Never far from the sea, the habitat on the western isles thrives on continuous moisture. It’s cloaked shades of lush green that peek out from the ever-changing mist, give the landscape of these mystic isles a romantic appeal. Along the coast are constant soothing winds, a rhythmic ebb and flow of waves and an air that is alive with the music of sea birds. While you may spot long horizontal islands greying into the distance, many are not even inhabited. The gravelly sand beaches are usually barren of people and they mingle with rugged headlands that either slope into or abruptly butt up against the ever-fluctuating level of sea water.
The mountains here, mostly known as a Ben, are bare massifs reaching into the sky, displaying textured surfaces depicting a multitude of ancient geology, yet Skye’s unique black igneous Cuillin peaks are striking with their craggy black pinnacles, all neatly girdled by spongy neon green grasses. Some say it’s bleak here, but it’s a world with a comfortable predictability, where you can enjoy the details nearby and be appreciative of the surroundings where you fit in.
Passing across the moorland, overseen by bald rocky massifs, we spot a medieval castle and I imagine myself transported back in time… centuries ago.
It’s a stunning drive in Argyll, alongside Loch Lomond’s western shoreline of inviting beaches interspersed with pine treed sections. At the village of Luss, we stop at the Colquhoun Arms Pub talking with locals, then stroll quaint streets of adorable homes to a small old Kirk with its unique cemetery. It‘s unique and exclusive, as all the headstones are named Colquhoun, not surprising as Luss is within the region from where my husband’s Colquhoun ancestry first originated.
At the head of Loch Fyne, connected to the sea by the Firth of Clyde, we come to the white-washed village of Inveraray. Inveraray Castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Argyll, Clan Campbell, since the 13th century and its four imposing turrets are grandly impressive. The present Duke’s estate, as one of the top seven landowners in the United Kingdom, is estimated to be in excess of 50,000 acres, including the town of Inveraray.
Driving beyond, beside the long inland Loch Awe, we catch a glimpse of a recognizable historic landmark, the skeleton shell of the ruined Kilchurn Castle. This medieval Campbell stronghold has seen as many festivities as it has skirmishes, yet even though its stone walls are crumbling, the single remaining turret reminds us that it will stoically endure time and continue to proudly guard the north end of Loch Awe.
We follow the Glen Orchy River, spotting fly fishermen patiently gaming as the waters dance and swerve around stone piles and off layered rock ledges around them. Approaching the next valley are the imposing peaks of the famous Glen Coe, where we reminisce fateful days during February of 1692, when the Duke of Argyll’s regiment massacred 32 Macdonald clan people, as a rationale for their non-allegiance with the Crown. This controversial event has never been forgotten as it occurred after the Macdonald’s had comfortably hosted their assailants for days before. The foothills look inviting, so we set out walking straight up the side of the mountain along a pathway that is damp and boggy in sections. Just as we reach a little stream, we notice a relic hundreds of years old, a perfect narrow Roman bridge, so well-built that not a stone is out of place.
ISLE OF MULL
Passing through Oban, gateway to the western Isles, we board a car ferry and sail westward. Welcoming us to the Isle of Mull is the clifftop Duart Castle with its imposing presence aptly named in Gaelic Dubh Ard, meaning ‘Black Point’. The Maclean landmark has staunchly hugged this rocky outcrop for over 600 years and is a forbidding sentinel, strategically overlooking three bodies of water; the Sound of Mull, where the Firth of Lorne enters Loch Linnhe. The keep of Duart Castle fell into ruin at the end of the 15th c., then was restored in the early 20th c.
Iona, tiniest most westerly isle off the south west tip of Mull, is where Scotland’s first Christian roots took hold. St. Columba established a Kirk and monastery here in the 6th c. It’s a very poignant place, where Scottish kings were buried in the Celtic Middle Ages. Beside the restored Kirk stand three huge Celtic crosses, all reclaimed from the sea.
Driving the single lane road around the west side of Ben More is one of Scotland’s most breathtaking experiences. It’s an amusing journey with moments watching wandering sheep and Highland cattle cross the road, but just at the pinnacle of the mountain pass, as you come up and over a knoll and go into Loch Na Keal inlet, the view westward, looking towards Ulva, takes your breath away. This spectacular view shows dozens of long low islands like an armada of ships heading into safe harbor. The road turns east here, up Loch Na Keal, and hugs the base of the steep sided Balnahard headland, before winding around many bays and promontories to the beautiful beach at Calgary Bay.
Few people live on Mull, as during the famine and hardship of the Highland Clearances in the late 1700s, the people were forced to leave and make way for sheep, otherwise they may have never left this beautiful land by choice. After walking barefoot along a deserted Calgary Bay beach, we stay at an adorable country B & B near the picturesque crescent-shaped, seaside village known as Tobermory. After dining well on local catch and sleeping soundly, our adventure continues next morning, by ferry to the mainland. From Kilchoan we travel inland up the Ardnamurchan promontory, along the north side of the great Loch Sunart, past Salen to the end of Loch Shiel. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in the 1740s, while trying to regain his throne and was safely guided to Glenfinnan by seven courageous men, immortalized to this day by seven huge Beech trees.
ISLE OF SKYE
From Mallaig we take the ferry across the Sound of Sleat to Armadale Castle, of the Donald/MacDonald clans, past Talisker Distillery and then on to Portree, in sight of the Old Man of Storr rock pinnacle. We stay in Staffin with a most amazing view of lush rolling hills, a few scattered crofts and the giant ‘crouching’ Panther Island in the distance. Next day we hike the Quiraing, an ancient secret pastureland, covered in thick spongy green. This stunning trail of black rock follows along the edge of a dramatic ridge, the Trothernish Pass, next to huge monoliths of steep-sided rock. This fabulous hike, touted as being at the highest point on Staffin, has amazing views and although the pathway is not technical, it has precipitous slanted sections.
We visit the MacLeod Clan’s Dunvegan Castle, ‘Dun Bhegan’, whose chief has survived eight centuries, through government challenges and environmental disasters. The MacLeod’s lands, although diminished from former glory, once included both Lewis and Harris, Raasay and even the tiny St. Kilda, until the 1930s. The castle grounds have beautiful northern gardens and many oceanside viewpoints, including a private seal habitat. Skye’s dramatic ocean viewpoints are gorgeous and seeing the Cuillin mountains and seaside Kilt waterfalls gives us one of life’s most spectacular views, especially when the sun shines.
Taking the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh we visit Clan MacRae’s remote Eilian Donan Castle, situated on an island where Lockalsh meets Loch Duich. It has a precarious history, but it is still one of the most photographed castles in Scotland.
On the mainland, away from winds and sea salt we notice a proliferation of rhododendron bushes, bursting with hundreds of showy pink clumps of blooms. Passing through Shieldaig and into Wester Ross, we go whale watching near Gairloch, then over a mountain pass into Poolewe and the famous seaside Inverewe garden. These northern grounds, whose flowers, shrubs and trees include specimens from all over the world, are thriving because of their unique location beside the warming influence of the Gulf Stream.
Driving along the headland to Cove, the single lane gravel road rolls over hills of endless grasses, sprinkled with grazing sheep. We visit several nights in this tiny community of three crofts and a couple of trees, at the home of long-time friends, in a cozy, two-room croft, owned by the MacKenzie Clan.
During our stay we hike the Slattadale Pass, which follows beside Loch Maree with impressive viewpoints. It’s a lonely place as the winds get gusty up here, yet we still put our ceremonial stone on the mound at the summit.
On our last night in Cove we take our final stroll down by the water’s edge, to the surreal natural sea arch, where stray seals like to lounge on the rocks. Fortunately, I have images to remind me of these powerful memories, places we have experienced during our travels on these magnificent shorelines, overlooked by mountains of the western isles of Scotland.
Written & Photographed by Cynthia Percival