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REMOTE AND WILD: THE SCOTTISH HEBRIDES
Julie H. Ferguson
For Travel Writers' Tales

Three weeks and fifteen islands developed into a trip of a lifetime. Every September morning I wondered why I hadn't explored the Scottish Hebrides before. White sand beaches and turquoise sea, purple-washed mountains and golden glens, no tourists and little traffic tempted me to explore every day. Then there were the sheep - more sheep than people.

Dry days and mostly sunshine heightened my enchantment and I lapped up the region's long history wherever I found it in medieval castles, museums, and even pubs.

The Hebrides run north-south off Scotland's west coast. The islands of the major thirty-nine including the best known of Skye and Mull, were created by volcanic action and sculpted by the restless North Atlantic. Each island is distinct and all are warmed by the Gulf Stream - some are mountainous, others are flat; some are Catholic and others are Protestant; all teach Gaelic.


Glen Tarsan anchored off the Isle of Staffa was my home for a week.

I experienced the islands from sea and air, on foot, and by car. A cruise in a converted trawler began my adventure in the Inner Hebrides. Nine passengers and I circumnavigated the Isle of Mull, also visiting Iona and Staffa. Each night and lunchtime we anchored in a remote bay or sea loch, alone but for the sky and sea birds, with no engine noise or swells to disturb us. We ate seafood so fresh it shocked my taste buds. An expert took us on a day's wildlife safari on Mull to observe endangered sea and golden eagles, seals, and herds of deer. We searched for otters, but they did not appear, and the puffins were at sea.

We tendered into Staffa, named one of the "Greatest Geosites" in the world, on a foggy day to see Fingal's Cave and climbed to it around a perilous ledge atop hexagonal basalt columns. The sea surged below us, clear and cold.


The sacred Isle of Iona vibrates with turbulent history and strong faith. The Benedictines rebuilt Iona Abbey in 1203 and the ruined buildings were restored in the 1900s. The church itself lies behind St. Martin's Celtic cross

Our four-hour visit to the sacred Isle of Iona, the birthplace of Celtic Christianity fascinated me. Standing on deck, I caught a glimpse of the restored medieval abbey on a grassy shelf west of the village. Only two of the three hundred Celtic crosses still stand outside the abbey church; St. Martin's is original from the 700s. St. Columba from 563CE, and Macbeth who was buried here in 1057CE, whisper to me. Iona's history was turbulent and brutal, creating a tenuous separation between past and present, substantial and spiritual. The fittest passengers walked to a beach for a bracing swim. I did not, preferring to appreciate more of the abbey complex and salivate in the expensive gift shop.

I enjoyed several days on Arran and Tiree too. Arran, the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, is a short journey from Glasgow by road and ferry. Its east coast is lush; the west, drier, with mountains and glens inland. It's a mini-Scotland. A full-day photography workshop/safari was my highlight.


Barra's unique airport on the Cockle Strand only operates at low tide

The most westerly isle is Tiree, which boasts the most sunshine in the UK. But even on a warm summer day, the wind whistles across the treeless landscape. Tiree's beaches shine like the crescent moon, and Highland cattle chew their cud in the machair, Gaelic for the grassy plain. Flying into Barra had long been on my bucket list because the airport is a beach. The Twin Otter banked hard and within seconds was skimming into land at low tide on the Cockle Strand. The fat tires bounced and I breathed again. Thus began my romance with the Outer Hebrides.


A crofter's cottage with the byre (R) on Valley Strand, a vast North Uist beach. Here peat is cut and used to heat the home.

The tiny rental car fitted the roads perfectly; most are single-track, no wider than the car, with passing places. The Outer Hebrides are remote, wild, and different again. The Uists sport bare mountains, rippling grasslands on the coastal plain, and tiny villages; their west coasts are strewn with empty beaches, ruined crofters' cottages, and shaggy sheep. Sea lochs penetrate deep inland on the eastern shores, and here I encountered my first wild horses browsing in the heather.

The ferry to the Isle of Harris was slowed by dense fog and, on safe arrival, I promptly bought a Harris Tweed jacket the colour of the heather. In the south, Harris is covered with granite boulders; the roads wind around them and up and down the countryside. Inland lochs are surrounded by rusty bracken. I drove north through the mountains and glens of the Isle of Lewis to Stornoway.


The 3,500 year-old standing stones at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis are older than Stonehenge. Stones radiate out from these to the north, south, east, and west.

My final outing was a pilgrimage to the ancient Calanais Standing Stones on the northwest coast, upon which equinoctial moons dance. Like much of my fifteen island adventure, I sensed untold mysticism amid the isolation.

IF YOU GO:

" The Hebrides offer hiking, birdwatching, and cycling holidays, as well as driving tours.

" Be prepared for any weather, even in summer. My most useful item was my hiking boots, despite having a car.

The Majestic Line (small-ship cruises): www.themajesticline.co.uk/

McKinlay Kidd (Fly-drive tours, Outer Hebrides): www.seescotlanddifferently.co.uk/

Undiscovered Scotland: www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/

Inner (Southern) Hebrides: www.southernhebrides.com/

Outer Hebrides, aka the Western Isles: www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/

Photography workshop/tour with Jackie Newman: www.arraninfocus.co.uk

Iona Abbey: www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/iona/abbey/index.html

PHOTOS: All images Photos by Pharos

1. Glen Tarsen.jpg The Glen Tarsan anchored off the Isle of Staffa was my home for a week.
2. Iona Abbey02.jpg. The sacred Isle of Iona vibrates with turbulent history and strong faith. The Benedictines rebuilt Iona Abbey in 1203 and the ruined buildings were restored in the 1900s. The church itself lies behind St. Martin's Celtic cross
3. Barra Airport. jpg. Barra's unique airport on the Cockle Strand only operates at low tide
4. Crofter's Cottage. jpg A crofter's cottage with the byre (R) on Valley Strand, a vast North Uist beach. Here peat is cut and used to heat the home.
5. Calanais Standing Stones.jpg The 3,500 year-old standing stones at Calanais on the Isle of Lewis are older than Stonehenge. Stones radiate out from these to the north, south, east, and west.

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