There’s an airport in Stornoway (SYY) that has nonstop flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness with Loganair. Most nonstop flights from the Scottish airports only take up to an hour, making the journey to the islands quick and easy.
There’s also a ferry from Ullapool on the Scottish mainland to Stornoway. You can travel on to the other Outer Hebrides islands via the Leverburgh to Berneray ferry.
Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides
The combination of beaches and of mountains on the Isle of Harris creates a miniature Scotland to discover. A drive around Harris is a fun way to see the best of the island. The drive to Hushinish is spectacular, and you will spot golden eagles and sea eagles. During summer, driving to the Machair Grassland is a great way to see this rare coastal habitat of low-lying grassland and shell sands, which is unique to the northwestern fringe of Europe.
The beaches of Harris are famous for their white sands and clear (but bracing) turquoise waters. Stunning Luskentyre is the star of the show and is one of the largest and most spectacular beaches on Harris. Regularly voted as one of the best U.K. beaches, this three-mile stretch of sand also has free parking.
A visit to Harris isn’t complete without checking out some Harris Tweed, the only fabric protected by its own act of parliament. What makes Harris Tweed so very special is that any cloth that is officially Harris Tweed is woven in a weaver’s shed on the island. Donald John Mackay in Luskentyre is probably the most famous maker of Harris Tweed (he made tweed for Nike and Belstaff) and you can buy it there by the metre.
Where to stay
This castle near Hushinish has uninterrupted views over West Loch Tarbert. As well as plush bedrooms and a resident ghost, there is direct access to a small beach and plenty of activities surrounded by some 55,000 acres. You can rent the whole castle and become a laird for one week with up to 17 of your guests. Otherwise, double rooms are from £370 and include a full Scottish breakfast, afternoon tea and a four-course evening meal.
Located in Tarbert, the hotel is minutes from the Tarbert Ferry Terminal and the Isle of Harris distillery. Some of the rooms have a stunning sea view, but the highlight is its restaurant that serves up local ingredients like fresh fish, shellfish, lamb, beef and venison. Don’t miss the famous Harris Hotel shortbread. Rooms are from £125 per night.
How to get there
Fly into Stornoway (SYY) and then drive to Harris, which is an hour away by car. There is also a ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on Harris.
Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides
Easily accessed by ferry from Oban, Mull has some of the finest and most varied scenery in the Inner Hebrides from the rugged ridges of Ben More and the black basalt crags of Burg to the white sand, rose pink granite and emerald waters that fringe the Ross.
Mull is widely known for its varied wildlife with many land-based and marine tours of on offer to get the most out of your trip. Expect to see whales, dolphins, puffins, white-tailed eagles, sea otters and, of course, red deer. The largest and most impressive land animal to be found on the Isle of Mull, red deer are numerous and widespread. Be sure to have a look at Calgary Bay, a huge sandy beach facing west.
The town of Tobermory is a must-visit and straight out of a fairy tale. It’s small, cosy and colourful. You can’t miss the brightly painted buildings along the main street to the pier made famous by CBeebies programme Balamory, based around the coloured houses of Tobermory.
Be sure to also pop over to neighbouring island Iona, and if you visit in the winter, you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Where to stay
Located on the same street as the famous coloured houses is Tobermory Hotel. Most of the individually styled rooms have a view out onto the Tobermory Bay. Be sure to try the west coast kipper for breakfast, which is included. Double rooms are from £155 per night.
This grand castle was built in 1860, and despite its grandeur, is very much a private family home with loads of character. Located on the northernmost tip of Mull overlooking the Sound of Mull, there are dramatic sunsets to be had all year round. The hall with a large open fire is furnished as a sitting room, and the library has a complementary selection of whiskies, too. Rooms are from £190 and include breakfast.
How to get there
The best way to Mull is via Glasgow. Flying is easy from several airports across the U.K., or if you’d prefer to take the train, there are direct connections from all over the U.K. After that, you need to drive around 2.5 hours or take the train for three hours to Oban on the coast of Scotland’s mainland. From Oban, it is a 45-minute ferry across to the Isle of Mull.
Reads more: The ultimate guide to visiting the Cotswolds
Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides
This 50-mile long island is the largest of the Inner Hebrides, connected to mainland Scotland by the Skye Bridge. The stunning scenery is the main attraction, but when the mist closes in, there are plenty of castles, museums and cosy pubs to while away the hours.
Along with Edinburgh and Loch Ness, Skye is one of Scotland’s top-three tourist destinations. However, the crowds tend to stick to Portree and Trotternish, so look to the island’s farther-flung corners.
Some of the most popular attractions are the Fairy Pools, a set of waterfalls along the River Brittle. The east coast of Skye is where you can hike to the Old Man of Storr, meander around Portree harbour and take in the views from the Quiraing hills. On the west coast, you can experience Dunvegan Castle, which is right on the seafront, home of Clan MacLeod.
Where to stay
Just 15 minutes’ drive from the Skye Bridge, sitting on the shores of Loch na Dal is Kinloch Lodge. The views are pretty spectacular and many rooms feature them. The biggest draw here is the much-talked-about restaurant where menus draw heavily on the local bounty of the island, so seafood features prominently. Rooms are from £280 per night.
This world-renowned restaurant with rooms has views of Dunvegan Castle across the loch and the spectacular Neist Point just 20 minutes’ drive away. The rather tempting menu is full of local ingredients including oysters, deer and salmon. After dinner, rest in one of the six rooms, five of which are split-level. Rooms are from £275 per night.
How to get there
You can get to the Isle of Skye from Inverness. The city has good bus links to the island or you could go by train to Kyle of Lochalsh. It terminates close to the toll-free Skye Bridge, which links the island with the mainland, and the train connects with local bus services.
If you want to drive from Inverness, it is 112 miles to Portree on Skye.
Barra, Outer Hebrides
The airport at Barra is one of the most unusual in the world, with flights landing on the beach at Cockle Strand between tides. At high tide, the runway simply disappears beneath the waves.
Along with Eriskay and South Uist, these islands bring a different atmosphere to the Hebrides as they are much less visited than Lewis and Harris. The island is only eight miles long and four miles wide and has beautiful beaches and seven lochs. Stroll along beautiful white sandy beaches, such as Tangasdale, or enjoy breathtaking scenery as you cycle or walk around this small but well-formed island.
Castlebay was once a 19th-century fishing port and today is the main town on the Isle of Barra. Take a five-minute boat trip from Castlebay to the medieval Kisimul Castle, the “Castle in the Sea”, which sits dramatically on a rock islet in the bay.
Where to stay
Isle of Barra Beach Hotel
This is the hotel for views. The most westerly hotel in Britain, it overlooks the white sands of Tangasdale Beach. The Hotel’s lounge has views of Halaman Bay and Ben Tangaval, and the restaurant faces due west with uninterrupted views of the rolling North Atlantic Ocean with spectacular sunsets. Rooms are from £80 per night.
Number Nine Cottage
The closest accommodation to the famous Barra Airport beach, this pet-friendly traditional stone-built cottage sleeps six. Located in the picturesque township of Ardmhor, the cottage is just yards from the beach, which forms the world-famous Barra airstrip. High season from March to October for a seven-night stay is £650.
How to get there
Travelling to the Isle of Barra can be a very enjoyable part of your holiday, especially if you fly into the only commercial beach runway in the world. You can fly to Barra (BRR) from Glasgow with Loganair in 55 minutes. Barra is also accessible by ferry, which departs from Oban and arrives at Castlebay five hours later.
There’s no question that this unique island chain is a very special part of the world. With a photo opportunity around every corner, many of these idyllic environments are more evocative of the Caribbean (minus the hot sunshine) than coastal Scotland. There is so much to see from sandy beaches and dunes, rocky coasts and cliffs, woodlands, inland lochs to rare flowers and a diverse array of bird species and wildlife.
Featured photo by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images