Western Isles

(Na h-Eileanan Siar, Eilean Siar)

The windswept Western Isles or Outer Hebrides (Gael: Eileanan Siar) comprise the 'long island' of Lewis and Harris and islands to the south including North Uist, South Uist and Barra. Here the topography is shaped by the underlying ancient Lewisian gneiss, much of which is covered with a thin layer of peat that is still used as a major source of fuel for the winter fire. Nearly half the islands' households live on croft land and farming, fishing, fish farming, tourism and the manufacture of Harris Tweed are the chief economic activities. Some 68% of its people speak the Gaelic language. The main towns and ferry ports are Stornoway (the administrative centre), Tarbert, Leverburgh, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay.

Local government is administered by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) and the islands extend to 3080 sq. km (1189 sq. miles). The total population is recorded as 26,502 (2001) and 27,684 (2011). There is an ageing population, with 21.6% of the people aged 65 or over, the third highest in Scotland, but with the lowest population density of any local authority area (2011). Sixteen of the islands are inhabited. There are three hospitals; namely the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway, the Uist and Barra Hospital in Balivanich and the five-bed St. Brendans Hospital on Barra.

The busiest ferry connection is between Ullapool (Highland) with Stornoway, while other ferries connect Oban (Argyll & Bute) with Castlebay and Lochboisdale, and Uig (Skye) with Tarbert and Lochmaddy. There are airports at Cockle Strand on Barra, Benbecula and Stornoway.

The Western Isles are rich in archaeology, with sites including, brochs, cairns, duns and stone circles, the most famous being the Callanish Standing Stones, which pre-date Stonehenge. The Western Isles Archaeology Service is run by the Council and is based at the Old School in Achmore.

Much of the land is low-lying comprising a distinctive terrain, known as knock-and-lochan, dominated by alternating ice-scoured hillocks and lochans. There are more than 6000 freshwater lochs and lochans (mostly unnamed) on the island chain, a greater density of water bodies than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In addition, long sea-lochs penetrate deep inland. A belt of hills crosses North Harris, reaching 799m / 2621 feet at Clisham, while another line of hills runs down the remote east coast of South Uist.

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