Uist, Barra and Vatersay


The elemental landscapes of Uist and Barra include some superb walking country. The dune-backed beaches, machair and croftland of the Atlantic shores contrast with the lochan-scattered moorland and rugged hillcountry of the islands’ interiors, while the frayed edges of the eastern coastline, with numerous islands, skerries and sea lochs, is a place apart. Each of the islands has its own distinctive character, geography and history. These 25 walks reflect the range of terrain in the islands and provide opportunities to experience the spectacular wildlife and the physical traces of island history.

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Uist, Barra and Vatersay

The chain of islands lying south of the Sound of Harris in the Outer Hebrides archipelago is known collectively as Uist and Barra. These islands extend for almost 110km between low-lying sandy-shored Berneray in the north and another Berneray, most southerly of the uninhabited Bishop’s Isles with its lighthouse and sheer 200m cliffs. In between are dozens of other islands, although only eight of these are now inhabited – Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist and Berneray. Others, including Mingulay and Sandray, have long been abandoned. In recent times the islands have been linked by causeways connecting Vatersay to Barra, and Eriskay through to Berneray via South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist. Taken together, the islands of Uist and Barra are a resplendent landscape of white sand and green machair, peat-dark lochans and dun-coloured moorland, rocky heather-mantled hills and deeply-penetrating sea lochs – the whole surrounded by turquoise and azure waters. Individually, each of the islands has its own distinctive character born of the particularity of its geography and the specific, sometimes turbulent history of its habitation, land use and ownership. The physical traces of those histories are scattered across the island landscapes, often woven into the fabric of present-day communities. Indeed, farming, crofting and fishing remain a visible reminder of centuries of continuity amid the townships, even if the means and methods have changed over time.

The island economies have diversified and communities continue to see the ebb and flow of young people leaving and incomers arriving, but although times change the islands’ essential qualities remain constant. A strong sense of community and cultural identity pervades the islands. Gaelic is widely spoken, traditional music, local history, folklore and other forms of cultural expression have good levels of engagement and religious observance remains common. Tourism has become a part of the landscape, but although there have been issues with overstretched amenities and inadequate ferry services, visitors are generally absorbed without too much impact on island life. Tourism is a boon to the local economies, although careful management, planning and investment are needed to provide appropriate infrastructure balanced with the needs of local communities.

The islands’ landscapes are extremely varied and include some superb walking country. The low-lying machair, beaches and dunes of the Atlantic coast contrast with the lochan-speckled moorland and rugged hillcountry of the east. The frayed edges of the east coast with its islands, skerries, inlets and the deep incursions of sea lochs make it a place apart. Away from roads and settlements wildlife is everywhere abundant along the coast, out on the moorland, among the hills and up in the sky. Wherever you walk in the islands, history is also present in the landscape – sometimes obvious and in other instances less so.

The 25 walks in this guidebook reflect the range of landscapes and terrain in the islands, as well as providing opportunities to experience the wildlife and natural history, and to explore the physical traces of island history. The routes vary in length and difficulty from easy strolls along the west coast’s white sand beaches and half-day walks on coast, moorland and hill to day-long hillcountry traverses and even an overnight wild country backpacking route. Some of the routes are relatively popular, such as the walk around Balranald RSPB reserve in North Uist and the walk up Heabhal on Barra. Others are relatively unfrequented, including Gleann Dail in the far south of South Uist and the backpacking route around the mountains and moorland of South Uist’s east coast.

The period from spring through to early autumn – from April until late September – tends to include at least some good weather, and the longer days expand the opportunities for getting out and about to explore the islands. May and June, in particular, are often dry and sunny months. However, there is also much to recommend visiting in the autumn and even in the winter for robust walkers with good waterproofs and a dash of frontier spirit. In winter, the ever-changing skyscapes and some bracing weather can bring out the elemental best of the islands. Outside of the tourist season the sense of space in the islands increases still more. Whatever time of year you visit, you’ll find that islanders are approachable and friendly and that the landscape and culture of Uist and Barra is something quite unique.


The Hebridean weather can be challenging – high winds and persistent rain are not uncommon – but, contrary to popular myth, the sun often shines in the Outer Hebrides too. In fact, the Hebridean climate, greatly influenced by the North Atlantic Drift, is generally milder than that on the Scottish mainland. Island weather is changeable, usually providing some variety over the course of a few days, and you should be prepared and equipped for all eventualities when planning walks.

Access and safety

Public access to the countryside in Scotland is a statutory right. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code provides guidance both for those exercising their right to roam, and for land managers. See outdooraccess-scotland.scot.
Walkers have the right to roam over all open land, but this also comes with responsibilities. They must treat the environment and wildlife with care, respect the needs and privacy of those living and working in the countryside, not obstruct activities such as farming, crofting and deer stalking, and keep dogs under close control near livestock and ground-nesting birds. Sheep and cattle may be encountered roaming on roads, paths and beaches, so drive aware and be alert when walking with dogs.

Check weather forecasts before setting out and allow plenty of time to complete walks. Always let someone know your intended route and estimated time of completion. While some of the routes featured here take clear paths and tracks – some signposted and waymarked, others not – others follow vague and intermittent paths at best, and require a degree of navigational competence. Getting there and getting aroundCaledonian MacBrayne (calmac.co.uk) ferries sail from the mainland port of Oban and from Uig in Skye. The Oban route sails to Castlebay on Barra and Lochboisdale in South Uist and takes around five hours. The sailing time from Uig to Lochmaddy in North Uist is under two hours. In summer the sailings are almost daily on both routes, but are less frequent from October to April. Book vehicles well in advance, especially in the peak season. Caledonian MacBrayne also operates frequent inter-island services between Leverburgh in Harris and Berneray, and between Barra and Eriskay. Vehicles should be booked well in advance. Island Hopscotch tickets are available if you plan to travel between the islands.

Loganair flies daily between Glasgow and Benbecula, and on weekdays to Barra where the twin-propellered planes land on the tidal beach of Tràigh Mhòr. There are also regular flights between Stornoway and Benbecula with a connecting flight to Barra. Uist has regular bus services running between Eriskay and Berneray, linking with the inter-island ferries and the ferry ports of Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy, hence many of the walks in this guide can be accessed by public transport. A local bus service also runs around the Barra circular, with connecting branches to the airport and Eriskay ferry link. Bus timetables and connections are available on the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar website (cne-siar.gov.uk).If driving or cycling familiarise yourself with the correct use of passing places on the island’s single-track roads, including letting vehicles overtake safely.


Historical remains, ancient and more recent, punctuate the landscapes of Uist and Barra. Many of the walks in this guidebook visit ancient monuments, including standing stones, chambered cairns, duns, wheelhouses, hut circles and field systems, as well as the ruins of more recently abandoned castles, churches and townships. The oldest known site in these islands is a Neolithic chambered cairn on Barra known as Dùn Bharpa, thought to be around 5500 years old. There are few surviving traces from the Bronze Age, although remains of Iron Age settlement are much more extensive.

Local Celtic chieftains ruled the islands until the end of the first millennium when the Vikings arrived in the Hebrides. The Norsemen ruled the islands until 1156 when the Norse-Gael warlord, Somerled, took control of the Inner Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides remained in Norse hands until they were ceded to the Kingdom of Scotland at the Treaty of Perth in 1266 following the Battle of Largs. Somerled’s descendants, Clan MacDonald of Clanranald – known as the Lords of the Isles – emerged as the most important power in northwestern Scotland, ruling their domain as subjects of the King of Scotland. In theory, Clan MacDonald were the feudal superiors of the other Gaelic-speaking clan chiefs, including the Macleods of Lewis and Harris and MacNeil of Barra who had gradually replaced the Norse princes. However, the power and influence of the clan chiefs was considerable and asserting control over the competing island clans proved difficult. With the Treaty of Union in 1707, the Hebrides became part of the new Kingdom of Great Britain, although there was significant support for the Stuart cause among the island clan chiefs during the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions. In 1746 the decisive defeat of Charles Edward Stuart’s forces at the Battle of Culloden brought serious repercussions for highlanders and islanders.

The British government broke up the clan system and turned the Hebrides into landed estates. The descendants of the clan chiefs became English-speaking landlords more concerned with revenues from their estates than the condition of those living on them. Rents were increased, Gaelic-speaking was discouraged and folk dress was outlawed. During the 19th century, crofting communities were devastated by the Clearances. Throughout the Highlands and Islands, populations were evicted from the land – often forcibly – and replaced with sheep and deer. Large-scale emigration followed, some voluntary, some forced, with islanders relocated to mainland Scotland and the North American colonies. Crop failure and famine in the mid-19th century provoked further emigration. Some landless and unemployed islanders who stayed rebelled against their landlords with rent strikes and land raids in what became known as the ‘land struggles’. Groups of islanders, including the Vatersay Raiders, were driven to seize land for cultivation in order to survive.

Some were arrested and jailed. Although the land struggles persisted until after the First World War, the Crofters Act, passed in 1886, forced landowners to make land available for crofting, set fair rents and guaranteed security of tenure and the right to bequeath crofts to a successor. Nonetheless, emigration continued apace and many communities dwindled through the 20th century because of unemployment and economic hardship. For those who remained, the economic situation gradually improved and the population decline affecting the Hebrides since the mid-19th century has to some extent stalled in recent years. However, many young people still leave the islands for further education or employment and most don’t return. This in turn has resulted in an ageing population.
Today the island economy is largely dependent on the public sector – with a third of all jobs in healthcare, education and services. Local government accounts for another third of the workforce through construction, transport and distribution.

Farming, crofting, aquaculture, fishing and tourism also remain important sectors of the island economy with the development of renewable energy – wind and wave power projects – an important element of the future island economy. In recent years, conservation bodies and local communities have worked together to limit large-scale windfarm developments in favour of smaller community-owned projects generating power currently consumed locally with profits ploughed back into community projects. The impetus for local control of natural assets is part of a bigger picture for the future of the island communities. The provisions of the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act together with funding to support bids has encouraged community land ownership in the Western Isles with more than three quarters of land currently in the hands of community trusts and further community buy-outs in the pipeline.

Natural history

The Outer Hebrides are largely comprised of Lewisian gneisses, some of the oldest rocks in Europe. The rugged present-day landscape dates from the most recent glacial period of the Quaternary ice age. The rocky low-lying terrain was scoured by the advancing ice sheet, creating the characteristic ‘cnoc-and-lochan’ topography of hillocks and small lochs. Sea levels rose as glaciers melted, resulting in the archipelago of islands, skerries and reefs recognisable today. Vast quantities of sand and gravel deposited into the sea by glacial meltwaters were swept ashore by wind and wave action, forming the white sand beaches and sand dunes characteristic of the western coastal plains. Machair is the Gaelic name for these low-lying, fertile plains; machair sand has a high seashell content and when blown inland it neutralises the acidity of peat soils, propagating fertile grassland, which is carpeted with flowers in the summer months. This encourages a range of insects and other invertebrates including high densities of bees that are now scarce on the mainland. Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe, found only in the north and west of Britain and Ireland. Almost half of Scotland’s machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides, with the best and most extensive in Uist and Barra.

Places of Interest

Àird a’ Mhuile
Àird Glas
Bàgh a’ Deas
Bàgh Mhiùghlaigh
Beinn Choradail
Beinn Mhòr
Beinn Scolpaig
Beinn Sgritheann
Beinn Tangabhal
Bishop’s Isles
Caisteal Ormacleit
Cladach Ormacleit
Dùn Ban
Dùn Chuidhir
Gatliff Trust
Gleann Dail bho Tuath
Hut of the Shadows
Kyles Flodda
Loch Druidibeag
Loch Euphort
Loch Hamascleit
North Glendale
North Lee
North Uist
Ròisinis Ruabhal
South Glen Dale
South Lee
South Uist
Stansa na Fèille
Tràigh Iar
Udal Peninsula


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