British Isles - Western Isles
Western Isles
Also known as 'The Long Island' the Outer Hebrides form a chain off the north-west coast of Scotland.
Whilst forming a single administrative unit the Western Isles show a surprising variety of landscape, economy and culture.

Where they are
The Western Isles form a 160 mile long arc of islands about 40 miles to the west of the Scottish mainland. In all there are around 200 islands, but only 14 are inhabited. There are three distinct areas.

In the north the 'islands' of Lewis and Harris (actually only one island) with their attendant islands stretch for about 75 miles from the Butt of Lewis to the Sound of Harris. Next are the Uists, consisting of three main islands of North and South Uist and Benbecula and running for another 60 miles to the Sound of Barra which separates them from Barra.

The main rocks are extremely old and mainly consist of Lewisian gneiss, a metamorphic rock. In Lewis around Uig and the hills of North Uist there are large areas of pinkish granite. There are small amounts of sandstone near Stornoway and a metamorphic limestone near Rodel at the southern tip of Harris. Significant in many areas on the west of the islands and especially in the Uists is the presence of large amounts of shell sand. This sand has produced machair, an alkaline system which supports a lush vegetation and can produce quite reasonable farm land.

Geomorphologically the islands show a range of landscapes. The north and middle of Lewis is essentially moorland with a thick peat cover, with the exception of coastal strips of better agricultural land where the sands helped to produce better soils. Further south Lewis becomes increasingly hilly, especially to the west, until in Harris there are much wilder hills with bare rocky landscapes on the east and narrow expanses of machair on the west. In the Uists the machair is much more widespread and there are extensive beaches. The east has more bare rock, hills and some peat moor. High average wind speeds have meant that there are few trees, apart from a few places such as Lews Castle in Stornoway and some other estates. Modern forestry planting has been limited and appears to have met with limited success.

Whilst none of the hills are particularly high they are relatively wild and inaccessible for their size. With the exception of in the machair areas there is a  complex drainage system with very many lochs and lochans. All this together with the contrast of acidic peat and alkaline machair, tidal flats an indented coast and relatively little disturbance means that the flora and fauna of the islands is particularly diverse and rich. Tragically this is now under extreme threat from proposals to build very large wind power stations over vast areas.

Getting there and getting around
There are three ferry routes from the mainland. In the north there is what may be regarded as the main route between Ullapool and Stornoway, this has several sailings a day and takes about three hours. In the south there are sailings from Oban to South Uist (Lochboisdale) and Barra which take about five hours and run to a complex pattern. The third route is from Uig in Skye to Harris (Tarbert) or North Uist (Lochmaddy) and takes about 100 minutes. The service pattern on this is a little confusing but most days have two sailings and we found it the most convenient for travel, the cheapest and (a major consideration for poor sailors) the shortest. All ferries to and within the islands are run by Caledonian MacBrayne.

Given the nature of the islands with long distances and scattered small communities the bus service is reasonable with close integration and clever feeder services.

There aren't many roads but standards on the main routes are reasonable and improving, although even some of these have poor single track sections. Much of the main 'spine' route in the Uists is still single track. Some roads in more isolated areas need care with limited visibility and steep gradients, but surfaces are good and passing places adequate. Traffic levels are very low and drivers very courteous, especially in Lewis and Harris. Distances should not be underestimated - road atlases tend to show the islands at a smaller scale than other parts and this can be misleading!

The islands have a reputation of being wet and windy. This is probably unfair as some people say it only rains twice a year (from June to September and from October to May) and we actually saw little rainfall on our trips, mainly because it was being blown horizontally! To be more serious the climate is mild on account of the North Atlantic Drift and whilst rainfall is high it is less than in many parts of the Scottish Highlands.The official Meteorological Office forecast is here. More details of current and forecast weather conditions can be seen for Butt of Lewis, Benbecula and Barra.

More information
There are a number of worthwhile web sites shown on our external links page.



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