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Skye and the Western Isles
Scottish Isles: Skye and the Western... Isles

Mull and Iona
Mull and Iona: Highways and Byways, the... Fairest in the Inner Hebrides Isles and Scotland's Great Centre of Celtic Christianity

The Story Of Islay Whisky
Peat, Smoke and Spirit: The Story of... Islay and Its Whiskies

The Isle of Iona
The Isle of Iona: Sacred, Spectacular,...

Scottish Islands Drawings
Scottish Mountain Drawings: The Islands


The Inner Hebrides

The 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.

Like 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.

But Skye is by no means still living in the past. The one-
time ‘black houses’, low thatched cottages with a living!
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.

One 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 scenery.

Near 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.

Another 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.

A 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.

Mull, 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.

Apart 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 structure
of the caves is similar to that of the Giants’ Causeway in
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 auk.

Another 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.

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