Editor’s note: This marks the sixth in Anne Gavin’s travelogue through Scotland. If you missed any of her other posts, you can catch up at the bottom of this one with links. Are you settled in your armchair? Let the virtual travel begin!
As the sun rose on our final day walking The Arran Coastal Way, I felt ready to finish but also sad knowing our time on this beautiful and wild island was coming to an end. As usual, the distance of the day’s walk ahead was unknown but for some reason the thought of a 10- to 12-mile trek no longer gave me the shivers. That is remarkable in and of itself. I was still hurting although some of the blisters had started to heal over. We were starting off in Whiting Bay and would make our way to Brodick and the official end point of the 65-mile Arran Coastal Way. The time had flown by, yet this was only the beginning of my journey through Scotland. Some needed downtime lay ahead and a quick stop on the mainland, but more islands were in my future and I couldn’t wait. And, then there is always Outlander — popping up when you least expect it. Our last day on Arran and onward to more Scottish adventures. Let’s go!
We left the beach in front of Dave’s cottage and almost immediately took a turn onto a lovely wooded trail. This looked promising. No boulders, nor big hills, just a soft grassy trail and some great views. The dogs were with us again, including Mylo the Labrador, and two Cavalier Spaniels. Trail markers were fairly well placed as we wound our way around some farms and back into the woods. It was welcoming yet startling, then, to come across a wooden boardwalk along the path. The boardwalk looked relatively new and definitely well maintained. It was nice, firm footing for once. The only thing was there would be maybe 50 yards of boardwalk before we had to step back down to the beach and mushy seaweed and slippery stones. Boardwalk, beach, boardwalk, beach. This continued for some time.
If I was thinking the Coastal Way was going to get any easier on this last bit, I was mistaken. I didn’t mind this, though. I was already pretty well beaten up and it didn’t seem right to have it easy on the last day. I was thrilled we were walking so close to the shore and that we had a frame of reference in our sights most of the time. You could see the town of Lamlash in the distance ahead. We were heading that way where we would once again hit the road before turning along the coast for the last push into Brodick. Heading into Lamlash, I was pushing aside trees and branches that had encroached upon the path when a branch swung back and smacked me in my face. Of, course! What is one more war wound on this journey? Once again, I could feel my face swell a bit and I wiped away some blood from the scratches. Yeah. That’s going to leave a mark. At this point, it was all comical.
When we reached Lamlash, Dave suggested we might want to stop for a coffee at one of the cafes. What a luxury to actually be on a part of the coastal path where civilization existed including cafes that sold hot beverages! After a nice rest and some wi-fi access, we set off again. In my mind, I saw Brodick just around the bend in the coast. Not really true. Another illusion.
From Lamlash to Brodick on the road was probably 3 to 4 miles. But, of course, we were taking the long way around and walking coast side. Back to boulders and some serious scrambling. The weather had started off a bit overcast in the morning, but had warmed considerably so we found ourselves once again with some beautiful, clear, and blue sky views. I can’t say that last bit wasn’t challenging, especially when we started making our way inland again and had to cut through vast farm fields and up and down sheep dung-laden areas. Hoisting the 75-plus pound Mylo over the occasional fence and gate was not always so graceful for the poor boy. But, the dogs seemed to be loving the close encounters with the sheep despite Dave and Gary doing their best to steer clear.
As we came up alongside another field, we turned down a farm track and found ourselves in a neighborhood. We had seen the mighty Goat Fell from the distance for the past hour or so once we turned the final corner of the coastal walk. But, now it lay due north, and we knew that Brodick was just beyond at the bottom of the neighborhood hill. It felt strange knowing we had just steps to go. I was still taking videos every hour or so, and as I was videotaping and narrating that final video as we approached Brodick, I could feel the emotion rising in my throat. I had done enough crying throughout this trek and I didn’t want to do any more. In somewhat of an out-of-body experience, I could see myself from above, lumbering down the street to the final end point. Bruised, battered, emotionally and physically drained but proud of every single slow, stumbling step I took to get me there. For some crazy reason, I happened to be the first one down the hill and saw our support crew at the bottom. They were wildly cheering us on, camera phones in hand. That felt really good. The support crew had a huge magnum of champagne with glasses set up on the picnic bench next to the final Coast Way cairn marker. Goat Fell loomed ever present in the background. We had made it.
Our celebration consisted of fish & chips dinners from the take-out across the street, champagne, and lots of photos as we took over the picnic table next to the cairn marking the end of the walk. When we had to say our goodbyes to the Scottish crew, including Dave, it felt bittersweet. I was so grateful to this patient man who had taken on my motley crew of strangers to make this not insignificant trek along oftentimes treacherous territory. The entire Lawson family and Ms. Darcy Weddell were lifesavers in many ways for us inexperienced Americans. It’s likely a kindness I will never be able to fully repay and it’s true—everything they say about the Scottish people. Their kindness and generosity knows no bounds.
Resorting at Auchrannie and off to Oban
We literally limped into the Auchrannie Resort after saying our goodbyes. These American gals were looking forward to a weekend at the award-winning hotel and spa, some good meals at the resort’s restaurants, and a big, soft bed with no wake-up call for the next few days. Upon checking-in, I had a fun exchange with the desk clerk when she asked my surname for the reservation. I said, “Gavin” and then she paused and said, “Anne Gavin, the blogger for Outlander ?” I looked up surprisingly and said, “Why yes. That’s me!” I couldn’t wait to tell my fellow bloggers that apparently our little blog was known by a local on a small island (population 5,000) off the west coast of Scotland. My chest might have puffed out just a little! I bid farewell to the other ladies and we all decided that rest (and catching up on social media posts) was the order of the evening. The next day was spa bliss.
If you are on the Isle of Arran and aren’t punishing yourself by walking the Arran Coastal Way, I highly recommend the Auchrannie Resort. It’s a lovely oasis with attentive staff, very comfortable rooms and then, well, the spa. However, as we rose early Sunday morning, I could feel that Outlander itch beginning. I knew we would be traveling partially through the Highlands on our way to the seaside town of Oban. My very favorite Scottish guide, Catriona Stevenson from Slainte Scotland, was waiting for us as we disembarked from the ferry back at Ardrossan once again. Of course, I didn’t walk down the gang plank…I fell. Practically head over heels, as I tried to negotiate the slick gangplank with my jumbo suitcase. Yep, the hits (and bruises) just kept on coming! Thankfully, some of the lovely crew from the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, helped me up and carried my bag the rest of the way. More kudos to CalMac!
The weather had changed radically, though. It was cold, rainy, and grey. However, it was nice to be sitting in a car putting on miles, instead of walking them. I had packed my hiking boots away into the deepest, darkest corner of my suitcase and hoped not to look at them again—for a while anyway. I let Doreen take the front seat, as she and Catriona were chatting away, as I looked forward to that breathtaking drive through Glen Coe. First, we stopped at The Drovers Inn, a place I had missed the last time I was in Scotland. If you can remember in Outlander Episode 1.09 “The Reckoning” Jamie mentions that the Drover was not far ahead of where they would stop for the evening after Claire’s dramatic rescue from Fort William. Cattle droving was a much-valued skill throughout the Highlands. Drovers had to know the terrain and weather in order to know how far to move the cattle. If they were too slow, they would miss the market. Too fast and the cattle would lose weight and fetch a poor price. Established in 1705, just two years prior to the establishment of the Scotland-England union, The Drovers Inn was a popular watering hole and stopping point for the drovers that passed on through with their cattle. The interior of the inn maintains much of the old charm of the past 300 years of Highland history. The food is comforting Scottish fare, and the service is impeccable. It was worth the stop this time!
Oban and an Outlander Surprise
I was just as breathless and speechless driving through Glen Coe as I was the first time last year. I can’t really adequately describe the majesty of this place. It’s so vast yet you can feel the strength of the mountains in every bone. When traveling through Glen Coe, I always think back to the incredible scenery in Episode 1.05 of Outlander “Rent” when Dougal led the MacKenzie men and Claire across the moors and alongside the lochs of the Highlands. I understand some of the filming for these Season 1 scenes was done in the Glen Coe area. It really does look like that but MUCH better in person! I also noted the spot where some of the scenes were filmed with Roger and Brianna in the car from Episode 2.13 “Dragonfly in Amber.” I only know this because Catriona was passing through one day with one of her tour groups over a year ago when they saw the Outlander film crew filming some 1960s-era vehicles driving up and down the road. It was well before that scene aired but when I saw it again, I knew the exact spot. Cue my Outlander obsession!
As we passed through Glen Coe and alongside Loch Etive, we crossed into Argyle. Argyle’s scenic, narrow roads pass lochs and farms, and eventually wind their way to the seaside Village of Oban—our home for the next several days. Colorful fishing vessels line the docks and the ever-present Caledonian MacBrayne ferry glides regularly in and out without barely a ripple on the waters of the harbor. We checked into our small hotel one street off the main road through town. There was enough light left in the day for a quick orientation walk along the harbor and a bite to eat for dinner. Sunsets were getting later, and it was practically 10:30 p.m. before the sun fully set. The colors from the setting sun bouncing off the harbor waters was spectacular. I was looking forward to meeting up with my Scottish friend, Lesley Scott, and her friend the next day for an Outlander surprise.
I had met Lesley in the winter of 2017 in Washington, DC. She had accompanied another friend of a friend from Scotland on a quick business trip. We all met for lunch and I was delighted to find out that Lesley was an Outlander fan AND had a good friend who had engraved many of the Jacobite glasses used in Outlander Season 2. Lesley and her friend, Wilma Mackenzie, met us for a late afternoon coffee in Oban and I was absolutely blown away with Wilma’s story about her involvement with Outlander, not to mention her exquisite work. Glass etching/engraving is a precise and delicate art. Wilma had been contacted by a prop manager from the Outlander production and was given only a few weeks to create the etchings on the Jacobite glasses used by Bonnie Prince Charlie (brilliantly played by actor Andrew Gower) and others in many of the Paris scenes during Season 2. She brought some of the original art she used to create the glasses as well as examples of some of her other work. Truly spectacular. It recalls once again; how wonderful Outlander has been for local artisans and businesses in Scotland. Not only is the production contributing to the Scottish economy and the pockets of many local artists but also striving for authenticity and historical accuracy. It was such a pleasure meeting Wilma and hearing her magical Outlander story. Look for more on Wilma and her experience with the Outlander production in a future blog post!
Mull, Staffa, Iona
It had been a wonderful day as we had also had the chance to have lunch at the home of a local couple—more friends of friends—and hear what life is like in Oban. But, the highlight of this particular part of the trip was going to be our trip across the water to the Isle of Mull and from there to the mysterious Isle of Staffa and finally to the Isle of Iona. We set off the next morning early on the CalMac from Oban. The weather remained dreary but not a total wash-out. Once disembarking from the ferry on Mull, we took a scenic drive to the other side of the island. I was so impressed by the size and diverse landscapes on Mull. My mouth watered just a bit when we passed a well-known island mussel farm where we were told you could get a whole bushel of mussels for the equivalent of a couple of U.S. dollars. That particular farm is a source for many restaurants and eating establishments on the island. In addition, we saw wide valleys and glens and several large mountains including Ben More, the only island Munro outside of the Isle of Skye. I can only imagine the views from the top of Ben More looking down at the spattering of small islands around what is called the Minches. The Minches are straits separating the north-west Highlands and the northern Inner Hebrides from Lewis and Harris. The Lower (Little) Minch is the southern extension, separating Skye from the lower Outer Hebrides. Islands are scattered throughout the Minches, some of which can be seen from Mull (on a clear day!). As we came out of the mountainous section of Mull and headed towards our ferry to Staffa, we followed along the side of Loch Scridain. I kept my eyes along the rocky coast in case we could spot any of the sea otters known to be about this part of the island. Unfortunately, I saw none, but did spot several seals and lots of coastal birds and their nests.
We were anxious to arrive in Fionnphort where we would board Staffa Tours’ boat for the 20-minute ride to the Isle of Staffa. I was watching the weather closely. It had definitely clouded over although the seas were relatively calm. This was important because the landing at Staffa is impossible in rough seas given the size of the boat and the even smaller size of the dock. In all her years of touring, Catriona had never been able to make the boat ride to Staffa due to unfavorable weather conditions. It was all she could talk about. But, we WERE getting to Staffa today. I could feel it in my bones. As we boarded the boat with approximately 40 other adventurers, the weather seemed stable although I was wishing for a bit more sunlight, so we could capture photos of some of the beautiful coast of Mull as we headed out into the North Atlantic. But, it was thrilling none the less. We were underway. As we approached the island, everyone on board held their collective breath. To say that our approach was dramatic would be an understatement. As the boat slowed and bobbed in the current, we could see the hexagonal pillars and the opening to what is Fingal’s Cave. No one was even breathing as we came upon this mystical place.
Originally discovered by naturalist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 on his way to Iceland, Banks wrote of Staffa:
“Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men! Mere models of playthings, imitations as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.”
Volcanic lava flows formed the basalt columns of the island. Slow cooling of the second layer of basalt resulted in a remarkable pattern of hexagonal columns which form the faces of the walls of the caves you see as you approach. The name “Staffa” is from the Old Norse for stave or pillar island. The Vikings gave it this name because of the columnar basalt formations which reminded them of their houses, built from vertical placed tree-logs. However, it’s one thing to read about this place, but it an entirely different thing to experience it. The famous composer Felix Mendelssohn felt this way when after a visit to the island he was inspired to write the Hebrides Overture in tribute. Click on the link and take a listen!
Once we landed we were directed to the crude pathway around the side of the island where your only support was a cable handrail interestingly set against the side of the island opposite the sea. Therefore, there was nothing between you and a slip and a fall down across the rocks and into the sea. Given my penchant for falls up to this point, I was somewhat concerned! But, really nothing was going to stop me from getting to that cave. And, how remarkable it was. I can’t really put into words the magnificence of the place or the feelings I had actually standing there. It was treacherous making your way inside the cave. You had to press yourself up against the wall to let others pass. Again, a mis-step or unexpected bump would find one falling over the side and into the mouth of the cave—heaving with the swells of the cold waves of the North Atlantic. The danger was thrilling in a way. My heart pounded the entire time—especially when after having made my way down to the far tip of the cave opening, I heard a voice above me yell “Watch out!!” I turned and saw a large swell heading directly towards me. A man next to me taking photos grabbed his ruck sack and headed up the columnar steps and I followed quickly behind just as the wave crashed feet from where we had been standing. It was something out of a movie but yet, it was really happening! As we made our way back to the stairs leading us up the side of the island above the boat dock, I felt both a sense of relief and of wonder. I don’t think I will ever experience anything like that again in my lifetime.
As we crossed the top of the bluff of the island we went in search of the nesting puffins. We had been told that we would find them at the far end of the cliff. We pushed hard to get up the hill knowing we would have only a few minutes with these exotic birds before having to hurry back to the boat. You are allotted only an hour on the island and as we had learned about Scottish ferries, they are generally quite prompt if weather allows. As we topped the last hill, we came upon dozens of puffins cackling and hopping about only feet away. They showed no fear of humans; in fact they seemed to pose as they tended to their nests buried in holes along the side of the steep precipice above the sea. Dozens of people were taking photographs, including some clearly professional photographers with very large lenses. It was pure joy seeing these beautiful birds in their natural surroundings. Every once and awhile one would take off and fly almost straight down and off the cliff. A surreal experience in every sense of the word.
As we dashed back across the cliffs and down the steep stairway, the rain had started to spit and the winds had picked up. The entire way back the skies got darker and darker and the rain began to fall. By the time we made it back and docked at Iona, the rain was coming faster and heavier and a light mist covered the island. No matter. Just Scotland weather!
The Isle of Iona sits one mile from the coast of Mull. The entire island is just 1 mile wide and 4 miles long. For many thousands of years Iona was the centre of Gaelic monasticism and is known as a place for spiritual retreats. Saint Columba founded the Monastery of Iona after he was exiled from Ireland for his involvement in several conflicts over—surprisingly—copyrights. The monastery on Iona was hugely successful and played a very crucial role in the conversion to Christianity of a group of tribal peoples that had their origin in present day Scotland. Many satellite institutions were founded after the Iona Monastery and Iona became the centre of one of the most important monastic systems in Great Britain and Ireland. Known as a place of high learning, the monks at Iona produced many historically significant documents including portions of the Book of Kells.
The island is also known for a proliferation of high standing crosses. It’s thought that these high crosses were the first such crosses to contain the ring around the intersection that became characteristic of the “Celtic Cross” we see today. The Abbey itself was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. It was frequently plundered by the Vikings who did so, it was said, for the sport of it. Walking around and through the Abbey is remarkable despite very little of it being original structure. There are many shrines to Saint Columba inside and at the Museum to the rear of the Abbey that provide a very interesting historical record of both Columba and the island’s colorful history. I loved every cold, bone-soaking second of that hour and a half of exploration on Iona. The rain never let up, but I really didn’t care. I took a spiritual journey of my own that day whether it was across Mull, stomping around Staffa’s incredible moonscape, or escaping into the antiquities and history of a remarkable period of time on Iona.
We took the short ferry ride back to Fionnphart and then another ride across the rolling landscape of Mull before heading back again aboard the CalMac to Oban to conclude our day. Our time in Oban and this part of the Inner Hebrides was ending. But, the next morning, before we took our afternoon ferry over to Islay, we did a quick tour at the Oban Distillery in town. Oban is a charming and very, very small distillery and one of the oldest in Scotland. However, it proved to be a great remedial course in my whisky education before I was to embark on my graduate degree on the Isle of Islay—the Whisky Capital of Scotland.
As I drifted off to sleep on our last night in Oban, I counted myself fortunate to have had such extraordinary Hebridean adventures over the past several days. I was reminded about the true Scotland. Its history, its astonishing and varied landscapes, and its mystical faculties. It’s why I love it so, and why I see myself coming back again and again. On to Islay and whisky exploits…
The Scotland Diaries: Trekking up Goat Fell
The Scotland Diaries: The Arran Coastal Way, Part 1
The Scotland Diaries: The Arran Coastal Way, Part 2 — Succeeding at Survival
The Scotland Diaries: Whisky, Whimsy and 10 Things I Learned about
Scotland and Myself