The Western Isles have long been a place I have been drawn to visit. From Eriskay’s wild ponies to Barra’s rare tidal beach airport, to the truly breath-taking beaches of Harris. It is a magical cluster of islands that we just needed to explore further.
Our island-hopping route through the Western Isles was as follows. Oban-Barra- Eriskay- Uist- Harris- Lewis- Ullapool. We were actually very fortunate to be able to book onto the ferries as many routes and dates were already fully booked due to reduced capacity. The Island-hopping ferry ticket with car included cost us just over £100 a head (for two) which we thought was extremely reasonable. We split our time on the islands between camping and slightly more comfortable accommodation. This allowed us to have a comfortable, enjoyable, and cost-effective holiday!
Oban to Barra
We were roused from our beds early to drive from Inverness to Oban. With coffees in hand we set off in Nigel (our trusty 4×4). The ferry from Oban to Barra took around 4 hours. There was a café and bar on board and lots of different seating options both inside and outside. For those taking their furry friends, there was also a dedicated pet area which we thought was a nice touch! As the designated driver I stuck to the coffees, but Michelle was more than happy to sample some lager. A few bottles later we docked in Barra ready to begin our Western Isles adventure!
We drove a loop of the small island of Barra to get our bearings and then ventured across the first of many causeways to the small island of Vatersay. Vatersay is known for its beaches, and it didn’t take long for us to see why. Evening was closing in, so we picked our spot and pitched up on Traigh a Bhaigh.
The local community have set up toilets and showers next to the beach. You can park overnight for £5 and then use the toilets for free. Showers are also available for a small fee on a meter. All money raised goes back into the community. It is a fantastic set up and one that helps the locals raise a little money while also keeping an eye on incoming tourists. Having seen some of the issues on the NC500 this year it certainly seems like an idea that should be adopted far and wide. The only rules were no fires or BBQs on the machairs, and use the toilets provided by the community!
We nestled our tent in a sandy dune with a view of the tiny fishing boats bobbing gently on the calm sea ahead. The beach was long with white sand and crystal-clear water. We had a few resident cows for company but apart from that the beach was nearly deserted. What a beautiful spot for our first night. The next morning we rose early with the sun beating down and warming our tent. We went for a quick dip in the sea before showering at the handy facilities and heading on our way.
We got on the road early and drove to Castlebay so that we could kayak out to the castle. Kisimul Castle is a medieval castle and legend has it that it was the seat of Clan MacNeil since the 11th century. It was a short paddle to the castle from the harbour. We kayaked tight along the row of buoys to make sure we didn’t impede any boats. Unfortunately, the castle was closed to visitors, but we were able to have a quick look around the outside before kayaking back to shore.
A Beautiful Brunch
Our paddle worked up quite an appetite, so we drove to another beach to have a picnic. We drove around two miles from Castlebay to a beautiful small beach beside Barra Beach Hotel. We sat on the rocks and had a BBQ as the waves lapped gently around the craggy edge and onto the beach. In the distance a martial arts group practised their patterns on the white sand. Watching them train with the soothing sound of the ocean as a soundtrack created a really peaceful and memorable ambience. It was a Western Isles picnic to remember!
A Tidal Airport
After our brunch we set off for Barra Airport with our schedules in hand, hoping for a glimpse of an incoming aircraft. Barra has the only airport in the world where planes take off and land on a tidal beach. It is a must-see experience while visiting the Western Isles. Check the arrival and departure times before hand to time your visit but be aware planes can sometimes land early. We missed the incoming plane by a matter of minutes but were determined to see one take off. We took our chairs down and enjoyed a coffee as we waited. Our patience was rewarded as a blue Scotland flag adorned plane roared across the expanse of white sand and took off above our heads.
We decided to finish our trip to Barra by climbing the highest peak on the island. Heaval rises nearly 400 meters from the sea and offers a beautiful panoramic view of Barra. The Madonna and child statue sits around halfway up the hill and is a great spot to stop for a rest. Click here to see the walk we followed.
After a fun-packed day it was sadly already time to leave Barra. Our ferry to Eriskay left in the early evening. As this was a smaller internal ferry we just remained in our cars for the short crossing. We arrived in Eriskay around 6pm.
As you drive off the ferry and head towards Uist one of the first things you see is Charlie’s beach. This small sandy Cove is reputed to be the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil. Or sand as the case may be.
The Beautiful Game
Just around the corner from Charlie’s beach in one of FIFAS 8 most unique places to play football in the world. Eriskay football pitch sits right on the coastline. Its surface, while lumpy, is always cut to the perfect length. However, it’s not a groundsman who keeps the grass in check. Instead, a heard of resident sheep keep the grass nice and trim!
We were excited to reach our accommodation in South Uist as after just one nights camping my aching bones are always ready for a comfortable mattress and fluffy duvet. While we drove north we kept an eye out for the famous wild ponies! Eriskay wild ponies are an ancient but hardy Hebridean rare breed. So rare that only about 400 remain worldwide. Most of them can be found on the Western Isles. The ponies were once used by islanders who very much depended on them. They are now an endangered species and are preserved by the Comann Each nan Eilean. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any this time.
A Spectacular Air BnB on South Uist
We arrived in good time to settle into to our Airbnb accommodation. The accommodation was booked for two nights. We were drawn to it by the hot tub and the view across a beautiful beach. We decided to use our time on Uist to relax and unwind and the amazing accommodation we booked allowed us to do just that. I would highly recommend this Airbnb. You can find the link to the accommodation here.
The faultless hosts, Isobel and Robert, make sure that your every need is catered for. The bed was extremely comfy. The bathroom had a double shower and steam room combi and for further relaxation the large outdoor hot tub faces out to sea. We were also given use of the lounge and dining room and the hosts provided a generous continental breakfast spread with everything you could imagine. The cherry on the cake was the fridge stocked with beer and wine to help yourself to and the offer of an arrival drink. We opted for a Uist gin and like everything else in the accommodation it didn’t disappoint.
Madonna and Child
While on South Uist we stopped at an imposing 30ft Madonna and child statue that looks out to sea. It is a short walk from the road and provides beautiful views out to the coastline. The massive statue harnesses a sense of power and is a fabulous spot to sit and recharge the batteries.
After a night in our amazing accommodation we felt invigorated and ready to explore further north. Benbecula is a small island between North and south Uist with causeways to its north and south. As we drove over the causeway, we were amazed at how shallow the water was. We saw a few paddle boarders taking advantage of this fact.
Hercules the Bear
Benbecula is probably best known for Hercules the bear. Whilst filming an advert for Andrex in Benbecula in 1980, Hercules, a grizzly bear, escaped and went on the run for just over 3 weeks! He was eventually found 20 miles away in North Uist. He captured the imagination of the world, and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief when he was found safe and well.
After checking out Benbecula we continued North to North Uist. We had worked up quite an appetite by this time and as luck would have it, we passed a fresh seafood truck at the side of the road. We both opted for a roll with Stornoway black pudding and three generous hand dived scallops. It was fresh, delicious and set us up for the rest of the day.
After we refuelled, we made our way to Clachan sands. Clachan Sands is regarded by many as the most beautiful beach on Uist. The weather wasn’t on our side for our visit but we were still able to appreciate the beauty of Clachan sands. There is a handy spot here where you can park a campervan for £10 a night. It’s worth the money just for the breath-taking views.
Hosta beach is a small crescent shaped Cove. It’s another stunning beach to spend an afternoon but we left early due to the poor weather.
We headed back to our Airbnb – thankful for the hospitable comfort on such a dreach day! We enjoyed a shower, steam and then a lovely soak in the hotub with a cold beer. Another day finished we retired to our comfy bed. Knowing tomorrow night would be a night under the stars we made the most of our bed and got our heads down early.
We set off early to drive over the causeway to our next destination. The next island to visit on our Western Isles tour was Berneray. Berneray is known for its rich history and beautiful beaches. We decided to complete a walk we found on walkhighlands that would take us around the stunning coastline and to a boat wreck on the shore. Before we arrived at our start point we were absolutely delighted to spot a small eared owl perched on a fence post at the side of the road. Michelle was out of the car in a flash to capture the bird of prey. She managed to get a couple of shots before it spread its huge wings and took flight.
Berneray West Beach
The walk we chose took us along the expansive Bernery West Beach. It is a truly stunning beach and was voted in 2021 as no. 3 in Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Best beaches in Europe! It is so beautiful that back in 2009, the Thai Tourist Board mistakenly used the image to promote Kai Bae Beach. An easy mistake to make given the turquoise sea and white sandy beach! This beach has 3 miles of white sand, made up from broken shells. The machair runs parallel to the beach and is ideal for walking.
The Giant of the Isles
While on this walk, we also passed a monument dedicated to one of Bernary’s most famous sons, Angus Makaskill. Angus MacAskill stood at 7ft 9ins tall and toured the world during the 19th Century to show off his phenomenal physical might. MacAskill was born in 1825 and surprisingly was so small as a baby it was feared he might not survive. He soon dispelled that fear and grew to a height that can only be described as giant! The span of his hand measured a foot wide with his shoulders stretching some 80 inches. In 1981, he was named as the world’s largest true giant by the Guinness Book of World Records.
At the end of the walk we came to the wooden boat wreck that had enticed us to choose this walk. We weren’t sure if the boat was an old ferry or a fishing vessel but it had clearly been there for some time. After a few fun pictures it was time to jump back in the car and head for the ferry. From Berneray we caught the ferry to Harris. Again as it was a shorter crossing we remained in our cars. Our journey across the Western Isles continued!
Sam’s Seafood Shack
Our first stop off the ferry was Sam’s seafood shack. Sam’s seafood shack sits off a quiet road and is unassuming at first sight. However, its reputation suggests something else entirely. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon and were happy to learn Sam hadn’t sold out of fresh produce, as he closes for the day once he has. We opted for two homemade fish finger rolls and a portion of seaweed roast potatoes to share. It was so fresh and tasty. Crispy potatoes with the salty crunch of seaweed. Fresh fish coated in rich breadcrumbs. What’s not to like?
St Clements Church
After we had refuelled we headed on to St Clements Church to get our history fix. St Clement’s Church (Tur Chliamainn), or the Church of Rodel as it is also known, was built around 1520 by Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris. It is generally thought to be the grandest medieval building anywhere in the Western Isles. Unfortunately, we were unable to get inside the church which reportedly houses medieval grave slabs, knights’ tombs and the finest medieval sculptures on the Western Isles. We will definitely have to return!
Heaven is a place in Scotland
I had been told about the beauty of Harris but nothing could prepare us for what our eyes were about to witness. After heading north from the church, we came around a sharp bend and it was as though paradise itself opened up before us. I speak a lot about white sanded beaches, but never before has that phrase been so apt. I genuinely think Harris has the whitest sand I’ve ever seen. When you couple that with the sheer vastness of the beaches and the crystal-clear glistening water that appears to stay shallow for miles, it really is a one in a million coastline. For me, Harris was definitely the highlight of our Western Isles trip!
Our first stop on this coast was a layby overlooking the spectacular Seileboast beach. The white sand is decorated with inlets of shallow glistening water and stretches gently into the turquoise sea ahead. I can’t do it justice with words but we tried our best with the camera.
After Seilebost we headed on to arguably the most famous beach on Harris, Luskentyre. We arrived as most people were leaving, as we planned to set up camp for the night and watch the sun go down. The sand at Luskentyre stretches on for miles and the water is painted turquoise and perpetually shallow. The backdrop of shaded mountains completes the picturesque spot. We found a sheltered Cove not far from the water’s edge and set up our tent and chairs. After a long day travelling it was time to crack open our Harris gin and enjoy a drink in one of the world’s most beautiful spots. What a way to see the Western Isles!
A Sunset Hike
Michelle decided at 9pm that it would be a good idea to climb the hill behind Luskentyre beach to get the best view of the sunset and some fantastic pictures. “It will only take half an hour” were her famous last words. I begrudgingly left the comfort of my chair with my gin still stubbornly in hand. 500m of ascent, one spilled gin, and a litre of sweat later we reached the top just in time to see the sun stain the sky red between the mountains. It was a beautiful view, but perhaps one I will only witness once in my life! We got back down for around 11 and settled down to sleep after another long but amazing day.
Paddle Boarding at Luskentyre
Waking up to the sun splitting the sky across Luskentyre beach has to go down as one of my most cherished moments to date. A mere handful of people were dotted across the vast beach as we blew up our paddleboard ready for a morning of fun in the water. As I paddled out from the beach I couldn’t believe how long the water stayed shallow. Because of this, no matter how far I went I didn’t get out of my depth. could see through the water as if it wasn’t there. The sun glistened across the water’s ripples as my paddle cut through the surface. The translucence momentarily lost with the motion. We paddled, swam, played, and laughed like kids! I can’t begin to explain how magical this morning was- but it is one I think we will both always remember.
Old Pier Cottage
If camping isn’t your thing, we have an excellent recommendation for a stylish but cosy dog friendly cottage on the shore of West Loch Tarbert. Old Pier Cottage is just minutes from the beautiful beaches and incredible sights Harris has to offer and is run by two friendly and knowledgeable hosts Yvonne and Amy.
When we were finally able to tear ourselves away from Luskentyre beach (not an easy task) we headed to our final island. The Isle of Lewis. We had a quick pit stop at the Harris Gin distillery to pick up a bottle of the famous spirit. Then, with our spoils in hand we went to see what Lewis had to offer. We felt sad to be coming to the end of our Western Isles trip!
Our first stop after arriving in Lewis was Bosta Beach (well technically it is on the small island of Great Bernera). The beach is connected to the Isle of Lewis by a bridge. Bosta is another white sanded beach with crystal clear blue water. It has links to the Iron Age, the Vikings and the Highland Clearances. What makes it a bit different from all the other beaches is the restored Iron Age hut close by and it’s unique tidal bell.
Calanais Standing Stones
Next stop was the Calanais Standing Stones . They are an extraordinary cross-shaped arrangement of stones erected 5,000 years ago. They predate England’s famous Stonehenge monument and were an important place for ritual activity for thousands of years. No-one fully knows why the stones were erected but part of their magic lies within that mystery. The Calanais Standing Stones are the largest of a number of these formations on the island. A fact that deepens mystery of why exactly they were all built in the first place. They are one of the Western Isles most famous landmarks.
Gearrannan Black House Village
We were taken back in time when we visited the Atlantic coast blackhouse village of Gearrannan. This is a great place to visit to get an understanding of the history and heritage of crofting life. It’s a very unique place to visit with a museum, a hostel and self catering accommodation. Why not stay in one of these crofts for a night!
We have become rather obsessed with the idea of spotting an Orca off the coast of Scotland so our final stop on Lewis was alway going to be Tiumpan Head. The peninsula is widely considered one of the best places in Europe for spotting whales from the land. At the tip of the Eye Peninsula, known locally as Point, is Tiumpan Head Lighthouse. The weather had turned rather windy and miserable by the time we set up our chairs and whipped out our binoculars. Unfortunately, patience alluded us and we soon retreated to the warmth of the car and onwards to Stornoway and our final accommodation of the trip. The Orcas would have to wait for another day.
Fawlty Towers Eat Your Heart Out!
If our Airbnb in Uist was the Ritz then our accommodation in Stornoway was more like Fawlty Towers. I don’t like to slate small businesses so I won’t be naming the place, however I will describe our experience for your enjoyment only. The foreboding sense of dread reached us before we had even stepped foot in the door. Maybe it was the clapped-out old van in the driveway with taped on wing mirrors. Perhaps it was the complete lack of signage on the b&b or possibly it was the fact we stood ringing the doorbell for five minutes. Whatever it was- we just knew this wasn’t going to be good!
We finally got into the property to be told that we weren’t booked in! The “manager” went to retrieve the laptop to double check the booking. It promptly died and with no charger in sight we were witness to the most unorganised selection of scribblings that I think was some form of calendar. Unsurprisingly our details weren’t found on this so the manager disappeared to retrieve the elusive charger.
Jokes for Days…
In the meantime, the owner appeared. He was completely eccentric with an air of Basil Fawlty about him, as he made inappropriate jokes and offered us an airbed on the kitchen floor. The manager arrived back in a flap but hurray she had found our booking. The owner proceeded to tell us that luckily for us the last guest had just died and they both erupted into laughter. I found myself laughing too- sucked in to the ludicrously of it all.
The owner disappeared to inexplicably hoover our room as this hadn’t been done yet and for some reason it was his job. The manager then took the opportunity to show us the saddest breakfast selection I had ever seen. Every second item was “running out” or empty. The milk was sour, and the butter and jam were a free for all. The former looking like it had been hacked at by a thousand knives. Understandably, I decided I would skip breakfast tomorrow and felt thankful for our 6am ferry.
A Rude Encounter!
20 minutes later the owner was finished hoovering what turned out to be the smallest “luxury” room I have ever seen in my life. It was tired, and drab with a tiny little TV and dated dusty décor, however by this point I just wanted a shower and bed. Michelle showered first and then I went in. I was enjoying the hot water pour over me when I heard a loud scream. The owner had walked in on Michelle towelling herself off with a hoover in hand! Yes, that’s right, he walked right in on Michelle naked. To hoover our room as he had earlier managed to hoover the wrong room. So yes, he saw Michelle in all her glory… and to top it off our room never did get hoovered!!
It was an interesting and comical end to our stay on the Western Isles. In a way it brought us back to reality after 6 days of tranquillity and beauty. It perhaps eased our transition because we woke extremely early the next day and practically sprinted out the door to reach our ferry!
To access the map of locations we used while on our Western Isles trip click here.
We would recommend a trip the Western Isles to anyone for a taste of adventure and a love for Scotland’s beautiful beaches and scenery. When I visit again, I will definitely make sure to spend more time in Harris as it was just at a different level… and I will ALWAYS read the accommodation review thoroughly before booking!
If you enjoyed reading about our time in the Western Isles then why not read about our Skye adventure here.
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