Articles - Exploring Scottish Islands
For the short time the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry is tied up at Port Askaig pier near the north-west corner of Islay (pronounced eye-la), this small port is very busy. Though most passengers drive off the ferry, for foot passengers a local bus awaits.
We’re heading almost diagonally across the island to the farthest south-west corner. At the bend at Bridgend, one arm of the the road carries on to Islay’s other ferry terminal at Port Ellen, but we’ll make a right turn here and head along the side of lovely Loch Indaal where small groupings of geese are searching for food. Many more will be pecking at farmers’ fields inland.
As we pass through Bruichladdich there’s no mistaking there’s a distillery here. The village name is picked out in large capital letters in front of a whisky still.
Port Charlotte is the next village we pass through and some would argue it is Islay’s prettiest. The white painted buildings with window and door surrounds picked out in blues, blacks and reds, gleam after each shower of rain. The road becomes a single lane but we can see far ahead and know to stop at the nearest passing place should we meet an occasional oncoming vehicle. In one field by the roadside there’s a small flock of alpacas. These beasts, like shorn sheep with very long necks, are more usually at home in Peru, but they appear content here. A few hairy Highland cattle with wide pointed horns search for sustenance on the poorest grass. These hardy beasts can get by in even the worst weather.
The road sign tells us we have reached Portnahaven. But first, let’s walk towards the sea down a side road that will take us through Port Wemyss. This township is an extended T- junction of neat, white, well-kept houses plus a bus shelter, telephone box and post box.
Across the narrow road fronting the strip of houses, gardens slope downwards towards the coastal path. Across the channel of fast - flowing sea the island of Orsay lies straight ahead. It’s this great lump that saves Port Wemyss from an Atlantic battering.
Orsay Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1826 and was once manned by three light house keepers. Now it is fully automated.
Another notable feature on the island is the gable end remains of an ancient chapel dedicated to St, Columba. Orsay may well have been one of Columba’s stopping off points on his way from Ireland to Iona.
From the coastal path it’s only a short walk to arrive at the end of the Portnahaven roadway that runs down this side of the long U – shaped bay. Potnahaven came into being when, to make more money from sheep than from people, the landlord moved his tenants from their crofts and persuaded them to become fishermen. As they became more efficient, bigger boats allowed the fishermen to sail as far as Ireland to fish and sell their catches. There’s no commercial fishing from here nowadays but a few small boats lay creels to catch lobsters and crabs.
Overlooking the village and looking straight out to sea is Portnahaven church. Designed by Thomas Telford, it is unusual in that it has two entrances. It is said that Port Wemyss people would go in through one door while Portnahaven folk would enter by the other.
As we leave Portnahaven and head north we pass what’s known locally as OK corner. These big letters have been kept on the wall over the years. One explanation I was offered was that they may have been painted here first by American servicemen who used the expression.
We’re now travelling up the west side of Islay. The single track road dips and bends giving views of the rock-strewn shoreline which takes the full force of Atlantic gales. Many ships have been wrecked along this coast and now the sunken remains are an attraction for visiting divers.
At a grass car park, a track leads down to Claddich sands, a small crescent of clean beach. From there it’s no distance to the world’s first experimental wave station. Islay Wave Power Station was developed by Queen’s University Belfast and linked to the National Grid in 1991. Apart from a low, flat - topped grey building there’s not much to see, but it’s heartening to know that the energy from the waves hitting this coast is being utilised.
We’ve nearly completed this tour. We’ll go as far as the Port Charlotte Hotel where we’ll get a lovely meal and perhaps a wee dram of one of Islay’s famous whiskies. There may be fiddle and accordion music from local musicians and a blazing peat fire. It will be the perfect end to a grand day out.
First published in The People's Friend magazine
There had been no need to rush on this warm sunny afternoon. Relaxing into ‘Bute time’, I was happy to drive a stretch of one of the island’s narrower roads particularly slowly – there was no other traffic but I was behind a large hare. It had taken up the middle of the road and just kept on going, straight down the middle, seemingly unconcerned.
Now I was on a well-defined, sign-posted path leading up a hillside. With each step of the way I felt I was reaching back in time.
The path ends at a flat walled area with a graveyard and the remains of a small church. This ruin dates back mainly to the 12th century. It was built on the stones of a much earlier monastic settlement founded by St. Blane and is thought to have been in existence in 574.
It’s believed Blane was born on Bute. At some point he travelled to Bangor in Ireland where he was educated before returning as a missionary. He would have been familiar with this hillside.
From his churchyard he could look over the fertile land sloping down to the sea and across the water to the mountains of the Isle of Arran that fill the background. It’s an impressive sight and probably little changed from Blane’s day.
The pioneers exploring Bute some five or six thousand years before Blane also left their marks on the island. Now we can only make an educated guess at the significance of their standing stones.
Not all visitors were welcomed wholeheartedly. Eight years after the last abbot died in 790, Viking raiders set fire to the monastery. However, they weren’t all bad. Many of Bute’s place names suggest some of these Norsemen were farmers who stayed to work the land and fish the surrounding sea.
More recent visitors to Bute have included the wealthy Glasgow merchants who built large houses along the seafront, or, perhaps because their view was obstructed, further up the slopes behind Rothesay Bay.
Whole families, including domestic staff would have arrived in their own yachts. As well as a grand holiday home, a yacht was the other status symbol of the day.
Sea bathing, donkey rides and hydrotherapy treatments, including cold baths and drinking the water from a mineral well on the shore, were popular pastimes then.
After the days of sail, when steam ships became the usual way to get to Bute, the island became the holiday destination for huge numbers of people, especially from the central belt of Scotland.
These were busy days for Rothesay when some families booked accommodation with the same landlady year after year. It’s said there were certain landladies, though this tale might be apocryphal, who would fill their rooms to bursting point by drawing chalk marks on the floor – sleeping arrangements by number!
If even more people wanted accommodation, the chalk marks got smaller! It was even known for families to sleep out in the woods having arrived to find all the accommodation taken.
At that time, visitors would have been transported to other parts of the island in horse drawn vehicles and later in electric tram cars.
Today it’s much easier getting to the Island of Bute. Trains run from Central Station, Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, from where Caledonian MacBrayne car and passenger ferries sail across to Rothesay in thirty five minutes.
The attractions of the Isle of Bute haven’t changed all that much over the years and though Rothesay may be crowded in the summer months there’s plenty of space at any time for everyone.
To enjoy the splendours of the south side of the island, drive off the ferry, turn left out of Rothesay and head along the shore road.
Your passengers may want to keep a look out for seals lazing on the seaside rocks and for the sign for the entrance to Ascog Gardens.
The private house, Ascog Hall, once belonged to Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, a prosperous, philanthropic Glasgow merchant with Rothesay roots who became Convener of Bute County.
About 1870, he commissioned Edward La Trobe, the designer of the Botanic Garden in Melbourne, Australia to landscape the garden in front of the house and construct a fernery.
Over time however, the fernery fell into disrepair and when it was uncovered in 1997, was found to be in a near ruinous condition. Amazingly, one fern from the original collection had survived – a Todea barbara or King Fern. When that same fern was dated in 1879, it was reckoned back then to be more than 1000 years old.
King ferns are indigenous to the damper areas of New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Australia. Some of the many other sub-tropical fern species thriving in the nooks and crannies in the fernery’s weathered sandstone rock walls have equally exotic origins.
With a grant from Historic Scotland, the sunken fernery with its glass roof was rebuilt to the original design and replanted with knowledgeable help from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
It had obviously been constructed and planted with care; each rock carted from Bute’s beaches, as well as each pebble making up the path, appears to have been specifically chosen to enhance the overall setting.
Wander round the garden and you might imagine you’ve been transported to somewhere tropical. There are a number of different ‘rooms’ with profusions of candelabra primulas, yuccas, azaleas, rhododendrons and the very large leaves of Gunnera mandicata providing a backdrop behind the formal pool.
This is a haven full of delights. Before leaving, take a few minutes to read the information on boards dotted round the garden which give an insight into the indefatigable plant hunters who sent back seeds and plants from far corners of the world to make such gardens possible.
From Ascog garden, your next stop should be Mount Stuart House.
The surrounding woods and gardens are vastly more extensive than those at Ascog, so you may decide to concentrate on one aspect only, be it a woodland walk, the kitchen garden, or rock garden before going inside the house for a guided tour.
The first Mount Stuart House was built by the 2nd Earl of Bute between 1719 and 1721.
After a fire destroyed the central section of the building in 1877 the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who has been described as ‘the greatest architectural patron of the Victorian era’ embarked on his hugely grand, expensive undertaking.
Everything about the building is lavish.
The workmanship and artistry involved in creating the carved wood features, the tapestries, the white marble chapel, the brilliantly coloured stained glass windows and star spangled ceilings has to be seen to be believed.
After being shown around this ostentatious display of serious wealth you might crave a few simpler pleasures.
From Mount Stuart it’s no distance to Scalpsie Beach on the west side. Build a sandcastle, paddle in the sea or just sit and marvel at the views out to Arran before heading back to Rothesay.
Leave a visit to Rothesay Castle and the north end of the island for another day.
But before you leave Bute, give a nod to the raised statue of Alexander Bannatyne Stewart which overlooks a section of the formal floral gardens on the seafront.
Then like thousands of other visitors before you who have enjoyed a trip ‘doon the watter’, make time for a game of putting, a last stroll round Discovery Centre for any last minute information or gifts and a visit to the nearby Victorian Toilets.
Understandably, public conveniences are not usually a visitor attraction but this building and its fittings are an example of Victorian munificence – for the men at least - all gleaming copper pipes and highly polished black marble.
Nowadays though, it’s hard to believe that women weren’t provided for at that time - it was much later before a separate section was added to complete this facility.
Back on the ferry take a few moments to study a map hanging on one of the lounge walls – then step outside. As other smaller islands and mountainous parts of the mainland disappear into the distance you may more readily appreciate Bute’s favoured, sheltered position in the middle of the sea lanes in the Firth of Clyde.
The earliest settlers arrived at the Orkney Isles some 6000 years ago. They had travelled slowly, west and northwards, driving sheep and cattle before them, part of a migration that had begun somewhere around the Mediterranean. Their progress along the way is still marked by the stone structures they left behind.
Orkney was a sort of terminus for these Stone Age people. With so many of their megaliths a feature of this landscape the islands can be thought of as a very large archaeological site.
Some buildings are particularly special. Maeshowe on Mainland Orkney is regarded as the best example anywhere of the ancient stone builder’s art. From outside, the grass covered, upturned pudding bowl shape hardly merits attention. But all who venture inside along the low, paved passageway can’t help being impressed.
The passage walls are constructed of solid blocks of smoothed stone weighing around 30 tons each. Inside the chamber, the walls taper upwards, to end in a skylight that was closed over with a single slab of stone. Recessed compartments in the thick walls were possibly used as tombs.
The huge lumps of stone used in the building were transported from a quarry about seven miles away. How were they moved, lifted, placed so accurately? Could they really have been shaped using stone axes?
Its purpose, so one theory goes, is that Maeshowe was designed and constructed as a sepulchre for priestly kings or kingly priests. However, no sign of burial has ever been found.
Later, in the mid 12th century, Vikings, possibly seeking treasure, broke in through the ceiling. Their runes, the graffiti of the times, can be seen carved into the walls. Probably most notable, is the carving in the shape of a dragon that has since come to be known as the Maeshowe dragon. Present day Orkney jewellery makers have been inspired by this ancient, small work of art and use it in designing their own pieces.
In a field nearby there is a standing stone that throws up all sorts of other questions. At the winter solstice, around 22nd December, as the sun sets over a nearby hill, the last rays shine on the Barnhouse Stone and along the passageway of Maeshowe to illuminate the far wall. How did these Stone Age people come to notice such a phenomenon and get the alignment just right?
A mile and a half away, across a spit of land separating Stenness Loch and Loch Harray, you can stroll around the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. The ring is incomplete but there are still 27 of these undressed lumps of natural rock, (originally there were probably 60), each one about 10 feet tall.
The stones encircle an area of rough heather. Why this particular patch of moorland was especially dignified is not known. There have been many suggestions including for burial ceremonies, in worship of the sun or the moon, as some sort of clock, or calendar. We can only wonder.
At the Ness of Brodgar, between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, archaeologists are now digging out even more astonishing finds that may prove people were arriving on these islands even earlier than previously thought. A raised platform allows visitors to look out over the site, see the archaeologists and hear about the painstaking work that is taking place just below.
It’s not far from the Ring of Brodgar to the village of Skara Brae overlooking Skail Bay. The settlement was discovered by accident when it was uncovered by a fierce storm in 1850. The story goes that William Graham Watt, the 7th local laird, was out walking with his dog. The dog sniffed, dug, and fell down a hole - straight into a stone-age living room.
The stone beds are surprisingly small but it’s thought the people slept in a half-sitting, half-lying position. Though visitors are not permitted to walk through the rooms, you can see from above, that a stone dresser was deliberately placed to face the front door. One theory suggests that the household’s best possessions were placed where they could be seen, to impress the neighbours.
Nearby, the local laird’s mansion, Skail House, is now a visitor centre. An interesting display laid on a table is the blue dinner service used by the late Queen Mother on her last visit there. The visitor book reads, ‘signed Elizabeth R August 24th 1983’.
Marvellous in a different way is the little church of Lambholm, which has come to be known as The Italian Chapel. With its statue of St. George nearby, this modest church is a last reminder of Camp 60 where several hundred Italian prisoners were housed in the later years of the Second World War. Under their hands the Nissan hut became a thing of beauty that still inspires countless visitors today.
Most of the material available was second hand and apparently worthless scrap. Inside, the unlovely corrugated iron of the hut was hidden by plasterboard and painted to resemble brickwork. The altar, altar rail and holy water stoop, all beautifully designed, were moulded in concrete. The tabernacle was fashioned from wood obtained from a wrecked ship.
Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner with great artistic ability, painted frescoes on the sanctuary vault. The rest of the interior was painted to resemble brickwork with a dado along the base of the curved walls to imitate carved stone. Another prisoner fashioned an intricate screen and a gate from wrought iron.
These men, captured during the North African Campaign, had been send to Orkney to work. Their job was to establish a series of concrete barriers to seal the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, a sheltered area of sea used as a British Naval anchorage. The order came from Winston Churchill, so ever since, the barriers have been known as the Churchill Barriers.
Until then, four channels between islands had been blocked with sunken ships and it was considered that attack from that direction by sea was impossible. Early in the war however, in October 1939, a brilliant U-boat commander, Lieut - Commander Prien, took advantage of a gap in the defences and an exceptionally high tide. He penetrated the Flow and sank the battleship Royal Oak and managed to get out again safely. In the Royal Oak, over 800 men perished and the Navy, having learned a hard lesson, left its anchorage until the entrances could be securely sealed.
The massive barriers of stone and concrete on the seabed became causeways and are now part of Orkney’s road network. They have proved to be a boon, but at the time, some of the construction workers were dismayed by the seemingly futile task of “filling in the sea.”
Boat trips out into Scapa Flow take people to see wildlife such as seals and seabirds. For the scuba divers coming from all over the world, the wrecks on the seabed are a great attraction. These wrecks are part of the German High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow pending Armistice negotiations. On 21st June 1919 Admiral von Reuter gave the command for seventy German battleships, cruisers and destroyers to be scuttled rather than fall into British hands.
All roads on mainland Orkney lead back to Kirkwall, a sizeable seafaring town with a busy harbour. Dominating the centre is St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, whose red sandstone glows in the sunshine. The walls are adorned with plaques commemorating Orkney poets and painters, explorers and saints. A large wall tapestry, gifted by the King of Norway, was given to the late Queen Mother on 19th August 1987. Symbolising a sail, it expresses the friendship between Norway and the people of Orkney.
St. Magnus Cathedral was part of the Norwegian arch -diocese of Trondheim for most of the pre - Reformation years. Orkney only became part of the kingdom of Scotland in1468 and in 1486 the Cathedral was given into the care of the people of Kirkwall by the Scottish king, James 111.
Across the road are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace built in the mid 12th century and the Earl’s Palace begun in 1600, by Earl Patrick Stewart. Using forced labour to quarry and ship in the stone required, Stewart planned to build a dwelling that was unrivalled in design, comfort and beauty. His palace was finally completed in 1607 but shortly afterwards Patrick Stewart was arrested and work was abandoned. After his execution in 1615 the portion of the Palace already built became the residence of Orkney’s bishops.
Across Broad Street, the Orkney Museum tells the story of life in these islands from the Stone Age to the present day. Amongst the many fascinating exhibits, a display gives details of the Ba’(ball) game that is usually played by men on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Imagine a game of rugby without rules. The ball is football shaped, though slightly smaller and filled with cork dust. Play rages along the main streets. Shops are barricaded with stout planks for the duration. The ball can even be smuggled inside a coat or baggy sweater. The object is for one team, the Doonies, to land the ball in the sea at the harbour or for the other team, the Uppies, to land the ball at a certain piece of wall, up the town.
It rains often in Orkney. For the whisky makers at the distillery in Kirkwall, this is a blessing. Visitors escaping a downpour can enjoy a guided tour with a film and a dram. A plaque in the visitor centre shows some thoughts on whisky from James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. It reads, “If a body could just find oot the exac’ proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk everyday and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at aa, and that the doctors and kirkyards would go oot o’ fashion.
At Orkney’s distillery they obviously agree.
Further information: A stroll around Kirkwall Harbour and through the garden behind Orkney Museum are both well worth a wander. Close by, there are café/restaurants making use of Orkney produce. To hear local, traditional Orkney music try visiting The Reel pub/café/meeting place.
From the back door of the hotel where I was staying on the Isle of Mull, a narrow path leads down to the sea and follows the shoreline through a stretch of silver birch trees towards Craignure where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban berths.
When I stopped on the path one bright morning, it was so quiet I could almost hear the new fern fronds unfurling. Pale yellow primroses, glistening with raindrops after an early morning shower, were slowly opening and turning to face the sun. This would be a good day, I thought, for meeting some of Mull’s wilder residents.
Minutes later, at the bus parking bay beside the ferry terminal, I was ushered aboard a minibus belonging to knowledgeable wildlife guide David Woodhouse. I was in good hands.
David knows Mull’s wildlife and has been taking people out to observe the island’s animals and birds in their natural habitats for more than 30 years.
Some of my fellow passengers were carrying impressively long telescopes or binoculars but you don’t need to have your own as our guide for the day brings spare sets on all his expeditions.
‘What would you particularly like to see?’ he asked, as we headed east in the direction of Tobermory.
At our first stop we got out of the bus to look for porpoises. The sea appeared to be flat calm, shining like well-polished silver. Then within seconds as we focused through binoculars, a number of black streaks split the surface. This was our first sighting. Porpoise were showing a slip of black fin before diving then reappearing yards away.
Back in the minibus, on a tree-lined road, we looked out for cross bills, small birds that feed on seeds picked from pine cones, while David commented on any other creature that came within view.
Our next sighting was possibly more impressive. Mull is home to at least 14 pairs of white- tailed eagles, sometimes known as sea eagles, or more poetically in Gaelic, iolaire suil na greine – eagle with the sunlit eye.
Each pair has a huge territory, perhaps 25 miles in any direction from their nest. They are very large birds and it seems that, just like us, they are quite happy to take it easy and laze when the sunshine is warming.
We had pulled off the road into a small car park where other wildlife watchers peered through telescopes on tripods. A sea eagle was spotted perched on a nest of untidy branches near the top of a tree in woodland high up a hillside. But it was only when the bird left the nest to soar, circling ever higher on up draughts of warm air, that we could really appreciate its size.
Throughout the rest of the day we were to see red deer, common seals, a sleeping otter that woke to stare at us, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, hen harriers, various types of ducks and numerous species of smaller birds both on land and on the water. Our guide was able to tell us about all of them.
As we travelled along the single track road bordering the seashore, sheep would move slowly out of our way. In some places, cliffs of ragged rock scraped the clouds. On the other side of the road, looking out to distant islands, I was reminded of the song written by D.MacPhail.
‘The Isle of Mull is of isles the fairest,
Of Ocean’s gems ‘tis the first and rarest;
Green grassy island of sparkling fountains,
Of waving woods and high tow’ring mountains.’
It was a relaxed day with time available for soup and sandwiches, tea and biscuits all supplied from the back of the minibus, though some of the group were so involved watching wildlife they could hardly put down their binoculars to stop for a bite.
My next day was equally captivating. The distance from Craignure to Fionnport in the far west of Mull is around 32 miles. Much of the way is through Glen More (big valley) on a single track road.
In the green valley, wooded areas offer shelter to red deer. Small lochs sparkle blue in the sunshine and, where the land begins to rise, lush grass meets heather and the hills lead ever upwards to much higher, rock-strewn mountains.
The service bus can’t go too fast through Glen More since any oncoming traffic can only be passed at designated places. At one point, our bus had to stop and wait to let a wide-horned hairy highland cow get off the road.
To the north, Ben More, the highest mountain on Mull at 3,169 feet attracts hill walkers who usually leave this peak until last to complete their round of climbs of all the Munros – mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet.
Further west, the road runs close by the south shore of fiord-like Loch Scridain. Lines of large black floats indicate where ropes of farmed mussels dangle in the clean waters. The land is flatter here, dotted with lonely farms with fields of sheep, an occasional pig, a few horses and small herds of cattle.
The bus trundles on, over a hump backed bridge, rounds bends at the village of Bunessan and eventually reaches the village of Fionnport.
It is from here that thousands of visitors each year board a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for the short crossing to the Isle of Iona.
Visitors usually say that this low lying island with its beaches of white sand and rock seems especially peaceful. Most people stroll at least as far as the church, passing a stone Celtic cross on the roadside. It’s a kind of marker that has been blasted by west coast weather since the 1500s.
Pilgrims wander further. They come to learn and follow the ways of Columba who sailed here from Donegal, Ireland, with a band of 12 evangelists in 563AD. Columba was of the O’Neil clan, a descendent of kings and an elder of the Celtic Church. It was said he was ‘graceful in speech and holy in work and could not let a day pass without prayer.’
Columba founded a monastery on Iona which became a sacred centre, the heart of an ecclesiastical dominion. Scots, Pictish and Viking kings chose to visit and be buried here. Their graves were covered with elaborately carved stones. Some of these stones are on display, placed against the walls of the church and the cloisters.
The early monks would have worked in the gardens close to the monastery. Gardeners still work this land and wooden markers on a dry stone wall let us know the produce grown for use in the nearby hotel kitchen is fresh, local and organic. The primary school pupils also have a garden. Their plantings are guarded by a line of scarecrows that were crafted in school.
Someone once described the island as a ‘thin place’, suggesting there’s not much separating the material world here from the spiritual. But to cater for the diverse expectations of its many visitors, Iona has a craft shop and two art galleries, a heritage centre, book shop, café and post office as well as a shrine to Columba.
Back in the hotel on Mull, having enjoyed a splendid meal, we were sitting back, watching the sea and sky change colours as the sun set.
Exactly on cue, as if to complete a film set, a stag strolled along the seashore path….
First published in The People’s Friend
Further Information: David Woodhouseinfo@scotlandwildlife.com