diamond geezer

 Monday, June 19, 2006

Postcard from the Hebrides: On the edge of nowhere

The Outer Hebrides run down the western coast of Scotland, a string of rocky islands stretching 150 miles along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. There are three main island groups, from Barra in the south, through the Uists and Benbecula in the centre to the largest island of Lewis/Harris in the north. These are some of the most remote islands in the UK, left to fend for themselves for generations, with strong traditions and a culture all their own. Electricity only arrived here in the 1950s, helping to sweep away a relatively primitive lifestyle based on crofting and fishing. Nowadays the Western Isles are anything but primitive, but you're still far more likely to see a sheep than a lamppost.

You have to make a real effort to visit the Outer Hebrides. There's no cosy bridge across from the mainland, just thirty miles of forbidding water across the Minch. The only way to reach the islands used to be by sea, perhaps taking the ferry from Oban, Skye or Ullapool (none of which are especially easy to reach themselves). I chose to travel by air instead, greatly reducing my travel time and easing the risk of seasickness. A couple of hops from Gatwick got me to Stornoway Airport in 2½ hours flat - but only because my first flight departed late, requiring a dash through Glasgow airport to make the onward connection. The corkscrewing descent into Stornoway aboard a tiny Saab 340 wasn't for the faint-hearted, but Linda the Loganair stewardess was the very model of smiling professionalism throughout. So too were the few staff in the nigh-empty terminal building, and they even managed to deliver one particularly important item of 'lost' baggage forty miles down the island on the Sabbath. Cheers fellas.

Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais): The top part of the main northern island, most of which is flattish boggy peatland (population 17000). Famous for a set of chessmen. Main town Stornoway (Steòrnabhagh).
Harris (Na Hearadh): The bottom part of the main northern island, most of which is hilly or mountainous (population 3600). Famous for Harris Tweed. Main town Tarbert. [I was based here last week]
North Uist (Uibhist a Tuath): Flat and boggy, more than half covered by water (population 1700). Famous for its birdlife.
Benbecula (Beinn na Faoghla): Squashed between the Uists (population 1250). Famous for its RAF station.
South Uist (Uibhist a' Deas): The second largest island - long, thin and sandy (population 2000). Famous for its machair.
Barra (Eilean Bharraigh): Tiny and scenic (population 1000). Famous for its airport runway, which is on the beach.

Hebridean websites: visit; culture; outdoors; wildlife
Hebridean bloggers: silversprite; Councillor Angus Nicolson; BBC Islandblogging
Hebridean photographs: cjcampbell; Hebrides photos
Hebridean flickr sets: Bluewave; Ian JC; silversprite; cjcampbell

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