An explorer's guide to the islands of Britain

Holy Island

Days 28 – 44 of our virtual island bagging Britain journey

Last 16 days step-up height achieved: 12,209 metres

There are 36 inhabited and 43 uninhabited islands in the archipelago of the Inner Hebrides and many iconic high points and in this part of our virtual journey we bag the lot.

Katie decided to stay on Skye as she was had got the bug for completing the Cuillin Traverse (the steps up to our favourite – the Munro Bar) so the three of us left Skye on the CalMac to Ullapool to pick up our island bagging from where we left off.

First up we had a bit of a communication problem. ‘I love you’ Charlie shouted at me when I ask what island was up next. ‘I know’, I said, ‘we’ve been married for 24 years, but what island are we climbing first?’ ‘I love you’ he returned, slightly irritated this time. By this time Derek was in stitches of course and he only just managed to shout out ‘Isle of Ewe’.

Once we bagged it we skedaddled down to Oban and picked up smoked salmon sandwiches and a platter of lobster, mussels and scallops from the Oban Seafood Hut on the CalMac pier. The plate was so big that we nearly had to buy an extra ticket for it! Then, after a bit of a choppy crossing, we landed on Tiree, known as the ‘land beneath the waves’, so Carnan Mor (141m) wasn’t too difficult to spot. There were great views from the top; Tiree’s incredible stretches of white sand beaches were stunning.

The onto neighbouring  Coll where we spotted basking sharks along the sound before we trotted up Ben Hogh (106 m). We had a quick lunch in the brilliant Coll Hotel before leaving, although I wished we had the time to stay the night in the superb Coll Bunkhouse to spot the Milky Way in this Dark Sky Reserve.

Mull, beckoned from across the water and it wasn’t too long before CalMac had dropped us there for an ascent of Ben Mor (966 m) with its amazing views across to Ireland and Ben Nevis on the mainland – I can’t tell you the directions of each as the magnetic summit made the compass go doolally. We ticked off the satellite islands of Mull too, including the community-owned Ulva, with The Boathouse tearoom, neighbouring Gometra, the wild tidal sands of Erraid and the spiritual island of Iona where we walked up Dun I (101 m). From here we took a boat trip to Staffa, to swim in nature’s cathedral of Fingal’s Cave with its incredible basalt columns and then to on bag all the Treshnish Isles and spot the dolphins on the way.

Back to Oban via the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba. We heard the roar from the strong tidal currents and standing waves a long time before we passed over the edge of the third largest whirlpool in the world – the CalMac Captain’s party trick.

Next up the high points of Islay, Jura and Colonsay. We started with the latter as it is an island full of special memories for each of us. A stunningly beautiful and tranquil place, especially out near Balnahard and the beach on the north east tip, where we felt close to our loved ones whose dear memories are forever entwined in that special place.

We popped into Colonsay’s post office to check the tides for our crossing to Oronsay to bag Beinn Oronsay (93m) before we paddled across the tidal sands where we met a lovely father and daughter – he looking for the rare Irish Ladie’s-Tresses refuted to be on the island and she looking for mermaids (which we all know are there). We drank from the island well and enjoyed the views across to the Paps of Jura, the next peaks we bagged.

The ascent of the Paps, a trio of mountains with Beinn an Oir (785m) the highest, is a Scottish mountain classic and it was great to explore the stone buildings near the summits which date from the 19th century and were a ‘Colby Camp’ used by the Ordnance Survey in their mapping of the Highlands and Islands. The views from the tops of the sea and islands all around were breathtaking, as were the hair-raisingly steep scree paths across the tops. It is said that Jura Whisky is more famous than the island but we opted for a quick tour of Lussa Gin instead. With all ingredients grown and foraged on the island, including the roses which come from the owners own gardens, we enjoyed its delicious and zesty taste.

We hopped over the Sound to Islay and onto the high point, Beinn Bheigeir (491 m), which is Gaelic for mountain of the vicar. Form its superb ridge walk we could see to the Isle of Mull, the Ben Nevis range, the Isle of Arran and the Antrim coastline in Northern Ireland.  With nine whiskey distilleries on this relatively small island we felt we ought to stop for a quick dram and ended up touring several of the distilleries and their peat kilns.

Then on our way back to the mainland we popped into Gigha (101m), mainly to eat in its wonderfully located beachside restaurant. I often dream about sitting outside the Boathouse with a plateful of fish curry made with locally farmed halibut and freshly caught monkfish, snapper, prawn and scallop followed by a walloping portion of excellent sticky toffee pudding. I would have tried to swim back to the mainland but know I would have sunk within the first few metres.

Next up we stopped in Campeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula to bag the tidal island of Davaar, where we made a side visit see the cave painting of the crucifixion. Then we caught the ferry to Arran, known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ as this island offers a little bit of everything that this fine country has to offer. It also has one of the finest small mountain ranges in Scotland, a spectacular array of jagged granite peaks that culminate in the fine pyramidal peak of Goat Fell (874 m) with views of dramatic granite ridges, across to the Clyde estuary and to Ireland.

Just off Arran’s coast Charlie reminded us of the 5 Golden Rules of Buddha and we bagged Mullach Mor (314m) on Holy Isle and then ate our sarnies beneath the colourful prayer flags next to the island’s white stuppas before a whistle-stop hike up the high points of Bute and Great Cumbrae – the latter boasting the smallest cathedral and narrowest house in Britain.

Getting to Ailsa Craig turned into a bit of an adventure, its over 16 km west of Scotland’s mainland and the journey triggered my seasickness but we bagged the peak (340m) after a steepish ascent of this former volcano, even though I was still a worrying shade of green. Derek filled his pockets with blue hone granite stone. He reckoned he was going to make some curling stones from them when this epic journey was over. I suppose at least it will make for a good excuse to scrub the floor. He had a point though, nearly all the curling stones in the world come from this small island in the middle of the sea.

Talking of stones, our next destination was the Slate Islands, known as ‘the islands that roofed the world’ and now the centre for the World Stone Skimming Championships. Although we had all got on well during our journey so far, we did get a tad bit competitive trying to get the longest skim – so we retired to the island’s Puffer Pub and made up. We decided that if we entered the Championship as a team we’d call ourselves the Island Bagging Tossers.

Just before we left Scotland to head south we bagged the islands of the Solway Firth – Heston, Ardwall and some other tiddlers on the way.

Overall our Scottish island bagging has been an incredible experience! Now for the west coast of England and the islands of Wales over the next couple of weeks – and we are wishing we could have a slice of Derek’s biscoff and butterscotch syrup traybake with chocolate topping (see below).

Cumulative total of island bagging height – Cumulative total of 43,388 m (target total = 47,838 metres)

Method of travel – climbing a ladder up the apple tree in the garden; step ups on a Belfast sink; indoor staircase; run and bike (lockdown has changed and we are allowed out to play more).

  

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