Secret Places - Scottish Islands

Posted: 2011-03-26

Secret Places - Scottish Islands

I suppose you could call all Scottish islands a Secret Place, but there are some more 'secret' than others. While storied isles like Skye, Mull, and Iona draw visitors year after year, a few lesser-known jewels in the sea slumber on, undiscovered and blissfully ignored by both homegrown and overseas visitors.

Well, in the interests of promoting some of the places I have been and enjoyed over the past few years, here are a few of my 'secret places' among Scottish islands. I'll include the usual sort of disclaimers; I can only vouch for places I've actually visited, so there may be fabulous islands that don't make this shortlist.

1. Islay - Loosely pronounced 'Eye-la', this large island is a wonderful, peaceful place to visit, but my goodness there is a lot of history. To the north of the island is Finlaggan, the ancient meeting place of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles.

On the south coast, beside its ruined church, is the magnificent Kildalton Cross, one of the best surviving Celtic crosses in Britain. In the north is Kilchiaran Chapel, founded by St Columba, and another fantastic Celtic cross at Kilchoman. Bird-watchers flock to Islay each year to visit Loch Gruinart nature reserve, and much of the Oa peninsula is part of another RSPB reserve. Islay is an absolute treasure.

2. Orkney - You have to be determined to get to Orkney, but my goodness it is worth the trip! My family still talk about the week we spent there years ago. Orkney as a whole is a haven for birds and wildlife, but it is the history that is the real attraction.

From the standing stones at Brodgar and Stenness to the fantastic burial mound of Maes Howe and the long-lost settlement at Skara Brae, there is ancient history everywhere you look. Though perhaps the prehistoric period is centre stage, the medieval period is well represented with a bishop's palace at Kirkwall, the Earls Palace at Birsay, and the medieval cathedral and another Earl's Palace at Kirkwall. And that's just the start!

3. Colonsay - I've rarely enjoyed a week more than the time I spent on Colonsay a few years back. You can walk from one end of the island to the other in a few hours, but don't stop there; if you keep going across the tidal straits known as The Strand, you come to Oronsay, where the fabulous ruined priory houses carved grave slabs and ancient crosses. On Colonsay itself is Colonsay House, with a historic garden where you will find an ancient carved cross amid the foliage. There are ruined duns and an ancient holy well, and historic chapel remains, not to mention some of the most incredible beaches anywhere!

4. Arran - Far more accessible than the islands listed above, but no less interesting. Arran is a mix of lush seaside scenery on the east coast and bleak Hebridean moorland on the west. The most interesting historic site is the amazing complex of prehistoric monuments on Machrie Moor, but if ancient sites are not your cup of tea there is also Brodick Castle and Garden, or you can enjoy a climb to the top of Goat Fell for superb views over the island.

5. Isle of Lewis - The largest of the Western Isles (or if you come from an older generation, the Outer Hebrides). Lewis is home to the most astonishing prehistoric site in northern Britain, the complex of standing stones at Callanish. Nearby is the best-preserved Iron Age broch in Scotland at Carloway, and restored 'blackhouses' at Arnol and Garenin. Visit the 'Bridge to Nowhere' near Stornoway, or a restored Viking Mill. Even if you don't fancy historic sites, Lewis and Harris to the south are home to some of the most amazing white sandy beaches in Europe.

Ayrshire & Arran - official website
Islay and Jura Tourism - official website
Orkney Travel Guide - our look at the Orkneys
Isle of Lewis - official tourism website

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