“I’ve no interest in going to the mainland,” admits our tour host DJ (Donald John) when we’re halfway up scaling a steep gravel track in his 4x4.

And as we reach the hilltop and gaze over the expanse of flat, wet lands of South Uist, I begin to feel my own desire of returning home ebb away.

Many of the Western Isles can easily be explored in a week. Island hopping is vastly accessible through a series of causeways, or short ferry journeys.

Our itinerary for the week encompasses the islands of Barra, Eriskay, North Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, and our base will be South Uist.

The Herald: The Piobull Fhinn stone circle is largest and most accessible stone circle in the UistsThe Piobull Fhinn stone circle is largest and most accessible stone circle in the Uists (Image: Jamie Kunka)

Aside from the appealing yearn of an island escape, the Outer Hebrides is an outdoor enthusiast's playground and a history lover’s dream.

For myself, my partner, and our Border Collie it’s the archaeological sites and infinite swimming spots that pique our interest.

With over 6,000 years of history on these islands, traces of historic remains are peppered throughout the exposed landscape. Tourists can browse the trails of prehistoric remains, Neolithic burial chambers, stone circles, Viking settlements, Iron Age forts, and medieval churches. The islands were also heavily affected by the Highland Clearances and played a significant part in the Jacobite rising of 1745.

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Of course, the other main attractions for tourists include the many pristine sandy beaches, array of wildlife, hill walks, wild swimming, and fresh seafood.

But where to start? After arriving on South Uist via a 3.5hr CalMac ferry from Mallaig, we were eager to start roaming the alluring, rugged islands of the Outer Hebrides…


Our home from home was located at the southern tip of South Uist in a village called Smercleit. The Smiddy is a thatched roof, one-bedroomed cottage – instantly striking and incredibly comfortable with its underfloor heating system. The jacuzzi bath, five minute walk to the beach, and dark starry skies above (we even saw the aurora borealis) were lasting memories for us.

The Herald: Smiddy Cottage on South Uist is set over a single-storey, this Hebridean hideaway is perfect for couples and dog-friendly Smiddy Cottage on South Uist is set over a single-storey, this Hebridean hideaway is perfect for couples and dog-friendly (Image: Jamie Kunka)

To get your bearings of South Uist it helps to entrust local knowledge. A tour with Long Island Retreats is a fast and effective way to get an authentic taste of island life. Our guide DJ is a sixth-generation crofter from the island. He’s a fountain of knowledge on the past and present of the island. As a member of the Board of Directors, he is passionate about showing us the modern projects of the island. Such as the potential to expand and connect the islands' canal system, the changes implemented after the community buyout in 2006, rising house prices and the need for more affordable housing, the handy Uist Unearthed app, and conservation efforts for migrating birds.

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The 4x4 tour explores DJ’s many crofts, his some 60 ponies, his cattle grazing next to the MOD Hebrides Range, and many hidden gems on the island. “We’ll go for a gander down the wee track,” he often says. He seems to have a free pass to drive down any track, even those off-road.

On the tour we spot the white-tailed eagle, visit the remains of Ormacleit Castle, and the birthplace of Flora MacDonald – a Jacobite heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape following the defeat at Culloden. He takes us the full length of the island.

The Herald: The Northern Lights as seen from Smiddy Cottage The Northern Lights as seen from Smiddy Cottage (Image: Jamie Kunka)

For tasty grub, the Kildonan Museum boasts a great café, along with Kilbride Café, and the Polochar Inn.


Long have I wanted to visit Barra. On the ferry over, another mainlander confessed to me: “During pregnancy, I suffered terrible sickness and all I kept saying was that I wanted to be in Barra. Then as soon as I arrived my nausea and sickness lifted!”

Perhaps a magical place after all.

The timing of the morning ferry meant we were able to experience the Glasgow to Barra flight land on the famous beach runway, and I have to say it was a much more impressive sight than I had imagined.

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Then it was onto Kisimul Castle. The site is closed but the medieval castle perched neatly on a small island off Castlebay is quite remarkable.

When the sun is shining there’s only one place to go in Barra. Although with so many spectacular beaches it’s hard to know where to start. Some of the most popular include Allasdale, Tangasdale, Cleat, and the beaches on Vatersay – which is where we ended up spending most of the day soaking in the views and the rays.

The Herald: The beaches on Barra and Vatersay are some of the most beautiful and scenic The beaches on Barra and Vatersay are some of the most beautiful and scenic (Image: Jamie Kunka)

The 5.30pm ferry back to Eriskay gifted us a glorious, shimmering sunset over the horizon.


Oh, what a charming, little island Eriskay is. Uist Sea Tours offers a relaxing two hour walking tour of the island which is a great way to hear tales of Eriskay.

The Herald: The causeway road between the islands of Eriskay and South UistThe causeway road between the islands of Eriskay and South Uist (Image: Getty)

You also have the opportunity to meet the extremely photogenic Eriskay ponies and visit the only pub on the island, Am Politician, to see memorabilia from the SS Politician. The cargo ship ran aground off the coast of Eriskay in 1941 on route to Jamaica. Within the vessel were 22,000 cases of whisky and £3m worth of Jamaican banknotes. The story of the islanders ‘welcoming’ the ship became legendary and inspired the novel and film Whisky Galore!

The Herald: Memorabilia from the SS Politician in Eriskay pub Am Politician Memorabilia from the SS Politician in Eriskay pub Am Politician (Image: Jamie Kunka)

The beaches on Eriskay are also not to be ignored. The Coilleag a’Phrionnsa or ‘The Prince’s Beach’ is where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot in Scotland and is a great spot to swim or watch the sunset. When walking or driving here keep an eye out for the Eriskay Football pitch, listed by FIFA as one of the eight most remarkable places to play football in the world.

The Herald: Eriskay ponies wander freely on the islandEriskay ponies wander freely on the island (Image: Getty)

A snorkel around some of the coast didn’t produce one iota of modern rubbish, that’s how pristine these beaches tend to be.


We get to a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. North Uist Distillery opened in 2019 by partners Jonny Ingledew and Kate MacDonald. Their range of Downpour gins has expanded to stock four gins as well as an oak aged negroni – each product has a great taste award, and some have two.

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A tour and tasting at the dog-friendly distillery on Benbecula offers a sample of all five products, enjoyed while a knowledgeable host regales guests with tales of the history and building of the distillery itself. A whisky is soon to be launched from the premises, and the distillery recently became a certified B Corporation. There’s a great buzz around the distillery (yes, the gin helps), a pop-up of Lochmaddy Bay Prawns is packed, and a bus load of tourists park up for a tipple at the bar.

The Herald: North Uist DistilleryNorth Uist Distillery (Image: Jamie Kunka)

Behind the distillery is Culla Bay, a beautiful sandy beach and popular wild swimming spot.

On North Uist we also find the ancient, chambered cairn of Barpa Langass which sits contently on a hilltop with panoramic views. Close to this prehistoric site we ventured to the Piobull Fhinn stone circle, the largest and most accessible stone circle in the Uists.

Other archaeological sites we explored were Dun an Sticir – ruins of an Iron Age Fort, and Teampull na Trionaid (Trinity Temple Carinish) – a medieval monastery and former college.

The Herald: The ancient, chambered cairn of Barpa Langass The ancient, chambered cairn of Barpa Langass (Image: Getty)

Charlie’s Bistro, and Langass Lodge are great spots to enjoy a meal.


Located between Benbecula and North Uist is the tidal island of Grimsay. At just four miles long and two miles wide, we weren’t sure what there was to do on the compact island. But it turned out to be one of our favourites.

The Herald: Dun Ban on GrimsayDun Ban on Grimsay (Image: Jamie Kunka)

A historical landmark on Google Maps simply named Dun Ban was our first port of call. A snorkel around this small manmade island with ruins of a dun (an ancient or medieval fort), proved very interesting, if not a little eerie.

After working up an appetite, we sought fresh scallops and langoustines at the café on the pier – Namara Marine Supplies and Seafood Café. A pair of communal binoculars allows diners to watch for seabirds beside the harbour.

The Herald: Scallops and langoustines at the café on the pier Scallops and langoustines at the café on the pier (Image: Jamie Kunka)

Ceann na h-Àirigh, a community run space with café, heritage exhibitions and the Grimsay Boat Museum, is also worth seeking out.

After a week of exploration, I can wholeheartedly understand the lack of desire to go to the mainland. Being on the Uist islands feels almost entirely separate, and (from an outsider’s point of view) the resourceful islanders appear to have an unwaveringly strong connection and belonging to this land…and who can blame them.


Smiddy Cottage is available to book through Sykes Holiday Cottages from £664 for seven nights. Visit www.sykescottages.co.uk or call 01244 617683.

For more information on holidays in the Outer Hebrides, see www.visitscotland.com and www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk

 For ferries, book online at www.calmac.co.uk