Forget going abroad – the Highlands have it all (except the weather)

    31 July 2020

    If you mentioned you were off on an island-hopping holiday, most people might assume you were off to Greece, or the Croatian coast. But although the west coast of Scotland can’t guarantee sunshine and a plate of local olives, on a good day the beaches here could give the Maldives a run for their money.

    So far this summer, the Highlands have been out of bounds to tourists. Now, however, Scotland is slowly reopening – and while Nicola Sturgeon has been putting off allowing visitors entry to Scotland for as long as she can, the rural communities themselves are desperate for the income that the summer tourists bring with them. Over a month ago the people of Iona wrote a letter explaining how a summer in lockdown would be a disaster for them, describing themselves as ‘an island off an island off an island’.

    It’s a fair description; to get to Iona, you first have to get to Mull, before travelling across the island and making the short ferry hop from Fionnphort to Iona. Although it’s one of the smaller islands of the Inner Hebrides, Iona is a honeypot for tourists who come for two main reasons: to visit the Abbey, or to see Staffa. The Irish monk Columba – later Saint Columba – first founded a monastery on Iona in the 500s, and the Abbey was an important centre for the Gaelic spread of Christianity. The medieval Abbey still stands, and this is what lies at the centre of Iona’s tourist industry. The 9th century St Martin’s Cross stands outside the abbey, and over 60 kings are believed to be buried in the cemetery: a combination of early Scottish kings, and Norse kings. Today, the Abbey is home to the ‘Iona Community’, who run pilgrimages to the island, and frequently appear on the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

    Staffa is the other big draw. The uninhabited volcanic island features dramatic hexagonal columns of basalt rock which are formed into cliffs and cave walls – including those of the famous Fingal’s Cave. The island inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture – and also plays home to hundreds of puffins every summer. Look out for seals, dolphins and whales as well as plenty of seabirds on the boat trip there – which leave from Tobermory and Oban as well as from Iona.

    If you do visit Iona, make time to see Mull as you pass through – if only to visit the brightly painted capital of Tobermory (probably known to your children as ‘Balamory’). Sea life spotting tours are popular, with blackboards stating what animals have been spotted in the days and weeks before. Minke whales, basking sharks and dolphins are all regularly sighted; and keep an eye out for the huge sea eagles that were reintroduced to the island in the 1980s.

    Although the islands are opening again, not everything is back to ‘normal’; whatever that may be. Tobermory’s Café Fish – which serves some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted, and all locally sourced – have announced they will likely stay shut for the season, as the small restaurant can’t operate within the social distancing restrictions. Other restaurants will, I’m sure, be in the same situation.

    My favourite island – and I can’t quite pin down why – is the island of Rum (or Rùm) It was spelt ‘Rhum’ for over a hundred years because the owner, Sir George Bullough, didn’t fancy being known as the ‘Laird of Rum’ (and, one assumes, thought of as an alcoholic). Now it has reverted back to the old spelling, but although the name has been changed and the island is now owned by Scottish National Heritage, the Bulloughs’ legacy is still very much in existence. The most obvious sign of this is Kinloch Castle, a castellated red sandstone lodge built to a tune of £250,000 in 1897 – around £15 million in today’s money.

    View over the inner hebridean islands of Eigg and Rum

    Around 300 craftsmen were employed to work on the house, and were allegedly paid extra to work wearing kilts made of Rum tweed. The castle was one of the first private houses to have electricity, and as well as modern plumbing and heating systems it boasted an air conditioned billiard room, an alligator house, glasshouses full of homegrown peaches and a German electric organ in the hallway – which is now the only working example of its type in the world. You can book onto a guided tour of the house and learn about the laird’s expensive ways and, perhaps inevitably, how he eventually ran out of money.

    Life on Rum for its residents is described in The Gamekeeper by Portia Simpson, in which she tells of her time spent working as a gamekeeper on the island, and describes quite how desolate and remote it is in the depths of winter. In the summer, however, there’s a CalMac ferry from Mallaig (which also serves neighbouring Canna, Eigg and Muck) and another from Arisaig.

    Deserted Sands, Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides

    Deserted Sands, Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides

    If it is beaches you’re after, then the Outer Hebrides islands of Lewis and Harris are your best bet. Luskentyre beach on Harris (the southern part of the island) is the most spectacular beach, and the long white sands are regularly voted one of the best beaches in the UK. Of course, Harris is also world-famous for its tweed, so you couldn’t visit without seeing it made – or taking some home with you. One of the island’s best is Donald John Mackay MBE, a master weaver who weaves in his workshop overlooking Luskentrye beach. As well as selling tweed to Prince Charles and Camilla when they visited him, his beautiful handwoven tweeds have even been used to make Nike trainers!

    While Iona is famous for its monastery, Lewis is known for its standing stones, most notably at Callanish. Thirteen stones stand around a central monolith, with avenues of standing stones leading off the main circle. Although there are still arguments about why the standing stones exist, the fact that there are a number of other similar stone arrangements nearby suggest that Lewis – and the Callanish area in particular – were related to some form of ritual. The visitor centre and museum tell the story and various theories behind the stones, but even without any context, they are spectacular in their own right.