From Inner to Outer

The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, are an archipelago about 70km off the west coast of Scotland. Small ship cruising holidays in the Outer Hebrides tend to last about ten to twelve days. Starting out from Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, you cruise past other Inner idylls such as Oronsay with its dramatic high sided cliffs at Loch Drumbie, Rým Island with its red deer and sea eagles, and Canna which is home to a plethora of seabirds. And all this before you even hit the outside ring of archipelagic beauty.
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Mingulay & Vatersay

Cruising up north up this littoral ladder of loveliness, the next stops are Mingulay and Vatersay, two of several isles and islets known as the Barra Isles or Bishopís Isles as they were, not surprisingly owned by the Bishop of Sodor. Which does actually sound like a character from Lord of the Rings. These islands really are pretty far out, it has to be said, the only inhabited one being Vatersay. And they do also date back to Viking times, so there are a lot of sagas tied up in their white sands and machair dunes. Mingulay is, however, inhabited by hundreds of seals, their calls echoing around the sea cliffs and deserted village, all exquisitely eerie. Another great sight is Biruaslum, a sea stack to the west of Vatersay which is a towering 72m high, with an ancient fort on one side. More Lord of the Rings stuff.

The beauty that is Barra

The Isle of Barra is adjoined to Vatersay by a causeway and it is has a population of over 1,000 people living in an island idyll of about 60km2. The main village that you may well anchor at is Castlebay. From here there are wonderful hikes to be had, such as up to Dun Cuier Iron Fort, or seeking out ruins of traditional black houses. The birdlife is equally beautiful on Barra, so look out for snipe, pipits, ravens and buzzards. Another magnificent sight is Balnabodach deserted village on the east side overlooking Loch Obe, and now taken over by sea-pink flowers and moss. Finally, the islandís Kisimul Castle, off Castlebay, was the seat of the MacNeils of Barra andis only accessible by boat as it is on its own rocky islet.

Up at the Uists

Both North and South Uist Islands have Sites of Specific Interest on them thanks to their precious natural heritage of rare plants and birds, including corncrake, redshank, dunlin, lapwing and greylag geese with a RSPB nature reserve at Balranald. For those who favour beaches over birds, the white Clachan Sands beach on North Uist, made up from broken shells and enveloped by machair dunes, is as blissful as beaches come. The corncrakes agree, flying in here during summer months to nestle among the wildflowers and orchids that are scattered among the dunes. Another famous beach is on South Uist: Coileag aí Phrionnsa, or the Princes Strand, where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed on Scottish terrain. And what a bonny place to choose.
The main town on North Uist is Lochmaddy, which not only has a museum of local history but also an arts centre and even a camera obscura. You will certainly need your camera as you cruise between north and south island, with hundreds of islets scattered in between the two, in a somewhat Scandinavian style.

St Kilda Archipelago

This is an odyssey to the outermost point and, if the conditions are fine and you are able to make it this far, you may just be hoping for a storm to come in so that you can be stuck here for a few days. This archipelago is in fact the remotest part of the British Isles, at 66km from the nearest other Hebridean island of Benbecula. They are made up of the uninhabited Dun, Soay and Boreray islands and then, most famously, Hirta, the largest and only inhabited one. Albeit only with a warden and army camp, the rest of the population abandoning it in 1930 after having people living here for millennia. It is, however, a UNESCO site with a vast history of 2,000 years. You can see some of its finest natural heritage from the water, however, as it boasts the highest sea cliffs in the UK as well as vast sea stacks which look a bit like the Glastonbury Festival of sea birds, packed and rocking from dawn until dusk.
While cruising around St Kilda you will hopefully see plenty of seals but also basking sharks, whales, porpoises and dolphins as well as on your route back down south to Tobermory. Take in the stunning Monach Islands, aka Heisker, with their glistening white beaches, windswept dunes and, most famously, a vast grey seal population with up to 10,000 during the autumn months when they come here to have their pups.
Photo credits: [Vatersay: hendry_670] [Up at Uists - Oystercatchers at Balranald: Conor Lawless] [Basking shark: Greg Skomal / NOAA Fisheries Service ]
Written by Catherine Mack
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