Dalmore Beach
Dalmore Beach

The Magic of the Outer Hebrides by Alastair Walker

Island-hopping through the Outer Hebrides is always a pleasure, with us being welcomed wherever we go. Stornoway, the only town of any size, acts as a magnet with the attraction of some of the Lewis Chessmen on display in Lews Castle museum. Recently opened, the museum succeeds in encapsulating many aspects of island life and includes an immersive panoramic video presentation which gives an exciting insight into the island chain’s varied character throughout the seasons (although I have experienced all four seasons in an afternoon).

Callanish, a Neolithic site in west Lewis, is, to my mind, every bit as spectacular as Stonehenge. It has the great attraction that one can be up close, really close, to the stones and often we are the only people there. The sense of isolation, but close connection to the local environment is palpable. Crofting townships survive - adapted to the 21st century, but the thatched Blackhouse village of Gearannann where we lunch affords a peat-tinged glimpse into how our forebears lived until well into the 20th century. Travelling through Harris is a wonderful experience, and one that’s forever varied. If we’re lucky, and we mostly are, we are treated to bare mountains, sometimes with white-tailed eagles soaring above one minute and then miles of deserted shimmering beaches the next. These are adjacent to the machair, the rich, sandy pasture & arable land often covered in bright flowers.

We have seen the three miles of Luskentyre beach (which just made it into TripAdvisor's Top 25 Beaches in the World for 2020 list) with as many as 12 people on them – other times totally deserted. There is the odd atmosphere-laden trip where the mist is down just above sea level and one can just imagine what Bonnie Prince Charlie thought as he evaded the Government troops hunting him throughout the islands before he escaped “over the sea to Skye”. Further south, the Uist archipelago is now connected internally by causeways that link the six islands through which we pass. These islands are rocky and mountainous on their eastern flanks, but have enticing beaches on the western machair. They’re a myriad of lochans and sea inlets with an engaging range of wildlife varying from red deer to the sight of hen harriers and long-eared owls quartering the moor for prey to the highly-distinctive never-ending calls of the elusive corncrakes, often heard, but rarely seen, near our hotel in Benbecula.

We get around both by our own coach and Caledonian Macbrayne’s excellent ferry service. There are five crossings required, two in large deep-sea ferries to cross the Minch, and then three on much smaller inter-island ferries where one really has the opportunity to get on deck, savour the sea breezes, look out for seals and cetaceans, and even watch gannets diving for their supper. Quite idyllic.

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The Magic of the Outer Hebrides by Alastair Walker was published on 14 October 2020