History highlights of the Outer Hebrides

The remote islands of the Outer Hebrides are peppered with tributes to the area’s long and fascinating history, from stone circles and Iron Age brochs to medieval churches and perfectly preserved crofting homes. Leading from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis down to South Uist, this 3-day itinerary covers some of the islands’ most interesting historical landmarks, taking you on an unforgettable journey through a unique and beautiful region. 

  • Blackhouse Museum, Arnol
    Blackhouse Museum, Arnol
  • Calanais Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
    Calanais Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
  • The ruins of Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis
    The ruins of Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis
  • Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
    Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
  • Lews Castle
    Lews Castle

The largest settlement in the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway boasts a rich history and is an ideal base for trips around the Isle of Lewis. Take a drive to Loch Arnish, just 5 miles south of the town, where Bonnie Prince Charlie briefly stayed after fleeing his failed rebellion in 1746. The house that sheltered him has gone, but the loch is now the site of a memorial to ‘the Young Pretender’. 

Next head north-west to Arnol Blackhouse, a traditional thatched cottage once home to a crofting family and their animals, which is less than half an hour’s drive from Stornoway. The house has been immaculately preserved since its last residents left in 1966, taking with them a way of life that had stretched back for countless generations, and now gives a unique insight into rural life in the Outer Hebrides.

Carry on down Lewis’ western coast to the Doune Broch, one of Scotland’s best-preserved Iron Age brochs. The small visitor centre, housed in a traditional-style stone building, is open from April to September and includes displays explaining the history of this ancient structure and a gift shop.

The Calanais Standing Stones, just ten minutes’ drive further south, were featured in Disney•Pixar’s Brave and form one of the oldest stone circles in the UK. Their construction dates back to at least 2900 BC, and Hebridean folklore is rich with legends about their history – one story claims that local giants were turned to stone as a punishment for their refusal to convert to Christianity.

The quaint Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is very close by and well worth a visit. See how local crofting families lived in reconstructed stone-built cottages and watch traditional activities such as the weaving of Harris Tweed. Some of the thatched cottages are available for self-catering accommodation – the ideal way to take a step back in time and experience Hebridean life in the 19th century.

Situated on the southern shore of Harris, Leverburgh is an hour and a half’s drive from Stornoway and is situated close to some of Harris’ most popular historical attractions. Seallam! Visitor Centre in Northton is just 3 miles away and tells the story of the Hebrides’ fascinating history with excellent displays and exhibitions.

St Clement’s Church is a few miles south of Leverburgh in the nearby village of Rodel and a must-see for those interested in religious history and architecture. Built in the 16th century, the chapel is still well-preserved and offers fantastic views from its tower. Make sure you see its medieval tomb, resting place of the 8th MacLeod clan chief, which features intricate stone carvings of biblical design.

A one-hour ferry crossing connects Leverburgh to the isle of Berneray, and from there North Uist can be reached by causeway. Said to have been inhabited since the Bronze Age, Berneray’s long and colourful history is the focus at The Nurse’s Cottage, a visitor centre open during the summer months. The island also boasts many of Britain’s finest beaches, which are almost always quiet due to its remote location.

Less than half an hour’s drive from Berneray, the island of North Uist offers a fascinating range of ancient sites and monuments. The Pobull Fhinn Stone Circle is composed of 48 stones and is thought to date as far back as 2000 BC. The circle overlooks Loch Langass and is a short walk from the impressive Barpa Langass, a chambered cairn constructed in the Neolithic age.

The nearby hamlet of Carinish is home to Trinity Temple, a ruined 13th century church that was used as a sanctuary during the Battle of Carinish between the MacLeod and MacDonald clans in 1601. From here, travel 10 miles north east to Lochmaddy, the island’s main settlement, where you’ll find restaurants and accommodation in addition to the excellent Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Art Centre – a great place to catch an exhibition or a film in the evening.

Take the causeway from North Uist to Benbecula and head towards Gramsdale to see the village’s ancient standing stones, or carry on west for another ten minutes and visit the roofless ruins of former nunnery Nunton Chapel. Just a short stroll from here is Nunton House, now a 5-star hostel, where Flora MacDonald helped to disguise Bonnie Prince Charlie as Betty Burke, an Irish maid, before taking him ‘over the sea to Skye’.

From Nunton, carry on along the B892 to Borve Castle. This ruined 14th century tower house was occupied by the MacDonalds of Benbecula until the 17th century, when it was allegedly burnt to the ground by royalists angered by the laird’s Jacobite support. From here, South Uist is just a short drive across the causeway.

The remote crofting village of Howmore lies to the north west of South Uist and is a living testament to the island’s fascinating past, with several charming thatched cottages and the ruins of a medieval church. The Howmore Youth Hostel is housed in a lovely white-walled thatched building and offers remarkable views of the island’s eastern mountains.

Ormacleit Castle lies 5 miles from the village and is an ideal destination for a relaxing bike ride or a long walk. Now in ruins, this 18th century mansion was built by the Chief of Clanranald but was occupied for less than 10 years before his death at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715. 

Kildonan Museum, a further 3 miles south in the crofting township of Kildonan, is open from April until October or on appointment in the winter. It showcases the island’s varied history through its extensive collection of rare historical items, including the Clanranald Armorial Stone, a 15th century coat of arms carved from sandstone. Lochboisdale, South Uist’s largest settlement, is just 7 miles from here and is the island’s main connection to the mainland, with ferries regularly leaving for Oban.