Far to the north-west of the Scottish mainland, a chain of remarkable islands stretches like a breakwater at the rim of the wide Atlantic.
The mighty ocean adds to the pleasures and challenges for visitors to the Outer Hebrides known in Gaelic as Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and sometimes referred to as the Western Isles. It’s responsible for the ever-present tang of sea-salt and seaweed, the crunch of shell sand underfoot. But there are many more sights and sensations to enjoy among the hills and headlands of these extraordinary isles.
Moors, mountains, bogs, beaches and rocky coastlines combine to create the majestic scenery the region is known for.
But it’s water both fresh and salt that is a constant theme.
There are more than 6,000 lochs here, and more than a thousand miles of coastline, so there’s plenty of scope to visit new waters (perhaps when white water lilies are in bloom and swans have cygnets swimming) or explore a new stretch of shore.
Otters thrive in the fish-rich realms of loch, burn and coastal shallows inshore, while at sea, the range of dolphins, whales and seabirds can be astonishing.
Take a ferry across the Minch or Sea of the Hebrides to reach the isles in summer and you’d be well-advised to linger on deck.
White-beaked and white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and orcas are some of the marine life that might surface nearby.
In late summer, watch for guillemots and razorbills swimming with chicks, manx shearwaters gliding over the waves and puffins and gannets en route to huge colonies off the main islands.
Some people relish the idea of journeying the whole length of the island chain (often by bike), from the Butt of Lewis in the north to Barra in the south.
Whatever your travel plans might be, there are some must-see highlights between the two.
Beginning at the tip of Lewis, in the croftlands of Ness, you could look further north out to sea to watch gannets heading for the famous colony on Sula Sgeir.
Just inland, Loch Stiapavat is the best place on Lewis for watching breeding wildfowl in summer and whooper swans in winter.
Head south, and tarry in Stornoway, largest town in the isles, to visit the Stornoway Castle woods. Broadleaved woods are rare in the Outer Hebrides, so this is a chance to see some songbirds. Walk the banks of the River Creed to catch sight of grey herons and gulls and look out for grey seals in the inner harbour.
Not far away, much of the interior of Lewis holds one of the finest expanses of blanket bog in the world. Golden plover and dunlin breed out on the bogs here, where eagles hunt, divers breed and red deer graze. Achmore is a good stopping point to get a roadside notion of the wider bogland without getting your feet wet.
On the map, Lewis and Harris is one island. On the ground, you can see Harris coming many miles off. It’s rocky, mountainous and utterly different to its low-lying neighbour. The Harris uplands might steal the show at a distance, but close-up, it’s the beaches and small sea lochs that can be the stars. That includes the area of saltmarsh at Northton, which is great for orchids and cranesbills in summer.
Close to Northton, the Sound of Harris is one of the loveliest waters in Britain.
Shallow, studded with islands and busy with seabirds, such as the black guillemots that loaf on channel buoys, you can get an impression of it from the inter-islands ferry. Better still, book a stay on the island of Berneray.
Here, just inland from a huge beach along the island’s western shore, is some of the flower-rich grassland for which the Hebrides are famed. Called ‘machair’, the plants here grow in windblown shell sand. Delicate-sounding stuff, but the colours of the show could blow your socks off. Yellow of buttercups, blues of cranesbills, white of wild carrots and daisies, purples and reds of orchids: these are typical machair tones. There is machair along much of the Atlantic edge of the isles, but some of the world’s finest is from the Sound of Harris to Barra. Keep heading south, and in North Uist, stop at Balranald National Nature Reserve to listen for corncrakes at one of their European strongholds.
Move on through this country of countless lochans to see the breeding mute swans, greylag geese and many different plants at Loch Druidibeg Nature Reserve.
Leaving the Uists, call in at Eriskay to meet some of the characterful Eriskay ponies and search for the ‘Prince’s Flower’ by the shore.
This pink-and-white bindweed is named for Bonnie Prince Charlie. His landing here in 1745 may have been a mistake, but makes the island the very first place he stepped ashore in Scotland.
Onward to Barra, superb for its show of wild primroses in spring and excellent at any time for its range of sandy and rocky shores offering plenty of scope for beachcombing and rockpooling.
Those include the Cockle Strand the world’s only tidal beach airstrip where you could land on a scheduled flight. Take a tour-boat for a daytrip to go to near the end of the island chain at Mingulay.
After 2,000 years of continuous habitation, the island was abandoned by its last few residents in 1912.
Its huge cliffs are now thronged with seabirds in summer, including large colonies of razorbills, guillemots and puffins.
Beyond this far to the west of the other isles lies St Kilda.
This dazzling archipelago is high on the global wish list of any island-going traveller worth their sea salt.
Like Mingulay, it’s long been abandoned by its human residents and is now Europe’s seabird supercolony.
There’s simply nowhere better for breeding gannets and puffins by the hundreds of thousands and St Kilda has World Heritage status for both natural and cultural history.
In some ways, it’s another story. But like all the Outer Hebrides, its extraordinary landscapes are a lure to tempt you out to these dream isles of the farthest west.