Scottish Highlands: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland

I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.

Heading back to the Scottish mainland

It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.

Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.

Above, and below, the train crossing the viaduct

The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.

The Glenfinnan Monument

Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.

From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.

Stopping to take in the view of Ben Nevis, and below, hiking at Glencoe

Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.

Above, and below, hiking to the Lost Valley at Glencoe

The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!

It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.

After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.

McCaigs Tower in Oban, and below, views from the tower

We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.

After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.

On the ferry to the Isle of Mullfrom Oban

With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.

On the boat to the Isle of Mull

The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.

This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

On the Isle of Mull, and below, arriving on the Isle of Iona

Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.

Fingal’s Cave

Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.

Peering into the cave

The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.

Puffins on Staffa Island, and below, exploring the island

We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.

After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.

Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.

Above, and below, visitng Iona Abbey

Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.

We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.

That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!

Scottish Highlands: Isle of Skye

Heading over the sea to Skye

Following a trip to the Orkney Islands for a friend’s wedding, I was half way through a 7 day small group tour of the Scottish Highlands with Macbackpackers. Since leaving Edinburgh we had travelled north past Inverness to Loch Ness before catching the ferry across from Ullapool to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Today, after waking up in our blackhouse accommodation on Lewis, we were travelling south into Harris to catch the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

Visiting Flora Macdonald’s grave

Arriving in Tarbert, we were told we’d once again be boarding the ferry on foot, our guide driving the minibus on and meeting us on board. Tickets in hand we had a bit of free time before the departure so we spent it looking around the gift store at the nearby Isle of Harris Distillery before settling down at a table in its cafe for a mid-morning snack of tea and cake!

The ferry crossing took just under 2 hours. It was a much nicer day than it had been for our crossing to the Isle of Lewis and Harris a few days earlier and I spent most of the time out on the deck hoping (but failing) to spot some wildlife.

Coastal views at Duntulm, and below, walking towards Duntulm Castle

Once on the Isle of Skye, we didn’t waste any time, continuing our Scottish adventure by driving to Duntulm Castle. Along the way, we made a stop at a cemetery to see the grave of Flora Macdonald, our guide telling us the story of how she famously helped ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ evade capture following the Battle of Culloden in the 1700s.

Then it was on to Duntulm where we were dropped at a nearby viewpoint from which we walked along the coast path towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle.

Views hiking the Quiraing

After spending some time enjoying the views and taking photos of and with the castle ruins, we walked back to the minibus ready to continue to our next stop, The Quiraing. Formed by a huge landslip, The Quiraing is now said to provide some of the most spectacular landscape in Scotland.

After parking in a nearby road, our guide led us towards the rocky hills and cliff in front of us and started following a steep path up into them.

While it was difficult to keep up sometimes, most of the group having to stop to catch our breath as we climbed the steep, grassy hillside, it was definitely worth it as we were soon met with stunning views stretching out in front of us.

Sitting on a cliff top, we then downed water and caught our breath again before beginning the almost as difficult descent and returning to our bus. We then continued our drive through Skye.

Above, watching the sheep shearing, and below, walking to Lealt Falls

Our next stop was at Lealt Falls. Just before we arrived, we spotted some sheep shearing going on at a farm we were passing so pulled over to get a closer look!

Arriving at the falls, we followed the path to a viewing point from where we could see the waterfall in the distance then carried on following the path around to a coast path with some pretty views of a beach below.

Lealt Falls in the distance

With early evening now approaching, it was back on the bus to drive to the nearby town of Portree. We made a quick stop along the way to see famous Isle of Skye landmark, the Old Man of Storr, a distinctive rock formation high up on a hillside then arrived in the pretty harbour town of Portree for a spot of shopping to top up on snacks for the next day.

Our final destination on the Isle of Skye was in Kyleakin, a seaside village on the east coast.

Sunset at Kyleakin

Here, we were spending one night in a local hostel. Unlike at other hostels where the only other people in our dorms had been other members from our group tour, here we found we had all been split up with some of us sharing dorms with other people who just happened to be staying there that night but it was nice to get the chance to speak to other people and hear their stories of their experiences in Scotland so far.

We had arranged to all meet to walk to one of the local pubs for dinner. When we arrived it was way busier than we had expected but after a bit of a wait, we were eventually all seated in small groups and couldn’t wait to tuck in to our ‘pub grub’.

As we walked back to the hostel afterwards, the sun was just starting to set.

It had been a busy but fun day exploring the Isle of Skye.

Tomorrow, we’d be up early to drive to Armadale and catch a ferry back to the mainland and continue our adventure.

Scottish Highlands: Outer Hebrides

Visiting the Isle of Lewis and Harris

A rainy day on the ferry from Ullapool

Having decided to tour the Scottish Highlands to justify the cost of flying north for a wedding in Orkney, I was one day in to a small group tour with Macbackpackers. We awoke this morning in our hostel dorm on the banks of Loch Ness after a busy first day travelling there from Edinburgh and following breakfast in the hostel’s common area, we loaded up the minibus, climbed on board and set off for Ullapool. From here, we’d be boarding a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, spending 2 nights on the Isle of Lewis and Harris.

Arriving in Ullapool ahead of schedule, we were given our tickets to board the ferry as foot passengers – our guide would be driving the minivan on board and then meeting on the ferry – and then had just under an hour of free time. It was pouring in rain so we decided to spend this time in a local cafe drinking tea and sampling the homemade cakes before walking over to the ferry terminal in time to board.

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

It took just under 3 hours to make the crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis during which time we amused ourselves playing I-Spy type games, going for walks out on the deck to enjoy the views once the rain had stopped and looking around the ferry’s gift stores and cafes, buying some snacks for lunch.

As we approached Stornoway, we all made our way back to the minivan parked in the bowels of the ferry and once we had docked, our guide drove us off the boat and back onto dry land.

Above, and below, views from the coastal walk at the Butt of Lewis

From the ferry terminus, we drove straight to the most northerly point of the island, known as the Butt of Lewis. Parking up by the lighthouse, our guide then lead us on a circular walk along the cliff tops with some beautiful coastal views along the way.

After our walk, we made a quick supermarket stop to pick up supplies for the next few days then drove towards our accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we’d be staying at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in a restored traditional Scottish blackhouse built in the 1800s.

View of the beach from outside our Blackhouse and above, our Blackhouse accommodation

We had a building to ourselves – a large, stone blackhouse with a dorm at each end of the building and a common area and kitchen in the middle. The building was situated right on the coast and after settling in a few of us went for a walk down to the beach before dinner. We spent the rest of the evening cooking another group meal then chatting and playing party games over drinks.

Dun Carloway Broch

We got to have a slight lie in the next morning then after breakfast, boarded the minibus to be taken to our first stop – Dun Carloway Broch, a stone structure found only in Scotland which was thought to have been constructed around 200BC. The Broch had recently been closed after becoming unstable so we had to admire it from afar but the museum was open giving us a chance to learn more about it and see what it would have looked like inside.

Sheep near the Broch

As we left the Broch, we were excited to see a huge herd of sheep being driven down the middle of the narrow country lane as they moved fields!!

Then it was back onto the minibus to head to our next stop, another ancient structure, the Callanish Stones.

Above, and below, visiting the Callanish Stones

Similar to the stones I had seen in Orkney a few days earlier, the Callanish Stones are large, ancient stones arranged in a stone circle with a central stone in the centre. We spent some time exploring the site as well as making use of the facilities including a cafe.

Above, beginning our hike, and below, hiking on the cliffs at Bosta Beach

Stop number 3 of our busy day on the Isle of Lewis was at Bosta Beach. Here we went on a lengthy circular hike up onto the cliff tops. The views along the way were incredible and we finished off with a walk down onto the sands.

Miavaig Harbour

We made a quick lunch stop next at Miavaig Harbour where some of the group chose to sample the fresh seafood. Then, after a snack and petrol stop, it was on to Uig Bay where we walked along the beautiful, huge expanse of sand at Acosta Beach, paddling in the sea when we finally reached it!

Mangersta Sea Stacks

The rain started to set in just as we left and it started to really pour down as we drove to our final stop of the day, the Mangersta Sea Stacks. With the rain not showing any signs of abating, the stop was a lot quicker than we had originally planned with most of us having a quick look and taking a photo before jumping back on to the minibus.

Looking back at the beach while taking a cliff top walk from the Blackhouse Village

Back at our blackhouse accommodation, we cooked dinner and had a quiet night relaxing and an early night – we had an earlier start the next morning to drive down to the ferry terminal on the Isle of Harris (not actually a separate island to Lewis but just the southern third of the island!).

From here, we’d be catching the ferry across to the Isle of Skye.

Up and ready early the next day, a few of us took a walk along the cliff tops, following the coastal path from the Blackhouse Village and back. Then, it was time to load up the minibus, wave goodbye to the Isle of Lewis and Harris and set off for our next destination.