I fancied a new challenge.
You see, I really love islands – especially the Hebrides. There’s something about the west coast of Scotland – the wild weather, the white-sand beaches, the wildlife – that when combined with a CalMac journey (and the sense of isolation that brings) creates a wonderful whole. I feel at home on an island – I suppose that’s because I literally live on one, albeit a rather large one. But the sea is never far away on a Hebride and you never know what’s going to get blown in, or if you’ll even make it on or off the island. After visiting my 13th inhabited Hebridean island, I thought it was high time I put in some research into them – how many are there? How many people live on them? And just how can I visit them all?
InHabridean 50 InHab50
Everyone loves a round number, so I was particularly pleased that this challenge involves visiting exactly 50 inhabited Hebrides (the ‘InHab50’). The ‘A-Z’ is a B-V, from Baleshare off North Uist to Vatersay, south of Barra. There are islands with one occupant (Danna, Eilean dà Mhèinn and Soay) all the way up to the 21000+ on Lewis and Harris – and as the census data is from 2011, one job will be to check if they’re all still inhabited!
You can explore each one via this map and sortable table:
|Island ⇕||Main Group ⇕||Sub Group ⇕||Area (ha) ⇕||Location ⇕||Population ⇕||Pop. Density ⇕||Households ⇕|
|Baleshare Am Baile Sear||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||851.8||57.527, -7.366||58||6.8||21|
|Barra Barraigh||Outer Hebrides||Barra||5793.0||56.988, -7.465||1174||20.3||549|
|Benbecula Beinn nam Fadhla||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||7721.2||57.443, -7.319||1303||16.9||577|
|Berneray Beàrnaraigh||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||1077.6||57.722, -7.187||138||12.8||82|
|Canna Canaigh||Inner Hebrides||Small Isles||1131.4||57.062, -6.55||12||1.1||6|
|Coll Cola||Inner Hebrides||Mull||7442.0||56.627, -6.57||195||2.6||87|
|Colonsay Colbhasa||Inner Hebrides||Islay||3969.3||56.078, -6.21||124||3.1||70|
|Danna Danna||Inner Hebrides||Islay||320.8||55.947, -5.692||1||0.3||1|
|Easdale Eilean Èisdeal||Inner Hebrides||Slate Islands||20.4||56.292, -5.658||59||289.3||29|
|Eigg Eige||Inner Hebrides||Small Isles||2969.9||56.904, -6.152||83||2.8||38|
|Eilean dà Mhèinn Eilean dà Mhèinn||Inner Hebrides||Knapdale||4.0||56.091, -5.567||1||25.3||1|
|Eilean Shona Eilean Seona||Inner Hebrides||Loch Moidart||641.1||56.796, -5.851||2||0.3||1|
|Eilean Tioram Eilean Tioram||Inner Hebrides||North Highland||1.0||57.701, -5.724||6||574.4||2|
|Eriska Aoraisge||Inner Hebrides||Loch Linnhe||110.6||56.532, -5.413||?*||?*||?*|
|Eriskay Èirisgeigh||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||716.1||57.075, -7.292||143||20.0||73|
|Erraid Eilean Earraid||Inner Hebrides||Mull||223.5||56.294, -6.367||6||2.7||4|
|Flodaigh Flodaigh||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||79.3||57.476, -7.266||7||8.8||3|
|Fraoch-eilean Fraoch-eilean||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||47.8||57.504, -7.246||?*||?*||?*|
|Gigha Giogha||Inner Hebrides||Islay||1396.2||55.69, -5.744||163||11.7||74|
|Gometra Gòmastra||Inner Hebrides||Mull||457.2||56.489, -6.285||2||0.4||1|
|Great Bernera Beàrnaraigh Mòr||Outer Hebrides||Lewis (Loch Ròg)||2041.2||58.23, -6.841||252||12.3||116|
|Grimsay (North) Griomasaigh||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||712.0||57.492, -7.237||169||23.7||80|
|Grimsay (South) Griomasaigh||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||76.3||57.405, -7.276||20||26.2||7|
|Iona Ì Chaluim Chille||Inner Hebrides||Mull||853.9||56.329, -6.408||177||20.7||69|
|Islay Ìle||Inner Hebrides||Islay||61798.1||55.765, -6.232||3228||5.2||1479|
|Isle of Ewe Eilean Iùbh||Inner Hebrides||North Highland||351.6||57.833, -5.623||7||2.0||3|
|Jura Diùra||Inner Hebrides||Islay||36493.7||55.971, -5.901||196||0.5||93|
|Kerrera Cearrara||Inner Hebrides||Firth of Lorn||1206.0||56.398, -5.545||34||2.8||19|
|Lewis and Harris Leòdhas agus na Hearadh||Outer Hebrides||Lewis and Harris||213987.5||58.136, -6.684||21031||9.8||9503|
|Lismore Lios Mòr||Inner Hebrides||Firth of Lorn||2183.5||56.51, -5.515||192||8.8||93|
|Luing Luinn||Inner Hebrides||Slate Islands||1420.0||56.229, -5.644||195||13.7||98|
|Muck Eilean nam Muc||Inner Hebrides||Small Isles||520.9||56.837, -6.245||27||5.2||11|
|Mull Muile||Inner Hebrides||Mull||88332.4||56.457, -5.966||2800||3.2||1271|
|North Uist Uibhist a Tuath||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||29858.6||57.596, -7.311||1254||4.2||608|
|Oronsay Orasaigh||Inner Hebrides||Islay||516.1||56.018, -6.244||8||1.6||4|
|Raasay Ratharsair||Inner Hebrides||Skye||6128.6||57.406, -6.048||161||2.6||77|
|Rona Rònaigh||Inner Hebrides||Skye||980.3||57.548, -5.973||3||0.3||1|
|Rùm Rùm||Inner Hebrides||Small Isles||10682.9||56.998, -6.341||22||0.2||9|
|Sanday Sandaigh||Inner Hebrides||Small Isles||194.4||57.05, -6.492||9||4.6||3|
|Scalpay (Harris) Sgalpaigh na Hearadh||Outer Hebrides||Harris||683.6||57.864, -6.67||291||42.6||138|
|Scalpay (Skye) Sgalpaigh||Inner Hebrides||Skye||2474.6||57.3, -5.969||4||0.2||2|
|Seil Saoil||Inner Hebrides||Slate Islands||1375.8||56.299, -5.621||551||40.1||252|
|Shuna Siuna||Inner Hebrides||Slate Islands||449.4||56.214, -5.604||3||0.7||1|
|Skye An t-Eilean Sgitheanach||Inner Hebrides||Skye||163477.8||57.366, -6.234||10008||6.1||4453|
|Soay Sòdhaigh||Inner Hebrides||Skye||1009.8||57.149, -6.219||1||0.1||1|
|South Uist Uibhist a Deas||Outer Hebrides||Uists and Benbecula||30872.3||57.254, -7.328||1754||5.7||781|
|Tanera Mòr Tannara Mòr||Inner Hebrides||Summer Isles||303.9||58.011, -5.409||4||1.3||2|
|Tiree Tiriodh||Inner Hebrides||Mull||7856.3||56.505, -6.884||653||8.3||316|
|Ulva Ulbha||Inner Hebrides||Mull||1832.5||56.481, -6.209||11||0.6||6|
|Vatersay Bhatarsaigh||Outer Hebrides||Barra||931.3||56.93, -7.537||90||9.7||38|
* These islands are known to be populated but their resident populations weren’t counted in the last census. After visiting Fraoch-Eilean, I’d estimate it has ~7 households, which using the neighbouring Grimsay’s stats as a guide, would equate to ~15 people [as these households were most likely combined into the numbers for Grimsay (N) in the census, Grimsay’s true figures will be this many fewer].
All you need to do is visit each one of the ‘InHab50’ and check if anyone’s home. I doubt there are too many people who can already lay claim to visiting all fifty, but anyone who can prove so will become an honorary President of the challenge. And of course, anyone who completes all 50 in the future will be welcomed into the club – and get a sweet t-shirt that totally exists and wasn’t just made in MS Paint…
A few different sources were needed to create a nice, connected dataset. The 2011 Census, National Records of Scotland (NRS) and Wikipedia had enough info in them to create a decent spatial dataset, with a few fixes: Fraoch-eilean needed to be split from Grimsay (North) in the NRS data, and Eriska wasn’t included so had to be digitised and added. Finally, there was some confusion around Eilean Tioram, which the NRS data showed to be in Loch Maree and *not* the site of Castle Tioram as many websites presume. The correct site is known as ‘Dry Island’ on most maps (from the meaning of its Gaelic name), but OS goes with the Gaelic for both sites, hence the confusion – but, taken with a pinch of salt, it’s now its own country.
- Habitation data for the 2011 census came from this NRS Islands PDF.
- Hebridean island lists (and some supplimentary population info) came from these two lists on Wikipedia.
- Island names, gaelic names, locations and statistics were QAed from the above resources and a merged CSV file was created with any corrections included.
- Spatial data came from this NRS Islands shapefile from this website. It was then was modified, added to and linked to the CSV data to create this GeoPackage file (can be opened in a GIS). Areas and population densities were then calculated from these polygons, which were then simplified for display above.
- All background mapping is from the NLS Historic Maps API, and the island polygons were made with leaflet for R.
I’ve tried to pepper (piobair) a fair few Gaelic words and names throughout this page as you’ll regularly hear the language spoken on many of the #InHab50 list. Although the number of speakers has dropped considerably, the Outer Hebrides still have more than half the population speaking Gaelic in most areas. So, in that vein, I thought it was high time I got a basic grasp on it:
As well as the fantastic Gaelic maps below, I’ve also made a nice map of Gaelic Placenames of Scotland, if you’d like to explore that.
Books, Videos & Misc
- A School in South Uist – F.G. Rea – A lovely historical account of life on South Uist
- Harpoon at a Venture – Gavin Maxwell – An intriguing, if brutal, account of life on Soay (Skye) in the 1940s
- New Naturalist: The Hebdrides – The ultimate reference guide to the Flora & Fauna of the Hebrides
- Sea Room – Adam Nicolson – An evocative account of life on a partially inhabited Hebridean island
- As the Women Lay Dreaming – Donald S Murray – A fascinating novel based on the events of the HMY Iolaire disaster off Lewis
- St Kilda The Silent Islands – Alex Boyd – A lovely photobook documenting the nature and former inhabitation of this remote island
- Love of Country – Madeleine Bunting – A six year exploration of Hebridean landscapes and history
- My Island – Gometra – Life on Gometra before the Bothy became an Airbnb location
- Eriskay – A Poem of Remote Lives – Life on Eriskay in 1935, with a lovely pace to it
- The Guga Hunters of Ness – A look into a cultural hunting tradition on Sula Sgeir
- British Pathé – Missile Firing 1961 – An insight into the working of the (still-present) MOD Firing Range based on South Uist, Benbecula & St Kilda
- A Lifetime of Islands – A fantastic blog showcasing visits to as many islands of the British Isles as possible
- Flag Competition for Benbecula, Eriskay & North Uist – Vexillological interest from 2019
I’ve now been to 23 of the 50, so getting closer (9 total in 2017, 11 in 2018, 2019 was a bumper crop!). I’ll be adding to the list each year, but for now, may a new Hebride be in my pocket shortly…
Baleshare Am Baile Sear
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 58 🏠︎ 21
Baleshare isn’t the most obvious of islands, its flat expanse easily reachable by foot at low tide and with 3 sides close to the ‘mainland’ (North Uist). In many ways it could be described as a big farm with a big beech, sheep and cattle pockmark the grassland leading to a white sand beach running the full length of the west coast. Its Gaelic name translates to ‘east town’, leading many to speculate there was previously land to the west, and echoing Father Ted, it was washed away in a storm. Looming straight out to see, commanding views of the Monach Islands, which were perhaps accessible by foot from Baleshare as late as the 17th Century. Fun fact: the island has no contours on the OS 1:50000 map.
⛴ 2018 👪︎ 1174 🏠︎ 549
Barra was a delight, albeit a wet & wild one. Tiny pockets of good weather were taken advantage of, with visits up to the beach airport and across to Vatersay (see below). Just walking around Castlebay was rewarding – it feels like a bit of a hub (in Outer Hebrides terms), with a supermarket, museum and a community shop. You can’t help but fix your eyes on Kisimul Castle, a potentially-inhabited island but no residents in the last two censuses – no boat trips nor lights at home during my October visit either.
Benbecula Beinn nam Fadhla
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 1303 🏠︎ 577
Benbecula turned into a hub for exploring nearby islands – there are lots nearby and connected – so it felt like home after a few days. If you just pass through the island you might not think much of it, but the ‘Spine Road’ bypasses Balivanich, which is the most-populated town in the Uists. It hosts the West Camp of the RAF’s Deep Sea Range and as such, seems much more like a mainland settlement than anywhere else on the Uists. Despite recent cuts, it still has the air of purpose-built military town – complete with water tower and airport, which serves all the connected islands. In the census it’s reported to be the least Gaelic-speaking place for many miles, but lots of Gaelic was overheard in the Supermarket named after the historically-dominating Clan. It’s a fascinating ‘hub’, if anything on the Outer Hebrides can be called as such.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 138 🏠︎ 82
Most famous for its spectacular West Beach, Berneray has a lot more to offer. Staying at the Gatliff Hostel, I got the opportunity to intereact with a few locals, and I got a good picture of the recent history. Before the causeway was built, it was apparently a bit rogue, but now it relies reasonably-heavily on tourism and Amazon deliveries – things that might’ve seemed a bit unlikely 20 years ago! The aforementioned beach is a total spectacle, but the residents on the east shore make the place – currently boasting a nice shop, restaurant, post office and daily links to Harris. PS The hostel is a ‘must-visit’, even in winter when I made it over.
⛴ 2018 👪︎ 195 🏠︎ 87
I spent an amazing week on Coll, living in Arinagour and cycling around the island each day. It’s a surprisingly varied landscape, with plenty of hills, bogs, lakes, beaches and lovely roads around the island, with just the NE corner remaining untamed. The fantastic Community Centre offered a market, play and film-screening during my stay and the lovely hotel supplied locally caught crab and langoustines a-plenty.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 143 🏠︎ 73
Sitting in the ferry waiting room at Ardmore / Aird More (Ardmhòr), I was suprised to get both free wifi and a lovely otter statue. The journey was complete with porpoises, and arrival was very enjoyable. From there, I cycled up and down towards the main village, complete with local co-op, Church and various ‘Whisky Galore’ sights, historically wrapped-up with this wonderful 1930s video. I loved Eriskay, despite a fleeting visit – and this book helped set the scene.
Erraid Eilean Earraid
⛴ 2017 👪︎ 6 🏠︎ 4
Reached at low tide by walking over a beach, Erraid is a lovely little island that features a rent-free community living in the old lighthouse cottages. The ‘lighthouse’ is actually a now-disused signal station for the Skerryvore and Dubh Artach lighthouses, many miles to the west / south-west (respectively) across the sea.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 7 🏠︎ 3
First up, let’s discuss the name. In the official data listed above, both the English and Gaelic names are listed as Flodaigh, yet the signage when you get there lists Flodda and Fhloddaigh, respectively – oh, and the map below goes for Flodday! Lots of Hebridean islands have begun in Norse, then been gaelicised and finally anglicised, with possible see-sawing between those steps bringing a few spelling variants along the way. Naming-aside, it was an enjoyable island to visit, although the ‘only road’ only went so far – the OS map suggested a phone box existed in the north ‘hamlet’, but I suspect my old maps reflected a distant past. There was a small bit of tourism present, but I got the feeling not many people venture this way – I get it – but there was a lovely out-of-the-way feeling to the place, hopefully not interrupted by my fleeting presence. The winter sun probably helped, but it felt like an ideal place to hide away from it all.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ ?* 🏠︎ ?*
I feel like this will be one of the least-visited islands on the list. It’s just a short hop over a causeway from Grimsay (N), but it’s not an obvious route to take as a tourist. As I crossed on my bike, I passed through what looked like a financial exchange of sheep – a lot of business faces. Further expooration revealed a scattering of houses, but clear signs of families and community on this very tiny island. Sharing its name (with the perhaps more-famous) island on Loch Awe, both these ‘Heather Islands’ are well worth a visit. NB Fraoch-Eilean is shown on the historical map below as Seanabailly (Old Town – see see 2nd transcript), a name preserved by its only current settlement, Seana Bhaile.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 2 🏠︎ 1
Reaching Gometra was via a 10 mile rough track from Ulva Ferry. This was the start of the adventure (I wouldn’t recommend trying it with road bikes in the rain!) and the island was fascinating. We bumped the population up to 5 during our visit, with 2 or 3 on the island regularly. Jane Ann’s Bothy was amazing, totally off-grid and no mobile reception, so the peace and tranquility of the island really shone through. The previous occupant of the bothy was recorded for a documentary called My Island, which highlights the highs, lows and ethos of the island in modern times.
Grimsay (North) Griomasaigh
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 169 🏠︎ 80
I cycled up via the north road and back round, and the scenery and sparcity of people didn’t prepare me for the (reasonably) bustling life of Kallin (Ceallan), with a very-active harbour and fisheries. Due to the scale of industry, this must be a major port of the whole region, and offers a café, post office and other tourist outlets that weren’t open on my winter visit. Local community events seemed pleantiful, and (at least) the east-end of the island seemed resistant to immediate change.
Grimsay (South) Griomasaigh
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 20 🏠︎ 7
The much less-populated of the two Grimsays, the only road allowed me only so much access, before decamping from the bike and exploring. It’s clearly a small community, and the farther reaches of the island feel increasingly ‘off-grid’. You can keep going along the road to Peter’s Port Port Pheadair, but it’s rarely used now and on an uninhabted island these days. It was a very quiet lunch stop on my journey and can’t imagine many have lunched there before!
Iona Ì Chaluim Chille
⛴ 2017 👪︎ 177 🏠︎ 69
Iona in the sunshine is a delight. I’ve no idea what it’s like in the cold & rain because the sun shone the whole time. Famous for being a religious island, it also has plenty of stunning beaches to explore, with Godwits flitting about on the shores. The very brief CalMac ferry from Fionnphort was later utilised to secure some crab and lobster caught locally, but unable to be delivered back to Mull by the small fishing boat due to increasing winds.
⛴ 2013 👪︎ 3228 🏠︎ 1479
Islay has always brought me there for whisky, in one way or another. My family and friends descended on the island for my 30th birthday – my first visit to the island, but an amazing place to stay. I’ve since visited every distllery on the island in an action-packed two day trip, but there’s more to come, so I’m sure I’ll be back again soon.
Lewis and Harris Leòdhas agus na Hearadh
⛴ 2009 👪︎ 21031 🏠︎ 9503
One of my earliest Hebridean adventures, Lewis and Harris rained down on us for a solid 3 days, bar about half an hour at the amazing Luskentyre Sands. Our visit to Callanish was well worth the effort, despite the driving rain – although that’s the kind of weather that goes well with the mysticism. The road around South Harris is an underlating adverture, which can be broken up with a trip to Berneray in calmer conditions than ours..
⛴ 2017 👪︎ 2800 🏠︎ 1271
Mull is wilder than I expected. I’d always thought of it as the ‘easy one’ to get to (perhaps now eclipsed by Skye), but it offers a great island experience, with plenty of untouched corners. It’s also the gateway to a bunch of smaller islands, all of which I’d highly recommend visiting. Ben More (A’ Bheinn Mhòr) rises high towards the west coast, with otters and sea eagles common sights on the surrounding shores – or so I hear, I’ve only seen seals! The cycle from Ears Fors Waterfall (Waterfall Waterfall Waterfall) > Torlisk > Dervaig > Tobermory is a varied delight.
North Uist Uibhist a Tuath
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 1254 🏠︎ 608
My legs were really tiring on the undulating roads of west N. Uist, and just as I was losing faith a van pulled up… “Phil?” – it reallt felt like my prayers had been answered, but was just as I was the only cyclist booked in to the Tractor Shed. This interaction really helped though – despite bad weather, my trip up N. Uist was assisted my local ‘bus’, which took me, and entirely locals up to Lochmaddy and then Berneray. Compared to S. Uist, it cut a bleak figure, but that’s probably very weather dependant.
⛴ 2008 👪︎ 551 🏠︎ 252
My very first Hebride – although I didn’t really know it at the time. We crossed the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ to the ‘House of Trousers’ (Tigh an Truish) pub, then went to explore this Slate Island. I regret not making it over to Easdale for their World Stone Skimming Championshiops, but another time…
Skye An t-Eilean Sgitheanach
⛴ 2009 👪︎ 10008 🏠︎ 4453
Skye has enticed me back 4 times since first visiting, its combination of dramatic mountains, weather and wildlife hard to pass up. Well known for it’s popularity with tourists, this issue is easily reduced by visiting Oct-Apr, when tourists and midges are generally replaced with rain! Unlike some of the other Hebridean islands that really shine when the sun comes out, Skye works with wild weather – walk the Quiraing (A’ Chuith-Raing) as the clouds roll in and you’ll be transported to a fantasy world you won’t want to leave.
South Uist Uibhist a Deas
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 1754 🏠︎ 781
Maybe it’s the books I’ve read, or maybe it’s spending my last night on the islands in the Lochboisdale Hotel, but South Uist really touched me. From the books I’ve read, it has the most exciting hisory, and the mix of modern and neolithic really got to me. Despite a last-minute bike failure, it was idyllic from start to finish. Stay here, if you can – a wonderful spot to explore the island and breathe in the peaks.
⛴ 2018 👪︎ 653 🏠︎ 316
Noticeably flatter than its neighbour to the NE, Tiree is also more populated and ‘built-up’ than Coll. It’s hardly a metropolis, but more the land is worked and utilised thanks to its low profile. This pancake nature brings plenty of wind, which is harnessed by the multitude of windsurfers flocking to the area – only challenged by the peewitting residents who exploit the surrounding farmland.
⛴ 2019 👪︎ 11 🏠︎ 6
It’s only 1 minute ferry ride from Mull, but Ulva feels like a different place entirely. Its 800-strong population has long gone, but their presence is felt across the island. Pockets of woodland dot the eastern end of the island, leading to a wilder and more varied terrain towards Gometra. The southern shores were once home to the family of David Livingstone, today this quiet shoreline is a great place to watch otters instead.
⛴ 2018 👪︎ 90 🏠︎ 38
I took advantage of a small sunny weather window to cycle over to Vatersay from Barra, and the white sand beaches and crystal clear water are particularly breathtaking in this light. It’s the westernmost island in this list, and probably has the most-westerly inhabitants too. Home to both the Vatersay Raiders, the memorial for the wrecked Annie Jane and a crashed Catalina seaplane, it’s an island not short of history either.
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