The Western Isles, the Outer Hebrides, Na h-Eileanan an Iar — whatever name you may know them by, these islands which lie off the northwest coast of Scotland are filled with warm welcome from friendly folk, communities engaged in present day life with aspects of centuries past just a step away, and connections among land, water, weather, history, and life that may well offer you new perspectives on these things.
You can travel to the Western Isles by air — one of the airports, in fact, the one on Barra in the south of the isles, has as its landing strip the sandy shores of that island’s beaches — and you can cross the water by ferry to several ports.
Stornoway, on the northern island of Lewis, is the largest town in the islands, and it may be your entry point by air or by sea. In midsummer, it becomes an entry point for thousands, as the Hebridean Celtic Festival — HebCelt for short — showcases the music of the Hebrides and brings artists from other parts of the world to share their music with audiences, who come from down the road, across the water, and as far away as New Zealand and California. Well into its second decade, HebCelt has built a reputation as one of the top Celtic festivals in the world, well worth the journey each July.
HebCelt not the only festival in the islands, though — through the year there are festivals of the sea, Highland games in the summer, the Mountain Festival on Harris in autumn, and piping competitions, races, agricultural shows, and community festivals across the year.
The festivals are great celebrations and good reasons to come to the islands. It is the day to day life amid the beauty of land and water and the reminders of ancient past that are also part of the draw of the Western Isles. “There’s a lot of freedom, and openness in the landscape, and the older ways of life and Gaelic song right along with top chart hits on the radio,” says musician Julie Fowlis, who grew up on North Uist. “I’m not sure I really appreciated all that until I left to go away to university.”
Fowlis sings most often in Scottish Gaelic — you will have heard her voice, in both English and Gaelic, if you are familiar with the popular film Brave. In the Western Isles, though you’ll do fine getting around with English, you’ll hear Gaelic spoken — and sung, if you’re fortunate. More than half the people in the Outer Hebrides speak Gaelic (in Scotland, by the way, that’s said with a short a: Gallic).
People have been coming to and living in the Western Isles since before the pyramids were built in Egypt. They made their own monuments that long ago, too. The standing stones at Calanais on Lewis are the most widely known, although it is still not known exactly why they were built or what they were for.
There are remains of ancient and more recent stone houses, of a village that goes back to the Iron Age and of houses left behind when people were forced from their homes in the Clearances of the nineteenth century. Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Edward Stuart, landed on Eriskay at the start of the Jacobite rebellion in the 1700s, and later Flora MacDonald, who was born on South Uist, helped him hide in the isles after the defeat at Culloden. Further back, Saint Columcille brought the Christian faith to the islands in the sixth century, while Vikings used the isles for fishing grounds and trading outposts by the 800s, and left their mark though several centuries in place names and in the occasional archaeological find such as the Lewis Chessmen.
When you visit the Outer Hebrides, you can, if you like, go bird watching, hiking, or biking, go fishing, eat fine seafood, learn about world famous Harris tweed, visit a castle or two or an ancient broch, take a boat to an uninhabited island, spend time walking along the beaches, and go surfing.
You can also absorb the quiet, a quiet which is present even in the rhythms of language and song unique to this place. If you’re open to it, you may perhaps feel the touch of history, of time and tide and nature, and of the spirits of those who have come before you to this place.
photograph from the isle of Lewis, courtesy of Geography Project UK
Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as an evening along the Falls Road in Belfast and a film about Heisgeir, a Hebriedean island off North Uist.
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