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Embarking on a Celtic odyssey

by
24 January 2014

Peter Lynch foregoes foreign climes to discover the charms of driving through the Scottish Islands

SHUTTERSTOCK

Mysterious: the Callanish Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis

Mysterious: the Callanish Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis

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 white beaches.

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 Stromness.

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 accent.

The flat landscape of Orkney is richly fertile, and, having been inhabited for more than 5000 years, is littered with prehistoric sites.

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, and jewellery.

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 planet.

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 beer: OK.

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 17th-century castle.

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.

 

TRAVEL DETAILS

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 visitscotland.com).

 

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