Earlier this week, Airbnb revealed their top 19 destinations to visit for 2019 and among far-flung destinations such as New Zealand’s Kaikoura and the USA’s Great Smoky Mountains, sits Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
"Based on a combination of Airbnb search, booking and wish list growth data, we’re forecasting growing interest in more off-the-beaten-path regions, cities and towns to explore," stated the peer-to-peer tech company behind the boom in the sharing economy.
Airbnb isn't the only one predicting that next year will be a big year for Scotland’s north. The Highlands and islands also made it into Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2019: Top Regions. The guidebook company described the region as: “one of the wildest, least inhabited and most scenic parts of Europe”, with an innovative and fast-developing accommodation sector.
A wild outpost of Britain, the Outer Hebrides are made up of 119 islands. On a map, they look like they’ve had an uneasy separation from the Inner Hebrides and the mainland, curling around the landmass in an attempt not to be blown into the chilling Atlantic.
Threaded by causeways, there are five main inhabited islands which include North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Barra, and Lewis and Harris (one island commonly mistaken as two and the third biggest in the British Isles).
According to Airbnb, the islands have seen a 147 per cent year-on-year increase in bookings and a massive 170 per cent increase in searches. While this isn’t quite as impressive as the number one destination for 2019 – Kaikoura in New Zealand, which saw a 295 per cent increase in bookings and 210 per cent in searches – it is by far the highest increase in the British Isles.
There are plenty of reasons why an increasing number of us are flocking up to this remote corner of the world. Here are just a few of them.
There aren’t many people there (yet)
Less than 30,000 people inhabit these isles. Visiting in summer 2017, Madeleine Bunting said that while visitor numbers are growing, “nowhere on this wildly beautiful edge of Britain is crowded.” During her visit to Harris, she said: “It’s not hard to find a moment late on a long summer evening when the quiet resumes, a quiet that has marked this place for the centuries since it was built as a chapel, around the time of the Reformation”.
The islands are some of the most popular bird watching spots in Europe with twitchers flocking to see the golden eagle, white tailed eagle, corncrake and red and black-throated diver among many more. Migratory birds grace the shores with the changing of the seasons and the wide variety of ecosystems including coast, mountain, freshwater, moorland and machair, mean that the islands are abundant with birdlife.
It may come as a surprise, but the Outer Hebrides are home to some of the UK’s best beaches. While you may think it sounds a bit chilly, the isles have been known to hit 22C in July. Luskentyre on the west coast of Harris is one of the best and has been likened to a Caribbean beach. Luckily, the slightly cooler temperatures deter many other people from venturing here for a beach holiday, so you’re likely to have the sand almost to yourself.
If you’ve got plenty of time, you could walk all 130 miles of this long island chain (hopping on a ferry in between of course). If it’s hillwalking that you love, head for Lewis or South Uist. For something a little more challenging, Harris has a range of unfrequented mountains (walkhighlands.co.uk). If you’d like to take it a little easier and are travelling to the Uist islands from Harris, take some time to explore Berneray on the way. This circular route takes around 4.5 hours and passes the pretty West Beach.
As an island chain with a seafaring community, it’s inevitable that there are some interesting lighthouses to see here. Cross the bridge from Harris to the small island of Scalpay and embark on the three-hour circular walk that takes in the red and white striped Eilean Glas lighthouse which was the first in the Hebrides. You can also see the tall lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis, the islands’ most northerly point, Tiumpan Head Lighthouse on Lewis, Ushenish Lighthouse in South Uist, the Flannan Isles Lighthouse and Barra Head Lighthouse.
Like much of northern Scotland, these isles are littered with fascinating ancient sites. The most famous of these is the Callanish Standing Stones, 15 miles west of Stornoway. One of the most complete stone circles in Britain, it is believed to have been first erected around 3,800 to 5,000 years ago – making it roughly contemporary with the pyramids of Egypt. Just a few miles away is Dun Carloway – one of the best preserved Brochs in Britain – and the Doune Broch centre.
It’s not just ancient stone circles that you can explore on these history-packed isles. You can also get an insight into a more modern way of life. The Arnol Blackhouse on Lewis is certainly worth a visit. Built in 1885 and still warmed by a peat fire, this traditional blackhouse (byre, barn and home) was inhabited until as recently as 1964. Other interesting sites include 15th century Kisimul castle, the only significant surviving medieval castle in the Outer Hebrides, Lews Castle and the Museum nan Eilean, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village and St Clement’s Church.
There are two main distilleries on the islands. Also known for its gin, the Isle of Harris Distillery is the newer of the two and is quickly becoming a household name. If you really like your whisky, it’s worth checking out the Hebridean whisky trail, which includes the new distillery (harrisdistillery.com). Abhainn Dearg Distillery has much deeper roots in the Hebrides, having made whisky in Uig since 1829. The site is open Monday to Friday throughout the year for tours and tastings (abhainndearg.co.uk). The islands are also the setting for Sir Compton Mackenzie’s famous novel Whisky Galore! which was based on true events.
Jumping into the waters of the northern Atlantic may not, at first suggestion, sound like a great idea. However you may be surprised to learn that the island of Lewis offers some of the best surfing conditions in Europe. You can also swim with seals or sea kayak around Barra (barrasurfadventures.co.uk), free-dive at Benbecula (freedive-uk.com) and stand-up paddleboard in Lewis (surflewis.co.uk).
The places to stay
Airbnb has a variety of accommodation to choose from in the Western Isles, or Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Gaelic, including cottages, pods, beach houses, croft houses, VW campervans and even a forest retreat. If you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated and a little grander, opt for a stay in Lews Castle.