Confusingly, although often referred to as two islands, they are one land mass – with Lewis, the larger area in the north only “separated” from its southern part, Harris, by a range of mountains that inhibited land access for centuries, essentially making them two separate islands.
The quickest way to get there is by air, with regular flights from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, but to make the most of your visit you’re best served by taking the car on the ferry to Stornoway from Ullapool, a lovely fishing village on the north-west coast that is well worth a visit on its own terms.
Perhaps the first thing any visitor to the Western Isles needs to be aware of is that the islanders still take the observance of Sunday as a day of rest very seriously indeed. It’s only comparatively recently that air and ferry services have been in operation on the Sabbath, and most petrol stations, shops, cafes, pubs and visitor attractions are closed.
But if you plan around this minor inconvenience, there are plenty of things to do and see. One of the main attractions is the latest HebCelt music festival in Stornoway (17-20 July) which celebrates Celtic-tinged music from across the world and attracts artists from far and wide, many of them with Hebridean roots. This year’s headliners include KT Tunstall, The Shires and Newton Faulkner among many others.
The world-famous Calanais Standing Stones are located in Callanish on the west coast of Lewis and, at 5,000 years old, are more ancient than the pyramids of Giza. An inspiration for the Disney-Pixar animated movie Brave, there are still questions as to what purpose it served – which the neighbouring visitor centre attempts to answer.
The stunning Luskentyre Sands on the west coast of south Harris is one of Britain’s finest beaches, its miles of white sand and azure water redolent of more exotic climes. On the east coast of Harris is the “Golden Road” – a single track winding through tiny settlements with Viking and Gaelic names in an area referred to as “the bays” because of its miniature fjords, lochs and inlets where you can often see seals basking in the sun.