Teleport City rover Margaux spent five weeks walking across Scotland and Ireland. She was gracious enough to jot down notes on her experiences during the Scottish — specifically the western isles of the Hebrides — leg of her journey and let us publish them here so that you might strap on a backback and be able to have a ramble of your own. Part one of this two-part article covers the Inner Hebrides.
I would recommend starting off from Glasgow, because you’re that much closer to the West coast and it is easier to find inexpensive flights from the United States into Glasgow. However, Edinburgh is a charming city, especially if you hit it during one of its many festivals. The two cities are close to one another, and the trip from Edinburgh to Glasgow does take you past historic Sterling Castle. Once in Glasgow, it’s time to decide on how you are going to undertake the rest of the journey to the Hebrides Islands. I was relying on my feet and the bus system — when I could find busses. If you’re driving, you have a lot more flexibility, but you also have to manage a car, parking, and petrol expenses. I also recommend getting a ferry package at the start. You can either create your own tailored cocktail, choosing the islands you want to visit (be aware they aren’t all linked together), or just get a full package, which is worth it even if you don’t end up going to each and every island.
There is a line drawn between the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides, the main difference I found being the people speak more Gaelic in the Outer Hebrides, the landscapes are wilder, and the buses scarce. Closest to Glasgow are the isles of Arran and Gigha, which I missed out on but heard worlds of good about. It’s too bad, but you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t see everything. So I rode a bus from Glasgow to Kennacraig, where the ferry will take you to Port Askaig, Islay. That drive is beautiful in itself, and if you’re driving, you can stretch it into the Argyll Forest and make a couple extra stops in the Loch Lomond area.
The Inner Hebrides
Islay is most famous for the number of whiskey distilleries on the island. Once on Islay, I’d recommend moving away from Port Askaig and towards Port Charlotte, pretty much on the other side of the island, where there is a hostel within walking distance of the Bruchladdich Progressive Hebriddean Distillery (I was never able to get a satisfying explanation for the “progressive” bit). There are a bunch of hotels closer to the ports, but they are more expensive and I’m not positive it’s worth putting in more money. From there, you can basically drive in all directions and of course, hit all of the eight distilleries, which all have tours and samplings. However, driving also means you’d be passing on a lot — not to mention the fact that you have to be much more moderate with your indulgence. If you’re up for it, grab a bike. If you are short on time, consider skipping Bowmore, which is one of the most touristy tours and a bit scant on things on which to feast your eyes. Focus instead on the Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Kilchoman areas, which were my personal favorites.
You can also consider adding to the distilleries a couple cultural highlights that will require some walking, but you’ll be glad when you get there:
- If you can find a local to guide you around, the north of the island is basically a wildlife preserve, beautiful, but you have to negotiate and therefore have the time for it.
- The Oa Peninsula – west of Port Ellen, one of the wildest, least known part of the island, with a range of different sights, cliffs and beaches.
- Finnlagan, land of the island kings – for the history buffs and camera maniacs.
- Portnahaven – quaint little village, try to connect with local fishermen for live seafood (lobsters for 10 pounds!!!) to bring back to your lodging and create a small sensation.
- Daytrip to Jura – very frequent ferries from Port Askaig, you might want to extend after you have tried the whisky, but the distillery is minutes away from the Craighouse hotel, which allows free camping on the front lawn. I went on for a trek on the Paps of Jura, but that’s if you can find someone to guide you around. Otherwise, take it easy, get a bike, and ride around — possibly to the touristy George Orwell estate and the Jura house, if you’re into botanics. There is a slightly expensive but definitely worthwhile boat ride to the Gulf of Corryvreckan, famous for its whirlpool and a perfect pairing with the Ardbeg whiskey that takes its name from the pool.
From Islay, you can head back to the mainland and drive up to Oban or, depending on the ferry schedule, go from Port Askaig to Oban via Colonsay – choosing to stop over or not, depending on when the ferry to Oban comes back. Turns out that can be pretty tricky. Anyway, Oban has its own distillery — it’s one of my favorite whiskies. Oban (the town, not the distillery) is also an interesting stop if you need to do laundry, buy food and stuff — a tent, in my case, as I decided to take my trip on a new level of scruffiness. From Oban, you can make it to the Craignure, Isle of Mull (campsite minutes away from the port). Mull proved to be my nemesis because it’s the least backpacker-friendly of all the islands (perhaps Jura, as well). Well worth it, though.
Because of my personal impediments, I only explored the south-western coast, where the Arches of Mull (a beautiful basalt formation and arches you can head down into — but make sure you have the right shoes. If you feel uneasy after starting off, trust your gut feeling and turn around — you still have a good two hours to walk back) are to be found as reward for a tricky but gorgeous walk. The road down there starts just before the stores (although nothing accounts for the plural form, they’re the only ones you will find on that road once you’ve passed the castle of Torosay (quaint, beautiful garden, good picnic stop). Note there is more city life around the Tobermory distillery, to the north-east. If you want to push it after the Arches, there is also a hike to be had around Ben Mor. If you’re there at the right time, they organize diving sessions around some of the many shipwrecks, a good insight into the local legends about Spanish Armada gold.
Definitely make sure you go to Fionnphort (campsite a short hike away from the town) and take a boat to Fingal’s Cave, a mind-blowing basalt (volcanic) formation that makes the Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland, Unesco) look silly. You can only stay for an hour unless you negotiate more time with the guy operating the boat (which would mean you’re staying there for a good four hours) so make sure you move up to the cliffs, try to spot a couple puffins if the season’s right, and then quickly proceed to the caves. Time flies there. You can spend the remainder of the day in the equally famous isle of Iona, around the abbey. If you do so, and really it’s a splendid place beyond the tourist shops, make sure you take the time to wander off to the pure white beaches.
So that’s it for the Inner Hebrides. I personally went on to see Skye, through Portree – which you can reach from the road, driving through Oban and Fort William. To that extent, I recommend learning your map by heart, insofar as knowing where you can make it back to the mainland and where you can stretch your journey. There are a million tiny islands around the places I’ve mentioned but not all of them are inhabited, or open to the public so it’s pretty much down to how lucky you are and the connections you make. Anyways, Skye has a LOT to offer beyond the Talisker distillery and Dunvegan castle. It can also be your window into the Outer Hebrides or your last stop before hitting the mainland.