Isle of North Uist

By Craig Neil
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Summary

North Uist is an island in the Outer Hebrides situated between the islands of Benbecula and Harris.

At 117 square miles it’s the 10th-largest island in Scotland and has a population of around 1,300 people, most of whom are employed in the fishing and crofting industries.

The island is well known for its rugged eastern coastline and western beaches which are home to a variety of birds including corncrakes, terns and gannets as well as hen harriers and peregrines.

Discover this beautiful unspoilt island with this visitor guide which features useful visiting tips, facts about the island, and information about its main attractions.

Address:Lochmaddy,
Isle of North Uist,
HS6 5AF
Opening Hours:The Isle of North Uist is accessible 24/7 365 days a year. Access is dependent on Calmac ferry sailings.
Admission Price:N/A
Parking:There are no dedicated car parks on North Uist.
Parking is possible on many of the roadside verges across the island.
Contact:N/A
Facilities:Co-op supermarket (Sollas, postcode HS6 5BS), bike hire, gift shop, grocery store and petrol station (postcode HS6 5DS).
More facilities are available in Balivanich, Isle of Benbecula.

The highlights

1: One of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to North Uist is the ring road that circles the island. Cycling around the 25-mile road takes you through an open landscape pockmarked with lochans, sleepy wee villages, windswept beaches and open moorland.

2: If you’re visiting North Uist I highly recommend heading north and crossing the causeway to Berneray. As the terminal for the ferry to Harris, Berneray tends to get missed by tourists which is a shame as there are two lovely beaches which both have spectacular views.

East Beach (postcode HS6 5BQ) has a shallow bay with gorgeous turquoise waters and West Beach has an uninterrupted stretch of golden sand 3.5 miles long.

3: The best section of North Uist’s coastline is situated around Traigh Iar beach near the village of Malacleit (postcode HS6 5BX). When the tide is out this huge expanse of sand is very reminiscent of Luskentyre – high praise indeed, and with the added bonus that the beaches on North Uist see far fewer tourists.

If the tide is out I recommend heading to Malacleit beach and crossing over to the island of Vallay which has lots of tucked-away bays that are perfect for relaxing beach days.

North Uist

Visiting tips

1: Facilities are limited on North Uist so your best options for restocking supplies are either heading north to Sollas which has a Co-op or driving south to Benbecula which has a local supermarket in Balivanich.

2: Lochmaddy has a museum and arts centre that’s easily overlooked but is more than worth taking the time to visit. Taigh Chearsabhagh (postcode HS6 5AA) is located inside a long, low building opposite the Lochmaddy Hotel.

Inside, you will discover a collection of over 1,000 objects that depict the heritage and culture of North Uist alongside artworks produced by local artists and craftspeople. The museum also has a good cafe – one of the few on North Uist – and a gift shop.

3: If you enjoy birdwatching you’ll love a trip to Balranald nature reserve. This RSPB-run reserve covers an area of North Uist that’s rich with wild marshland, rolling sand dunes and flowering grassland – all of which means it’s a haven for birds.

Expect to hear (and maybe see) the elusive corncrake as well as lapwings, barnacle geese, corn buntings and many more species. If you don’t have a pair of birdwatching binoculars check out these recommended pairs from Amazon.

Overview

The Uists are situated around 15 miles west of the Isle of Skye where they form one of the most significant parts of the Outer Hebrides.

The entire island chain comprises more than 70 islands in total, although only 15 are inhabited and only 6 are considered major tourist destinations.

South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist form the central part of the Outer Hebrides archipelago, lying between the vast island of Harris and Lewis to the north and the much smaller Isle of Barra to the south.

North Uist

The Uists themselves are sizeable islands, stretching 41 miles from Eriskay to Berneray, with each island linked by causeways that allow visitors to drive north to south on a single uninterrupted road.

North Uist covers approximately 117 square miles (75,000 acres) yet it has a population of just 1,300 people meaning it has one of the lowest population densities in the Outer Hebrides.

Most people that live on the island work in the tourism, fishing, and crofting industries, although the main village of Lochmaddy (which has a whopping 300 residents) also provides jobs at the ferry terminal which is one of the main travel routes to the island thanks to regular links to Uig on the Isle of Skye.

What sets this island apart from others in the Outer Hebrides is its coastline which is arguably one of the finest in the Western Isles, with mile after mile of windswept beaches and gorgeous flowering grasslands bordering quiet roads that are perfect for cycling.

North Uist is without a doubt one of the highlights of the 185-mile Hebridean Way, so it’s no surprise that in summer the number of people on the island explodes with walkers, cyclists, and touring campervans all transiting through it on their way north and south.

North Uist

In addition to the circular route around the island there are lovely off-grid roads on the two islands immediately north and south of North Uist.

Grimsay (south) has a twisting road that veers off the A865 to the furthest point on its eastern side which is as remote as anywhere you’re likely to find in the Hebrides. The road is rather hilly, but on a sunny day it’s second to none.

Berneray (north) is much flatter in comparison and only has roads running along the eastern side, but it makes up for it with stunning beaches to the west. If you head out there with a bike I suggest cycling to the village hall (signposted), taking the left turning, and following the road to the south of the island which has well-worn tracks leading to the beach.

Heading back to North Uist you’ll soon discover that the island has one of the most interesting topographies of anywhere in the Hebrides, particularly on the eastern side which is pockmarked with countless freshwater lochs and lochans.

While the rugged east coast is noteworthy for its rocky shoreline, the west coast is best known for its secluded white sand beaches and machair (flowering grasslands) that rival any of the more popular beaches on nearby South Uist.

North Uist

The island also makes a great base for longer stays on the Uists, especially if accommodation is acquired near Benbecula which is positioned pretty much dead centre in the island chain giving visitors easy access to South Uist.

Meanwhile, visitors that like to get their walking boots on (link to recommended pairs from Amazon) will have a great time romping across the heart of North Uist over the Lee and Eaval hills which present a challenging hike but one that amazes at every step of the way.

Eaval, in particular, is a must-do as the views from the 1,140-foot summit are nothing short of spectacular, easily rivalling Reuval on Benbecula in my humble opinion.

Looking down from an elevated position reveals just how flat the west side of North Uist is and how numerous the lochs on the east side are. If you manage to climb up there, try to work out which body of water is Loch Sgadabhagh which has one of the most complex coastlines of any loch in Scotland.

North Uist

Tourist information

Getting to North Uist is remarkably easy thanks to the ferry port at Lochmaddy, but there are further ports at Berneray and Eriskay for those travellers pressing on to the northern and southern reaches of the Western Isles.

Once on the island, visitors will find the roads are in great condition with long stretches of twin-lane tarmac in addition to the standard Hebridean single-lane thoroughfares, with plenty of passing spaces so even the largest campervans will be able to motor along without causing a tailback.

As far as shopping for necessities goes, it’s actually not too bad for an island of this size and visitors can make use of a decent Co-op in Sollas on the northern half of the island and another supermarket in the village of Balivanich on Benbecula.

There are a couple more shops in Lochmaddy as well as a small fuel forecourt and another larger fuel forecourt in Balivanich so this wee island has you covered if you’re touring in a campervan, although the prices are around 20% higher than you’ll find on the mainland so I suggest filling up before boarding the ferry.

If you’re intending to travel around with a tent I personally recommend pitching at the Balranald campsite which has fabulous views across Balranald Bay and is within walking distance of beaches on the southeast side of the island, or if it’s fully booked (highly likely in peak season) you might consider Clachan Sands.

North Uist

This campsite is located 2.5 miles from the Berneray causeway so it’s in a good spot for exploring the under-appreciated island to the north, plus it’s close to a stunning beach that’s nearly 3 miles long and has one of the nicest bays in the Uists.

I personally wouldn’t pitch a tent on the eastern side of the island as it’s rather boggy, but on the other hand it’s much nicer for walking and cycling as the roads are quieter and the coastline is more interesting.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels you’ll find some fantastic walking trails on the wildest part of the island near Lochmaddy so take a look at the Walk Highlands website which lists the most popular walking trails.

In addition, I highly recommend purchasing an OS map (link further down this page) if you’re walking around the east side of North Uist as there are so many convoluted lochs and lochans it’s easy to head off in the wrong direction only to find yourself cut off from going any further.

North Uist

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

North Uist & Berneray – 454 Explorer.

Sound of Harris – 18 Landranger.

Benbecula & South Uist – 22 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Things to do

1: RSPB Balranald. Address: Isle of North Uist, HS6 5DE.
Balranald nature reserve is situated on the southwest corner of the island overlooking Balranald Bay. The reserve is managed by the RSPB which ensures the mixed habitats of machair, grassland and beaches are preserved for the wide variety of bird species that live there.

During a visit to RSPB Balranald, visitors have a good chance of seeing birds that thrive in the Outer Hebrides but are rare elsewhere in Scotland, such as the elusive corncrake and corn bunting.

2: Berneray. Address: Borve, Berneray, HS6 5BJ.
The island of Berneray joins North Uist on its northern tip via a causeway that allows access to the ferry terminal where travellers can take a short voyage to the Isle of Harris.

Though only 3.9 square miles (2,496 acres) in total size, Berneray is well worth exploring as it has two beautiful beaches – East Beach and West Beach – that have powder-white sand and are surrounded by clear turquoise waters. In fact, Berneray is so attractive it has been identified as a National Scenic Area.

3: A865/A867 ring road.
While you wouldn’t normally consider a road to be a tourist attraction, the ring road that circles North Uist easily stakes its claim as one of the top places to visit in the Uist islands thanks to the spectacular coastal views that are present along each of its 32 miles.

To really make the most of the A865/A867 you need to ditch the car and set off on two wheels as it allows you to immerse yourself in this gorgeous landscape of flowering grasslands and golden beaches.

4: Scolpaig Tower. Address: Isle of North Uist, HS6 5DH.
Scolpaig Tower is unmissable from the A865 as it sits close to the road on a small island in the middle of the freshwater Loch Scolpaig.

North Uist

This bizarre tower is, in fact, a Georgian folly which served no purpose other than to provide jobs for locals during its construction in the 1830s.

Scolpaig Tower can be visited via a semi-submerged stone causeway, but as it’s rather small and empty inside it’s perhaps best to just photograph it from the roadside.

5: St. Kilda viewpoint. Address: Isle of North Uist, HS6 5DF.
St. Kilda is a remote archipelago of islands situated 40 miles northwest of North Uist. The largest island – Hirta – was once home to a thriving community but it’s now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland as a World Heritage Site.

If you’d rather not take part in a lengthy boat trip to see the islands up close you’ll have a good view from the St. Kilda viewpoint on North Uist which is located close to the island’s radar station.

While the islands of St. Kilda can be seen with the naked eye, the best view will be had with a decent pair of binoculars. If you don’t have a pair yet check out these recommended pairs from Amazon.


Accommodation

Booking.com

Frequently asked questions

Can you stay on North Uist?

North Uist has a variety of accommodation options from B&Bs to holiday rentals and camping pitches.
However, accommodation is usually fully booked months before the tourist season begins so it’s advisable to search at least 6 months before the date of travel.
One of the best resources for finding accommodation on North Uist is the Explore North Uist website.

What language do they speak in North Uist?

The primary language spoken in North Uist is Scottish Gaelic as this is the language taught to the islanders from school age, although the residents of North Uist (and the Outer Hebrides in general) also speak English.

Can you drive between North and South Uist?

It is possible to drive from the southernmost point of South Uist to the northernmost point of North Uist.
From the Eriskay causeway the B888 heads into South Uist where it joins the A865. This road continues north over the causeway to Benbecula, across the North Ford causeway to Grimsay and North Uist, and onwards to the B893 which finishes at the Berneray causeway.

What is the main town on North Uist?

The main settlement on North Uist is Lochmaddy. This village is located on the northeast side of the island and is the main transport link to the mainland via a ferry service which operates between Lochmaddy and Uig on Skye.
Lochmaddy is home to around 300 permanent residents who work predominantly in the fishing, crofting, and tourism industries.

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