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Issue 7 - Living on an island

Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003


This article is 15 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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Living on an island


Stepping out into the winds of the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of the Scottish mainland, with the far-flung St Kilda group the nearest outpost to North America, are Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides.

For lovers of islands, the Hebrides hold their own, incomparable enchantment. With a restless climate, wind, rain, intermittent sun and, always, ever-changing light, there is no formula to analyse the appeal of these islands with their seagull-circled ports, inland banks of dark peat, gneiss mountains, hearts of emerald green, and lonely beaches of pure white sand.

Individually beautiful, they have furnished a harsh living for their sons and daughters. Yet the Gael remains stoical, with a philosophy which is both exasperating and the envy of city-dwellers suffocated by the noise and pressures of compressed existence. Not for them the big sky and swell of the ocean.

The variety is enormous. Skye is the main island of the scattered Inner Hebrides. To the south lie the small isles: Canna, Sanday, Rhum, Eigg and Muck; further south, off the coast of Argyll, are Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Mull, Iona and Staffa, Kerrera, Seil, Eisdale, Lunga, Shuna, Torosay, Colonsay, Oronsay, Jura, Islay and Gigha.

The Outer Hebrides, sometimes known collectively as The Long Island, comprises a 130-mile long, jewel-like chain from Lewis in the north to Barra in the south. Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay are linked in this chain by the thin threads of ferry crossings and causeways. The islands of the Hebrides number 500, of which only one-fifth are inhabited.

Gigha, PA41 7AA
Tel. +44 (0)1583 505 254

Clan McNeill became the undisputed Lairds of Gigha in 1590 after a fierce power-struggle with Clan Donald. At the end of the 19th century, Captain William Scarlett, the 3rd Lord Abinger, purchased the estate and built the B-listed Achamore House in 1884 to the design of John Honeyman. The main areas of woodland to the north and south of the house were planted by William Scarlett to provide game cover and shelter from the strong winds and salt spray. When Sir James Horlick acquired the estate in 1944, he wished to establish a garden to grow his more tender rhododendrons. He managed this by cutting small clearings in the Ponticum and trees, and by 1970 the garden looked magnificent. On his death, he left some of his collection to the National Trust for Scotland so that rare species could be propagated and shared with other great gardens.

On 15th March 2002, the island was purchased in an historic buy-out by its own inhabitants and is now owned and managed by the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust.

The Gigha Hotel is very close to the ferry terminal and the ideal base from which to explore this lush landscape. The restaurant menu is varied, but nearly all dishes include local produce – fresh prawns, clams and lobsters, Scottish lamb and beef and Gigha cheese. The island is easily accessible by ferry from Tayinloan on Kintyre.

Glen Cloy, By Brodick, KA27 8BY
Tel. +44 (0)1770 302 219

By the middle of the 16th century, there were just two principal landowners on Arran, the dukes of Hamilton at the castle and the Fullartons of Kilmichael.

In Queen Victoria’s time, the Kilmichael estate was improved by the addition of a lodge with gates and, inside the house, a tiny, private family chapel.

Just off the main road to historic Brodick Castle (family home of the dukes of Hamilton and dukes of Montrose), Kilmichael is now a luxury country house hotel. Situated in the heart of grounds granted to the forebears of its builders by King Robert the Bruce in 1307, it occupies a spot known to have been inhabited long before that, indeed the name Kilmichael indicates the site of one of the earliest Christian missionary cells, dedicated to St. Michael.

Set in well-tended gardens with the glen beyond, there are eight bedrooms furnished in period style, plus rooms in the converted barns. The restaurant uses fresh local produce to rosette standard. There are CalMac ferries from Ardrossan in Ayrshire to Brodick and Lochranza.

The wildlife on Arran is outstanding, with deer, pheasant, otter and eagle readily seen in the mountains. There are colonies of seals near coastal caves, trails to mysterious Bronze-Age stone circles, and many relaxing angling hours to be enjoyed by streams or sea. There are also seven challenging courses to tempt the golfer.

Rothesay Ardbeg, PA20 0PG
Tel. +44 (0)1700 502 346

Fifteen miles long by five miles at its widest point, Bute is one of Scotland’s most accessible islands, with two regular Calmac links. In the north, from Colintraive in Argyll, the crossing from the mainland to Bute takes a few minutes. The main ferry link is from Wemyss Bay, south-west of Greenock. It is an island rich in history, with stone circles and chambered cairns, beautifully remote locations of early
Christian sites and Rothesay Castle, the ancestral home of a royal dynasty and home to some of the finest examples of Victorian heritage to be found anywhere.

Bute is a country-lover’s paradise, and the waters around the island are some of the finest in Europe for wildlife, with resident colonies of seals, oyster catchers, gannets, eider duck, swans and many other species. Commanding outstanding views over the bay, Firth of Clyde and Loch Striven, the Ardmory Hotel, built in 1833, stands in its own grounds above Ardbeg, a mile and a quarter from Rothesay town centre.

Main Street, Port Charlotte, PA48 7TU
Tel. +44 (0)1496 850 360

Twenty-five miles long and 20 miles wide at most, Islay is one of the largest Inner Hebridean islands. For such a relatively small island, it offers a widely varied landscape, from the Rhinns of Islay on the western peninsula to the rough moorland of the Oa in the south-east, and the white
sand dunes of Lough Gruinart in the north.

Islay’s abundant wildlife includes red deer, seals, puffins, otters and herons.

This is also an island steeped in malt whisky. Today, there are still seven distilleries on the island.

It is quickest to fly from Glasgow, but if you aren’t in a hurry, the ferry from the mainland leaves from Kennacraig, Mull of Kintyre. A good part of the roughly three-hour trip on the ferry takes you through West Loch Tarbert and passes the northern tip of Gigha – ‘The Isle of the Gods’.
To the north-west, the silhouette of the Paps of Jura can be discerned before Islay comes into full view. Shortly after passing Gigha, the ferry turns either to the south coast of Islay to land at the sheltered Port Ellen, or to the north-eastern shore at the tiny Port Askaig opposite Jura. It is here at Askaig that the treacherous Sound of Islay separates the two islands.

The Port Charlotte Hotel is a tastefully restored Victorian hotel located on the seashore in an attractive village. There are 10 rooms, most with sea views – all en suite and furnished with antiques. There is also an elegant but informal restaurant serving local seafood, beef and lamb.

Feolin, Argyll, PA60 7XU
Tel. +44 (0)1496 820 243

It is thought that the Isle of Jura has been inhabited for about 7,000 years – a period spanning the Stone Age, Bronze Age, the Viking settlements and clan warfare.

It is 29 miles long and seven miles wide in places. The west is wild and virtually uninhabited, occupied only by the three Paps of Jura which are known in Gaelic as ‘The Mountain of the Sound’, ‘The Mountain of Gold’ and ‘The Sacred Mountain’. The island’s annual Fell Race takes place on the last weekend in May.

If you want to get away from it all, this is the place to come. The novelist George Orwell who lived at Barnhill during the 1940s quite rightly described it as “an extremely un-get-at-able place.” Jura’s only road leads up the east coast (public transport is limited to a minibus, so it’s best if you have your own car).

Jura has connections with St Columba, whose uncle, St Earnan, is buried in the graveyard of Kilearnadill.

At Inverlussa there is the grave of Mary MacCrain, who lived for 128 years, and whose ancestor, Gillour MacCrain, who died in the 17th century, is reputed to have ‘spent 180 Christmasses in his own home’.

Situated in the main village of Craighouse and with an ideal setting on the sheltered east coast beside Small Isles Bay, the Jura Hotel has magnificent views across the bay with its cluster of small uninhabited islands, a garden shelving gently to the sea’s edge, a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, and good, varied cooking based on local produce.

Most bedrooms possess fine sea views and have private facilities with bath or shower; a twin-bedded suite with private bathroom and sitting room is also available. There are family rooms with facilities to sleep three and four.

To get to Jura via car, take the small, privately owned, vehicle ferry from Port Askaig on the Isle of Islay for the five-minute ride over to Feolin on the southern tip of Jura. Call +44 (0)1496 840 681 for information, or visit

Tobermory, PA75 6PR
Tel. +44 (0)1688 302 012

By Dervaig, PA75 6QW
Tel. +44 (0)1688 400 256

Mull is a large, unspoilt island with a coastline of more than 300 miles, yet its population is only about 2,500. Much-visited for its scenery (hills, waterfalls, sea caves, forest walks and beaches), it is also popular for fishing and is home to two golf courses (at Tobermory and Craignure).

The main visitor attractions are Duart Castle, ancestral home of Clan Maclean, and Torosay Castle, where there is a miniature railway and a statue walk. Close to Salen is the Mcquarrie Mausoleum, which contains the remains of Lachlan Mcquarrie, the Governor of New South Wales,
who became known as the ‘Father of Australia’.

The Western Isles Hotel in Tobermory, the island’s main town, is a four-star Victorian building with 26 bedrooms, spectacular views, and a conservatory that looks over the harbour and bay in which the famous Spanish galleon Florencia was sunk in 1588.

Calgary Hotel is just up the road from the beautiful white sands of Calgary beach, in a small green valley banked with mature deciduous woodland. The hotel has recently been converted from farm steadings, and retains a friendly farmhouse atmosphere and character.

The main ferry to Mull runs between Oban (90 miles north of Glasgow) and Craignure five or six times every day during the summer and is usually very busy. The journey takes about 40 minutes. Vehicle reservation required. There is also a vehicle ferry from Lochaline to Fishnish: Lochaline is 72 miles from Oban. Fishnish is six miles north of Craignure. The ferry runs about 14 times a day during the summer (only nine times on Sundays) and takes 15 minutes. It is only a small ferry, so you can’t make a reservation for your vehicle – you just queue up and wait for your turn.

In addition, there is a vehicle ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory: Kilchoan is 84 miles from Oban; the journey takes 35 minutes. It is only a small ferry, so, again, reservations cannot be made. From Monday to Saturday there are seven sailings a day, and on Sundays from the end of June to the end of August, five sailings a day.

Sleat Peninsula, IV43 8QY
Tel. +44 (0)1471 833 333

Isle Ornsay, Sleat, IV43 8QR
Tel. +44 (0)1471 833 332

Colbost, Dunvegan, IV55 8ZT
Tel. +44 (0)1470 511 258

There is now a road bridge to Skye at Kyle of Lochalsh, but ferries still run across the Sound of Sleat from Mallaig to Armadale at the foot of the island, and there is a delightful four-car ferry running between Kylrhea and Kyleakin during the summer months.

Skye, the ‘Island of Mists’, with its capital Portree, is the best-known Hebridean island, and is dominated by the Cuillin mountains. This is the island of Clan Donald and Clan Macleod, the former having its visitor centre at Armadale Castle, the latter at Dunvegan Castle, which is still lived in by the Macleod chief. Celebrated in song and fable, this is the island to which Bonnie Prince Charlie fled with Flora Macdonald in 1746.

Kinloch Lodge dates back to the early 1600s and is the home of Lord and Lady Macdonald. Lord Macdonald is the High Chief of Clan Donald, the oldest and largest of the Highland clans.

Formerly one of the shooting lodges to nearby Armadale Castle, Kinloch is an elegant, whitewashed country house full of ancestral paintings and family furniture. Indeed, this is very much a family home, with two comfortable drawing rooms, log fires and the most spectacular views. All rooms have private facilities. The decor and food are the choice of Lady Macdonald – an award-winning journalist and author of many best-selling cook books.

Hotel Eilean Iarmain, also known as Isle Ornsay Hotel, is small-scale and situated on a sheltered bay in the south of Skye, with expansive views over the Sound of Sleat to the hills of Knoydart on the mainland.

People have been coming to Skye for over 100 years, drawn by a love for the landscape, its geology, botany, ornithology, history, culture and language. Writers and historians, poets and artists come for inspiration and knowledge. Others come for the peace of the hills and sea.

Capitalising on the very successful Three Chimneys restaurant situated 7km west of Dunvegan, The House Over-By provides six luxurious bedroom suites. Breakfast is served in the morning room overlooking the seashore.

Castlebay, HS9 5XD
Tel. +44 (0)1871 810 223

Barra, with its beautiful beaches backed by machair, meadows filled with wild flowers, rocky eastern coast and hilly interior, is a delight. In late spring and summer the island is a riot of colourful flowers, and it is also a good place for bird watching, with golden eagles, gannets, terns and corncrakes – perhaps the most exciting species to see or hear. Otters and seals are common, and various species of whale and dolphin may be seen from the ferry.

The Castlebay Hotel overlooks Kisimul Castle, the harbour and the beautiful island of Vatersay.

It is a pleasure to relax and watch the changing scene around the bay, whether in the sun porch, in the cocktail bar over a dram, in the garden or in your room.

Barra is accessible by Loganair from Glasgow – planes land on the unique beach airfield at Traigh Mhor – and by Calmac ferry (a crossing of nearly six hours) from Oban, which is only two hours drive from Glasgow.

Sgarista Bheag, HS3 3HX
Tel. +44 (0)1859 550 238

The television series Castaway filmed on Taransay, an uninhabited island off the coast, has had a major impact in bringing people to Harris for peace and solitude. The Atlantic-facing coast is an almost unbroken chain of virtually deserted beaches. The northern lights are visible at times, and on the eastern side of the island lies an intriguing network of deep-sea lochs and rocky bays, some watched over by abandoned villages, some busy with crofters and fishermen.

Scarista House is one of the few listed buildings in the Western Isles, and was built in 1827. There are five bedrooms – three in the main house and two in the adjacent Glebe building. All rooms have sea views and bathrooms en suite. The decor reflects the period of the house, with antiques, paintings and books in every room.

St Ola, Kirkwall, KW15 1SF
Tel. +44 (0)1856 872 389

Harbour Street, Kirkwall KW15 1LF
Tel. +44 (0)1856 872 232

Victoria Street, Stromness, KW16 3AA
Tel. +44 (0)1856 850 298

North of the Caithness coast, across the Pentland Firth, lies green and fertile Orkney, a chain of 70 islands, 30 of which are inhabited.

The largest is called Mailand, wherein lies Kirkwall, the capital, and the smaller, picturesque town of Stromness. More Viking in origin than Scottish, the Orkney islands have a very individual character with astonishing pre-historic sites including the standing stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar, the village of Skara Brae and the Neolithic tombs of Maes Howe.

The Foveran Hotel has eight bedrooms and is Scandinavian in style. There are fine views over Scapa Flow, and an excellent restaurant.

Established in 1901, and recently refurbished to a high modern standard, the 42-bedroom Stromness Hotel lies in the heart of the fishing port overlooking the working harbour and Scapa Flow. The bedrooms, all newly refurbished to a very high standard, are ensuite.

The Kirkwall Hotel, the most prominent landmark on the Kirkwall waterfont, is a family-run business situated in one of Orkney’s finest Victorian buildings. In the centre of the town, it is ideal for sight-seeing.

P&O run ferries from Aberdeen every Tuesday and Saturday and the trip takes eight hours – call +44 (0)1224 572 615 for information;
from Scrabster there are two to three crossings per day and one on Sunday, of two hours. From John O’Groats to Burwick the trip is 40 minutes, with up to four ferries per day, from May to September only – call +44 (0)1955 611 353 for information.

British Airways have flights to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness. Call +44 (0)8457 733 377 for details.

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