Joyful Journey: Part 12 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isle of Iona

The Isle of Iona

”It seemed this small island was a shining beacon of learning, the arts and spirituality.” *

Iona 3

Iona Harbour looking across to the Isle of Mull

Iona is famous the world over – hailed as the cradle of Scottish Christianity.  Computer searches almost always start the island’s story in 563 AD when the Irish missionary, Columba, arrived there with twelve followers and founded Scotland’s first Christian church and monastery.  This over-simplifies history and does not do justice to this tiny dot in the Atlantic ocean that, since ancient times, has drawn pilgrims and scholars from far-flung places seeking healing of their souls; a place to lay down the burden of life for a short time; a chance to celebrate their Christian faith; a spiritual experience or for more secular reasons like historical or geological; architectural interest or just curiosity.  It is thought likely that Iona was a sacred place long before Columba arrived.  A Bronze Age burial ground is still in evidence and an Iron Age Vallum (earthwork enclosure) surrounds Iona Abbey rebuilt on the site of Columba’s original 6th century monastic community. The Vallum is evidence of an Iron Age hill fort.

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

It is probably a safe assumption that the majority of visitors to Iona are there to visit the abbey which stands atop the foundations of the original, built in the 12th century on the site of that first 6th century monastery; some to marvel at the medieval parts of the building still remaining; others to walk in the footsteps of a Saint.  For those who wish a comprehensive history of the abbey, its times of peace and those of violence and bloodshed, there are several internet sites devoted to the subject.  Suffice to say here that Kings, Lords, Clan Chiefs, assorted Norsemen including a Viking are buried there, some of their gravestones kept safe in a tiny museum housed in an 8th century chapel.  One Norse king became a monk at the abbey.

The island certainly has an other-worldy atmosphere.  Even though dozens of monks were slaughtered by the Vikings on Martyr’s Beach in 806 AD, I felt only a deep peace there.

Iona 1

Basalt fragments on the beach at Martyr’s Bay

The black, basalt fragments littering the beach were a reminder that this was only 8 miles from wild, rocky Staffa. The smooth rounded surfaces attested to the eons they had spent being polished by the waves.

In the mid 12th century, Somerled, King of the Isles, rebuilt the abbey, burnt by the Vikings during their last raid of Iona in 825AD, when the remaining monks were slain.  Many had fled to Europe or back to Ireland.  In 1200 AD, his son, Ranald, brought in Benedictine monks and also established an Augustine nunnery.  This was run as a retirement home for noble ladies of Argyll until its destruction during the Reformation. While the abbey and nunnery were dissolved and left in ruins, the magnetic draw of Iona as a place of importance persisted and in 1609 King James VI chose the island as the setting for the signing of the Statutes of Iona, designed to curb the power of the clans and their chiefs and to erase the cultural division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. For reasons unknown, the nunnery was never restored as was the abbey.  It remains the best example of medieval architecture anywhere in Scotland.


Nunnery Ruins and Ancient Graves

nunnery 1

Nunnery Ruins

nunnery 8

Nunnery doorway and ancient garden

Some of the gardens planted by the nuns of the island are still very much in evidence, some wild among the ruins, others lovingly tended by St Columba Hotel employees.

garden 2

St Columba Hotel’s Organic Garden

Abbey garden

Hotel Picnic Area

The road leading from the nunnery to the abbey and burial ground there is known as The Street of The Dead.  Of particular interest on this short route is a stone cross erected around 1500 AD.  Carved from one lump of granite, it is 3 metres high and known as MacLean’s Cross.  Anna MacLean was prioress at the nunnery at that time so no doubt there is a connection to her or her prominent family.  Facing the Atlantic ocean, unsheltered and having been exposed to the elements for over 500 years it is in amazingly good condition.  

ancient cross

MacLean’s Cross  circa 1500 AD

The building behind the cross is a restored 8th century chapel now a museum that houses gravestones and other ancient, well preserved relics. 

St Columba brought more than Christianity to Iona.  He built a library and scriptorium where much if the Book Of Kells was written. Wikipedia describes the work as ‘a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of insular illumination.’ For safekeeping from Vikings and other spoilers, it was taken from Iona perhaps, briefly, to Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. This less prominent monastic community was also targeted by Vikings, but the Book of Kells was taken to the safety of Ireland where it was completed, perhaps by some of those same monks who first created it before fleeing from the Vikings on Iona back to Ireland. It now has pride of place at Trinity College, Dublin and is considered Ireland’s finest national treasure.

Today, the hub of Iona is still around the abbey as it was in 6th century.  Life is more bucolic than academic, but religious faith, while not as obvious, is still represented by the Iona Community.

It is described as ‘a thin place’, meaning a place where there is only a flimsy veil between this world and that of those now passed to the realm of spirits.   Certainly something extraordinary has drawn and continues to draw legions of people to this tiny, pleasant but relatively unremarkable looking island.

Iona 6

Village and Iona Abbey 

Iona 2CalMac ferry leaving Iona with the Isle of Mull in the background.

* ‘It seems this small island was a shining beacon of  learning, the arts and spirituality’

Quotation from:

Joyful Journey: Part 11 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa

The Isle of Staffa   –  (Home of Fingal’s Cave)


The Isle of Staffa – a geological wonder

The name, ‘Staffa’, comes from an old Norse word meaning, ‘stave’ or ‘pillar’ island, named so by the Vikings since it reminded them of their houses which were  built of ‘vertically placed tree logs’.  (Wikipedia)  In 1772, Staffa was home to a single family living on oats, barley, flax and meat from their few livestock. The island was abandoned as a dwelling place in the late 19th century.  Deer, goats, cattle and, most recently, sheep, have alternately  grazed there, but the island’s stewards, The National Trust For Scotland, removed the last of them in 1997 to allow the unique plant life to regenerate and the natural occupants, mostly birds,  to come and go and thrive in peace and plenty.

Cave EntranceSituated 6 miles (10 kilometres) West of the Isle of Mull, Staffa has an area of 82 acres (32 hectares), with the highest point 138 feet (42 metres) above sea level. This tiny island hosts a wealth of treasures to delight the hearts of scientists; amateur geologists; wildlife enthusiasts; historians; photographers; lovers of the music of Mendelssohn; as well as anyone who appreciates the awesome beauty and miraculous diversity of the Inner Hebridean Islands.   

Fingal’s Cave

Fingal's CaveDuring May and June, atop the island, puffins come in great numbers to breed and nest.  Staffa also becomes home to a variety of  other migratory birds and large sea mammals.  So, too, come the season’s tourists to experience this thriving wildlife sanctuary, ancient geological wonder and one of the gems in the Sea Kingdom’s crown.   

Outside the scientific community, perhaps the biggest attraction on Staffa is the world reknowned ‘Fingal’s Cave’, largely made famous by being the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, popularly known by the name of this cave that inspired him  The spectacular cavern, known to the ancients as, ‘The Cave of Melodies’, was seen by the composer who visited there when paddle steamer tours began. So haunted was he by the wild beauty of the area and the sounds he heard inside the cave, he was compelled to write an overture in an attempt to capture both the cavern’s beauty, grandeur and acoustics as well as the wonders beyond, in this mysterious, unique, varied and unbelievably beautiful sea kingdom.  

Cave Entrance

Legend has it that The Giant’s Causeway, situated on Ireland’s NW coast and similarly constructed of basalt staves, was built by a giant called, ‘Fin’, and that Staffa is the other end of what was, 58 million years ago, a tidal highway between Ireland and Scotland.  A nineteenth century poet translated the Erse ‘Giant Fin’ as ‘Fingal’.

                                                                                          Mouth of Fingal’s CaveMouth of Fingal's Cave

The island is totally volcanic, with the basalt pillars resting on a basement of ‘tuff’, compressed volcanic ash and topped by a layer of volcanic debris and fragments of basalt.  Rich, fertile soil now covers the top layer.  The pillars are free standing and, over time, salt from the sea water seeps down behind those most exposed, eventually forcing them to break off.  Iona, a neighbouring island has beaches littered with black basalt fragments with pieces being found on shores for miles around. Formed around 58 million years ago, the sheer antiquity of the place is beyond words in the awesome department.  For those wishing more complete geological information, there are many suitable sites on the internet.  Wikipedia has an informative, interesting collection of facts that is not dry and within the capabilities of non-scientists.  Wikipedia was my main source of historical and geological facts.

Sounds are reproduced inside the cave and magnified by the acoustics provided by the vast, cathedral ceiling. During my visit, the sea was relatively calm and the water flowing and ebbing inside the cave was untroubled.  In spite of this, the glorious music of crashing waves was all around, relayed from an area of turbulence some distance away.  It was too late in the year for the hundreds of migratory birds and large sea mammals to be present in the natural orchestra that plays in Fingal’s Cave, but I hope to return when they do.

water music

Water Music


Weathered basalt columns,  (broken down by eons of crashing waves)

A handrail on the narrowest part of the path to the cave affords reassurance to nervous travellers.

On the way to the cave

Day Trippers on Staffa – The Way to Fingal’s Cave

The walk from the boat to the cave is surprisingly easy.  The broken pillars,worn down by tides make for pretty level going, the occasional slippery patch  being daubed with a non-slip substance. The staves have 3 to 8 sides, 6 being the most common.

The following video gives viewers a sense of the timelessness, wild beauty, and awesome grandeur of this tiny, 60 million year old island.

Staffa Tours

'Staffa' tour boat

 Leaving on the ‘Staffa’

One way to experience the Isle of Staffa is to take a trip on the Caladonian MacBrayne ferry  from Oban to the Isle of Mull, then join the Staffa Tours boat after a scenic drive the length of that island, as I did. After an hour on Staffa, the small tour boat takes passengers to the Isle of Iona, there to spend three hours exploring before a return journey on the CalMac ferry to Mull and from there another ferry back to Oban.

From Staffa we sailed 7.4 miles South to the Isle of Iona.  Although such a short distance apart, like all the islands in this group, the difference between  these two islands is unbelievable.  More than feeling like a change of country, after Staffa, Iona felt like a different planet.  Water lapped gently on silver beaches, creating softer, gentler music than the cocophany on the basalt rocky island we had just left.  Small boats bobbed in the harbour and, away from the waterfront, sheep grazed and flowers bloomed.  After approaching Staffa surrounded by dark water and under glowering skies, we sailed into Iona’s harbour in a world of gentle blue and turquoise.

Iona 3

Iona’s Ferry Terminal

 Iona lacks the wild, pre-historic feel of Staffa, but has a  a mystical, other-wordly atmosphere

(See Joyful Journey:  Part 12 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isle of Iona) 


Joyful Journey: Part 10 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: Part 1 -The Isle of Coll via Oban

Scotland’s Sea Kingdom

Isle of Coll

Isle of Coll

Scotland’s Sea Kingdom is even more mystical and magical than the name suggests. Made up of numerous small islands, this relatively little known treasure hosts a wealth of natural, wondrous phenomena, teeming wildlife, geological marvels and indescribable beauty. Always, there is an inexplicable other-worldly air of mystery and enchantment not known anywhere else in the world, except some places in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. 

Oban –  Gateway To Scotland’s Sea Kingdom

Sunset over Oban Harbour

More commonly known as The Southern Hebrides, or, occasionally, The Hebridean Islands of Argyll, this land of wonder and enchantment is situated off the coast of the southern Highlands of Scotland, readily reached from the mainland harbour town of  Oban, of which I like to think as ‘The Gateway To Scotland’s Sea Kingdom’. 

Oban is a small, coastal town with a huge personality.  Situated on the West coast of the Scottish Highlands, it bathes visitors in a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Fishing boats in Oban harbour

Fishing boats in Oban Harbour  

While bustling with marine and other travel activity, this upmarket but unassuming little place manages to maintain a relaxed, laid-back air. 

Tall ship in Oban harbourOban harbour

‘Oban’ means ‘Little Harbour’ but it offers marine passage to a surprisingly large number of destinations, reaching as far as the Outer Hebrides.

Travellers can choose from a selection of day trips to some of the many small Atlantic islands off the coast that make up Scotland’s Sea Kingdom, aka The Southern Hebrides, or take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to others.  The accommodation on the CalMac ferries is excellent, with pet areas as comfortable as that of their owners. Food of a surprisingly high standard is served continually.

For the most adventurous day trippers, a high speed boat to Corryvreckan, the world’s third largest whirlpool gives the required thrills, while a slower whale or wildlife watching craft sets a more sedate pace.  Sealife Adventures with Dolphin II offers the best of everything.   Fingal’s Cave, of classical music reknown can be visited on a day trip to the Island of Staffa with Staffa Tours.  These and many more jewels in the Sea Kingdom’s crown can be visited from Oban.

lighthouse near Oban

Sailing out of Oban:  Lismore Lighthouse

The writer first chose to spend three days on the Isle of Coll,  a three hour trip on a CalMac ferry.

star beach

Hogh Bay, Isle Of Coll

The difference of the islands, each from the other, is dramatic, amazing and  strange, adding to the unreal feeling of the area.  Though often less than ten miles apart, going from one to another is like changing continents, and, on occasion, like visiting a different planet.

Coll is a particularly unknown jewel in the Kingdom’s crown.  Vyeing with it’s neighbouring island, Tiree, as the sunniest place in Britain, it has changed little over the centuries and almost not atall in recent times. Low tide at Arinagour

Low tide at Arinagour

Coll is 13 miles long and 4 miles wide with a thriving community of 200 souls, mostly farmers or crofters with a little lobster trade.  Fifty percent of the population live at the harbour village of Arinagour, the second oldest settlement in the islands, Kinloch, on Rum Isle, being older.  For amateur astronomers it is a dream come true, being one of only two ‘dark skies’ islands in the world.

Preparing for the fishing derby Preparing for Arinagour’s fishing competition

I arrived on an August evening when the locals were preparing for their annual fishing competition.  There was much excitement as they gathered at the starting line. Then they were off.

The contestants had three hours to catch as many fish as possible, – any kind, any size. The person with the greatest accumulative weight was the winner.   

Main StreetCottages on Arinagour Main Street

Hidden along the island’s north and west coastlines are twenty-three spectacular, white shell-sand beaches.  None are near Arinagour, so, in the absence of four wheels, long walks or bicycles are required.

 Road across the island  Road across the island

Totronald is a large area on the west side of Coll owned by the RSPB (Royal Society For Protection of Birds).  The most well known of the native bird species, the corncrake, is only found on Coll. 

Wildflowers on the way to the beachThe Way  To The Beach

The beaches are well hidden from the road, but walking across wildflower-carpeted machair to reach Hogh Bay in the Totronald area was sheer joy.  (Machair is the fertile land next to sand dunes that stretches inland). Sand from the dunes, blown back from the coast, mixes with the local peaty soil neutralising the acid and making perfect grazing land  For much of the year it is covered with wild flowers.

wildflowers on CollAugust Wildflowers On The Machair

star beach

Hogh Bay with Rum Isle in the background


Rocks in Hogh Bay with Rum Isle in background

Rocks in Hogh Bay with Rum Isle in the background

Becoming increasingly known as ‘Island of Dark Skies’, Coll was awarded the coveted ‘dark skies’ category from the International Astronomical Association in 2013, one of only two islands in the world to have done so. The other island is Sark in the Channel Islands, also part of the UK.  On the Bortle scale, which measures factors needed to give the optimum view of the night sky, Coll is 22nd in the world.  Astronomy workshops and stargazing winter holidays can be arranged through the Coll Hotel at Arinagour.  For visitors who do not have one of their own, telescopes are available to borrow.

RocksAtlantic View

Celestial Sign


My second day on the island, the weather turned cool and cloudy.  I took my camera and explored around the Coll Bunkhouse in Arinagour  where I was staying.  The following video is only a few seconds long but is sheer magic.  These Eriskay ponies from the Outer Hebridean Isle of Eriskay were living  on a croft next to the bunkhouse.

Typical CollTypical Arinagour

sheepExtremely Free Range Sheep

Roadside grass is kept tidy by the sheep, allowed to roam freely and graze at will.  This super-efficient management of resources works brilliantly.

keeping things tidyKeeping Things Tidy

The coast around Arinagour on the east side of the island is markedly different from the gentle-looking world of white shell-sand and wilflower-strewn machair on the west.  The coast is rocky, devoid of beaches and with ferns instead of wildflowers.

Coll's east coast

Coast near Arinagour

The sea inlet that forms the harbour at Arinagour is known as Loch Eatharina.  In the picture below, I captured the fin of either a basking shark or a minke whale.  There were many seals frolicking about there also. 

Wildlife in Loch Eatharina

Wildlife in Loch Eatharina

Note the signature ferns that grow in profusion near the water on the east side of the island.

Loch Eatharina

Loch Eatharina

The Isle of Coll has a long, colourful history, the earliest lost in the mists of time.  

Breacachadh Castle, a medieval fortress, still stands intact. Its residents are descendants of the clan Maclean of Coll island residents who were forced to resettle in the colonies during the Highland and Island Clearances.

castlePhoto courtesy of 

Nicholas MacLean-Bristol moved to Coll from South Africa in 1961.  He restored the medieval fort that had stood empty for 200 years and still lives there with his family. His children left, then recently returned to give his grandchildren the kind of upbringing they had enjoyed.  25% of the island residents are children.  This returned native son has served the island and the nation well, providing guidance and training for thousands of gap year students through Project Trust which sends young people abroad to 63 countries where they spend a year doing volunteer work. In this he is helped by local people who accommodate prospective volunteers as part of the selection process.  Not all can tolerate being out of their comfort zone.

Sunlit SanctuarySetting Sunlight

(Road on left leads to airport)

The setting sun lit up this abandoned church.  How amazing would be that view on a clear winter night under ‘dark skies’.


 Planets visible over Oban at 10 p.m. on the night of the super moon

planets 2

Amazing display of planets over Oban at 10 p.m. on September 27th, 2015

Where to stay:

Accommodation on Coll is limited.  Apart from the Coll Hotel at Arinagour, the recently built Coll Bunkhouse, part of a Developement Coll project completed in 2012 and adjacent to the new community centre, An Cridhe, is the only option.  It is small but comfortable with excellent amenities.

Coll Bunkhouse

Coll bunkhouse

kitchen, dining, common room

Kitchen/dining/common room


Dining/common room

Island Amenities:

There are two quite well stocked grocery stores but fresh produce is in short supply.  The Island Cafe at Arinagour is excellent and open reasonable hours.  There is an airport, a nine-hole golf course and a camp site.


Breakfast at Island Café, Arinagour

What’s to do:

Some beaches have dangerous rip tides so always ask locals before venturing into the water.  Others are safe for snorkling; body boarding; swimming; surfing and fishing.  There is a nine-hole golf course. Pony treking is on offer as well as bicycles and kayaks to rent.  A camp site is available. Then, always, there is walking or just being there to soak up precious moments spent in this heaven on earth.

Star gazing:

For details of astronomy workshops and winter star gazing holidays, contact Coll Hotel.

How to get there: 

From Glasgow drive or take a train to Oban.  A Caladonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry leaves Oban for the three hour trip to Arinagour, Isle of Coll.  Schedules available on-line or from the CalMac office in Oban.

For those who can afford to do so, flying is an option.

Joyful Journey: Part 9 – Glen Etive, near Glencoe, Argyll

Glen Etive

Glen Etive panorama

Alive with the shhh-ing, sighing sound of the wind and the rushing, tumbling, tinkling percussion of water; and, when it is time, the bellow of the stag and the clash of warring antlers.  Animated, too, with the soaring, circling, swooping of golden eagles; the constant bustle of ever-hungry buzzards; the pretty progress of grazing deer along the valley floor; the silent dashing and darting of fish in still, placid pools. Kissed, by the sea.  This is Glen Etive.

Loch Etive

 Beach At Loch Etive

Scotland has two types of lochs – fresh water inland lakes and salt water sea inlets – bays and fiords.  Loch Etive is the latter, a fiord.  It is 20 miles long, stretching all the way to Connel, just north of  Oban.  So much fresh water flows into it from surrounding glens and mountains that, with fresh water being less dense, it floats on top of the salt water.  In places, the top two inches of water is potable.  Fishing is excellent with a wide variety of fish including salmon; brown sea trout; rainbow trout; pollock; brownies; spurdog and mackerel in plentiful supply.  

Loch Etive

The Head Of Loch Etive (Stob Dubh in background)

The only road through Glen Etive ends at the derelict wooden pier where once pleasure steamers from Oban brought tourists to sample the delights of the glen. Today, a new concrete structure allows the Forest Commission to move timber felled in the glen down the loch in order to access more large-load-friendly roads.

Loch Etive pier

Old Pier on Loch Etive

stag in glen etive

Stag in Glen Etive

Deer can be seen frequently all over the glen as well as in the mountains.  Only a handful are allowed to be hunted and killed each year.  Tracking with a camera is fine.

River Etive

River Etive

The River Etive, when it is in spate, is considered the best canoeing river in the U.K. It has its beginnings high on Rannoch Moor, starting as a rivulet running out of Lochan Mathair Eitive, (Little Loch, Mother of Etive) and soon joined by countless other tiny trickles and streamlets.  

Lochan Mathair Eite, Rannoch Moor

Lochan Mathair Eitive, Rannoch Moor

Rivulet On Rannoch Moor Heading To River Etive

Rivulet on Rannoch Moor

So the trickle becomes a rivulet and then a stream, constantly increasing volume and speed until, by the time it reaches the Kings House Hotel, where the moor ends and the descent into Glen Coe begins, it has become a fast-flowing river.


Deer Beside the River Etive at Kings House Hotel

deer at kings house

Instead of following the steep descent to the floor of Glen Coe, however, it heads North West around the base of Buachaille Etive Mhor, gathering speed as it flows through dramatic rock formations and tumbles in cascades and falls so loved by kayakers.

river e

Late Snow on River Etive

River Etive

Increasing Drama In River Etive

Falls on River Etive

White Water on the Etive

Beer Bottle Pool, River Etive

Beer Bottle Pool, River Etive

Right Angle Falls, River Etive

Right Angle Falls, River Etive

By the time it has reached the floor of the glen, Etive’s progress becomes more sedate. Punctuating the flowing water, deep, still pools create welcome fishing and swimming holes. 

River Etive an Mountains in Glen Etive

The Etive

rain on the etive

Rain on the Etive

Sixteen miles from it’s beginning high on Rannoch Moor, the river empties into Loch Etive, from there to the Firth of Lorne and, eventually, with the ebb and flow of the tides, into the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

River's End

River’s End

Although close to and geologically linked to world reknowned Glen Coe, until fairly recently, Glen Etive was a little known highland paradise.  Now famed as the setting for several movies, including Skyfall, it attracts more visitors. For the most part, though, tourists, awe struck by the wild grandeur of Glen Coe, are still unaware of the unimagineable beauty on the other side of the mountains shared by both glens.  The Three Sisters, and The Two Herdsmen – Buachaile Etive Mhor (Big Shepherd of Glen Etive)  and Bauchaile Etive Beag (Little Shepherd of Glen Etive) being the best known.

Three Sisters from Glen Etive

The Three Sisters From Glen Etive

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters From Glencoe

Storm Coming

On the right, Buachaille Etive Mhor and Buachaile Etive Beag at the top of Glen Coe


Centre, Buachaille Etive Mhor and Buachaille Etive Beag from Glen Etive

What appear to be two separate mountains on the Glencoe side, are actually twin peaks of one as seen from Glen Etive,  The dip between the two summits creates a perfect mountain pass connecting The Great Glen (Glen Coe) with Glen Etive.

Lochan in Glen Etive

Lochan In Glen Etive

(A ‘lochan’ is a very small loch)

In the mountains of Glen Etive, the lochans are great places for anglers to catch both brown and rainbow trout. Those in the valley provide watering holes for the many deer that make Etive their home.

How to get there:  The road to Glen Etive is just that.  A one lane road turns left off the A80 just past the Kings House, around the base of Buachaille Etive Mhor.  Running alongside the river for much of the way, it heads north west through Glen Etive, reaching Loch Etive fourteen miles later It goes no further.

Where to stay:  Few could afford to stay in the scarce but costly accommodation in Glen Etive.  The only option, short of camping, is to stay in Glencoe.  Booking ahead at hostels or hotels is strongly advised as places are limited.

Note:  To visit Glencoe without experiencing Glen Etive would be a serious omission.  If, like me, you are on foot and short of a way to get there, contact Keith at Go Glencoe.  He is a wonderful guide and accommodates groups or singles, taking on difficult mountain terrain, a leisurely photo safari, and everything in between.

Joyful Journey: Part 8 -Torridon, Wester-Ross

Torridon, Wester-Ross

A land of enchantment, Torridon is situated in Wester-Ross, the most westerly area of Ross-shire in the Western Highlands of Scotland.  Although it is neighbour to Sutherland, the physical features of Wester-Ross are markedly different.

Torridon Dream

White Horses in Torridon

Snapshot 1

And now, a very short, magical video.


Torridon has the most dramatic scenery in the area and, while sharing the tragic history of Sutherland, there are unique and surprising historical episodes in Wester-Ross that haunt the landscape still.



Torridon At Low Tide

Torridon is situated at the head of  salt water Loch Torridon, a sea inlet which washes the fields and grazing land at high tide, far inland from the sandy beaches exposed when the tide is out.

Sunbeams, Torridon


misty mountains

Low tide

As well as sandy beaches, low tide reveals interesting stone formations and tide pools.


Tide Pools

 While crops are few, grazing for cattle and horses is adequate, if not abundant.  Unlike Sutherland and most other places in the Highlands, there are no sheep to be seen.  Past history accounts for this. 



Like the rest of the Highlands and islands, Ross-shire suffered the ‘clearances’, a disgraceful episode in Scottish history when all of the Western Highlands and islands were cleared of people to make way for sheep.  Land owners forcibly removed there tenants from the crofts they relied on for their existence, often herding them on to ships and transporting them to colonies, mainly Canada.  Croft houses were demolished and sheep, believed to be more profitable, were brought in. Wester-Ross, particularly Torridon, endured some of the worst suffering. In 1831, the area, then a single estate, was purchased by a Colonel Burnet.  This ruthless businesman had made his fortune by exploiting plantation workers in Jamaica.  The details of his crimes against the crofters in the area is well documented by Steve Carter, Historian, suffice to say, the crofters in Torridon were contained rather than cleared – crammed together in abject poverty, forbidden from keeping livestock of any kind and only allowed a tiny plot on which they could grow potatoes.

Farm in TorridonFarmland   

For decades, this state of affairs continued until the estate was bought by Duncan Garroch of Gourock.  This business man was also a philanthropist.  He returned the land to the tenants; got rid of the sheep and replaced them with a deer forest; built walls and fences to keep the deer off the tenants land; allowed the tenants to keep livestock;  encouraged them to harvest seaweed to use as fertiliser, a practice formerly forbidden; gave them access to peat bogs and even provided loans so they could buy livestock or build boats. 

Geological Facts

Torridon hillside

Torridon Hillside

The area is a geological treasure, the red sandstone, at times overlaid with white quartzite being among the oldest rock in the world, some 250 million years old. The ancient red sandstone and white quartz are evident among the variety of rock types in the many mountains that ring this ancient basin. 


Winter Afternoon

Available Accommodation

Torridon Hostel

Torridon Youth Hostel

The many, many mountains surrounding Torridon make this a favourite year round getaway for serious climbers as well as scramblers, hill walkers and hikers.  Kayaking and fishing also attract many visitors.  The Torridon Youth Hostel definitely deserves five stars.  It is large, airy, beautifully furnished and has a warm, welcoming, relaxing vibe.

lamp post, Torridon

Rain Clouds

Walking to the local store from the hostel one rainy day, the silhouette of a street lamp prompted me to take the picture above.  Along the way were several houses some of which, I think, offer Bed and Breakfast

For those wishing more opulent accommodation, the Torridon Hotel offers that and much more – and therein hangs a tale.  Annat is divided from Torridon by the River Torridon.                                                                                                                                                                                   

river tTorridon From River  

River Torridon

 River Torridon

A bridge across the river connects Torridon and Annat.  While Duncan Garroch owned the estate, he sold 59 acres to the Earl of Lovelace.  This acreage was a half mile or so from the river on the Annat side and here the Earl built Torridon House, now the Torridon Hotel, still surrounded by the beautiful landscaping laid out by the Lovelaces.


torridon house

Torridon House (Now a hotel)

(I was prevented from getting a photo of Torridon House by the onset of a hail storm so got this one by an unnamed photograper from the internet.)

The Earl’s wife was Ava, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, famous poet. Ava Lovelace, born in 1815, was remarkable in that she was a gifted scientist and mathematician who helped Charles Babbage, the foremost mathematics authority of his time, create the Babbage Engine, the very first computer.  Ava is credited with writing the first computer programme.  The international ‘Ava Lovelace Day’ celebrates women in technology.  She and the Earl lived in Torridon House until her early death in 1852.  While Ava’s public life as a scientist and math expert are well documented, of her life and habits at Torridon House little is known.

ada lovelaceAda Lovelace

How to get to Torridon

Em's view

Loch Torridon

How to get there:  Take the earliest Inverness train from Glasgow.  Change at Inverness and take the train heading to Wick.  Alight at Strathcarron and get the minibus that meets the train and goes to Torridon.  there is only one bus a day, so getting the earliest train is essential.  Booking your journey in advance is recommended.

Note:   For a comprehensive history of the area go to:  Steve Carter’s web link in side bar  –  Torridon and Sheildaig – a historical perspective.

Trivia:  According to Steve Carter, Historian, ‘Records show that Queen Victoria loved to travel the road between Torridon and Diabaig’.

Joyful Journey: Part 7 – Winter in Glencoe, Rannoch Moor, Loch Leven.


morning Glencoe

Born of fire and ice, Glencoe is an area of mountains, hills, lochs (lakes)and glens (valleys).  Volcanic action formed the wild, rocky terrain, with movement of the earth’s plates later crushing the rocky surfaces together to form rugged hills and mountains.  At the end of the ice age, the huge glacier that sat atop what is now Rannoch Moor, moved, as it melted, gouging out Glen Coe and creating a network of valleys and depressions where lochs (lakes) formed.  But along with the scientific facts and the geological history which produced the amazing results evident today, there is an undeniable, other-worldly aura about this place.

Loch Achtriochtan, Glencoe

Loch Achtriochan, Glencoe

 The shores of this fresh water, inland loch within the glen are littered with rocks of subtle colours, giving, even a snowy winter lanscape, the warmth to prevent bleakness. 

Glencoe has a tragic, bloody history that adds to the air of eerie desolation often felt here and has earned it the title ‘Glen of Weeping’.  In the winter of 1692, a massacre took place, during which, most of the Glen’s inhabitants were murdered as they slept, while others fled to the hills and died from exposure.  It was a shameful act of betrayal and butchery against the Macdonalds of Glencoe, ordered by King William III, crafted by John Dalrymple, Master of Stair, and carried out by a member of the king’s army, Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon.  Many people believe that the spirits of the victims still inhabit the Glen and can be heard crying and wailing, especially on February 13th, the anniversary if the slaughter.

Snowy Road in Glencoe

Road Past The Three Sisters

(with Buichaile Etive Mor in the background)

That is not the only way Glencoe presents itself, however.  It has many faces.  I caught it in one of it’s rare, gentle moods.  Most often it is known as a place of great beauty and grandeur, but mist shrouded, desolate and eerie much of the time.  (See ‘Joyful Journey, Part 2’ For many, like myself, it is loved in all its moods.

Loch Leven

Loch Leven and the mountains of Glencoe

Loch Leven and the mountains of Glencoe 

 An inlet from the Atlantic forms the salt water, tidal, sea loch known as Loch Leven.  It has a varied coastline, from wooded to slate-covered as in the photo above.

Loch Leven

Loch Leven

loch leven

Loch Leven

loch leven Loch Leven

Note:  Due to icy road conditions, on this visit, I had to keep to roads more travelled. As a result, the photos contained in this report show mostly the edges of Glencoe.  Once the back roads are safe and open, I will return to record the heart of the glen.

The floor of Glencoe has areas fertile enough to support a few crofts. (small farms).  Arable land is in short supply but sheep graze on hillsides and grassy fields.  

Farmhouse in Glencoe

Glencoe Farmhouse 

Glencoe is not known for its gentleness, however.  At their worst, the hills and mountains are death traps.  Weather conditions change without warning, the capricious nature of wind, rain and cloud seemingly bent on catching the unwary.   Experienced climbers have perished, lost while challenging elements and terrain that draw them like magnets.  Even the stubby, non-threatening-looking hills known as ‘The Three Sisters’ must be treated with respect. 

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters

 Rannoch Moor

 Glen Coe is situated beside and below Rannoch Moor, a vast, wild, ancient unspoiled area of peat bogs and lochans.  Like the glen, closely attached to it both geographically and geologically, it is loved and hated.  Desolate and threatening in bad weather, inviting-looking when the sun occasionally shines, always deadly for anyone trying to traverse it over anything but the one road and few pathways available – a glorious prehistoric adventure. (See ‘Joyful Journey, Part 3′ for images and details of  Rannoch Moor).

Close to Glencoe, at the Glencoe Mountain Ski Resort, modern activities prevail in the wilderness.

Skis, Glencoe Mountain


Glencoe Mountain Ski Resort

6. Buachaille Etive Mor from Rannoch Moor

Glencoe from Rannoch Moor

Deer on Rannoch Moor Deer on Rannoch Moor

cairn on rannoch moorCairn on Rannoch Moor

While Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe are almost devoid of creature comforts, the surrounding area has a fair supply of accommodation and facilities.  Glencoe village boasts a shop, café and several assorted businesses.  Two hostels cater to the outdoor types while a hotel at Glencoe Village offers more luxurious quarters.

Glencoe village

Glencoe Village

I stayed in Glencoe Independent Hostel’s cosy wood cabin and highly recommend it.  Apart from the hostel, there is a sleeping barn, cabin and several caravans to choose from.  The business is owned by a delightful young couple, Keith and Davina Melton who maintain a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.  Proprietor, Keith, also runs GoGlencoe, a guiding business.  Without his help I would have been unable to take the photos featured in this report.  With his intimate knowledge of the area, he guided me to places I requested and others he recommended.  He also drove me to the best viewpoints, given the icy conditions.  I plan to go back when the back roads and lanes are clear to explore the heart of the glen, again, with the help of GoGlencoe.


Glencoe Independent Hostel

Cabin and caravans

Cabin and caravans at Independent Hostel

The ski centre at Glencoe Mountain also has accommodation – chalets – and a good sized restaurant.  It is open year round.

There is also a SYHA hostel, The Glencoe Youth Hostel, a short distance from the Independent.

The King’s House on Rannoch Moor which featured in Joyful Journey, Part 2, has changed hands since my stay there, so I have no knowledge of how the new owners operate.

How to get there:  If you are using public transport, take the Fort William, Isle of Skye, citylink bus from Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Joyful Journey Part 6: The Isle of Skye – Scotland’s ‘Misty Isle’

The Isle of Skye

Sunset Over Skye

Sunset Over The Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye, largest and most northerly of the Western Isles in the Inner Hebrides, is connected to the Scottish mainland by the Skye Road Bridge.  As the crow flies, Skye is only 50 miles long but has over 400 miles of shoreline.  The population is around 10,000.  For such a small area, the island landscape is amazingly varied.

At the South of the island, Brittle Beach, pictured below, lies on the edge of Glen Brittle, an area of gently rolling hills, moorland and pasture in the shadow of the Black Cuillin, a rugged mountain range that rises straight out of the Cuillin Sound, in the Atlantic Ocean.  

Night Falling on Brittle Beach, Skye

Night Falling on Brittle Beach

Fading Light on Brittle Beach

Fading Light on Brittle Beach

Near the north entrance to Glen Brittle, the landscape dramatically changes to wild moorland, across which runs the River Brittle, from its source below the Black Cuillin.

The River Brittle

The River Brittle

Hidden in the foothills only a short distance from Brittle Beach, is a wonderland of waterfalls, cascades, rocks and magical looking pools.  The ferrous oxide (iron) that oozes from the rocks into the water, along with the variety of rock types, gives brilliant colour to the water.  This area is well named, The Fairy Pools. 

It was late on a cloudy day, in fading light, when the photos of the pools were taken, but, even so, the place looks truly magical.  

River Brittle leading to Fairy Pools

River Brittle and the Fairy Pools

Fairy Pools 1

Fairy Pools 25

Fairy Pools 5

Fairy Pools

Fairy Pools 8

Fairy Pools 9

Fairy Pools 11

Fairy Pools 12 (2)

Fairy Pools 21

Fairy Pools 7

The area is called Fairy Pools because, in island lore, this magical place is home to fairies, those tiny, mystical entities, who, Celtic people believed, frequent the world of mortals and must be respected lest they use their magical powers to wreak havoc.  It is difficult to be in the Western Highlands of Scotland and not find oneself being made into a believer.  There is an other-worldly, mystical air in so many places.  On Skye, the Fairy Pools is one such.

On a more down-to-earth note, the question of whether or not public swimming is allowed in the Fairy Pools, is often asked. The answer to that is, ‘Yes’.  The ‘Right to Roam’, a long-standing Scottish tradition of unhindered access to open countryside, was formalised by a law enacted in 2003.  The Land Reform (Scotland) Act  spells out which activities are legally permissible to the public on countryside locations that are privately or State owned.  It is a long, comprehensive list including swimming – allowed; fishing (without a permit) – not.  (Private gardens and some special exceptions such as Ministry of Defense property are off limits, as are farmlands where crops are planted.)

Black Cuillin 1

Gathering Clouds on the Black Cuillin

The Black Cuillin creates a dark, brooding, rugged background to the contrasting light, colourful  cascades and mirror-like pools.  Though not as high as many other mountain ranges in the world, they are challenging nevertheless.  At a little over 3,200 feet (975 metres), the weather conditions in the Highlands make traversing the 8 mile long range, or climbing the jagged peaks, an exercise fraught with danger. Gaping gullies will swallow the unwary, or loose scree send them hurtling downwards.  Sudden changes can reduce visibility to zero without warning.  The Black Cuillin earns the respect it is given by climbers and ‘scramblers’ (those using only hands instead of ropes on the less challenging areas.)

 Loch Fada looking Towards the Storr

Looking across Loch Fala towards The Storr and the Old Man of Storr

In the north of the island, the Trotternish Peninsula provides some spectacular, varied and unique scenery.  Running up the length of the peninsula is a spine-like escarpment known as the Trotternish Ridge, a series of steep hills including thirteen peaks, the highest being part of The Storr.  The Storr is a series of rocky peaks, the best known of which is The Old Man of Storr, a basalt, needle-shaped column that affords a challenge to climbers.  It was not scaled until 1955.   At only 719 metres (2,358 ft), what it lacks in height, it makes up for in level of difficulty.

Trotternish RidgeThe Trotternish Ridge

 A short distance from the ridge, red coloured dolerite rock forms cliffs and columns along the Eastern Coast of the peninsula.

Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye

Kilt Rock

Kilt Rock is made up of massive columns of dolerite giving it a pleated look, hence the name.  The light coloured lines are evidence of ice sheets pushing across the sedimentary rock.  This stretch of coastline affords panoramic views of the Isles of Rona and Raasay with Wester Ross on mainland Scotland in the far background.

Trotternish Coast

Trotternish Coast, Skye

(Looking towards Rona and Raasay)

 The unique, one of a kind Quiraing is also part of the Trotternish Ridge.  This landslip area of peaks and gullies is made up of many layers of basilistic lava to a depth of about 800 m (2,624 ft).  On the east side, the underlying sedimentary rock has collapsed under the weight, sliding downwards with a tipping sideways motion.  The result is a somewhat bizarre looking landscape of pointed, grass-covered peaks and bowl-shaped valleys giving it the look of some alien planet.

road 6

Looking Northwards from the Quiraing

The Quiraing 2

Looking Westwards from the Quiraing

The slipping of the land on the east side of the ridge continues today as it has done for eons.  The evidence is seen at  Flodigarry where the road  has to constantly be repaired.

Looking North from the Quiraing

The Road up the Quiraing

On the west side of the Trotternish Peninsula, near Uig, we once again find an area frequented by fairies, this time, the Fairy Glen.  This is a place which, like the Fairy Pools, is steeped in fairy lore.  It, too, has a magical feel to it.  Ask about the circles of stones and the only answer one is likely to get is that this is the work of the fairies.

Fairy Glen

The Fairy Glen

Castle of the Fairy King, Isle of Skye

The Castle of the Fairy King

Watching over the fairy circles is, what geologists would call, ‘a basalt intrusion’, but  is commonly known as ‘The Castle of the Fairy King’ or Euan’s Castle’.

Fairy Glen

In The Fairy Glen

West of the Trotternish is the Waternish Peninsula and further west still, as far as one can go, is Neist Point.  There is a lighthouse there, but I was, unfortunately, unable to get to it, so contented myself with photos of the headland obscuring my view and the coastline nearby.  This is MacLeod country and en route to Neist Point, the road goes through the village of Dunvegan.   Dunvegan Castle, home of the MacLeod  ‘chief’, is near there, but another place I missed.

Loch Dunvegan andTable Mountains

 Loch Dunvegan and MacLeod’s Tables

Coast near Neist Point

The Coast Near Neist Point

Looking to the Outer Hebrides

Neist Point

 On the other side of this pointed headland is the lighthouse which marks the most westerly point of the Isle Of Skye.  Across The Minch, the Outer Hebrides are visible.

Geology:  The Isle of Skye is a geologist’s dream.  The vast variety of rocks and minerals are well catalogued by both professional and amateur geologists as well as rock hounds. Google or any good search engine will provide reams of information if interested parties ask for ‘Isle of Skye geology’.

How to get to the Isle of Skye: Citylink buses run from Glasgow airport directly to Portree on Skye via the Skye Road Bridge. Trains from Edinburgh and Glasgow go to Mallaig. From Mallaig, a car ferry goes to Armadale at the South end of Skye.  Good roads lead around the island.

Where to stay:  There are a variety of accommodation types – hotels, B & Bs, hostels and camp sites.  Portree is a small town that has two good-sized grocery stores, a post office and various other useful shops and services

Credits:  The photographs of the Fairy Pools and the Black Cuillins were taken by Niall Palmer of Skye for lochsplus. They were edited by lochsplus.  All other photos by lochsplus.