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Western Isles Area Guide

Tolsta Beach, Isle of Lewis Image courtesy of Flickr user Travels with a dog and a Camera :)

Also known as the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles are a chain of islands curving around the North West of the Scottish mainland, just beyond the islands of Skye and Mull. Although part of a single formation, the Western Isles are surprisingly diverse in geography, ranging from the low, peaty landscape of Lewis to the relatively mountainous terrain of Harris. All of the islands have one thing in common: a maze of freshwater lochs, which give the islands their glistening, jewel-like beauty.

While the population of the Western Isles was decimated in the 19th century due to the highand clearances - which saw crofters forcibly removed from their land to make way for sheep - in recent times the population has remained relatively stable with the population standing at just under 30,000.

The main economic activities are tourism, crofting, fishing and weaving, and while the islands aren't seeing the same kind of migrations that happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, life can be tough for the islanders. The fishing industry in particular is vulnerable to changing environmental conditions. However, the islands are blessed with a mild oceanic climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, something which attracts the many tourists who visit in the summer.


There are around 50 inhabited islands in the formation and many more uninhabited islands, but much of the population is concentrated on the connected isles of Lewis and Harris. Residents tend to be older than the UK average and consist mostly of families that have been there for centuries. You'll encounter plenty of Macleods, MacDonalds and MacNeils - the names of the ancient ruling clans.

The community is very cohesive, with Gaelic the dominant language despite British attempts at suppression in the 19th and 20th centuries. Newcomers needn't worry though - the islanders do speak English.


As might be expected with such a small population, there isn't a lot of choice when it comes to schools. The main islands of Lewis, Harris, South Uist and Barra all have a number of small primary schools and one secondary school. The education system has seen some upheaval recently with some schools closing and residents having to relocate their children to new ones. The University of Stirling also has a small nursing school on Lewis.


Ferries on the west coast of the mainland travel from Ullapool and Oban to Lewis and South Uist respectively. Ferries from Skye also serve Harris. An easier but less picturesque journey from the mainland is to fly from Glasgow and Edinburgh via routes to Stornoway, Barra and Berbencula.

For residents, travel around the islands is either by car - with ferries taking car passengers on island hopping excursions - or by bus.

Amenities and Shopping

Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis is the only town on the Western Isles that feels comparable to a mainland town, with convenience stores, supermarkets, banks, bakeries, craft shops, cafes, hotels, takeaways and restaurants.

There are facilities on the other populated islands such as convenience stores, banks and hotels but these naturally become sparser the smaller the island. Visitors and residents alike enjoy a variety of outdoor activities including golf and fishing, while many of the beaches are suitable for surfing.

Whilst every effort has been taken to ensure the above information is up to date, some inaccuracies may occur. If you notice any inaccuracies please contact

All information was correct at time of publication and is provided in good faith.