Island Hopping in the Scottish Sea Kingdom
The country’s western isles are a whole other world
By Janna Graber
“You’ll need to
take care on the island roads,” the woman at the Edinburgh tourism office
told me. “They are just one-track.
“One-track?” I asked, never having heard the term
before. Of course, I knew that driving in Scotland was going to be a
challenge, always trying to remember to stay on the other side of road and
shifting with the left hand. But one-track?
“It means there is just one lane,” the woman said. “If
someone else meets you coming from the other direction, one of you has to
The thought of it sounded frightening, but the lady
smiled with encouragement. “You’ll be fine, love,” she said in her melodic
brogue. “And the western isles are beautiful.”
It turns out that she was right on both accounts.
The Argyll’s Atlantic Islands, a remote grouping of
tiny isles just off the western seaboard, have been referred to as
Scotland’s Sea Kingdom. Here, Scottish tradition and culture run deep. The
sounds of Gaelic are everywhere, and there are places where time seems to
From the Isle of Iona with its 6th century
Christian roots to the wild, uninhabited Isle of Staffa, the region offers a
different look at Scotland.
The islands are best reached by flying into either
Edinburgh or Glasgow, and then driving or taking a train to the west coast
town of Oban.
The train ride to the sea is a scenic one, passing
through small towns and lush green countryside, and offers a good
introduction to rural Scotland. An hour outside of Oban, our train abruptly
stopped in the middle of nowhere. A large flock of sheep stood on the
tracks. Chewing their cud, they viewed the train with little interest and
continued with their grazing. Finally, a brave engineer was sent into the
herd. His erratic arm movements eventually sent the beasts on their way. It
was just a typical day in the Scottish countryside.
Since there are few places to rent a car in the small
town of Oban, my friend and I ended up at the local Fiat dealer, who offered
to rent us a tiny Fiat Punto. Since a car is a “must” for exploring the
scarcely-populated islands, we were grateful for anything with wheels. After
a little practice driving (with the Fiat dealer watching nervously), we were
on our way to the beautiful Isle of Mull.
only 350 square miles in size, but it is the largest of Argyll’s Atlantic
Isles. The island is mountainous and has lovely beaches and woodlands. The
island’s brochure listed castles, tiny villages, and even a distillery as
“must-see” places to visit. It sounded like a perfect base for an island
The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry provides public
transport to the western isles, so our trusty Punto joined 40 other cars in
the ship’s hull while we had a cup of tea up top. Forty minutes later, we
landed in the miniscule port town of Craignure. A light rain, as seems to be
the norm in this part of the world, was already falling.
“Don’t let the rain stop you,” said Maureen, the
friendly woman at the Craignure’s tourism office. “We have webbed-feet
around here, you know,” she joked, loaning us a couple of umbrellas and
plying us with maps.
Fully prepared, we headed out onto the island’s road.
Within minutes, we met a car going the opposite direction. “Go to the
left,” my friend yelled. I swerved into a pull-out, and the other car
slipped on by, giving us the friendly index-finger wave of the islands. I
practiced waving back with my index finger and we continued on our way.
Fiat dealer had forgotten to tell us one important fact about driving in the
isles – sheep own the roads and fences are strictly optional. Time and
again, we turned the corner to come face to face with the wooly creatures.
“You just learn to expect them,” a local later told us.
The scenery is another distraction. At times, the road
followed the sea, just feet from the water. Other times, it climbed high
into fern-covered mountains and then descended into mist-filled valleys. The
scenes were magical and other-worldly. Suddenly all those stories of gnomes
and fairies didn’t seem so far-fetched.
At the north end of Mull, we reached the
postcard-perfect village of Tobermory, with its brightly painted houses
lining the main street across from the bay. The waters were filled with
small fishing vessels, belying the region’s first beginnings in 1785.
There are several good places to stay and eat in
Tobermory, in spite of its small population of 900, but we chose the Western
Isles Hotel, which sits on a peak above the village. “The hotel is around
that bend, that VERY tight bend,” one of the villagers told us when we asked
for directions. He wasn’t joking. The road was so narrow and the turn so
tight, that I had to back up the Punto in mid-turn.
There are 2,700 people who make their home on the Isle
of Mull. And from speaking with some of them, it’s obvious that pride in
Scottish heritage is alive and well. William Wallace, the Scottish hero that
Mel Gibson portrayed in Braveheart, is still a revered man. After hearing
more tales of his bravery, I almost expected to see him charging through the
The island is a great place to explore on foot.
Wildlife is abundant on Mull, and the region has one of the largest
concentrations of Golden Eagles. Whale watching is a popular pastime, as are
treks to view the wildlife on shore. Hiking is allowed anywhere, except
during hunting season. There are several campsites, and Bed & Breakfasts dot
Entertainment is mostly self-made here, although a
traveling movie theater built onto a truck platform does visit Mull every
three months. However, there is an artistic treasure in the tiny Mull
Theatre, which is located in the village of Dervaig.
Built in a former barn, the theatre seats only 40 and
has a small, intimate stage. Performances are top quality, and the venue is
known throughout Scotland.
If you’re looking for something to eat before the
performance, the pub at the Bellachroy Hotel in Dervaig is a good option.
It’s a local hangout, and a great way to get to a feel for the town and its
The Isle of Iona, population 90, is perhaps the
best-known island in the Sea Kingdom. To reach it, we drove 50-miles from
Tobermory to the port town of Fionnphort. A ferry from there transports
visitors to Iona, where St. Columba brought Christianity to Scotland 14
Just three miles
long and one mile wide, Iona is home to the ruins of ancient nunnery, a
lovingly-restored medieval abbey and is the burial ground of 48 Scottish
Several Scottish visitors, however, told us that their
favorite pastime on the island is simply walking the unspoiled white-sand
beaches and enjoying the peaceful solitude that the remote location offers.
From Iona, it’s just a quick boat trip to the Isle of
Staffa. Dave Kirkpatrick of Staffa Trips takes visitors in his large brown
boat to this most dramatic, unpopulated island. The spectacular Fingal’s
Cave, which is said to have inspired Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture, has a
cathedral-like ceiling that rises 65 feet above the surface of the sea. A
geological wonder in its own right, the island is made of basalt and topped
by a cap of hard lava. Puffins are common, and visitors are often seen
walking carefully among the nesting birds.
The Treshnish Islands, not far from Staffa, are also
unpopulated by humans but home to hundreds of seals, dolphins, and many rare
nesting birds. Nearly Coll Island is home to the endangered corncrake bird,
as well as many rare water plants, while the Isle of Tiree, which is
renowned for its sunshine in the early summer, is worth exploring if you
have the time.
The trouble with the Sea Kingdom is that there is more
to see than most vacation times will allow. Perhaps that is why it’s not
unusual to see the same visitors coming back year after year.
If You Go:
For More Information
How to Get There
Although a newcomer to the American market, BMI British
Midland has affordable flights from Chicago and Washington to Scotland (via
their hub in Manchester, England). They are a Star Alliance member.
Where to Stay in Edinburgh:
If you’re flying into Edinburgh, consider overnighting
at The Scotsman, a beautifully restored historic hotel. The hotel’s location
is excellent, just minutes from The Royal Mile (the town’s most important
historic area), and only a two-minute walk to Waverley train station.
20 North Bridge
Edinburgh EH1 1 YT
44 (0)131 556 5565
Ferry Services to the Islands:
Where to Stay in Mull:
Western Isles Hotel
Tobermory, Isle Of Mull
Tel: 44 (0)1688 302012
The Tobermory Hotel
53 Main Street
Tobermory, Isle of Mull
44 (0)1688 302091
Places to Visit in Mull:
Three miles from the Ferry Terminal at Craignure.
Isle of Mull
Staffa Tours (including Treshnish Isles)
Whale Watching Trips
(excepting those noted below) by Janna Graber
Animal courtesy of Argyll, The Isles, Loch
Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs Tourist Board.
Mull Theatre Photo courtesy of Mull Theatre.
Oban photo courtesy Visit Britain
© Janna Graber 2002