The A-Z of the Scottish Islands

I guess you could say that the Scottish islands are to me what the mountains are to Munro baggers. I’ve visited around 50 of them, which sounds impressive, although every time I look at a map of Scotland I feel frustrated by the sight of those islands on which I have yet to land. With a limited amount of time and a budget to try to stick to (and favourite islands to re-visit), I suspect it’ll be a few years yet before I set foot on all the islands on my list.

We’re three weeks into the New Year and this is my third entry in the WordPress photographic challenge. I’m really enjoying it. There are no winners or losers and, in the true spirit of competition, it’s the taking part that counts! The weekly challenge is providing me with new ideas for posts and encouraging me to blog more regularly, and there’s the added bonus of connecting with like-minded people from all over the world. The theme this week is ‘alphabet‘. As always, it’s up to each individual author how they interpret the theme. Last week I published my most popular blog to date, The Weight of Time. At less than 500 words, it was a bit of a departure from my usual style. Short and punchy is good but I do love writing and this week I feel the need to indulge with a longer piece and a selection of photographs. So, here is the result; my A-Z of the Scottish islands!

If you read my round-up of 2015, you’ll know that I’m currently learning Scottish Gaelic, the native language of much of the Highlands and Islands. Given the subject matter, it seems appropriate to use the Gaelic alphabet. Gaelic contains considerably more sounds than English but only uses 18 letters and so perhaps this post should have been called ‘The A-U of the Scottish Islands’, but this doesn’t have quite the same ring to it! Feel free to call me a cheat but it saves me scratching my head over those tricky letters, Q, X and Z.

Anyway, enough preamble! It’s time to start our journey around the coast with a visit to south west Scotland and the first island I remember visiting, way back in 1989…

A: Arran

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The summit of Goatfell, Arran

Arran is located in the Firth of Clyde, within easy reach of Glasgow and a large proportion of Scotland’s population. Its nickname ‘Scotland in Miniature’ is well deserved due to its rugged mountains, atmospheric glens and coastal scenery (not to mention the changeable climate and midges!). There’s also a good choice of visitor attractions including Brodick Castle, the Isle of Arran Distillery and the Heritage Museum. If you’re feeling energetic, I can highly recommend a 56 mile cycle run around the island or a walk up Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak. If you’d rather drop the pace but still explore the outdoors, there are numerous other shorter walks taking in caves, waterfalls and standing stones. There are a few boat trips to choose from too, including the short ferry crossing to the Holy Isle Buddhist retreat, where you can either meditate or climb Mullach Mòr to admire the views over Lamlash Bay!

My connections with Arran go back a long way. Nearly three decades have gone by since my 1989 island sojourn and I’ve seen my fair share of Scotland in that time, but Arran still has a special place in my heart. I’ve returned many times over the years and can still recall some early childhood memories from that first visit. The most significant of those was having my photograph taken on the summit of Goatfell. I finally returned to the same spot on my 30th birthday last year and you can read more about this adventure in my Big Birthday Blog: Turning Time Around on the Isle of Arran.

B: Boreray

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Gannets over Boreray, St Kilda

Boreray haunts my dreams more than any other island. It is part of the St Kilda archipelago; a small cluster of islands lying 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides chain, close to the edge of the continental shelf. Hirta is the largest island in the group and one of the remotest places in the British Isles ever to be permanently inhabited. People survived on St Kilda for generations by harvesting seabirds and their eggs (mainly Fulmar, Gannet and Puffin). However, the St Kildan way of life became untenable in the early twentieth century due to a combination of factors, including increased contact with the outside world and depopulation as a result of emigration and disease. The remaining 36 islanders were evacuated to mainland Scotland in August 1930 and the islands were later bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland. St Kilda’s iconic natural and cultural heritage assets have since been awarded World Heritage Status and St Kilda has become a Mecca to island goers like myself.

Boreray lies four miles northeast of Hirta and was important to the survival of the St Kildans due to its vast colony of Gannets; a source of meat, feathers and eggs. Hirta is more accessible nowadays than it has ever been, with summer day trips operating from Harris and Skye, but landing on the neighbouring islands or sea stacks still requires more detailed planning. Although Hirta is undoubtedly the main attraction and I am extremely fortunate to have spent a total of 28 nights here, I find Boreray very alluring with its awe-inspiring vertical towers of rock rising out of the Atlantic and clouds of Gannets circling overhead. Landing on this island is pretty high on my Bucket List but if I’m ever going to achieve this goal, I’m going to have to give some serious thought to the logistics. I have an entire blog post on St Kilda waiting in the wings so I’ll wrap up on the letter ‘B’ and move on, but we’ll be back in a few moments to visit Dùn; Hirta’s nearest neighbour!

C: Canna

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Canna Cliffs

The Small Isles are one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. The islands of Eigg, Muck, Rum, Sanday and Canna lie between Skye and Ardnamurchan and are most easily accessed from Mallaig; a fishing port at the end of the appropriately named ‘Road to the Isles’. This runs roughly parallel to one of the most scenic stretches of railway in Scotland; a route used by the Jacobite steam train which was made world-famous by the Harry Potter films. A fantastic day trip is to catch the ferry in Mallaig and go on a non-landing cruise around the Small Isles. I did this in 2002 and was inspired to return at a later date.

Canna caught my attention again in 2004 when I started a year long course in Scottish Ethnology at Edinburgh University (an extra subject on top of my Geography degree programme). I learned that, in 1938, Canna was purchased by John Lorne Campbell; a Celtic scholar, linguist and conservationist. He and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, were both fascinated by Gaelic folklore, culture and language, and dedicated their lives to preserving this for future generations and bringing it to the attention of an international audience. A significant amount of material is held in the Canna House Archive on the island. Canna is the northernmost and westernmost of the Small Isles and, like St Kilda, it is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Canna is connected by a bridge to its smaller neighbour, Sanday. I landed on both islands in 2009 whilst on a photography workshop based in Knoydart. A few hours ashore certainly whet my appetite and I look forward to returning hopefully in the not too distant future.

D: Dùn

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Dùn, St Kilda

We’re back on St Kilda! If only it were that easy in reality. Dùn is another island in this world-famous archipelago. It lies at the southern end of Village Bay, just a stone’s throw from the main island of Hirta. The above photograph was captured on Hirta and it gives you a sense of how narrow the channel is between the two islands. Dùn is home to a colony of Puffins and so landings on this island need to be planned carefully so as to avoid disturbance to the birds.

Puffins are my favourite seabird and I would love to capture some photographs of the colony on Dùn. However, for me, the main attraction is the prospect of shooting a landscape photograph that I’ve held in my imagination since my first visit to St Kilda a decade ago. Dùn offers a spectacular vantage point looking back into the vast amphitheatre of Village Bay with Boreray off to the side. A mistake that many photographers make is that they try to capture too much in their frame and one of the skills of landscape photography is knowing what to exclude from an image. For once I’d be willing to break one of my golden rules and capture the full extent of this panorama. The chances of getting the image in my mind’s eye are slim, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, I’ll certainly give it my best shot!

E: Eilean an Tighe, Shiant Isles

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Eilean an Tighe, Shiant Isles

Booking a boat trip months in advance is always a lottery. It’s often essential to book ahead in order to secure a place but the weather conditions are a complete unknown. In the winter of 2011-12, I looked ahead to the summer months and planned a week’s holiday on Harris, a very special island which you will read about shortly! I’d recently acquired a copy of ‘Sea Room’, the definitive book about the Shiant Isles written by their former owner, Adam Nicolson. The Shiants are a group of uninhabited islands located in the Minch – the stretch of sea between Harris and Skye – and are sometimes referred to as the ‘mini St Kilda’.

The islands are geologically similar to Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway and, in the summer months, they are home to a huge colony of seabirds including Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Common Guillemot and Razorbill. Unfortunately they are also home to over 3,600 invasive Black Rats (a slightly more intimidating prospect for us campers than my wee furry friends on Hirta – the native St Kilda Fieldmice!). The rats, which are thought to have originated from an eighteenth century shipwreck, feed on seabird eggs and chicks, thus affecting the productivity of ground nesting birds and preventing other species, such as Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel, from breeding here. The Shiant Isles Recovery Project is currently ongoing and aims to eradicate the islands of rats and increase and monitor the number of breeding seabirds. I managed to avoid a close encounter with any rats on my 2012 day trip with Sea Harris and I was also fortunate to experience the Western Isles in glorious sunshine while the rest of the country was being lashed by rain during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

F: Fidra

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Fidra from Yellowcraig

It’s time for a rare visit to an east coast island (there aren’t many of them!). If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I lived in Edinburgh before re-locating to the Black Isle. I felt like a caged bird when I lived in the city. Sometimes I would sit in my car and imagine driving off, heading up to the Highlands, driving and driving until I ran out of road at Dunnet Head or Achnahaird. Mostly though, I just ended up in the supermarket car park, psyching myself up to do the food shopping. Weekend trips to East Lothian provided some solace until I reached a whole new level of frustration when I got stuck in a traffic jam at 11:00pm after shooting a summer sunset. Thankfully those days are in the past but I do look back with a smile when I think of Yellowcraig beach.

Being an island lover and a lighthouse geek goes hand-in-hand. I think it’s safe to say that it’s Fidra’s lighthouse that makes the island so enticing. I grew up reading ‘The Famous Five’ and, for some reason, Fidra always makes me think of Enid Blyton’s fictitious Kirrin Island! Fidra wasn’t the inspiration for the adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog, but it did inspire Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel ‘Treasure Island’. Robert Louis belonged to a family of Scottish engineers responsible for saving countless lives at sea. Four generations of the remarkable Lighthouse Stevensons designed and built Scotland’s lighthouses, including Fidra (built in 1885). Robert Louis trained in the same profession and initially followed in the family footsteps before pursuing his passion for writing, thus leaving Scotland with another special legacy.

G: Gigha

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Bàgh na Dòirlinne, Gigha, July 1992

Gigha is a small island in the southern Hebrides, three miles west of the Kintyre peninsula. It underwent a community buyout in 2002 and, since then, the population has doubled, local income has been generated from wind energy and high quality accommodation has been provided by a local housing programme. Gigha is definitely an island with a long-term vision. However, in the short-term, it is struggling to balance the books. The Gigha Heritage Trust is encouraging more island lovers to settle here permanently and boost the local economy.

I’ve been to Gigha once and, as the above photograph shows, I’m definitely overdue a second visit! Whilst on holiday on Kintyre in 1992, my parents, brother and I took the ferry from Tayinloan over to Ardminish for the day and cycled the length of the island. I was six years old and so, inevitably, the memories are a bit vague. Having read up on the island’s picturesque beaches, abundant wildlife and financial troubles, I think it’s time I returned for a visit, to jog my memory, capture some up-to-date photographs and put a weekend’s worth of spending into the local economy.

H: Harris

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Scarasta, Harris

Welcome to my favourite Scottish island! Just thinking about it brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Don’t you just love those absolutely perfect days that you know you will remember for the rest of your life? I can recall one of those back in the summer of 2002. My parents and I set off from Perth on holiday, leaving the caravan behind for the first time in 13 years (the first time since that fateful holiday on Arran in 1989!). We crammed the car with our luggage and travelled north west across Scotland; over Rannoch Moor, through Glen Coe and up the Great Glen to Invergarry, then west through Glen Shiel, over the Skye Bridge and all the way up to Uig on the Trotternish peninsula, where we caught the ferry to Harris. We sat in the lounge and listened to live folk music and stood on deck looking out to the Shiant Isles and watching Harris grow larger on the horizon. We disembarked at Tarbert and drove over the twisty single track Golden Road (named due to the expense of its construction) to an idyllic holiday cottage on the shores of Loch Grosebay.

My parents and I arrived on Harris with low expectations, not knowing what lay ahead of us for the next fortnight. Here’s what we found. The east coast of Harris has one of the most rugged terrains in Scotland; a lunar landscape. In some places bare rock extends as far as the eye can see. Hamlets were established on the coastal fringes of this landscape, ‘The Bays’, when the west side of the island – fertile crofting land – was depopulated during the Highland Clearances. The wildness of The Bays won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes but I’m sure we’ll all agree that the beaches on the island’s west coast are indescribably beautiful. The vast expanses of pristine golden sand at Scarasta and Luskentyre are back-clothed by hills and mountains. Due to the turquoise colour of the water, you might think you’re in the Caribbean but, be warned, when you venture in for a paddle, the temperature will remind you that you’re still in Scotland!

I: Islay

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Saligo Bay, Islay

Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebridean chain and is renowned for its abundance of wildlife and its eight whisky distilleries, including such famous names as Ardbeg, Bowmore and Laphroaig. Every Scottish island seems to have a unique characteristic and the thing that always springs to mind when I think of Islay is the friendliness of the locals. All the drivers will wave at you when they pass you on the road. I was still a resident of Edinburgh at the time of my 2011 visit to Islay and I found the courteous drivers an absolute delight after the dog-eat-dog motorists in the capital.

I didn’t have high hopes for landscape photography because Islay is so flat, particularly when compared with the impressive Paps of Jura on the neighbouring island. I think that was short-sighted of me as this is a really pretty island, deserving of its nickname. I won’t linger on Islay for much longer as I recently published a post, Capturing the Moment on Islay; Queen of the Hebrides, which tells of the journey I’ve been on with this photograph of Saligo Bay, which has become my signature image. I look forward to returning one day for some more landscape photography and hopefully, next time, I’ll come home with some wildlife photographs too.

L: Lewis

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Dalbeg, Lewis

Lewis is in the unfortunate position of belonging to the same land mass as Harris, my favourite island and arguably one of the most beautiful places in Scotland (if not a wider geographical area). Harris and Lewis are physically joined but are very much considered separate entities. Due to the good quality A-road, it’s possible to drive between the islands’ main settlements, Stornoway and Tarbert, in an hour. However, they weren’t always so well connected. I was fascinated to learn recently that the Gaelic dialect spoken on Lewis is different to that spoken on Harris. I think this shows how much of barrier the Harris mountains were in days gone by. Travelling by sea would have been simpler than going over land, adding to the sense of Lewis and Harris being different islands.

One of the most striking features of Lewis is the vast expanse of peat bog in the island’s interior. I’ll admit that it can feel a bit bleak and lonely at times but I love the sense of never-ending space. As you probably could have guessed, the coast of Lewis appeals to me more than any other landscape. It doesn’t disappoint, thanks to two lighthouses (the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan Head); impressive cliffs; one of the best preserved brochs in Scotland; beaches with huge waves rolling in off the Atlantic; and the chance of spotting some whales offshore. To really do justice to Lewis and explore the parts of the island I haven’t previously visited, I will need to fight all my natural instincts and give Harris a wide berth, as the landscapes south of the mountains are something of a distraction!

M: Mull

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Loch na Keal, Isle of Mull

Mull has become a wildlife Mecca in recent years with its White-tailed Eagles and Otters, as well as its offshore cetaceans. More eco-tourism boats now operate out of Tobermory harbour than fishing vessels, and this picture postcard town is positively bustling on a sunny day. For that reason, I’m inclined to visit out with the tourist season, despite having to take my chances with the elements. The weather here is famously ‘hit or miss’ as Mull has the wettest climate of all the Hebridean islands.

I took a gamble and spent a winter holiday on Mull in 2012. Although I always had my waterproofs close at hand, I only got properly soaked once and I fell in love with island, so much so, that I returned the following year. Again, the weather was unpredictable and I failed to capture an image I’d had in my mind’s eye since the previous trip. It was during a frustrating, cold, squally morning near Duart Castle that I reached the conclusion that I need to concentrate my efforts close to home by committing to the Black Isle Project, instead of holding out hope for the right conditions during a one week window on any given island. That said, the Scottish islands will always draw me west and I’ll always travel armed with a camera because in those rare moments when the elements and light combine in a spectacular landscape, like on the shores of Loch na Keal, there really is nothing to beat it.

N: North Uist

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Sound of Pabbay, Berneray, July 2002

I confess that, at this moment in time, I wish the letter ‘n’ had been omitted from the Gaelic alphabet! Here’s why. There are a few Scottish islands to choose from here and I don’t possess a photograph of any of them. I’ve set foot on North Uist but I would be pushing my luck and doing the island an injustice to say that I’ve ‘bagged’ it. As I said in the introduction, I have a few embarrassing gaps in my collection and I’ll admit now that the Uists are one of them. When visiting Harris for the first time in 2002, my parents and I took the ferry across the Sound of Harris to the fabulous wee island of Berneray. We walked over colourful machair (Hebridean pasture peppered with flowers during the summer months), looked out across a deserted golden beach (pictured above) and spotted St Kilda on the horizon (but that’s another story… soon to be revealed!).

Another memorable thing happened that day – we walked across the causeway which connects Berneray to its much larger neighbour, North Uist. Somehow nearly thirteen years have passed and I’m now asking myself why I still haven’t explored the Uists. The events of that holiday led me to fall in love with Harris then, shortly afterwards, St Kilda. I’ve been back and forth to both over the years and have dedicated a university dissertation to each, and I constantly find myself wanting to return. Maybe, for once, I should put Harris and St Kilda on the back-burner (no promises though!) and venture a little further south in the Outer Hebrides. North Uist is comprised of a patchwork of peat bogs, small hills and lochans, which I’m sure will provide me with heaps of potential for landscape photography.

O: Orkney

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Marwick Head, Orkney

The Orkney islands are a very special place. There are some 60 islands in the archipelago. So far, I’ve managed to land on 10 of them. As the name suggests, Orkney Mainland is the largest island in the group. The main settlement is Kirkwall; home to the impressive red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral which was built in the twelfth century when Orkney was under Norse rule.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is designated as a World Heritage Site and rightfully so, due to the substantial remains of human civilisation dating back further than the Pyramids, including the ancient coastal settlement of Skara Brae, the impressive stone circles at Brodgar and Stenness, and the remarkable Neolithic tomb at Maeshowe. This subterranean burial chamber was constructed 5,000 years ago and its entrance is orientated so that the setting sun on the winter solstice casts a ray of light inside the dark tomb, illuminating the back wall of the chamber. Orkney’s rich cultural heritage captured my imagination, as did the beautiful open landscapes and seascapes. If you followed my Fife Coastal Path blog, you’ll know that I am drawn to the coast more so than any other environment, due to the irresistible combination of shoreline, cliffs, stacks, seabirds and lighthouses; all of which can be found in abundance on Orkney.

P: Papa Westray

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St Boniface Kirk, Papa Westray

We’re staying within the Orkney archipelago but moving north to the little island of Papa Westray, or Papay as it’s known locally. Papa Westray’s claim to fame is that the world’s shortest scheduled flight operates between here and the neighbouring island of Westray, where I camped for a few nights in 2013. The aeroplane can carry half a dozen passengers and it connects many of the Orkney islands together, as opposed to just flying back and forth between these two. It felt a bit extravagant but I booked a place on this flight and enjoyed a minute and a half in the air (!), looking out through the plane’s grubby windows on to fertile green islands below, surrounded by a sparkling blue sea.

It was a surreal start to an excellent day out. From the landing strip on Papa Westray, I walked to the southern end of the island and caught the passenger ferry back to Pierowall, the main settlement on Westray. Along the way, I enjoyed exploring rural scenery, a quaint heritage museum, an abandoned croft and the restored St Boniface Kirk – the only church in the whole of Orkney, other than St Magnus Cathedral, to survive the Reformation and remain in use to the present day. The flight was a novelty and it was refreshing to fly free from the tension found in the average UK airport. There are no disconcerting body scanners in this place! However, I’m more at home on the sea than in the sky and found the leisurely return journey by ferry far more fulfilling (and better value for money!).

R: Rum

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Kilmory, Rum

We visited Canna near the beginning of the alphabet and now we find ourselves on Rum, the largest and most mountainous of the Small Isles. In 1825 Rum’s population numbered 450 people but, within a few years, the islanders were forcibly evicted as part of the Highland Clearances. They left the home of their ancestors and set sail for Canada on overcrowded ships while Rum was turned into a sheep farm (a venture which ended in bankruptcy). The island became a sporting estate in 1845 and the ostentatious Kinloch Castle was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, boasting a golf course, tennis and squash courts, orchestrion, jacuzzi and birds of paradise aviary. The landlord’s money finally ran out and Rum was sold in 1957. It became a National Nature Reserve and a research centre for the study of Red Deer, which continues to this day.

Thankfully Rum is now more accessible to island goers than it was in the late nineteenth century. In 2011 I hopped on board an Aqua Explore RIB in Elgol on Skye and bounced across the waves, past the Hebridean Princess, to the pier at Kinloch. I only had a few hours ashore but, laden with camera gear, waterproofs and a packed lunch, I completed an ambitious walk (10 miles in total) to visit the beautiful beach at Kilmory at the northern end of the island. It was a flying visit and I only had time to grab a quick shot of the beach with the hazy Skye Cuillin beyond, before gobbling down my picnic and embarking on the return trek. It certainly gave me a feel for the island and I look forward to the day when I can return for a longer spell and explore the coastline and abandoned settlements in more detail and venture into the mountains.

S: Skye

The Cuillin, Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye
The Cuillin, Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye

Like all of the islands described here, Skye deserves a blog post in its own right and it’s difficult to give you a true flavour of the place in a couple of paragraphs. My connection with Skye dates back to the summer of 1995, when the construction of the Skye Bridge was well underway. Whilst it was a delight to catch the ferry across Loch Alsh back in my childhood, the memory saddens me. I love the convenience of being able to nip across the bridge nowadays but the loss of the ferries has undeniably robbed the former ferry ports of Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin of something special. For some people that loss goes even deeper. Hamish Haswell-Smith made the bold decision to exclude Skye from his weighty tome ‘The Scottish Islands’, as he now considers Skye to be part of the mainland. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not you think of Skye as an island, or whether you arrive here by bridge or by ferry (still an option if you travel via Glenelg or Mallaig). Either way, I’m sure you’ll agree that Skye is home to some of the finest landscapes in Scotland, including the imposing Cuillin ridge, the mysterious Old Man of Storr rock pinnacle and landslip-strewn Quirang.

If I had one day left to live, I would probably choose to spend it on Skye on the shores of Loch Coruisk. On my mum’s birthday in the summer of 1995, my parents, brother and I boarded a boat, the Bella Jane, in Elgol. We were transported across Loch Scavaig into the very heart of the Cuillin, where we hopped off and wandered along the shores of Loch Coruisk in baking hot sunshine at the foot of these gabbro giants. We sipped tea and munched on shortbread as we sailed back to Elgol at the end of an idyllic day. I find re-visiting the scenes of perfect memories is a risky business for fear of over-writing the original memory or finding that a place has changed for the worse. Fortunately for me, I returned to Loch Coruisk in 2009 and was far from disappointed. If you read my recent blog, Making Order From Chaos, you’ll know that I climbed Sgurr na Stri on a photography workshop and was rewarded with a fabulous panoramic view from the summit before descending to the shores of the loch. I wasn’t prepared to let another 14 years lapse and I soon found myself back in my childhood haunt. In 2011, I caught an early morning Aqua Explore RIB from Elgol. For once I had time on my hands and I walked around the shores of the loch alone, capturing photographs and listening to the calls of Cuckoos high in the mountains above me, before hopping aboard my old friend, the Bella Jane, for the return journey.

T: Treshnish Isles & Staffa

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Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, August 1998

I’m pushing my luck again! The waters off the west coast of Mull are peppered with islands, including Iona, Ulva, Staffa and the small islands and skerries making up the Treshnish Isles. I’ve yet to venture as far out as the Treshnish Isles but Staffa lies close enough to them that I can almost get away with including it under the letter ‘t’! I visited Staffa in 1998 and it made quite an impression on me, as it did with the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. He composed his evocative ‘Hebrides Overture’ in 1830 following a visit to the island as part of a tour of Scotland. The big attraction of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave which cuts through hexagonal basalt columns (similar in structure to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland) to a depth of 69m. It inspired Mendelssohn to compose music and it inspired me, at the age of 12, to experiment with my camera. Back in the pre-digital days, photographs were captured more sparingly and I recall weighing up the risks of challenging light before lifting the viewfinder to my eye. I was delighted with the result and now, 18 years later, I would love to return with my Nikon D810. As with my favourite piece of classical music, Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’, I am transported to the coast every time I hear the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’ and I long to return to Staffa and take my time exploring thoroughly.

U: Ulva

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Ormaig, Ulva

Our last port of call is the island of Ulva off the west coast of Mull. Ulva’s claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Lachlan Macquarrie, a British army officer born in 1761, who played a key role in the social, economic and architectural development of New South Wales during his reign as Governor from 1810 to 1821. Macquarrie, ‘The Father of Australia’, died in 1824 and was buried at the foot of the Mull mountains at Gruline, where I spent both my 2012 and 2013 Mull holidays.

A day trip to Ulva was high on my agenda. A short drive along the north shore of Loch na Keal took me to a pier where I summoned the small passenger ferry by uncovering a red panel – refreshingly low-tech in our modern world! I enjoyed a peaceful day exploring woodland and the island’s southern shore. Less than 20 people live on Ulva making a living from sheep, cattle and fish farming as well as tourism. It wasn’t always such a quiet spot, however, as Ulva was once home to over 600 people in the heyday of the kelp industry in the early 1800s. Sadly the kelp market collapsed and the island was then hit by the potato blight. The Highland Clearances of the mid nineteenth century followed and most of the evicted crofters ended up in North America and Australia. The ruins scattered around Ulva, like those at the abandoned village of Ormaig (birthplace of Lachlan Macquarrie) serve as a poignant reminder of this tragic chapter in Scottish history.

We’ve reached the end of our whistle-stop tour through the Gaelic alphabet and around a selection of the Scottish islands! Thank you for your company. For me, it’s a never-ending journey as I continue to learn the language and gaze longingly at my maps of Scotland, always planning the next extended trip away from my desk. Once I master Gaelic, perhaps I’ll turn my attention to genealogy and see if there’s any island DNA flowing through my veins. It certainly feels like there is. Funnily enough, however, I don’t aspire to live on an island although I sometimes joke that I must have lived on Harris in a previous life! I like to know that I can hop in the car and visit my loved ones without consulting a ferry timetable and I revel in being free to travel in any direction with my camera and set a course for many of the best locations which Scotland has to offer (islands included!) from my base on the Black Isle peninsula, the next best thing to an island! So where’s next on my list? Barra. Watch this space!

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3rd July 2013: The theme of today’s Daily Prompt is ‘island’, which struck me as the perfect opportunity to re-visit this post.

47 thoughts

  1. Real Treat! Began with a bang!
    The intro was brilliantly set and it gave the reader a feel that something amazing is coming their way. Each one is special in it’s own way. My favourites are Arron the name is just gripping and the Fidra I hav always fallen in love with lighthouses, I adore those marvels. On whole its was am emotional ride. Wish next time you encounter the black rat and share the heroic experience with us 😉 I can feel an adventurous photographer putting all together to make the manuscript and to get published soon. All the very best Karen. Keep smiling and clicking 🙂


    Ps: I have a request, I know you’re a landscape photographer, but still nothing wrong in letting you know. Can you include the food photographs too, from the places you venture in. Just thought of sharing this thought with you.

    1. Thank you Josh for your kind words! It was an emotional ride writing this post, recalling events from as recently as a few months ago, but also casting my mind back to my very earliest memories. I think a lot of people have a love of lighthouses and I’m always keen to visit them on my travels around the coast. A close encounter with a rat certainly would have made for an interesting story but I think I might feel a little bit more relaxed on the Shiants once the Recovery Project is completed! Publishing a book would be a dream come true and writing this blog has made me realise that I already have quite a few island stories and photographs under my belt. Thanks for the idea on food photography too. I’ll do my very best to remember your request before I demolish my next picnic at the end of a long walk! 🙂 Best wishes, Karen

    1. Thank you Robin. I’m delighted to hear that my A-Z has provided some inspiration. I hope your island hopping trip is a big success and I look forward to reading about it on your blog. Nicolson acquired the Shiants from his father when he turned 21, and he handed the islands over to his eldest son in the same way, shortly after writing ‘Sea Room’, so they are still in the family!

  2. Gorgeous! I’ve only been to some of those but have also been to some that you mention you haven’t -Treshnish Islands, both Uists and Barra. Both times we went there we flew from Glasgow and landing on the beach was so exciting! I don’t suppose you will be travelling that way, but there are plenty more treats in store for you.

    1. Thank you Anabel. It sounds as though you’ve had quite a few island adventures yourself! I expect I’ll be travelling by ferry but landing on the beach does sound exciting, and I’m looking forward to watching this spectacle on Barra. I’m also hoping to get out to some of the smaller islands south of Barra, particularly Mingulay which shares a few similarities with St Kilda. I’m looking forward to it!

  3. We are planning an island tour this May in the van. Good inspiration! Hope to see you before then to look at some maps together!

  4. Wonderful post Karen. This is a very clever response to the challenge and beautifully executed. Of course you’ve now lengthened my bucket list considerably!

    1. Thank you Su. It was a pleasure to write about so many of my favourite places in a single post. I’m delighted to have provided some inspiration too – you’ll need to let me know which islands have made it on to your Bucket List!

      1. 🙂 Since I’ve only ever been to Bute and Skye, I hardly know where to begin. But the small isles have always appealed to me since I was a child and was charmed by the names. Islay is a must because I like Bowmore; same for Jura. I have a totally romantic notion of living in the Outer Hebrides for a while, and …. well it’s 6.30 am here, already about 23 degrees C (and humid), and I’m dreaming of anywhere with a coastline and cool air.

        1. I imagine it must be difficult to know where to visit first but it sounds as though you have some good ideas! Islay and Jura are well worth a visit and you would be spoiled for choice in the Outer Hebrides! I’m long overdue a second trip to Bute and am keen to go back. I hope your day gets less humid and you keep dreaming of those islands!

  5. This is a shivers-up-the spine post, holding so many treasures in beautifully selected photos and easy prose: birds, history, literature and even a connection with my home place of NSW! I live on the beautiful south coast, and I’ve undertaken a bagging of my own, much less ambitious than yours – the eighty-odd beaches in my shire along a strip of coast less than 200 km long. However your post held other attractions. I’m about to embark on a year living in Warsaw and I’m looking for places to side-visit that will satisfy my need for sea and wilderness and solitude. You have given me so many wonderful options. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Meg! I’m delighted you enjoyed the various themes in this post as well as the photographs. I think it’s important to get to know your local area before exploring further afield, and your coastal adventures close to home in NSW sound excellent. I hope your year in Warsaw is a great experience and you manage to travel throughout Europe from your base there. I imagine a trip to the Macquarrie Mausoleum on Mull would be a lovely pilgrimage for you if you make it over to Scotland!

  6. Excellent post ! History, geography, archaeology, tourism tips and personal reflections all rolled into one. And some great photos of course. A post to return to for trip planning advice.

    Not sure if you’ve come across Andy Strangeway’s exploits to sleep on all 162 Scottish islands over 40 hectares ? It’s perhaps a little too obsessive but gives you something to aim for ?!

    1. Thank you! It was a pleasure to write this post and I hope it will inspire people to venture out to the islands.

      Thanks for the link. I came across Andy Strangeway in ‘Scottish Islands Explorer’ a few years ago. I’m very impressed by the sheer number of islands he slept on in such a short space of time. I suspect it will take me a bit longer to achieve something like this!

  7. Marwick Head, Orkney lewks like an awesome place to scuba dive an or also hang glide an paraglide the cliffs there 🙂 what an awesome coastline, the kind i like 🙂

    1. I confess I’ve never tried scuba diving or hang gliding/paragliding but I’m sure either would be an amazing experience. I’ve learned to kayak since my last trip to Orkney and fancy paddling around the coastline when I next return. 🙂

  8. Oh my goodness, Karen! You are a one-woman travel advertiser for Scotland – I mean that in a very nice way. I fell in love with Scotland when I visited the Highlands a few years ago and have promised to return, especially to explore the islands. Thanks for visiting and following Beauty Along the Road. Following right back 🙂

    1. Thank you Annette! I’ve been passionate about Scotland all my life, particularly the Highlands and Islands, and it’s a pleasure to be able to share that passion here on my blog. I hope you enjoy your return visit to Scotland when the time comes and manage to visit a few islands while you’re here. I shall exploring your blog in the meantime! 🙂

  9. Absolutely magic! I have visited a few of these islands, dreamed of others, a reflection of my background living on islands at several times and remaining drawn to them. Thank you for this post! (And also for now following my blog.)

    1. You’re welcome, Mark. I’m sure I will be inspired reading through your blog – so much positivity in the face of adversity. I wish you a full and speedy recovery. Best wishes, Karen. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lee-Anne. A lifetime isn’t long enough to explore all of the places that Scotland and the wider world have to offer! I’m glad you enjoyed your short stay in Scotland and it’s lovely to think that you might visit some of these islands on your next trip. I will enjoy reading about your travel adventures on your blog.

    1. Thanks very much! I so enjoyed writing this post and re-visiting many wonderful memories. I hope you have a brilliant time exploring Islay and make it over to Saligo Bay to catch the sunset!

    1. Apologies for the appalling slow response – I’ve been off the radar for a while for a number of reasons! I’m glad to hear that you’re planning a trip to the Scottish islands. The main islands are all fairly accessible but some of the smaller ones require a bit more effort to get to. If I were you, I would start by checking out the ferry operators’ websites ( and and the Visit Scotland website too ( Let me know if there’s anywhere specific you want to visit and I may be able to help point you in the right direction.

    1. Thanks Gary! I have a few more islands lined up for this year (including a proper visit to North Uist) so will hopefully return home with more shots to add to the portfolio!

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