THE WESTERN ISLES are a group of islands of the north-west coast of Scotland. They consist of the Inner and Outer Hebrides but this opinion concerns the closer of the two to the mainland, THE INNER HEBRIDES.
Skye is the largest of these islands but is not included here as I have already written about that island.
** Although the islands are generally close together they all have a very different character.
For visitors, Mull comes closest to Skye in popularity, though many visitors travel on through to Iona. The island is large and bleak, with fairly large mountains in the south and moorland or forestry plantations elsewhere. Mull has a fantastically, wild coast, much of it only accessible by foot. Walking is the best way to see all the beauty of this island.
Getting to Mull is easy. Car ferries run from Oban to Craignure and Tobermory, From Lochaline to Fishnish and, in season, from Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan to Tobermory. If you take a car, arrive with a full tank and keep topping up, petrol stations are few and far between.
Mull is at the centre of a group of islands. Others in the Mull group, most with a history worth investigating, are Ulva and Gometra, Inch Kenneth , Eorsa, Little Colonsay, Erisgeir, Erraid, and the Treshnish Isles, a group well noted for their wildlife.
TOBERMORY - founded as a fishing station - is Mull's largest settlement and lies tucked into the shore at the island's sparsely populated northern end. The vivid colours of the brightly painted crescent of mainly 18th century buildings around the busy harbour give the village it's picture-postcard look.
This is the starting point for many wildlife trips both on land and sea. Whale and dolphin watching has become very popular and the Whale and Dolphin Trust has its survey centre and shop on the main street. Tobermory also has a museum, distillery, golfcourse and many sm
THE MULL MUSEUM, in an old bakers shop on the harbour front, is small and old fashioned, and a great place to learn about Mull's history and to read about the galleon from the Spanish Armada (the San Juan de Sicilia or Florencia), which sank in mysterious circumstances in Tobermory harbour. Its treasure of gold doubloons, have eluded salvage crews ever since.
Within a few miles of town the LITTLE THEARTE of MULL, once the world's smallest professional theatre, has undergone massive expansion and can now accommodate 43 people! Plays written or adapted for a cast of two are performed throughout the summer.
A major Canadian city took its name from the small fishing village of CALGARY, whose fabulous sandy beach, ringed by old trees and hemmed by cliffs is worth a visit.
BEN MORE, at 3,267 feet, is one of the highest mountains in the Hebrides. It's name translates from gaelic to the highly imaginative 'Big Hill'.
Although a relatively easy hill walk, rather than a challenging climb, the weather can be 'changeable', and a compass will be unreliable due to the magnetic rock that forms much of the summit. Remember too that as you start from sea-level, you climb every single foot. Wear strong footwear, take warm and waterproof clothing and allow 5-6 hours.
MACKINNON'S CAVE is one of Mull's best-known sights, but accessible only by foot. A farm-track takes you to a path leading to a magnificent cliff top and then steeply down to a beach of large boulders.
It is huge and very deep, with a wide interior chamber. Keep to the path, make sure to arrive on a falling tide, and take a torch.
The Ardmeanach peninsula has a more unusual attraction than MacKinnon's Cave, MACULLOCH'S FOSSIL TREE has suffered more damage since it was discovered in 1819 than during the previous 50 million years, but is now protected from souvenir hunters. The cast of the lar
ge pine tree, 40ft tall, 5ft across, and hollow, is a facinating sight.
Pilgrims en route to Iona once trudged along a narrow track from Glen More to Fionnphort, where there are regular passenger ferries to Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Isles.
Few will remain unmoved by Iona's spiritual peace. Despite masses of day trippers in and around the main sights, finding a quiet spot is easy.
The birthplace of Christianity in Scotland is small (three miles by one and a half miles) and mostly flat and windswept, but its importance to Christianity is great. The Irish monk Columba chose Iona for the setting up of a monastery in 563AD. Legend has it that it was because it was the first place he reached from which he could still see Ireland.
Such was the importance of this religious community that it eventually became the burial place of the kings of Scotland A total of 48 were buried here until the 11th century.
It suffered during repeated sackings by Vikings until the community finally moved to Kells in Ireland.
It was not abandoned entirely though, and a Benedictine monastery and Augustinian nunnery were founded at the beginning of the thirteen century, but both were vandalised during the Scottish Reformation.
The Iona Community was founded in 1838 and restoration work on the buildings began at the turn of the 20th century. Today the restored buildings are a spiritual centre under the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland.
The small medieval nunnery is a well-maintained ruin; the church and chapter house are original, while the cloister and refectory were built around 1500. MacLean's Cross is one of Iona's best medieval religious carvings, decorated with Celtic motifs. The Abbey, near the site of the original monastery, has been massively restored, but some of the walls and a large number of carvings are original.
The restored 12th century St Oran's Cha
pel is the islands's oldest building, and arguably the best.
Staffa means 'Pillar Island', which merely hints at the breathtaking formations of basalt columns. It is an island of caves, of which the best known is FINGAL'S CAVE, 69 m deep and 20 m high. Mendelssohn's overture Fingal's Cave, also known as 'The Hebrides', was composed in 1829 after a visit to the island.
COLL and TIREE
These islands - as with much of the highlands and islands of Scotland - were cleared of most of the people by the landowners. Coll was cleared to make room for cattle rearing and today has a population of around 150. Tiree was not so ruthlessly cleared and has a population of about 750 people who still follow the crofting way of life.
If wide skies, open seas, wild flowers on windy dunes and a pace of life dictated by the tides is your idea of bliss, then these are the islands for you.
The attractions here are undisturbed peace & quiet, bird-life, views, coastal scenery and gentle walking.
Both islands are flat, but Tiree is green and fertile whereas Coll is rocky and boggy. Both islands have magnificent, deserted beaches - and on Tiree are likely to be populated by surfers. Sunshine is common out here away from the hills, but so too are strong Atlantic winds.
There is little point in using a car - hiring a bicycle is cheaper and a more sensible way of getting around. There are a number of small sights - prehistoric remains and a ruined castle or two. There are 2 hotels, 2 pubs, guesthouses and self catering accomodation on both islands. You should be able to buy enough food for picnics locally, but do not expect anything sophisticated in the islands' shops.
This is a tiny island, criss-crossed with dry-stane dykes and with everything in miniature, fro
m the trout loch to the golf course. There is only one road so a bicycle is the best transport. You can hire a bike at the post office or the Gigha Hotel. Its main attraction is Achamore House Gardens. With the island's mild climate, the 130 hectare gardens are ideal for exotic shrubs and are open all year.
Colonsay, along with Oronsay, is only 10 miles long. It has several archaeological sites, but you will probably remember it best for its tranquility. Quiet and undemanding, with only three ferries per week, it is the perfect retreat. Apart from one hotel and a couple of bed and breakfasts, all the accomodation is self-catering.
This is a beautiful island of green pastures, moors and woodlands, surrounded by cliffs and rocky coves and a good selection of sandy beaches. 500 varieties of local flora and 150 species of birds have been recorded here.
The Colonsay House Garden, a small woodland of rhododendrons, giant palms, exotic shrubs and many rarer species, are open to the public all year.
ISLAY and JURA
The islands of Islay and Jura lie off the coast of Argyll. They can be reached easily by car ferry from the Kintyre peninsula. On a clear day the coast of Ireland can be seen in the distance.
ISLAY has fertile farmland, producing superb meat, trim villages, and low heather covered hills. Islay has a quite different feel from the rest of the Hebridean islands. It is an island of farms rather than crofts, and a number of distilleries provide work for the local community. The population of Islay is about 3,500.
At Port Ellen it is a short walk from the ferry, (past 3 distilleries) to the Kildalton Cross, carved 1200 years ago. The blue grey stone cross is large, impressive and decorated with Celtic motifs.
At Lower Killeyan, there is a rocket-shaped monument in memory of two sea tragedies. In
Feb. 1918, the Tuscania was torpedoed and sank 7 miles offshore with the loss of 266 men. 8 months later the Otranto was accidentally rammed by another ship in her convoy in almost the same place and 356 men were drowned.
The American Red Cross built the tower monument in 1920 and it was dedicated as a monument to the US soldiers who lost their lives on the two ships.
JURA is wild, rugged, and mountainous, with remote moorland. The Paps of Jura (mountains)have been landmarks for ships for centuries. Jura has less than 200 inhabitants.
Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote 1984, stands in isolation on a footpath that winds along the shore to the whirlpool of Corryvreckan. The roar of the water can be heard long before you see it.
Both islands attract people for a variety of reasons; hill-walking, bird-watchering, naturalists, amateur archaeology, and photography, fishing and golfing. Not to mention the excellent malt whisky. The islanders have a hospitable attitude, and you will find plenty to see and do during your stay.
The so called Small Isles - RHUM, EIGG, MUCK and CANNA - also offer a true island experience, very definitely away form it all, with Rhum the best for scenery.
For more information:
Thanks for reading
~ ~ My late mother was born and bred in Caverstay, a small hamlet about 15 miles south of Stornoway, the main town of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
The people from the Hebrides are an ancient and proud race, being descended from a mixture of Celts and Vikings, dating back to the 1st Century A.D. Even today, if you ask a Lewis or Harris person where they are from, they are unlikely to answer Scotland. More likely, "Lewisman" or "Harrisman".
~ ~ Although 99% of the population do speak English, their first tongue is still "the Gaelic" (pronounced Gallic), an old Celtic language which bears great resemblance to traditional Irish.
I had a cousin from Lewis visit me (I live in Dublin, Ireland) a few years back, and he was able to hold a conversation with my wife (who speaks Irish) with ease. My mother was twelve years of age before she was taught any English.
~ ~ The islands of Lewis and Harris, along with North and South Uist and Barra, make up the Hebrides.
This is a wild and barren land, consisting in the main of "peat" bogs in Lewis, and a sandy subsoil in the rest of the peninsula.
To this day one of the main forms of heating is this "peat", which is cut from the bogs in the summer months, and then stacked beside the crofts (small farms) for use in the Winter.
~ ~ Most of the islands are virtually uninhabited, the main town of Lewis being Stornoway, and the main town of Harris, Tarbert.
Vast tracks of Harris are as near as any human will ever get to a Lunar surface, with rocks, heather, and fauna dominating, and only single lane roads being the norm. You must take care when driving, as there is literally only room for one car, and there are designated passing places where you must pull in to let another vehicle pass.
~ ~ This may sound as though the Islands are not worth a visit, but to assume this would be a big mistake.
You are tot
ally removed from the hustle and bustle of modern living, stress is something that only exists in magazines and newspapers, and the people are so friendly and accommodating you will not believe it. If you like a holiday where you can be at one with nature, then the Hebrides is for you.
~ ~ A word of caution. The Islands are nearly exclusively Presbyterian, or to be more specific "Free" Presbyterian.
They take their religion VERY seriously, to the extent that literally everything closes down on a Sunday. It is almost a cardinal sin to be even seen in the street, unless you are going to Church.
The exception is the island of South Uist, which is joined to its neighbour, North Uist, by a causeway that is only passable at low tide. The north island is the traditional Presbyterian, while the south is one hundred per cent Roman Catholic, and as near to Irish culture and the west coast of Ireland as you can get without setting foot on the "Emerald Isle".
~ ~ There is much to see. The "Standing Stones" at Callanish date back to the times of the Druids, and are in the tradition of Stonehenge in Southern England.
Stornoway is a lively, bustling, little market town, with a picturesque harbour along with a Castle overlooking it.
~ ~ A good day out is to drive to the very southern tip of Harrisl to a tiny hamlet called Rodel.
All that is here is a tiny distillery, a run-down hotel (which isn't always open) and a little harbour. It is the distillery that is unique. It makes a Scotch whisky called "Royal Household". But not for retail consumption. This drink is EXCLUSIVELY for the use of the British Royal Family.
If you sweet-talk the old man on the gate, he will give you a taste of this "water of life", and if you catch him on a particularly good day, he may even sell you an illicit bottle or two of this nectar.
~ ~ If you are visiting Scotland, the Hebrides is ce
rtainly worth a visit. They can be accessed by plane from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness or Aberdeen. But by far the best way is to drive to Uig in the Isle of Skye, and then take the car ferry to either Tarbert or Stornoway. The drive through Skye is, in itself, the experience of a lifetime, with scenery to compare with anywhere in the World.