Western Isles Island Games Association
Comann Geamannan Eileanach nan Eilean Siar

About The Western Isles

View from Scarp

Location and Communication Links

The Western Isles are an archipelago of islands lying 55km off the west coast of mainland Scotland sitting at a latitude of 58 00 N and a longitude of 8 00 W in the north Atlantic Ocean.  The Western Isles are also known as the ‘Outer Hebrides’.  The ‘Inner Hebrides’ being a second collection of islands located between the Outer Hebrides and the Scottish mainland.  Unusually, there are no corresponding Eastern Isles.

Western Isles Location Map

The largest island in the Western Isles is Lewis and Harris.  Although connected by a narrow strip of land, they are often referred to as the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris and to many they are considered as separate as if they were two distinct islands.  Moving down the Western Isles (southwards) from Lewis and Harris, the main islands are; Taransay, Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra, Vatersay, Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay. There are also scores of even smaller islands scattered in and around these larger ones.  

The word Hebrides is thought to have originated from a misprint of the word ‘Hebudes’.  This was the name by which ‘the islands west of the coast of Scotland’ were known to Ptolemy, the 2nd century Egyptian astronomer and mathematician. The name ‘Hebudes’ is itself considered to be a corruption of the Norse word ‘Havbredey’, meaning 'Isles on the edge of the sea'.  The name is certainly apt with the most northerly point on the Western Isles, the Butt of Lewis also representing the most northwesterly point in the whole of Europe.

Air and sea transport between the Western Isles and the Scottish mainland is extremely good all year round, with regular sailings to Oban and Ullapool and flights to the main Scottish International airports in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness which allow easy transfer to elsewhere in Europe and the World.  Inter-island communications links are also good, with a number of fixed links (causeways and bridges), frequent ferry services and island hopping flights.  Barra airport, which lies on the north east coast of the island is washed by the tide twice a day and is the only beach airport in the world to handle scheduled airline services.


Geography and Environment

The Western Isles is a long chain of islands running roughly north to south.  There are over 100 islands of all shapes and sizes, which make up a land area of some 305,000 ha.  The islands have an extensive coastline, approximately 2,700km, which is the result of numerous sea lochs, bays and inlets.  The Islands measure 210km in length from the Butt of Lewis in the north to the small and uninhabited Islands of Berneray and Mingulay at the southern extremity.  The islands are 60km at the widest point.

The islands are almost completely composed of an assemblage of rocks collectively referred to as Lewisian. They contain some of the most ancient rocks in Europe, which once formed the basement of a large North Atlantic continent.   Similar rocks can be found today, exposed in Greenland and eastern Canada. The oldest rocks date from a period some 2,800 million years ago.

Lewis and the southern island chain comprising the Uists, Benbecula and Barra are relatively flat, covered by lochs and peat bog.  However, the central landmass of Harris provides relief in the landscape with the majority of higher land.  Clisham in North Harris is the highest peak at 799 metres.  Tree cover is scarce on the Isles and the only significant area of mixed tree cover is the planted gardens of Lews Castle in Stornoway.  The coast is typically rocky in the east, but with long white sandy shell beaches in the west.  These Atlantic beaches can be several kilometres long and lead into flat strips of fertile duneland or ‘machair’ (grassland).

The quality of the natural environment in the Western Isles is unique.  A large percentage of land, areas of inland water and marine sites are designated for nature conservation purposes.  A third of the land area in the Isles is encompassed within one of three National Scenic Area designations, there are 4 National Nature Reserves, 15 Special Protection Areas, 13 candidate Special Areas of Conservation and 55 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  A key characteristic of the Islands is the amount of inland water that covers the landscape and amazingly, although only constituting 1.3% of the total landmass of the UK, the Western Isles is home to 15% of the UK’s total freshwater surface area.

Like many more northerly parts of Europe, at certain times of year you also have a good chance of seeing one of the world's most magnificent natural phenomena in the Western Isles, that of the Northern Lights or aurora borealis.



The Islands have a typical marine climate dominated by ‘North Atlantic Drift’, with only slight temperature changes throughout the year.  Despite the northerly latitude, winters are rarely cold on the coast with an average winter high of 7°C (44°F).  Conversely, summers are rarely very warm with an average summer high of around 16°C (60°F).  There is however, lots of daylight in the summer months with barely two hours of darkness midsummer due to the northerly latitude of the Islands.  The sunniest months are April to June and the sunniest day on record in the last 30 years was the 20th June 1977 in Benbecula when 16.9 hours of sunshine were recorded. 

Climatically, wind and rain are the dominant features of the Western Isles.  May is the driest month and December the wettest.  Wind specifically however, is the element most associated with the Western Isles weather.  January is generally the windiest month and the highest gust recorded at Stornoway in recent years was 98 knots (113 mph) in February 1962.


Population and Major Centres

Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, is the capital and main port on the Western Isles.  The Census in 2001 recorded a total population of 26,502 on the Isles, with over one-third of this (just under 10,000 people) living within Stornoway and its immediate surroundings. 

The majority of key services and infrastructure is located in and around Stornoway such as the airport, Lews Castle College (part of the University of the Highlands), Western Isles Hospital and the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (literally the Council of the Isles).  Stornoway is the only settlement on the Isles large enough to be considered a town.  Other centres of population and human activity include, Tarbert in Harris, Lochmaddy in North Uist, Balivanich in Benbecula, Lochboisdale in South Uist, and Castlebay in Barra.  However, settlement in the Western Isles largely comprises the dispersed townships and scattered communities characteristic of the crofting tradition.  Over 75% of land on the Isles is in crofting tenure and there are approximately 6,000 crofts. 

In 2003, 11 islands within the Western Isles chain are inhabited, 50 years ago this number was 27.  In the 1950’s, however, many of those 27 islands had less than 5 inhabitants and this has dwindled over the years to leave many uninhabited.



There is evidence of considerable prehistoric human activity on the Western Isles, as can be seen in an array of archaeological sites including, brochs, cairns, duns and stone circles.  The most famous of these sites being the Standing Stones at Calanais (Callanish).  These pre-date Stonehenge.  The area around Calanais is in fact home to over 20 monuments erected between 3000 and 4000 years ago. However, the site is best know for Calanais I, which is a complex arrangement of some 50 stones.  

The earliest written references to the Western Isles are contained in Norse Saga.  The influence of Norse invaders and settlers is still evident in many names, which are Scandinavian in origin.  The more recent history of the islands has been strongly shaped by the clan system.  To this day, original clan surnames such as MacNeil, MacDonald, MacLeod, MacAulay and Maclver are the common names in the Western Isles and to a large extent many have retained their ancient geographical distribution.

In the 20th Century, perhaps one of the most famous stories encapsulating the spirit of the Western Isles and its inhabitants, is that of St Kilda.  The archipelago of St Kilda is the remotest part of the British Isles and lies a further 66km west of the Western Isles.  The islands are a natural haven from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean and are extremely important to seabirds.  They were also home to a native population up until 1930 when the remaining inhabitants were excavated to the mainland.  Theirs was a history of survival inextricably linked to the natural environment, particularly the sea.  The layout of the 19th-century village remains and the islands of St Kilda, with their exceptional cliffs and sea stacs, form the most important seabird breeding station in northwest Europe.  It is hoped that St Kilda will soon become one of only 24 places in the world to have joint World Heritage Status, covering both its unique natural environment and cultural human history.


Government and Land Ownership

From the 8th Century the Norse ruled large parts of the Western Isles.  Prior to this, there was unlikely to be any formal system of governance.  The Western Isles were returned to the Scottish Crown under the Treaty of Perth in 1266.  Nowadays, the Western Isles has sovereignty within the United Kingdom and is governed by the Scottish Parliament and Westminster.


Language and Culture

Native islanders in the Western Isles have a strong cultural identity largely stemming from a unique and eventful history.  Life in the Western Isles relates directly to the physical environment and geography of the Islands, the crofting system and specifically, to the Gaelic language. The Gaelic culture in the Western Isles is more prominent than in any other part of Scotland.  Gaelic is still the language of choice amongst many islanders and around 60% of islanders speak Gaelic.   All signposts on the islands are written in both English and 'Gàidhlig' and much day-to-day business is carried out in the Gaelic language.

The Western Isles also have a distinctive history combined with a vibrant culture, traditionally recollected in stories and song.   To celebrate this tradition a range of cultural events run on the islands annually.  The Hebridean Celtic Festival started in 1996 is held in mid-July for three days in Stornoway.  The festival includes events such as ceilidhs, dances and special concerts featuring storytelling, song and music with performers from all round the Isles and beyond.

There is also the Ceòlas Music Summer School, the Harris Arts Festival and Barra Live bringing Gaelic culture not only, to those who live on the isles but, their popularity is growing each year as the events attract more and more people from further a field.



There are around 12,000 jobs within the Western Isles economy.  The main economic sectors in terms of employment are public administration (including education and healthcare), fishing and fish farming, distribution, and construction.  Fishing and fish farming in particular provide an important contribution to the Western Isles economy.

The other major income earner in the Western Isles is tourism.  In 2002, tourism was estimated to be worth some £39.3 million with approximately 180,000 visitors to the Isles.  The number of visitors coming to the Western Isles is increasing year on year and the tourist season has expanded from a mainly summer industry to span March to October.  In addition to the history and culture and beautiful natural environment of the Isles, an increase in outdoor pursuits and leisure activities such as cycling, walking, sailing, fishing, surfing and sea kayaking are attracting more and more people each year.

Traditional sectors are also still important in the Western Isles.  Harris Tweed weaving and crofing/agriculture contribute less than 2% between them to total value added to the economy, however, both these sectors provide important income generation in the more remote areas.  Harris Tweed is one of the islands most famous exports.  This is a cloth, which is handwoven by the islanders of Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra in their homes using pure virgin wool that has also been dyed and spun on the Isles.  The name of Harris Tweed has been protected by and Act of Parliament (1993) and the distinctive orb symbol is recognised throughout the world synonymous with quality and durability.

Recent developments in the Western Isles are seeing a move towards a more diverse economy and less reliance on some of the more traditional industries.  Developments in renewable energy and the use of information communications technology are seen as important in helping to overcome some of the disadvantages of being a chain of remote islands.


Sport and Leisure Activities

The main sports centre in the Western Isles is located in Stornoway.  The Nicholson Lewis Sports Centre has a full range of sports facilities both indoor and outdoor, which provides an excellent facility for school children and the general public.  Due to the importance and popularity of the sports centre, a £1.5 million sportscotland award is helping to fund a brand new facility to replace the ageing building.  Due for completion in July 2004, this will include badminton courts, a games hall, six-lane swimming pool with moveable floor, a fitness suite, multi sports ancillary hall, crèche, soft play area and squash courts.

A second sports centre is located in Lionacleit on North Uist providing key sports facilities for the surrounding areas.  A range of smaller, local community facilities are also provided throughout the Isles and a whole host of sporting activities are pursued with clubs and organised events throughout the year covering sports such as rugby, football, shinty, fishing, riding, canoeing, golf and athletics.  There are four half marathons run every year on the Isles and a range of charity focused events.

Outdoor activities and multi-sports are particularly popular on the Western Isles and for the ultimate fitness test there is the Hebridean Challenge.  This is a demanding adventure race run in five daily stages, which takes place along the length of the Isles.  It can be entered by teams or individuals and includes hill and road running, road and mountain biking, short sea swims and very demanding sea kayaking sections.


Calanais Stones
Hebridean Beach
Ness Lighthouse
Tiumpan Head Lighthouse
Stornoway Harbour
Rodel Harbour
Tolsta - Ness


Western Isles Island Games Association
Comann Geamannan Eileanach nan Eilean Siar