Many North Americans have connections to Scotland, and many of those connections are to the islands lying to the west of that country, the Hebrides. It is a pilgrimage, a curiosity and maybe even an inner calling that so many wish to retrace the footsteps of their ancestors in this remote section of the British Isles. Sometimes armed with genealogical charts, sometimes with just a name or two, or with stories passed down from their grandparents and their grandparents’ grandparents, visitors come to seek a part of themselves shrouded in the past of these mystical isles.
Standing Stones, on the island of Lewis (Image: Pixabay)
A Shetland Pony, on the island of South Uist (Image: Bigstock)
The Western Isles, as the Hebrides are sometimes known, have a long history. The original inhabitants were ruled by the invading Vikings for about four hundred years during the Dark Ages until the interlopers were defeated in the 13th century. They then became subjects under the King of the Scots through their clan loyalties with the Lords of the Isles. Culloden and the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 with the subsequent crackdown by the English forces, and later the clearances in the 1800’s, evacuated large areas of the highlands and the islands seemingly en masse. As the crofters were forced from their lands to enable the grazing of sheep, some left for a better life in the colonies. Some were forcefully emigrated by herding them onto ships bound for America, leaving whole areas of the highlands decimated.
And so today, their descendants return.
Castlebay, on the island of Barra (Image: Bigstock)
Portree, on the island of Skye (Image: Bigstock)
The Islands of Scotland
Of the four major groups of Scottish islands: the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Inner and the Outer Hebrides, most tourists visit the latter two. They head for Skye, Mull or Islay in the Inner Hebrides to name a few of the most popular and familiar spots. Remarkably, there are thirty-eight islands in this group of which all but two are inhabited. If you go further afield to the islands of North and South Uist, or Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, you would be exploring only four of fifteen major inhabited islands in this second group. There is approximately one hundred islands in total in the Outer Hebrides. That is a lot of ground – and sea – to cover.
Isle of Ness Beach, Lewis (Image: Canstock)
Isle of Mull (Image: Pixabay)
What You Discover
Luckily, most visitors to the islands are there for the astoundingly beautiful scenery, the culture, or sport (hiking, fishing), so searching ancestors is of secondary or no importance to the atmosphere they seek. That is probably a good thing. As with all islands with centuries of isolation, certain surnames have become predominant. The writer remembers many decades ago enjoying a course in beginner Gaelic with a guest teacher from an island in the Hebrides: she recounted the fact that everyone who had a telephone on her home island was listed by their nickname as to keep the phone book useful. Too many MacDonalds, or MacNeils, or MacLeods. It could leave the amateur researcher shaking his/her head!
Not all islands in the Hebrides are of the same landscape. Some are mountainous and rugged (Skye), and some are lowland (Tiree). But considering their latitude, the islands can be quite hospitable weather-wise in the summer with influences of the Gulf Stream. Between the various islands, the waters can be very rough for smaller boats with areas of strong tides and whirlpools. A suggestion would be to take a cruise to visit a selection of the main attractions on the bigger islands to get a sample of what is on offer, and return later to spend more time in exploring this newly familiar ground, or using the islands you have already visited as jumping off points to other smaller islands.
Your travel professional can book you on that cruise of a lifetime around the Hebrides. One line in particular concentrates to a large part on this area of Scotland, the all-inclusive Hebridean Island Cruises. It has a small luxury ship, the Hebridean Princess, which carries just 50 guests. Several of the more widely-known cruise lines also make some stops in the Hebrides on their itineraries around the British Isles. Consider also guided tours or, if you have specific islands to visit, your own custom tour. Your travel professional is invaluable when planning your visit here.
Header image of North Uist cottages from Bigstock, and footer image of a sheep gazing on the Isle of Skye courtesy of Pixabay.