Behold the Hebrides
The Hebrides don't throw themselves at you with the easy prettiness of so much of Britain. You need an eye for spare beauty and for the fleeting play of mist and light to appreciate them. You also need not to mind frequent rain and winds that blow strongly two days out of three. Yet it is not hard to understand why these islands held the hearts of those who left them in the emigrations of the past two centuries, and why they have inspired deeply felt songs of exile:
"From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas -
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides."
Sir Walter Scott
Even Lachlan Macquarie, "the father of Australia", returned to his native Isle of Mull to grow old. His mausoleum, in a woodland clearing, is maintained by the New South Wales National Trust and is inscribed to "a most beloved husband, father and master and a most endearing friend".
There are over 500 Hebridean islands, but of these only a couple of dozen are now inhabited, with all but a few hundred people living on the three large islands of Lewis and Harris (which are actually one island), Skye and Mull. The last two are close to the mainland, while Lewis and Harris is in the Outer Hebrides, across the windy strait of The Minch, but still less than three hours away by ferry, or less than two hours on from Skye. The big Caledonian MacBrayne ferries are the lifeline of the Hebrides, carrying everything from livestock and petrol tankers to tourists and the Royal Mail. The line offers an Island Hopscotch ticket, valid for one month, on which you can cover a pre-planned route through the islands at your own pace, or an Island Rover ticket, valid for 8 or 15 days, which allows you to travel as you wish on any of the line's services in the Western Isles.
Mull is just 40 minutes by ferry from Oban on the west coast. It is the greenest of the three main islands, with the Atlantic gales tempered by the offshore islands of Coll and Tiree and the nearness of the mainland - though it is still windy enough sometimes for waterfalls to look as though they are falling up, not down, as the wind blows the water into a plume. The landscape runs from dramatic mountainsides with torrents rushing down them, to the picturesque little harbour of Tobermory with its brightly painted 18th-century houses along the quayside and the wreck of a galleon from the Spanish Armada still in the bottom of the bay.
There is any amount of accommodation, from self-catering lodges to luxury guesthouses and hotels - we were comfortable at a small B&B with wonderful views, Fairways Lodge, beside the golf course on the hill above Tobermory. The place for a serious dinner is nearby Glenforsa Hotel, which also has a few bedrooms. The chef cooked us Mull salmon, lobster, scallops and trout and Scottish beef, venison and pheasant in a masterly fashion.
Anywhere in the Hebrides, it is good to go out at least once with an expert who can open your eyes to the sometimes elusive wildlife and to plant life that may be missed by the uninformed glance. Tour operators Explore Mull specialise in taking small parties to identify butterflies and plants and to look for otters, seabirds, seals, deer and birds of prey. From late April to early October, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust runs Sea Life Surveys trips from Mull to spot the whales, dolphins and porpoises that spend summer in these seas, and to visit puffin and seal breeding grounds.
You can also take a boat trip to Staffa, a tiny island that is known world-wide because Felix Mendelssohn, after visiting it in 1829, wrote the Hebrides Overture as a tribute to the melodious sea sounds to be heard in Fingal's Cave, a cavern among the spectacular hexagonal basalt columns that give the island its name (from the Norse stafr-ey, pillar or post island). There are boat trips, too, to the Treshnish Islands, where thousands of seabirds and grey seals breed.
Mull is the stepping-stone to the holy island of Iona, which lies just offshore. St Columba landed on Iona from Ireland in AD563 to found a monastery, from which Christianity spread first into Scotland, then through Europe as far as northern Italy. Half a million visitors a year inevitably give a certain bustle to the abbey precincts, but you need walk only a little further to find the peace that still makes Iona a place of pilgrimage.
Skye has the most romantic reputation of all the Western Isles, thanks largely to Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald and the Skye Boat Song. The impressive Cuillin Hills look over a rather bare landscape, with crofts and clusters of cottages only where the soil is workable. Skye's beauty lies in mountain and seascapes and in its rapidly changing moods as mist or rain give way to sunlight which, reflecting off the water, seems to heighten colors. The island's main "sight" is Dungevan Castle, the seat of the McLeods, an attractively comfortable castle in which the family still lives, surrounded by lovely ravine and woodlands gardens.
Skye has plenty of accommodation, but a place that promises a special welcome for travelers is Talisker House, a country house run by two former Australian teachers from the Northern Territory. Dr Johnson and Boswell stayed there during their 1773 tour of the Hebrides. Talisker House specialises in meals based on local game and seafood and produce from its own garden and orchard.
Lewis, largely peat-covered, almost treeless and pounded on the west by the unbroken force of the North Atlantic, may seem the most austere of the large islands, but its clear light under high skies, wide landscapes with water glistening everywhere, and strongly held cultural identity in the absence of tourist hordes, could well make it the one that captures your imagination. The crofting lifestyle remains and Gaelic is spoken widely - quite a few schools teach only in Gaelic for the first two years. Harris tweed is still handwoven by the islanders in their homes (tweed-weaving originated in Harris, the smaller, southern end of the island, but the area is largely depopulated now and the center of production is Lewis, where all processes after weaving are carried out in the mills of Stornoway and Shawbost).
Lewis especially, is a place to see with a knowledgeable local. Avoid the standard bus tours on offer and go out with naturalist Chris Ryan, who runs Out and About Tours for small groups - maximum 12 - but he is happy to take two or three. A day with Chris offers you not only visits at your own pace, with expert explanations, to such "sights" as the mysterious and powerful Stone-Age circle of the Standing Stones of Callanish, the Iron-Age hill fort of Carloway Broch, the dramatic cliffs alive with seabirds beside the lighthouse at the Butt, and traditional Black Houses where people and animals lived together, but also an intimate look at the tapestry of small plants and wildlife. One of Chris' coffee-stops is at a former schoolhouse which is now a small country hotel, Doune Braes, with honest food, cosy public and guest rooms, three spoiled dogs and a trout-filled lochan at the door. Do yourself a favor and stay there rather than the tourist hotels of Stornoway.