The Western Isles, Remote Islands of Scotland

by Andrew Kelly

Situated off the west of Scotland the Western Isles are a unique, and incredibly beautiful, group of islands. Named ‘na h-Eileanan Siar’ in the Gaelic (the native language), the Western Isles consist of more than 200 of which only a small percentage are inhabited. The main inhabited islands are the Isle of Lewis, Harris, Barra, North and South Uist. The area’s economy has, in the last few decades, become more reliant on the tourist trade, which, rather luckily, has been increasing steadily for many years.

A treacherous stretch of water, which is known as the Minch, lies between the Scottish mainland and the Western Isles. The North Atlantic Ocean can be found to the west of the islands which regularly pounds the coast to create dramatic scenes. Many geologists visit the islands to study the rocks (which are some of the oldest on the planet) and, the fact that the Western Isles were one of the first places in the U.K. to become inhabited after the last ice age, makes them an ecellent source of historic sites interesting to archaeologists and visitors alike.

The Western Isles are of incredible interest to naturalists who study the area closely as much of the flora and fauna is unique and endangered. A fertile stretch of grassland, known as machair, is found just inland from many of the beaches of the islands which are one of the few places where this type of ground is found. Although sandy the nutrients in the soil are constantly replenished by a constant dressing of shell sand (rich in calcium and other elements) which helps feed the great many species of wildflowers which grow in abundance there.

The Western Isles seem to continually provide new sites of special interest, especially to archaeologists. One thing you will notice when traveling across the islands is the incredible number of archaeological sites, especially standing stones and stone circles. The most famous site is the stone circle at Calanais which is unique in Europe as it has four avenues forming a shape like a crucifix. It is worth noting at this point that a recent Western Isles Council policy dictates the naming of places should be in the Gaelic language (with English translations below on road signs).

The Western Isles are rightfully known for having some of the finest countryside in the United Kingdom. While the middle of the Isle of Lewis consists mainly of barren moors they are, in fact, very important environments that are perfect places for some of the rarest creatures including many different types of birds. However the coast of the Isle of Lewis provides the most breathtaking scenery with lovely little coves and incredibly clean, and often deserted, sandy beaches.

Of course I have saved the best until last. The Western Isles have some of the most incredible scenery in Scotland. While many consider the Isle of Lewis to consist mainly of barren moorland nothing could be further from the truth. While much of the center of the island is indeed mainly flat moors, they have a unique quality and provide a very important habitat for some of our most rare bird life. It is around the coast that Lewis really shines with the west coast having some really breathless beaches and wonderful countryside almost, at times, resembling Cornwall in the south of England.

The Western Isles have a long association with hospitality and it is something they take great pride in. This helps to create some of the most excellent accommodation in Scotland. The owners and workers take a great pride in their work and rooms are always expertly turned out, spotlessly clean and very comfortable.

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