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Also known as the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles form a 130 miles arc running from north to south off the north-western coast of Scotland. Taken from north to south they include Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra.
The northern part comprises Lewis and Harris and includes the largest land masses and the majority of the population. Although usually referred to as if they are, Lewis and Harris are not separate islands. Instead they are the northern two-thirds (Lewis) and southern third (Harris) of the same island.
The southern half of the Western Isles is a necklace of islands and islets, often more water than land. Over the past 60 years they have steadily been linked together by causeways. It is now possible to land from the Sound of Harris Ferry on Berneray, and use a string of causeways to cross North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and, using the most recent of the causeways, to the jewel of the Western Isles, Eriskay.
Inter-island transport has also been transformed with the introduction of ferries across the the Sound of Harris from Leverburgh to Berneray, and across the Sound of Barra from Eriskay to Barra. As a result it is now possible to drive the length of the Western Isles within a single day.
You can find out more about the Western Isles from our Lewis & Harris Main Page and our Uists & Barra Main Page and the listings pages and many features associated with them, or from our Western Isles Map Index.
In terms of local government coverage, until 1975 the Western Isles was split between two of Scotland's traditional counties. Lewis formed part of the traditional county of Ross-shire, which from 1890 became Ross & Cromarty. The county town was distant Dingwall. Harris, The Uists and Barra were part of the traditional county of Inverness-shire and governed from the equally distant county town of Inverness.
In 1975 a major reorganisation of local government in Scotland swept away the 33 traditional counties and replaced them with 12 regions. In most parts of the country, the regions were the upper tier of a two tier structure and were divided into districts. Things were different in the major island groups, and the Western Isles became an undivided region: in effect a unitary council area. For the first time a locally-based local authority was charged with looking after the interests of the Western Isles as a whole.
In 1996 another reorganisation of Scottish local government replaced the 12 regions with 32 unitary councils. The Western Isles Council, which was already a unitary council, was not affected by the change. In 1997, Scottish councils were given the option of renaming the areas they covered with Gaelic names. Western Isles Council was the only council to do so, and since then has formally been known as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.