The Hebrides comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. There are two main groups: the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic, and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse, and English-speaking peoples. This diversity is reflected in the names given to the islands, which are derived from the languages that have been spoken there in historic and perhaps prehistoric times.
Various artists have been inspired by their Hebridean experiences. Today the economy of the islands is dependent on crofting, fishing, tourism, the oil industry, and renewable energy. The Hebrides lack biodiversity in comparison to mainland Britain, but seals are present around the coasts in internationally important numbers.
The Inner Hebrides is an archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland, to the south east of the Outer Hebrides. Together these two island chains form the Hebrides, which experience a mild oceanic climate. The Inner Hebrides comprise 35 inhabited islands as well as 44 uninhabited islands with an area greater than 30 hectares (74 acres). The main commercial activities are tourism, crofting, fishing and whisky distilling. In modern times the Inner Hebrides have formed part of two separate local government jurisdictions, one to the north and the other to the south. Together, the islands have an area of about 4,130 km2 (1,594 sq mi), and had a population of 18,948 in 2011. The population density is therefore about 4.6 per km2 (12 per square mile).
There are various important prehistoric structures, many of which pre-date the first written references to the islands by Roman and Greek authors. In the historic period the earliest known settlers were Picts to the north and Gaels in the southern kingdom of Dál Riada prior to the islands becoming part of the Suðreyjar kingdom of the Norse, who ruled for over 400 years until sovereignty was transferred to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Control of the islands was then held by various clan chiefs, principally the MacLeans, MacLeods and MacDonalds. The Highland Clearances of the 19th century had a devastating effect on many communities and it is only in recent years that population levels have ceased to decline.
Sea transport is crucial and a variety of ferry services operate to mainland Scotland and between the islands. The Gaelic language remains strong in some areas; the landscapes have inspired a variety of artists; and there is a diversity of wildlife.
The Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, Innse Gall ("islands of the strangers") or the Long Isle or Long Island, is an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland. The islands are geographically coextensive with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, one of the 32 unitary council areas of Scotland. They form part of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. Scottish Gaelic is the predominant spoken language, although in a few areas English speakers form a majority.
Most of the islands have a bedrock formed from ancient metamorphic rocks and the climate is mild and oceanic. The 15 inhabited islands have a total population of 27,400 and there are more than 50 substantial uninhabited islands. From Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis is roughly 210 kilometres (130 mi).
There are various important prehistoric structures, many of which pre-date the first written references to the islands by Roman and Greek authors. The Western Isles became part of the Norse kingdom of the Suðreyjar, which lasted for over 400 years until sovereignty was transferred to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Control of the islands was then held by clan chiefs, principal of whom were the MacLeods, MacDonalds, Mackenzies and MacNeils. The Highland Clearances of the 19th century had a devastating effect on many communities and it is only in recent years that population levels have ceased to decline. Much of the land is now under local control and commercial activity is based on tourism, crofting, fishing, and weaving.
Sea transport is crucial and a variety of ferry services operate between the islands and to mainland Scotland. Modern navigation systems now minimise the dangers but in the past the stormy seas have claimed many ships. Religion, music and sport are important aspects of local culture, and there are numerous designated conservation areas to protect the natural environment.