Heather forecast: the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides
Heather forecast: the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides

The Hebrides: Wildlife, whisky and wonderful cuisine

In summer, these Scottish isles could be mistaken for a tropical idyll. But whatever the weather, says Lucy Gillmore, there's plenty to experience

Lucy Gillmore
Friday 10 July 2015 12:49

Nothing shouts summer like a spot of island hopping. And off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebrides comprise an entire pepper mill of islands ground over the ocean. These ragged rocks rise out of the waves, blanketed in wiry heather-sprung moorland, trout-filled lochs and towering cliffs painted with seabirds, backed by dunes woven with wildflowers and fringed by some of the most glorious sweeps of sand in the world. Add to that ancient castles and prehistoric stone circles, gourmet restaurants and whisky distilleries and you have all the ingredients for the perfect multi-island adventure ... apart from the weather.

This is Scotland, and when the squalls sweep in, the horizon is lost in the waves. However, when the sun shines you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the Caribbean or Thailand, only without the crowds. A few years ago a stretch of pristine Hebridean powder lapped by turquoise water was spotted masquerading as a Thai beach in a holiday brochure.

This sprawling archipelago is split into two groups, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. They are separated by the churning Minch strait. The cast of the Inner Hebrides, which features 35 inhabited and 45 uninhabited islands, includes Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona, Colonsay, Staffa and a sprinkling of Small Isles. Closer to Reykjavik than London, the Outer Hebrides is a string of rocky outcrops stretching for 130 miles, featuring around 200 islands (only 10 inhabited) that include Barra, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist and the far-flung, volcanic archipelago of St Kilda, evacuated in 1930.

Each has its own USP. A highlight of Mull is the pretty pastel-painted waterfront village of Tobermory, the location for children's television series Balamory. Neighbouring Iona is one of the country's most spiritual sites, home to Saint Columba and his monks in the 6th century. Staffa was the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's overture The Hebrides, while the windswept beaches of Coll and Tiree are windsurfing hotspots. Islay is steeped in "the water of life", with eight distilleries, while when writing 1984 George Orwell holed up on Jura – where red deer outnumber people by 25 to one.

In the Outer Hebrides you can go cockling on a beach in Barra which doubles as the island's runway. You've got prehistoric sites, such as the 5,000 year-old Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis, while neighbouring Harris is the home of tweed. Skye has Bonnie Prince Charlie connections and the famous Cuillins mountain range draws climbers from around the world.

For a whistlestop small group guided tour, Rabbie's (0131 2263133; rabbies.com) has a five-night Complete Hebrides Experience, careering through the Outer Hebrides from Barra in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north. Along the way you'll tick off the Callanish stones, historic Rodel church and the white sand beach of Luskentyre, bedding down in Barra, North Uist and Stornoway. It costs from £759pp, including B&B, minibus transport and a guide.

Macs Adventure (0141 530 4013; macsadventure.com) has a seven-night self-drive trip, Outer Hebrides Island Hopscotch, with walk suggestions, from £615pp. The price includes ferry crossings, B&B, a guidebook and a map.

McKinlay Kidd (0844 873 6110; seescotlanddifferently.co.uk) can create a Fly-Drive Through the Western Isles itinerary, flying into Barra and journeying north through the Uists, over to Skye, and winding up in Harris and Lewis. It costs from £1,475pp with 10 nights' B&B, car hire, ferry travel and flights from Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Wilderness Scotland (01479 420020; wildernessscotland.com) has a new five-night guided cycling holiday on Islay, Jura and Arran. Highlights include sampling whisky from the cask on a distillery tour, and a high-speed RIB ride to visit the massive Corryvreckan Whirlpool. The trip is from £1,195pp, including B&B, some meals, luggage transfers and ferry.

Converted fishing trawler Glen Tarsan

Cruise control

One of the best ways to explore is by boat. The Majestic Line (01369 707 951; themajesticline.co.uk) has luxury cruises (with a price tag to match) on two jaunty converted fishing trawlers, Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan, which weave through hidden coves, mooring at night in tiny bays. There are six ensuite cabins on each and trips range from three night around the inlets of Mull and Loch Linnhe (from £945pp) to six nights around Skye and the Inner Hebrides (from £2,095pp), both full board with trips ashore.

Hebrides Cruises (01631 711 986; hebridescruises.co.uk) uses a converted survey and rescue vessel, Elizabeth G for its trips, including a 10-night St Kilda & Outer Hebrides wildlife cruise. Abandoned 85 years ago, St Kilda is now home to 210 species of bird. Trips this year are now fully booked but there is still availability on a number of autumn cruises such as the four-night Loch Linnhe, Loch Etive and Lismore voyage for £747pp full-board, departing from Oban.

Wilderness watch

The Outer Hebrides are among the UK's last great wildernesses, home to the whales, basking sharks and North Atlantic dolphins. Overhead, sea eagles soar while portly puffins flap by. The RSPB reserve on North Uist is one of the few places where you can see endangered corncrakes, while elsewhere road signs warn of otters crossing, and native Eriskay ponies, once nearly extinct, wander wild.

In summer, the machair is in bloom – an alkaline grassland woven with around 200 wild flowers, including sweet-scented white and red clover, which all forms a unique feature of this area.

The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994; naturalist.co.uk) has a six-night guided trip travelling by ferry from Oban (keeping a look out for Manx Shearwaters, diving gannets and auks as well as storm petrels, porpoises and dolphins), exploring the birdlife and diverse habitats of the Uists and Benbecula. The trip costs from £1,245pp, including full board, minibus transport, ferry crossings, admissions and a guide.

World's your oyster

Skye is the Hebrides' food capital. Last autumn, gourmet bolthole the Three Chimneys (01470 511258; threechimneys.co.uk), was awarded a Michelin star, the second establishment on the island to receive the accolade. A rustic-chic restaurant with rooms in old crofters' cottages, it offers an eight-course Taste of Skye menu including such specialities as Sconser king scallop, cauliflower, rhubarb, blood orange and ginger for £90pp.

Skye's first Michelin star went to Kinloch Lodge (01471 833 333; kinloch-lodge.co.uk) home to the doyenne of Scottish cuisine, Lady Claire Macdonald, who has written a pile of books and runs a cookery school. Courses start at £650pp with three nights' half board and two half-day classes.

The Isle of Skye Baking Company (01478 612 669; isleofskyebakingco.co.uk) is a funky bakery in an old wool mill in Portree, established by a young South African couple. Try their delicious signature "lunch breads", with fillings baked into the loaves.

Bruichladdich distillery on Islay

Whisky galore

In 1941, the good ship SS Politician sank just off Eriskay with its cargo – 20,000 cases of whisky – and so was born a story that was to be immortalised in Compton Mackenzie's novel Whisky Galore, which was turned into an Ealing comedy. You can take a dram in the Am Politician pub on Eriskay (01878 700215) and see a few of the whisky bottles. But don't imagine an olde-worlde drinking den – it's a pebbledash bungalow.

Mackenzie also loved Barra and built a house on the island in the 1930s overlooking Traigh Mhor – the beach airstrip. He is buried just to the north in the cemetery at Cille Bharra in Eoligarry, where you can visit his grave.

For a whisky-soaked road trip, however, you need to head to Islay, famed for its smoky, peat-infused malts with no fewer than eight distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and the new micro-distillery, Kilchoman. You can even bed down at one of them; Bowmore has converted six historic cottages into luxury self-catering accommodation (01496 810441; cottages.bowmore.co.uk). Stillman's costs from £390 for three nights; sleeps four.

Kittiwake, an off-grid cabin on Mull

Where to stay

The accommodation options on Skye are some of the best in Scotland, from gourmet hotels to award-winning hostels. Check out the quirky Skyewalker Hostel in Portnalong (01478 640420; skyewalkerhostel.com) with dorm beds from £17.

Many of the self-catering options have architectural "wow factor" guaranteed, such as The Black Shed (01470 521 214; blackshed.co.uk) on a working croft near Dunvegan. It's a sleek designer pad with a modern wood-burner, sleeping two from £575 per week.

Canopy and Stars (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk) has a clutch of gorgeous places to stay including Kittiwake, an off-grid cabin on Mull with a big brass bed, and a roof topped with an old rowing boat. From £90 per night; sleeps two.

The Outer Hebrides can be a bit more hit or miss in the style stakes. One little gem that recently opened on the coast of Lewis is Hebridean Huts (01851 850700; hebrideanhuts.co.uk), two luxury cabins with alpaca fibre-filled duvets and pillows (from the property's own herd) and Hebridean seaweed toiletries. From £85 a night; sleeps two.

Getting there

You don't have to sail to Skye anymore – the largest of the Hebridean islands is linked to the mainland by a road bridge. However, should you wish to cross this way, the little community ferry at Glenelg on the mainland (the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland), has been sailing across the Kylerhea Strait to Skye since 1934, and runs from Easter to October. For a car with up to four passengers it costs £15, or £20 return (skyeferry.co.uk).

A number of the Outer Hebrides are also now linked to each other by causeways: Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. Barra in the south is a short ferry hop away, as are Lewis and Harris to the north.

Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne or "CalMac" (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk) has crossings linking most of the isles along with a host of island-hopping tickets that you can mix and match. Hopscotch 18 Islay & Colonsay, for instance, takes you from Kennacraig on the mainland to Islay, Islay to Colonsay and Colonsay to Oban, from £17pp, or £82 for a car, caravan or motorhome. Hopscotch 12 Skye, Harris, Lewis & Uists (four journeys) costs £30pp, and from £140 for a vehicle.

Loganair, Flybe's franchise partner (0371 700 2000; flybe.com), serves the west coast islands from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. The flight to Barra is a real bucket-list jaunt, the plane landing on the beach runway, wheels whipping up salty sand and sea spray as you touch down.

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