walking north uist
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The bleak, remote and treeless islands of the Outer Hebrides run in a 130mi (209km) arc, completely exposed to the gales that sweep in from the Atlantic. The horizon is wide, with white beaches, peat moors and long, low vistas of sky and water dominating. One of Scotland's largest centres for the crofting way of life and Gaelic culture, Protestantism makes it also one of the world's last refuges of the strictly held Sabbath.
Tiny Barra is just 12 miles (19km) around and ideal for exploring on foot. It encapsulates the Outer Hebridean experience, with its beautiful beaches, Neolithic remains and strong sense of community. Heading north, expansive South Uist is the second-largest island in the group. The west coast is low with an almost continuous sandy beach, while the hilly east coast is cut by four large sea lochs. You'll miss low-lying and soggy Benbecula if you blink and, since it's dominated by the British armed forces' missile firing range, perhaps that would be a good thing. North Uist is half-drowned by lochs, with magnificent beaches on the western side. The chambered burial tomb of Bharpa Langas is the islands most spectacular Neolithic site.
Superlatives run out when you reach Harris, which boasts the islands' most spectacular scenery. The combined effect of mountains, beaches, dunes and weird rocky coastline and hills make the other islands in the group pale by comparison. Harris is also home to that cloth of professors, Harris Tweed: it is handwoven in the islanders' homes. The port of Tarbert is overshadowed by mountains on a narrow land bridge, sandwiched between two lochs and North and South Harris. North Harris is the most mountainous part of the Hebrides, while South Harris is known for its beaches, crofts and lunar landscape. The Outer Hebrides terminate at Lewis. The island's northern half is a low and flat moorland, dotted with numerous small lochs and crofts which end at the Butt of Lewis, home to a lighthouse and large colonies of nesting seabirds. The south of Lewis is beautiful, with Carloway Broch, a well-preserved, 2000-year-old defensive tower, and the Callanish Standing Stones' 54 boulders arranged in the shape of a Celtic cross that predate the pyramids by 1000 years.
Just 6 miles (10km) off the north coast of Scotland, these magical islands are known for their dramatic coastal scenery, abundant marine bird life and Europe's greatest concentration of prehistoric sites. Twenty of the 70 islands are inhabited, and the climate is surprisingly mild. Virtually treeless, the land is lush and cultivated rather than rugged. The Norse ruled here from the 9th to 13th centuries, and Scandinavian hints remain.
The largest island is known as Mainland, home to the islands' main town, Kirkwall, and major port, Stromness. Kirkwall features one of Scotland's finest medieval cathedrals, St Magnus', and also has an interesting distillery tour. The ferry port of Stromness is smaller, with a working fishing village atmosphere. Eight miles (13km) north, Skara Brae is northern Europe's best preserved prehistoric village. Hidden under the sand until 1850, even the stone furniture has survived the 5000 years since its occupancy. Nearby, the enigmatic Ring of Brodgar is a wide circle of standing stones, some over 16ft (4.8m) tall.
Across the Scapa Flow from Mainland is Hoy, with the Orkneys' highest mountains, spectacular cliff scenery, a bird sanctuary and the Old Man of Hoy - a 450ft (135m) high rock stack. The bird-filled scattering of northern islands in the Orkneys include Rousay, known as 'the Egypt of the North' because of its numerous archaeological sites. Peaceful, timeless Shapinsay has seal-clogged waters and friendly locals, making it a perfect place to elope to.