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Island Hopping, Scottish style

(be warned, its a long one)


One can develop very strong escape fantasises when you have been in a confined space for a period of time. For weeks I'd dreamt about jumping into my ten year old Honda Civic (1.4 l Diesel engine with boy racer speakers) and burning some serious rubber. But that was not to be, for now anyway.

My first week out of captivity was to be spent on the island of Iona, as the crow flies, no more than a mile from Erraid. Iona was no stranger to me. Not only did I see it a thousand times a day, but I went there most Wednesdays, the official 'day off' for guests on Erraid. At the time, the big thrill for me was that it had two small but posh hotels which offered me glimpses of the 'modern sophisticated' life that I missed . Although I still wore welly boots, I would arrive each Wednesday decked out in tinted moisturiser, blusher and lipstick and as well as my fancy silver ring from Mexico and my one bracelet, items which would look and indeed be, foolish on Erraid. I would move slowly between the two places whilst slowly attempting to gorge myself to death; initially on morning fare of posh coffees, shortbread and scones, moving on to the lunch specials and maybe a final cream tea before heading home at three. Whilst others would return form the day with tales of their adventures around the island, I would report back on the quality of the scones, what the specials were for lunch and the best lounging and viewing positions in each hotel.

However on that short walk from the pier to the hotels it was impossible to miss the breathtaking beauty of the island, a really refined type of beauty that somehow made it seem out of place in this edge of Western Europe. Words for the west coast of Scotland are wild, rugged, desolate, untamed. Words for Iona are lush, elegant, refined, well heeled, majestic, manicured. It reminded me of the Cotswolds or some glorious part of beautiful South West England, not the Inner Hebrides. Iona is also a place of pilgrimage people from all over the world, holding special meaning for people of many faiths, from pagans to Christians, so, if I was this close, I wanted to give it a proper go.


It was a gift to slowly take in all that Iona had to offer. God, it is an amazingly beautiful place. After two months on Erraid I thought I was immune to gasping when I saw something new. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is something about the quality of light on Iona that does something really potent to colour; it intensifies it, makes it bigger, bolder, more inescapable. I was totally blown away by the blindingly white beaches, the depth of the turquoise-ness of sea, the almost alive, glowing pinkness of the Ross of Mull just across the sound. I'd often be startled by what I saw, sometimes overwhelmed by it, like it was impossible for my eyes to really take it all in.


I think that even the animals had a sense they were somewhere special, that they were living their lives on a stunning movie set and should behave accordingly. Bizarrely they were all good looking animals; the highland cattle were stunning of course, but even the sheep, normally scruffy flighty characters were handsome and confident, firm, neatly trimmed, alert. They seemed so proud of themselves, at times I'd swear they walked with a swagger. Other times I notice they positioned themselves on a hillock, taking notice of the stream of pilgrims walking along the road, but also saying, "hey look at us, aren't we the business?". It madness I know, but I'd swear by it, almost.


The pilgrims were less well groomed, but remarkably well behaved. There is very limited accommodation on Iona, so most people come for the day. In early May they came in a trickle, but but by early July there were at least a couple of thousand each day. Many came with spiritual intentions, but many did not. What surprised me was their quietness and respectfulness and the total absence of loutishness, drunken behaviour, an unusual occurrence in British or Irish society when the sun Comes out. They calmly, quietly walked around the island; St Columba's Bay with its huge expanse of smooth, perfectly rounded, multi coloured pebbles, the magically titled Bay at he Back of the World, Dun I, the high point of the island offering a panorama of Iona as well as the islands of Staffa, Coll and Tiree, the Trenish islands and sometimes Skye in the far distance. I have no doubt that some or all of what I have described has something to do with the energy of the island, the magic, or whatever you might like to call it. Which doesn't explain the vast majority of the people who live there. My choice of words would range from dour and depressed to downright unfriendly, money grabbing and without charity! There is no such place as paradise eh?


And speaking of dour and depressed, Mull is another island that seems to have more than its fair share of the above. At times I felt sympathy for these people whose interactions with others were so devoid of joy, at other times I wanted to put my big toe up their posterior. Surely it can't be blamed on remoteness, isolation and bad weather, we fare just as badly on these things in the West of Ireland, but don't produce grumpy old men by the bucket load. Culturally, can anybody shed light on what is going on? Anyway, back to Mull; it's a big island, a beautiful island, an island that offers incredible opportunities to be in contact with nature and a touch of arty sophistication in the main town, Tobermorey. Go visit.


And the island of Staffa, done by boat from Mull or Iona. Wow, Staffa. It's shares the same geology as the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, infact they were probably connected together at some point in their history. In my opinion, the Giants Causeway is amazing, but Staffa blows it out of the water. Compared to the rigid straightness of the Causeway the rock formations on Staffa are curved, relaxed, like they've taken a minor sedative and just chilled. It was phenomenal. I hope pictures convey some sense of it.

When I left Iona I had five days to get to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I was on a tight schedule as I had arranged to volunteer at Hebcelt, a big Celtic music festival in island's capital, Stornoway. Having lived on small islands for nearly three months I had completely lost my sense of scale and to tell you the truth, was in a complete panic about making it on time. Leaving Iona on the 8am ferry, my plan was to drive through Mull, ferry it back to the mainland and try and get to Fort William by nightfall. I arrived in Fort William at one. In the afternoon. I was very excited to be in Fort William. Not for it's famed scenery I might add, but for its shopping. I hadn't seen a proper shop for nearly three months and I was literally foaming at the mouth at the thought of buying something, anything. Boots, Superdrug, Marks and Spenser's, Pound stores, the excitement lasted all of thirty minutes. I bought some Veet ( it was time for the hairy legs to go) and lots of edibles from Marks and then felt very very depressed. Welcome back to a consumer society Nora. I got in my car and sped off, take me back to the wilds I thought.

My journey to Mallaig was on the Road to the Isles. God, I had always dreamed of being on the Road to the Isles. Sadly, most of it wasn't particularly pretty and by the time I got to the gorgeous bit I was rather distracted by the signs outside the numerous BnBs, saying 'no vacancies'. I spent the guts of an hour trying to find somewhere to stay in Mallaig. The best deal I could get was 80 quid for a double room in a dingy looking council house outside the town. Outrageous. I would rather stick pins in my eyes than hand over my cash for that. Which left me with the back seat of my car or a bed in a dormitory. I opted for the dorm, which I had to share with a group of young German men, and swore to arrive in my next destination at an earlier point in the day.


My next three days were spent on the Isle of Skye. Three days driving in the lashing rain, three cold, miserable days in which I drive through and past magnificent scenery, none of which I could see. Regular readers of this blog will know that I often get my knickers in a twist about bad weather. But my fury this time was well off the Richter scale. This was because a heat wave of Armageddon proportions had enveloped the 'entire' British Isles and Ireland. Television, newspapers, radio, Facebook; every bloody one ranting on and on and on about the heat. But no one was mentioning that Nora was driving round the Isle of Skye in her winter woollies in a never ending deluge of rain. Radio weather forecasts omitted the misery going on in the west. The Independent newspaper forecast patchy light rain and, did my eyes deceive me, a picture of a partial sun hovering over the Western Isles. Me arse. Shame on you Independent newspaper. And where was the BBC? George Alagiah at the very least. In sizzling hot London that's where, barbecuing sausages in their swimwear.

I am taking a deep breath now.

It turned out that about 60 to 80 quid a night was the standard price for a room in this part of the world, so that first night on Skye and for all subsequent nights on my road trip, I stayed in hostels. My fellow inmates were not who I was expecting. Night one my dorm mates were a Vietnamese girl and her mother, a mother who got up at 4am to rustle plastic bags ( I fully acknowledge that plastic bag rustling is my biggest obsession, after the weather). The next two nights it was a collection of girls from Taiwan and China; all travelling on their own, all speaking perfect English, all intelligent, confident, motivated young women. I was impressed by the sisterhood from the East. But the best bit about Skye, I'm afraid to say, was boarding the ferry to get the hell out of the place. And for those of you who are interested, Donal and his troosers were nowhere to be seen.


And then it was time for the Outer Hebrides. Wooohoooo. First stop was Stornoway the capital of the Isle of Lewis. I had arranged to volunteer at HebCelt, a pretty big and well regarded 'Celtic' music festival. Not only would I be able to attend the three day festival for free, I figured it would be great way of getting in with the local yokels, thus ensuring a far better time than hanging out on my owneyo. On my application form I had noted I was interested in environmental issues, leading to an assignment to the green team, otherwise known as the litter collection squad. The highlight and I repeat highlight of the job was wandering around the site with a bin bag, the lowlights were considerable. For recycling purposes the contents of the bags and the bins had to be sorted by hand. Simple enough eh? But imagine emptying the contents of a bag onto the grass and being faced with (other than the stench), half eaten bits of meat, dog poo, rotting fruit, nappies, lots of liquidy stuff etc all mixed up with the bottles, tins and paper being recycled. Then sorting it, using only a rubber gloved hand. Not pleasant I can tell you. The coordinator was insipid and uninspiring and the camaraderie on the team was non existent, so on day three I gave up and didn't turn up for duty, extremely unusual behaviour on my behalf. I still managed to get in for free that day, but the spirit of apathy had set in and rather than watch the final act, the Red Hot Chilli. Peppers, I left early to go home for a takeaway. Rock and Roll or what?

The scene in the hostel was much more fun. And as was the case on Skye, the people I met there were not whom I expected. This time it wasn't women form Asia, it was the 'middle aged'. Mainly women, mainly fifties and upwards and mainly, I later discovered, divorced. It was lovely to have a leisurely breakfast with familiar faces before heading out for a days adventures and then returning to share stories and photos.

The most interesting character was an American woman; loud, outrageously aggressive and professing to be a yoga instructor (I think not). She seemed to spend a lot of time in Scotland and Ireland, terrorising the locals I assume. She also had enormous bosoms which she covered with a tight, low necked t shirt emblazoned with the words ' I like men with accents' . Most evenings she would rant, rave and become hysterical about the inappropriate behaviour of the local men. Insight was not her strong point. She was divorced. Jane was the sanest; English, well balanced, nice. Divorced. And Mary, Scottish, with non existent social skills and a terrible body odour problem. I had her down as a lesbian with Asperger's syndrome. She trumphed them all, having been divorced, twice. I was fascinated by all this divorce business. Firstly, because at the age of forty five, having even a regular boyfriend has proved elusive to me. Secondly I think I am in the unusual position of having absolutely no friends who are divorced. It seems to be happening to the whole world out there, just not to anyone I know. I learnt a lot across the kitchen table. Firstly that none of them were bitter and twisted about what had happened. They had all been in love with their husbands. Sure they had all fallen out of love with them too, but that wasn't the problem. It was, after the glow of love had faded, realising they didn't really like them. ' Falling out of like' was what they called it. A cracking book title.

The God fearing Isle of Lewis shuts down almost entirely on a Sunday. All services; shops, supermarkets and petrol stations (except one) close, thee are no ferries and many BnB's will not accept new guests. The island has been described as the last bastion of fundamental Calvinism in Britain with large numbers of its inhabitants belonging to the Free Church of Scotland or the even more conservative, Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. There is a strict conservative dress code for church services, many of which do not use instrumental music or songs of any sort, with the exceptional of metrical psalms, sung in English of Gaelic. I'd heard stories for a number of people about their attendance at these Sunday services, stories about fire and brimstone sermons from skinny rectors warning of the perils of fornication, fornication and more fornication. I couldn't wait to go. I was also intrigued and saddened by a long and lovely conservation with a man who an artist, running an art gallery and shop, slap bag in the middle of nowhere. His wife was an artist too, as well as being was an ordained minister in a more liberal Protestant church. Although they had lived on the island for twenty years, rearing four children, he felt they were still viewed with open suspicion on the grounds of being artists and belonging to another church. And I thought Northern Ireland was top of the league when it came to madness and religion. But back to the story.

It's five to nine on Sunday morning and I am bounding out of the hostel to get to the church about thirty seconds away, to the left. A Scottish girl from my dorm is also departing, but to the church thirty seconds to the right. Her friend from Stornoway had told her it was THE place to go, so I follow, licking my lips in anticipation of the performance to follow. So I am surprised that the church is far from austere, it's quite comfortable in fact, with a nice red carpet and comfy seats. An older gentleman comes out, gentle but lively and with a lovely manner. He is the main man today and delivers a one hour performance that is undramatic but intelligent, thoughtful and relevant to everyday life. His talk is illustrated by a few passages from the bible, again they seem fitting and relevant. Hell and fornication are not mentioned. Mental health is and it is done in a very informed manner. I later find out that he was one of the islands GP's before retiring and becoming a pastor. I am very impressed and quite moved by it all. It seems a million miles away from my Catholic experience; a remote priest in fancy dress high on an altar, a congregation mumbling the same old lines of the mass, completely disconnected from its meaning. Later in the trip I attend Sunday service in another Protestant church on the tiny island of Gigha. It's a more conservative set up, more formalised, but the female rector delivers the service in the same warm, human, humane way, staying in the isle, speaking as one human being to another. Whilst I have no desire to be involved in any organised religion, I know whose door I would knock on if I was in trouble.

The island of Lewis is beautiful. I spent many a happy day speeding along its super roads; broad, evenly surfaced and empty, to get to glorious destinations, few of which I have the time to describe. A large part of the interior is flat uninhabited bog land, but away from there I saw a density of population that surprised me. As did the affluence. I don't mean that everyone had a mansion and a Mercedes, but most houses were a fair size and in a decent state of repair, most gardens were well kept, most cars were newish. Where was the money coming from? Like the money to build the fantastic roads? with no cars on them. Remember this is an island on the far north western extreme of Western Europe. Other than the beleaguered fishing industry, I could not ascertain what people did to make a living, to live in a way that seemed very comfortable indeed. It seemed a million miles away from the bachelor farmers of Ireland's Wild West.


Forty minutes out of Stornoway there are so many many beautiful places. Probably the most famous site is the Callanish standing stones. Ireland is well endowed with similar constructions, but Callanish was really impressive. Not far are the Gearrannan Blackhouses, a preserved village of traditional Lewis houses. One of them had been converted into an upmarket hostel, of which I had the privilege of being the only resident for the night. Given no one lives on site, it had the potential to be a tad spooky but it turned out to be a delight. New mattresses, fluffy feather duvets and a dorm all to myself. Bliss. I was too busy enjoying the luxury to have time for the ghosts of resident past to come haunt me. And imagine waking up in a place like this and having it all to yourself.


The Butt of Lewis (the most north westerly point in the British Isles) was also stunning, marred only by carnivorous clegs who ate everyone alive and in the millisecond I took to have a wee, managed to inflict two bites on my posterior. Impressive accuracy. Close by was the wonderful Eoropaidh, a wide open, otherworldly place carpeted in the the wild flowers typical of the Mahair.


Drive Two hours south of Stornoway, across a mountain range and you arrive on the Isle of Harris. Yes, it sounds like another island, but it and Lewis are the same landmass. They feel very different though.


The coast of East Harris is something else. A rugged lunar landscape of greyish/ purplish rock, reminiscent of Connemara, interspersed by narrow sea lochs around which the small settlements are gathered. A single road, the Bay Road, connects these settlements and each bend in the road leads to another gasp at the beauty before you. The interior is dotted with freshwater Lochans, many decorated with water lilies, I kid you not. I based myself on the east coast, in a delightful hostel in the little village of Drinishader, population about twenty. The owner,Roddy, a man of few words, had built it as a home for himself, but in tough economic times had needed to diversify. Thus he converted his home into a hostel and hospitality became another string to his bow in addition to farming, fishing, building and sailing. The hostel had a big bright living room over looking the sea, a modern kitchen with every convenience and comfy, clean, stylish bedrooms. Sadly for Rory, but not for me, there were hardly any guests. Another delight was a supply of fresh fish each evening as well as fresh herbs and vegetables from his poly tunnel. I spent many evenings relaxing over a glass of wine before cooking some simple but lovely for dinner. Cooking is one of the things I miss about not having my own home anymore, so one of the unexpected pleasures of hostel life was being able to cook healthy food again. A year or so of eating in restaurants every night may seem like a dream, especially for those harassed mothers out there, but let me tell you, it's not.


The West coast of Harris, a few miles away from the rocky east, could not be more different. Seilebost, Sgarasta, Luskentyre, wide bays and huge golden beaches that seem to stretch forever. Yes, the sand was golden, rather than the brilliant white of the beaches of the Inner Hebrides. But the water was just as turquoise. And the beautiful Machair, the Gaelic word for the fertile costal grasslands than run between coast and mountains. The soil enriched by both sand and shell leads to exceptionally rich and fertile soil. In mid July the Machair was ablaze with colour and wild flowers, none of which I can remember the names of, other than clover. I had never seen anything like it and was prone to spending hours just lying in the middle of it, with occasional bursts of activity, namely trying to get a good photo, which of course never materialised.

This was the land that used to be farmed by the people. They were thrown off this land during the Highland Clearances, it was more profitable for the landlords to graze sheep on it. The population had no option but to migrated to the East coast where the barren rocky soil was unable to sustain the density of population. Taken together with the collapse of the kelp industry, a pasta to famine and a number of other factors, thousands died of hunger, thousands emigrated, many with state help, to Canada, the States, Australia and surprisingly Patagonia on Southern Chile. I walked a beautiful path through the mountains, a path which linked the east to the west coast, it was the old Coffin route. There is no romance about this, the soil in the east was not deep enough to bury a coffin, so this was the quickest way to get across the mountain to bury your loved one the the fertile west.

I was on the isle of Harris and Lewis for about two weeks. Two weeks in which the sun shone nearly every day, which no doubt influenced my experience. I found it inspirational and utterly beautiful, with friendly people who spoke with a slight Donegal-ish lilt. I would have loved to stay longer, but I had to be in Inverness for August third and I wanted to do some exploring on the mainland on the way. So it was with a heavy heart that I drove back up to Stornoway to get the ferry back to the mainland.I stopped off at a lovely cafe and art gallery I'd visited before, they did a delicious flat white, my latest coffee addiction. I left with a larger bill than expected, impulse buying a 400 quid oil painting. Might I remind you that I have no home and a dwindling bank balance. But such is life. It was time for the mainland, accompanied by an unexpected large pink oil painting in the back seat of my car.


The beautiful weather broke about an hour before we reached Ullapool. The rain started and didn't stop for a few days. But I couldn't complain, I'd had beautiful weather for a really really special place. Ullapool was lovely, a bit arty and resplendent with three top notch book shops in which I would only allow myself to browse. That did not stop me salivating at what was on offer, books are another one of my guilty pleasures. Travelling north of Ullapool really is the far north of Scotland and I was excited again at going somewhere new. What struck me was the grandness of scale; it was a vast, open, expansive landscape, with big hulks of mountains, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Begt, Cul Mon just plopped there in a spot, enormous, alone, rather than being connected to a whole chain of other mountains. The scenery was really glorious, it would do your heart good as they say at home, but I was speeding through it, rather than stopping and exploring as I like to do.


On a recommendation I stopped at Handa island, a beautiful place in itself, but also happens to be a managed nature reserve famed for its bird life. After a twenty minute journey on a rib you arrive on the beach and then begin four hour walk around the island on a beautiful boardwalk. It was another glorious day and the only event to mar the perfection was the constant threat of being dive bombed by aggressive Great Skuas, a bird in need of a good social skills program, they bully birds, animals and humans alike. The wardens had warned us of this and I was already sensitised to airborne attacks after being out on a walk on Mull when a large bird of prey, some said it was a golden eagle some a buzzard, came swooping down on me on four separate occasions. I knew it was protecting a nest and not just out for the day to terrorise an unsuspecting tourist. However, for someone with a medium sized bird phobia, being alone in the middle of nowhere and being close enough to a huge animal to hear its wings beat, well it's an experience I'd rather not repeat.


I also stayed in Durness, apparently where John Lennon holidayed as a child. Durness is wide open and flooded with light, in a very unusual way. It is full of caravan sites, and glorious on a good day, utterly depressing on a bad one. Given I was this far north I decided to take a trip to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point on the island of Britain. It was an arduous journey on a dodgy boat, a rickety minibus and then a long walk, all in the poring rain. But I got the photo didn't I? Note to self, no one, not even yourself gives a damn about the photo.

And then it was time to head east, crikey, I was heading east for the first time in four months and I didn't know if I was happy about that. After a final night in the wilds, in a place called Tongue, I began a drive which felt like I was re entering a more modern, more refined, more affluent world. My bed for the night tickled me pink. Sleeperzzz in Rogart is a hostel, with all mod cons, in a railway carriage surrounded by beautiful wild gardens. I had my own little compartment in which I could close my door to the world. I loved it.


During the day I was lucky enough to happen upon a Highland Gathering in the extremely pretty village of Dornoch. I think I was expecting a few sporting events in a field, surrounded by drunk people and chips vans. What I saw was very different. The Scottish dancing completions were quite a spectacle; so many completely different styles of dancing, so many men dancing, and so fetching in their sailor outfits for the horn pipe, such athleticism required for all that high kicking. I was impressed. There were also stages that hosted competitions for piping and so forth. The 'heavy events' were a bit too slow for my liking. I was there for about three hours, during which time, much to my disappointment, no cabers were tossed. Other 'heavy items' were thrown though; something like a shot put, and then a heavy ball on the end of a chain which is swung round and round and then released. The men involved were hilarious; with their serious expressions, mountain like poses with hands on hips or across their chests, looking important at all times. The gathering was very quiet, a proper family day out, I liked it.

Sadly (especially for my bank balance), the alternator of my car gave up its will to live on my final drive from Rogart to Forres, just east of Inverness. My car is so loyal, it waited till I was close to civilisation and a garage before breaking down. For that, I am eternally grateful. I spent a lovely ten days doing a course at the FIndhorn community before beginning my drive south to head back to my parents in Lurgan. I made a very long detour to the Kintyre pennisula in order to bag one last island before my return. Gigha was the place, it was lovely, but it was also time for me to go home. My long summer in Scotland was over. It had been totally amazing, more than I could ever have dreamed of, some of the most phenomenal months of my life. Go visit.

Posted by noratheexplorer 19:15 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland lewis harris iona mull staffa outer_hebrides inner_hebrides

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