Outer Hebrides

Overview

To the north west of Britain lie the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides. A string of islands connected by ferries and road bridges with distinctive character and culture with a thriving community.  It can get very windy, our hightop T3 VW was almost blown over in a storm in the 1990s, but the dramatic beaches and coastal scenery make a trip worthwhile.  Over the past 10 years or so, it has become very popular, with many more campsites than we found on our first trip.

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Getting there

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services are the only way to travel and have a delightful network of services from Oban, Ullapool or the Isle of Skye.  They have a number of “hopscotch” services which combine tickets into a package.  Services can get booked up in peak season but we have always managed to get a standby service.  Dolphins and whales a frequently seen from the fore deck.

Campsites

Once infrequent, mandating wild camping, increased tourist numbers have stimulated a growth in new sites, mostly with basic facilities.  Ferry terminals have toilet facilities and overnight stops are possible on the islands, but not at the mainland terminals, which have good campsites anyway.  Wild camping is possible in a few locations.

Experience

We have been 3-4 times now over a period of 25 years and I cycle the NCN780 Hebridean Way in 2018.  It is often busier in May than in August and campsites get full. A clockwise or anti-clockwise journey can be planned by taking a ferry from Oban to Barra or Ullapool to Stornoway.  If you find the service booked in one direction, try the other.  In between Oban and Ullapool you can also enjoy the Highlands.

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Starting at Barra, the beaches are glorious near Vatersay and in the north, one being used as the airport terminal for frequent services from Glasgow.  Keep a keen eye out for Otters in the eastern sheltered inlets and perhaps climb a hill for wonderful views.

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Further north, a ferry brings you to Eriskay (of Whiskey Galore fame) and a new connecting causeway to South Uist.  There is a good campsite at Kilbride and ideal stop before continuing north.  Try to divert along one of the naroow lanes to the western shores for beach combing and view of the Atlantic. You reach Benbecula across another new causeway where you can find MacLennans supermarket, full of local delicacies.

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The local beaches at this point are stunning, if the weather is clear. But even at anytime, the combination of light, weather and sea state make a beach walk an exhilarating experience.  It is worth stopping and exploring rather that continuing to drive constantly.  North Uist remains flat with a moon like landscape of small lochans and estuaries.  Berneray should not be missed, with some wild camping possibilities just north or the Gatliff Trust Youth Hostel and more extensive beaches to explore, before catching a ferry to Harris.

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Keep you eyes peeled for Dolphins and Orcas as the ferry carefully navigates across the Sound of Harris. After Tarbert the landscape changes to mountainous scenery and utterly stunning beaches, notable at Luskentyre. New camping spots are being opened along the roadside, to contain wild camping.  You then climb into the hills past An Cliseam, at 799m.  Worth a climb from a roadside car park if you are an experienced mountaineer. It is worth staying in this area to explore single track journeys to Scalpay and Scarp, where the only traffic might be Heelun Coos (Highland Cattle), who will quite happily scratch their woolly coats on your campervan or remove a wing mirror with their huge horns.

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Surviving that, continue north taking the road towards the west coast.  Here you have days of possibilities, further west to Uig, where the famous Lewis Men chess pieces were found, or to the Stones of Callanish, a more dramatic and accessible stone circle than Stonehenge.  Nearby is the fishing village of Garenin, with restored blackhouses and working examples of the weaving looms, still used today to make Harris tweed.

You are now on Lewis, the largest island and home to the capital at Stornaway.  A trip to the Butt of Lewis and the lighthouse, stopping on the way for local black pudding rolls, is a must.  When you arrive take the the time to explore the coast and ponder on the power of the sea.  During winter storms, huge rocks are thrown onto the land, some 40m above the ocean.

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Stornoway has a great museum, local brewery and shops. Before catching the ferry home, perhaps take a trip to the memorial which marks the loss of HWY Iolaire and 201 men in 1919, returning to Lewis after the war, so close to their families and kin.

Further reading

The Outer Hebrides Guide Book – Charles Tait – an excellent guide which is all you need, in addition to the 1:250,000 Ordnance Survey Road Map 2 – Western Scotland and the Western Isles.

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