Twenty-year-old German composer Felix Mendelssohn is at sea more than 1,200 miles from home. The rough surf hisses and heaves, tossing the boat recklessly through the waves. Reaching what seems to be the edge of the world, he enters Fingal’s Cave on the coast of Staffa, a secluded Scottish island. 

Fingal’s Cave inspired Felix Mendelssohn to create one of his masterpieces, his Hebrides Overture. Photo by Karl Gruber.

In the sea cavern, Mendelssohn encounters what seems to be an otherworldly cathedral of stone. He sees the nave-like shape of the dark walls set against the eerily clear blue of the sea, slapping and licking the bottoms of the basalt pillars. But what impresses him the most are the hollow and haunting melodies of the waves echoing throughout the cave’s nooks and crannies. 

Mendelssohn’s visit is similar to those of other artists, adventurous tourists, and even monarchs who have for centuries traveled off the beaten path to be astounded by the natural wonders of the Hebrides Islands. Situated off the northwest coast of the Scottish mainland, the Hebrides boast some of the sternest, wildest landscapes in Europe and a culture still thriving on its Celtic origins. But in spite of the harshly raw country found there, these out-of-the-way islands also offer some of the most placid scenery in Scotland. This contrast between the expected and the un-expected, the sublime and the serene, is what sets the Hebrides apart. 

Like Fingal’s Cave, many natural features of the Hebrides showcase the islands’ dramatic side. The Quiraing landslip on the Isle of Skye stands as one of the most sublime sights in Scotland—rugged, unstable cliffs that beckon to the intrepid hiker. Another Skye attraction is the Cuillin Hills, a group of mountains with breathtaking vistas of moor and mist. Out of the Cuillin Hills run the Fairy Pools, a series of waterfalls and stunningly turquoise ponds that have long bewitched the adventurous visitor and have inspired a number of local legends.

Hebridean culture has managed to maintain its hold on the cliffs for thousands of years. The islands stand as one of the last strongholds for the Scottish Gaelic language—there is even a Scottish Gaelic college on Skye—and you can hear native Hebridean spoken as you wander down the sparse village streets.

You can also see the physical traces of the ancient Celtic civilization, showcased most spectacularly by the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis. This stone circle, with its jaggedly etched-out pillars, holds as much lore as its celebrated English cousin, Stonehenge. Legend has it that a group of giants were turned into stone as eternal punishment for refusing Christianity. A saunter through this ghostly circle of stone will transport you back to Scotland’s Celtic past.

With its sweeping panorama of the surrounding country, the Quiraing landslip offers a spectacular view. Photo by John Williams

The Hebrides have more to draw in visitors than just bleakly beautiful moorlands, unvarnished mountainsides, and a charming Celtic culture. Despite Scotland’s stereotype as a country with gravel-like sand that you wouldn’t want to wiggle your toes in, these islands lay claim to some of the highest-rated beaches in Scotland. Thanks to the Gulf Stream that kisses the coast of the Outer Hebrides, several of the islands enjoy delicate white sand and crystal clear water more fitting for a Caribbean paradise than a Scottish shoreline. 

If you want a taste of this blissful seaside experience, the Isle of Harris is heaven. It has some of the finest beaches in Europe, including Luskentyre Beach, which is consistently named the best beach in Britain. With its wide strip of enticing sand, gentle waves the color of a cloudless sky, and view of distant craggy mountains, Luskentyre embodies the unlikely, yet enchanting, contradictions of the Hebrides.

So stirred by what he saw and heard in that remote sea cave, Mendelssohn immediately began composing what would become his successful Hebrides Overture. Just as these enchanting islands once prompted a musical masterpiece, the Hebrides and all of their surprising contradictions still offer a magical experience to the modern visitor. And while it might not require a small, sea-soaked boat to get there, the adventure and awe that await are sure to inspire. 

—Shannon Kelly