Fifteen years ago, a bridge was opened to span the half kilometre of water between Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. It revolutionised vehicle travel to the Western Isles, hitherto largely dependent upon ferries or short-haul flights. It now meant that instead of catching the CalMac from Mallaig to Armadale, those seeking to explore this most romantically associated Hebridean island could now, as an alternative, make their own way (now toll-free) to the small island towns of Broadford, Armadale, Portree and Uig. For the islanders, who were initially resistant to change, the commercial opportunities eventually escalated.
Of all of Scotland’s islands, Skye resounds to the memory of that summer night in 1746 when the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed at Portree disguised as a woman and escaped to France right under the noses of Government troops. Commemorated in perhaps the most lyrical and famous of Scottish songs, that story is now etched into the psyche of every expatriate Scot, regardless of the political allegiances followed by their ancestors.
Twenty first century Skye, however, flourishes with a mixed economy of tourism, agriculture, fishing and Scotch whisky blending and distillation. A relative newcomer is the Gaelic language college Sabhal Mõr Ostaig, opened in 1973, but undeniably appropriate for an island where in the last century more than 75 per cent of the native population spoke the language.
Its decline proved a debatable obstacle to those determined to preserve a fading Hebridean culture. At the last census there were approximately 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, approximately 1.2 per cent of the population, and these were largely located in the Western Isles. Whether or not bi-lingual road signs can really make a difference remains to be seen in an age when the seductive and destructive influences of the outside world are impossible to ignore.
Key visitor attractions on the Isle of Skye are, on the west coast, Dunvegan Castle, ancestral stronghold of Clan Macleod, and, to the south, the Clan Donald Visitor Centre at Armadale Castle. While visiting Dunvegan, a diversion to the Talisker Distillery overlooking Loch Harport, is recommended. To the north, the spectacular Cuillin mountains soar into the sky, circled by golden eagles. This is a wild and dramatic landscape is very popular with the world’s mountaineers.
To the south, the scenery is less hostile. At Eilean Iarmain, the former merchant banker Sir Iain Noble’s company Pràban na Linne blends Mac na Mara (“son of the sea”), Tè Bheag nan Eilean (“wee dram of the isles”) and Poit Dhubh (“black pot”).
Of course no visit for the whisky lover would be complete without a stop at Talisker. Built in 1831 at Carbost, the distillery operates five stills, two wash stills and three spirit stills. Talisker, know for its spicer peppery notes, was the favourite whisky of writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Vollam Morton.
The Scottish Government-owned Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk
) has a virtual monopoly on west coast sea transport and its chief mainland access points are from Ardrossan, for Arran; from Kennacraig on Kintyre for Islay and Jura; Oban for Colonsay and Oronsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree and Barra; from Uig on Skye for North Uist and Harris, and from Ullapool for Lewis.
For those with a genetic Western Isles connection, there is an almost spiritual response when the subject arises; a glazed, far-away expression transforms the faces. They will, in the words of an old Hebridean saying, “have seen the Uists.”
More than a thousand years ago, a kingdom was created out of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, from the Butt of Lewis to the north, to the Isle of Man off the coast of England to the south. The centre of this kingdom which comprised a necklace of uniquely individual islands in eastern extremities of the Atlantic Ocean, was Islay, mediaeval seat of the all powerful lords of the Isles.
In the 12th century Somerled, Lord of Argyll and the Isles, unable to overcome the constant threat of Norse invasion, married Ragnhildis, daughter of King Olave the Red of Norway. Through marriage and subsequent conquest, this warrior chief acquired supreme power throughout a seascape region of scattered communities, all paying homage to their overlord.
Today, Islay has a rather different celebrity status being notable for its eight distilleries – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavlin, Laphroaig, and the more recent Kilchoman, opened in 2004. Each produces a rich and peaty single malt which somehow defines the island, as does the single malt found on adjacent Jura.
After Somerled’s death, his territories were dispersed among his sons, and through them descend the great Western Highland and Island clans of MacDougall of Argyll and Lorne, and Clan Donald, otherwise known as the MacDonalds of Islay. Their great castles, and the largely ruined fortifications of those who followed them, can still be found: Finlaggan on Islay, Duart on Mull, Kisimul on Barra, Armadale, Uisdein, Dunvegan and Duntulm on Skye, and Borve on Benbecula. In the 19th century, rich industrialists paid out fortunes to create great mansion houses in homage to their wealth: Torosay Castle on Mull, Kinloch Castle on Rum, and Amhuinnsidhe on Harris, and Lews Castle on Lewis.
They came here for the sporting life, salmon fishing and stalking the deer, and, in common with the tourists of today, to breathe in the overwhelming tranquillity of the big sky and vast, restless ocean. In the 19th century, writers such as George Orwell and Sir Compton Mackenzie sought inspiration here. Scotland’s Western Isles remain among the last, genuinely unspoiled wilderness areas of the planet and you never get tired of exploring them.
South east of Jura are the Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. The latter is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and run as a conservation area. Rum is owned by the Nature Conservancy Council and an important study site for Red Deer conservation. Both Muck and Eigg are privately owned, self-sufficient island communities and popular anchorages for the seasonal west coast sailing fraternity.
From Craignure, the ferry terminal on Mull close to the birthplace of Lachlan MacQuarrie, the “father” of modern Australia, the A848 sweeps north along the coastline to the picture postcard village of Tobermory. Notable for its distillery, and the Spanish galleon which sank in the bay following the Spanish Armada of 1588, the multi-coloured sea front here featured as the backdrop for the immensely popular children’s television series Balamory. South east from Craignure, the A849 runs past the ancient clan Maclean clifftop castle of Duart, and onward to Fionnphort, the ferry port for the sacred island of Iona.
Some 10 miles east of Mull, I have on two occasions sailed around the extraordinary pillar island of Staffa and peered deep into the magical Fingal’s Cave with the sound of Felix Mendelssohn’s inspired Hebridean Overture ringing in my ears. Nobody could ever suggest that the Western Isles is deplete of wonders. To the south of Mull, below Scarba, you can hear the roar of Corryvreckan, the “cauldron of the plaid”, the third largest whirlpool in the world - a great place to enjoy a malt.
There is an old saying in the Western Isles that at the time of the Biblical flood, the MacNeil of Barra had his own boat. Such was the island way of life then and now. Today, the 47th McNeill of Barra , whose father tutored Barack Obama in law, still has a home on the island and his ancestral stronghold of Kisimul continues to loom over the island’s Castlebay. It is open to the public during the summer months. Barra was the setting for the famous 1954 Ealing Comedy film Whisky Galore. Today it boasts a toffee factory and has planning permission for a brand new distillery at Borve. The island of Mingulay, subject of another Scottish song, is situated off-shore.
With ferries and flights now available on the Sabbath, a service that was controversially introduced last year, times are changing on our final island of Lewis. Stornoway, the capital town of Lewis and home of the Western Island Council, has a rich maritime industry, but an unfortunate reputation for subsistence survival which dates from when it was owned by the Edwardian soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme. In recent years, however, the local economy has diversified into IT and modest wind-power generation.
There are also two remaining Harris Tweed mills – Carloway and Shawbost - which, with appropriate Government funding and a more united front, are in a position to revive the manufacture, sales and reputation of one of the finest and endurable fashion fabrics in the world.
Whisky also weaves its way through this island with then recently opened Abhainn Dearg. This farm house distillery, at Carnish, Uig has already released its first spirit, and the founder, Mark Tayburn, was determined to produce a whisky that was unique to Lewis and to be able to have it on sale to the visitors who attend the MOD in 2011.
On Lewis, I inevitably find my way to Callanish, another good place to savour an outdoor malt, to marvel at the regiment of wind-polished standing stones dating from 2900 BC. Such survivors of a bygone, undocumented age are curiously reassuring in a self-destructive world, and on a clear day, as I pause beside the Visitor Centre to look south towards the hills of Harris which form the shape of the mystical “Sleeping Beauty” mountain, so called because the horizon resembles the profile of a reclining woman, the troubles of every day existence evaporate like morning mist.