Visiting the Outer Hebrides, a remote string of islands off the northern Scotland coast, offers an opportunity to experience a unique part of the world that is both beautiful and challenging. Last fall, I traveled with my sister and five others on a walking trip that explored these ancient and remote islands.
Why the Hebrides? Our trips through the years have been to many places, but most have been trips that are easily done and well known. They have included Provence, the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, Croatia, Patagonia, Andalusia, the Dingle Peninsula, the Amazon, the Canadian Rockies, the Czech Republic, Cornwall and two trips to Africa. Walking allows us to experience our destinations intimately by putting one foot in front of the other as we move through the countryside.
We are tempted by walking trips off the beaten trail. Our trip to the Hebrides could not have been more off the beaten trail. A fellow walker on a recent trip was so enthusiastic about her trip to the Hebrides that we decided it was a place we needed to see. Although officially part of the United Kingdom, the Hebrides Islands are located on the outermost edge of Europe.
The chain of islands offers beautiful, seemingly endless, beaches and wild mountain ranges. The Hebrides are known for their gorgeous turquoise seas thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which travels past the islands. Inhabited for more than 6,000 years, their history includes Neolithic, Bronze Age and Viking cultures. Neolithic stone structures, medieval churches and even mummies have all been found on the archipelago.
The adventure began with an hour-long flight from Glasgow to Barra. We landed on the beach at the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use a beach as the runway. We traveled with five other hikers and two Scottish guides. This trip was not out of any travel catalog. Stuart and Brian, our guides, shared their passion and knowledge of the Outer Hebrides as we moved from island to island. We traveled from south to north, using ferries and causeways to move through the islands of Vatersay, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis, before finally returning to the mainland from Stornoway.
The economy of these remote islands is dependent on crofting, fishing, tourism, the oil industry, and renewable energy. One of the islands, which we visited, is where the famous Harris Tweed is made. Truly a cottage industry, families have looms in their homes where they make the treasured cloth. Woven of sheep’s wool that has been dyed with natural local plant dyes, it is the only fabric in the world today that is guarded and protected by its own Act of Parliament.
Our guides took us on paths that were little used except by free-range sheep and cattle. We climbed rock-covered hills and walked through boggy valleys, past dark, glassy lochs. We found ourselves on cliff tops offering views of one of the many white sand beaches. We walked in sheeting rain, in near gale force winds mixed with breaks of sunshine. Even with this less than perfect weather, we were enthralled by the pure drama of the landscape. The Hebrides is a place where sky, land, and beach marry in a way that challenges any written description or that can be truly captured in photographs.
The layers of cultures that lived on these islands is mind-boggling. They include Neolithic, Bronze Age, Viking, Pictish, Celtic and Anglo Saxon. On several hikes, we passed standing stones placed centuries ago. One of our last stops was a visit to the Callanish Standing Stones, one of the oldest Celtic monuments on earth. It remains a mystery how a primitive culture moved and placed these stones that pre-date Stonehenge or what their geometric form might signify.
Like each of the trips my sister and I have shared, our Hebrides trip stands alone in what it offered and what we experienced. This trip was not about cities, museums, or dining experiences. Instead, it was about embracing nature at its most extreme and glorious. We will not quickly forget the drama of cloud-filled skies, the rocky rolling hills, and the turquoise sea washing onto white shell beaches. Yes, adventure travel may not be for everyone, but we found, once again, that each trip offers experiences and newfound appreciation for another part of the world.