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The Outer Hebrides

Geoff Crowley

The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, extend about 120 miles off the west coast of Scotland, from Barra Head at the south-southwest to the Butt of Lewis at the north-northeast end, with a few distant outliers such as St Kilda and the Flannan Islands.

The east side of the Outer Hebrides, which is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and the Atlantic Ocean, has many islands, lochs and inlets which provide innumerable well sheltered anchorages. These anchorages, some large and some small, are often within a short distance of each other and many are remote from habitation. Some are easily approached while others require great care and very skilful pilotage.

For obvious reasons, the west side of the Outer Hebrides is much less frequented by cruising yachts though the west coasts of Harris and Lewis, given suitable conditions, offer what is possibly the finest cruising to be found anywhere in the British Isles, with the remote islands of the St Kilda group being the ultimate challenge.

Harbours and pontoons

There are few commercial harbours and supplies can involve a long walk, but the local people are friendly and helpful and a lift will frequently be offered. Pontoon berthing for yachts is becoming more common; Stornoway marina has recently been enlarged and there is a new marina at Lochboisdale.

Serviced pontoons with finger berths have also been established at Lochmaddy, Castlebay, East Loch Tarbert and Scalpay and smaller pontoons are available in other locations. 

Unique and memorable cruising
Daylight in summer is longer than in the English Channel owing to being 400-500 miles further north and the weather is, on the whole, less settled. But if you are prepared for the conditions at which this paragraph merely hints, you may experience some unique and memorable cruising.

Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages 

The Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages sets out to provide, clearly and concisely, as much information as may be useful to small-boat visitors to the Outer Hebrides. The upper limit of size for which they cater is a draught of 2 metres, and they include information specifically applicable to shoal-draught boats, centreboarders, trailer-sailers, twin-keel boats, multihulls and motor cruisers. In many anchorages there are parts which are only accessible to shoal-draught boats, particularly those which can dry out fairly upright. Some passages are only suitable for shoal-draught boats, and for the benefit of ‘trailer-sailers’ there is an appendix of launching and recovery places at the end of the book.

Approaches to the islands

The majority of those cruising the Outer Hebrides will approach the islands from the Scottish west coast or the Inner Hebrides. At their closest, the islands lie 15 miles from Skye; the shortest crossing from the mainland south of Skye is about 45 miles, with anchorages at the Small Isles and on Skye to break the passage; from the mainland north of Skye the shortest crossing is 30 miles.

Approaching from the east it is better to make initially for one of the centres of population e.g. Castlebay (Barra), Lochboisdale (South Uist), East Loch Tarbert (Harris), or Stornoway (Lewis), all of which are comparatively well marked and lit. Whilst Loch Skipport, South Uist in the south and Loch Shell, Lewis in the north are relatively easy to identify and enter and provide well sheltered anchorages, neither has any facilities. Initially it is better to explore the more isolated lochs and difficult entrances from one of the foregoing locations.

From the south, the west side of the Outer Hebrides has little shelter until the Monach Islands are reached. However from here northwards, well sheltered summer anchorages can be found in the areas of West Loch Tarbert, Loch Resort and Loch Roag. Being exposed to the open Atlantic these lochs are best visited in settled weather with an experienced crew.

Whilst the smallest boats, even cruising dinghies, may be at home in much of the area, they must be soundly equipped and competently handled by experienced crews. The Outer Hebrides is no place for anyone who is unable to deal with adverse conditions which may arise unexpectedly. However, anyone who is capable of managing a yacht at a comparable distance from the shore whether in the North Sea, the Baltic, the English Channel, the Atlantic coast of France or the Irish Sea should have little problem on the west coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides.