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The Islands of Scotland

David Cross (DavidX) from England

ST Google Map - Northern Scotland: Detailed Google Map by DavidX for Northern Scotland and the Islands

This is a cheeky title. In the other folders, while admitting to never having sampled various areas, I always suspect that I am recommending the best the region has to offer. Here my shortcomings are greater and I very much hope that I shall see some of the following islands one day.

  • Islay and Jura
  • Gigha
  • Colonsay
  • Orkneys
  • Shetlands
  • Mull - properly

On the other hand I can hardly use a title like "Islands off the West Coast of Scotland other than Islay, Jura, Gigha, Colonsay and most of Mull". I suppose that is a reasonable enough description of what is here but now I see that Bute is not mentioned and there are masses of smaller islands, some of which I am sure are very beautiful. So if you are thinking of an island I do not know, go ahead. I am sure you will not be disappointed. On the other hand you will find some good things here.

The order is very personal. I start with places I have only seen from the sea and Mull, which I have only just touched and Rum where I have never been up the mountains.

Eigh, The Long Island from Barra to Lewis and then Arran follow in that order and Skye appears last like a sort of swansong. I have tried to include websites covering the islands which I do not know.

Getting to the Islands

The main ports (NOT the only ones) are:

  • Ardrossan for Arran
  • Kennacraig for Islay and Jura (this or Oban for Colonsay)
  • Oban for Mull, Barra, South Uist, Coll and Tiree
  • Mallaig for Skye, Canna, Rum, Eigh, Muck
  • Kyle of Lochalsh is now connected to Skye by bridge
  • Uig on Skye for North Uist and Harris
  • Ullapool for Lewis
  • Thurso for Orkney
  • Aberdeen for Orkney and Shetland

Coll and Tiree

These islands are reached by a long trip from Oban via the Sound of Mull, with stops at Lochaline on the mainland and Torermory on Mull. Seen from the sea they would appear to have some good beaches but their relief is not particularly impressive. It was a terrific boat trip and I was happy to leave it at that (quite cheap for the distance too).

Loch Buie, Mull

Loch Buie, Mull

Mull

Mull has one mountain over 3,000 feet but doesn't hold a candle to Skye or Rum for mountain scenery. However, for fine beaches it is second to none; vast expanses of sand with plenty of room for all comers. I don't know the north part of the island, except for seeing the chocolate box type village of Tobermory en route for Coll. However, the reverse side of the coin is the reason.

We were staying in a rented cottage near Bunessan on the Ross of Mull and we found more than sufficient to occupy us for a week in that area alone. There is a crossing to Iona, well worth seeing for its history - but stay there a night or go very early if you don't want to find its basic tranquility wrecked by visitors.

From the main road to Iona from the Mull access port of Craignure, there are several roads south. All lead to magnificent coastal scenery.

Small Isles

Muck

This is one of the islands included in the round of the Small Isles from Malaig, a passenger, mail and deliveries run. Small boats come out from the islands and transfer people and goods. Mull is the smallest of the group and again its relief is not particularly exciting but it makes up with a fine coastline and a size small enough to make it feel like an island.

Canna

This is another island in the Small Isles group, the last one reached on the trips which I have done and the boat pulls alongside to unload. This was not an island I was happy to leave. It somehow manages to give a mighty call. I doubt I shall ever stay on it now but for those able to camp there could be a great peaceful break.

Rum

This island has a choice of ferry routes. It lies on the same route as the others above but can also be reached from Arisaig. There are supposed to be a pair of sea-eagles and I have no doubt there are but I was not lucky enough to see them.

Camping is allowed near the pier and wild camping in the mountains. I am afraid I do not know the Cuillins of Rum - I would do by now if I were still able to go up properly! Near the port there is a castle which is amazing. It is not particularly old but an inordinate amount of money was spent on it and it makes a good focus for a visit to the island if you are not heading for the hills. It does not quite match the Pena Palace at Sintra but has a degree of similarity.

Eigh

This is one of the Small Isles group - bigger than Muck but smaller than Rum or Canna. The distinctive hill called the Sgurr of Eigh can be seen from many points on the mainland and from other islands. It is not hard to get up - except that we picked an amazingly hot day when it would have seemed hard to walk up a street - and the view from the top is wonderful. There is a minibus service running up the island and at least one fine beach as well as several cottages to rent for a stay. The island was in the news a lot in 2001 when the islanders managed to get enough cash to buy it when the wealthy owner sold up.

The Long Island

This is actually a series of islands, many linked by causeways or bridges. The largest and most accessible ones are:

  • Barra near the southern end which is reached from Oban.
  • South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist in the centre - all linked. South Uist is linked by ferry with Barra and Oban whilst there is a sort of triangular ferry trip between North Uist, Skye and Harris.
  • The Isles of Lewis and Harris, which form a single large island. Harris is connected to North Uist and Skye as stated above and there is a ferry from Stornoway on Lewis to Ullapool on the mainland.

One of Calmac's island-hoppers is from Oban to Castlebay on Barra, Barra to Lochboisdale on South Uist then from Lochmaddy on North Uist to Tarbert on Harris and finally from Stornaway to Ullapool. It is not cheap but is very good.

Barra

This is one of my favourites. Castlebay, where the boat puts in, is a very pleasant town with numerous B and Bs bookable at the Tourist Information Office near the Quay where the bus around the island also starts. The top end of the island, from which there is a foot ferry to South Uist and easy access to Eriskay, is very narrow and I expect it is still possible to be dropped from the us on one side and walk right round the top of the island and down the other (East) side to the airport. The airport itself is a beach and the flight times vary with the tides.

Barra is small enough to feel like a "real" island and to miss it, as I did on my first trip to the Long Island, is a mistake.

South Uist

Perhaps it was the dreadful weather which made this quite a disappointing island for me. The machair on the west side is impressive but no more so than on the other islands and I can not remember anything special about it.

Benbecula

Strictly speaking Benbecula is just the largest of a whole group of islands between the two Uists. To drive along them all from one Uist to the other is fascinating and memorable. There is a lobster farm on one of the smaller islands. Benbecula itself has little of particular interest but because of its position the topmost point gives a splendid view.

North Uist

This is certainly the wettest of this group and it would be quite a feat of navigation to get to some spots on it past or between the multitude of lakes. I found it a magic place after arriving from South Uist via the causeway. The only specific thing I remember was a cairn marked on the map which turned out to have a huge chamber. A kind man who was coming out must have taken pity on my children for having such a thoughtless father and happily he lent us his torch, without which we should not have been able to enter.

Harris and Lewis

There is only one island if you define one as a piece of land surrounded by water - which comprises these two "islands." Harris, at the south end is the smaller of the two. There is a very narrow isthmus which nearly divides the whole area into two separate islands but this divides South and North Harris, there being no natural dividing line between Harris and Lewis. We had absolutely terrible weather here but I remember it as a place with outstanding scenery and I hope to see it "properly" one day. At the foot of the island "Toe Head" is a wonderful place with massive dunes and beaches around it and where we were able to look down on the eggs of various sea birds from above without undue risk.

The Highland Clearances, when people were moved from the fertile west coast to the terribly arid and unwelcoming east side, seem very meaningful here. Lewis is easily the largest "island" on the Long Island.

We particularly liked the area of dunes and beaches on the west coast around Valtos near which the famous chessmen were found (now in Edinburgh.) There are two sites on the island of particular archaeological interest:

  • Callanish: The most impressive stones in the UK other than Stonehenge. This was completely unspoiled when we saw it but I understand has now been subjected to some vandalism.
  • The broch a little further north on the west coast - as good as any (at least outside Orkney).

The Butt of Lewis (the north tip) is worth a trip and if you are lucky you may find some succulent mushrooms, as we did.

Lastly, Stornoway is a nice enough place but not exceptional.

Some places I have not seen cry out to be examined but you will only need a decent map to find some.

Arran

Down to the south for a change. This is a pretty wonderful island and the bus trip around is great but to me the island is its mountains. I was warned that Goat Fell might attract crowds and in view of my limited time on Arran I did not check this out for myself. However the ridge walk, starting at Sannox Bay over the Carlin's Leap (boringly called the Witch's Step on some maps) and on to Cir Mhor, a wonderfully shaped mountain and a superb viewpoint, is smashing. As I reached the top I just entered a patch of mist but, before I could even curse, it cleared and there was not only the main view but four stags standing together only a short distance away and looking at me.

Skye

If you are mainly concerned with the mainland but want to see just one island, this should almost certainly be the one, particularly if you are able to use a ferry rather than the bridge so that it feels like an island.

The Black Cuillin, (plural,) formed of volcanic gabbro, are the best in the UK. The downside of this is that they do attract a mass of visitors and there is a lot of erosion above Glenbrittle which has a campsite.

The whole ridge walk must be a delight as I have so often been told but I was still trying to get my scrambling ability up a bit when heart problems made it unthinkable. Of all I have had to miss, this comes top of the list.

There are things to have in mind if you are thinking of doing the Cuillin Ridge:

  • It does require some scrambling and abseiling ability.
  • Delicate skin may suffer as gabbro is a bit like sandpaper - which make it a bit easier under foot, particularly when it is wet.
  • There is no water at the top and it means carrying all you are likely to need to drink.
  • Compasses are affected by a mineral in the rock and completely unreliable. As a mist can spring up very quickly, it is as well to keep assessing how to get down if you should need to.

However, not to sound like the fox who lost his tail, if you are OK about the first of these for goodness sake do it if the weather is not abysmal. For lesser mortals like I was there are fine walks up to various points on the ridge and to corries which call on no skills beyond walking. Blaven, separate from the main ridge also provides splendid walking. Some people actually do the main ridge and Blaven as a single walk but I can honestly say that this has no appeal for me.

Those who want to experience the Cuillin without going on peaks can walk from Camasunary to (or towards if you do not like exposed bits above the sea) Loch Coruisk.

Lastly it is possible to get a wonderful trip into the Cuillin without any walking at all by taking the boat around to loch Coruisk from Elgol. There is an occasional trip all the way from Mallaig on the mainland.

The Red Cuillin are nowhere near as good and if you do have time to do something outside the Black Cuillin there are better ideas:

  • The Quirang near the northen tip of Skye has some remarkable rock scenery and it is a fine drive up the coast.
  • Whilst up there it is a pleasant walk round the very northernmost headland Uig, the ferry terminal for North Uist and Harris is just a short way down the west coast of this peninsula.
  • Many people like to visit Dunvegan Castle.
  • The Storr and the Old Man of Storr are other sites of excellent rock scenery.

The coast at the far west of Skye near Waterstein Head is wonderful Talisker Bay is a very scenic beach and nearby Carbost is the home of Talisker whisky, one of the wonders of the island. A tour around the distillery includes a drink but do not think for a moment that a bottle may be cheaper bought there. You will get it for less at a supermarket on your way back south!

Guidebooks and Maps

I am way out of date on mountain guidebooks, of which there are many. I do think one is necessary, particularly in Arran or Skye and a specific question on Thorn Tree, Virtual Tourist or Fodors should produce an answer to which is best. However I do think that "The Magic of Skye" by W.A. Poucher is still worth buying for the photography if for nothing else.

The Cuillins of Skye are on one side of Outdoor Leisure sheet 8, the other side being the Torridon Hills. If you are going into either area, this is a must.

Personally I should enjoy myself much more with a 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map of anywhere else I was going but that can be expensive. For instance the Long Island needs maps 8,13,18,22 and 31. (It is indeed long!). Skye can almost all be covered on 23 and 32, the Small Isles on 39, Islay on 60, Jura and Colonsay on 61 and Arran on 69. Mull is rather awkwardly divided between 47, 48 and 49 with its off islands and Coll and Tiree on 46. The Orkneys are split between 5, 6 and 7 and lastly to cover the whole of the Shetlands means getting 1, 2, 3, and 4 though there are terrific overlaps and you may well not need them all for where you are going. If you are not planning to walk much are you are happy with a smaller scale you should have no difficulty in finding something suitable.

Google Maps

ST Google Map - Southern Scotland: Detailed Google Map by DavidX for Southern and Central Scotland

ST Google Map - Northern Scotland: Detailed Google Map by DavidX for Northern Scotland and the Islands

Resources

Websites for the Islands of Scotland.

www.scotland-info.co.uk: The Internet Guide to Scotland

www.calmac.co.uk: Calmac, Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

www.calmac.co.uk/hopscotch-rover.html: Calmac Island Hoppers (Hopscotch Tickets), discounts for cars or passengers using Island ferries

www.road-to-the-isles.org.uk: The Road to the Isles. The Road to the Isles from Fort William to Glenfinnan and Lochailort, through Arisaig and Morar ending at Mallaig.

www.visitshetland.com: Welcome to Shetland, official site for Shetland Tourism

www.skye.co.uk: Skye, the Island and Lochalsh in north west Scotland.

www.ealaghol.co.uk: Welcome to the Isle of Skye, with links for bus timetables.

www.touristnetuk.com/sc/isleofskye: Tourist Net UK, Isle of Skye Travel Information

www.isle.of.mull.com: Explore Scotland, explore the Isles of Mull

www.gael-net.co.uk: West Highland explorer

www.visithebrides.com: Visit Hebrides


David Cross was born in Plymouth but is now a "happily naturalized" Yorkshireman. He has grand-children in Wales and Scotland. David is a moderator on the World Travel Experience forums - groups.yahoo.com/group/worldtravelexp/. See David's Slow Travel Member page.

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