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Issue 51 - The Big Wee Island

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


This article is 8 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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The Big Wee Island

David McVey visits Inchcailloch near the southern end of Loch Lomond for a blooming good sight.

Inchcailloch is under a mile long and just a few hundred yards wide. You reach it on one of Balmaha Boatyard’s vintage launches and when you step onto the island’s jetty you leave the everyday world far behind.

The island has a thick covering of oak woodland; when you’re deep in its heart, you could easily be in the middle of some vast continental forest rather than a wee island in a freshwater loch. Take the path to the highest point (Tom na Nigheanan or ‘hill of the young women’, a mere 85m) and the oaks drop away in favour of Scots Pine, blueberry, heather, rowan and a jaw-dropping view north over more wooded islands, the gleaming loch and its encircling peaks. Here, you could only be in Scotland.

Inchcailloch is uninhabited now, but it has a long human history. St Kentigerna traditionally founded a nunnery here in the 8th century, which would explain the island’s name, Gaelic for ‘isle of the old women’.

Perhaps the nunnery occupied the site of the site of the 13th century chapel and graveyard which served as the parish kirk until 1621, and whose ruins now provide a peaceful sanctuary a short walk from the jetty.

The island’s original oak woodland was sacrificed for James IV’s navy in the 15th century, after which the island was partly farmed. From 1796, however, new oak woodland was planted to provide bark for the extraction of tannin, which was used as a preservative in leather driving belts. So what feels like pristine wildwood is actually a legacy of the industrial revolution! Some sad low walls, all that survives of the farming settlement, can be seen as you explore the island.

The best time to visit Inchcailloch is May, when the woodland carpet is bright with millions of bluebells, a magical 3D special effect better than anything you’ll see in Avatar. Good paths lead to all the features of interest mentioned here and, if you have children with you, you’ll definitely end up at the golden crescent of sandy beach at Port Bawn to the island’s south-west. And watch out for Inchcailloch’s population of fallow deer; their ancestors, it’s said, were introduced here by Robert the Bruce.

And however long you spend on this big wee island, you’ll wish you’d stayed longer.