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Scottish island bagging: three must-visit islands

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Helen Webster, co-author of a new guidebook, Scottish Island Bagging – The Walkhighlands Guide to the Islands of Scotland, picks out some of her favourite islands with a rich history.

Before the building of roads, the seas around Scotland were the motorways of their time. Considered remote today, places such as Orkney or Iona were once major centres of civilisation, leaving them rich in historic sites. Scotland boasts almost an embarrassment of islands, each with their own individual character and histories.

We run the Walkhighlands website and spend as much time as possible exploring Scotland on foot. We’ve always loved visiting Scottish islands, there’s something magical about setting foot on the ferry, paddling across tidal sands, or boarding a tiny boat to leave the mainland behind.

As well as being amongst the first places to be settled in prehistoric times, many Scottish islands were visited or became home to Norse and Irish seafarers, others were sought out by religious travellers who established monasteries, seats of learning and the arts, or hermits' retreats. Ways of life developed that were distinct to each island, with some remote places such as St Kilda remaining almost untouched by modern life until the early 20thcentury.

Our latest book focuses on Scottish islands, encouraging people to really explore these beautiful and fascinating places through the best experiences they can offer. The book features the 99 islands that have regular trips or means of access for visitors, and over fifty other islands of significant size or interest. Although it’s hard to choose favourites, I’ve picked out three islands with experiences that help you get a peek into the past.

Rousay

Rousay is a must for any island bagger with an keen interest in the past, offering an amazing range of archaeological sites yet far from the tourist circuit of Mainland Orkney. This small but hilly island is one of great character, deserving a full exploration. The car ferry runs from Tingwall – if you are taking a vehicle it’d good to be aware that you will have to reverse either on or off. Just over 200 people live on the island, which has a primary school and a cafe/pub.

A short walk along the coast at West Side leads through thousands of years of history. First up is Mid Howe Cairn – a huge chambered burial cairn where human remains were placed in separate stalls within the 4,000 year structure. Today a modern building protects the old from the elements, so that the cairn remains as well preserved as when it was first excavated in 1932.

Just a short stroll along the coast is a large and very well-preserved iron-age broch, perched right on the waters’ edge. You can still see the double-wall construction of this defensive building. For a chance to watch modern day time-teamers in action head back along the coast, passing the 16th-century St Mary’s Kirk to reach the site of the archaeological dig at Swandro. Every summer archaeologists and students descend on the site keen to uncover the secrets of the Pictish and Viking buildings before storms and rising sea levels take their toll.

Erraid

There is something truly special about walking across the soft, sea-rippled sandy strait that separates Erraid from Mull. If you have a kayak you can instead land at the bay where David Balfour came ashore having been shipwrecked in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped. The magnificent Skerryvore lighthouse, built between 1838 and 1844 with great engineering ingenuity and hardship for the workers, lies 45km out to sea from here. It was built by Thomas Stevenson of the famous family of lighthouse builders. His son Robert Louis spent much time as a child on the island and was inspired by the landscape when he came to write Kidnapped.

Part way up the path to Erraid’s high point, Dun Mor, stands a small white rocket-like building. This served as a relay station sending messages to the Skerryvore light. It now houses an exhibition about the history of the lighthouse; you are more or less guaranteed to have the place to yourself. The top of Dun Mor, despite being only 70 metres above sea level, has stunning views over all the neighbouring islets as well as Iona and much of Mull – scan the horizons to try and spot distant Skerryvore.

Oronsay

This fascinating island lies just off the southern shore of Colonsay. Crossing the tidal strip of exposed sand known as the Strand at low tide to visit it from its larger neighbour is a must. Check the tide times very carefully; usually a fair bit of paddling will be required – and you may see the post office van splashing through the shallows to deliver to the island. The island is home to eight people but there are no facilities for visitors.

St Columba is said to have landed here in the 6th century on his way to Iona. You can visit the 14th-century ruined priory, complete with an ossuary where you’ll see human skulls and bones. Outside is a very fine carved Celtic cross. As long as you cross the Strand on a receding tide you should have time to walk to the Priory and visit one of the fine beaches before heading back so the tide doesn’t cut you off.

Scottish Island Bagging – The Walkhighlands Guide to the Islands of Scotland is published 3 October 2019. It is available to pre-order at 20% off from the publishers Vertebrate.

Focusing on the 99 islands that have regular trips or means of access for visitors, plus 55 other islands which have no regular transport but are still of significant size or interest, the authors have described the best ways to experience each one.

Back to Exploring Scotland

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