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Outer Hebrides

A Guide to the Outer Hebrides: The Sandy Isles

Posted on 2 May 2023

Have you ever been lying on a sandy beach, the warmth of the sun tingling all over your body, the cry of seagulls and the wash of crashing waves your soundtrack, and wondered... will I get hit by a plane? 

Maybe not your first thought, but then there’s a place like Barra Airport in the Outer Hebrides. It stands out around the world as being one of the most distinctive, if not one of the quirkiest, airports thanks to its beach runway.  

And doesn’t this just perfectly set the scene for a place as wild yet beautiful as the Outer Hebrides? Most people don’t think of sandy beaches when they think of Scotland, but anywhere that has its airport runway on the beach proves that you’d be wrong.  

It’s 130 miles of glorious archipelago. 220 islands scattered off the west coast of Scotland, like rich green seashells waiting for you just beneath the surface of the clear water.  

Only 15 of these Scottish islands are inhabited but we sure do think that the people living there are truly blessed. There’s a reason people make the effort and head here on holiday. Not that it’s hard. The Outer Hebrides have three airports which have connections to the mainland. And if you’d like to start your trip off right, why not land right on the beach in Barra? Something that’s surely gone to the top of your travel bucket list

If you’re looking for a beach holiday, you could go to the Maldives or Hawaii, sure... But you could come to the Outer Hebrides and ignite a passion inside of you that you didn’t realise you had. You could incite mystery and fascination around your trip when you tell your friends that you’re going to a place where 5,000-year-old mystic standing stones keep watch over the ancient sea loch Ceann Hùlabhaig. And that later that afternoon, you’ll be lounging on the white sand of Traigh Dhail Mhor after an invigorating swim in the Atlantic Ocean. 

History and beauty collide in this wild place. There’s a reason we love the Outer Hebrides. A reason it has inspired poets and writers to attempt to capture its essence. Why adventurous souls find themselves at the top of rocky Clisham Hill. Why scholars devote years to uncovering the mysteries the islands hold.  

Have we convinced you yet?  

And while Lewis and Harris are the two most frequented islands for visitors, don’t forget about the rest. Whether you’re coming for the beaches, the wild landscape, or the 50-plus Sites of Special Scientific Interest, make sure you get the full Outer Hebrides experience.  

So, where should you go and what should you see on this visit? Sometimes just hopping in the car and going for a drive can uncover a wealth of unknown spots. Grab your backpack and go for a hike up to a viewpoint you won’t soon forget. Leave your phone in the car and dive into the refreshing waters that hug the Outer Hebrides like an embrace. But if you need a spark of inspiration, we suggest you keep reading. 

Callanish Standing Stones

Before Stonehenge, there was Callanish. These ancient monoliths were erected some 5,000 years ago and reports tell us that they were a vital place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. The why and the how draw nearly 40,000 visitors every year. People stare in awe and ask how, how is it possible they were created? But these silent monoliths keep their secrets close. It’s that mystery, after all, that draws attention to them.  

Instead, what they love to spread are myths. They have inspired people to create their own stories, legends that may or may not be true. The fun lies in the intrigue. One local legend goes that, once, when giants roamed the wild moors of Scotland, this group refused to convert to Christianity. As punishment, they were petrified and sentenced to an eternity in stone.  

Or there’s the legend about a magical white cow that once appeared at the site to save the islanders from starvation and doom... but that’s another story.  

North Uist

A small blue boat, weathered by time and the salt of the sea, sits in a shallow inlet. Thin, stiff reeds sprout out of the water around it. The boat is empty. But the coil of rope and fishing net inside hint of its purpose. And the empty bottle of water that rolls gently side to side at the bottom of the boat promises the owner’s return. All that you’re left with is the mystery, when and who. 

You walk on, because there’s so much to see on the Isle of North Uist. So you look up and, sure enough, a Corncrake drifts overhead. Back from Africa, now that winter has retreated, enjoying the summer surrounds same as you. 

But you head on towards the nearby inlet bay because you came to see the otters.  

Barra and Barra Airport

We’re fans of small-group tours here at Rabbie’s, so it should come as no surprise that we’re also big fans of small-group flights. You might find yourself on a flight from Glasgow to Barra, on a 19-seater Twin Otter plane, landing with a soft thud on the world’s only commercial airport with a beach runway.  

Step off the plane right onto the sand beneath. Heck, why not take off your shoes then and there? Get the holiday started as soon as possible, we say.  

But it’s not just the airport you should see. Barra is the most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides and she is famed for her beauty. A stunning backdrop for all your adventures, perhaps you’ll head a little further south and jump on a ferry at Castlebay. The tiny stronghold of Kisimul Castle waits for you on its rocky islet surrounded by the sea.  

If all you want to do is play in the water, Tangasdale Beach awaits you. Take a wee break from the water and wander to a nearby field where you’ll find Borve Standing Stone. Alone he might appear, but this solitary stone is surrounded by thick swaying machair and his friends, the cows

Flannan Islands

‘A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island... The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.’ 

But, come on, we all know how humans operate. Who wants to believe it was as simple as a devious storm knocking them to their deaths?  

On 26th December 1900, a team was sent to investigate why the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was no longer a shining beacon in the dark sea night. The three men who manned the station, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald McArthur, were nowhere to be found. Investigations concluded they must have been outside during a storm, attempting to secure equipment, when they were likely violently shoved into the sea by the warring waves themselves. 

But wouldn’t it be more exciting to believe that a sea serpent had carried the men away? Or perhaps they arranged for a ship to whisk them away in the night, shirking their duties and dissatisfying lives. Maybe they had been abducted by foreign spies. Or they were unable to resist the malevolent call of the ghosts aboard a small boat that appeared in the night.  

It’s hard not to let your imagination run free and wild when you have a lighthouse perched at the highest point on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles, a group of islands off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. Charter a boat out to the islands yourselves. Wander the cliff edges and rugged landscapes. Wonder at the lighthouse mystery for yourself. Maybe have a word with the puffins, fulmars, whales, and dolphins about what they think about this great mystery.  

Luskentyre Beach

Every so often, life will gift you one of those moments. A moment that restores your faith in humanity, or makes you feel blessed to be alive. Toes curled up in the sand, gazing at the iridescent blue-green shine of the ocean before you as the sun finally breaks through the determined Scottish clouds, and you have one of these moments at Luskentyre Beach

Sure, you could go to the Maldives (and pay through the nose) to get this kind of view. But you won’t have this moment. This one is yours. It belongs to you and Scotland and no one else.  

Scotland is the kind of place where you earn your sunshine. Where you’re greeted by the shaggy gaze of a Highland coo. Where you discover your love for the burn of Scottish whisky. Where you'll make memories that shine brighter than any Scottish sun ever could (not kidding).

The Blackhouse, Arnol 

Smell that? Burning peat in the centre of our home. The fire isn't allowed to go out, the smoke kills the insects and you know we hate those. We have no chimney. We sit in that smell, that smoke, that burn, and we breathe it in.  And eventually, when the smoke fuses with the thatch, we will fertilise our fields with it. Our taigh-dubh keeps us safe from the weather, and warm in winter. Not just us, but our animals too.  

Sounds like an interesting way of living, doesn’t it? The Blackhouse was built between 1852 and 1895. And while it might seem like a primitive way of living to us nowadays, it was actually a fantastic and clever form of dwelling. For hundreds of years, it was normal for Scottish people to live with their animals under one roof. Given that climate, who’s surprised?  

Most of this fascinating way of life has been lost to time. No. 42 Arnol is all that remains and it’s waiting for you. 

Isle of Berneray  

Gosh, we love those Outer Hebrides beaches. The Isle of Berneray is no exception. Abundant with rocky bays and those sought-after white sandy beaches. The water and sand so pristine, so dazzling, you might think you got on the wrong flight and actually landed in exotic Thailand.  

Worry not, you’re definitely in Scotland.  

Grab a kiteboard and head to Beasdaire on the east coast, where you’ll find beautiful white sand and plenty of wind to aid in your watersport adventures. Even grab yourself a sunrise spot on the sand and prep that camera.  

Or there’s Berneray West Beach, which is known to be so stunning, an image of it was accidentally used by the Thai Tourist Board to promote Kai Bae Beach. The 3-mile beach is a mosaic of broken shells, hugged by the machair along the way making it a great area for walking, as well as the perfect hiding spot for the elusive corncrake and a bedrock for rare wildflowers.  

Before reading this blog, you might not have thought of the Outer Hebrides when someone mentions ‘island vacation’... though we’ve got you reconsidering now, don’t we? If the allure of Luskentyre Beach is overwhelming you now, we do head there on our 5-day Outer Hebrides & the Scottish Highlands tour and our 10-day Orkney & the Outer Hebrides tour from Edinburgh... 10 days, because you deserve a proper break.  

Many people know Scotland is the land of haggis and whisky, coos and heather... but now you know it’s the land of incredible islands too. Still don’t believe us? Check out our blog 8 Best Islands to Visit in Scotland