There are times when the scattered mosaic of islands off the west coast of Scotland performs conjuring tricks. It happens when the sun shines, mantles of mist and rain disappear, the hills are ablaze with heather and wild flowers and the seas sparkle with the azure of the sky.
At such times Colonsay becomes an illusory Corfu, and Skye pretends it is Skopelos – minus the searing heat and crowds. Those of us who live a ferry ride from these isles know this, which is why we don’t see much point in flying to a sun-baked hell in Greece in mid-summer. Forget the mobbed tavernas, give us golden sunsets on endless beaches with nobody on them.
Throw in spectacular wildlife from orcas to golden eagles, legendary pubs with amazing fiddlers, and award-winning restaurants, and who needs bouzoukis and moussaka?
The important thing is to take your time. Sailing to a Hebridean island is like stepping off the world into a timeless place. The sooner you slow down and switch to island time the better.
Get out of the car and climb a hill, hire a kayak, spend a day at a highland games or agricultural show, and look out for ceilidhs in village halls. Or just stand and stare at the carefree beauty of flower-strewn machair grasslands by a shimmering sea loch.
The easiest, most scenic (and sometimes only) way of hopping around the Hebrides is on a fleet of ferries as Scottish as Irn Bru, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne that offers “Hopscotch” packages of up to half a dozen routes on a single ticket. Choose a group of islands, book a Hopscotch ticket, and set sail in whichever direction you choose to discover the best of the west.
Crofting, castles and corncrakes
Outer Hebrides - Hopscotch route 8
A classic tour of the far-flung Western Isles, sailing from Oban to Barra and through the Uists, Benbecula and Harris to Lewis, returning to the mainland at Ullapool. The dramatic ruins of Kisimul Castle, ancient seat of the clan MacNeil, signal your arrival on Barra. Small but perfectly formed, the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides is a peaceful patchwork of beaches, flowering grasslands and a hill with views over all of them. The best of the beaches are on the west coast, but be wary of low-flying aircraft on the sands of Traigh Mor (Big Strand) in the north - it serves as the island airstrip.
A short ferry ride takes you to Eriskay, the isle of Whisky Galore! ,where the SS Politician foundered in 1941 with its famous cargo. Look out for otters and indigenous Eriskay ponies grazing by white-sand beaches.
A causeway leads to South Uist, one of the last surviving strongholds of Gaelic in Scotland, where crofting traditions of cutting peat and gathering seaweed as natural fertiliser continue. Some 32km of machair provide a habitat for endangered corncrake, and the mountains are home to golden eagles, red grouse and red deer. Golfers can test themselves on the Outer Hebrides’ oldest course at Askernish, and the Kildonan Centre has a museum, a craft shop, a cafe and a room for ceilidhs, music and dance.
Next up on another causeway is Benbecula, which is fairly flat and ideal for walking and cycling to explore tidal bays and moorlands. Or by horse – there is a community riding school.
North Uist is a draw for anglers and birdwatchers, with exceptional sea trout fishing and an RSPB nature reserve famed for corncrakes. Further north, little Berneray was home to the Prince of Wales when he secretly spent a week living and working with a crofter. His Royal Highness enjoyed it so much, he returned. Given beaches once mistakenly used to advertise Thai resorts, it’s not hard to see why.
A ferry connects to Harris, my personal favourite. The home of hand-loomed tweeds is a fairyland of rocky hillocks, lochans and white-washed croft houses. There are endless white sands and turquoise waters on the west coast, but don’t miss the enchanting “Golden Road” meandering up the east coast from Leverburgh to Tarbert.
The final destination, Lewis, is an adventure playground for hill walkers. The lonely west coast is the site of Scotland’s Stonehenge, the Callanish Standing Stones dating from around 3,000 BC, and Lews Castle in Stornoway – from where the Ullapool ferry departs – has a museum that celebrates Gaelic culture with audio-visual displays of poetry, songs, stories and beliefs.
A land alone and apart
Islay and Colonsay - Hopscotch route 18
Time has stood still in Islay, on single-track roads where one is as likely to meet a sheep as another car. An isle of tranquil beauty and sweeping vistas, there are more than 20 beaches, including the “Big Strand” on Laggan Bay with 10km of shell-sand where two men and a dog constitute a crowd.
A five-minute ferry ride and a world away is Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984 in a lonely croft house. He originally called it The Last Man in Europe, and you can see where the title came from – Jura is a land apart, among the wildest and most rugged fragments of coastal Britain. There are stags on the hills, otters by the shore and golden eagles among the crags - and barely 200 people living by its only single-track road. It is a place to stand and wonder at the majesty of nature.
Little Colonsay does its best to keep up with its big neighbours, as the world’s smallest island. Around 120 islanders share their home with colonies of seals, seabirds and otters, and wild goats said to be descended from goats that came ashore from a wrecked Spanish Armada ship.
Over the sea to Skye
Mull, Ardnamurchan and Skye - Hopscotch route 7
The largest islands of the Inner Hebrides, combined with a remote peninsula and scenic drives through the West Highlands. Sail from Oban to Mull, where young visitors will recognise the brightly painted waterfront houses of Tobermory, the island capital, as the setting for the popular children’s TV programme Balamory.
A haven for white-tailed sea eagles and hill walkers, Mull is the gateway to Iona, the little jewel in the Hebridean crown. A sanctuary of peace infused with the spirituality of centuries of devotion, it is where St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland. Its abbey is a place for quiet reflection amid the burial grounds of 60 Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings, and sitting by its shores of translucent blue water on a calm summer’s day is balm to the soul.
A short ferry crossing from Tobermory takes you to one of the most enchanting landscapes of the West Highlands, the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Head for the most westerly point of the British mainland, where a lighthouse museum is an ideal place for a picnic and Hebridean sunsets. A single track road hugging Loch Sunart winds through woodlands and pretty villages to Lochaline before a return north to join the famed “Road to the Isles” from Fort William to the fishing port of Mallaig. The narrow, twisting road is a magical roller-coaster ride through a Celtic fairyland of green hills, ancient woods and absurdly romantic lochs and glens.
From Mallaig it’s over the sea to Skye into the mists of time – often literally. Its Gaelic name of “Isle of Mist” is well earned. When mists and low clouds swirl around the ramparts of Dunvegan and Armadale castles, it is easy to imagine the venerable seats of the clans MacLeod and Donald resounding to the clash of arms. The big attractions of Skye are some of the finest walking and climbing routes in Scotland, amid breathtaking scenery that is the essence of what makes Scotland special, in sunshine or rain. Driving back over the Skye Bridge, don’t miss Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie, arguably the most romantic castle in Scotland.
Scotland in miniature
Arran, Kintyre and Islay – Hopscotch route 17
Another route to Islay passes through Arran on the Firth of Clyde. On a clear, sunny day, beneath blue skies and a long white cloud, the Isle of Arran has an almost mystical allure. With its long, jumbled profile dominated by craggy mountains, it rises from the sea like a make-believe land from a children’s picture book. This is not entirely fanciful. Its attractions include woodland walks to a fairy glen and a fairy dell, burial cairns of Neolithic giants, and a Scottish baronial castle built for the wedding of a Bavarian princess.
The island has a split personality, with the Highland fault line running through the middle of it and dividing a wild Highland north from a pastoral south. With some of the best of both worlds, it claims to be Scotland in miniature. An easy ramble from the gardens of Brodick Castle rises to the summit of heather-clad Goatfell, the highest peak, from where panoramic views on a clear day include the coast of Ireland.
Despite its proximity to the mainland, Arran is a relaxed, whimsical place with a slow heartbeat. Ferries leave from the north for Kintyre, where a short drive leads to Kennacraig and ferries onwards to Islay. This Hopscotch ticket ends in Oban, the starting point for....
The sunniest place in Britain
Coll and Tiree - Hopscotch route 19
Sunshine and surf are the big attractions of Tiree, regularly the sunniest place in Britain, renowned for balmy summer evenings. Crofters and fishermen who live on the low-lying fertile island enjoy big skies and sea breezes that keep away the dreaded midges. Later in the year winds attract the UK’s top windsurfers for the Tiree Wave Classic, and the isle hosts a popular 10k road race that begins on a beach, preceded by a pipe band in full kilted regalia, and ends with a ceilidh in the village hall.
People on neighbouring Coll claim their weather is even better, and Tiree gets sunshine records only because it has an official weather station. Walking, sailing, and winter stargazing are its main attractions. With no streetlights, the island has official “dark sky” status and hosts astronomical courses to marvel at night skies ablaze with stars.
ESSENTIAL FOR YOUR ISLAND-HOPPING JOURNEY
✱ Hopscotch tickets are valid for 31 days and are available from Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk/island-hopping).
✱ Journeys may be taken in either direction.
Advance booking on some routes is strongly recommended, particularly in summer.
✱ Price for a car and two adults from £50 (Dh233).
There is more to Scottish islands than lazing on beaches. Watch eagles in flight and sheepdog trials, stride heather-clad hills and explore exotic gardens, then look out for Highland games.
The Outer Hebrides has the highest recorded density of golden eagles in Europe, and a bird of prey trail links 13 locations for spotting them, along with white-tailed sea eagles, hen harriers and short-eared owls. There are more basking sharks in waters off the west of Scotland than anywhere else in the world, most likely seen around the Inner Hebrides and Arran. A pod of killer whales stalks seals around Skye, minke whales cruise between Skye and Mull, and dolphins are everywhere. Moorlands and forests are the realm of red deer stags, iconic “Monarchs of the Glen”, particularly on Mull and Jura.
The relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream nurture exotic plants, cultivated in Victorian formal gardens. The ruins of Armadale Castle in Skye are set among 40 acres of mature gardens and woodland, and Jura House has one of the few remaining, active walled gardens with an extensive range of ornamental plants. Colonsay House has one of the country’s finest rhododendron collections, and renowned Achamore Gardens on the Isle of Gigha (a short ferry ride from Kintyre) has woodland walks, exotics, herbaceous borders and a bamboo maze.
Join the fun at walking, music and book festivals throughout the islands, and mingle with pipe bands and kilted heavyweights tossing cabers at Highland games. For sporty types there are hill races, cycle sportives, and golf challenges, and agricultural shows invariably end with ceilidhs in village halls. Highlights include the Hebridean Celtic festival on Lewis, the South Harris Agricultural Show, Islay festival of music, and the Mull Highland Games. Most events are listed on island websites.