‘The sooner you slow down and switch to island time the better’
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 brilliant azure of the sky.
At such times Colonsay becomes an illusory Corfu, and Skye pretends it is Skopelos – minus the searing heat and the 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 ouzo and mobbed tavernas, give us a fine peaty malt and 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 distilleries, 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 quieter, 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 an 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 IrnBru, 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. 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 whitewashed 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 – where you’ll find the Outer Hebrides’ newest whisky distillery.
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. 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. Balamory. Don’t miss lively folk sessions in the bar of the Mishnish Hotel, a legend in its own lifetime. 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 religious 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
The Isle of Skye, left; Ardbeg Distillery in Islay, home to some of Scotland’s finest malts, below; kayak time, bottom
The island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984