A procession of Hebridean islands, islets and reefs off the northwest shore of Scotland, Skye and the Western Isles between them boast some of the country’s most alluring scenery. It’s here that the turbulent seas of the Atlantic smash up against an extravagant shoreline hundreds of miles long, a geologically complex terrain whose rough rocks and mighty sea cliffs are interrupted by a thousand sheltered bays and, in the far west, a long line of sweeping sandy beaches. The islands’ interiors are equally dramatic, a series of formidable mountain ranges soaring high above great chunks of boggy peat moor, a barren wilderness enclosing a host of lochans, or tiny lakes.
Each island has its own character, though the grouping splits quite neatly into two. Skye and the Small Isles – the improbably named Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna – are part of the Inner Hebrides, which also include the islands of Argyll. Beyond Skye, across the unpredictable waters of the Minch, lie the Outer Hebrides, nowadays known as the Western Isles, a 130-mile-long archipelago stretching from Lewis and Harris in the north to Barra in the south. The whole region has four obvious areas of outstanding natural beauty to aim for: on Skye, the harsh peaks of the Cuillin and the bizarre rock formations of the Trotternish peninsula; on the Western Isles, the mountains of North Harris and the splendid sandy beaches that string along the Atlantic seaboard of South Harris and the Uists.
Skye and the Western Isles were first settled by Neolithic farming peoples in around 4000 BC. They lived along the coast, where they are remembered by scores of remains, from passage graves through to stone circles, most famously at Calanais (Callanish) on Lewis. Viking colonization gathered pace from 700 AD onwards – on Lewis four out of every five place names is of Norse origin – and it was only in 1266 that the islands were returned to the Scottish crown. James VI (James I of England), a Stuart and a Scot, though no Gaelic-speaker, was the first to put forward the idea of clearing the Hebrides. However, it wasn’t until after the Jacobite uprisings, in which many Highland clans backed the losing side, that the Clearances began in earnest.
The isolation of the Hebrides exposed them to the whims and fancies of the various merchants and aristocrats who bought them up. Time and again, from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day, both the land and its people were sold to the highest bidder. Some proprietors were well-meaning, others simply forced the inhabitants onto ships bound for North America. Always the islanders were powerless and almost everywhere they were driven from their ancestral homes. However, their language survived, ensuring a degree of cultural continuity, especially in the Western Isles, where even today the first language of the majority remains Gaelic (pronounced “gallic”).
The history of the Small Isles, to the south of Skye, is typical of the Hebrides: early Christianization, followed by Norwegian rule ending in 1266 when the islands fell into Scottish hands. Their support for the Jacobites resulted in hard times after the failed 1745 rebellion, but the biggest problems came with the introduction of the potato in the mid-eighteenth century, which prompted a population explosion. At first, the problem of overcrowding was lessened by the kelp boom, but the economic bubble burst with the end of the Napoleonic Wars and most owners eventually resorted to forced Clearances.
Since then, each of the islands has been bought and sold several times, though only Muck is now privately owned by the benevolent laird, Lawrence MacEwen. Eigg was bought by the islanders themselves in 1997. The other islands were bequeathed to national agencies: Rùm, by far the largest and most-visited of the group, possessing a cluster of formidable volcanic peaks and the architecturally remarkable Kinloch Castle, belongs to Scottish Natural Heritage; while Canna, with its high basalt cliffs, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
Measuring just over four miles by one, and with a population of around twenty, Canna is run as a single farm and bird sanctuary by the National Trust for Scotland. For visitors, the chief pastime is walking: from the dock it’s about a mile across a grassy basalt plateau to the bony sea cliffs of the north shore, which rise to a peak around Compass Hill (458ft) – so called because its high metal content distorts compasses – in the northeastern corner of the island, from where you get great views across to Rùm and Skye. The cliffs of the buffeted western half of the island are a breeding ground for Manx shearwater, razorbill and puffin.
Smallest and most southerly of the Small Isles, Muck is low-lying, mostly treeless and extremely fertile. You’ll arrive at PORT MÓR, the village on the southeast corner of the island. A road, a little more than a mile long, connects Port Mór with the island’s main farm, Gallanach, which overlooks the rocky seal-strewn skerries on the north side of the island; to the east lies the nicest sandy beach, Camas na Cairidh. In the southwest corner of the island, it’s worth climbing Beinn Airein (452ft) for the 360-degree panoramic view; the return journey from Port Mór takes around two hours.
Like Skye, Rùm is dominated by its Cuillin, which, though only reaching a height of 2663ft at the summit of Askival, rises up with comparable drama straight up from the sea in the south of the island. The majority of the island’s twenty or so inhabitants now live in KINLOCH, the only village, overlooking the large bay on the sheltered east coast, and most are employed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which runs the island as a National Nature Reserve. Two gentle waymarked heritage trails start from Kinloch, both taking around two hours.
The island’s best beach is at KILMORY, to the north, though check with the reserve manager about public access. The hamlet of HARRIS on the southwest coast once housed a large crofting community; all that remains now are several ruined blackhouses and the extravagant Bullough Mausoleum, which was built in the style of a Greek Doric temple by Sir George to house the remains of his father, and overlooks the sea.
Rùm’s chief formal attraction is Kinloch Castle, a squat red sandstone edifice fronted by colonnades and topped by crenellations and turrets, that overshadows the village of Kinloch. From the galleried hall, with its tiger rugs, stags’ heads and giant Japanese incense-burners, to the “Extra Low Fast Cushion” of the Soho snooker table in the Billiard Room, the interior is packed with knick-knacks and technical gizmos accumulated by Sir George Bullough (1870–1939), the spendthrift son of self-made millionaire Sir John Bullough, who bought the island as a sporting estate in 1888. Look out for the orchestrion, an electrically driven barrel organ (originally destined for Balmoral) crammed in under the stairs. You can also spend the night here, and there’s a bistro and a bar.
Eigg is the most easily distinguishable of the Small Isles from a distance, since the island is mostly made up of a basalt plateau 1000ft above sea level, and a great stump of columnar pitchstone lava, known as An Sgurr, rising out of the plateau another 290ft. It’s also the most vibrant, populous and welcoming of the Small Isles, with a strong sense of community. Ferries arrive at the causeway, which juts out into Galmisdale Bay at the southeast corner of the island where An Laimhrig (The Anchorage), the island’s community centre, stands, housing a shop, post office, tearoom and information centre. With the island’s great landmark, An Sgurr (1292ft), watching over you wherever you go, many folk feel duty-bound to climb it, and enjoy the wonderful views over to Muck and Rùm.