A trip to the islands

This is the story of a trip to Lewis, Harris and Skye, how it was planned, what we saw, some of the food that we ate, and other bits and pieces along the way.

Sunday 17th August 2014

I’m staying over at Phil’s house after we’ve played a strange gig at a cycling event. Over dinner I tell Phil that our friend Lorna is in Skye. Phil says that he has never been there and would like to go. I say we should  plan a trip and he agrees.

Monday 18th August 2014

We start planning. We will travel to Ullapool, which is nearly as far north as you can go on the west coast of the mainland, with a stop at Stirling on the way. In the morning we’ll take the ferry to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis, drive down to the Isle of Harris (which is the same island, but won’t admit it). Next day we’ll take the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on Skye,  spend two nights there. Finally we’ll take the ferry to Mallaig on the mainland and stay in Inverary so we can go to the Loch Fyne Restaurant (the real one, on Loch Fyne, which serves sea food that’s been caught the same day in the Loch). We don’t want the trip to be too long (in time) but this trip is far. It takes two days to get to Ullapool, but we can drive back from Inverary in one day. If we limit the trip to seven days, then we can get two nights on one island and only one on the other. We could have had an extra night on Harris by taking the evening ferry from Ullapool instead of staying there, but that would have put pressure on the driving. The idea of a holiday is relaxation, so we wanted to avoid deadlines that would make us nervous.

Ferries to the Islands are run by a wonderful ferry company called Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac for short. They are owned by the Scottish government, and run services to lots of the islands.  Checking through their timetables is the essence of excitement and possibility. They have a Hopscotch ticket that covers exactly the trip we want to do.

It takes about 6 hours with two of us online to find and book everything. At first we can’t find pleasant places to stay within our budget. The last few trips I’ve made have been returning to places that I know, and the last time I booked a trip to entirely unknown places was before the internets. Then, you could trust the Scottish Tourist Board directory, but now it’s not convincing. Searching Trip Advisor sends you to the more expensive places that presumably pay for the privilege of being presented first. At first it looks like the trip is going to be stupidly expensive. Then we find that we can search for places on Google Maps, and check the websites of the good looking ones. If they still look good, we can check the reviews on Trip Advisor. The reviews on Trip Advisor are compelling, you can see the stats in little graphs. Check the difference between these two reports:

Review shows full marks on everything
Old School House Review
Review shows distribution of opinions including some dreadful ones
The Isles review

Using this method the cost of accommodation starts to look reasonable. We book each place by phone because it’s nice to talk to human beings, and anyway the real places don’t have online bookings and expect to be paid by cheque. [Acquiring a cheque book with my name on it was a megillah all on it’s own.]

The first night is problematic – we want to stay near in Stirling but can’t find anywhere except the Travelodge on the M80 services (which turns out to be pleasant and convenient and cheap). Skye is also problematic; we end up booking rooms over a pub called The Isles (see the review picture, above), although it’s clear that the place is overpriced and a bit scuzzy, but we can’t find anywhere better.

Hand written notes planning the trip to the islands
Planning the trip

Saturday 23rd August

Today I am playing at a wedding reception in the Master’s Garden at Trinity Hall. The grandeur of the college is impressive and I learn that you should not wear stiletto heels to a garden reception.

Picture of me holding a guitar and a mug of tea
Me at Liz’s house

After the gig I visit our friend Liz. When she hears about the trip she immediately asks if she can join us. Phil is cool with this and in the next couple of days Liz has no trouble booking a room for herself in each of the places we are staying. Liz says we can travel in her VW camper van. Phil is concerned until I explain that, rather than being a 1960’s hippy thing, it’s fairly new and rather luxurious.

Monday 29th September

I’ve stayed over at Phil’s so we can make an early start. Liz arrives and we head off. We drive all day. The M6 toll road decides that The Van has an axle height over 1.3 metres and so charges double the toll. We are outraged by this ludicrous accusation, but we’re not in a position to argue.

The view starts to get more exciting north of Preston. Lunch is a picnic at Tebay, a service station that’s actually worth a visit.

Mountains, blue sky and clouds seen from the M6
Motorway M6 view.

We arrive at Stirling around 4pm. We drop our gear and head into town. The old part of Stirling is built on an outcrop that bursts out over the plane. At the bottom of the hill, near where we park, there’s a slightly comic statue of Rob Roy (sorry no photo), who turns out to be the Scots equivalent of Robin Hood. Don’t they take their heroes seriously here? On the hill the style of the buildings is a mix of gabled buildings that could be in the Netherlands, Victorian grandeur, and tall, narrow buildings with many stories. At the top of the town, a guide outside Argyll’s Lodging is desperate to tell us the history of the place. Poor chap, he’s wearing plaid trousers and it seems like has hasn’t had any punters all day. Argyll’s Lodging looks like it could be in France. He explains the history of how it was built, and the historical connections between Scotland and France. Seems like this is a common hatred of the English. Fair enough.

The great thing about going on holiday out of season, particularly in the North, is that people just don’t go there. Your average tourist heads south for the sun. And if sun is what you want, only an idiot would head for Scotland, even in August, never mind October  (see health warning). But throughout the trip, we encounter no queues or jams, and there are no places that we’d like to go that are full. And everywhere people are friendly and helpful. They seem to be pleased to see us.

Graveyard, Church of the Holy Rude

The light is different up here. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the angle of the light, but you know you’re in another country.

Island Trip 5
Sunset, Stirling Castle
Island Trip 6
Phil and Liz amazed by a bagpiper playing in a restaurant

Tuesday 30th September

Driving in Scotland is never boring (at least when the weather is good) because the scenery is devastatingly beautiful.

A road leading towards looming grey sky over mountains
The road north

The rocks in Scotland are some of the oldest in the world, and the geology is complex, which means that you can’t travel in a straight line form anywhere to anywhere else. Wherever you look there are mountains and water.

Colourful boats in the harbour
The harbour at Ullapool

Ullapool in under a mountain at the edge of the sea.

Liz on the ferry

Shore Street looks like I expect, with the ferry pier in the middle, and rows of whitewashed houses. Above, the streets are laid out in blocks, and there are expensive cars parked outside the houses. It feels suburban and slightly American. But with stunning views over Loch Broom.

In the evening we eat an outstanding meal of sea bream in a pub. The local beer (I forget the name) has a rich flavour with a hint of ashtray. When I point this out to Liz it puts her off, so I get to finish her pint.

Wednesday 1st October

White buldings of the terminal with a silver sky and clouds
Ferry Terminal, Ullapool

After breakfast we make the one minute drive to the ferry terminal. We’re greeted by a smiling CalMac marshall.

The car deck
The car deck
A blue truck about to load on the ferry
Truck loading


Liz: ‘…?’

Marshall: Bukdbakan?

Me: Ah. Booked by Kahn.

He’s genuinely pleased for us and our trip.

For me, ferry trips are the core of these Island visits. There’s the theatre of boarding, the remarkable sea views. Most people can’t be bothered with ferries, so the tourists who get as far as the islands have made a special effort.

White and pink houses on a strip of land jutting into Loch Broom. Mountains behind.
Ullapool from the ferry

The first section of the voyage to Stornaway is along Loch Broom, so the sea is calm and it’s not too windy on deck. The sea is silver, the light is pure.

The wake makes periodic patterns in the water, with silver light reflected. Cloudy sky and mountains dropping down to the sea
Ship’s wake

The wind blows up when we pass the point, and the swell gets heavier, so we go below.

Stornaway is a proper town, with shopping streets and traffic, so we get out quickly and head down the road. The Isle of Harris is the same piece of land as the Isle of Lewis. Lewis is flat peat bog, while Harris is mountainous, and the coastline is rugged. It looks so alien that it was used by Stanley Kubrick for the the surface of Jupiter in 2001 A Space Odyssey. As we get to Harris the road climbs up among impressive mountains.

Phil, hair streaming in the wind, with blue sky, clouds, and mountains in the background
Phil on Harris

Many roads in the islands are single track with passing places, and you have to be aware of the etiquette. The rituals of passing, of letting people overtake you, of acknowledging the other driver, all go back to a time when people had manners and needed them. The road we take today is a narrow strip of tarmac that winds precariously around the eastern edge of the island. The landscape is rocky and not much grows apart from mosses and lichens and there’s water everywhere. Just next to the sea on your left you’ll find a small loch on your right. It really does look like a different planet.

Health warning for anyone reading this who feels inspired to make a similar trip. I’ve made 8 or 9 trips to the islands over the past 25 years. The weather has been drizzly and cold on at least half of them. This trip had more than its fair share of sunshine and light, and we didn’t suffer from midges. My attitude is that good weather is a bonus, and the midges are a cost that has to be borne. But in the sun, the scenery in the northern part of Scotland and the islands is the most beautiful I’ve seen, and it’s worth the investment of trips in miserable weather. Take good waterproof gear.

Finsbay is nearly the easternmost point of our trip, and certainly feels the most remote. And it’s that remoteness that I look for in these trips. Living near London, life feels crowded and busy. There’s always traffic, queues, planes flying overhead. There’s not much space. In a remote place, you don’t have to be mindful to relax. You can just look around you, and breathe. Every few years I need a fix of this.

The Old School House is down an (even narrower) lane that heads to the coast. Alan meets us at the gate, excited to meet this lady (Liz) that is named after a film star. He’s with his collie Mac. Liz and Mac are immediately in love. Alan and his partner Panch are clearly delighted to see us and we talk for at least half an hour. We learn that there is a rivalry between Lewis and Harris. They complain that the proper two track road hasn’t been completed, and that a proposal to mine feldspar locally has been turned down, meaning that there hasn’t been a local boom. Part of the problem with the roads is that the Council in Lewis lost all their money (£20 million) in the BCCI crash.

Jeremy at Finsbay
Jeremy at Finsbay

During his career, Alan has been a policeman and a solicitor. As a child he would visit his grandparents in Finsbay every year, and decided that one day he would live here when he could. Alan and Panch have converted the old school house into a residence with a separate wing for bed and breakfast. It’s all lovely. And Alan is a skilled cook who takes delight in preparing a meal for us. Scallops for starters in a whisky and cream sauce, halibut for the main course, and Alan’s “deconstructed crumble” for dessert, also with whisky and cream. It’s a privilege to stay in this place and to receive this level of hospitality.

Blue water between rugged rocks
The sea behind Finsbay

Thursday 2nd October

The breakfast menu is suitably impressive including haggis, lorne (a sort of Scottish sausage loaf) and black pudding. Also Panch’s home-made bread and jams (she gives the recipe for the bread but I’ve forgotten it). Phil opts for kippers (after a certain amount of mental anguish). Breakfast is a big part of these trips. You don’t get breakfast like that at home.

We head back to Tarbert along the west coast of the island, where a huge sea is breaking over beaches of yellow sand. There’s a storm building up and the ferry trip is rough. I don’t enjoy this one. But we land at Uig in one piece and head around the North Coast to look at the Old Man Of Storr, a massive outcrop overlooking the sea. I learn that if the wind is behind you when you’re walking downhill you have to lean backwards into the wind and then it’s all easy.

Layers of cloud, mountain and sea, blending
View below the Old Man Of Storr

The Isles Hotel in Portree is even scuzzier than suggested by Trip Advisor. What’s annoying is the poor maintenance. They know what’s wrong but they don’t fix it. However the food is good, and we get a bit of money off, so. The next day we found another hotel we could have stayed in for less money in a much better location and with far greater comfort. This is why I like to revisit places armed with the knowledge that I’ve gained on previous trips. Like any project, I accept I’m not going to get everything right on the first attempt.

Friday 3rd October

We drive under the Cuillin, one of the destinations for our trip. Around every corner is scenery that makes us shout. In Glen Brittle we walk to the Fairy Pools but see no fairies, possibly because the stream is swollen and we can’t cross to the main part.

At Glen Brittle beach the weather breaks and some of us get soaked.

Silver light reflecting of the sea
Glen Brittle beach
Bad weather at Glen Brittle beach
Island Trip 25
Bad weather at Glen Brittle beach
Island Trip 26
Stones on Glen Brittle beach
Road with advancing truck, mountains in the background
Isle of Skye

Saturday 4th October

The trip is almost over. The drive to the ferry at Armadale is visual pyrotechnics, as is the drive through Fort William and Glencoe.

Road with Cuillin mountains in the background
View of the Cuillin
Loch with mountains in the background, blue sky
East coast of Skye
Loch with red foreshore and mountains behind, reflected in the loch
East coast of Skye
Blue sky reflected in loch with red mountain sloping down into water
East coast of Skye

As we arrive in Inverary we see a double rainbow. We stay in a converted church on the edge of Loch Fyne and my room looks right out onto the loch. The water is silver.

Double rainbow, Inverary
Double rainbow, Inverary

At the Loch Fyne restaurant we each eat a plate of Fruits Of The Sea, which impresses several of the other patrons of the restaurant. An Australian man, with blond dreads piled on top of his head tells us that our meal looks fuckin’ amazing and that he hadn’t dared to order one.

Then a whisky in the George. There’s a noisy band in the main bar so we go through to the locals’ bar and sit in Bullshit Corner and observe a little of the local culture. Although the scenery is spectacular we’re only 90 minutes drive from Glasgow and you can feel the difference.

Sunday 5th October

We leave just before dawn. The views driving along Loch Fyne and down towards Loch Lomond are again breathtaking. Then it’s motorway all the way home. The M6 toll road again decides that The Van has an axle height over 1.3 metres, but this time we’re resigned rather than outraged. There’s habituation for you.

Monday 13th October

It’s now over a week since we got back and the scenery is still going around in my head. The overwhelming impression is one of transparent light reflecting silver from the water. Water and rock.

What did I learn?

I was mostly pleased with our planning of the trip. The most disappointing thing was the sheer crapness of the rooms in The Isles Hotel, but in a way this just pointed up how great the other places were. And we did get a bit of money off when we complained. Perhaps we should have tried a bit harder to find somewhere nice on Skye. We certainly shouldn’t have paid a deposit for two nights. I learn that when you check Trip Advisor, only go for the best. It doesn’t seem to cost any extra.

We didn’t get any time to explore Harris. An extra day there would have made a big difference to the trip. There was plenty to see and do there. Either we should have taken the evening ferry from Ullapool rather than staying over, or we should have allowed an extra day on the trip.