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Issue 53 - Skye and the Western Isles - Island hopping

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


This article is 7 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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Skye and the Western Isles - Island hopping

Charles Douglas visits the wild and beautiful edge of Scotland.

Fifteen years ago, a bridge was opened to span the half kilometre of water between Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. It revolutionised vehicle travel to the Western Isles, hitherto largely dependent upon ferries or short-haul flights. It now meant that instead of catching the CalMac from Mallaig to Armadale, those seeking to explore this most romantically associated Hebridean island could now, as an alternative, make their own way (now tollfree) to the small island towns of Broadford, Armadale, Portree and Uig. For the islanders, initially resistant to change, the commercial opportunities escalated.

Of all of Scotland’s islands, Skye resounds to the memory of that summer night in 1746 when the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed at Portree disguised as a woman and escaped to France.

Commemorated in perhaps the most lyrical of Scottish songs, that story is now etched into the psyche of every expatriate Scot, regardless of the political allegiances of their ancestors.

Twenty first century Skye, however, flourishes with a mixed economy of tourism, agriculture, fishing and Scotch whisky blending and distillation. A relative newcomer is the Gaelic language college Sabhal Mõr Ostaig, opened in 1973, but undeniably appropriate for an island where in the last century over seventy five per cent of the native population spoke the language.

Its decline proved a debatable obstacle to those determined to preserve a fading Hebridean culture. At the last census there were approximately 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, approximately 1.2 per cent of the population, and these were largely located in the Western Isles. Whether or not bi-lingual road signs can really make a difference remains to be seen in an age when the seductive and destructive influences of the outside world are impossible to ignore.

Key visitor attractions on the Isle of Skye are, on the west coast, Dunvegan Castle, ancestral stronghold of Clan Macleod, and, to the south, the Clan Donald Visitor Centre at Armadale Castle. While visiting Dunvegan, a diversion to the Talisker Distillery overlooking Loch Harport, is recommended.

To the north, the spectacular Cuillin mountains soar into the sky, circled by golden eagles. This is a wild and dramatic landscape, popular with mountaineers.

To the south, the scenery is less hostile. At Eilean Iarmain, the former merchant banker Sir Iain Noble’s company Pràban na Linne blends Mac na Mara (“son of the sea”), Tè Bheag nan Eilean (“wee dram of the isles”) and Poit Dhubh (“black pot”).

Among notable island culinary experiences not to be missed are a visit to Kinloch Lodge on Sleat, where Lady (Claire) Macdonald, the food writer wife of the High Chief of Clan Donald, runs her own cookery school, and the Three Chimneys gourmet restaurant at Colbost, on the shore of Loch Dunvegan. Personally I would also recommend the Claymore at Broadford, Hotel Eilean Iarmain at Isle of Ornsay, and the Cuillin Hills Hotel and Sea Breezes Restaurant in Portree.

Caledonian MacBrayne, the Scotttish Government owned ferry company, has the virtual monopoly on west coast sea transport and its chief mainland access points are from Ardrossan, for Arran; from Kennacraig on Kintyre for Islay and Jura; Oban for Colonsay and Oronsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree and Barra; from Uig on Skye for North Uist and Harris, and from Ullapool for Lewis.

For those with a genetic Western Isles connection, there is an almost spiritual response when the subject arises; a glazed, far-away expression transforms the faces.

They will, in the words of an old Hebridean saying, “have seen the Uists.” Over a thousand years ago, a kingdom was created out of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, from the Butt of Lewis to the north, to the Isle of Man off the coast of England to the south.

The centre of this kingdom which comprised a necklace of uniquely individual islands in eastern extremities of the Atlantic Ocean, was Islay, mediaeval seat of the all powerful lords of the Isles.

In the twelfth century Somerled, Lord of Argyll and the Isles, unable to overcome the constant threat of Norse invasion, married Ragnhildis, daughter of King Olave the Red of Norway. Through marriage and subsequent conquest, this warrior chief acquired supreme power throughout a seascape region of scattered communities, all paying homage to their overlord.

Today, Islay has a rather different celebrity being notable for its eight whisky distilleries , namely Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavlin, Laphroaig,and the more recent Kilchoman, opened in 2004. Each produces a rich and peaty single malt which somehow defines the island, as does the single malt found on adjacent Jura.

After Somerled’s death, his territories were dispersed among his sons, and through them descend the great Western Highland and Island clans of MacDougall of Argyll and Lorne, and Clan Donald, otherwise known as the MacDonalds of Islay. Their great castles, and the largely ruined fortifications of those who followed them, can still be found: Finlaggan on Islay, Duart on Mull, Kisimul on Barra, Armadale, Uisdein, Dunvegan and Duntulm on Skye, and Borve on Benbecula.

In the nineteenth century, rich industrialists paid out fortunes to create great mansion houses in homage to their wealth: Torosay Castle on Mull, Kinloch Castle on Rum, and Amhuinnsidhe on Harris, and Lews Castle on Lewis.

They came here for the sporting life, salmon fishing and stalking the deer, and, in common with the tourists of today, to breath in the overwhelming tranquillity of the big sky and vast, restless ocean. In the nineteenth century, writers such as George Orwell and Sir Compton Mackenzie sought inspiration here. Scotland’s Western Isles remain among the last, genuinely unspoiled wilderness areas of the planet and you never get tired of exploring them.

South east of Jura are the Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. The latter is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and run as a conservation area. Rum is owned by the Nature Conservancy Council and an important study site for Red Deer conservation. Both Muck and Eigg are privately owned, self-sufficient island communities and popular anchorages for the seasonal west coast sailing fraternity From Craignure, the ferry terminal on Mull close to the birthplace of Lachlan MacQuarrie, the “father” of modern Australia, the A848 sweeps north along the coastline to the picture postcard village of Tobermory.

Notable for its distillery, and the Spanish galleon which sank in the bay following the Spanish Armada of 1588, the multi-coloured sea front here featured as the backdrop for the immensely popular children’s television series Balamory. South east from Craignure, the A849 runs past the ancient clan Maclean clifftop castle of Duart, and onward to Fionnphort, the ferry port for the sacred island of Iona.

Occupying the site of St Columba’s landing in 563AD, and for four centuries the site of an Irish Christian missionary, the re-built abbey which is today maintained by Historic Scotland, is the focus of a pro-active Iona Community, established here in 1938 by the Very Reverend George MacLeod. A popular retreat for the faithful, the community is committed to seeking out new ways of living the gospel of Jesus.

Some ten miles east of Mull, I have on two occasions sailed around the extraordinary pillar island of Staffa and peered deep into the magical Fingal’s Cave with the sound of Felix Mendelssohn’s inspired Hebridean Overture ringing in my ears. Nobody could ever suggest that the Western Isles is deplete of wonders. To the south of Mull, below Scarba, you can hear the roar of Corryvreckan, the “cauldron of the plaid”, the third largest whirlpool in the world.

There is an old saying in the Western Isles that at the time of the Biblical flood, the MacNeil of Barra had his own boat. Such was the island way of life then and now. Today, the 47th McNeill of Barra , whose father tutored Barack Obama in law, still has a home on the island and his ancestral stronghold of Kisimul continues to loom over the island’s Castlebay.

It is open to the public during the summer months. Barra was the setting for the famous 1954 Ealing Comedy film Whisky Galore.

Today it boasts a toffee factory and has planning permission for a brand new distillery at Borve. The island of Mingulay, subject of yet another iconic Scottish song, is situated off-shore.

Every October, I usually go to stay with friends on the island of Lewis. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Seaforth which to the north divides treeless, peat and lochan scattered Lewis from richly forested Harris to the south, this is about as remote and magical a place as I have ever known. In a household where televisions and daily newspapers are frowned upon, time literary stands still.

With ferries and flights now available on the Sabbath, a service that was controversially introduced last year, times are changing.

Stornoway, the capital town of Lewis and home of the Western Island Council, has a rich maritime industry, but an unfortunate reputation for subsistence survival which dates from when it was owned by the Edwardian soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme.

In recent years the local economy has diversified into IT and modest wind power generation. There are also two remaining Harris Tweed mills – Carloway and Shawbost – which, with appropriate Government funding and a more united front, are in a position to revive the manufacture, sales and reputation of one of the finest fashion fabrics in the world.

On Lewis, I inevitably find my way to Callanish to marvel at the regiment of windpolished standing stones dating from about 2900 BC. Such survivors of a bygone, undocumented age are curiously reassuring in a self-destructive world, and on a clear day, as I pause beside the Visitor Centre to look south towards the distant, rolling hills of Harris which form the shape of the mystical “Sleeping Beauty” mountain, so called because the horizon resembles the profile of a reclining woman, the troubles of every day existence evaporate like morning mist.

Lochbay, Waternish
Scotland’s only traditional sheepskin tannery.
Have a guided tour through the workshop, or
pick up some unique island gifts.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 592 237
Diver’s Eye Boat Trips
Stein, Waternish
A variety of boat trips are available from this
respected local tour operator, from wildlife
watching to castaway experiences and
sunset ceilidhs.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 592 219
Dunvegan Castle
Lochside castle dating from the 14th century.
Partially covered in scaffold at the moment,
but the magnificent interiors and their many
treasures (including the famous Macleod
Fairy Flag), and the fine gardens are still open
to the public.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 521 206
Museum of the Isles
Clan Donald Visitor Centre, Armadale
Discover the history of the Highlands and
Islands through the story of the Clan Donald,
at this award-winning museum. Gift shop
and restaurant too.
Tel: +44 (0)1471 844 305

Auld Orwell Cottage
Lochbay, Waternish
A beautiful, traditional stone cottage.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 592 363
Broadford Hotel
Luxury four star hotel, established in 1611.
Tel: +44 (0)14711 822 204
Greshornish Counrty House Hotel
A lovely white mansion house.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 582 266
Morar Bed & Breakfast
Ardvasar, Sleat
A comfortable guest house with pool.
Tel: +44 (0)1471 844 378
Number Ten
Five star self-catering to die for.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 511 795
Toravaig House
A small yet splendid island hotel.
Tel: +44 (0)1471 820 200

Caledonian Café
Informal, family-friendly restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1478 612 553
Chandlery Restaurant
Bosville Hotel, Portree
Award winning restaurant serving locally
caught seafood fresh game and meats.
Tel: +44 (0)1478 612 846
Lochbay Seafood Restaurant
Stein, Waternish
Unpretentious, inexpensive and extremely
good quality seafood.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 592 235
Stein Inn
This 18th century inn is the oldest on Skye.
Offers over 100 malt whiskies and a good
selection of cask ale. Also has rooms.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 592 362
The Three Chimneys
Remote, but without question one of the best
restaurants in all of Scotland. Also offers six
spacious rooms if you can’t bear to leave.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 511 258

Albannach Guided Tours
Lochs, Lewis
Tailor-made tours throughout the Hebrides
from a fully qualified and experienced guide.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 830 433
Arnol Black House
Arnol, Lewis
A traditional thatched island house, complete
with peat fire burning in the hearth.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 710 395
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
Carloway, Lewis
This lovely old croft has been painstakingly
restored, offering visitors modern facilities.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 643 488
Northton, Harris
Visitor centre and Genealogy service.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 520 258
Taigh Chearsabhagh
Museum & Arts Centre
Lochmaddy, Uist
Award winning museum and gallery;
photographic collection, art and craft
workshops, sculpture trail.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 500 293

Northbay, Barra
Remote, charming and friendly b and b.
Tel: +44 (0)1871 890 720
Broad Bay House
Back, Lewis
A purpose-built luxury guesthouse.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 820 990
Ceol Na Mara
Direcleit, Harris
Comfy and highly-rated guesthouse.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 502 464
Rona View
Three bedroom self-catering cottage.
Tel: + 44 (0)160 644 422
Royal Hotel
Stornoway, Lewis
26-bedroom hotel has great views.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 702 109
Tigh Dearg
Loch Maddy, North Uist
Four star hotel on North Uist.
Tel: +44 (0)1876 500 700

Anchorage Restaurant
Leverburgh, Harris
Fresh local seafood, home baking and Italian
coffees, set against breath-taking seaviews.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 520 225
Ardhasaig House
Ardhasaig, Harris
Four star restaurant with rooms, offering a 4
course set menu every evening, which can
be tailored to suit dietary requirements.
Tel: +44 (0)1859 502 500
Digby Chick
Stornoway, Lewis
Contemporary restaurant serving the finest
local fish, shellfish and game, cooked with
flair and originality.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 700 026
Park Guest House & Restaurant
Stornoway, Lewis
Flavoursome dishes cooked with lamb, game
and local seafood. Rooms from £43.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 702 485
Polochar Inn
Lochboisdale, South Uist
A beautiful 18th century inn aimed entirely
toward good food, comfort and island
Tel: +44 (0)1878 700 215