Barra to South Uist/ Benbecula to Harris / Lewis


Bridges and causeways link Benbecula, the ‘Island of fords’ to North and South Uist.

South Ford causewaySouth Ford was crossed by a concrete bridge in 1942. This single-lane bridge was about 800 metres in length and crossed from South Uist to Creagorry Island and then on to Benbecula. It allowed Benbecula's new RAF base - now the Airport - to be connected by road to the ferry port of Lochboisdale. The bridge was deteriorating by the 1970s and was replaced by the South Ford causeway that opened in 1982.

Islands and isletsNorth Ford was always a problem as for significant parts of each tide cycle it was too wet to ford, but not wet enough to cross by ferry. This all changed in 1960 when the late Queen Mother opened the North Ford Causeway, a five mile arc of single track road linking Benbecula and North Uist via the western tip of Grimsay.

The landscape is of small islands and islets, machair and shallow sandy bays. Crofting and fishing continue to occupy many of the island's inhabitants.

Sand and machairThe island is divided along a north-south line by the A865. The eastern two thirds are a jumble of fresh water lochs, moorland, bog and deeply indenting sea lochs. The west is also lochan-strewn, but contains most of the cultivated land and almost all of its settlement.

The coast is machair, sand dunes and wide white beaches. Locals call the beach at Poll na Crann "stinky bay" when seaweed collected by storms ferments in the sun. The seaweed has long been used as a fertiliser, but more recently has also been used as the raw material for a factory producing alginates.


West coast road We chose to take the road along the west coast through Lionacleit. The Community School at Lionacleit houses a library, museum, restaurant, theatre, swimming pool and sports centre. Regular exhibitions are held at the school which include displays by the Benbecula History Society and these are open to the general public.

Borve ruinsBorve Castle is a tower-house, which was built in the 14th century. At this time, the owners of Benbecula were the Clan Ranald and it is thought that Borve was owned by Ranald, son of John of Islay in the 1370s.

It was also owned by Ranald of Castellborf in 1625. Now in ruins, the remains can be seen of a rectangular structure with very thick walls.


Roadside shrineWe passed several shrines by the roadside and there is a medieval chapel and burial ground on the right-hand side of the road before Balivanich. Benbecula is dominated by the Ministry of Defence missile range headquarters, RAF base and airport at Balivanich. This is the administrative centre of the Southern Isles, and the most built-up area of the Outer Hebrides outside Stornoway. It was pouring with rain so our visit to this watery island was shorter than we had hoped.

Benbecula AirportWe called at the small airport as there is a café. This is located on a spit of grassy dune land at the north west corner of Benbecula. Aircraft have operated here since the late 1930s, and in 1942 an RAF base was established to guard Atlantic convoys and hunt U-boats.

Benbecula AirportAt the end of the war it became Benbecula Airport, linking Benbecula to the rest of Scotland. At the end of the 1950s the military built an Army base.

Benbecula Airport is operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, which operate 9 other airports in Scotland.


RuevalThis is Benbecula's highest hill and on the southern slopes is Prince Charlie's Cave - where Charles Edward Stuart managed to hide himself before fleeing to Skye with Flora MacDonald disguised as her Irish maid.

There is a walk around the south side of Rueval which gives good views over the islands and eventually reaches the indented coastline.


Uist road North Uist measures around 18 miles by 12, with a ring of "A" road that can be driven in 45 minutes. The eastern two thirds are characterised by freshwater lochans that seem to occupy more of the land than the land itself, plus deeply indented sea lochs.

Welcome signThe west has fewer lochans than the east and the coast is outlined by sandy beaches, machair and white mud flats. This side looks out to the beautiful small Isle of Vallay which can be reached at low tide.

Langass viewNorth Uist was granted by James IV to the Macdonalds of Sleat, in Skye in 1495. They cleared many of the tenants from their homes to make room for sheep and then sold the island in 1855. The population, which had stood at 3870 in 1841, started a steady decline to a new low of 1271 in 2001.


North FordWe crossed the North Ford Causeway to Grimsay. This tiny island is surrounded by shifting tidal sands, sea, lochs and islets. This area is generally known as North Ford and until 1960 it was one of the most difficult obstructions to passage along the length of the Western Isles.

A ferry linked North Uist to Benbecula but could only operate at high tide. The actual ford was usually only crossed with the help of expert guides, being four miles long and marked with cairns. It shifted unpredictably with the sands and could only be passed for an hour either side of low tide.

KallinIt is very easy to pass Grimsay as it lies half way across the Causeway which runs across the tip of the island, but it is worth spending the time to see this attractive little island. Grimsay is only four miles long by two wide and is encircled by a single track road that links most of the settlements.

KallinWe had the road to ourselves and enjoyed the scenic drive. We passed Baymore, a favourite haunt of artists and stopped at the pretty port of Kallin.

The harbour here was built in 1985 and is the centre for the island's growing fishing fleet. The boats from Kallin fish for lobster, scallops and prawns as well as for flatfish using long lines. The area is also becoming a centre for fish farming, selling produce for markets in Southern Europe.


Teampull na TrionaidNear Carinish are the impressive remains of the 13th century Teampull na Trionaid, or the Church of the Holy Trinity. This is believed to have been founded by Bethag, daughter of Somerled in the 1100s and is where the sons of medieval chieftains later received their education.

River of Blood at CairinisWe parked the car and walked across fields, on duckboard paths constructed over the marshy areas, passing over the "ditch of blood".

This is the site of the Battle of Cairinis, fought in 1601 and said to be the last one fought in Scotland using traditional weapons. It was caused by a dispute when one of the resident Clan MacDonald decided to divorce his wife - a MacLeod from Harris. The result was the arrival of a raiding party of MacLeods who were trounced by the MacDonalds.

Teampull nettlesTeampull na Trionaid could once have formed the focus of a significant collection of buildings, giving credibility to stories of an early monastery or ecclesiastical centre of learning. It is now full of nettles and thistles.

Teampull viewIt was enlarged in the 1300s by Amie Nic Ruari, the first wife of John, Lord of the Isles, before being reconstructed in the 1500s. After the Reformation the church fell out of use and was in a ruinous state by 1896.


Causeway from Baleshare A minor road west lead us to yet another causeway, built in 1962, to the island of Baleshare. Once across the causeway we arrived in a remarkably flat landscape, so flat that there is not a single contour line on our Ordnance Survey map. The southern half of the island is totally empty and most of the people live in a scattered line of cottages at the northern end of the island.

Road end sculptureA line of dunes fringe the beach and you can walk down onto a vast expanse of shell-white sand with views of North West Uist’s beaches and south to Benbecula Airfield.

On the landward side of the causeway, we went to find an ‘end of the road’ sculpture, a quirky ceramic seat overlooking more magnificent views.

Barpa Langass

We took the road from Clachan towards Lochmaddy, as we were staying at the Langass Lodge Hotel. This road was undergoing massive improvements. Behind the hotel and up a very boggy hill on a boarded walkway we went to see the remains of quite an impressive stone circle called Pobull Fhinn.

Boarded walkway Pobull FhinnPobull Fhinn

From here there is a wonderful view overlooking Loch Langass with Eaval in the distance. Further up the hill you reach the 5000-year-old chambered cairn of Barpa Langass, which contains a large burial vault.


Ferry terminus Lochmaddy is the main settlement on the island and the terminus for the ferry to Uig on Skye. The original name was Cearsabhagh or Kersivay, probably given by Norse residents 1000 years ago. In 1802 a fishing village was built around the quay to take advantage of the plentiful herring supply. Steamers began to leave for Skye in 1834 and the Lochmaddy Hotel was built in 1864 to accommodate visitors coming to fish or shoot. The first vehicle ferries started in 1963.

Sheriff CourtIt is a pleasant village with good facilities. The church was built in 1891, while the Sheriff Court dates back to 1875. The hospital, slightly removed from the rest of the village, was originally built as a poor house in 1882, but closed in 2001.

Tigh Dearg Hotel A much more recent addition is the Tigh Dearg Hotel whose name comes from the Gaelic for red house – and it is painted a vivid red to match its name.

Taigh ChearsabhaghAn inn called Taigh Chearsabhagh was built in 1741 by a local merchant and this was converted to a Museum and Arts Centre during 1994. We were impressed by this attractive centre, if only for the first rate café. There is a shop, facilities for artists and photographers, a museum and two galleries where work by artists is displayed.

Mackerel sculptureWe decided to look for the unusual sculptures in the Uists that are part of the ‘Road Ends’ project. We found a mosaic of a mackerel made from local stone laid out on the rocks nearby and then went in search of the ‘Hut Of The Shadows’.

Suspension bridgeThis involved a walk from the Uist Outdoor Centre, over a small suspension bridge to the Sponish Peninsula.

Hut Of The ShadowsThe sculpture by artist Chris Drury looks like a miniature ancient monument. Inside there is a small dark chamber with a mirror and lens projecting the external scene onto the internal wall through a pinhole like a camera obscura.


End of the road Continuing anti-clockwise on the loop road we passed the township of Sollas and on to Greinetobht where we drove down a track that was full of pot holes to the beach.

Picnic spotThere is a small picnic area and a vast expanse of sand. You can take wonderful walks from here to the sandy peninsula of Machair Leathann.

Evidence of continuous occupation of the island from the Bronze Age has been discovered and there are several ancient monuments here, including a 3000 year old Neolithic site.

The WestCoast

'C' roadDriving west from here the road overlooks this small tower on an islet in a loch. It was built in 1830 by Dr. Alex MacLeod and you can get to it by carefully walking over the stones.

MacLeod's towerThere’s a rock arch at Tigharry and a cave with an opening in the roof; during storms water can shoot up to 60 metres high.

For animal lovers, the Balranald Nature Reserve is on the western tip of North Uist and here the corncrake and rare red-necked phalarope may be spotted. The Uist Animal Visitor Centre is at Bayhead.

Claddach KirkibostThe Claddach Kirkibost Centre is located just north of Clachan. There was a small exhibition of superb paintings and we had a very nice lunch in the conservatory cafe. The centre is open seasonally with E-mail facilities, an Internet café and they hold other exhibitions and cultural events as well.

North East Uist

Sheep-jam Our route towards the Sound of Harris Ferry took us on a spur from the A865 ring road towards Newtonferry. The old passenger-only ferry to Berneray and Leverburgh used to run from here but now the road just ends by some houses.

Dun an SticirWe got held up in a sheep-jam.

At the junction with the new road is a broch on an islet that is known as Dun an Sticir. It is a small Iron Age fortress, known to have been lived in until 1602. It is possible to walk across the bog to the original three connecting stone causeways.


Berneray Although a number of the islands in the Sound of Harris were once populated, Berneray is now the only one left, although the population has steadily decreased. Berneray has been occupied for many centuries with evidence of settlements from Viking periods and before. Climbing the hills is a particularly good way of viewing historical sites and buildings.

BerneraySettlement now comprises a few crofts and cottages along the east coast, mainly around Bays Loch. Further north the road ends at the beautiful sandy beach at Beasdaire, overlooked by a walled graveyard. Berneray rises to a height of 305 feet at Beinn Shleibhe and 278 feet at Borve Hill. The western half of the island is flat with dunes backing over three miles of white, shell sand beach.

Bays LochIn 1697 the entire village of Siabaidh was buried by sand in a storm. In the 19th century, the economics of Berneray changed as the local seaweed industry declined, and potato crops were affected by blight. In 1848 the ‘destitution road’ was built as a way of keeping some of the population employed but many families emigrated to America.

Beside the harbourBays Loch used to be the terminus for a ferry service, started by the MacLeods of Harris, who owned Berneray at the time. Now it has a very pretty thriving harbour.

CausewayIn 1999, Prince Charles opened the 900m causeway linking the island to North Uist. As part of the work, a slipway and harbour were built on the island close to the northern end of the causeway.

Ferry terminalBefore this, the only way to transport a car from North Uist to Harris was from Lochmaddy, via Uig on Skye, to Tarbert and this could take four hours. Now there is a new service which is also a major employer of residents.

Harris ferryThe Sound of Harris is shallow and full of islands so the CalMac ferry used a novel propulsion system that allowed it a high degree of manoeuvrability in these waters.

Traffic using the ferry increased far more than anyone had predicted so in 2006 it started to operate seven days per week amid controversy in Harris about Sunday Observance.


RodelLewis and Harris are the northern two-thirds and southern thirdof the same island. Some say the distinction between the two dates back to a split in the MacLeod clan which dominated the Western Isles for centuries. The border follows Loch Resort in the west and Loch Seaforth in the east and an imaginary east-west line crossing the six miles of high moorland between them that impeded land access between the two parts, turning them into virtually separate islands.

ScaristaNote that Sunday observance is VERY strong. Most transport links to the island and within it do not operate and most shops, petrol stations, cafes, pubs, and visitor attractions are closed. It is worth planning your visit to avoid Sunday if possible.

Typical sceneryHarris is characterised by high mountains, deeply indented sea lochs, coastal islands and beautiful white beaches. Harris is formed on the oldest rock in the world, Lewisian Gneiss, giving a strange lunar landscape. The east coast is a dramatic, rocky landscape, whereas the west coast has miles of golden sandy beaches and machair with mountainous backdrops.

Harris tweed, woven by hand in homes throughout the Western Isles, is famed for its quality and sturdiness and many weavers are happy to show off their skills to visitors.


Between the buoysThe ferry from Berneray followed a convoluted passage between many buoys to Leverburgh – a fascinating journey. The Sound of Harris Ferry has been a runaway success and the impact on Leverburgh has been positive. A new road has been built to allow ferry traffic to bypass the higher parts of the village.

LeverburghThe village was originally known as An t-Ob, meaning "the creek" and at the end of the 1800s the settlement had a weekly steamer to Glasgow and a small fishing community. In 1918 Lord Leverhume purchased the whole of Lewis and Harrisand over the following five years he set to work to transform the economy, spending a million pounds in the process. In 1923 he gave up his plans for Lewis and decided to concentrate on Harris.

Ferry at LeverburghAn t-Ob was renamed Leverburgh in 1921and Leverhume built and equipped fishing boats and set up a processing plant. The idea was to supply his chain of retail fish shops called MacFisheries. He died in 1925 and his dream died with him. The vast South Harris estate, purchased in 1918 for £36,000, was sold for £900.

An Clachan Centre has a grocery store, tearoom and craft shop and outside there are new petrol pumps, although we had to pay £1.08 per litre – not a lot of choice over here!


Rodel HotelRodel, at the very tip of South Harris, was once the historic capital, religious centre and the main port of Harris. Down at the harbour the Rodel Hotel was refurbished in 2001 and is also home to an art exhibition.

St Clement's ChurchSt Clement's Church is the finest example of ecclesiastical architecture in the Hebrides. It is believed to have been built on the site of an older church but fell into disuse after the reformation in 1560. The church was repaired by Alexander MacLeod in 1784, but it burned down almost immediately, leading to further restoration in 1787. The Countess of Dunmore arranged for it to be repaired again in 1873 and it is now in the care of Historic Scotland.

Crotach tombThe interior of the church is a plain cruciform shape, and leaning against the wall of the north transept are five grave slabs, four of which are medieval. The main point of interest are the three tombs carved in black gneiss depicting knights in armour. One of these is the tomb of the founder, Alisdair Crotach, the 8th Chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan. It is decorated with well-preserved panels containing various religous carvings.

Wooden ladderThe most interesting aspect is the tower, which was built on an outcrop of rock which makes it stand at a higher level than the rest of the church. It is accessed at the west end of the nave by a door which leads to a dark stone staircase built into the thick walls. Access to the upper floors in the tower is via a series of wooden ladders, as it would have been when the church was built.

Burial enclosureThe graveyard surrounding the church on its steeply sloping site contains a number of burial enclosures commemorating MacLeods buried here.

The Golden Road

Golden RoadThe east coast of Harris is known as ‘The Bays’ for its miniature fjiords. The Golden Road runs along the east coast and we have driven it before. It is very narrow and twisting and seems to go on forever through small settlements with Viking and Gaelic names The scenery is awesome, with miles of the rockiest, windswept terrain you’ll find in Scotland.

Golden RoadIt was said in 1897 that the road cost so much to build, it must be made of gold! It certainly is a worthwhile experience and best tackled from Rodel so that the sun is behind you. Fortunately a proposal to develop a superquarry at Lingerbay was finally abandoned in 2004.

Harris TweedWeaverAt Plocrapol visitors can see tweed being hand woven at Harris Tweed and Knitwear and the Skoon Art Cafe at Geocrab offers snacks, Internet access and a showcase for oil paintings. There's an art gallery at Finsbay and you can even go trekking on llamas at Drinishader!


The easier routeSeallamToday we decided to take the easier route up the west coast and drove back through Leverburgh to Northton where there is a new exhibition centre called Seallam.

It sells various books specific to the Western Isles and contains displays of wildlife, the landscape and the way of life of the islanders.MacGillivray Centre

The MacGillivray Centre is named after the famous Scottish naturalist who spent most of his early years here. It is built with local stone to blend into the landscape and has a roof made of timber from the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway.


The road continues right beside 3 miles of wonderful golden beach at Scarista to a golf course with 9 holes and the remains of a standing stone arrangement.

We passed Borve Lodge which is the former home of Lord Leverhulme and stopped just before Horgabost.

Macleod's standing stoneHorgabostA sign points the way to Macleod's standing stone about 700 metres from the road.

The stone is quite large and from the top of the hill the view across to the island of Taransay is superb.

Isle Of Taransay

TaransayTaransay was the island used in the year long BBC project ‘Castaway’ and is a very scenic island. At the turn of the century, 70 people lived here, but by 1961 this had dwindled to 5 members of the Macrae family, and later the island became uninhabited.

Named after Saint Tarran, it is home to the remains of two chapels. Ancient tradition is that if women were buried in the graveyard of St. Keith's chapel or men in St. Tarran's, the bodies would be disinterred overnight.

Luskentyre Beach

Luskentyre BayWhere the coast of Harris is sandy, there are some of the best beaches you will find anywhere. The largest and the most spectacular of them all is Luskentyre and the best views are from Seilibost where you can look north over the dunes and the sand bar to the North Harris mountains.

Luskentyre BayAt high tide much of the Luskentyre Bay is submerged, joining the Sound of Taransay.

LuskentyreWe stopped by the beach just before the main road heads inland and there was no one on this glorious expanse of sand but us.

From here a single track road leads to Luskentyre village to a large car park at one of the two cemetaries. There are a scattering of holiday homes and a lot of sand.


View over to TarbertCycling familyThere are some fantastic views on the road into Tarbert. We stopped at a bench to take in the scenery and saw the cycling family for the last time.

The name Tarbert is fairly common across Scotland and comes from the Norse 'tairbeart' meaning draw-boat. Here, the Vikings would drag their longboats just the few hundred yards into West Loch, to avoid sailing around the Sound of Harris.

HarbourTarbert was a fishing settlement from 1779 and gradually it took over from Rodel which had previously been the historical capital. In 1840 a new pier was built in Loch Tarbert for mail steamers from Uig in Skye.

MV HebridesThe mailboat service continued until 1963 when the MacBrayne car ferry entered service on the Tarbert, Lochmaddy and Uig route. Cars had to drive on using side ramps and were then rotated on a turntable and lowered to a vehicle deck. These days Tarbert is the main port for travel, offering by far the shortest crossing to the Western Isles from mainland Scotland.

We found a garage here as we were in desperate need of air for the tyres and then spent a while watching the MV Hebrides unloading.

Tarbert shopTarbert hotelTarbert shopTarbert memorial

The community is gathered on the north side of Loch Tarbert around the harbour, and on the isthmus between it and West Loch. Close by is the Tourist Information Centre and the main car park. There are hotels, a range of small shops and the Harris Tweed Shop; a Tweed mill had been set up here by 1900.


Road to ScalpayRoad to ScalpayWe took the A868 east from Tarbert, a good, winding road across miles of nothing, through some gorgeous scenery with fabulous coastal views.

The island was reached by ferry from Kyles Scalpay until 1997 when the £6.4m Scalpay Bridge was opened.

Scalpay bridgeScalpay's oldest resident, 103 year old Mrs Kirsty Morrison, became the first person since the ice age to cross the 300 metre wide Sound of Scalpay without using a boat. Subsequently, Stolt opened a £5.7m salmon farming operation here in 2001, but it only lasted 4 years.

TouristsWe stopped to take photographs and were joined by a group of other tourists in a vintage bus.

Welcome signThe island of Scalpay is about 2 miles long and 1 mile wide with a population of 400. There is one road along its south-western shore that faces into the shelter of Loch Tarbert.

This coast is deeply indented forming two natural harbours that are among the best in the Western Isles and from 1912 were the focus of the herring industry.

North HarbourToday over half the workforce is engaged in fishing and many of the women produce the distinctive Scalpay jerseys from Harris wool.

On the eastern tip of the island Eilean Glas Lighthouse can only be reached on foot, but there are nice views over the Shiant Isles. The original lighthouses was constructed in 1788 and the new tower was built in 1824.


View to Hushinis Taking the A859 north, we came to the junction with the Huisinis road, 15 miles of difficult single track road with glorious scenery.

Whaling stationIn 1904, Bunabhainneadar became a centre for whaling and 90ft whaling vessels operated, catching whales as far afield as Rockall and St Kilda. In 1922 the station was purchased by Lord Leverhulme but the industry declined until its final closure in 1952. The building can still be seen, a tall, square brick chimney located close to the shoreline.

Amhuinnsuidhe CastleArdhasaig has a hotel and a pier serving the fish farming operations in the loch and there are some spectacular views at the entrance to Gleann Mhiabhaig, one of the best routes into the interior of North Harris.

The road runs past the privately owned Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, with salmon leaping in the waterfall during the summer. This was built in 1864 for the 7th Earl of Dunmore, but is now part of the North Harris estate and can now be hired for accommodation and events.

Hushinish and The Isle Of Scarp

The road ends at a car park at the east end of the stunning white beach at Huisinis, backed by machair that is covered by flowers in summer. Huisinis is a small collection of cottages and crofts at the other end of the beach. You can walk over the grass to see the tiny island of Scarp across a narrow but treacherous stretch of water.

View towards ScarpThe population fell through the 1900s, the school and post office closed in the 60s and the last families left in 1971. Now there is only holiday accommodation with access from a pier on the north side of Huisinis.

One claim to fame took place in 1934, when a German rocket scientist, Gerhard Zucker, launched a rocket carrying mail from Huisinis towards Scarp, which included a letter written to mark the occasion by the King. Unfortunately the rocket exploded on launch and the idea never caught on.


Walk to Reinigeadal from hereBack on the Stornoway road we passed Clisham, the highest mountain on Harris. A turn to the right - not to be taken by nervous drivers, leads to a few cottages at Reinigeadal. This village used to be reached only by boat, until the road opened in 1989. A walk over the hiils from Tarbert is still very popular. The views take in the lonely eastern coastline and the Shiant Islands which have been uninhabited since 1910.

Harris mountainsThe mountains of North Harris provide a physical barrier so Lewis and Harris developed as if they were two separate islands. The A859 has been improved since our last visit to a fast two lane highway and passing Ardvourlie Castle we came to the river at Bowglas which marks the boundary with Lewis.