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Issue 22 - Time traveller

Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Time traveller

A journey to Gigha is like a journey to the past. Serena Allott reports

It takes just three hours to travel from Glasgow to the Isle of Gigha, but once on board the Tayinloan ferry, chugging across the icy waters of Gigha Sound, you will journey back in time.

Originally named Gudey ‘the Good Isle’ by the Norse King Hakon, this is the southern most of the Hebridean islands; its climate is warmer than that of its neighbours and its bays are famously beautiful.

When, after a 20 minute ride, the ferry deposits you at Gigha’s only village, Ardminish, you will be no more than three miles from anything the island has to offer which makes it the perfect place for those passing through.

You can safely cycle the island in a day (bikes for hire from the post office) as just one grey ribbon road bisects it and this is not over-troubled with traffic: you would have to go 70 miles to Oban to see a traffic light.

Or, with or without a guide, you could take one of the 12 off-road walks designed to interlink and lead you from the twin beaches at the north of the island to the spouting vane‚ a natural blowhole at Gigha’s southern most point. On the way you will cover terrain ranging from woodland to pasture to bracken and bramble, you will scale the island’s highest hill, Creag Bahn, which stands 100 metres high and affords views over the sea to the mountains of Ireland's Donegal to the south and the Hebridean islands Isla and Jura to the north.

All this you could do in a day, but Gigha's savage beauty is seductive: its tangle of rusty heather spiked with heads of golden gorse, and its soft hills running down to the lichen-covered granite rocks which fringe the slatey sea, persuade many to linger longer, delighting in the tranquillity, the abundance of wild flowers, the tucked away coves and silver-sanded beaches from which to sit and watch for seals and seabirds.

Agood place to start your visit no matter how long you are staying is the Gigha Hotel, not half a mile from the slipway.

Here, in addition to 13 bedrooms, the restaurant and a non-smoking lounge – is the island’s only bar, open all day and the best place to learn all you need to know about the island.

The people of Gigha pride themselves on their friendliness, and someone will soon tell you the story of how, three years ago, they freed themselves from feudalism.

Seven different lairds owned the island during the 20th century and when the last of them put it up for sale, the gloriously named Willie McSporran proposed that the islanders – all 123 of them at the time - should buy the land they lived on.

McSporran is in his 70s now, the fourth generation of his family to live on Gigha. He has done a variety of jobs from farming to fishing to manning the ferry, but not as many as his older brother Seamus who was simultaneously employed as shopkeeper, sub-postmaster and postman, petrol pump attendant, undertaker, taxidriver, council rent collector, coast guard, guest house keeper, registrar, ambulance driver, special constable and auxiliary fire chief.

Many of the islanders feared change, (“I was damn near off my head; there was one person praising you and one person cursing you,” says McSporran), but by the time the matter was finally put to the vote he had persuaded them all to embrace independence.

Gigha cost them £4 million, raised through a government help package on the condition that £1 million be repaid within two years.

Triumphantly they did this: fund raising schemes included ceilidhs and a sponsored row around the island, but the bulk of the money – £660,000 came from the sale of Achamore House.

This should be your next stop on a tour of the island. The house was built in 1884 by Captain James Scarlett, then laird of Gigha. The celebrated architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a trainee at the Glasgow firm which designed and built it, and he is thought to have worked on some of the spacious, well-proportioned rooms. In 2002 McSporran and the rest sold the house to an American entrepreneur who uses it as a base for his company International Flower Essence Repertoire (proving that in the internet age you can run a business anywhere) and also lets out bedrooms on a bed and breakfast basis. The real reason for visiting Achamore House is its garden.

This was established by Sir James Horlick who bought the island in 1944 specifically to pursue his passion for rhododendrons and exotic shrubs.

The conditions on Gigha were perfect: in the path of the North Atlantic Drift of the Gulf Stream, the island is free from severe frosts and previous owners had already established a parkland of trees. Sir James laid out a shrub garden covering 50 acres which, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in riotous and resplendent bloom from March to June, attracts visitors from all over the world.

Right beside the gardens runs the track up to the ruins of Kilchattan Church which afford a stunning view of the mainland, over the sparkling waters of Gigha Sound. The church was built in the 13th century and dedicated to St Catan, an Irish missionary who landed on the island in the sixth century. One fine window remains intact, plus a number of impressive grave slabs both on the floor of the building and around it. Among these is that of Malcom, the first MacNell Laird of Gigha who died in 1493; he is depicted as a warrior with his claymore and kilted tunic.

If ancient mysteries appeal it is worth seeking out the Holy Stone. This sits in a field off the road to the north of the island, just south of Tarbert (a name that appears throughout the west of Scotland and means a neck of land over which to drag a boat). It bears primitive, cross-like markings and is believed to be pagan in origin, although it became a preaching stone in Christian times.

Nearby, on the site of another ancient chapel‚ are the battered remains of a standing cross.

At the opposite end of the island, between Achamore and Leim Farms, are two more curious stones, the Bodach and the Cailleach, that were once thought to represent an old man and a hag, terrifying creatures who “walk the heath at night”.

Not far from here is the South End Pier where you may see seals swimming in for their supper as the fishermen land their catch for the day. But before daylight fades you should find time to try the island's nine hole golf course, which offers panoramic views of the island and some challenging play.

Then end the day in the Boathouse Bistro, the perfect place to watch the yachtsmen sail in to anchor off South Pier for the night. And before you leave Gigha be sure to sample Hebridean Toffee, made on the island and sold along with souvenirs in the shop next door to the hotel.