The Scotland Diaries: Scottish Isles Part 1—The Inner Hebrides
Love Scotland? Anne Gavin shares her latest Scotland Diaries adventure, this time on Scotland’s many beautiful islands. First up: The Inner Hebrides.
I returned to Scotland in May of 2018 with several goals in mind. I fell in love with this beautiful and mystical country on my first trip here in 2016. I originally came to Scotland because of Outlander, but now my interest extends far beyond. Year after year, I return. And year after year, I discover more about this gorgeous land, but also a lot about myself. I have traveled extensively, but never have I had as strong a connection to anywhere as I do with Scotland. It’s inexplicable, although I have tried to understand it and find some reason why I am so drawn to the hills, mountains and the seas that surround this magical place. In 2016, I experienced some of the most joyful times of my life on the Isle of Skye. It was a brief but memorable few days but I vowed to return. In 2017, I spent a lot of time on one particular island – the Isle of Arran. It was six very long, difficult days trudging around the sixty-five miles of the Arran Coastal Way. On days I felt exhausted or defeated, though, I had only to look around me to see the beauty of this small island paradise. In 2017, I also briefly touched down on the Isle of Mull. But, it was only for a day. What a day it was, though, as we were privileged and honored to have made a successful voyage to the small, volcanic island of Staffa and catch a glimpse inside the cathedral-like Fingal’s Cave. And, so a theme developed. “Billow and breeze, islands and seas, mountains of rain and sun.” Yes, back to Outlander, but the passion that grew inside me was beyond even my unnatural obsession with Jamie and Claire’s story. There are more than 790 islands in Scotland. I would never dream I could make it to all of them. But, for 2018, I was determined to see quite a few and not just on the surface. It is always hidden Scotland I seek and in 2018, my goal was to live, learn and love some very special Scottish Islands. This is my journey.
Mull was astern…
Setting off on my third adventure to Scotland, I felt an overwhelming sense of joyful anticipation. I didn’t think – I knew – this trip would be special. As usual, plans had been in place nearly a year and I felt ecstatic about every single part of the itinerary, the accommodations and the company I was planning to keep. And, there could not have been a better omen for what awaited me than probably the most glorious first-day-spent-in-Scotland – EVER! Arriving in Glasgow bright and early on a May morning, I was greeted by my Scotland bestie, Catriona Stevenson. Three years in a row I have traveled with Catriona, but this year was special. We were, in fact, traveling as friends – not so much guest and guide. Over these past three years since meeting Cat, we had developed both a strong friendship but also a kinship, with all things Scottish history and life in general. Although we both have very different life experiences, sometimes you just click with people and this was always the way it was with Catriona and me. I was looking forward to spending 12 days with her and her partner, Helmut, on some island adventures.
But, as we drove through on our way to Oban and our first ferry, we had the most extraordinary experiences along the way, including a spectacularly scenic drive and stop at the “Rest and be Thankful” overlook, a good look at “Butter Mountain” (also known as Beinn Ime) and Butter Bridge, a stop and wee wander through the fairy tale gardens of Inveraray Castle and a misty jaunt along Loch Awe to Kilchurn Castle. The weather was glorious – alternately sunny with spits of rain here and there and a cold breeze followed by brilliant shafts of sunlight. It was everything I had come to expect from Scotland and its ever changing climate. That first day did not disappoint.
Arriving in Oban for a late afternoon ferry to the Isle of Mull brought back some memories of last year’s trip to this beautiful seaside village. I made a bee line for one of my favorite shops there, The Iona Shop, to stock up on Celtic earrings and add a few new Celtic rings to my collection. As Catriona, Helmut and I waited to board my first CalMac ferry of the trip, the sun burst out and temperatures started to rise. It was a good omen for the rest of the trip yet again! I made no secret last year of my love for CalMac. These ferries – while often criticized for cancelling journeys (usually due to inclement weather) – have been nothing but good to me. They leave and arrive promptly – to the minute. They are comfortably appointed, have decent food aboard and usually pretty adequate WiFi coverage throughout the journey. I remain a Big Fan of Caledonian-McBrayne!
Arriving on Mull, we started our 45-minute trek by car to our Castle B&B just beyond Mull’s largest village, Tobermory. I was looking forward to spending some time in this colorful village, known by many as the setting for a popular U.K. children’s program, Balamory. Tobermory means “Mary’s well” in Gaelic and refers to a water well located nearby that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in ancient times. No doubt if you have seen any photos at all of Scotland’s islands, you have seen photos of Tobermory’s brightly colored buildings and shops along the harbour wall.
However, it was the sight that greeted us at our destination – after making our way past the village on some very narrow single-track roads – that took my breath away. Glengorm Castle would be our home for the next three nights. I felt quite proud of myself as I had arranged all the lodging for the trip and when traveling with seasoned tour guides, the pressure was on! I knew right away this place was magic when our innkeeper checked us in and told us about a few walks back behind the castle and down the cliffs near the sea. “Take the path to the Stone Circle,” she said.
What? Stone Circle? The day had turned brilliant with sunshine, and I couldn’t drop my bags fast enough to get out to that path and away to the stones. Just a short 15-minute walk and the wee circle came into view. I loved the randomness of it all. The setting was stunning and the stones very ancient looking. How is it that these stones got here, across this hilly terrain? How did these ancient people drag and erect these stones and for what purpose? These are frequently asked questions when traveling in Scotland. But, what a glorious afternoon it was as the sun shone brightly casting long shadows across the stones. I could hardly believe that in one single day, I had covered so much territory since landing at Glasgow International Airport. I would be spending my first night in Scotland on a cliff above the sea in a castle. I was pinching myself as the sun set that evening.
The next two days had us exploring parts of Mull I had not seen before. I had briefly passed through the southern part of Mull on the way to Fionnphort and the boat to Staffa and Iona the previous year. The landscapes were impressive, but we didn’t have time to stop. So, I was very excited to explore this year, particularly some of the beaches. Catriona and I made our way to one of the more famous beaches along the northernmost coast of Mull – Calgary Bay. I had seen and read about the sugar white sands and aquamarine colors of the sea there. We were expecting a longer hike, but it was actually quite quick and through the charming “Art in Nature – Woodland Walk.” Quirky, natural art exhibits are found along the woodland trail and include some viewing platforms and stunning vistas looking out towards the beach. There is also the “Gallery in the Woods” art gallery to explore, which is right next to the car park.
But, it was wandering along the beach itself that brought so much peace and serenity to me that I thought I might burst. Yes, this beautiful, tropical-like beach was, indeed, Scotland. Proving to me once again that Scotland has some of the most varied and interesting topography anywhere in the world. And, I was delighted to discover that not far from the beach, atop a bluff, was an old cemetery. Known as the Head of the Bay Cemetery, we had to jump a cow fence to get to it, but it was completely worth the extra effort. First cemetery of the trip and many more to come! It was a spectacular day’s outing I highly recommend. Despite the rain we saw and felt coming on, adventures were to continue the next day but this time on the high seas!
As Day 2 on Mull unfolded, turns out my concerns about the six-plus-hour boat excursion we had planned for the day were not completely unfounded. Although the day was decent weather-wise, I couldn’t imagine what we would be doing for six hours on a boat. Catriona had planned the outing, which was odd, given her low tolerance for water adventures and a penchant for sea-sickness. However, I went into it with an open mind knowing that I would choose the sea probably 90 percent of the time when given a choice.
The first three hours were wonderfully scenic and the several white-tailed sea eagles and the pair of golden eagles we saw circling lazily above the cliffs of the Bay of Mull made it all worthwhile. The sun came out as well and we had high hopes of spotting more marine mammals on our way out of the bay and into the Hebridean Sea. Unfortunately, only a brief spot of a lone porpoise, one playful common seal and many, many Gannets were all we saw. And then, there was the bobbing in the sea, engines at full stop, staring hopefully at the horizon waiting to spot a mammal. Still don’t really understand why the Captain thought the engine-off-bobbing scenario was a good idea as it served only to increase the seasick factor for many aboard. But, that said, I personally loved the views of the Isles of Coll, Eigg, and Rum which we saw from deep out at sea. We could even see the outline of Staffa and the Treshnish Isles in the distance.
The day was beautiful, windy, raw and yes, there were quite a few people seasick. Fortunately, I wasn’t one of them and neither was Helmut. But, we were in the minority! Eventually, we made it back to Tobermory Harbour with more than a few green faces. The crew at Sealife Surveys were very nice, particularly the spotter, Andy, and Emma, a young woman whose enthusiasm and knowledge of Mull marine life knows no bounds! A day on the water is always welcome, but I think a three-hour cruise might have been plenty for most. That said, we were none the worse for the wear. Well, most of us!
The next day we left Mull and my takeaways were three-fold. One: Mull is an active island. You need to walk, trek and otherwise get out of the car to see and experience the wild landscapes there and the beaches. There are many, many outdoor activities, but they all involve some level of fitness and willingness to increase your heart rate. Two: wildlife is plentiful on land. We didn’t find this to be the case at sea, but maybe were just unlucky that day. But, if you are a bird-watcher, Mull is a paradise. Three: the vibe of this island is very different from others I have visited. There is a wildness and rawness to Mull. Inland you will find lush woodlands and tall conifers, woodland trails and many mountain treks to be had. Along the coast there is endless green farm land, sheer, rocky cliffs and some of the most tropical looking beachscapes you will see in the U.K. Seeing the “other side” of Mull this year was a dream come true. And, there is no question I will go back again.
Over the Sea to Skye
We bid farewell to Glengorm Castle and our lovely daily breakfasts with views across the sheep-scattered fields and past the sea cliffs. I knew in my heart that I would come back to this remarkable place and to this stately castle. It was an exceptional stay and I have nothing but praise for the staff and the accommodations. But, the adventure needed to continue. We took temporary leave of Helmut that day, as well, as he needed to return to the children and the business. He would re-join us in just five days but I would miss our late-night whisky tastings and chats about politics!
Watching Tobermory Harbour fade away as we sailed towards the mainland made me sad, but I knew what was next was something much anticipated – a return to the Isle of Skye. Easily some of my happiest moments from my 2016 trip to Scotland were spent on Skye. I was blessed with amazing weather, so that helped. But, there was something about this ancient place and its dramatic landscapes that tugged at me. Having made the rounds to most of the typical “tourist” spots in 2016, I was looking forward to exploring some of Hidden Skye. I had read up on some of the more out-of-the-way places and was keen to get to a few. Before we hopped our ferry, however, we made a pilgrimage to the Glenfinnan Monument where Bonnie Prince Charlie first raised his standard upon returning to Scotland. This was known as the beginning of the Rising of 1745 – a last attempt to reinstate the exiled Stuarts on the throne of Great Britain. There are amazing views from above the monument and a worthwhile museum below that colorfully and clearly illustrates the Bonnie Prince’s ill-fated life.
But, upon arrival on Skye, first things first – fulfilling a bucket list item. I had arranged to meet a Scots friend who was on the island for his annual hill-climbing weekend. Alan and I had met via a Scottish Hill Walking Facebook group and had been corresponding for over a year. We had tentatively planned to meet up in 2017 for my first Munro climb, but timing didn’t work out and we vowed to try again in 2018. When I mentioned to Alan that I was headed to Skye in May of 2018, we agreed to meet there. I left it up to him as to our challenge. I was pretty sure the Munro-scaling might be too ambitious a goal on Skye, particularly when Alan started talking about the Black Cuillin. The Black Cuillin on Skye is a range of very rocky mountains with the tallest being Sgùrr Alasdair at 3,225 feet. The Cuillin ridges are mostly composed of gabbro rock, which is very grippy and provides good footing for climbers. But, there is also a lot of scree, small, loose stones that cover some mountain slopes. Scree is very tricky footing and extremely dangerous. I was game for whatever Alan came up with, and to add to the fun, I insisted that we “wild camp” the night of our climb. Alan, and pretty much everyone else I told about this plan, thought I was crazy for suggesting it, but it was something I really wanted to do. Camping in Scotland…come on…DEFINITE Bucket List!
After Catriona and I arrived on island and made our way to our phenomenal accommodation on Skye’s north-east coast, I was getting alternately excited and a bit nervous. Alan had declared we would be climbing up to the Coire Lagan. The Coire Lagan is a small land-locked loch (or lochan) about half way up Sgùrr Alasdair. Definitely doable for me, I thought, but an unknown challenge. The Cuillin is notorious for tricking climbers into thinking the better of their capabilities. We had agreed to meet at 9:00 a.m. the following morning. Cat was prepared to drop me, give Alan the once-over and then be off for a day and a night on her own. I am certain she thought I was a bit daft agreeing to spend the day and night with two relative strangers. But, knowing me as she did, I think she had come to expect this from me.
Alan brought along his childhood mate, Jim McLuggage, to join us. Having not met either men in person, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, when we met, it was like we had been friends all our lives. And, so began the day-long laugh fest with these entertaining, kind and very generous men. Their particular flavor of Scots accent was not something I was used to but as the morning went on, I was able to pick up on most of it. The day was cloudy but of no concern as I was sure the sun would make an appearance at some point. It almost always does in Scotland.
Alan and Jim were so accommodating throughout the climb. They offered to stop for breaks frequently and we went at an average pace, although I knew both of them could have sprinted up the hill if they wanted. About half way up, I got into a rhythm and it definitely helped that I was laughing the entire climb. These men were hysterical. It was one story after another and they seemed quite entertained at my American accent – mimicking many things I routinely say but hardly ever think twice about. As we got closer to the loch and our destination, the scree became quite treacherous. And, the mist and cold air was starting to pour over the mountain ridge making visibility difficult and conditions quite frigid. And, then there were the 20 m.p.h. winds that kicked up suddenly bringing with them bitterly cold air. One minute you are roasting in the sun and the next minute freezing. This has consistently been my experience with Scottish hill-walking and actually, I love it!
As we got closer to the lochan, I had to get a few pushes and pulls from the guys before we finally made it through the last of the boulder/scree scramble. But, what a sight when we finally made it. The mist was so thick we couldn’t see the other side of the lochan but it had this odd, moonscape quality to it. It appeared almost other-worldly surrounded by giant slabs of rock, which were practically imperceptible in the mist. As we sat on some nearby rocks, avoiding the boggy ground close to the loch’s edge, we strained to see the other side and what is known as the Great Stone Chute, which is the way to the summit of Sgùrr Alasdair. The mist rolled in and out and at brief intervals we could see the other side of the lochan in the distance. But, never saw the mysterious Stone Chute. It was quite an ascent and a relief to make it to the top without twisting an ankle on the scree or falling backwards off a boulder. Avoiding these things is my idea of a successful hill walk!
As usual, the return trip down the hill was much tougher on the body than the ascent. I struggled. Jim went on ahead to grab the car, as Alan and I took a different path down that would land us further up Glen Brittle road where Jim planned to meet us. Again, if it wasn’t for Alan’s constant banter, joking and story-telling, it would have been a whole lot worse. I was hurting. But, we did make it and with food and drink on our minds. So, as quickly as possible, it was off to the Old Inn at Carbost. Not a fancy pub in the slightest, but full of what seemed to me to be local folk and lots of merriment. It was a happy crowd and we were all three famished and anxious to get ourselves our first pints of the day.
Alan was keen to introduce me to his good friend, Jonah Jones. Alan had talked to me about Jonah many times. Jonah is legendary on Skye and is known to be the best and most popular mountain guide on the island. Jonah is the lead guide, owner and instructor with Skye Mountain Guides. It was truly an honor to meet this man. He is everything you imagine when thinking about a seasoned mountain guide. Rough around the edges for sure, but could sense a bit of a soft center, especially when Jonah started talking about his dog, Mac, who had passed away suddenly just a few months earlier.
In addition to owning and operating Skye Mountain Guides, Jonah also volunteers with the Skye Mountain Rescue Team. Mac and Jonah were a team and Mac had been considered one of the best search and rescue dogs in the U.K. having found and saved many a lost and injured climber. Mac’s death had been unexpected and sudden and you could tell when I got Jonah talking about him, how affected he still was by the loss of his friend.
Any man who loves a dog like that has to be a good man. Mac was recently honored posthumously by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for his work as a star with the Search and Rescue Dog Association of Scotland. Quite a dog and Jonah is quite a guy. If looking for a guide on Skye, Jonah is your man.
It was so much fun being in that pub that night as we ate and drank our way late into the evening. But we needed to find a camping site soon as the clock was striking midnight. I gave up my dream of camping back on the beach in the shadow of the Coire Lagan and sensibly acceded to Jonah’s suggestion to Alan that we set up camp alongside Loch Harport, just down the road. It wasn’t really a campsite. Just a couple of picnic benches and a patch of grass. It was actually perfect. After a long day on the hills, my enthusiasm for truly “wild camping” had waned a bit and the fact there were toilets a short distance down the road was quite appealing! And, we were just steps away from the Talisker Distillery and could smell the whisky fermenting. I couldn’t have asked for a more quintessential Scotland experience!
I watched as the guys set up the tent trying to be helpful but the fact was, I had never camped before and knew nothing! Besides Alan being an all-around great guy and tons of fun, he is also a spiritualist medium in his spare time. He does a lot of charity events and psychic readings around the Glasgow area. He had promised me a “reading” that night, so after a quick away to the pub for a night-cap after the tents were secured, we settled in for the night and I got my reading.
It was fascinating. There were things that Alan told me that he would have had no idea about. Names and circumstances in my past and present that he called out that he couldn’t have known. On the mountain that day, he had deliberately refrained from asking me a lot of questions. We really had only ever spoke about hill-walking and preparations for this trip. He knew where I lived and what I did for a living but that’s it. Honestly, I was skeptical prior to the reading. I gave him no information even while he was rattling off stuff he should have never known about me. Mostly I said “yes” or “no” and kept a poker face. As we ended the reading, Alan gave me some really eye-opening “life advice,” which I will forever be grateful for and would put into practice later in the trip. The experience was remarkable. Chalk it up as another very unique experience in Scotland.
I am so thankful to Alan and to Jim for the positive experience on the hills that day despite my limited hill-walking and camping skills. I could not have had two more entertaining and generous companions for that 24-hour time period. Having shared this day and night, I have two life-long friends now. But, it was back to civilization for me and back to work and their families for Alan and Jim. After packing up the tents, we returned to our meeting spot – the famous Sliglachan Hotel in the shadow of the Black Cuillin. Catriona arrived to collect me and I sadly bid farewell to my hill-walking buddies. But, still many more adventures ahead despite a bit of rain.
Over the next two days, we drove up and down and sideways across Skye. One popular attraction I missed last visit to Skye was Neist Point. Very glad we took the time to go this year. Brilliantly sunny day, azure blue seas as far as the eye could see and vistas that took your breath away. It was a trek to get down and then up again for the best views of the Neist Point Lighthouse. We opted to climb the peak in front of the lighthouse instead of down for closer views. Honestly, capturing the lighthouse with the Uists islands in the background framed against the azure seas was the better option that day. I could not comprehend, no matter how hard I tried, the actual beauty of this place. When you are presented with such beauty, it’s an overwhelming feeling. And, as we took our leave, what would be the chances that we would be stopped in the road by a sheepdog (an actual Sheepdog) herding a group of about 20 ewes and lambs up the road in front of us and neatly into their pasture. Again, with the #ScotlandMagic.
However, it was one particularly, memorable drive to a remote section of Skye that few visit that remains etched in my mind. The tiny fishing and crofting village of Elgol (population 150), sits on the end of the Strathaird peninsula on Skye. The single-track road to get there was especially treacherous, but as we approached this tiny village, the views across the back side of the Black Cuillin were unlike any I had ever seen.
And, how often do you come face to face with Highland Coos who give you no mind as you drive past, swinging wide to avoid their lazy stance in the middle of the road. The Elgol coos have no fear but when you are up close and personal, you can definitely see how an angry coo would not make for a good day. So, we crept by them slowly snapping away with the camera phone as we maneuvered to avoid these massive beasts. I really wanted to get out of the car for some better shots, but Catriona gave me one of her “you’re daft if you think you are going to do that” looks and I thought better of the idea. It was a remarkable drive and we could not have asked for more atmospheric weather and views. Unforgettable.
Two things not generally on the Skye tourist loop, but definitely on mine, included one church ruin and accompanying graveyard and one ruined castle. The prospect of this trifectal made me giddy. On the road back from Elgol we stopped at Cill Chriosd or “Christ’s Church.” Roofless, this magnificent ruin sits in the shadow of the towering Red Cuillin ridges. The church itself is atop a mound surrounded by a graveyard. There were were ewes and lambs scattered about the graveyard who seemed unafraid of the bipeds roaming amongst them. Some were even quite tame. The present ruined church dates to the 16th century and most of the graves are connected to Clan MacKinnon and are from the 18th and 19th centuries. I couldn’t get over the beautiful backdrop of the hills and ridges directly behind the church so I tried to take as many photos as I could just trying to somehow capture its magnificence. Truly, a worthy stop on the road from Broadford to Elgol.
And, then it was on to a little known castle ruin on Skye – Dunscaith Castle. Catriona had heard of it but never been. Again, a very windy single-track to get there with many hair pin turns and more than a bit of wondering if we would, indeed, find this place. But, when we did, we were ecstatic. I found out that this nearly totally ruined castle has a chilling nickname – “Fortress of Shadows.” The name definitely fit. It’s really sad to see how this antiquity is melting into the sea. You can get very close but have to walk across a boggy farm field and past two crofts before climbing more boggy hills next to the sea. Completely worth the effort and wet feet, however, as the former grandeur of the castle can only truly be seen up close. Again, with the Black Cuillin in the distance, the vistas were extraordinary.
We spent what seemed like hours wandering. I don’t think there was an angle I missed while photographing although did wonder how some of the black faced lambs we saw had managed to perch themselves on some of the craggier parts of what was left of the castle walls. I loved this place and could have stayed all day and if sunset wasn’t still hours away would have wanted to stay to capture the setting sun behind the castle edges. But, the day was winding down and hunger pangs being felt by both of us. Our last day on Skye and it was memorable.
As we packed the car the next morning and bid farewell to our lovely inn-keeper, Fiona, at truly one of the best B&Bs on the Isle of Skye, The Bridge B&B (run, don’t walk to reserve this gem when next on Skye), we could see and feel that it was going to be another beautifully sunny day in the Hebrides. We were hopping the ferry at Uig and over to the Isles of Harris and Lewis. This was one of the upcoming portions of this trip that I was most excited about. A mecca for Harris Tweed and Harris Gin and I was going to be there to experience it all first-hand.
However, reflections of our time on Skye as our ferry pulled away from the dock brought a flood of tears to my cheeks. It is very, very hard for me to describe the level of magic of this place. Skye will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was where, in 2016, I first felt the incredible tug of home and a level of happiness that I had not felt in many years. Returning in 2018 brought much of the same, but to a whole other level. And, the friendships made and experiences had this year were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
I remember thinking back to my first blog post about Skye two years ago and thinking that everyone should have the chance to feel the level of happiness and lightness that Skye brings. Having an open heart, open mind, willingness to trek to those far out places, is also important when visiting Skye. But, if you meet all those conditions, you will want to return to this place again and again.
In Part 2 of The Scotland Diaries, I travel to the Isles of Harris and Lewis, the ancient Island of Orkney and several other surprising little island jewels along Scotland’s west coast.
Tell us about your favorite Inner Hebrides isle. If you have never visited a Scottish island, which are on your #BucketList?
Anne Gavin is a senior writer at Outlander Cast and
obsessive frequent traveler to Scotland. Her 2016 and 2017 “The Scotland Diaries” travel series can be found at Outlander Cast by searching “Scotland Diaries.”