Many of the islands are nowadays linked by road. From north to south (which roughly corresponds to largest to smallest) the island groups are:
- Lewis and Harris have always been the same island, but divided by mountains with (until modern times) only rough tracks across. It was easier to sail between them, as if they were divided by sea, so they became separate counties. Lewis, the northern and larger section, is mostly low-lying. Inland is infertile heath, but the east coastal strip is farmland. Here is 1 Stornoway, the only place in the entire Hebrides that you could call a town, with an airport and ferry port. To the south (by what is nowadays a good main road) is Harris. It’s rugged but more scenic, with the small port of 1 Tarbert as its main village. 1 Leverburgh is a tiny but historically important village nearby. Off the west coast of Harris, Great Bernera is a small island that is nowadays linked by road.
- This series of islands became linked by road during the 20th C, to create one very long island. They are mostly low-lying heathland with a myriad small lochs. Berneray is small, and was obscure until it became linked – Prince Charles (HRH Prince of Wales) once spent a week working as a crofter here, and no-one noticed him. On North Uist, 1 Lochmaddy is the main village and ferry port. Next south, 1 Benbecula has an airport and the little village of Balivanich. South Uist, the longest island, has a ridge to the east and the highway and crofts to the west: the ferry port of 1 Lochboisdale is the largest settlement. The last link in the chain of causeways joins the island of Eriskay.
Thus, these three island groups all have settlements, regular public transport to each other and to the Scottish mainland, and visitor amenities. They’re quiet except at the height of summer. Around them are even smaller islands, innumerably many: the Hebrides have a fractal terrain so however closely you focus in, more islands swim into view. A few have private dwellings but most just have sheep or sea-birds. Little islands important for wild-life, sometimes visited by boat trips, include the Shiant Islands south of Lewis and the Monach Islands off North Uist.
- Lonely, uninhabited St Kilda lies 40 miles west out in the Atlantic.
- This is an archipelago, and there’s no island called “St Kilda”. The largest island is 1 Hirta with towering sea cliffs; the three main others are Dùn, Soay and Boreray. Their tiny population led a precarious existence, crofting and gathering birds’ eggs from the cliffs, until illness and other hardships forced them out in 1930. Nowadays volunteers work on the islands to preserve the habitat and ancient farmsteads; there’s no visitor accommodation and you can only get in by boat in very favourable weather.