Touring Scotland's Western Isles by Boat
January 30, 2023 –––––– Jonny McCormick
Sailing is an oft-overlooked way to explore the coastline of Scotland’s Western Isles. This 130-mile-long archipelago, known as the Outer Hebrides, forms the extreme western edge of Scotland and is the perfect destination for those seeking freedom, solitude, and epic adventure. It’s an island hopper’s paradise with thousands of miles of coastline to explore— the land of Compton Mackenzie’s “Whisky Galore!,” the origin of Harris Tweed, and a wildlife haven of eagles and whales. There are golden sandy beaches lapped by turquoise seas, a moonscape of boulders across Harris, peat stacks drying on the bogs of Lewis, and the summer blooms of the machair, Uist’s fertile grasslands. The Calanais Standing Stones, Dun Carloway Broch, and the peat smoke-filled dwellings known as blackhouses provide an evocative insight into the old ways of the islanders, bringing to life a place rich with the history and culture of early civilizations. And there are whisky attractions to explore.
St Kilda KEVIN SCHAFER/GETTY IMAGES
Tour Isle of Harris Distillery, which opened its doors in 2015 and produces Hearach single malt, which is maturing but has yet to be released. Until then, try their sublime Isle of Harris gin, infused with hand-harvested sugar kelp. This gin is the only Western Isles spirit currently sold in the U.S. In 2008, Abhainn Dearg Distillery (pronounced Aveen Jarrick) on the Isle of Lewis was the first legal distillery to open in the Outer Hebrides since 1829, and it now bottles a 10 year old single malt. The North Uist Distillery Co. on Benbecula is planning to make Nunton whisky from bere barley, the heritage six-row strain that grows well here. Owners Kate MacDonald and Jonny Ingledew are currently distilling their Downpour gin at a temporary location, while the distillery is being built on Benbecula inside the 18th-century Nunton Steadings. Michael and Katie Morrison opened Isle of Barra Distillers Co. in 2017, the most westerly distillery in Scotland. In a small copper pot still, the husband and wife team produces Island Dark rum and Barra Atlantic gin, infused with carrageenan seaweed and other botanicals, with ambitions to release Barra whisky in the future.
Northern Light Cruising
The Western Isles are also home to Am Politician pub on South Uist, which fans of “Whisky Galore!” must visit to admire the historic bottle of whisky salvaged from the wreck of the S.S. Politician. In 1941, the vessel sunk en route to Jamaica with a cargo of banknotes and over 250,000 bottles of scotch, many of which were rescued by the Eriskay islanders and hidden away. The fictionalized versions in Compton Mackenzie’s novel and two movies (one a more modern remake of the original) as “Whisky Galore!” has kept up the fascination with this story for more than 80 years: A bottle of whisky reclaimed from the wreck fetched $16,275 at Grand Whisky Auctions in 2021.
By Air and by Sea
Flying to the islands is easy from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Inverness airports, with Loganair connections to Stornoway, Benbecula, and Barra. It’s a heart-pounding but exhilarating flight to Barra, where the little plane takes off and lands using the tidal beach as the runway. By sea, Calmac ferries serve the island routes, transporting passengers and vehicles from mainland ports in Mallaig, Ullapool, and Oban. If you’re visiting the Isle of Skye to see Talisker, Torabhaig, and nearby Isle of Raasay Distilleries, you can take a ferry to Harris or North Uist from Uig across The Minch, the strait that separates the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Once on dry land, the main road follows a spinal route from north to south, crossing the bridges and causeways connecting the islands.
There are plenty of sailing options, from day trips to multi-night cruises to private charters. Most routes run from April to early October, though be prepared to be flexible, as setting sail is reliant on weather conditions. The big draws are St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 41 miles west of Benbecula that was inhabited on and off for 4,000 years until 1936, and the Shiant Isles, a breeding ground for seabirds such as the Atlantic puffin. Take a Sea Harris charter to get to St Kilda quickly, with a 2.5-hour crossing from Leverburgh harbor. The volcanic island boasts the highest sea cliffs in the UK, spectacular seabird colonies, and the deserted houses of Village Bay. Beyond porpoises, seals, and dolphins, passengers may spot minke whales, basking sharks, orca, and the occasional humpback whale if you’re lucky. Hebridean Adventures runs the MV Monadhliath, a converted fishing boat with an observation deck for whale and wildlife cruises lasting up to six nights, with guests sleeping in bunk bed cabins below deck. Longer voyages of up to 10 nights are available from Northern Light Cruising Co. Ltd. aboard the Hjalmar Bjørge, taking in St Kilda and other abandoned isles including Taransay, the Monach Islands, Scarp, Pabbay, and Mingulay, enabling you to absorb the sense of history from their Iron Age and Viking settlements. For shorter trips, use Stornoway Seafari for day trips by fast rigid inflatable boat (RIB), or try Sea Trek Hebrides for two to three-hour wildlife-watching trips and fishing excursions for anglers looking to land haddock, cod, whiting, ling, and skate.
Perhaps the most elegant way to sail around the Western Isles is by crewing a classic tall ship. Venture Sail runs 10-day voyages with excellent local cuisine under sail on the historic 100 year old Bessie Ellen, along with other cruises aboard a fleet of cutters, schooners, clippers, motor cruisers, and yachts. They welcome all, from novice sailors to experienced hands, and encourage travelers to get involved with operating the vessel. By the time you weigh anchor and watch the sunset over the water, you’ll certainly be in the mood for a fine whisky or two.
Hebridean Adventures HEBRIDEAN ADVENTURES
Find out more about visiting the Western Isles
Places to visit
Blackhouses historicenvironment.scot and gearrannan.comCalanais Standing Stones calanais.orgDun Carloway Broch historicenvironment.scotHarris Tweed harristweed.orgIsle of Taransay isleoftaransay.comMingulay, Berneray, and Pabbay nts.org.ukShiant Isles shiantisles.netSt Kilda nts.org.uk
Boats, ships, and ferries