By Karen Cunningham
Scotland’s west coast is rather like a tray of smashed toffee; the result of millions of years of geological upheaval, and an enthusiastic scouring by sheets of gritty ice. The result is a coastline rent by inlets and sea-lochs, and peppered with uncountable islands.
In these parts the sea is viewed not as as a barrier, but a highway. The Vikings wove the islands into a powerful kingdom, almost inaccessible from the land but easily linked together by sea routes.
Today local ferries continue the tradition, carrying visitors, local people and supplies on a complex network of routes which keep these scattered communities viable.
The principal ferry operator hereabouts is Caledonian MacBrayne, affectionately known as CalMac, whose fleet with its distinctive red, black and white livery is an integral part of west coast life. Their “Island Hopscotch” and “Island Rover” tickets allow you to plan your own route through the islands, with or without transport.
Taking your car is convenient but adds to the cost. If you’re visiting an island and returning the same way, it’s worth leaving your car behind and taking a bicycle (CalMac carries them for free on Hopscotch tickets). Bear in mind that public transport is virtually non-existent on the smaller islands, and if you’re intent on getting to some of the remoter places, a pair of stout shoes is a must.
Scotland’s climate is notoriously wet, particularly in the mountainous west, so you run the risk of rain at almost any time of year. However, a good summer in Scotland is glorious and the islands do tend to have a dryer climate than the mainland.
The nights are light too, because of the high northern latitudes, and in June and July the late twilight allows you to make the most of your day.
Parts of mainland Scotland get very crowded in summer, but the western islands – particularly the remoter ones – are protected by the cost and effort involved in getting there. Our Hopscotch ticket cost about £360 for a car and four people, but it did cover five ferry journeys and a total of about five hours’ travel in peak season.
Eating out in the islands is pricier than on the mainland, because of transport costs, and accommodation can also be expensive at peak times, though there are some excellent bargains to be had mid-season.
If you’re tied to the summer holiday period, a good tip is to go the last two weeks in August. Scottish schoolchildren have already gone back, so accommodation rates tend to move downwards from “peak” to “shoulder” and attractions are noticeably quieter.
The infamous midge is also a consideration – these vicious biting insects thrive in the tussocky grasslands of west Scotland, but they can’t fly when a breeze gets up so coastal areas and islands suffer less. A tube of midge repellent is essential; locals swear by a daily dram of whisky to make themselves unpalatable to the little brutes.
Arran: Busy but Beautiful
Our taste of island-hopping began at Ardrossan near Glasgow, where we took the short ferry ride over to Arran, 20 miles long and shaped like a coffee bean. The most popular and accessible of the large islands, Arran is well served with accommodation and shops, with most of the population concentrated in the gentler and more sheltered southern half of the island. A pleasant day was spent exploring Brodick Castle and its extensive gardens.
Further north the settlements thin out and the scenery becomes typically highland, with excellent walking on rugged moorland towards Lochranza, where we visited the distillery and watched deer feed near the ruined foreshore castle. The Catacol Bay Hotel provided good bar meals, with wonderful views across to the Mull of Kintyre.
Kintyre: Almost an Island
A little CalMac ferry (summer only) took us and our car on from Lochranza, at Arran’s northern tip, across to Claonaig, a hamlet on the Mull of Kintyre, famous for a Paul McCartney song you either love or hate.
This remote peninsula points south like a limp finger from the main body of Scotland, and feels like an island despite its tenuous connection to the mainland at Tarbert, a few miles north of Claonaig.
One of the many Tarberts that pepper this part of Scotland, the name means an isthmus, or “boat-crossing”. It was here, where the Mull is just a mile wide, that the Viking king Magnus Barelegs was hauled overland in his longboat from one side to the other in 1093, thus “sailing” around the southern portion of the Mull and adding it to his Hebridean kingdom. On the Mull’s western shore at Kennacraig is another tiny ferry terminal, and here we boarded a larger boat for the journey across the spectacular Sound of Jura to Islay and Jura itself.
Islay and Jura: Whisky and Deer
Islay, flat and peaty for the most part, is more populous than Jura, which is the largest of these islands but almost uninhabited. A tiny ferry moves back and forth across the narrow channel between them, and herds of deer are visible on the slopes of the three spectacular peaks known as the Paps (Try explaining to a giggling seven-year-old, firstly what a “pap” is, and secondly, if that’s true, then how there can be three of them…)
We spent three nights on Islay, camping at a well-equipped farm site at Kintra Bay and sitting each night dreaming by a driftwood fire on the immaculate, deserted, seven-mile beach.
The islands are a refuge for many endangered species, and we were lucky enough to hear the calling of corncrakes. These birds have been all but wiped out on the mainland by modern farming methods, but Islay farmers work with the authorities to safeguard them, and there is an RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart where they thrive.
Islay is also a refuge for artists and craftspeople seeking peace and inspiration from the huge skies, clear air, and (perhaps) the unfeasibly large number of whisky distilleries which provide local employment and give the island a secure and prosperous feel. We sampled the produce – just to be polite – then went back to board our CalMac boat again, this time bound west for the linked islands of Colonsay and Oronsay.
Colonsay and Oronsay: Quiet and Beautiful
The roads on these small islands aren’t wide enough for caravans and there are no campsites, so visitor numbers are limited by the available accommodation – mostly rented cottages, a couple of B&Bs, and the unexpected and excellent Isle of Colonsay Hotel, which serves good food and is the hub of island life.
The place never feels overrun. The rain tends to save itself for the mountains of the mainland, giving the place a pleasant, sunny climate, and the remote beaches of Kintra and Balnahard are clean, empty and breathtakingly lovely. There’s an endearingly unregulated 18-hole “International” golf course, a stately home of sorts (Colonsay House) whose gardens are open once a week, a loch where you can go fly-fishing, and a herd of wild black goats whose random appearances delighted the children.
Sea-fishing and whale-watching trips are available from Kevin Byrne, who also runs the holiday lodges behind the hotel where we stayed, but the varied landscape, gentle gradients and limited traffic meant we were quite happy just exploring the island on foot or bicycle (rentable locally).
At low water we walked across the mile of exposed sand called the Strand to the ruined early Christian abbey of Oronsay, past the highland cattle that graze the foreshore and wander ankle-deep through the creeks and pools left by the retreating tide.
We all fell hopelessly in love with Colonsay, which seems to strike the perfect balance between the “ends of the earth” and modern convenience. There is a decent shop, a quirky cafe that bakes delicious bread and cakes, a community hall where visitors are warmly welcomed to ceilidhs, concerts and shows, and what must be the world’s most unlikely publishers and bookshop, perched on its own at the edge of a beach, looking out towards Canada.
Back on board, heading north this time, it is a two-hour journey along the coast of Jura to the mainland port of Oban. We craned over the rail as we passed Scarba in the hope of spotting the notorious whirlpool of Corrievreckan, but despite our daughters’ fears the ferry seemed unaffected by it, as did the porpoises swimming alongside us.
After ten days on the islands Oban seemed enormous and almost too lively, and as we drove off the ferry we looked enviously at the CalMac boat heading out of the harbor across the bay to Mull.
“Can’t we go across to that island now, Daddy?” pleaded our youngest daughter. “We haven’t been on all the boats yet.”
She’ll learn. You should always leave a few chocolates in the box for later.
Karen Cunningham is a freelance editor and aspiring writer, based in the North-East of England.