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The Hebrides: Wildlife, Whisky & Wonderful Cuisine

8th August 2015

Nothing shouts summer like a spot of island hopping. And off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebrides comprise an entire pepper mill of islands ground over the ocean.

These ragged rocks rise out of the waves, blanketed in wiry heather-sprung moorland, trout-filled lochs and towering cliffs painted with seabirds, backed by dunes woven with wildflowers and fringed by some of the most glorious sweeps of sand in the world.

Add to that ancient castles and prehistoric stone circles, gourmet restaurants and whisky distilleries and you have all the ingredients for the perfect multi-island adventure ... apart from the weather.

This is Scotland, and when the squalls sweep in, the horizon is lost in the waves. However, when the sun shines you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into the Caribbean or Thailand, only without the crowds. A few years ago a stretch of pristine Hebridean powder lapped by turquoise water was spotted masquerading as a Thai beach in a holiday brochure.

 Authentic Hebrides scenery is worth hanging around to see (All images: Getty)


This sprawling archipelago is split into two groups, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. They are separated by the churning Minch strait. The cast of the Inner Hebrides, which features 35 inhabited and 45 uninhabited islands, includes Skye, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona, Colonsay, Staffa and a sprinkling of Small Isles.

Closer to Reykjavik than London, the Outer Hebrides is a string of rocky outcrops stretching for 210 kilometres, featuring around 200 islands (only 10 inhabited) that include Barra, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist and the far-flung, volcanic archipelago of St Kilda, evacuated in 1930.

A highlight of Mull is the pretty pastel-painted waterfront village of Tobermory, the location for children's television series Balamory. Neighbouring Iona is one of the country's most spiritual sites, home to Saint Columba and his monks in the 6th century.

 Tobermory's buildings create a picturesque coastline


Staffa was the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's overture The Hebrides, while the windswept beaches of Coll and Tiree are windsurfing hotspots. Islay is steeped in 'the water of life', with eight distilleries, while when writing 1984 George Orwell holed up on Jura – where red deer outnumber people by 25 to one.

In the Outer Hebrides you can go cockling on a beach in Barra, which doubles as the island's runway. You've got prehistoric sites, such as the 5,000 year-old Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis, while neighbouring Harris is the home of tweed. Skye has Bonnie Prince Charlie connections and the famous Cuillins mountain range draws climbers from around the world.

Cruise Control

One of the best ways to explore is by boat. The Majestic Line has luxury cruises (with a price tag to match) on two jaunty converted fishing trawlers, Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan, which weave through hidden coves, mooring at night in tiny bays.

There are six ensuite cabins on each and trips range from three night around the inlets of Mull and Loch Linnhe to six nights around Skye and the Inner Hebrides, both full board with trips ashore.

Hebrides Cruises uses a converted survey and rescue vessel, Elizabeth G for its trips, including a 10-night St Kilda & Outer Hebrides wildlife cruise. Abandoned 85 years ago, St Kilda is now home to 210 species of bird.

Trips this year are now fully booked but there is still availability on a number of autumn cruises such as the four-night Loch Linnhe, Loch Etive and Lismore voyage departing from Oban.

 Spot unique wildlife on a cruise around the Hebrides


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Wilderness Watch

The Outer Hebrides are among the UK's last great wildernesses, home to the whales, basking sharks and North Atlantic dolphins. Overhead, sea eagles soar while portly puffins flap by. The RSPB reserve on North Uist is one of the few places where you can see endangered corncrakes, while elsewhere road signs warn of otters crossing, and native Eriskay ponies, once nearly extinct, wander wild.

In summer, the machair is in bloom – an alkaline grassland woven with around 200 wild flowers, including sweet-scented white and red clover, which all forms a unique feature of this area.

The Travelling Naturalist has a six-night guided trip travelling by ferry from Oban (keeping a look out for Manx Shearwaters, diving gannets and auks as well as storm petrels, porpoises and dolphins), exploring the birdlife and diverse habitats of the Uists and Benbecula.

 The colourful machair


World's Your Oyster

Skye is the Hebrides' food capital. Last autumn, gourmet bolthole the Three Chimneys, was awarded a Michelin star, the second establishment on the island to receive the accolade. A rustic-chic restaurant with rooms in old crofters' cottages, it offers an eight-course Taste of Skye menu including such specialities as Sconser king scallop, cauliflower, rhubarb, blood orange and ginger.

Skye's first Michelin star went to Kinloch Lodge home to the doyenne of Scottish cuisine, Lady Claire Macdonald, who has written a pile of books and runs a cookery school.

The Isle of Skye Baking Company is a funky bakery in an old wool mill in Portree, established by a young South African couple. Try their delicious signature "lunch breads", with fillings baked into the loaves.

 Discover fantastic restaurants on the Isle of Skye


Whisky Galore

In 1941, the good ship SS Politician sank just off Eriskay with its cargo – 20,000 cases of whisky – and so was born a story that was to be immortalised in Compton Mackenzie's novel Whisky Galore, which was turned into an Ealing comedy.

You can take a dram in the Am Politician pub on Eriskay and see a few of the whisky bottles. But don't imagine an olde-worlde drinking den – it's a pebbledash bungalow.

Mackenzie also loved Barra and built a house on the island in the 1930s overlooking Traigh Mhor – the beach airstrip. He is buried just to the north in the cemetery at Cille Bharra in Eoligarry, where you can visit his grave.

For a whisky-soaked road trip, however, you need to head to Islay, famed for its smoky, peat-infused malts with no fewer than eight distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and the new micro-distillery, Kilchoman.

You can even bed down at one of them; Bowmore has converted six historic cottages into luxury self-catering accommodation.

 Whisky barrels on the coast of Islay, where they take each drop seriously


Getting There

You don't have to sail to Skye anymore – the largest of the Hebridean islands is linked to the mainland by a road bridge. However, should you wish to cross this way, the little community ferry at Glenelg on the mainland (the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland), has been sailing across the Kylerhea Strait to Skye since 1934, and runs from Easter to October.

A number of the Outer Hebrides are also now linked to each other by causeways: Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. Barra in the south is a short ferry hop away, as are Lewis and Harris to the north.

Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne, or 'CalMac', has crossings linking most of the isles along with a host of island-hopping tickets that you can mix and match. Hopscotch 18 Islay & Colonsay, for instance, takes you from Kennacraig on the mainland to Islay, Islay to Colonsay and Colonsay to Oban.

Loganair, Flybe's franchise partner, serves the west coast islands from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. The flight to Barra is a real bucket-list jaunt, the plane landing on the beach runway, wheels whipping up salty sand and sea spray as you touch down.

 Taking off and landing on Barra is an experience


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This article was written by Lucy Gillmore from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.