TRAVEL FEATURE – SCOTTISH ISLANDS

I want to be Leo DiCaprio in The Beach. All I want to do is find a tiny island somewhere and just lounge around all day on a hammock.

I spend much of my time simply thinking about all the things I still want to do away from Scotland.

Yet if you happen to spend all your time thinking about hiking through jungles in Borneo or drinking mojitos in the Seychelles, you tend to miss all the incredible things directly in front of your daydreamy face.

Scotland is home to islands and beaches that more than match some of the most stunning in the world.

I’m RICHARD JONES and we’re going island-hopping…

 

ARRAN

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Arran is a popular choice for those of us who want to experience the whole islandly vibe without having to drive, swim, hike and almost die to get there.

Arran is just to the West of the Firth of Clyde and you can get there by ferry in about an hour.

It’s essentially a tiny little Scotland and because of its proximity to the mainland you’ll find it to be a little more built-up than many of Scotland’s other islands.

This is extremely handy if you happen to be at all like me and value refreshing your Twitter feed with the same level of importance as taking your next breath.

The population of Arran is relatively healthy – which means it’s well set up for tourism.

You shouldn’t have too many problems finding a B&B or hostel. And because we’re in Scotland there’s about 8,000 pubs per square metre, meaning you’ll almost certainly return hoping never to see another pint of 70 Shilling/plate of fish and chips in your life again. I love Scotland.

If you’re into castles then Arran is way out in front in that respect. Broderick Castle in the island’s capital, ehm…Broderick, is quite something.

Alternatively there’s also some spooky castle ruins up in Lochranza on the north of the island.

Arran also offers something for the golf enthusiasts. The shortness of this paragraph might show I’m not all that into golf, but I’m duly informed that golf in Arran is, like, good and that. Check it out.

 

ISLAY

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The southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, is the quite brilliant island of Islay (pronounced I’ll-aa).

This little island is one I have some first-hand experience with so it’s best described in the form of a giant anecdote.

Me and my friend left Glasgow at around 4am. The drive from Glasgow out to Kennacraig – from where you can catch a 40-minute ferry to Islay – takes around three hours, but dear lord in heaven is it worth it.

Luckily it was summertime, so as we reached the west side of Loch Lomond the sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon and find its way through the cracks of the hills which surround the loch.

Never have I quite witnessed beauty like it. As we ventured further north, the night gave way to a heavy fog, lying low in the valleys beneath the windy hillside road.

Nothing really prepared me for how much I would enjoy the road trip up the west coast, before turning almost back on yourself at Inveraray and heading down the peninsula to catch the ferry.

Stunning is an understatement. I’ve been to quite a few places in the world now, and nothing has ever quite made my jaw drop like some of the scenery we have in Scotland.

Islay is best described in movie comparisons. My weekend in Port Ellen, on the island’s south east coast, is best described as being part Wickerman, part Hot Fuzz. The locals are unlike any group of people I’ve ever met before. Speaking in what is essentially they’re own unique language, they packed out pub after pub on the village’s main street and made it a quite surreal experience.

Never did I think I would see a brawl between 15 wasted islanders ranging in both pension status and gender.

Nature/tourism wise, Islay has a great deal to offer as well. Some of the beaches I visited while I was there were genuinely stunning, and worth just going to the island to walk on them.

Alternatively if you’re a whisky fan then Islay might just be your spiritual home. There’s eight – that’s eight – distilleries on the island which produce some of the best known single malt drams in the world.

I’m also well informed by the Scottish tourism website that Islay is also a wonderful place to go fishing and a birdwatching hotspot.

Each to their own, of course, but if I ever go again I plan to do a whisky crawl.

 

SKYE

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The Isle of Skye is a quite phenomenal place. And I don’t just mean it’s a quite phenomenal place for Scotland.

It’s a phenomenal place by anywhere’s standards. Even to the point it was – quite recently – voted as the fourth best island in the whole freaking world by Nat Geo. Freedom!

Getting to Skye shouldn’t be too difficult as there’s an actual bridge that runs straight off the mainland and the road continues through Skye, stopping at capital Portree on the east coast and continuing up to Uig in the north.

Alternatively if you, like me, are car-less, then there’s always the train. In fact forget what I said about driving and just get the train instead.

Hop on one from Glasgow which’ll take you on a jaw-droppingly beautiful ride up the west coast through Fort William.

You’ll be taken up over that big viaduct (Ed: that would be Glenfinnan Viaduct, then) that was in the Harry Potter films and Mallaig where you can jump on a ferry.

No combination of words could accurately describe quite how stunning the scenery is on that journey, so you’ll just have to do it for yourself.

Once you get there, you’re in for a treat. Skye is renowned for it’s distinctly highlandly feel.

Twelve Munros (a mountain over 3,000 ft high) are packed into a tiny area so if you’re travel dream is hiking up a massive mountain then Skye is probably right up your street.

As a disclaimer however, I’m obliged to warn you 3,000 ft is pretty high. I’ve been the idiot who tries to climb mountains in sandals and a short sleeve Hawaiian shirt far too many times.

Because of all the hills and such, Skye will also wow you with its scenery. Think Mordor on acid- only with more moss and thistles.

 

MULL

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Mull – a bit like The Garage nightclub in Glasgow – suffers from having a boring name that doesn’t come close to describing how exciting it is.

Unlike The Garage, however, Mull is all about strapping on your hiking boots, taking in the fresh air and getting up close and personal with nature.

The Isle of Mull, to use it’s proper name, sits just off the coast of Oban and is surprisingly accessible given how ridiculously wild the place is.

Mull is popular with walkers and hikers (is there a difference?) mainly due to Ben More – the only Munro on the island and the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides outside of Skye.

There’s a tonne of hill walks and general out-in-the-open type stuff to do on the island’s south half, with reaching the summit of Ben More the most challenging.

There’s also rock arches, enormous cliff faces and intricate cave systems to explore on the south coast. But the real highlight of Mull is it’s wildlife.

Off the Atlantic Coast, it’s not uncommon to see bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, basking sharks, orcas and something called a risso dolphin.

There’s even a marine life tourist centre in Tobermory, the island’s capital.

Lounging around on the beaches on Mull it’s relatively easy to spot seals and otters, while nowhere else can boast to have such dangerous skies.

A healthy population of sea eagles and rare white tailed eagles mean that Mull is like a bird watcher’s version of T in the Park.

So, while you lay around in your flat this year, trying to justify selling a kidney to pay for flights to Cambodia, I urge you to think of Scotland. Because it’s bloody good.

And there’s better whisky here.

 

LEWIS AND HARRIS

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Welcome to the Outer Hebrides! None of this inner crap, you want to get out there.

Lewis and Harris sit around 30 miles off the mainland. Stornoway, in the north coast of Lewis, is far and away the islands’ largest settlement with around 6,000 inhabitants.

Expect a great deal of fisherman on tiny old boats. Stornoway is also home to the islands’ only airport, so if you plan on going truly badass about it and flying up there on one of those tiny three person planes then you’ll arrive in Stornoway – unless you plan to parachute out the plane into the Atlantic and just swim.

From time to time in Stornoway – usually in late autumn or early winter – the Northern Lights can be seen off the northern coast.

If you time it right, and get lucky, you might just get to see the Aurora Borealis in all her magnificent greeny, purpley glory.

Away from Stornoway the west coast of Lewis and Harris looks directly out on to the Atlantic Ocean and will blow your socks off.  Walking along a secluded beach in the middle of nowhere has a certain ring to it for me, and you won’t find much nicer places to do it than in Lewis and Harris.

Rugged coastal landscapes give way to pearly white sand down on sheltered beaches, as enormous Atlantic waves crash in from the west.

If you’re the more adventurous type, and feel a little let down by travelling if you don’t almost die a few times, then visit the north coast of Lewis. There you’ll find a host of watersport companies who will facilitate all manner of dangerous surfing with the help of the huge Atlantic swells.

If wind surfing is your thing, the west coast of Lewis and Harris will suit you better; wind, power and kite surfing are extremely popular.

If you’re on Lewis and Harris then it’s imperative you also take a day trip out to St. Kilda.

The ‘island on the edge of the world’ is ranked as one of the world’s top five diving locations.