Away from the increasingly busy Isle of Skye, the far reaches of the Inner Hebrides offer a glimpse of a long-forgotten Scotland — of bullish wildlife, crumbling priories and splendid isolation...
We pedalled hard against the wind. Little sanderlings on the shore scattered, like shoals of silver-white fish, as we approached. “This area’s famous for birds,” fat-biking guide Dave Protherough called out to me, as four oystercatchers took flight over the ocean. “These bikes are a great way to explore and see the local wildlife.”
There were no other people on the creamy stretch of sand ahead, as we sped along The Big Strand, an epic 12km-long beach on the west coast of Islay. Waves crashed to our side. We dodged rubbery bands of orange kelp and bounced over rocks.
Being here on a standard road or mountain bike would have been impossible; the narrow tyres would have sunk into the sand. But the fat bikes’ 11cm-wide treads meant we could zip along without any woes. We crossed shallow rivers – the tyres holding their own on the algae-covered rocks – to make it across, dry(ish), to the other side.
It was an exhilarating way to experience one of Islay’s many wild landscapes. But exhilaration is a recurring sensation out in the Inner Hebrides.
For travellers who like to feel the outdoors on their skin and in their lungs, these 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland have remote beaches, lochs, mountains and other wilderness areas to explore, often without anyone else around.
People on the islands are outnumbered not only by cows and sheep but also by some of the UK’s most iconic wild creatures, from eagles, otters and deer to dolphins, seals and basking sharks.
For a photographer, the range of wildlife and landscapes is hard to beat, and there’s a kind of light you don’t seem to get anywhere else in the world. Having spent time previously on Skye, the largest and most famous (and famously busy) island in the Inner Hebrides, I wanted to see more.
Summers in Skye see coachloads of visitors coalescing around its hotspots; parked cars spill onto the roadsides and viewing areas quickly fill up. This isn’t how the landscapes of the Hebrides should be experienced. I wanted to get ‘remote’; to stand alone on beaches and hilltops, breathing in the invigorating Scottish sea air; to go eye to eye with sea eagles, seals and other wild residents without all the distractions.
These places are good for the soul and I knew, for real peace and a sense of wilderness, I’d have to go a little deeper, a little further.
We’d set out from the Scottish mainland, taking the car ferry from Oban, the ‘Gateway to the Isles’, across to the tiny, fish-shaped island of Coll, known for its populations of breeding corncrakes and beautiful beaches.
Driving out from the whitewashed houses of Arinagour, we passed Highland cows munching grass by the church and crossed over to the island’s west coast, to Toraston beach.
Sunlight hit the curving stretch of white sand, and one hundred metres across the water, seals lazed on wave-battered rocks. For more than an hour, we had this remarkable place to ourselves.
We spent the afternoon exploring Coll’s beaches, including a patterned curve of sand in front of the 15th-century Breachacha Castle. After a night camping in the south of the island, we climbed high dunes on the coast of the island’s ‘fishtail’ to take in the full sweep of Feall Bay, a long and absolutely deserted strip of sand.
Two ferries and an overnight stay in Oban later, we arrived on Mull. Each of the Inner Hebridean islands has its own character; Mull, the second largest after Skye, has grand landscapes reminiscent of the Highlands, with towering peaks, gushing waterfalls and wind-rippled lochs.
It pays to keep your eyes peeled here. As we drove its west coast, we saw an otter scurry into a ditch and a buzzard circling overhead.
From Ulva Ferry terminal, we took a boat trip to Staff a and the Treshnish Isles. “The dark island up ahead is remarkable... for absolutely nothing at all,” captain Iain Morrison joked as the Hoy Lass travelled the channel between Mull and Ulva, a pod of common dolphins playing in the ocean ahead.
Reaching Staffa, the boat lingered at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave. “An archaeological dig recently found remains going back to the Bronze Age,” Iain told us, including decorated prehistoric pottery.
We drifted along the cliffs of hexagonal black basaltic columns to a set of steps and climbed onto the remote uninhabited island. From the high cliffs, I watched waves pound the rocks outside the cave.
We continued by boat to the Treshnish Isles. “People are quite gobsmacked when they see the wildlife here,” Iain told me. “As well as puffins, at the right time of year, this is a particularly important breeding ground for common seals. Around 1,200 pups are born here each year.”
We saw herons landing on jagged rocks, greylag geese taking flight and cormorants drying on dark rocks. Common seals observed us as we passed, others flopping into the water.
More seals appeared, their big black eyes watching us as we chugged around Cairnna Burgh Mor. Iain pointed to the remains of a 13th-century chapel high above.
“Life on these islands goes back to the Pictish and Viking times,” he said. “The Vikings referred to the Cairnna Burgh channel as the dividing line between their Northlands and Southlands.”
For centuries, white-tailed sea eagles were revered across Scotland’s islands; Viking leaders were sometimes buried with an eagle’s skull. But they were hunted to extinction, largely by livestock farmers, the last one in the UK shot in the Shetlands in 1918.
“What was once the commonest eagle in the UK became extinct in the UK,” David explained. Reintroduction programmes began in 1975, with 82 white-tailed sea eagles from Norway brought to Rum. Since then, they’ve spread, with the first chick born on Mull in 1985. Now the eagles bring £5 million to Mull’s economy each year.
“People love seeing eagles. It’s an emotional thing, like seeing a whale,” continued David. The Gaelic name means ‘eagle with a sunlit eye’, because they have a gleam in their eye as they move. There’s also their scale and size – it’s the largest bird of prey in Britain, with plank-like wings, claws the size of your head and a big banana-yellow beak. It really captures your attention.”
A pair is known to nest in the sitka spruce forest here. “Hear that noise? That’s the chick, calling, wanting food,” David said, as we trained our binoculars on their treetop nest. There was more than one, and soon a sibling popped up its head.
After waiting a while, a big adult male glided in with an ‘express delivery’. The two infants squabbled noisily over the fresh rabbit lunch. The adult did what any good parent would: he left them to it, soaring off down the loch.
In the afternoon, we took the ferry across to Iona. The tiny island is famed as the first part of Scotland to have been ‘Christianised’, when St Columba came over from Ireland in 563 AD. Iona Abbey is one of Scotland’s most sacred sites; it’s believed the famous Book of Kells was produced here. We left the groups of pilgrims behind at the abbey and neighbouring St Oran’s Chapel, and walked up the coast to find the ‘secret’ White Strand of the Monks beach – spectacular and empty.
We travelled next to Islay, the second-most-populated island in the Inner Hebrides after Skye, famous for its peaty whiskies.
“Whisky is important to Islay,” Dave Protheroe told me, as we got geared up for fatbiking outside his house, near Port Ellen. “But there’s also so much here: wildlife, history, landscapes – you’re immersed in nature.”
We raced downhill, past fragrant cow fields, towards The Big Strand, tumbling on our fat bikes over the dunes and onto the sand. It was an invigorating ride out towards Laggan Point, at the far end of the bay.
After a stop at Knockagan Point for fl pjacks and tea, we pushed on. “It’s about to get a bit blustery,” Dave warned, as the wind pushed against us. Dark clouds formed and broke, a deluge hitting us hard. We turned back and, with the wind behind us, flew back along the beach, a wild ride with waves crashing and rain lashing, arriving back at Dave’s house soaked to the skin but invigorated.
We drew a blank on otters at the waterfront area around Caol Ila distillery, where Gary regularly sees them. But there was little time to be disappointed; across the ocean we saw a pair of golden eagles and a buzzard soaring over the hills on the neighbouring island of Jura.
As we stood watching, coffee in one hand, home-baked shortbread in the other, Gary pointed up. We grabbed our binoculars in time to watch a golden eagle disappear over the white distillery building.
We drove inland to a known nesting area for white-tailed sea eagles, close to Loch Finlaggan. Red deer were feeding on the hillside, beyond the ruins of an old Viking settlement.
Gary panned the scope to the tall trees above a clearing. Later, a white-tailed sea eagle took flight across the loch, sunlight bouncing off its wings.
“Even from a distance, you can see what a big, bulky creature it is,” Gary said, admiringly. “When you see these birds sky-dancing, it’s fabulous.”
Next morning, it took all of three minutes to cross over to Jura. The wild little island’s Gaelic name means ‘Deer Island’. Sure enough, on the drive up the island, passing the striking peaks of the Paps of Jura, we found plenty of the island’s 6,000 deer. Herds grazed out among the heather. Elsewhere, we saw evocative silhouettes of heads, ears and antlers high up on the ridges.
Buzzards swooped over the fields. For a few seconds, we watched an otter scamper down the road.
We called in at the Ardlussa Estate, where three women have started putting the island’s ‘nature’ to good use by making gin.
“The whole idea was to put Jura in a bottle,” co-owner Claire Fletcher told me, inside the old horse stables where Lussa Gin is produced using 15 botanicals from the island, including lemon thyme, Scots pine, bog myrtle and sea lettuce.
“Opportunities here are limited, especially for women,” she continued, explaining the motivation for the distillery. “But I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s pristine wilderness, untouched for generations – like the roads,” she drolly laughed.
There was more booze being made over on Colonsay, the final base in our island adventure. Colonsay is one of the smallest islands in the world to have their own brewery. We made good use of Colonsay Brewery’s three core beers, on tap at the island’s only bar, inside the Colonsay Hotel, to help pass a stormy, grey day.
At low tide the following morning, I crossed by foot over to Oronsay, the strand between the two islands. Winds blew through the channel; clouds and blue sky reflected in the water surface; and orange-gold seaweed covered the shores and skerries.
I made my way across the island to Oronsay Priory, founded in the 1300s and dedicated to St Columba. Alone at this historic site, I checked out stone carvings and explored rooms, finding an altar and skeletal remains in a Perspex-covered alcove.
Back on Colonsay, we spent the afternoon exploring the craggy island. We parked the car at Kiloran Beach. An old man had set his chair in the sand, working with his paints and artist’s pad to do justice to the shore, ocean and the framing hills.
We walked the length of the beach, the sand patterned like tiger bread, and climbed up Beinn Bheag, pausing for the view, gazing out to big ripples on the ocean that shone under the sun.
Shy sheep scattered and aloof cows stared, as we hiked through Balnahard Farm and around the coast, passing a stone monument, high above on the cliff top, and the remains of an ancient chapel.
Our two-hour hike took us to Balnahard Beach on the northern tip of the island. As we climbed over the machair-covered dunes, the reward for our effort was ‘classic Hebridean’: white sand, clear blue ocean, waves crashing and not a single other soul as far as the eye could see.
The author travelled with Speyside Wildlife (email@example.com; 01479 812498), which arranges island holidays and tailormade itineraries to the Inner Hebrides, including group tours. A 14-day, fully inclusive trip includes a wildlife guide, meals, transport and ferry tickets, plus Treshnish boat trip and Mull Eagle Watch.
Boat trips with Turus Mara from Mull to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles cost from £65pp.
A half-day wildlife-spotting tour with Gary Turnbull and Wild Islay Birding costs £40 per person.
Ranger-guided visits with Mull Eagle Watch cost £8.
Fat Biking Experiences with Kayak Wild Islay cost from £50pp.
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