A vast northern sky rolls over post card glimpses of "Brigadoon," "Local Hero" and scenes out of "Restless Natives," as you wander narrow lanes between gentle seaside villages and broad plains. Gaelic names like Bailivanish, Tigharry and Scarp ring off whiskey-kissed tongues. And midnights filled with stars -- so many and so close as to beg you to reach out and touch the Big Dipper -- impart a sense that Scotland's Western Isles are at once a place to discover, and to discover you've somehow been before.
A string of rugged, rocky islands off the northwestern coast, the Outer Hebrides are a remote and brooding land, whose windswept scenery and sparse settlements preserve the essence of Scotland's Celtic heritage. Consisting of several small, near-desolate Atlantic outcroppings and five main islands -- Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and the single land mass that's divided into Harris and Lewis -- the Outer Hebrides are keepers of magic.
As if to justify their remote location (and a northern latitude higher than Copenhagen's), the Hebrides are touched with a wild grace, rare filtered light and the pure, natural beauty of an untamed and unparalleled landscape. Famed as a nature preserve, the 130-mile-long arc of islands from Barra in the south to Lewis in the north boasts thousands of wildflower and migratory bird species, which often outnumber the islands' residents.
There is a great deal of historical mystery attached to this "land across the water," dating back to prehistoric times when ancient travelers ringed island shores and mountains with towering Standing Stones -- some more than 25 feet high. The origin of these Stonehenge-like monoliths -- some far inland and erected near mountain peaks -- is still unknown.
Perhaps because their history has been determined more by startling geography and isolation than by centuries of politics and war, the islands have traveled well into the present, arriving relatively unspoiled. They remain a trove, largely undiscovered and fiercely protective of Scotland's Celtic heart and character. Only now are they experiencing a generation of change -- the past 20-odd years have witnessed the introduction of both electricity and tourism. But in the Hebrides, road markers in Gaelic, the islanders' first language, still stand their ground.
Given the area's haunting beauty, it is easy to imagine the rime of the Pipers on the shoreline as they raised the banner of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 that linked the Outer Islands immutably with the fate of the Highland clans.
Led by Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed James II, the revolt to regain the crown ended in April 1746 with the rebels' defeat at the Battle of Culloden Moor. And there begins the tale of the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail, which draws many first-time visitors to the Outer Hebrides.
With a reward of
30,000 being offered for his capture, Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped and, aided by the islands' own romantic heroine Flora Macdonald and clan chieftains, made a trail across the Highlands, to the Hebrides, then back to the mainland before finally escaping to the Continent.
Barra is strangely and wonderfully unique, the greenest and the most beautiful of the Outer Hebrides islands. It is the hardest to reach and the only one (of the lower four) still unconnected by bridge and/or causeway. For all these reasons, Barra is the ideal place to begin a Hebridean journey.
There are, of course, easier and quicker ways to reach the Outer Islands -- shorter ferry routes and airline flights -- but the 80-mile ferry ride from the Highland port of Oban to Barra has its out-of-the-ordinary rewards. In the first two hours of the five-hour (on a good day) crossing, there are breathtaking sights along the protective Firth of Lorn and Sound of Mull, including views of Tobermoroy (with its sunken Spanish Armada treasure galleon) and the Ardnamurchan Point light station. Unfortunately, beyond lies the Sea of the Hebrides.
Experienced sailors refer to this wild and often stormy patch of open North Atlantic current as "The Minch." Though most in-season crossings (late spring to early fall) on the car ferries are commonplace affairs, only after exposure to a sudden, mean-spirited Minch tossing is it clear why many visitors fly to Barra from Glasgow in light aircraft, even though Barra technically has no airfield, just Cockleshell Beach, where the planes land on exposed sands during low tide.
The best way to travel the islands is to amble around by car or bike, since public transportation is virtually nonexistent.
Tiny Barra, only four by eight miles, is a rugged outcropping ringed by a 10-mile-long road that teeters along rocky beaches and machair, or plains, to encircle Ben Heaval, a 1,270-foot-high peak at its center.
In the harbor off Castlebay (Barra's capital and only town of any size) is Kismul Castle, ancestral island home of the pirate clan Macneil. Looking like a specter from a Robert Louis Stevenson tale, the 900-year-old castle (among the oldest stone castles in Scotland) is the site of the clans' annual July reunion, now presided over by its 46th chieftain, attorney Ian Roderick Macneil. Celebrants from all over the world nearly double the island's usual 1,200 inhabitants during the torchlit feis festivities.
D.P. Sinclair, an island native and former oil tanker captain on Asian and African routes, is ferryman and guide at Kismul Castle for the handful who spy his notice on the post office door. "It's beautiful here," he says blithely, escorting a party out to the partially restored castle in his rowboat. "If I never sail past the far side of the castle again, it'll be fine with me."
In sharp contrast to Castlebay, Lochboisdale on the island of South Uist is a flat, moor-covered range surrounded by marsh and rocky coast. A small motor launch connects Eoligarry on Barra with Lochboisdale, but there's also the Castlebay-to-Lochboisdale car ferry, which links the outer islands on a regular schedule. (South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist are connected by a single road -- a total of a lane and a half for traffic traveling in both directions -- and a bridge system.)
Just off South Uist is Eriskay (reachable by ferry), the island where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed on Scottish soil, making contact with skeptical clan leaders.
Told to return home and abandon a hopeless cause, he replied, "I am come ome, sir." Some pink convolvulus growing on Prince's Strand, where he landed, is said to have sprung from seeds brought by him.
The '45 Rebellion first took root in South Uist soil, islanders will tell you at the Borrodale Hotel's ceilidh (a traditional Gaelic evening gathering with music and dance), for when the Bonnie Prince set sail for the mainland, he took with him some Clanranald men. South Uist is particularly important to the Bonnie Prince tale as the birthplace of Flora Macdonald, the site of their first meeting and of Glen Corodale, the point from which they planned their escape across the water while English ships hunted him.
Similar rebellious spirits can be toasted at the island's Pollachar Inn, a 17th-century tavern where local pirate John Paul Jones planned attacks on British frigates in his pre-Revolutionary War days. The Pollachar is also the best place to savor the tale of the S.S. Politician, a merchant vessel that ran aground nearby during World War II. Fortunately, heroic islanders -- inspired by war-imposed sobriety -- selflessly salvaged its precious cargo, some 40,000 gallons of whiskey, providing inspiration for Hebrides writer Compton Mackenzie's account, "Whisky Galore."
Long a spot for angling and shooting parties, which favor the island's craggy meadows, salmon- and trout-filled lochs and brambled moors, South Uist provides thousands of acres of sanctuary for golden eagles, puffins and even rarer corncrakes and arctic skuas. And there is a swannery on Loch Bee, in the shadow of 2,034-foot-high Beinn Mho`r.
This island also shelters a living connection with Scotland's not-so-distant past. Crofting, a traditional form of Scottish farming, continues here as a way of life, though it has all but vanished from the mainland. Small, distinctive thatched cottages with turf and grass roofs dot the landscape. The hard life here seems to engender a strong measure of eccentricity -- and a loving respect for it, as well.
Ask Iochdar School's First Level about the unusual cottage next to their soccer pitch, and they'll say it belongs to "The Shell Lady." Ask 86-year-old Flora Johnston, as she whisks about her cottage, pathways, garden walls, wishing well and passenger bus -- all covered with seashells -- about that nickname and she'll respond, "Need you ask?" Matter-of-factly she adds that she's intent on covering the entire cottage in an elaborate pattern over the next decade, "for it needs doing and keeps me active."
Since most everything the islanders use has to be ferried over from the mainland, there is a limited amount of shopping for travelers. Yet, there are some extraordinary local crafts flourishing there.
The road past the Shell Lady's cottage leads to Garrieganichy's Hebridean Jewellery gallery, where traditional Scottish patterns and centuries-old Celtic runes are revived and worked into pieces of silver and stone, including amethyst, smoky quartz and Iona marble.
Visitors rummaging around shelves at Lochboisdale's Uist Isles Woollen Co.'s factory discover thick, handwoven cabled fisherman sweaters (including rare natural black wool) and designer knits fetching one-tenth of their American prices.
The finest array of island crafts and Harris tweed items (which originate on the Outer Hebrides island of Harris) is found at D. MacGillivray & Co., in Bailivanish on Benbecula.
At this remarkable 45-year-old general store, which mainly markets crofter weavers' wools, the shelves are teeming with knitwear and tartans as well as Harris walking sticks and Hebridean perfumes.
Benbecula itself is a maze of lochs, bogs, inlets and bays joined by 18th-century bridges. Now principally an R.A.F. missile range and bird sanctuary, it possesses a history as harsh as its scarred terrain.
At the island's Nunton convent, whose order was massacred during the Reformation, legend says that seaweed around the rocks where the nuns were tied and left to drown now grows in the shape of fingers.
Crossing a narrow series of ancient stone bridges, the traveler discovers yet another wild beauty. With dense marsh, thistled glens, massive lochs and its "Big Country" sky-filling mountains, wild North Uist might as well be the end of the earth.
Powerful North Atlantic "rollers" crash against the desolate dark-rock coast. It is distinguished by great cairns and Standing Stones, a raw, unbridled northern clime -- and a wonderful retreat in Locheport called the Langass Lodge, a converted 19th-century shooting lodge with six rooms, a sun-filled dining room and food that's worth the excursion.
Hosts Gordon and Kate Ann Fowlis serve up homemade soups, pa~te's and sweets, as well as Scotch beef, local lobster, roast venison and loch trout. The lodge has a tidy, relaxed atmosphere enhanced by local patter and echoes of accordions warming for the evening ceilidh.
Lingering over a second square of Kate Ann's caramel shortbread or a late afternoon dram, one can decide whether to head into the town of Lochmaddy and escape, as Bonnie Prince Charlie did, to the Isle of Skye. Or press far north and take a ferry to the ruggedly dramatic, more heavily traveled isles of Harris and Lewis and take in yet another Hebridean landscape, another natural treasure.
Peter Mikelbank is a free-lance writer living in Paris.
WAYS & MEANS
The Outer Hebrides can be reached by ferry or plane from the Scottish mainland. Loganair offers flights from Glasgow to Barra (about $150 round trip); British Airways flies from Glasgow to Benbecula ($187 round trip) and Lewis ($193 round trip).
Several ports offer ferry service to the islands on the Caledonian MacBrayne line. The trip from Oban to Barra costs about $33 per person round trip (about $145 with a car). Special rate packages are available. For information: Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd., Ferry Terminal, Gourock, Renfrewshire PA19 1QP.
The Scottish Highlands and Islands Travelpass, available from BritRail here and in Scotland, allows unlimited travel on rail, bus and ferry in northwestern Scotland and on the islands. It costs $72 for seven days and $110 for 14 days from June through September; $45 for seven days and $75 for 14 days March through May, and October. (The pass is not available in the winter, when some of the ferries do not operate.) For information: BritRail Travel International, 630 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 599-5400.
There is no public transportation to speak of on the islands, so a car or bicycle is a necessity. You can rent a car on the mainland (including Glasgow and Oban) and transport it via the ferry, or get one in Stornoway on Lewis. Rentals run about $45 a day. Cars must be returned to the place where they were picked up.
Bicycles can be rented in most towns on the islands.
WHEN TO GO:
The climate of the Outer Hebrides is quite unpredictable. The best time to visit, however, is mid-April through mid-September, when it's warmer and less rainy.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodations in the Outer Hebrides range from modern and traditional hotels to bed-and-breakfasts. Hotel rates in season average $20-$40 nightly per room, with weekly rates available.
Among the choices: on Barra, the Isle of Barra Hotel (in-season only) and Castlebay Hotel; on South Uist, the Borrodale Hotel; on North Uist, the Langass Lodge (in-season only). Near Oban, on the mainland, there is the Knipoch Hotel, an excellent place to prepare for or repair from the crossing to Barra.
The more adventurous might consider the cold-water-only cottages on some of the islands.
WHERE TO EAT:
The islands offer everything from pubs and tea houses to hotel restaurants. Among them: the Craighaid pub and dining room on Barra and the Langass Lodge on North Uist. Near Oban, try the Knipoch Hotel (reservations are essential).
The Highlands and Islands Development Board (Bridge House, 27 Bank St., Inverness IV1 1QR) is an excellent source of information about the Outer Hebrides, including listings of bed-and-breakfasts and cold-water-only cottages.
Information is also available from the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700.