Lisa Drewe, author of Islandeering, explains why Scotland’s archipelagos are the best in the world, and how an obsession for wild places led her to write a book.
Who hasn’t had an island dream during a busy day, when the idyll of a remote white sand beach surrounded by sparkling waters and the sounds of nature gives that vision of escape?
And what better way to imbibe all the wonderful wildness and adventure of an island than to islandeer – to circumnavigate its outer edge, using wit and skill to traverse the frontier between land and sea.
I have dreamed of islandeering my whole life, and for over 30 years travelled the globe seeking islands to walk, cycle or swim around.
Then several years ago, during a sea kayaking trip in Ullapool, I realised that the archipelagos of Scotland are the best in the world. That moment seeded what has now become an obsession and a quest to chart routes around the edge of the very best tiny islands of Scotland, exploring the foreshore and seascapes, wildlife, history and people and finding the adventure on the way.
Perhaps the most accessible Scottish archipelago is the Firth of Clyde with its two incredible pilgrimage destinations.
On Holy Island expect to share the short boat ride across with monks and retreaters heading to live in a tranquil Buddhist community amongst white stuppas and fluttering prayer flags beneath the towering mountains of Arran. Then Davaar offers a stunning cave painting depicting the crucifixion and with the easy tidal crossing from Campbeltown and shore scramble it makes a great family adventure.
For sacred prehistory, mountain seascapes and earth-shattering geology the Inner Hebrides have it all. These islands are readily accessible from both Oban and Mallaig and offer a huge range of interest and activity. There is a wonderful tidal crossing from Colonsay to Oronsay to explore the fabulous ruins of a medieval priory with its superb stone crosses and carved grave slabs and to experience the stunning white beaches and incredible views across to the majestic peaks of Jura and Islay.
From Oban you can also reach the delightful island of Kerrera and its popular tearoom. Drag yourself away from the rhubarb and custard cake though and the free-range route explores the atmospheric ruins of Gylen Castle, raised beaches and caves of the north coast and Slatrach Bay where you can pause to watch the otters. Neighbouring Luing, with its fascinating slate mining heritage, is top of the list for getting your personal best in stone skimming, exploring vast slate quarries and picking up some delicious home baking on the way.
Even the well-known islands like Iona are full of surprises. On the undiscovered islandeering route I found myself alone in quiet coves, a secret cave and marble mines whilst the Abbey and village were packed with tourists. An island of contradictions, the second surprise was seeing my first corncrake in the hotel shrubbery once the last ferry had departed for Mull.
My local island is the virtually unknown Oronsay, linked by a tidal bar from Skye. From its lofty vantage point the views of the jagged Cuillins and Outer Hebrides are hard to beat and the large, colourful sea cave below is fabulous for a low-tide adventure. For a completely different perspective of the Hebrides the route around the Isle of Muck climbs Beinn Airein and finishes in the cosy café to catch up on island life with the friendly locals.
A personal favourite, and only a short drive from Mallaig, is the adventurers’ island of Eileen Shona which can be circumnavigated in a challenging day walk or by staying in one of its enchanting cottages to more deeply connect with its ancient and magical woods, stunning swimming beaches or to forage for its giant mussels and clams.
For some of the finest beaches and seascapes in the world there are the superlative islands of the Outer Hebrides – a hundred-mile necklace of inter-connected islands at the Atlantic edge of our nation. Their west coasts stand up to the rolling Atlantic Ocean, its breakers losing energy on their powder white beaches with the colourful machair the boundary between land and sea. The islands brim with extraordinary wildlife, history and landscapes and the book selects some of the very best.
In the south there are wild and remote routes around Eriskay and Vatersay where I’ve tripped over otters, walked alongside dolphins feeding just metres away, glimpsed the rare Eriskay ponies and spotted sea eagles and golden eagles soaring the ridges. The undiscovered sparkling sands of Vallay, reached by an adventurous tidal crossing from North Uist, are an incredible place to spend a night under the stars next to the roaring ocean. For astonishing history the free-range route around Great Bernera visits a replica Iron Age village, Norse Mill and the memorial cairn to the brave crofters who launched the opening salvo in the fight for land reform.
Furthest away and perhaps the wildest and woolliest, the Orkney archipelago makes for the perfect islandeering trip. I love the simplicity of setting up camp in Kirkwall, jumping on a ferry to a different island every morning and being amazed by something different on every route. Rich in natural wonders and wildlife it also boasts the densest concentration of prehistoric monuments in Britain, Norse remains and military ruins from two world wars.
South Walls has some of the most remarkable natural coastal formations in the UK with gurgling gloups, soaring sea stacks and precipitous cliffs topped by Cantick Head lighthouse – a great place to spot whales, orcas and dolphins. Then a stone’s throw away over Scapa Flow, Flotta is a destination for those interested in naval history. Once Britain’s chief naval base during both world wars it brims with abandoned military buildings that echo with the lives of the thousands of sailors once based here. The bagpipe-playing Flotta penguins are a good spot if you miss the puffins and nesting seabirds around Stanger Head.
Whilst I love the solitude of the uninhabited islands, the places where I can be myself and only nature intervenes, I also love meeting the lively communities of other islands and for this Papa Westray is the best. Expect to be invited to the weekly coffee and cake morning and the other activities of the week. The wildlife here is vibrant too with diving skuas and artic terns enjoying the energetic meeting point of two oceans at the northern tip. Its mind-blowing history spans from Neolithic remains to a medieval chapel with magical healing powers and a church that’s one of the oldest Christian sites in Scotland. Finally, at the furthest edge of the archipelago, North Ronaldsay is famed for the tasty mutton of its seaweed eating sheep and the dry-stone wall, the route for the walk, that keeps them shoreside. It is also an incredible spot for bird and marine life that may even include the odd walrus or two.
‘Islomania’ was first coined by Lawrence Durrell who described people who find islands somehow irresistible, the mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. Perhaps I’m an islomaniac, but it’s a good thing. Whatever your interest and need I can guarantee that you’ll find walking the outer edge of the islands of Scotland addictive. They are all so remarkable in their own way and to an islandeer every island is a treasure island.
Islandeering: Adventures Around the Edge of Britain’s Hidden Islands by Lisa Drewe is out now, published by Wild Things Publishing at £16.99, www.wildthingspublishing.com