Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
After going to Wigtown in April, I never expected I’d be back in Scotland this year. This was a fairly last-minute trip we booked so that my husband could attend a short rewilding workshop for PhD students. They all met up in Edinburgh and proceeded by bus into the Cairngorms to see sites of habitat restoration and potential future wildlife releases. I stayed behind at our Airbnb flat and kept up a reduced work load while enjoying the city break.
Day 1, Wednesday the 19th: A travel day. Our journey – two train rides plus a short walk at either end – should have taken just over 7 hours. Instead, it took 14. Recent storms had taken down wires at Durham and left debris on the line, so our original train was terminated at York. We managed to get a connection to Newcastle, queued outside for two hours for rail replacement buses that never came, and finally got a very delayed train through to Edinburgh. Our poor Airbnb hostess’s parents had to wait up for us until 12:40 a.m.
Day 2, Thursday the 20th: After just a few hours of sleep, we were up early so that Chris could leave by 7:15 for his meet-up on the Edinburgh campus. The props and sketches scattered about suggest that the flat owner is a theatre costume and set designer. The view overlooking Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat is spectacular – a great place to put in a few hours of proofreading before heading out to town after lunch.
On Clare’s recommendation I started with the Surgeons’ Hall Museums on the Royal College of Surgeons campus. They have several collections covering the history of surgery, dentistry, and pathology specimens. Many of the names and developments were familiar to me from Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art. Joseph Lister’s frock coat is on display, and in one corner rare video footage plays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was initially a practicing physician) explaining how he based Sherlock Holmes on his university mentor, Joseph Bell.
It’s not a place for the squeamish as there are mummified skeletons, details about Burke and Hare’s grave-robbing, surgical tools, and tumors and other anatomical deformities in jars everywhere. I found it all fascinating and spent a good two hours poking around. My favorite bits were the case full of foreign bodies removed from noses, stomachs and intestines and the temporary exhibition, “A Quest for Healing” by Zhang Yanzi, who had a residency at the museums in the summer of 2017. Her pieces included a 2D mountain made of pill packets, a cotton and gauze sculpture bristling with acupuncture needles, a matching hanging sculpture of capillaries, two surgical beds, and various silk screen panels.
The pathology museum, spread across two floors, was a little overwhelming and almost distressingly faceless – so many human beings reduced to the conditions that had defined and perhaps killed them. The most striking specimen for me, then, was one that actually included a face. I think it was a First World War soldier whose nose had been sewn back together, and what was so remarkable was that you could see his ginger whiskers and eyebrows, and his eyes were closed as if he was just taking a nap. (For ever. In a museum case.)
There are only explanatory panels about a select few samples, so it can be hard to spot just what’s wrong with the organs unless you have specialist medical knowledge. I appreciated the few places where notes have been added along the lines of “see your doctor if…” There were four polycystic kidneys on display in various cases, so including mine there were at least six present in the building that day. “More lives would be saved if more people carried kidney donor cards,” one caption read. Amen.
Clare also recommended the university area for its charity shops. I had a good trawl around Nicolson Street and bought one book, but a lot of the shops are geared towards vintage and High Street fashion. I had better luck at the Salvation Army store on Forrest Road (near the National Museum), where I found three books and two classical CDs.
On to the Writers’ Museum, which commemorates Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I was most interested in the Stevenson material, including memorabilia from his later life on Samoa, especially as I’m currently reading a novel about his relationship with the American divorcee Fanny Osbourne. By now I was museum-ed out and headed back to the flat for a leftovers dinner and some reading before an early bedtime.
Day 3, Friday the 21st: Another morning of work followed by an afternoon of wandering on foot between free attractions and charity shops and avoiding the drizzle. I visited the unusual Scottish Parliament building (which cost a cool £414 million) and saw inside the debating chamber. Four books from the Lothian Cat Rescue charity shop; quick jaunts around the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, Canongate Kirk, the Music Museum, and the Central Library. When it came to it I couldn’t be bothered to pay £14 to go around Holyrood Palace, but I enjoyed a reasonably priced cappuccino and carrot cake at their café. Chris was back in the evening for a dinner of frozen pizza with local beer and cider.
Day 4, Saturday the 22nd: Our one full day in the City together. We weren’t feeling up to the Arthur’s Seat walk, so we did a gentle stroll up the Salisbury Crags and back instead. Then we caught a bus out to the Stockbridge area for more charity shopping (two more books) and a scrumptious brunch at The Pantry. This was a recommendation on chef David Lebovitz’s food blog and it more than lived up to expectations. It’s no wonder we had to wait half an hour for a table. I could have eaten anything on the menu, but in the end I had smoked salmon eggs Benedict followed by a cherry and Nutella brownie.
After a brief browse at Golden Hare Books, we went on along the Water of Leith to the lovely Royal Botanic Garden. It’s free to walk around, but we also paid to tour the Glasshouses, which recreate the flora of 10 different climates. The RBG is also home to the National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors, a peaceful circular space set back in the woods and marked out by a few benches and stone monuments. As I have organ donors to thank for the continued life and health of my mother and several other relatives, it was well worth a visit.
Back into town for gelato (I had a delicious poached plum and cinnamon sorbet) at Mary’s Milk Bar, which is on Grassmarket across from the Castle and was another Lebovitz recommendation. A quick circuit of the animal hall at the National Museum before it closed, a stroll along the Royal Mile, and a rest with tea and books back at the flat before going back out for a veggie curry.
Day 5, Sunday the 23rd: Return travel day. No major issues, but still enough of a delay to apply for compensation – refunds from LNER and my husband’s work will have made the journey very cheap indeed.
I was sad to leave Edinburgh this time. I loved our Airbnb flat and felt very at home in it. If I had a bicycle to get into town a little faster, I could easily live there. The tourists would probably drive me mad, but Edinburgh is a wonderful place with so much to see and do and such incredible scenery within a short drive.
Thank you to everyone who offered suggestions of what to see and do. I managed to fit in most of what you recommended!
What I read:
The bulk of Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s bold new novel about distrust and displacement in America then (the 1870s) and now (during the rise of Trump), and Come to Me by Amy Bloom, a wonderful story collection about people who love who they shouldn’t love. More about this one in my upcoming round-up of short stories I’ve read this month.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is a delicious piece of literary suspense with a Tom Ripley-like hero you’ll love to hate: Maurice Swift, who wants nothing more than to be a writer but doesn’t have any ideas of his own, so steals them from other people. I loved how we see this character from several outside points of view – first Erich Ackerman, whose Nazi-era history provides the basis for Maurice’s first novel; then Gore Vidal, to whose Italian home Maurice pays a visit with his new mentor; and finally Maurice’s wife Edith, a celebrated author in her own right – before getting Maurice’s own perspective. By this point we know enough about him to understand just how unreliable a narrator he is. My one criticism is that I would have binned the whole subplot about Edith’s sister and brother-in-law. (A nice touch: at one point Maurice buys a reprint copy of Maude Avery’s Like to the Lark, which should ring a bell from The Heart’s Invisible Furies.)
I also read over half of Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train, a memoir about two long train journeys she took across America in the late 1990s that also incorporates memories from a troubled adolescence – she started smoking at 14 and was in and out of mental hospitals at 15 – in which she loved nothing more than to read while riding the Circle line all day long. I’m a quarter of the way through both Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Stevenson and his wife, and Peter Hill’s Stargazing, a memoir about dropping out of art school to become a Scottish lighthouse keeper in 1973; he started on Pladda, a tiny island off of Arran. And on my Nook I read a good bit of All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir about being raised by adoptive white parents in Oregon and meeting members of her Korean family in her mid-twenties, just as she became a mother herself.