Why wild camping?
If you’re wondering, why wild camping? In a tent? Stay tuned – I promise it redeems itself.
As with mainland Scotland, the Outer Hebrides permit wild camping anywhere you might desire (that’s not private or specifically excluded). This generates fantastic opportunities for a truly unforgettable holiday!
In the volatile wilderness of the Outer Hebrides, nothing beats the adventure of a tent, which, equipped with reasonable equipment, is not so challenging as might be anticipated. Additionally, wild camping provides a relatively inexpensive way to explore.
If considering Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, they actually consist of over 100 islands, though only 15 are inhabited. Each of these is connected to at least one other island by a land transport route, though can only be accessed from the mainland by ferry.
For many, the isolation is precisely what makes it so attractive.
I personally visited Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay, South and North Uist, Benbecula, Flodaigh, Berneray, Harris and Lewis, roughly in that order. Together, Lewis and Harris form the largest island in the British Isles (ignoring Great Britain and Ireland), and are comfortably the most populated Outer Hebridean island.
This post also appeared on Tales from a Tent.
Please explore this interactive map hovered over the Isle of Lewis.
This could be the most important consideration for any trip. The trade-off to wild camping in picturesque solitude is the difficulty in getting there. Thankfully, owing to modern transport developments, that difficulty is significantly mitigated.
(Do consider that, as of writing, only essential travel is permitted due to COVID restrictions.)
Airports are located in Stornoway (Isle of Lewis), Benbecula, and Barra, so flying into the Outer Hebrides is very possible. Causeways now connect many of the islands, so they can be accessed by land vehicle.
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This is supplemented by regular ferry routes between unconnected islands. I would recommend visiting as many as possible, since each island boasts unique features and activities. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry company offers convenient travel between the islands, including ‘Hopscotch passes’, which include a packaged itinerary with several links.
Driving in a private vehicle is straight-forwards, the roads primarily open and quiet. There are also less consistent public transport options running on the islands, though some are specifically by request, so plan ahead accordingly.
Ferry tickets are considerably more expensive when boarding with a vehicle. It is instead entirely possible to traverse the islands on foot, or by bike, following the ‘Hebridean Way’ route. Tracking 185 miles from Vatersay all the way to the Butt of Lewis, it enables explorers to fully appreciate the raw spectacle of the landscape.
Though it might seem daunting, there is truly no rush. Every inch of the Outer Hebrides is beautiful, and affords a new campsite each night.
Places to wild camp
As a wild camper, you are bound to certain responsibilities. Be respectful of the area around you, and follow the basic rules to ensure you remain a considerate guest in this environment. Avoid any private land; heed any fences or signs. Don’t leave any rubbish, cause excess noise, or incite any deliberate disruption.
Ultimately, this is only to preserve the natural beauty for future campers, and should not inhibit personal enjoyment.
I most enjoyed camping by the spectacular coasts. Though they tended to be more exposed as sites, I often found that wind corresponded with fewer midges. Having failed to bring any insect protection on my trip, this was a great advantage.
The beaches were stunning, melting into perfectly clear waters that resembled the Mediterranean on warm days, never ending without vivid sunsets unleashing crimson explosion across the waves.
Vatersay beach, the most Southern point of the Hebridean Way, provided my first night wild camping, though won’t be soon forgotten. The surprisingly warm turquoise waters bath spotless, white sands, which rise into tall grass providing adequate protection from the elements. The nearby Visitors Centre (when open) also allows explorers to indulge in their shower facilities.
In addition to camping on the shores of sparkling seas, many of the lochs are blissfully tranquil. Loch Langais is an impossibly perfect expanse of implacable water, capturing the entire sky and surroundings in a mirror-like sheen. A small, unofficial car park can be used off the road towards the Langass Lodge, whilst the loch lies just beyond it. The silence is soul-enriching.
Impressive as the wild camping potential is, a splattering of campsites afford the opportunity to recover from any exhaustion, whilst remaining cheap. Huddled against the tidal waves of Loch Stockinish, Isle of Harris, the Lickisto Blackhouse Campsite is a wonderful blend of ‘glamping’ and wild camping. Secluded pitches are connected to central buildings, for washing and relaxing, all fully immersed in gorgeous scenery.
What to do in the Outer Hebrides?
Armed with the freedom of tented wild camping, I dedicated most days to walking the untamed acres of soggy marshland. Whilst in the Outer Hebrides, I averaged over 15km per day for the fortnight. Naturally, exploring to this extent would not satisfy everyone.
For the more intrepid, many routes can be sourced through ‘Walk highlands’, which provided me much inspiration. Generally easy to follow, expect to be challenged, both by the marshy terrain, and in navigating the often featureless plains.
Circling Loch Druidibeg, located in a nature reserve on South Uist, is very pleasant, as is venturing across to the small Isle of Flodaigh, which is frequently visited by inquisitive seals clearly visible dotted between various islets. The Coffin Trail, on the Isle of Harris, is another enjoyable walk with a vaguely unsettling history: given the rocky ground, deceased islanders were carried over 14 miles to the island’s other side where they could be buried.
Across the Outer Hebridean islands, a plethora of different wildlife species inhabits spaces largely untouched by humans. Though not exclusive to wild camping, visitors can select from a variety of different companies to embark upon walking or boat tours. Sadly, during my visit I was unable to fully utilise the proximity of this abundant nature, but was still able to visit the Eagle Observatory Centre on the Isle of Harris.
Two nesting golden eagles occupy this territory, whilst the centre’s visitor log reported that other birds and red deer can also be spotted.
Amongst other sightings, over the course of my trip I saw Grey seals, gannets, otters, and fishing eagles. Depending on the season, boating tours can encounter orcas, basking sharks, and dolphins.
History and culture
Scotland’s Outer Hebrides also exhibit a rich history to be explored, dating back to the late Neolithic era. The famous Callanish Stones, on the Isle of Lewis, are a standing circle presumed to have been involved in Bronze Age rituals, surrounding a central monolith. Several myths enshroud this formation, since the original purpose will never be discerned, though popular folklore describes them as petrified giants.
Also found on the Isle of Lewis is Dun Carloway Broch, a partial preserved structure dating to c. 1st Century AD, and would have been designed as a defensive structure. Though the roof has since been destroyed, the walls are intact.
Representing other trivia interest, the Isle of Barra hosted filming for the Ealing Comedy classic ‘Whiskey Galore!’ in 1947 – avid fans can download the film to enjoy in its original location!
In other film news, a monument to Hercules the Bear, who starred in James Bond’s Octopussy, is tucked into the Langass Community forest, on the Isle of North Uist. His true celebrity status was attained earlier, after successfully escaping in 1980 to explore the Outer Hebrides himself for over three weeks.
Food and Drink
On my trip, I primarily subsisted upon prepared rations, which were regularly re-supplied from the plentiful shops spread across the islands. Since I was driving, I could afford to allocate space towards a gas stove, and several cool bags. On a typical morning, we fried eggs, before preparing sandwiches for lunch, and then cooked either microwave rice or quick-cook pasta.
Should you opt to walk or cycle, food preparation and storage should be a major consideration, for comfort if nothing else.
Personally, I neglected to explore the local cuisines. Specialities were, perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood-related, with Tripadvisor providing an extensive guide. One remarkable feature of Harris and Lewis is their propensity for proudly brewing delectable gins and whiskeys.
Weather in the Outer Hebrides
On a final note, when wild camping anywhere, anticipate the elements proving a significant adversary. The Outer Hebrides exemplify this fact.
It is wet. Very, very wet. Being a series of islands, they are routinely subjected to intensely volatile weather, which can include howling winds and torrential downpours, interspersed with sudden breaks of warm. Sustained bouts of rain were rare, though storms could roll in, materialising instantly, drench anything in their path, and fade into the horizon.
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