Hebridean Island Hopping

Hebridean Island Hopping

This awe inspiring drive will start in the fishing port of Oban, a bustling town with a busy harbourside. The towns Gaelic name means 'little bay' and it stands at the edge of the Sound of Mull. This circular trip will take you north from Oban along the mainland and then island hopping throught the Outer Hebrides and back on the ferry to return to back here.

The town of Oban itself merits a good look around. Crowning the hill above the town is McCraig's Tower, built out of granite between 1897 and 1902 by a local philanthropist John Stuart McCraig to provide employment to local builders and stonemasons. It would also be a memorial to the man himself but the intended art gallery and museum that were to lie within never materialised and instead we have a pleasant park with great views over the town and ocean.

Oban has a vibrant and lively harbour with restaurants and pubs, fashioning itself as the 'Seafood Capital of Scotland'. There is also a whisky distillery named after the town and founded in 1794. Just outside the town is Dunollie Castle, a 15th century ruined fortress of the MacDougall Clan, complete with museum and gardens. Adjacent buildings include the historic Laird's House, weavers cottages and servants quarters.

Leave Oban on the A85 road which will take you north to Connel Bridge. As you approach Connel itself be prepared to turn right onto the bridge approach road, following signs for the A828 to Fort William. This impressive structure will take you over Loch Etive at its narrowest part, just above the Falls of Lora. The cantilever construction is evocative of the famous Forth Bridge just outside Edinburgh and althought that much larger bridge still carries trains, this bridge no longer serves that purpose and is now road traffic only. Designed by John Wolfe Barry, just a handful of years after he had won the commision to design Tower Bridge in London, it opened in 1903 to carry railway traffic. A road was added in 1914 following the path of the railway and then after closure of the rail route in 1966 the crossing became exclusively for road vehicles.

Continue northwards on the A828 passing Ardmucknish Bay and Oban airport to your left, travelling along a fairly wooded road up to  Loch Creran. This sea loch is 6 miles (10km) long and the A828 will cross it at its narrowest point near the village of Creagan. The road will start to head westwards towards Loch Linnhe and as you approach Appin Bay and start to follow the loch northwards look out for Castle Stalker over on your left hand side sitting on a small island on a tidal inlet known as Loch Laich. A few moments later you will come across the Castle Stalker View with its car park with its entrance coming up on your left. This is not the castle entrance but a cafe/restaurant with views over the water to the fortress. Castle Stalker was initially built around 1320 by the Clan MacDougall as a fortified four-storey tower house with most additional construction taking place the following century when it was in the hands of the Stewart chiefs. The Clan Campbells took Castle Stalker by force on a number of occasions and it was abandoned by them in the early 1800s. Fans of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail will recognise it immediately from the final scenes in the movie. The castle is privately owned and only accessible by boat so take a break here in the cafe and admire the views over a cup of tea.

You will now follow Loch Linnhe northwards along its eastern banks. This sea loch is around 30 miles long (50km) and averages a width of about a mile (1.6 km) with its uppermost part known locally as Linne Dhubh. The word linnhe or linne means pool and dhubh means dark or black. It shares its name with the similar word in Irish Gaelic, therefore the Irish capital of  Dublin means the black pool. At Ballachulish you will see the bridge that crosses the edge of Loch Leven. You will drive under this and swing around at the roundabout then join the A82 to Fort William by crossing over this bridge and continuing back towards the banks of Loch Linnhe all the way up to where it meeets Loch Eil. These two lochs congregate at Fort William which is one of the few large towns in the Scottish Highlands and has plenty of big name stores and fast food outlets. It is also the main accommmodation centre for people hiking up Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 4,413 ft (1,345 m) which stands at the edge of the town. With a main line railway conncetion to Glasgow and London and a population of just under 6,000 people there is plenty to do here but dont expect it to be quiet. The fort itself was named after King William III and later William, Duke of Cumberland but very little of it remains now.

Just out of town heading north on the A82 passing the large warehouse sized stores and drive in food outlets you will approach the Ben Nevis Distillery on your right. It is here that you will turn left on the A830 towards Mallaig following the northern side of Loch Eil. A delightful stop will be at Corpach where you can visit Neptune's Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. Turn right on the B8004 and you will see a car park. From here it is a short walk  to see a series of staircase locks bringing the canal down 64 feet (20m) down to sea level. Built by the Scottish engineeer Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822 it is the longest set of staircase locks in Britain. The Caledonian Canal was built as a waterway to connect the east and west coasts of Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars but the war was over by the time the canal had been completed. Today it is mainly used by vacationers.

Harry Potter fans will be enthralled by the next location, the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct which features in numerous films but specifically in the Chamber of Secrets with the Weasley's flying car scenes. The concrete structure was built in 1901 and features 21 arches. Trains still cross the viaduct today and in the summer months it is used by the steam hauled Jacobite Express. The bridge has become so well known now that it has its own visitor centre and car park. From here you are able to get fine views of Loch Sheil and a chance to walk down to the Glenfinnan Monument, erected in 1815. It is a 60ft (18m) high column placed here in honour of Bonnie Prince Charlie who raised his standard at this spot in 1745 after returning from exile in France to reclaim the throne for his father, James. This was the begining of the '45 Jacobite Rebellion, taking its name from the Latin for James, Jacobus.

Continue westwards on the A830 and you will even drive along the northern banks of Loch Eilt, a beautiful body of water peppered with small islands. Harry Potter fans will again wish to make a stop at the western edges of the loch to look out across to the small island of Eilean Na Moine where Dumbledore is said to be buried (or at least where the scenes were filmed). There isn't really any parking here so just pull up on the roadside and scramble down to the water's edge. It is a lovely photo stop even if you are not a Potterhead.

A few miles further on you will drop down from the mountains and moors to the fishing port of Mallaig for your ferry over to the Isle of Skye. This community was largely created in the 1840s after the Highland Clearances had driven many people off their land and out to the new world. Many that remained turned to fishing rather than living off the land and Mallaig's rather limited prosperity came from what they could catch from the sea. The town specialises in smoked kippers which can be bougth on the harbourside and with its railway and ferry terminal, it is now a tourist hub.

The short ferry journey to the Isle of Skye is simply breathtaking. Views of mountains and islands, seals and seagulls, speckled with fishing villages surrounded by dark shimmering waters. The excitement increases once you get closer to its alluring shores. Once you arrive at Armadale you will join the A851 and drive north east around Armadale Bay and then a left turn up to the ruins of Armadale Castle. Once a stronghold of the mighty MacDonald Clan, this present baronial house was constructed around 1790 but since a fire destroyed the buildings in 1855 it now stands as a stark and dramatic run surrounded by beautifully kept gardens.

After a pause here you will continue your exploration of Skye by driving along the coast following the A851 northwards. The island is Scotland's second largest with a size of 639 square miles (1,656 square km) with its highest point, Sgurr Alisdair, being 3,255 feet (992m), the tallest mountain on any Scottish island. Skye's population stands at about 10,000 people.

On one side of the road, looking right you will be following the coast line, on your left woodland and greenery topped with wild peaty moorland. Just after signs for Duisdale House Hotel the road will begin to climb from the water's edge to head inland over the tops joining the A 87 at Broadford. One of the lager communities on Skye, the village of Broadford provides a scattering of cottages and guest houses, a harbour facing north and a pertol station and supermarket. A 'there and back' detour can be made here along a narrow little road towards the village of Elgol. Take the B8083 via Loch Cill Chriosd and Loch Slapin on an almost isolated and remote track featuring stunning views as you travel down the Strathaird Peninsula. The little scattered hamlet of Elgol has a population of just 150 with maybe more than its fair share of holiday lets and second homes but it has a dramatic shoreline on the banks of Loch Scavaig with superb views of the Black Cuillin mountain range as a backdrop.

Continue on the A87 following Loch na Cairidh, which in Gaelic means the 'arm' as it is essentially a sea channel rather than a fresh water loch. This takes you on a spectacular drive around the island's most dramatic mountain scenery with white-washed thatched crofter's cottages, stone clad farmsteads and grassland with sheep and long-horned Highland cattle.

Follow Loch Ainort towards its western end and you will see a car park to your right where you can take a short walk up to the Blackhill Waterfall, in fact you will get a brief view of the waterfall to your left just before you turn off for the car park. The road then twists up and downhill to Loch Sligachan and alongside the loch you will find the village of Sligachan where you can pull into the Old Bridge car park for spectacular views of the Cuillin Hills on the western edge of the island. The Old Bridge itself was built in 1810 by Thomas Telford and is quite photogenic. This is also the turn for the world famous Talisker Whisky Distillery which is found along the A863 in Carbost. As the road twists up the mountainside through dramatic moorland note the views of the Red Cuillin to your right. 

Just before you reach the distillery you will exit the A863 following a brown tourist sign pointing left on the B8009 giving the directions 'Talisker Distillery 3 miles', there is also a rather interesting Scarecrow sculpture where the roads diverge. After a short drive you will arrive at the distillery where you can take a tour. The Tallisker Distillery has been operating since 1830 and stands beautifully on the banks of Loch Harport.

Make your return to the A863 to head north to Dunvegan Castle and Gardens, a stunning location, the seat of the MacLeod clan and the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. The earliest parts of the castle go back to the 1200s with major additions in the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle stands majestically on rocks 50 feet (15m) above the ocean inlet. You will now be following the A850 to its junction with the A87 which you will merge onto by following signs southwards to Portree and Kyle of Lochalsh. This road will take you down to the island's capital.

Portree is the largest town on the island and is the administrative centre. The car park is centrally located but off season it may be easier to find space on the quayside. Enjoy a pleasant walk along the quay, a stone structure designed by Thomas Telford or climb the local viewpoint known as the Lump, a rocky outcrop with an old watchtower, a perfect way to walk off those fish and chips you bought on the seafront.

One of the most amazing natural wonders on Skye, and indeed in Scotland, is the Old Man of Storr which you can reach by taking the A855 road north of Portree. Eventually you will see a parking area to your left where the Storr trail starts. The walk is part in woodland and part in moorland and will take you to the foot of the spectacular and brooding 2,359 feet (719m) Old Man of Storr, part of a range of mountains with strangely compelling rock formations and pinnacles. The trail is part of a circular walk and it leads to the main trail up to the summit. You can take the option do do the full climb to the summit or just stroll around the lower reaches. Back at the parking area you will rejoin the A 855 northwards.

The next point of interest is Kilt Rock which will be on your right hand side. This will take you down a short road  to a parking area right by the ocean. Here you will find Mealt Falls plunging 180ft (55m) into the sea and the famous Kilt Rock itself, almost 30ft (90m) high, receiving its name from its resemblance to a pleated Highland kilt.

You will be driving northwards from here on the Trotternish Peninsula right up to the northernmost edge of the island. The road starts to narrow here as you approach Duntulm Castle on the cliffs overlooking the wild angry ocean. There is a small lay-by on your right and a short walk  to the ruins of the castle with its jaw dropping views. There isn't a lot left of the fortress, a stronghold built in the 14th century by the MacDonald Clan but the main reason for being here is the amazing clifftop scenery. From here, continue following the peninsula west and around southbound to Uig which is where you will pick up the ferry to Lewis and the Outer Hebrides.

The ferry from Uig will make the crossing to Tarbet in one hour and forty minutes. Look out for seals, dolphins and maybe even a minke whale as you make the crossing. Tarbet is a common name for a village or town in Scotland and it is derived from the Gaelic word for a narrow isthmus of land. Something you will certainly recognise as your ferry docks here. Although Tarbet is on Harris, that isn't the name of the island. This body of land is 841 square miles in size (2,178 square km) making it Scotland's largest island and Harris lies on the southern end and is more mountainous, the northern part is called Lewis and is mainly low lying. Most people would refer to this island as Lewis and Harris or Lewis with Harris but both places are distinct and there is a clear boundary between the two.

From Tarbert take the A859 northwards towards Stornoway. This is a rather rocky and tree-less road with dramatic views, even if the lay of the land here is flatter than Harris the highest elevation on Lewis is Mealaisbhal at 1883ft (574m). The majority of the population of Lewis can be found around the more fertile soils of the eastern part of the island and the A859 will stick to the eastern coast alongside moorland and shallow lochs. Eventually a large brown tourist sign will appear on your right which will point you west, to your left, along the road to the Callanish Standing Stones. You will join the A858 eventually turning left on a narrow side road following a signpost which reads Callanish Standing Stones Visitor Centre.

 The whole site here is a visual wonder, huge megaliths standing upright, a collection of stone avenues with tombs and cairns. About 5,000 years ago these large stones, some up to 15ft (4.8 metres tall) were erected in a cruciform shape with avenues leading off from a stone circle of thirteen stones. The site is not closed off so you can visit anytime and if you want the stones to yourself turn up early or late when the visitor centre is isn't open. Other neolithic sites can be found in the vacinity and walks are clearly mapped out. The Gaelic name Calanais is also used as a title for the stone monuments.

The A858 will continue west around the northern part of the island, remote and windswept but with breathtaking views, heading to the village of Carloway where a large signpost will send you left towards Gearrannan and the Blackhouse Village working museum. Turn left as soon as you cross the little bridge over the stream. Right at the very end of this lane is a car park and the entrance to an authentic crofter's village with thatched cottages and weavers giving demonstrations of creating the famous Harris Tweed. Further north on the A858 is Arnol. Another brown sign coming up on the righthand side of the road will point you left down a small lane into the village, drive past the scattered collection of bungalows and cottages right down to the edge of the land where you will find the Black House. Overlooking the ocean is a traditional Hebridean home dating from around 1880.  This is a traditional thatched cottage, fully furnished with a peat burning fire and an attached barn. A fascinating insight into life on Lewis in the 19th century.

Head back onto the A858 road, turning left to Stornoway, the largest town and capital of Lewis and with a population of 5,000 it is also considered the main town of the Outer Hebrides. Stornoway is a 9th century Viking foundation with a sheltered east facing harbour. Shops selling Harris Tweed line the pedestrianised Cromwell Street and down by the harbour you are reminded of the sheltered position of Stornoway as trees can be seen growing, quite a rare thing in the outer Hebridean islands.  One of the main attractions here is Lews Castle which is a Victorian fortified house, crenelated for decoration rather than protection. It was built for the Matheson family in 1844 and was eventually given to the people of Stornoway in 1923. It is now a museum and cultural centre with a grand ballroom. There is a cafe along with woodland adventure grounds.

The A859 will return you back to Tarbert and you will continue onto the more mountainous Harris, and although there are many hills its highest point is An Cliseam at 2,621ft (799m) the highest mountain in the Outer Hebrides. The main economy is tourism although the famous Harris tweed does employ a number of people, having said that, neighbouring Lewis is where most of the manufacturing is undertaken. Follow signs for Roghadal and continue on this road towards Leverburgh where you can join the ferry across to Uist.  The rocky barren landscape is very apparent along this section of road. As the road descends to the coast you will go over a cattle grid and see a bus stop on your right and a sign pointing right to Losgaintir. This will take you over to one of Britain's best beaches, Luskentyre (or Losgaintir in Gaelic). A large, spectacular expanse of white sands with beautiful green-blue water. Wonderful breath-taking walks and a deep but calm feeling of isolation.

Continue to Leverburgh. The ferry takes an hour to reach Berneray, a little island off the coast of North Uist. Take the A865 across a causeway onto North Uist and continue to South Uist which is also linked by a causeway. Then follow the B888 all the way to the little island of Eriskay, which is old Norse for Eric's island. This sparsely populated place, linked to Uist by another causeway, has a population of less than 150 and here at the end of Causeway End Road you can bear right to the Am Politician, a pub taking it's name from the famous shipwreck the SS Politician which ran aground here in 1941. The ship was carrying 260,00 botles of whisky. Wartime rationing had meant that the locals had ran out of their favourite tipple so the ship was relieved of its cargo in a spate of illegal 'salvage'. The story of this became the inspiration for Compton MacKenzie's novel Whisky Galore which was later made into a film in 1949. Most of the film, however, was shot on neighbouring Barra. A gentle, wry comedy that brings to life the real events of the wreck of the Politician (which in the film was renamed the SS Cabinet Minister). It is also an interesting insight into island life in the 1940s with the island's close community spirit set amongst traditional crofters cottages and wartime rationing. The pub itself features film and book memorabilia and provides a community hub for the South Uist and Eriskay population serving meals and snacks with impressive views over the coast. 

Over at the foot of this island that you will take the ferry across to Barra, the crossing takes 40 minutes. A888. The ferry service to Barra needs to be booked in advance for a campervan and it operates seven days a week but importantly it only runs on Sundays by request. Requests have to be made by 2pm the day before. The A888 is the main road across this island and links the ferry port with the main town, Castlebay. The island is comparitevely small, just 23 square miles (60 square km) and mainly flat with a few hills. The grassy fertile land found mainly in the south eastern parts of the island are known by the Gaelic name of Machair. Like a number of islands off the north west coast of Scotland, Barra has Viking heritage and was controlled by the Norwegian Kings until the Battle of Largs in 1266 which saw the island transferred to Scotland after a financial agreeement was settled.

As you exit the ferry you will travel along a single track road to gain access to the A888. You will arrive at a junction with signs pointing left to Castlebay and right to the airport. You may wish to go right first and take a brief look at the airport because it is rather unusual and to coincide your arrival with a take off or a landing will really enhance your visit. Cockle Strand airport is the only beach based airport in the world that has to close twice a day when the tide comes in. Opened in 1936 the airport links Barra to Glasgow and uses the hard sands of Traigh Mhor bay as a runway.

Return on the road from the airport back the way you came and continue to the junction with the A888 to head across the island to Castlebay. The island's administrative centre is a small village and port of just over 300 people. The most obvious building here is Kisimul Castle which can be seen on your left hand side over in the bay as you drive into the centre. Castlebay is a scattered collection of whitewashed or grey stone houses with the church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea standing at the highest point in the village, built in 1888. The main street, Pier Road, doubles up for the main street in Garryboo, the fictional village on the fictional island of Todday in "Whisky Galore". The island fortress of Kisimul Castle dates to the mid-16th century as a seat for the Clan Macneil and was abandoned in 1838. The castle ruins can be visited by taking an inclusive boat trip from the harbour.

From Castlebay there is a ferry that will return you to Oban.. This service will take around 5 hours and leaves every morning. There is currently just one service to Oban per day and campervans need to be booked in advance. With such a long journey these larger ferries will have food and drink facilities. After leaving Barra you will see the small uninhabited island of  Muldoanich to the south then the ship will cross open ocean until the islands of Coll and Mull and the mainland come into view about an hour before the end of your journey.