Anyone who knows me, knows that Orkney has been on my travel bucket-list for a very long time. Its fascination for me has much to do with the tapestry of archaeology, layers of preserved heritage and complex relationship history that have helped Orkney achieve an almost mythical status. Salty sea tales, mysterious folklore and ancestral tradition just add to the magic.
Orkney is an archipelago made up of approximately 70 islands and its position off the far north of Scotland on the same latitude as Oslo and Stockholm means that depending on what part of Scotland you live in, visiting generally requires a bit of planning as it can be more expensive and difficult to reach than some European countries. After an almost 6 hour non-stop drive from Glasgow to reach the ferry terminal at Scrabster I can testify to this! However, none of this should be a reason to put off your visit as there are also options to fly or catch a ferry from Aberdeen, it's just a case of planning the journey in a way that works best for you.
With a mere 36 hours to explore and 20 or so inhabited islands to choose from, I had to plan my visit wisely and decided to focus most of my time on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney islands. I managed to squeeze A LOT into my stay although there is also A LOT that I didn't manage to do, but I did have an absolutely amazing time so I thought I would share my 3 day Orkney travel itinerary to help you with planning your own trip.
3 Day Orkney Travel Itinerary - Day 1
I started my day on the 8:45 Northlink ferry from Scrabster to Stromness and the 90 minute journey across the Pentland Firth. I spent much of my time out on the windy deck, watching the seabirds bob and weave alongside us and kept my eyes peeled for some of the marine life that frequents the area, although sadly this time I wasn't rewarded for my perseverance. Even though the day was fairly calm, the boat rose and dipped as it traversed the swell of the waves and I can imagine that these exposed waters could provide a pretty bumpy ride if the weather was not on your side.
Before reaching Stromness, the ferry skirts around the fringes of Hoy, the second largest island in Orkney and most famous for its iconic sea stack affectionately named the Old Man of Hoy which inevitably convinces every virgin visitor to grab their cameras, rush out on deck and brave the exposed conditions to capture a few shaky snaps as the ferry lurches by. For me, an even bigger bonus was the towering cliffs of Hoy, rising dramatically into the clouds like a setting from Middle-earth, while the ferry Captain managed to sail surprisingly close to the tallest vertical cliff face in Britain at St John's Head, a maneuver no doubt perfected to wow the gawking passengers!
After my endurance drive the previous day, I was relieved to finally step ashore at Stromness, ditch the car and let someone else take the wheel for a while. I had booked a day tour with Wildabout Orkney and was very relieved to sit back and relax in the comfort of their executive touring vehicle while I soaked up the expert commentary from our guide Clive.
Their tours are ideal for day trippers to Orkney who want to maximise their visit by being personally guided around some of the most famous attractions and dropped off again in time for their return ferry. The tours vary slightly depending on the day of the week and I enjoyed their 'Treasures of Orkney' tour with the following itinerary.
The Italian Chapel
Our first stop was the beautiful Italian Chapel on the little island of Lamb Holm which is reached by a causeway originally designed to block access to Scapa Flow during WW2. The chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war brought to Orkney to assist with the construction of the concrete block barriers. It is hard not to feel emotional reflecting on the devotion and skill needed to produce this stunning sanctuary given the basic materials they had. A very special place that should be on every Orkney itinerary.
Next up was the highly impressive Skara Brae, a 5000 year old village uncovered by a storm in 1850 and now considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Walking around you can peer in to the ancient homes complete with stone furniture and fittings, that's if you can take your eyes off the huge sweep of white sand and turquoise water of the neighbouring beach! The mounds around the site were actually created by rubbish thrown away by the inhabitants and if you look closely you will see little trenches that reveal piles of discarded shells. Older than the pyramids, the details of this site are simply mind blowing and its location is spectacular, this was by far my favourite archaeological attraction out of those I visited and again a must for any Orkney travel itinerary.
The Isle of Gigha is clearly visible from the Kintyre peninsula and a short 20 minute ferry ride across the Sound of Gigha is all that separates the two. The close proximity doesn't stop me feeling the same excited anticipation that always precedes an island adventure, or from standing on deck braving the gusty wind and regular soaking from sea spray as the main settlement of Ardminish draws closer.
This is an Island I have been meaning to visit for a while and a last minute decision to pop over and fill a free day in my diary sees me making my way to the little lump of land that the Norse King Hakon originally named Gudey, meaning the Good Isle or God's Isle, and which the Gaels later adjusted to Gigha (pronounced Geeea).
There aren't many Scottish Islands that you can feasibly visit and explore in 1 day but the community owned Isle of Gigha is the ideal destination for those looking to experience a little piece of Hebridean paradise in a short amount of time thanks to its close proximity to the mainland and bijou size.
It is the most southerly Hebridean Island and only 7 miles long by 1 1/2 miles at its widest point, with one main road dissecting its length. Having the car meant I could explore most of the island in an afternoon, however it is equally doable in a day by bike (bike hire is available locally) or on foot.
There are not many man-made attractions on Gigha but the beautiful natural scenery is enough to make a visit worthwhile and although there are no museums, the history of the island is told through the objects that intertwine the landscape from the standing stones to the modern 'Dancing Ladies' wind turbines.
White Beaches and Turquoise Water
If the very mention of 'Hebridean island' conjures up an image of flawless white sandy bays, clear turquoise water and rugged coves, you'll be pleased to know Gigha won't disappoint with its own bite sized slices of paradise. Being only 1 1/2 miles at its widest point and 1/2 mile at its narrowest, you are never far from the coast and at certain places you can even admire the tempting stretches of sand along both sides of the island at the same time, talk about a dilemma!
Views to Islay and Jura
You can almost smell the waft of whisky from Islay and reach over to touch the Paps of Jura which both sit teasingly close off the west coast of Gigha. If a visit to this miniature Hebridean oasis leaves you hankering for more, then gazing across at its imposing relatives is guaranteed to add to your island wanderlust and immediately booking you next ferry trip.
Scotland lends itself to campervan road-trips, small enough to navigate with ease but big enough to provide a variety of breathtaking landscapes and plenty of adventure. Scotland is a country where you don't have to travel far from civilization to discover areas that are not only free of people but feel like a forgotten wilderness. In my opinion the ideal way to explore these scenic, natural playgrounds is in the relative luxury of a modern campervan. Much more than a bed on wheels, they provide the freedom to roam wherever you fancy, the freedom to park among the mountains while you stick the kettle on for a cup of tea or the freedom to stop and watch the final rays of a sunset before climbing under your cosy duvet for the night.
When Rockin Vans offered me the use of one of their new funky VW campervans to head off on a Scottish road-trip I jumped at the chance. Having hired from them several years ago I already knew they were a great little Scottish company and I was delighted to see how much they had expanded and updated their vans since I first used them, a sign they are obviously doing something right!
With so many destinations to choose from I decided to venture into the unknown and embark on my first visit to the Isle of Mull. 2015 seemed to have a reoccurring theme for me of visiting new Scottish Islands and with two weeks left until the end of the year, adding another Island to my collection seemed a fitting final adventure. Another reason that attracted me to Mull was the recent introduction of the reduced RET ferry fares by CalMac which makes visiting many of the Scottish islands very affordable even with a campervan.
After picking up a dog friendly funky bright orange VW from the Rockin Vans headquarters, I headed back to my home on Bute to pack a few essentials and when I wasn't looking Mr Adventures Around Scotland had managed to sneak onboard while Willow, my lurcher, was giving me an expectant look, I guess they were looking forward to the road-trip too!
DAY 1 - ISLE OF BUTE TO ARDFERN
We set off as the sun began to rise with streaks of gold criss-crossing the horizon as we left Rhubodach and took the short ferry crossing over the Kyles of Bute. Although Mull was our ultimate destination, having a campervan makes it just as much about the journey and we decided to take the road less travelled along Argyll's Secret Coast. Taking another ferry from Portavadie across Loch Fyne brought us to the picturesque village of Tarbert where we savoured the therapeutic view of colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour as I popped the kettle on for the first cup of tea for the day, this has to be one of my favourite things about travelling in a campervan.
Fully refreshed we carried on north with a quick a stop at Ardrishaig to walk part of the Crinan Canal before continuing to Kilmartin Glen, the perfect place to enjoy a lunch break. This is one of the most historically rich areas of Scotland, with an abundance of standing stones, burial cairns, stone carvings and Dunadd Fort, once the power stronghold of the Kingdom of Dalriada. It is possible to climb to the top of the fort although the route is rocky and steep in places but well worth the effort if you are able. Look out for the notice boards which describe features of note and explain how the fort would have originally looked.
The view from the top down the ancient glen and across to the Isle of Jura is spectacular. As I stood alone, gazing around and imagining the people that once inhabited the land before me, my thoughts were interrupted by an almighty boom of thunder that seemed to go on forever! I couldn't help thinking that the powerful roar across the mysterious glen was some sort of message from the ancient world.
I quickly slipped and slid down the hillside, reaching the sanctuary of the van just as battering hail began to bounce off the ground and with darkness starting to descend, it seemed an appropriate time to find our campsite for the night further along the road in Ardfern.
Do you ever get the urge to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life? To enjoy some respite from rushing around? To feel liberated from crowds of people, technological distractions, traffic jams and the general stresses that come with living in the modern world? Even if just for 24 hours?
As I jumped in the car to catch my first CalMac ferry of the day, I immediately felt the weight of the world rise off my shoulders as rapidly as the blazing sun was emerging on the horizon. This had to be a good omen for the weekend ahead and my own much needed 24 hour escape to the little Hebridean haven of Colonsay.
Heading off alone to a remote island with a population of only approx 135 hardy inhabitants is a very appealing prospect to me at the best of times; when the sun shines and the sky is a perfect blue, it offers the alluring promise of a peaceful paradise.
However, as is often the case in Scotland, it's just as much about the beauty of the journey as that of the destination. With three very different CalMac ferry crossings, through some of the most scenic west coast waters, I spent much of my time on deck breathing in the salty air and surveying the several other islands we passed by as seabirds glided effortlessly along the air currents before diving-bombing into the frothy waves below.
As my final ferry of the day reached Port Askaig for a quick stop-off I was able to enjoy a different view of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain, two of the distilleries I had visited earlier in the year during a whisky tour of Islay.
Soon after departing Islay my GPS showed that we were fast approaching Colonsay and I excitedly peered ahead to catch my first glimpses of the island, with the distinctive point of the Lord Colonsay Monument visible on a hill top as we neared the ferry terminal at the main settlement of Scalasaig.
Driving off the ferry I was greeted by one of the locals who handed me a pack containing lots of information about the island. This was a first for me and I was highly impressed at both being personally welcomed and the initiative of providing tourists with local information to encourage them to make the most of their time during their stay. This is fantastic proactive approach to tourism from a small community and something which many places in Scotland could learn a thing or two from!
Between my welcome pack and pre-trip research, I had a pretty good idea of the things I wanted to do and see to make the most of my short stay on Colonsay. I may only have had just over 24 hours to enjoy my Hebridean freedom, however time seems to stretch when you embrace the slow pace of island life and I always find a minute standing immersed in rugged remoteness seems much more productive than an hour spent negotiating my usual never-ending to do list.
Luckily Colonsay is a small island and easy to explore by car or bike, with one main road circulating the sites. This was my first visit to this little strip of land, where free roaming sheep far outnumber the people and the next landmass after the craggy rocks and sandy beaches on the west coast is Canada.
This is how I chose to relax on the Isle of Colonsay...
After departing the ferry I made a quick stop at Colonsay Brewery before it closed for the weekend to pick up some gift packs to take home and I may have sneaked in an extra bottle for me to enjoy that evening! Well what better place to enjoy the local brew?
With just one road there wasn't too much risk of getting lost as I made my way to Colonsay House and my accommodation for the night. My short drive and first introduction to the island consisted mainly of a welcoming mass of white, woolly balls on legs. Lining the verges, congregating in fields, strolling towards me on the road and peering over hilltops, I was starting to wonder if sheep were the real rulers of this empire.
By the end of my trip I had developed a real fondness for my new fleecy friends.
Colonsay House and Gardens
Colonsay House dates from 1722 and the south wing has been converted into holiday apartments which is where I was spending the night. With a view overlooking the pretty gardens it would have been a shame not to visit and I had just enough time to quickly explore before they closed.
One thing I particularly wanted to see in the grounds of the house was the mysterious carved stone statue which stands next to a well dedicated to St Oran. It is believed to date from the 7th or 8th century with what is thought to be a head of Christ at the top and a fish tail at the bottom. The gardens are well worth visiting with lots of floral colour, butterflies and quirky objects.
Our latest #Scotlanders campaign involved promoting some of our beautiful Scottish islands. As I live on the Isle of Bute, this is where I started my island adventure and it was a great opportunity for me to showcase some of the gems that my home has to offer. I decided to focus on some of the fantastic free things to do and show that you don't have to spend lots of money to have a great holiday.
I spent a day tweeting about some of the amazing beaches, history, wildlife, culture and walking that Bute has to offer, using the hashtag #ButeforFree and our campaign hashtag #Isleathon.
However, I am well aware that not everyone is on Twitter and I wanted to share my tips with anyone thinking about visiting the island so I have decided to put them all together on this special blog post.
I hope you find my recommendations useful and inspiring and if you have any suggestions of your own leave a comment below or tweet me @ScotAdventures and I will happily share them :-)
14 FREE things to do on the Isle of Bute in Tweets!
On my recent Whisky Tour of Islay with Scottish Routes, I was lucky enough to stay at The Bowmore House on Islay, one of their regular accommodation providers for the tour.
I must that initially I had no plans to do a whole review about my stay here as I was going to include a short bit in the review of the tour itself, however I was so impressed I left wanting to share this gem with anyone thinking about a trip to the island. Not planning a proper review meant that I didn't do my usual photography tour of the rooms prior to messing up the beds and dumping my bags. It meant I didn't take images of my food and every little detail that made my stay here so special, a lesson learned on my part. Although I may not have the photos to back up my review on this occasion I hope that you will realise that the very fact I am telling you about this great place despite not setting out to do a review will convince you even more of how much I rate it!
I did fortunately take a few snaps on my phone and although not the best quality they still allow me to share a few images from my stay.
From the first moment our group wearily walked through the door we were warmly welcomed by our hosts, Andrew and Alison who couldn't be more helpful through out our stay. The main house has a relaxed, homely feel with five en-suite bedrooms. I stayed in the refurbished Fisherman's Cottage which is less than a 30 second walk away and is tucked around the corner off the main street.
The cottage has three bedrooms, 2 en-suite and 1 with a private bathroom. The bonus of staying here is the self catering facilities, including a large sitting room and well equipped, spacious kitchen which really felt like a home from home.
The cottage is available for B&B stays or as a self catering option and I highly recommend either. Tastefully decorated with great attention to detail and every convenience you could need, I really wish I had more time to enjoy relaxing here!
Now there are 2 crucial things to rating a bed and breakfast, the bed and the breakfast, obviously! I can confirm the bed was HUGE and super comfy and the breakfast was also HUGE and super tasty. Andrew and Alison are not only excellent hosts but also excellent cooks. Local produce, great variety and a warm welcome would be good enough for me to recommend a place, however Andrew and Alison go above and beyond in every area of their business, from their own branded mugs to a breakfast dram, they really do think of everything.
If Arran is Scotland in miniature then Lochranza must be one of the prettiest Highland villages you could ever visit and the Scottish Youth Hostel is located in a prime setting to take advantage of the breathtaking surroundings.
I was staying for my second #SYHAdventure and if I thought the view from my previous room at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, which looked on to Ben Nevis itself, would take some beating then I was happily proved wrong!
If I had a check list for my perfect Highland view then a tidal sea loch, mountains, ruined castle, wildlife and pretty little white cottages would be definite inclusions and to my delight they had all been tantalisingly arranged outside my window. It took me a while to draw myself away from observing the roaming red deer, fishing heron and the incoming flow of the tide below.
If you have preconceptions about staying at a youth hostel you really need to leave them here, with private en-suite rooms and modern shared facilities on offer alongside traditional budget dormitory options, this recently renovated accommodation is great value and a bonus for me was being able to take my dog as Lochranza is one of several dog friendly SYHA escapes.
I have explored all the villages on Arran and although all picturesque, Lochranza is without doubt the one I would choose to stay in. Other than lacking a shop which is a bit inconvenient (you can buy basics at the SYHA) it has everything a lover of the outdoors and picturesque scenery could want and I was not the only one there to take advantage of this natural playground judging by the bikes and kayaks lining the outside of the building.
With a 13th Century ruined castle, whisky distillery and abundance of wildlife on the doorstep there is plenty to keep you entertained even if you don't want to stray far.
The SYHA theme for May is wildlife and their Lochranza Youth Hostel is the perfect wildlife watching location, you only have to look out the window to spot red deer, seals, and a wide variety of bird life, venture a little further from the doorstep and you could be rewarded with a plethora of creatures including red squirrels, golden eagles and otters.
Low level hillwalking is the most popular activity on the island and provides plenty opportunity to seek out some of the island's more elusive inhabitants. There are lots of signposted trails from Lochranza so I decided that it was time to turn to social media and ask the locals for their recommendations. No surprise that I had lots of suggestions but I opted firstly to follow the route to Laggan as I was promised spectacular views across the water to my home island of Bute.
LAGGAN COTTAGE ROUTE (approx 8 miles return, moderate walking)
From the Youth Hostel turn right and follow the signpost for Laggan (4 miles) a little further along the road. The route starts just after the golf course, look out for the sheep and red deer keeping the fairways trim or sunbathing in the bunkers, I can imagine playing here has a few challenges!
The path then begins a gentle but steady climb to the summit as the views on the ascent open up to reveal the surrounding stunningly rugged glen with the miniature sized whisky distillery and cottages in the valley below.
I spotted lots of wildlife along the route with red deer, sheep and birds of prey keeping a watchful eye as I wound my way over the stony track, past waterfalls and streams.
A large rock jutting out from the side of the path about two thirds of the way up made a perfect place to pause and absorb the encompassing sights and sounds from the winding road and lush farmland far below to the jagged mountain tops brushing the clouds in the distance.
With a final push to the summit I watched the deep blue of the Firth of Clyde unfold before me and what a reward for my efforts! As promised I had dazzling views across to Bute with the mainland beyond and deciding that this was a perfect lunch spot, I sat for a while watching the toy sized fishing boats traverse the peaceful sparkling water.
As the path winds down sharply towards the whitewashed Laggan Cottage look out for the ruins of Cock Farm far below, this desolate area was once home to over 100 inhabitants before the Clearances. It was this community that built the once vital historic pathway between here and Lochranza that is now only trodden for leisure purposes.
It is possible to make this a circular walk by returning via the Cock of Arran, however I was happy retrace my route and end my walk with sweeping views across Lochranza. This is a really rewarding route with extensive vistas, varied scenery and plentiful wildlife.
With a whisky distillery on the doorstep it would have been rude not to visit and after a long walk I felt I deserved a taste of the local dram. Apparently this is the third most visited distillery in the country and I joined a mix of nationalities on one of their basic Oak tours. With a well stocked whisky shop and a cafe onsite this is a good visiting option.
WARNING: Reading this blog may make you want to (1) immediately book a trip to Islay with Scottish Routes (2) crack open a bottle of Scotch (3) both of the above!
Whisky, Uisge Beatha, Amber Nectar, Liquid Gold
Whatever you call it, every variety of this Scottish aqua vitae all derives from three main ingredients, malted barley, yeast and water. So simple yet so complicated as any whisky lover will tell you.
There are many subtle factors that contribute to the unique character of each bottling and regional differences in Scotch Whisky are obvious even to the untrained palate with the peaty notes of Islay drams among the most revered. This little west coast island is home to 8 distilleries, famed around the world for the quality of their product and responsible for countless whisky pilgrims descending on it’s shores.
My own love affair with Scotland's national drink started with a seasonal job in a Highland whisky shop where, despite being a whisky virgin, i was given responsibility of selling a very fine range of malts and blends to aficionados and novices alike. My first few weeks involved being thrown in at the deep end of an amber tinted pool and reading my way through a pile of books with daily knowledge quizzes. My education was more than just theoretical though and involved ALOT of sampling and after hours drinking, oops I mean training sessions!
One thing that I didn't get to do was visit the distilleries that produced the hundreds of bottles that I became an expert at drinking and selling, so when Scottish Routes invited me to experience their 4 Day Islay Whisky Tour I immediately dropped all other plans and packed my bags!
There are 8 distilleries on Islay and the tour takes you on very different experiences around 6 of them, namely Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich. If that doesn't sound enough of a dream come true, then a bonus visit to Deanston Distillery en-route will ensure that the mood is set before you even have time to toast your fellow whisky devotees!
DAY 1 - Highlights
The tour normally starts from Edinburgh although Glasgow pickups can be arranged if required and this is where I boarded and began my journey into the fascinating world of Scotch a short time later at Deanston Distillery in the village of Doune. Joining up with the rest of my international group we dipped our first toe into the malted world of whisky production during a tour of this former cotton mill. I quickly learned that being on a whisky tour in Scotland means that drinking Scotch at any time of day is not only considered sociable but compulsory and certainly no-one on the trip was complaining when we were offered our first drams at what others may still consider 'breakfast' time.
Although Day 1 is essentially a travelling day, the first port of call at Deanston Distillery is followed by several scenic stops to break up the journey with a relaxed lunch at Oban, famed for it's seafood and with enough time to pop in to Oban distillery if you would like to sample the local dram.
For me, a chance to stretch the legs at arguably one of the most historically rich sites in Scotland was a real treat. Kilmartin Glen is home to over 350 ancient monuments within a 6 mile radius and we had the opportunity to explore a few of them before boarding the bus for the evening ferry.
The ferry journey is a relaxing 2 hours and with a malt of the month being served on board in double measure at a bargain price your Islay whisky journey officially starts as you cross the water!
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