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Sep 02 2014

The Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland

I have just returned from an amazing adventure, travelling around the western highlands and islands of Scotland.  It was the most unprepared I have ever been for a trip.  My items of clothing included a summer dress, summer skirt, and a pair of flimsy sandals because I was only going for a short city break, or so I thought.  The thing is, I had an open return ticket for a month and the temptation to stay and explore Scotland was too great, especially as I hadn’t been there for about 20 years. This was the perfect opportunity and didn’t want to waste it.

The problem was the fact that it was high season.  I don’t normally travel at that time of year due to the inflated prices and because of the sheer number of people travelling.  I wasn’t actually sure if I would find anywhere to stay in my price range.  A quick search on the usual booking sites showed that pretty much everything in my price range everywhere I searched for was booked.  Just before I checked out of where I was staying in Glasgow, I wondered whether I should return to London or stay in Scotland.  It all hinged on whether I could find a bed in a hostel somewhere.  Surprisingly, I did.  I found one in a place called Inversnaid, so I booked it, and promptly booked a bus ticket online for an hour later.  That was it; I would travel in Scotland until either the weather got the better of me, since it had rained heavily the day before and I hadn’t packed for a hiking trip, or if I couldn’t find accommodation.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up travelling until the ticket expired.

So, with no idea of what Inversnaid would be like or how long I would be travelling for, I set off on foot for Buchanan bus station.

The Route

The trip evolved because of 3 main things: the local people I met along the way, who recommended places to go; where I could find accommodation; and where I could get to using public transport.  I spent most of my time in the Western Isles and West Highlands of Scotland.  This was the route I ended up taking on this unplanned adventure:

Glasgow – Inversaid – Oban – Isles of Mull & Iona – Oban – Isles of Barra & Vatersay – South Uist – Isle of Benbecula – Isles of Harris & Scalpay – Isles of Lewis & Great  Bernera – Ullapool – Stromeferry – Isle of Skye – Mallaig – Crianlarich – Glasgow

Inversnaid

This hamlet on Loch Lomond was a great start to my trip, not just because of the amazing scenery and the fact that it’s very relaxing there, but because I got ideas of where to go next.  While hiking part of the West Highland Way, I was sat on a rock, staring at Rob Roy’s Cave, when I got chatting to a Glaswegian who was also there.  He mentioned Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.  It sounded lovely with colourful buildings and the Hebrides was an unknown destination, which seemed a bit mysterious, I suppose.  That intrigued me.  Then, when I mentioned it to the chef at the hostel, he said I should also go to Iona.  He hadn’t been, but wanted to go.  That evening, I booked a bed in a hostel in Oban and headed there the following day, getting a boat back across Loch Lomond to Tarbet and then a bus to Oban.

Oban

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I used this as a stopover to get to to the Hebrides.  First of all, it was the Isle of Mull.  I managed to reserve a bed at the only hostel in Tobermory, so that was it.  I bought my ferry ticket to the Isle of Mull and off I went.

Isles of Mull & Iona

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I arrived In the port of Craginure and took a bus to Tobermory.  I was actually in the Hebrides, the Inner Hebrides to be precise.  I was so happy to be there and Tobermory was just as I’d seen it in the photos.  It is a cute town with colourful houses.

While I was there, I wanted to visit Iona.  As I couldn’t get accommodation at the only hostel on the island, I could only visit for the day.   After that, I really wanted to visit the other Inner Hebridean islands, but then I got chatting to someone who was born and brought up on the Outer Hebrides.  It sounded fantastic.

It looked as if I would have to keep going back to Oban if I wanted to visit the other Inner Hebrides as well as the Outer Hebrides.  I didn’t see a ferry linking the Inner and Outer Hebridean islands.  As a result, I scrapped the idea of visiting the other Inner Hebridean islands and decided to go straight to the Outer Hebrides, if I could find a bed.  I got a ferry back to Oban.  In the meantime, I phoned both hostels on the Isle of Barra.  The first was full.  The other, luckily enough, had a spare bed because of a cancellation, so I returned to Oban.

I found out later that if I had gone to Coll and Tiree, two other Inner Hebridean islands, I could have actually gotten a ferry to Barra.  Oh well, that was my fault for misreading the ferry timetable.

Isle of Barra

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This was my first Outer Hebridean island.  Towards the end of the 5 or so hour journey, suddenly, after a long time with just open sea, islands started appearing.  It seemed magical and then… we were there.  That was it.  I was in the Outer Hebrides after years of thinking of it as a group of islands that were far, far away.

The next day, the hostel was full, so I couldn’t stay there.  If I couldn’t find somewhere else, I would have to leave the island.  That would have been a shame because it wouldn’t have given me time to explore my first Outer Hebridean island.  In a last ditch attempt, I phoned the other hostel to see if they had had a cancellation.  They hadn’t.  I asked if they had camping equipment for me to rent.  Then, the owner mentioned she had a caravan that I could possibly rent.  Done – I had a place to stay for the night.  Well, it turned into a few nights.  I visited Vatersay while I was there, which is linked by a causeway.

South Uist

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Moving north, I found a dorm bed on South Uist.  I got a ferry from Barra, and then took a bus to South Uist.  This island was a lot flatter than the mountains I’d gotten used to seeing on Barra.  It was mainly beautiful meadows, a fab beach, with an historical element because of the roundhouses.

Isle of Benbecula

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After that, I got a bus to Benbecula.  The islands are connected by causeways.  The terrain changed once again.  It was still pretty flat, moorland rather than pretty meadows and there were countless lochs.  I literally walked in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s steps because I stayed where he is thought to have hid and walked part of the route he would have taken when he made his escape to Skye.

Isle of Harris

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After that, I got a bus and a ferry to Leverburgh.  I was thinking of staying there until I found out the WiFi in the only hostel there wasn’t working and I really needed to do some work.  I was lucky.  I phoned another hostel, on the east coast of South Harris.  They had a bed, so I reserved it, stocked up on food at the Co-op in Leverburgh, and then hopped on a bus to a small village called Drinishader.  The landscape in South Harris was different yet again.  The west coast has beautiful white, sandy beaches whereas the east coast is mountainous and, in places, quite barren.  It’s very dramatic and beautiful.  I visited the Isle of Scalpay while I was there and saw the Isle of Taransay from across the water.

Isle of Lewis

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There are two hostels in Stornoway – one is in the centre and the other is on a campsite/caravan site.  I managed to get a bed in the latter.  The Isles of Harris and Lewis are actually one island, so I only needed to get a bus from Tarbert in South Harris all the way to Stornoway.  I used Stornoway as a base as it was the best way to explore the island, using public transport.  Again, the landscape changed.  It was flatter with a rugged coastline.  Lewis is an interesting island, from a historical perspective, with reconstructed Iron Age houses, mills, and standing stones that predate Stonehenge.

Ullapool

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Having travelled up through the Outer Hebrides, I decided to head back to the mainland, so I got a ferry across to Ullapool.  It’s quite a cute town.  I wanted to go further north but, as I didn’t have much time left, I decided to take my time and head south.  All I knew was that I wanted to get the train on the West Highland train line, which featured in a Harry Potter movie.  I needed somewhere to stay and, after phoning two places without success, I was lucky on the third phone call and managed to get a place to stay in Stromeferry.

Stromeferry

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I knew absolutely nothing about Stromeferry, but I was glad to have a bed for the night, so I didn’t worry too much about it.  As it turned out, it was in a beautiful setting on Loch Carron on the Kyle train line.  By that point, I had no idea where to go next.  For ages, I knew where I was going.  It was easy.  I was heading north up through the islands.  All of a sudden, I was stumped.  I didn’t really have a preference of where to go next.  This is where social media came in useful.  A train travel expert I follow on Twitter helped me work out what to do next.  He said the train line I was on was great.  So, I decided to continue on to the end of the line, which was a place called Kyle of Lochalsh.  I could then go across to Skye and Maillaig, where the West Highland train line terminates.  There wasn’t a bed at the hostel I phoned in Mallaig, but I did manage to get one in a small town on Skye.  So that was it, I was going to stay on Skye.

Isle of Skye

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I didn’t have long on this beautiful island.  I rarely go on tours, but I did this time purely because I didn’t have the time to explore it using public transport.  Having said that, as I was leaving Skye, I found that you can get a day ticket for the public buses which will take you around the island to some of the main points of interest.  It’s typical that I found that out as I was leaving.

Mallaig

Mallaig

I managed to get a bed at the hostel in Mallaig, so that’s where I went next.  After a couple of buses and a ferry, I was there.  I only wanted to go there so I could take a train on the West Highland line to Fort William having heard so much about it.  If I’d had the time, I’d have liked to have visited some of the Small Isles, but the clock was ticking.  It was nearing 30th August, which was when my return ticket expired.

I needed to get to Glasgow for the train back to London.  I was going to stay in Glasgow for one night, but the dorm beds were still really expensive.  Edinburgh was pretty similar.  Because it was an unplanned trip that had lasted a month, I had to keep a tight reign on my finances.  So, I looked on the map to see where else I could stay.  I looked at the train route and found a hostel in a place called Crianlarich.  There was a spare bed, so I reserved that.  Then, I headed to the train station to finally board a train on the, now famous, West Highland train line to Fort William.  From there, I got a bus because I thought it was cheaper to do that.  It was, but only slightly.  If I’d known there was little difference in the price of buses and trains, I’d have taken the train for the whole journey.

Crianlarich

Crianlarich

This is a tiny town, north of Loch Lomond, with great public transport links going north and south.  It turned out to be the perfect overnight stop.  It rained the whole time I was there, so I didn’t have a chance to explore the area, which was a shame.  The next morning, I got a train bound for Glasgow.  That was it.  That was the end of my adventure to the western highlands and islands of Scotland.  But, boy, what an adventure it was!

My experience

The whole trip was a real challenge because I was looking for accommodation at the last minute in peak season.  I didn’t have a car that I could sleep in, if it came to it, or camping equipment, if I really needed to use it.  I had to find somewhere to stay every time I wanted to go anywhere.  Then, I had to be able to get there with public transport.  Believe me, that’s easier said than done, especially on the Outer Hebrides when buses don’t run on Sundays.

Even though I hadn’t packed for a month’s hiking, I managed.  It shows that you can manage with very little when you have to.  I had my walking shoes as well as a waterproof jacket and overtrousers that I used most days.  I’m so glad I packed them.  Having said that, I did actually get to wear my summer dress and summer skirt a couple of times.

I had such an amazing adventure that I want to return and explore more of the Western Isles.  It has also given me the desire to visit the Orkney and Shetland Islands as well as the northern part of mainland Scotland.  I will, however, be better prepared next time.

Location

You can see the route I took on this map…

Have your say

Have you ever ended up going on a trip that was completely unplanned?  I’d love to hear your story.

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

2 comments

1 ping

  1. Iain

    I just LOVE your way of travel Teresa. No fixed plan, just an idea of where you might like to go first. And from there….

    Fate.

    And I wouldn’t worry too much about the bus around Skye. It might be different timetables in the Summer, but I went around the island by bus once (May/June, when the schools were still running). A lot of the buses doubled as school buses, and were timed accordingly. It was indeed possible to tour the north of Skye, but there wasn’t really much time to spend at places en route. Although I do remember spending way too much time in the pottery at Uig.

    Did you see any dolphins/whales on the ferry to Mallaig? Been on that boat twice, and on both occasions dolphins were playing in the bow waves.

    Come back soon. The sunshine seems to follow you around 😉

  2. independenttravelhelp.com

    Hi Iain.

    Thanks for getting in touch and for the advice and information you provided when I was stumped and didn’t know where to go next.

    The way I travel isn’t for everyone because it is a ‘go with the flow’ approach. I like the challenge of it as well as the flexibility it gives me.

    I’d like to return to Skye and try out the public bus route but, as you suggest, it wouldn’t be possible to see as much as I did in the short time I had on the island.

    I didn’t see any dolphins or whales. Next time, hopefully! I fully intend to return to Scotland next year because there is so much more to see and do.

    Thanks again! 🙂

    Teresa.

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