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County Town: Stornoway
Population: 27,180
Area: 3,071 sq km
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The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, sit proudly off the north-western shoulder of Scotland, separated from the mainland by the Inner Hebrides and the turbulent waters of the Minch Channel. Boasting some of the most pristine scenery in the British Isles, the 130-mile-long belt of islands seem untouched amidst the Atlanticís might, their rugged territories are sparsely populated by man and garlanded by a magnificent array of flora and fauna. The larger populated islands are accompanied by a community of smaller satellite islands, ranging from mere rocky outcrops to small islands thatched with grass and peat marshland. The likes of Barra, Berneray and Benbecula have sand-strewn beaches that offer a truly untroubled setting. One feature which typifies the Western Isles, making them among the most unique environments in Europe, are the green coastal grasslands of the machair. Shells pulverized by the Atlantic and washed onto the hinterland form an environment where marram grass and wildflowers sprout; wading birds like the curlew, oystercatcher and twite all prosper on these low fertile plains. The isle of Barra has the most striking bouquet of wildflowers, with over 1,000 species decorating the island thatís considered the garden of the Hebrides.

The southernmost inhabited island, Barra is linked to Vatersay by causeway. But more remarkable is its airport at Northbay, which uses the beach as its runway and flight timetables are at the mercy of the tide. After landing on sand, nervous fliers may want to visit Castlebay and enjoy a medicinal drink in the company of the gregarious locals. Kisimulís Castle surveys the bay, and gives the village its name. Visitors can learn about Barraís history at its heritage centre in Dualchas.

Lewis and Harris is the largest of the islands, and while it seems erroneous to refer to it as a singular island they do in fact form one island. Lewis lies to the north, while south of Scarp on the west and Shiphoirt to the east, lies Harris. North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist lie south of Lewis and Harris.

Lewis and Harris close down on a sunday, when commercial activity of almost every kind is retired to mark the sabbath. Some bed and breakfasts do not take visitors on a Sunday; a fact worth bearing in mind when planning your trip. But while you may struggle to buy fresh bread on a Sunday; itís business as usual for the islandís wildlife and beaches. And what not take the opportunity to spend a day by the windswept coastal fringes in the company of cawing sea birds?

Callanish Stones are a magnificent arrangement of standing stones arranged in the shape of a cross and pre-date both the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. A visit to Lewis is not complete without dropping by the blackhouse village of Gearrannan, which stares into the cobalt expanse of the Atlantic, on the islandís western frontier. St Kilda, a World Heritage listed site for its outstanding natural features, culture and wildlife, is an archipelago of islands that have been uninhabited by man since the 1930s. Sitting about 40 miles west of the Uists, the islands are home to the worldís largest population of gannets, and the deserted settlements are a poignant relic of manís life in sheer isolation. The Hebridean way of life revolved round crofting. The islanders led a tough but rewarding lifestyle, rearing their own livestock and growing their own crops. It was in the the dark, smoky confines of their blackhouses where they took shelter. Blackhouses, with thatched roofs and layers of peat insulating their dry stone walls, were designed to withstand the harshest of climates; a centuries old design that housed people and livestock under one roof.

Scottish Gaelic is widely spoken throughout the Western Isles by a population that have a strong sense of tradition. The quality of life on the islands is buoyant, enhanced by the therapeutic ebb of the ocean and the vast array of activities to keep mind, body and soul healthy. From swimming, walking, fishing, sea-kayaking, ceilidhs and cycling, to boat trips and places of rich Norse and Celtic history, the Western Isles are a unique getaway, with a long, rich past, vibrant present and assured future.

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