The Western Isles

Words: Ollie Horne
Photos: Richard Gaston

Surrounding the towering Stac an Armin, small skerries of granite appear to lie scattered across the grey sea. Behind it, the island of Hirta rises starkly from the waves. Two miles across in either direction, its bare hills ascend sharply to the tallest sea cliffs in the British Isles. Atlantic winds roll across the empty horizon, whipping salt into the air. Damp moss clings to the crags before meeting the low, unbroken mist that veils the clifftops. Circling gannets caw and dart overhead through the fog, scanning the rockface for viable nests. In the green bay below, the remnants of a stone village fan out in two vast semi circles, abandoned by its inhabitants almost 90 years ago.

Fifteen islands remain populated. The largest is Harris and Lewis, one landmass joined by a slender isthmus. Centuries of accumulated hours of winter darkness have filled the island with poetry and song in Gaelic and Old Norse. The name stands testament: Lewis, called Ljoðahús in Old Norse, means ‘poet’s house’. At Lewis’s northerly tip, sandy beaches slope up from the sea, giving way to flat pastureland that gradually ascends to grassy hills, cropped short by Soay sheep and red deer, before rising to sharp rocky peaks in the southern island of Harris. Grey seals bathe along the coastline, mottled like the lichen-covered rocks that lie beneath their bellies.

St Kilda may be the most isolated archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, but this story is repeated throughout the chain of islands west of the Scottish mainland. 35 islands, some having been continually inhabited since prehistoric times, were abandoned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Celts, Picts, Norsemen, and Scots have all settled here, eventually leaving their homes, pots, standing stones, and cairns to the slow gnawing of the centuries.

St Kilda may be the most isolated archipelago of the Outer Hebrides, but this story is repeated throughout the chain of islands west of the Scottish mainland. 35 islands, some having been continually inhabited since prehistoric times, were abandoned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Celts, Picts, Norsemen, and Scots have all settled here, eventually leaving their homes, pots, standing stones, and cairns to the slow gnawing of the centuries.

Further south, the two Uist islands stay low to the sea, their brown peat bogs engraved with a network of narrow lochs and streams. On Barra, the second most southerly Hebridean island, a short strip of sand on its coastline acts as an airport runway – whilst the tide is out – and a single-track road circumvents the island’s edge, its hilly interior left unsettled. As days become colder and nights grow longer, blankets of snow see fit to settle where humans have not. The landscape becomes at once softened and exaggerated by featureless, uniform white.