Staycation in the Scottish Highlands and Islands

Through the viewfinder with Liz Barry

Exploring by car on the beautiful Isle of Mull proved to be a photographer’s dream assignment. Wherever you looked there were so many photo opportunities to capture, especially with Mull’s amazing landscape of rivers and mountains

Usually my travels take me further afield, but like many of you I thought it would be sensible to opt for a staycation this year. This led me to explore a part of our own beautiful country that I had never been to before.

Over two weeks, my partner Gareth and I combined a mix of Bed and Breakfast, camping and self-catering options and covered just over 1800 miles, travelling in his Land Rover Discovery up Scotland’s West Coast.

We broke the journey there and back with an over-night stay in Lancaster; a really nice town sitting on the River Lune, with meandering towpaths along the canal that runs through the centre. Lancaster Castle is owned by the Queen and was an operational prison until 2011. Many trials have been held within these walls including those of the Pendle Witches in 1612.

Top: The shores of Loch Lomond with swans and ducks Below: A lone tree on the banks of Loch Lomond with the distant Arrochar Alps

After waking to the sound of the river we enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the Wagon and Horses – a pub with rooms. We then travelled on to Loch Lomond, a lake in southern Scotland, part of the Trossachs National Park.

The next two nights we spent under canvas at the wild-style informal campsite operated by Forestry and Land Scotland at Sallochy on the Eastern shore. Surrounded by a 200-year old oak woodland, it is just footsteps away from a small pebbly beach and has views across the Loch towards the Arrochar Alps. We walked along paths that led through the woods, down to hidden beaches, the silence broken only by gentle waves lapping the shore – it’s an enchanting place.

Fortunately, next morning we were able to break camp before rain set in for the day and what would have been a scenic drive beside the Loch turned into a landscape of shadowy shapes shrouded by mist.

At Oban we stopped for supplies before catching a ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull, the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides after Skye.

The Isle of Mull, not a soul in sight, what could be more tranquil

Island hopping is easy and very reasonably priced. Operated by Cal Mac you can combine routes by buying a ‘hopscotch ticket’, which allowed us to sail to Mull, return to the mainland and take an onward ferry to the Isle of Skye (more about this island another time).

As afternoon approached the weather still hadn’t improved, a text alert to my phone warned the ferry may be cancelled as conditions were deteriorating. Our sailing went ahead though I spent the 45-minute crossing, ringing around trying to find a room for the night, instead of the campsite already booked. Due to Covid many places on Mull hadn’t opened so finding alternative accommodation wasn’t possible.

Pics above, top left: Island hopping on the car ferry from Oban to Craignure Top right: Traditional stone bridge over one of the many rivers we crossed Above: The picture postcard fishing port of Tobermory

So, it looked like we would be putting up our tent in a storm. We reached our campsite in Salen Bay only to discover our pitch was waterlogged, but fortunately due to a cancellation another was available. We sat in the Land Rover and waited for a lull in the storm, before hurriedly putting on wellies and waterproofs. After tussling with the wind, we managed to pitch the tent, anchoring additional ropes to our vehicle for that extra peace of mind. Ah, the joys of camping.

After a blustery night without much sleep, dawn brought calm, so we began to explore the unspoilt coastal landscape and mountains of Mull and visit the island’s picture postcard main town of Tobermory. Built as a fishing port in the late 18th century, within the woodland fringed bay, today the waterfront is lined with brightly painted buildings, eateries, hotels, guest houses and gift shops. A harbour scene familiar to many, as it is used as the setting for the children’s programme Balamory.

Mull and the nearby island of Iona are also ideal destinations for wildlife enthusiasts, there are whale and dolphin trips to spot sea life, lots of puffins to be seen during the summer and you may be lucky enough to see the rare Golden and White-tailed Eagles. Mull’s coastline is also home to otters, throughout the trip I constantly scanned the seaweed and rocks where they feed and groom, maybe their coats camouflaged them so well but the only one I saw was painted on a sign.

Approaching the Island of Iona from Mull. Note Iona Abbey on the right

Pics top left clockwise from top left: A fine example of a Highland cow – Beautifully carved bird in-flight on the Abbey’s pillars – The cloisters of the Abbey – A typical whitewashed Iona cottage

The following day we woke to cloudless blue skies and drove across the island to Fionnphort to catch another ferry to the tiny isle of Iona. Stopping along the way to photograph the imposing scenery, lucky my camera was to hand when I spotted a lone Highland cow standing on a beach. No sooner had I begun to photograph this fine specimen, his wavy ginger red coat glistening in the sun, when I heard a noise and turned just in time to see a steady stream of his shaggy companions exiting a field adjacent to the road. They sauntered across the road oblivious to the increasing line of cars they had brought to a halt.

Iona is a small crofting island inhabited by around 130 people, a place of peace and tranquillity, with a mysterious and spiritual past. Known as the ‘Holy Isle’ revered by many, it is a burial place to 48 Kings of Scotland including Macbeth. A place of welcome for centuries, in 563AD Saint Columba settled here to build Iona Abbey and spread Christianity to the Celts. It is believed the famous Celtic crosses were first created here. Traffic free except for those owned by the islanders or for deliveries, the narrow lanes weave between beautiful cottages, hotels with kitchen gardens, bees buzzing amongst the flower beds and rows of organic vegetables.

Shops sell local crafts and there is even a golf course manicured by sheep with the most stunning views of white sandy beaches. Sitting in the gardens of the St Colomba Hotel, sipping an ice-cold glass of wine, looking across the turquoise blue waters of the Sound of Iona, it certainly did feel like a mystical place.

The fishing port of Mallaig, the gateway to the Isle of Skye by boat

Next day we caught the ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan on the mainland, (just turn up no advance bookings) we drove up the northwest coast heading for an overnight stop in Mallaig a bustling working fishing port and gateway to the Isle of Skye.

Though we travelled along the famous Road to the Isles, classed as one of the best drives in Scotland with unforgettable sea views looking out to the small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna, once again rain and mist obscured the scenery.

The white and silver sands of Mora Bay just off the old coast road

Saturday, we woke to sunshine. As our ferry sailing to Armadale on the Isle of Skye wasn’t until 12.45 there was time for a short drive back along the old coast road between Arisaig and Mallaig, passing the silver sands of Morar beside a coastline of sheltered white sandy beaches. Naturally beautiful, the rugged coastline is dotted with rock pools and is perfect for beach combing. Walking barefoot through the shallow waters, the sun glinting off the sea, it felt as if I was in a tropical paradise and yet here I was in Scotland. I hadn’t had to pack my passport, get on a plane or quarantine, so I had definitely made the right choice to staycation

Gareth’s pride and joy

FACT FILE

Entering all shops in Scotland require a face mask to be worn. When driving on the Islands you have to negotiate frequent narrow, single-track, stretches with passing places.

Ferries www.calmac.co.uk
Wagon and Horses accomodation www.wagonandhorseslancaster.co.uk

Forestry Commission Scotland Campsites www.forestryandland.gov.scot

Salen Bay Campsite www.salenbaycampsite.co.uk

Springbank Guesthouse www.springbank-mallaig.co.uk

 

 

 

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