SCOTTISH islanders say that the heart of Scotland is not at its
centre, but at the periphery. They are the true jewels in the
Scottish crown: the Hebrides, off the west coast; the Orkneys, off
the north coast; and, further north, the Shetland Islands.
THE Outer Hebrides is a chain of more than 100 islands and
skerries (small rocky islands), only 15 of which are inhabited. My
ferry from Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, arrives at
Lochboisdale, South Uist, on a sunny afternoon. But the sunbathing
season is long over, and now only seabirds are flocking to its long
South Uist is part of an ancient volcanic archipelago,
stretching from the southern island of Barra to Lewis in the north.
It is long and thin, with mountains and sea lochs on the east,
pristine white beaches on the west, and crofts
(small agricultural landholdings)
dotting the boggy marshland in between.
A winding road runs north to south: a disconcerting mix of
single track and standard two-lane road. Despite that, it is not
the sudden appearance of sheep that takes me by surprise, but the
cheery waves from every passing motorist.
Narrow causeways take me to the island of Benbecula, via the
tidal island of Grimsay, then on to North Uist,
where a stop at the Hebridean Smokehouse serves up peat-smoked
seafood with a delicate, sweet, smoky flavour of the sea.
A ferry connects the southern islands Lewis and Harris, the
largest island in Scotland, where three-billion-year-old rocks
dominate the landscape. It is so unworldly that Stanley Kubrick
used Harris, in the southern part of the island, to represent the
surface of Jupiter in his 2001 film A Space Odyssey.
Mountains give way to boggy peat on Lewis. Lewis, in the north
of the island, was the site of the 1950s Hebridian revival, and
sabbath ob-servance is still strong: even in the normally bustling
harbour capital, Stornoway, most shops close, and locals recount
how people protested at the introduction of the first Sunday ferry
service, in 2009.
A few miles from Stornoway, the 4-5000-year-old Callanish
Standing Stones, on a wild and secluded promontory overlooking Loch
Roag, is rated as one of the most impressive stone circles in the
UK. And as I stand here, alone, it is impossible not to feel
affected by the 50-or-so 15-foot stones: mysterious, in part,
because they are arranged in a complex pattern resembling a Celtic
cross - 2-3000 years before Christ.
TO REACH the Orkneys - a group of about 70 islands and skerries,
19 of which are inhabited - the Stornoway ferry heads back to
Ullapool. A 140-mile drive to the bleak north coast of Scotland
follows; then a two-hour ferry ride across the Pentland Firth to
In the Orkneys, islanders call themselves Orcadians, not Scots,
and when they refer to the "mainland" they mean their largest
island, not Scotland. With a culture more Scandinavian than Gaelic
(their most remote island, Papa Westray, shares the same latitude
as Stavanger), it should be less of a surprise to hear my B&B
landlady, born on Orkney, converse in a singsong Scandinavian
The flat landscape of Orkney is richly fertile, and, having been
inhabited for more than 5000 years, is littered with prehistoric
There are impressive standing stones at Stenness and Brodgar,
but the windswept neolithic village of Skara Brae is an
archaeological rarity: uncovered by sea erosion in 1850, Skara Brae
boasts perfectly preserved stone furniture, bone implements, pots,
The Viking-built cathedral of St Magnus, in Kirkwall, the
capital of Orkney, is another must. As is the Roman Catholic
Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm island, reached via a causeway from
Orkney, created out of two Nissan shelters by Italian POWs during
the Second World War.
Approaching from the side, the chapel appears to be a typical
farm building, but the pueblo-style ornate entrance tells you
something different. Inside, the initial impression of a
brick-lined catacomb gives way to a vaulted cathedral ceiling - all
of which is, actually, a painted depiction.
At the far end, behind an ornate wrought-iron rood screen, the
chancel glows with light from roof windows and mock gothic
stained-glass windows. And, behind the altar, a Madonna and child,
surrounded by angels, look down on the congregation, while saints
look on from the side.
All traces of the POW camp have long gone, but this isolated
little chapel receives 100,000 visitors every year, making it one
of the most visited sites on Orkney.
SEVEN hours due north by ferry from the Orkneys, the Shetlands -
more than 100 islands, 15 of which are inhabited - are closer to
Oslo than Edinburgh.
Arriving in Lerwick, the Shetland Island's main port, on a sunny
autumn morning with a light breeze, it is a perfect day to take the
small boat across to see the Mousa Broch on the tiny uninhabited
island of Mousa ("Mossy Island" in Old Norse).
The 40-foot-high Mousa Broch is the best remaining example of
the hundreds of Iron-Age towers built around the northern coast of
Scotland to protect coastal communities from today's peace-loving
Scandinavians, who were once some of the most feared people on the
Mousa is a wildlife haven. In the pools to the north of the
island, screeching and circling sea birds fill the skies, and seals
bask at the water's edge. A cheeky otter walks right past me, then
dives into the sea.
Outside of Lerwick - with pubs galore, a warren of alleyways,
lots of little shops and restaurants, and its own castle - there
are few places to stay, although B&Bs can sometimes be found in
the middle of nowhere. I seek out the most northerly point of the
British Isles, taking the small car ferry to Yell, and its only bar
at the Baltasound Hotel. Was it worth it? The bar: a dump; the
Jarlshof, at Sumburgh Head, proves to be my highlight; it has a
continuous timeline of buildings from the Neolithic, Bronze, and
Iron Ages, and Picts, Norse, and beyond, culminating with a
Walking through the haunting village, standing inside buildings,
and touching stone tables and beds that have been used since time
immemorial, it is as though you can feel the generations who lived
and died here; a truly humbling experience.
ALLOW at least three weeks to visit all three island
groups. Caledonian MacBrayne (calmac.co.uk) operates the ferry
network to the Inner and Outer Hebrides from the west Scotland
ports of Oban and Ullapool. Northlink (northlinkferries.com)
operate ferries to the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland from
Scrabster, near John o' Groats, and Aberdeen, on the east coast.
B&Bs and small hotels are widespread across the islands (see