The Essential Guide to the Hebrides

Scattered along Scotland’s western shore, the Hebridean islands are full of rugged landscapes, quaint fishing villages, and remote, Gaelic-speaking communities. The Inner Hebrides are generally a short ferry ride from the mainland and include everything from the Isle of Mull, with its ancient castle and charming village of Tobermory, to the craggy Isle of Skye, connected to the mainland by a bridge. More than 25 miles offshore, the wilder Outer Hebrides require a flight or ferry ride across often-choppy seas, but prove a worthy adventure for their untouched coasts, fascinating history, and unique culture.

Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute PA20 9LP, UK
Located on the Isle of Bute, just a short ferry ride from the mainland port of Wemyss Bay, Mount Stuart is a feat of Victorian engineering. Built in 1880, the neo-Gothic mansion was among the most technologically advanced houses of its time, complete with electric lighting, central heating, a telephone system, an elevator, and even a heated indoor swimming pool. Said to contain more marble than any other building in the British Isles, the palace also includes a majestic marble hall featuring vaulted ceilings painted with constellations and stained glass windows depicting the zodiac, a marble chapel made entirely of white Carrara, and sumptuous accommodations and reception rooms. Set aside time to stroll through the 300-acre garden, home to important botanical specimens and champion rhododendrons.
Lewis and Harris Island, Isle of Lewis HS2 9AZ, UK
Just a few miles from the world-famous Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis sits Dun Carloway, also known as the Carloway Broch—an ancient, circular stone tower that was once 30 feet tall. Impressively, it remains almost the same height today, despite the fact that it’s crumbling on one side. Built around 200 B.C.E., the hilltop fortress features a fascinating double-layered construction and staircases within the walls. It most likely served as a well-fortified residence for an extended family, complete with space for animals on the ground floor, as well as a symbol of power and status in the area. Though it’s not clear how long the broch remained in use, it seems to have been still largely intact in the 1500s, when some of the Morrison Clan sought refuge there after being discovered stealing local cattle.
Duart Castle, Lochdon, Isle of Mull PA64 6AP, UK
The ancient home of Clan Maclean, Duart Castle towers over the Sound of Mull, making a statement with its huge curtain walls and solid keep. It spent more than a century in ruins before Sir Fitzroy Maclean had it refurbished in 1911, and now serves as the top tourist attraction on the Isle of Mull. Start your visit in the Great Hall, where you can view family portraits and clan crests or admire the robust walls, which range from 10 to 23 feet thick. Next, you’ll want to tour the State Bedroom (furnished for the wartime honeymoon of Lord Maclean and his bride) and the Dressing Rooms, which feature more family photos and a collection of military uniforms and dresses dating back to 1750. Upstairs, a fascinating exhibition features relics, wall hangings, and memorabilia tracing the Macleans back to their early times as lords of the surrounding islands. When you’re done exploring indoors, walk the ramparts atop the castle and imagine fighting alongside the clan to protect their treasured castle.
Isle of Iona PA76 6SQ, UK
After arriving on the tiny island of Iona near Mull in 563, Irish pilgrim Saint Columba proceeded to establish a Christian church and monastery, creating a vibrant religious community that lives on to this day. The monastery survived until the 12th century despite repeated Viking raids, and around 1200, the sons of Somerled founded a Benedictine abbey on the site. Though monastic life ended on Iona with the Protestant Reformation of 1560, pilgrimages to St Columba’s Shrine continued for many years. Today, it’s believed that the Book of Kells, along with several other great works of art, was created here.

Visit this most sacred of Scottish sights to see the four iconic high crosses, then tour the abbey church, with its 13th- to 16th-century architecture. You can also stop by St Columba’s Shrine, the longest-standing structure in the abbey, dating to the 9th or 10th century; climb Tòrr an Aba, a hill above the abbey where Saint Columba is said to have had a writing hut; or walk through Reilig Odhráin, the graveyard where ancient Scottish kings were laid to rest. While you’re exploring, keep an eye out for the vallum—a boundary ditch and bank of earth that serves as the only evidence of Columba’s original monastery.
Castlebay - Kisimul Castle, Isle of Barra HS9 5UZ, UK
Nicknamed the “Castle in the Sea,” this stone tower sits on a rock in the sheltered harbor of Castlebay—the largest town on the Isle of Barra. In fact, you need to take a small boat across the bay to visit Castle Kisimul, which serves as the seat of the chief of Clan MacNeil. The only significant medieval castle to survive in the Western Isles, it features a curtain wall enclosing a central courtyard, and stone spiral stairs that lead to a great hall where worthies once dined. When visiting, be sure to climb up to the tower house battlements for panoramic views of Castle Bay.
Lews Castle Grounds, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis HS2 0XS, UK
This local history museum is particularly impressive for its location—a state-of-the-art, custom-built wing in the 18th-century Lews Castle—but it’s also known for housing six of the famous Lewis Chessmen, carved around 1150 and left on the Isle of Lewis by visiting Vikings. Here, you’ll also find a wraparound audiovisual presentation about the Outer Hebrides, with effects so dramatic they’re known to induce vertigo, as well as exhibitions of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age artifacts, including several quartz arrowheads.
MacLeod Estate, Dunvegan House, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye IV55 8WF, UK
The oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, Dunvegan has served as the ancestral home of Clan MacLeod for more than 800 years. Restored between 1840 and 1850, the castle features a unified exterior complete with defensive battlements running the length of the roofline, but actually comprises five separate buildings, each with its own story to tell. Tour the interior to see several beautiful paintings and important heirlooms, like the sacred Fairy Flag and Sir Rory Mor’s ceremonial drinking horn, then head outdoors to explore the castle’s surroundings, from formal gardens to wild woodlands. From here, you can take a 25-minute boat trip to visit the Loch Dunvegan seal colony, or head out for a two-hour fishing expedition to catch pollock, mackerel, and coalfish.
Western Isles St Kilda G76 9ER, UK
Located 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, the St Kilda archipelago is considered the remotest part of the British Isles. People lived here on a couple of craggy islands until 1930, when the declining population made life unsustainable and they willingly evacuated to mainland Scotland. Today, the islands enjoy Dual World Heritage Status for both their natural and cultural significance. The trip out takes about three hours by boat from either Harris or North Uist, but is worth the effort to see the remains of the village, the towering cliffs and sea stacks, and what’s considered the important seabird breeding area in northwest Europe.
5 Bank Street, Stornoway HS1 2XG, UK
Located in the heart of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Digby Chick offers fine dining in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. A local favorite, the restaurant features a seasonally changing menu full of local produce, with fish and shellfish being a particular specialty. Dishes range from fillet of monkfish with deep-fried coconut prawns to Dijon-glazed duck breast with rosemary roast potatoes, all perfect for pairing with the international wine list or the extensive selection of Scotland’s finest malts. For an affordable night out, book a table before 6:30 p.m. and take advantage of Digby Chick’s early menu, which includes three courses for just £24.50 (around $32).
7 Bosville Terrace, Portree IV51 9DG, UK
Don’t be fooled by the simple-sounding menu at this top-notch Portree restaurant. The dishes here are complex but well balanced, featuring the soils and foams that have come to define haute cuisine. Chef Calum Munro uses local, seasonal products like freshly caught seafood and Glendale lettuce to create his modern Scottish cuisine, with dishes ranging from cod with lemon butter, cod’s roe, and caviar, to venison with red cabbage, juniper, and chestnut. For pairing with the menu, Scorrybreac also offers a varied selection of wines, Scottish single-malt whiskies, and local, artisan-roasted coffees, best enjoyed while gazing across the harbor to the dark, rocky cliffs in the distance.
40 North Bragar, Isle of Lewis HS2 9DA, UK
The Verandah makes up the restaurant section of 40 North, a small food outlet in the unlikely location of North Bragar, on the west side of the Isle of Lewis. It’s less than 25 minutes from the town of Stornoway but feels much farther when driving the windswept coastline. Opened in 2017, the intimate eatery features just 20 seats for dinner service only. Reservations are essential to enjoy such delicious dishes as roast ginger sea bass with crab, and lamb loin in a sauce of mint, rosemary, currant, red wine, port, and brandy.
23 Main St, Isle of Mull PA75 6NU, UK
Sticking to the motto “the only thing frozen is our fishermen,” this dockside eatery serves some of the freshest seafood on the Island of Mull. In fact, guests can sit on the outdoor terrace overlooking Tobermory Bay and watch the fish en route from Mull’s rough coastal waters to their plate. Here, the specials board changes daily depending on what the fishermen provide, but there’s always something delicious, whether its langoustines, oysters, and crabs or mussels, scallops, and squid. The kitchen knows not to mess with a good thing and serves its fish and shellfish simply, seasoned and grilled with a wedge of lemon. They also bake their own bread and desserts; stock a wide range of Scottish beers, Mull malt whisky, and fine wine; and offer cheese, beef, and biscuits to pair with your meal. Go for the house-smoked salmon, stay for the signature fish stew with haddock, queenies, mussels, and more. Just note that the restaurant is seasonal, open from mid-March through late October.
Talla na Mara Community Enterprise Centre, Isle of Harris HS3 3AE, UK
Housed in the Talla na Mara Community Enterprise Centre on the Isle of Harris, this picturesque restaurant overlooks the golden sands of Niseaboist Beach and Taransay Sound. Here, in this most-photographed location, chef Sam Barnes serves fresh, local seafood alongside melt-in-your-mouth cakes. What truly sets the Machair Kitchen apart, however, is its cultural programming, which ranges from music events with award-winning folk singers to photography shows, movie nights, and more. (Note: The restaurant is only open from spring to autumn.)
Callanish, Isle of Lewis HS2 9DY, UK
Jutting up from the crest of a flat-topped hill, the Callanish Standing Stones comprise one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic monuments. Erected 5,000 years ago, they predate England’s famous Stonehenge and are believed to have been an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. To this day, archaeologists disagree about why the stones were placed here, but the general consensus is that the cross-shaped arrangement served as a kind of astronomical observatory. Unlike at Stonehenge, visitors to Callanish can walk right up to the monoliths, which are more roughly hewn than their English counterparts. There’s also an interpretation center and café on-site; it’s closed on Sunday, but the stones are always accessible.
Colbost, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye IV55 8ZT, UK
This landmark restaurant is one of the most renowned in Scotland, let alone the Hebrides. Located on the shore of Loch Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, it pairs the very best Scottish food with friendly professionalism and unique surroundings, enabling guests to feel like one with the stunning landscape. In the kitchen, chef Scott Davies—who starred on MasterChef: The Professionals—combines fresh seasonal ingredients and Nordic techniques to create such dishes as Loch Dunvegan scorched langoustine tails with oyster mousse, and Soay lamb with fermented cabbage, haggis, and black garlic ketchup. There’s also a notable wine and drinks list, which the staff is more than willing to help you pair with your meal. If, after dining here, you simply don’t want the night to end, know that there are six beautifully appointed rooms in the House Over-By, right next door to the restaurant.
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