The Inner Hebrides
If you travel to the Inner Hebrides, the chain of islands just off the west coast of the Scottish mainland, you'll be following in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson and his faithful Boswell. The Isle of Skye is the largest. Mull has wild scenery and golf courses, and just off its shores is the important Iona, the isle that played a major part not only in the spread of Christianity in Britain, but also in the preservation of the culture and learning of the ancient world (when it was being forgotten throughout Europe). Adventurous travelers also regularly seek out Coll, Tyree, and the Isle of Colonsay, as well as Rhum (Rum), Eigg, and the tiny island of Raasay, off Skye.
If your time is limited, we suggest you concentrate on Skye. It offers your best chance for getting the flavor of the Hebrides, all in a 2-day trip. The island's natural beauty ranges from the rugged Trotternish Peninsula to the jagged peaks of the Cuillin Hills. The Cuillins are called both Black Cuillins (the hills encircling the glacial trough of Loch Coruisk) and Red Cuillins (based on the pink granite found in the hills). A favorite of hill climbers, these often-harsh mountains make for some of the grandest walks in Skye.
Our favorite drive in all the Hebrides is to the Trotternish Peninsula and northeast Skye, which you can easily tour in a day from Portree. This is only a 32km (20-mile) peninsula but is so fascinating you can easily spend a day enjoying it. The highlight of the drive is 13km (8 miles) north of Portree: the Old Man of Storr, a stone pinnacle standing 48m (157 ft.) high. At the top, you're rewarded with great views of the island.
If you have time for one more Hebridean island, make it Mull. From Mull you can also spend an afternoon visiting the ancient ecclesiastical center off the coast at Iona. Spend the morning exploring parts of Mull, including a visit to Torosay Castle and Gardens. Have lunch on Mull, and then hop over to the little island of Iona.
The Outer Hebrides
At first you may feel you've come to a lunar landscape where there's a sense of timelessness. The character of the Outer Hebrides is quite different from that of the Inner Hebrides. This string of islands, stretching for 209km (130 miles), is about 64km (40 miles) off the northwest coast of Scotland, and the main islands to visit are Lewis and Harris (parts of the same island despite the different names), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra. The archipelago also includes some minor offshore islands. Gaelic is spoken here; its gentle cadence is said to have been the language spoken in the Garden of Eden. Presbyterianism is still very strong -- in one B&B, watching TV on Sunday is forbidden. Before you go, we suggest reading Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie's novel set in the Hebrides.
The islands knew 2 centuries of Viking invasions, but today they are the retreat of many a disenchanted artist from the mainland. They come here, take over old crofter's cottages, and devote their days to such pursuits as pottery making and weaving. Bird-watchers flock here to see the habitats of the red-necked phalarope, corncrake, golden eagle, Arctic skua, and grayleg goose. Golfers come to play on these far-northern courses, including one at Stornoway (Lewis) and another at Askernish (South Uist). Anglers come to fish for salmon, brown trout, and sea trout.
You can see much of the dim past on these islands, including a version of Stonehenge. A good time to visit is June and July, when adults' and children's choirs compete for honors at festivals celebrating Gaelic music and poetry. All the main islands have accommodations, most of which are small family-run guesthouses and hotels. Many are crofter's cottages that take in B&B guests, mainly in summer. Advance reservations are important.