Visit the Hebrides
Visit the Hebrides
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North Uist, Berneray and Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay

Isle of LewisIsle of Harris | Barra

The five inhabited islands of North Uist, South Uist, Berneray, Benbecula and Eriskay are  bounded by Lewis and Harris in the north and Barra and Vatersay in the south.   Geographically, they are low-lying; although the peak of Beinn Mhor on South Uist is the highest point of the four at 2,034ft (620m) above sea-level. These stunning and sparsely-populated islands are a haven for wildlife, especially birds.

The inhabited islands are interconnected by a collection of causeways. In 1942 Benbecula was first connected to South Uist by a bridge, which was replaced by a causeway and bridge in 1983. The causeways have gradually replaced local ferries and have accelerated the process of unconnected islands being abandoned for human habitation. Around the coast of North Uist, the Monarch Isles, Pabbay, Vallay and Borerary have been abandoned during the past century;  and off Benbecula, the isles of Ronay and Wiay were abandoned by the 1930s. There has been some criticism of the preponderance of causeways in the last few years. There has been concern that the causeways have changed aspects of tidal flow and rendered the islands more vulnerable to winter flood tides.

These five islands are closely connected and easy to explore by bike or by car; on most of the islands the roads are single track with passing places, although there is often no footway and pedestrian access is by road. The outstanding feature of the Uists (as they are usually known) is their peace and tranquility – making it easy to spot the rare and beautiful wildlife which inhabits the islands.

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Geology and geography

The underlying rock of this part of the Hebrides is Lewisian gneiss – a heavily metamorphosed rock which is amongst the oldest rocks in the UK. There are widespread igneous intrusions and a complex series of localised fault lines which have shaped the irregular coastlines. The gneiss is overlain with deep peat in many places, and the landscape this produces is gently undulating low hills interspersed with machair grasslands,  in places deeply cut to sea level by hundreds of small lochs and tidal pools. There are many small islands around the coast of the Uists.

North Uist is designated a National Scenic area by Scottish Natural Heritage, together with South Lewis and Harris – as is the South Uist machair (grasslands), where up to 45 plant species can be found within a single square metre.

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History and human occupation

These islands have very ancient records of human occupation – there is abundant archaeological evidence of Neolithic occupation of the Uists. A chambered cairn exists at Barpa Langass on North Uist; a settlement just north of the stone circle at Carinish has been found, and there are many other sites which indicate Neolithic occupation. There is also plenty of evidence of Bronze and Iron Age occupation – in particular, the site at Caldh Hallan in South Uist where four mummified skeletons dating back to between 1600 and 1300BC were discovered. This indicates that there was human occupation of the Uists at the same time that King Tutankhamum held the throne of Egypt. Prehistoric subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering developed into the subsistence agrarian society of the Scottish clans – with invasion and colonisation by the Vikings, when the islands belonged to the crown of Norway.

Unlike on Lewis and Harris, these islands have never been the centre of any significant industrial activity. They have remained essentially agricultural communities to the present day, the only exception being the town of Balivanich in Benbecula, which has grown into a busy village environment with a bank, a post office and small supermarket thanks to the presence of a Ministry of Defence missile firing and testing range since 1958. The base has been civilianised, and is now run by the firm Qinetiq on behalf of the MOD, but it retains its facilities for visiting military units. There has been a military presence in the islands since the Second World War when an airfield was built in 1942, which played a significant role in the North Atlantic patrols flown against German U-Boats. This airfield is now Balivanich airport, the only airport in the Uists; connected by scheduled flights to Barra, Stornoway and Glasgow. Ferry connections and causeways provide a complete north-to-south link through the islands.

The Uists remain the best place to see the unspoiled Hebrides, and are truly far from the hustle and bustle of mainland Britain, although only a few hours away by plane or ferry. Until the formation of the Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) in 1975 the Uists and Barra formed part of Inverness-shire, together with Barra and Harris; the island of Lewis was administered by the county of Ross and Cromarty. Many islanders resented being managed from afar, and there was a genuine welcome for the new Comhairle in 1975, when islanders felt their fate was at last being governed by islanders. The main council offices for the Uists are in Balivanich; there is a smaller office in Castlebay on Barra.

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Wildlife and environment

The Uists are a haven for birdlife, especially wildfowl and wading birds. They are also an important habitat for the corncrake (Latin name Crex Crex), a migratory dry-land type of moorhen which can be heard calling in the Uist grasslands between April and September. The bird is protected, and brings many birdspotters to the islands, and has a distinctive, loud call. Less welcome species are the greylag geese, which breed on the islands and which cause significant problems for crofters who find them grazing on their grasslands in large numbers. Another unwelcome import is the hedgehog, which eats the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Between 2003-2007 there was a systematic attempt to cull all hedgehogs in the Uists, and locals were paid a bounty for capture. There was an international outcry at this policy, and now Hebridean hedgehogs are relocated to mainland sanctuaries. Other introduced predators include the American mink, escaped from captivity, after there was a short-lived initiative to encourage fur farming on the islands. The mink are particularly destructive to birdlife, both wild and domesticated, and efforts have been made to cull them.

The coastline environment of the Uists also makes them a significant draw for visitors – the beaches are stunning, wild, clean and deserted.  On the east coast, a wide variety of marine mammals can often be spotted from the shoreline.

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Individual islands

Berneray is the most northerly of the Uist islands group, and is connected to North Uist by a causeway. With a population of just 130, and a size of 1,010 hectares, it is the smallest inhabited island in the Uists. Berneray is well-known for its stunning beaches and views across the Sound of Harris, but is also famous in Scottish and Canadian history for being the birthplace of the ‘giant’ Angus MacAskill (1825-1863), for many years the tallest man who ever lived at a height of 7ft 9 inches (2.36 metres).  He was born in Berneray, but moved with his parents to Nova Scotia in Canada and subsequently toured with PT Barnum’s circus.

North Uist, with a population of 1,270 (2001 census) is the tenth largest Scottish island, with an area of 117 square miles (30,300 hectares). It is home to the port of Lochmaddy, which serves as a fishing port and a ferry terminal for Calmac ferries from Uig on the Isle of Skye. Lochmaddy is a thriving centre with the award-winning Taigh Chearsabhagh arts centre, galleries, museum and cafe on its doorstep.

Benbecula , with a population of 1,200, is home to the small town of Balivanich, a former British military settlement from the Cold War. It comprises only 31.7 square miles or 8,200 hectares, but is also the most densely populated, mainly around its single small town. Balivanich is the main administrative centre of the Uists: as well as the airport, it hosts the Council offices, police station and a small, multi-function hospital. A significant challenge for Balivanich has been to maintain its community identity after the withdrawal of military families: many former military quarters were demolished, and most of the remaining properties transferred to the local housing association. A series of public-funded projects has assisted Balivanich to significantly improve its economy and environment. The island was also the subject of a community buy-out in 2006, for an estate which encompasses Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay.

South Uist (with a population of 1,800) is the most populous of the four islands. It is also the biggest island in this group  with a size of 124 square miles (32,000 square kilometres).  Featuring stunning machair and white-sand beaches down its western side, it has a main settlement, Lochboisdale, which is also the ferryport for Oban on the Scottish mainland; and Castlebay on Barra. The island is also now linked to the island of Eriskay by causeway. Flora MacDonald, long associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie, was born on South Uist in 1722.

Eriskay is usually associated with the Isle of Barra, but since 2001 it has been linked to South Uist by causeway. Eriskay has a population of 130, and is only 700 hectares. It is the most southerly isle of the group, and takes it fame for being the isle where the SS Politician (of the film Whisky Galore fame) was actually shipwrecked. Its more significant reputation is where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed with his ‘seven men of Moidart’ in 1745 to begin the Jacobite Uprising and lay claim to the throne.

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