WESTERN ISLES OF SCOTLAND? THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF THEM
Correct. Stretching from Lewis in the far north-west to Arran off the Ayrshire coast, there are more than 50 inhabited islands off Scotland's west coast, and around five times that number of unoccupied islets. But the official definition of the Western Isles - and what is covered here - is the 130-mile chain from Lewis to Barra, that we used to call the Outer Hebrides. Eleven of these are permanently inhabited, though to complicate matters the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris are the same landmass, separated by a range of hills.
These Western Isles comprise one of the most beautiful archipelagos on the planet. The very rock from which they are formed dates almost from the creation of the earth, and the present-day landscapes vary from barren mountain to gentle dunes, all fringed with coastline that varies from jagged rock to the smoothest sand.
Each of the five main islands - Lewis/Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra - is split down the middle: on the west side, picturesque beaches of fine, white sand backed by dunes and grassland, known as machair, which come alive in early summer with thousands of wild flowers; on the east, a craggy wilderness of bare rock and small lochs, with desolate moorland in between.
The Vikings, who ran the place for 400 years from the 9th century, called them the "islands at the edge of the earth", and if you stand on the west coast contemplating the awesome Atlantic breakers completing a journey that's been uninterrupted by land for 2,500 miles, you'll see exactly what they meant.
The extremes of Britain are lonely, remote - and compelling. Happily, despite the thin population, they are increasingly easy to reach and explore.
MORE SHEEP THAN PEOPLE?
The human population was severely depleted during the clearances of the 19th century, when tens of thousands of tenant crofters in the Highlands and Islands were evicted by landowners to make way for sheep.
Since then, the population of the Western Isles has declined slowly but steadily to about 27,000, in line with the contraction of the fishing industry and the demise of traditional crofting. More than half the islanders either have some understanding of Gaelic or actually speak Scotland's ancient tongue as a first language. Gaelic (pronounced gallic) is enjoying a resurgence both at home and among the Hebridean diaspora around the world.
One in three of the people lives in or around Stornoway in Lewis, the "capital" of the Western Isles. With its airport, busy harbour, traffic lights, weekday rush hour and Indian takeaways, Stornoway is the only place that feels remotely like the mainland.
Outside Stornoway, the lack of trees adds to the bleakness. It's disconcerting to some, but magical to others, especially when the sun shines and the rocks, sand and vegetation seem to sparkle.
IS THAT OFTEN?
Nobody would claim that the climate is the Western Isles' strongest suit. The annual rainfall is more than double the British average, and days without wind are rare. The weather has the capacity to change at a moment's notice, but this can work both ways. Looking on the bright side, there's added value in a fine day. First, because at such a northerly latitude the sunshine lasts long into the evening - the sunsets are unrivalled in the UK. Next, in winter the Aurora Borealis displays can be electrifying. Third, the sea is unexpectedly warm because the islands lie directly in the path of the Gulf Stream. Snow seldom lies for long. May and September are usually the most benign months, but it pays to have wet-weather gear close at hand at all times.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF LEWIS?
Assuming you don't mind the occasional buffeting from the elements, the islands are a perfect haven for lovers of the great outdoors. Unthreatened by development, the archaeological remains are among the best-preserved in the British Isles: the various arrangements of standing stones around Calanais in western Lewis (see panel) are eclipsed only by Stonehenge.
Nearby, at Bostadh, a severe storm 15 years ago uncovered an Iron Age (approximately AD600) village from the sand, which can be explored at close quarters. Along the same stretch of coastline, at Dun Carloway, an Iron Age broch, or fortification, stands 30ft high on one side.
All the other islands have their share of ancient stone circles, monoliths and burial chambers, although the signposting is erratic and they can take some finding.
AND WHY IS HARRIS DESCRIBED AS A SEPARATE ISLAND?
While the greater part of Lewis is undulating peat bog, Harris is geologically different, with much hillier terrain and wider beaches. South-east Harris offers one of Britain's most spectacular drives: the Golden Road, that twists around apparently impenetrable hills and inlets across terrain which in places resembles a lunar landscape - and somehow finds a way through. The tamer, straighter west-coast road skirts two beaches, Seilebost and Luskintyre, which, on a perfect summer's day when the water turns tropical turquoise,would not be out of place in a Caribbean tourist brochure.
On the west coast of North Uist, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has an important reserve at Balranald, with a visitor centre (01463 715000; www.rspb.org.uk) and a three-mile circular trail around the machair and a headland teeming with coastal waders and divers. There are otters to be seen here too.
Benbecula, linked to the Uists by causeways and bridges, has a ruined 14th-century castle at Borve, and as the Protestant north merges into the predominantly Catholic south, the softer, greener landscape of South Uist contains the vast Loch Druidibeg nature reserve, which stretches from one side of the island to the other and supports more than 200 species of flowering plant, a large colony of greylag geese, and the extremely rare and elusive corncrake.
Among Barra's highlights is its vast tidal beach, Traigh Mohr, where the cockle-pickers rest from their back-breaking labours for a couple of hours every day to allow the plane from Glasgow to land and take off - the only beach in the world which handles a scheduled air service. Further south, the lively community of Castlebay has one of the islands' most picturesque features. Kisimul Castle, lying on a rocky outcrop 200 yards offshore, is the mediaeval stronghold of the MacNeil clan, and is open to the public (9.30am-5.30pm) from April to September. The admission fee of £4.50 includes the return boat trip.
WHAT'S ON OFFER FOR ACTIVE TYPES?
The combination of wind, waves and pristine beaches provides a thrilling arena for adventure and extreme sports. The west coast surf is said to be the most consistent in Europe, and 70 beaches are classed as surfable, although great care is needed with the strong ocean currents and sudden tidal changes. Lewis Surf Trek (07939 194880;* * www.lewissurftrek.com) organises five-day surfing expeditions along the Lewis coast, with full-board accommodation in a modified camper truck, and an onboard guide seeking out the best breakers. The cost is £250 per person. Alternatively it offers half-day equipment hire from £20.
The angling, both inland and offshore, is world class. The Western Isles contain more than 2,000 fishable lochs and 15 per cent of Britain's freshwater area, with large natural stocks of wild brown trout and salmon. The craggy rocks and long beaches provide excellent conditions for sea anglers. Permits, equipment and tours can be booked online at www.fishhebrides.com.
A related website, www.walkhebrides.com, has a database of recommended walks the length and breadth of the islands. The hardest walk, for which you should allow seven hours, is a somewhat marshy slog to the summit (2,620ft) of the Western Isles' highest mountain, Clisham, in north Harris, where the reward - on a clear day - is an unforgettable panorama taking in Skye's dramatic Cuillin mountains, the mainland, and the long, thin spine of the outer island chain itself, pockmarked by innumerable lochs.
The ever-present wind is a formidable challenge for cyclists, but because it almost always blows from the south-west it can be turned to your advantage if all long-distance journeys are made in the general direction of Lewis. The only steep climbs are in North Harris: four of the islands have cycle hire and repair shops.
For golfers, there are rustic and windswept nine-hole courses on Harris, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra - where the greens are protected from sheep and cattle by electrified fences - and a more sheltered 18-hole course at Stornoway (01851 702240), set in the only wooded parkland in the Western Isles. In keeping with the northern islands' strict observance of the Sabbath, this short but extremely demanding course (green fees £20) is not open on Sundays.
ARE THE SMALLER ISLANDS WORTH VISITING?
It depends how much time you have. Two gems, near Barra, can easily be reached. A causeway to the south connects the island with Vatersay, which has an exceptionally narrow waist skirted on either side by two outstanding beaches.
North-east of Barra - 40 minutes by car ferry - lies Eriskay, which is nothing special to look at but has history in abundance. On the west shore, a cairn marks the spot where, in July 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil, and began raising an army for the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion. In 1941, a merchant ship, the SS Politician, foundered on the rocks, carrying 20,000 cases of whisky. Before the authorities could intervene, the cargo was "rescued" by the islanders and most of it was never recovered. Fact and fiction was whimsically blurred in Compton Mackenzie's novel, Whisky Galore, which was later turned into a film. Mackenzie lived on Barra and is buried there. Eriskay's only pub, Am Politician (01878 720246; www.ampolitician.co.uk) displays memorabilia from the ship, including a rare surviving bottle of the liberated whisky. Another feature of the island is the unique Eriskay Pony, a pure breed believed to be the last remnant of Scotland's native horse, which was saved from extinction in the 1970s and is now flourishing again.
IF TIME IS NO OBJECT, WHERE ELSE TO EXPLORE?
Among the chain of minor islands south of Barra, where the Western Isles finally give way to the ocean, uninhabited Mingulay stands out - literally - with its towering cliffs a prodigious breeding ground for seabirds. Now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the island was evacuated 99 years ago: the ruins of the main village can still be seen, and there are some spectacular sea caves to explore by boat. Among the companies offering trips to Mingulay and other offshore islands is Barra Fishing Charters (01871 890384; www.barrafishingcharters.com), which specialises in sea angling and charges £35 per person for the round trip. But for the more adventurous traveller, the essential destination is St Kilda (see panel below).
ARE THE ISLANDS HARD TO REACH?
Surprisingly not. There are excellent air and sea links all year round, and by air the islands are less than an hour from the main Scottish cities. Through its Loganair subsidiary, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has frequent flights every day to Stornoway from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness, and a single daily service from Glasgow to Barra and Benbecula. Return fares, including taxes, start at £94. BMI Regional (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) flies every day from Edinburgh to Stornoway, which is also served by Highland Airways (0845 450 2245; www.highlandairways.co.uk) from Inverness - the cheapest fare is around £60 - and Eastern Airways (08703 669 100; www.easternairways.com) from Aberdeen.
The slower, but arguably more satisfying way of travelling to the islands is on one of the numerous car ferries that run from the Scottish mainland or the Inner Hebridean island of Skye across the choppy waters of the Minch to Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist and Barra. The longest journey, from the mainland port of Oban to Barra, takes about five-and-a-half hours.
All the ferries are run by Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650000; www.calmac.co.uk), which also operates a number of inter-island services. Bookings can be made online. An imaginative way of exploring the islands by car is to use one of CalMac's multi-ticket Hopscotch discounts. The ultimate series of hops is a journey from Oban through all the major islands, returning to the mainland at Ullapool in Wester Ross. This summer's fare, for two adults and a car, is £263.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
There are tourist information centres near the ferry terminals on each of the islands. The best website - www.VisitHebrides.com - is provided by Scotland's national tourist board, Visit Scotland (0845 22 55 121; www.visitscotland.com), which offers a wealth of detail about accommodation, transport, activities and visitor attractions. Numerous services, such as hotels, tours and car hire, can be booked online.