largest island of the Inner Hebrides group is Skye, and surely
there is hardly another island with such romantic associations.
It was Over the sea to Skye that
Bonnie Prince Charlie was rowed by Flora Macdonald to hide there
after his defeat at Culloden, and such was the loyalty of the
Highlanders that no one betrayed him although there was a price
of £30,000 on his head.
many other parts of the Highlands, legends and romantic stories
were passed down by word of
mouth, mostly at the ceilidh where everyone present must tell
a tale or sing a ballad. Tales of the water horse or kelpie
were well known, believed to haunt many lochs and appearing
through the mist to carry off local maidens. The Aurora Borealis
or Northern Lights were thought to be fallen angels, or enchanted
people, and were called the merry dancers! Still today there
is a lingering belief in the ‘second sight’, foreseeing
the future; and one of the most famous legends concerns the
Fairy Flag of Dunvegan Castle in Skye (seat of the clan MacLeod)
which is said to have the power to save the clan three times
from disaster. So far the Fairy Flag has been waved twice only,
and even in the twentieth
century the fascination of the story persists.
Skye is by no means still living in the past. The one-
time ‘black houses’, low thatched cottages with
kitchen and bedroom at one end, and a byre for the family beasts
at the other, have almost all disappeared, except for those
preserved as folk museums, and replaced by neat modern houses.
Most homes have electricity, and although peat is sometimes
still used for fuel, houses within easy reach of the ports use
imported coal. A fine new High School exists in Portree, the
capital, and its pupils come not only from Skye but from many
of the outlying islands like Harris and North Uist. About half
of the school’s intake are Gaelic speakers, and as Gaelic
is taught as a formal subject, an alternative language to French
with classes both for native
speakers and beginners, this heritage seems secure.
of Skye’s main claims to fame is of course its mountain
ranges, which draw mountaineers from all over, some regrettably
ill-prepared for the quickly changing conditions which exist
on all the Scottish hills. The Cuillin range in particular is
well-known, and its peaks are more often than not shrouded in
the mist which has given Skye the name of ‘the misty isle’.
Although Skye is without doubt one of the rainiest places in
the country, its fine days are near perfection with a clearness
in the air which gives remarkable views of all the surrounding
to the mainland,of Scotland are the islands of Islay, Jura and
Gigha, lying off the coast of Kintyre. They are reached mainly
by car-ferry from West Loch Tarbert (although Islay has a busy
airport), and the small island of Gigha is a short ferry trip
across from Tayinloan in Kintyre. Islay and Jura, though neighbouring
islands, provide an interesting contrast. Islay is well populated
and is famous for its malt whisky distilling; its less well
known industries include cheese-making, dairy farming and fishing,
and it is always a popular place for family holidays, with its
safe bathing, golfing, bird-watching, shooting and fishing.
The roads are excellent, with an incredibly long straight stretch
of road between Port Ellen and Bowmore, several miles long without
a bend or corner, and originally intended for a railway track.
There are many archaeological sites too, not fully explored
by any means, including the site of the only certain vitrified
fort in the Hebrides, on Trudernish Point. Kildalton Chapel
has a famous embossed cross, carved from a single piece of stone,
and an outside font which never dries up. Jura on the other
hand is a much wilder and more sparsely
peopled island; with one road and one township, Craighouse,
the rest of the island having quantities of wild life roaming
free, with herds of deer and golden eagles. Jura has a distinctive
outline from its three mountains, the Paps of Jura, all over
2,000 feet high, one old legend has it that these are cairns
raised over the graves of long dead giants. At the northern
end of the island is the notorious whirlpool of Corrievrechan;
it too is the subject of many old tales and was known as ‘winter’s
washing tub’ because of the boiling action of the sea.
Legends apart, the whirlpool has claimed many a small boat through
the years and the lives of many sailors. In another contrast,
Gigha is a small flat island, known as ‘Cod’s Island’,
perhaps because of the remains of a chapel and hermit cells
on it. On the other hand, the name might be because the rainfall
is reputed to be very low and the climate on the whole balmy,
certainly, semi-tropical plants flourish there in the open air
and the gardens of Achamore House are well worth visiting. Off
the coast of Gigha lies the tiny islet of Cara, uninhabited
but with the ‘Broonie’s hoose’, a cottage
where Brownies or other fairy folk were supposed to live and
work, clearly visible from the mainland. Both Gigha and Cara
have colonies of birds of many different varieties, and some
observers have counted as many as seventy species, including
shelduck, eider, and even peregrine falcons.
of the Inner Hebrides well known in both story
and ballad is Mull, reached by steamer from Oban. The first
point on the island to be passed on the route through the Sound
of Mull is Duart Point with its castle dating from the thirteenth
century and occupied by the Chief of the clan Maclean. The real
centre of population is the burgh of Tobermory, in a lovely
setting with its main street curving round the bay which is
a popular yachting centre. It was in Tobermory Bay that one
of the galleons from the Spanish Armada was wrecked in October
1588. As the galleon was reputed (according to documents in
the possession of the Duke of Argyll) to have been carrying
the pay chests of the invading
Spanish army, many attempts have been made to salvage the treasure
trove. So far the only objects recovered have been a cannon,
silver goblets, gold chain and a few doubloons. Mull has a great
tradition of music and Gaelic songs, and its singers are always
in the prize list at the National Mod, held annually in different
parts of the country. Many of the songs were originally devised
to help with the monotonous chores of milking, weaving or ‘waulking’,
the process of pre-shrinking newly woven tweed. There were rowing
songs too with overtones of the sea and the rhythm of the oars,
and wistful songs about love; but many of the songs were sad
and evocative of leaving the island for the mainland or over-
seas, as many Mull families had to do from economic necessity.
very flourishing project is the Mull Little Theatre at Dervaig,
which houses perhaps fifty people at the
most. Outdoor activities are many and varied, and the Highland
Games are held every summer at Tobermory, attracting many competitors
eager to show their skill at weight lifting or tossing the caber.
Another source of interest to visitors and natives alike are
the sheepdog trials, which demonstrate the intriguing bond between
shepherds and their dogs who work together with only whistles
and calls for communication. The many sheltered inlets and natural
harbours around Mull brings boating enthusiasts whose numbers
increase each year, and in
August a yachting regatta is held in Tobermory Bay.
to be geographically correct, is actually an island
group with the one main island and several smaller ones
lying offshore. The most famous of these is lona, with a
sacred history going back to 563 AD when St. Columba landed
with his disciples. He settled there, the story has it, being
the first piece of land where he could look back without seeing
his native Ireland. The chapel ruins, ancient stones, crosses
and symbolic carvings would require a book of their own, and
many fascinating books have been written on lona and its past.
Mention must be made here however of the lona Community, a group
of voluntary workers founded in the late 1930s by the Rev. Dr.
George MacLeod, who have rebuilt and restored the
crumbling Abbey buildings. lona pebbles, semi-precious stones
of green serpentine, are washed up on its beaches, and are made
into jewellery and other souvenirs.
from its beauty, lona stone has a ‘good luck’ quality
as it is often to be found at Port na Churaich, the very bay
where Columba’s coracle landed. Stone on a much grander
scale is the main feature of Staffa, another island of the Mull
group with magnificent strata of basalt columns and pillars.
It has some striking sea caves, the best known of which is Fingal’s
Cave which inspired Mendelssolm’s famous melody, The rock
of the caves is similar to that of the Giants’ Causeway
Ireland, and it’s hardly surprising that Staffa has also
been associated with legends of giants living there in the olden
days. Scattered off the mainland and all around the western
seaboard of Scotland are many other small islands, all very
individual in character, and space does not permit description
of Coil and Tiree, west of Mull, or Lismore near Oban, or Raasay
and tiny Rona between Skye and the mainland. Colonsay is the
next step on from Islay and is reached by car ferry from Tarbert
Loch Fyne. This small island can be crossed at any point within
a couple of hours, and has a circular road which makes exploration
easy for visitors. There are fine stretches of safe sandy bays,
usually almost deserted, such as Kiloran Bay; and magnificent
semi-tropical gardens to visit with exotic flowers and shrubs.
Separated by a tidal strand, though able to be crossed on foot
at low tide, is the tiny island of Oronsay, where excavations
have been going on to discover traces of early hunters and fishermen
who lived there thousands of years ago, in the days of the great
group of islands, known collectively as the Small
Isles, is Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna, reached by sea route from
Mallaig. Rum was bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1957 and
is now a nature reserve specialising in breeding and observing
red deer, together with forestry plantation and conservation.
There are few people living on the island, a happy little community
on an island roughly eight miles long and eight miles broad.
In the summer Kinloch Castle there, complete with its drawing
room with leopard- skin rugs and mechanical organ, is open to
the public, and two days a week the village women serve afternoon
teas to visitors in the village hail. Eigg is some four miles
long from end to end, and supports about 70 inhabitants, with
a well stocked village shop and post office, and a tiny school.
One of its lovely beaches is called the Bay of the Singing Sands,
from the high-pitched notes that the sands make once they have
dried out, when they are walked on. Also on Eigg is the infamous
Massacre Cave, where in the 16th century the MacLeods of Skye
trapped over 300 MacDonalds of Eigg and set fire to brushwood
at the mouth of the cave. Canna is another small island with
perhaps two dozen people, mostly crofters; and the tiny village
school, which has children from only one family as its pupils,
lies across a wooden footbridge on the sister island of Sanday.
As no shooting is allowed by the owner of the island, Canna
is a naturalist’s dream with wild life in profusion, and
many different species of sea-birds including Manx shearwaters,
razorbills and puffins.
To The Highlands and Islands