There is evidence of considerable prehistoric human activity on the Western Isles, as can be seen in an array of archaeological sites including, brochs, cairns, duns and stone circles. The most famous of these sites being the Standing Stones at Calanais (Callanish). These pre-date Stonehenge. The area around Calanais is in fact home to over 20 monuments erected between 3000 and 4000 years ago. However, the site is best know for Calanais I, which is a complex arrangement of some 50 stones.
The earliest written references to the Western Isles are contained in Norse Saga. The influence of Norse invaders and settlers is still evident in many names, which are Scandinavian in origin. The more recent history of the islands has been strongly shaped by the clan system. To this day, original clan surnames such as MacNeil, MacDonald, MacLeod, MacAulay and Maclver are the common names in the Western Isles and to a large extent many have retained their ancient geographical distribution.
In the 20th Century, perhaps one of the most famous stories encapsulating the spirit of the Western Isles and its inhabitants, is that of St Kilda. The archipelago of St Kilda is the remotest part of the British Isles and lies a further 66km west of the Western Isles. The islands are a natural haven from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean and are extremely important to seabirds. They were also home to a native population up until 1930 when the remaining inhabitants were excavated to the mainland. Theirs was a history of survival inextricably linked to the natural environment, particularly the sea. The layout of the 19th-century village remains and the islands of St Kilda, with their exceptional cliffs and sea stacs, form the most important seabird breeding station in northwest Europe. St Kilda (pictured above) is one of only 24 places in the world to have joint World Heritage Status, covering both its unique natural environment and cultural human history.
From the 8th Century the Norse ruled large parts of the Western Isles. Prior to this, there was unlikely to be any formal system of governance. The Western Isles were returned to the Scottish Crown under the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Nowadays, the Western Isles has sovereignty within the United Kingdom and is governed by the Scottish Parliament and Westminster.