Most visitors are surprised to see palm trees growing in the Hebrides! They imagine that it will be cold in the winter because of the northern latitude (the same as Hudson Bay in Canada). However, although often buffeted by winds and winter storms, the Hebrides are warmed by the Gulf Stream, and there are very few days of frost or snow during the winter. February and March, in particular, can be a good time to visit – cold, clear, sunny days, starry nights, lengthening daylight hours, spring flowers and quiet roads.
The islands escape much of the rain which is brought in on westerly winds, as the clouds blow over and the rain falls on the mainland. In the summer of 2012, when the rest of the country was flooded, the Western Isles had a drought! Rain showers tend to pass quite quickly, and it is not uncommon for it to be wet in one part of Harris, and quite dry 5 miles up the road! In terms of clothing, visitors are advised to bring lots of layers, a waterproof jacket, and waterproof trousers if planning to hillwalk. Stout footwear is recommended. Bring a wetsuit if you have one – the sea is clean and crystal clear, but remains cool in the summer!
WILDLIFE AND NATURE
Bird-spotters should look out for buzzards, golden eagles, sea eagles, cuckoos, corncrakes, corn buntings, geese, Hebridean wrens, gannets, arctic terns and curlews. Puffins can only be seen on the "offshore islands" eg the Shiants and St Kilda.
Animals which may be seen include red deer, otters, seals, dolphins, basking sharks and whales.
NOT SO "WILD" LIFE
Highland cattle look fierce, with shaggy coats and big horns, but are generally very docile.
Sheep wander everywhere on the island. They are mostly black-faced sheep, but there are also native black Hebridean sheep with their distinctive four horns.
Many people are put off visiting the west coast of Scotland by scary tales of man- (and woman-) eating midgies, the tiny little insects that can rise in a cloud at certain times of the day and make any outdoor activity unbearable. The good news is that they don't like winds over 4 mph and, since there is usually a sea breeze on the islands, the problem is much less here than on the mainland. Long sleeves and trousers are recommended if out walking in the hills or fishing, and midgie nets are available which cover either just the head, or the upper torso. There are various products available as deterrents, (including Avon Skin So Soft, which is used by foresters) - some work for some people and not others. Pipe-smokers can find themselves very popular!
There is very little light pollution away from the main villages, so stargazing can be rewarding in late autumn, winter and early spring. In summer, there is no real darkness – just a "gloaming" for a few hours, and it is possible to walk around – or even play golf! – until 11 pm!
The folded rocks of the Western Isles are amongst the oldest in the world. They were formed as the Earth was cooling 3,000 million years ago and are Lewisian gneiss. The ridges and u-shaped valleys of Harris were formed by glaciers which left huge boulders and scored rocks in their wake.
Peat is used as a fuel in the islands. It is cut in the spring with a peat iron or tairsgeir and left to dry, before being built into peat stacks in late summer. At one time it was the main fuel for heating and cooking, but fell out of favour when electricity and gas became available. However, the high cost of fuel has seen a resurgence of interest in peat cutting and many of the old peat banks have been opened again.
On the Western shore of the islands, shells and the remains of sea creatures were ground down to a fine white sand by the waves, forming beautiful beaches and sand dunes. The sand mixed with the peaty land behind the beaches, forming a coastal plain known as machair and this in turn was fertilised by grazing animals. The machair provides an amazing display of wild flowers from spring right through the summer, including rare orchids. It is also home to many birds. Many areas of machair have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Walk across the machair at Northton, Luskentyre or Huisnis on a warm summer day – the smell is intoxicating!
The islands were once home to birch, alder, willow and Scots pine. Climate change and felling for fuel resulted in the vast tracts of tree-less moor, and natural regeneration has been hampered by grazing deer and sheep. Given protection from wind and grazing animals, trees grow quite readily!