West Coast of Scotland Island Holidays
It has become a familiar spot to find myself in reflection mode. Ferry embarkation point at Uig on the Isle of Skye. This, friends, is the sweet spot. That point of perfect collision on a Scotland west coast holiday. Where the memories of Skye’s drama-filled landscapes are fresh and dominant…..and are now meeting, face-on, the imminent promise of the Outer Hebrides. Very different, very unique and very powerful visualisations are wrestling for the forefront of my mind’s eye. At this point, I always make my way up on deck and find myself a lonely moment to lean nonchalantly on the railings and pretend that my soul isn’t bursting. Brace yourself.
Scotland’s most popular island is so for a reason. It manages to succinctly capture many people’s ‘idea’ of Scotland. Moody glens, misty waters and jagged, warning peaks. My recent considerations around the dangers of over-tourism aside, Skye has its own little something. You’ll struggle to find that something at the Fairy Pools, the Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and a handful of others today – their presence has been drowned out by the cacophony of too many human interrupters – but it still lives on in the shadows.
Because Skye is a huge island to navigate. Stretching fingers creep, pulling visitors away from the always-busy A87. Distance times suddenly become long and possibilities for solitude and adventure multiply. Almost the entirety of South Skye is one such playground.
Elgol and Loch Coruisk
The long and winding road to Elgol is a special one. Busier than you’d like it to be but nothing compared to Skye’s more notoriously overrun single tracks, the atmospherics tingle throughout before bursting to life with the views of the Cuillin peaks from Elgol.
Us mere mortals are obligated to take a boat trip across to these legend-infused, jaggy giants and Misty Isle are a superb bet. Tour providers should be storytellers above all else and these guys don’t disappoint. An entirely authentic experience, backed up by the odd fantastical tale, they’ll take you out and back to Loch Coruisk. Passing a curious seal colony, you’ll have 90 minutes ashore to marvel at the magnitude of the mountain range from the loch side. It’s hard not to think of this spot being the very heart of Skye. Or Mount Doom, whichever works for you.
An excellent accommodation and dining option nearby is Coruisk House. Merging traditional and modern and luxurious in its presentation, the quality is superb.
Glenbrittle, Sligachan and Sleat
Still with half a day to play with, my road heads north on the hunt for more water. With the almost eternally damp conditions on Skye, the island feels like a bridge between dry land and a waterworld. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Atlantic was trying to reclaim it. Saturated and sodden, it’s more like Iceland than anything else we’ve got as the terrain high and low plays with solutions for dealing with the stuff. The result, to our collective delight, is a magnificent riot of relentless streams, atmospheric bogs and gigantic waterfalls.
And here is an opportunity to underline the ridiculousness of over-tourism. Sligachan Bridge just off the A87 is forever bedecked in snap-your-photo-and-leave visitors but follow the river just a few hundred metres and you’ll be at the magnificent Sligachan Waterfalls, which you can have more or less to yourself. Or the desperately sad reality that has become the Fairy Pools, where lines of visitors march out over terrain that was never intended to carry them when Eas Mor a few minutes’ drive down the same road is an almost complete unknown. Blaze your own trail, ignore everyone else’s advice – except mine of course – and enjoy the hunt.
But while the spectacle of Skye’s watery setting is nature at its powerful best, it’s what can actually be done with the water that is to be jointly celebrated. This is Scotland, enter whisky. Talisker is a household name in drinking circles but it is Skye’s less-famed distillery that gets my attention on this occasion.
Torabhaig has only been operational since 2017 – there’s no whisky for drinking yet – but the indicators are good that this could be another big-hitting dram. Set in a small but evocative distillery, tours are available as the team work on perfecting the ingredients and the process for the product to come in the years ahead. There’s definitely going to be peat involved. My cabinet awaits patiently.
It’s the sheer scale of Skye that does it. It humbles you, intimidates you and captures your breath and imagination. Approach it as you would a sleeping dragon, exit with a sigh of gratitude and let it leave its permanent mark.
The Outer Hebrides
……and so I make the emotion-filled journey from Skye to the Western Isles on the ferry crossing over The Minch.
I’ve noted with great interest the development of my personal relationship with the Outer Hebrides over the years. When you’re new to a place you can develop a quick-fire, love-at-first-sight thing which is much like clocking that really hot lassie at the bar and forming an idealised idea in your head, without truly grasping the enormity of what love really means. Places are the same. The first few trips are much like the first few dates. You’re getting to see the best bits, you’re blissfully unaware of the skeletons in the closet and the relationship is very much in its infancy.
But my visits to the Outer Hebrides are now in the dozens in number and I feel confident enough to say I’m at the ‘here’s a key to my flat’ stage in our development. There’s love there obviously but also a much fuller understanding of what I’m letting myself in for. I know, for example, that the weather conditions can be severe. And that the city boy may struggle sometimes with the change in pace required. But when someone, or somewhere, gets under your skin and you start to grasp the full picture….you’re in a very special place indeed.
The Uists and Eriskay
I’ve been championing North Uist’s beaches as among the world’s finest for some time now. Another waterlogged island that likes to flirt with the Atlantic, it’s top of the tree for me when it comes to lonely coastal wanders and rugged, majestic Scottishness. The beaches of the Udal Peninsula, Hosta, Clachan Sands and West Beach, further north on neighbouring Berneray, are simply magnificent. And diverse. Hosta is virtual chaos with its crashing waves, contrasted with the serene curvature of Udal. Drink in the sea air, hear only the sounds of nature and let their mood meet your own.
Patience. Patience is the key. Just a matter of seconds can be the difference between sulky, brooding coastlines and resplendent glowing coastal vistas. This is the Outer Hebrides after all, and visitors play to its tune. On reflection, I’ve only ever seen North Uist on sunny days it seems, just as I can only ever recall South Uist being moody. But there’s great beauty in both, and everything in between. The hillier south has an appealing unnerving quality to it, solitude is everywhere and there’s history in the air. These are the hills where Bonnie Prince Charlie (and possibly Robert the Bruce too) hid while on the run, and it’s not hard to see why.
Journeying between the two, I stop en route at the new North Uist Distillery, currently providers of the impressive Downpour Gin. I love meeting business owners in the early days, when the possibilities are endless and the excitement is tangible. A family venture, I’ll be hoping Jonny and Kate put North Uist firmly on the map for artisan spirit drinkers worldwide. In the food department, I was treated to a fishy feast to rule all others at the Borrodale Hotel. A good day for the taste buds.
Both my evenings on the Uists were spent outdoors. On North, I watched a spectacular sunset over my favourite beach. On South, I star gazed for an hour as the Northern Lights faintly shimmered on a clear and sparkling sky. Powerful. Unforgettable.
Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay
It seems to me that Eriskay is easily overlooked. The ferry crossing point between Barra and South Uist, most visitors seem to miss the very obvious fact that it deserves at least half a day of your Hebridean time in its own right. Owner of a jaw-dropping causeway approach, take a stroll over the beach where the Bonnie Prince first landed and work your way inland for views over the most surreal of football pitches and the chance to spot Eriskay’s roaming wild ponies.
Then, Barra. With a little of each of the ingredients that give the Outer Hebrides their magic, Barra tends to be the start or end point to most Western Isles adventures. The imagination-inspiring Kisimul Castle guards Castlebay in the most photogenic way imaginable. Scheduled flights land, on the sand, at Traigh Mor to the north. And the varied terrain suits cyclists, walkers and lovers of the outdoors down to the ground. Kayaking is well-advised too, with Clearwater Paddling able to set you up with all you’ll need.
A little further south still, tiny Vatersay is unique again. At its narrowest, a sandy isthmus is the source of a magnificent tombolo, with turquoise waters lapping at either side of the island. A double beach, in effect. The east-facer in particular is one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland and astonishingly tropical if you time your visit well.
Reflections on a West Coast of Scotland Holiday
From my perch overlooking Uig to a very similar one departing Castlebay, my mind is a busy wee place as I bid farewell to the Outer Hebrides for another year. I’ve stared endlessly out to sea….strolled contentedly on immaculate sands….watched pensively over starry skies….clambered determinedly over moonscape-terrain….and I’ve gorged myself greedily on the best local food and drink. My senses are knackered; my memory card is full.
Where would I be without these incredible islands?
This blog post is the result of a sponsored marketing campaign with West Coast Waters, promoting the endless highlights of Scotland’s west coast. The project is also part of a larger campaign to promote the Year of Coast and Waters across Scottish tourism in 2020. All experiences had and any recommendations within are, though, based purely on passing the test of my considerable experience working in this industry. I’ll stick my neck out and say that you’ll not be disappointed with what awaits you.
For accommodation on the Uists I stayed at Struan House, Sollas in North Uist and Leth Meadhanach B&B on South Uist. Both were excellent and ideally located for exploring the best of this section of the island chain.
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