E&L Life columnist Gavin Graham has an ambition to walk on as many of Scotland’s islands as possible. He’s got more than nine hundred to choose from, so it may take some time…
In 2005. my friend John Irving and I set ourselves a target of walking on every inhabited Scottish Island with the plan being to either walk round them or to their highest point. To date we have visited 56 of the 80 on the list we’ve drawn up. Each one is different, with its own special attractions. I confess I do have favourites, but I have loved visiting them all and have been to places like Arran over a dozen times just because it’s so accessible.
Orkney is truly magical with a rich history stretching back over five thousand years, its Neolithic stone circle known as Ring of Brodgar is just one of many special places. It was on Orkney that we experienced the world’s shortest scheduled air service, when we flew from Westray to Papa Westray in a flight lasting just one minute and eighteen seconds.
We have been to the Shetland islands twice, firstly to see where Langholm’s own Hugh MacDiarmid lived on the Island of Whalsay for a number of years and the second time to visit Yell and Unst in the far north. My favourite memory is of sitting having a picnic lunch at the northern tip of Unst while Puffins played about our feet.
In all of these northern islands, the best time to visit is in May when there are long days, plenty of wildlife and no midges. Not all of our visits have been successful however. A planned visit to Fair Isle was delayed for four hours due to fog and we eventually made it there only to be told our scheduled return flight that afternoon had been cancelled. We had no accommodation booked on the island, so we just had 15 minutes on Fair Isle, then had to get back on the plane. We didn’t get our walk but the pilot very kindly took us on a low-level flight round the island before we headed back to Shetland airport.
The Outer Hebrides have some of the most wonderful white sandy beaches in the world but the sea can be very cold. We have visited most of the islands in this archipelago including landing on the beach airport at Barra and making our way from the southernmost island to the Butt of Lewis in the north.
The Inner Hebridean Islands are also very special with the many Whisky Distilleries on Islay and the ruggedness of Jura. The small island of Colonsay is a lovely place to go for a short break with a superb hotel and beautiful gardens.
Mull is easier to get to, with a number of islands close by, such as Iona, Ulva, and Gometra. When you consider that Mull is about half the area of the Lake District yet only has a population of about three thousand, it’s a great place to get away from people and watch the wonderful wildlife. When we visited Ulva, only half a dozen people lived there. Now the community has bought the island and its future looks very good so hopefully the population will increase. The route from the Boathouse Café on Ulva to the island of Gometra is one of the best walks in all of the islands and gives you a real feeling of isolation.
In the Clyde there are several easily accessible islands like Bute, Great Cumbrae, Little Cumbrae, and of course Arran, which is known as Scotland in miniature for very good reason and is easy to get to from Ardrossan in just under an hour. Arran has walks to suit all abilities. Getting to the top of Goatfell may be tough but the wonderful views from the summit make the effort more than worthwhile.
Finally, my most favourite island is Eigg, one of the Small Isles served by ferries from Mallaig and another that has been purchased by its community. This has been a real success story – the population has increased and the local school is thriving. The best island walk we have ever done is The Sgurr of Eigg. As you approach on the ferry, it looks as if it would be impossible to get to the top of this gigantic block of volcanic rock. Three of its sides are vertical but the fourth offers easier access with a narrow path. A little bit of a scramble gets you to the summit to be rewarded with the most wonderful view over the Small Isles.