Only a quarter of a mile from our little "self-catering" cottage on the Isle of Skye, a distressed shelduck tried to steer us away from her hidden young by pretending to drag a broken wing. So, the next evening we approached the shore much more quietly and were rewarded with a performance of downy ducklings swimming with their parents. It was June, when nights are longest, and even at midnight we could make out individual ranges of hills on the islands of Harris and Lewis, far to the west.
Although we were spending the week on Scotland's most visited island, not another soul came down our road.
Divided into Inner and Outer groupings, Scotland's Hebrides are a collection of beautiful wild islands that lie off the western coast. About four-fifths of the 500 or so islands of this rugged archipelago claim populations limited to birds, small mammals and occasional sheep. Those islands inhabited by people vary greatly both in appearance and character. On some, Gaelic is still the native tongue. The more isolated the island, the stronger the traditions and the more challenging is daily life.
So much a part of the Hebrides, that remoteness can be observed on islands close to Scotland's shore, islands that most tourists either never reach or explore only in haste.
Here's a look at four Inner Hebridean islands that are easy to access but reward with character all their own. Visitors should plan to stay on any of these at least several days. Each island offers lodging and camping.
Isle of Jura
"I send my love across the sea
To Jura, where I long to be."
A homesick soldier wrote these words during World War II as part of a poignant ode to his "island abode." Curiously, although Jura lies close to the mainland due west of Glasgow, it is one of the least-visited of the inhabited Hebrides. An extended stay on this vast, beautiful island rewards with an eco-tourism experience at its most unaffected.
About 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, Jura has one road, one town, one hotel and one industry, the distilling of Isle of Jura whiskey. You can bring your car over on the little ferry from neighboring Islay and drive the "Long Road" across the southern and up part of Jura's eastern coast. Along the way you will see standing stones and herds of freely roaming red deer for whom the island is said to be named.
Against the sky loom three magnificent mountains, the Paps of Jura. Craighouse, Jura's one town, resides picturesquely on Small Isles Bay, where yachts occasionally put in for the night. The nearness of the Gulf Stream enables palm trees and fuchsias to thrive.
Jura's one hotel, renovated several years ago, provides most pleasant accommodations and good meals, as well as cheery gatherings of local folk and pleasure sailors in its pub.
Across the road, the Jura distillery offers informative tours of its aromatic enterprise and samples of its 10-year-old malt, classified by those in the know as some of Scotland's best.
To fully explore this sparsely populated island, you should leave the car and hike (the understated British call it "walking") with map, rain gear and one of the excellent, locally authored guidebooks.
Relatively easy walks meander along beautiful Loch Tarbert and up to isolated Barnhill where George Orwell wrote his grim 1984. From here you can continue along the ever-deteriorating road to Jura's north end for a view of the Corryvreckan, the roaring whirlpool that some say was discovered by Ulysses. Hardy bikers (or walkers) can explore Jura's lovely and lonely western beaches or climb the rugged Paps for views of Scotland's mainland, the Isle of Man, and, on very clear days, Ireland.
Joan and Mike Richardson have lived in an old homestead on the far northern tip of Jura for many years and know the island well. They offer weeklong guided explorations of the natural and historic sites at reasonable cost, providing meals and a choice of rustic or slightly pampered accommodations. Guided outings can also be arranged through the Jura Hotel for those who prefer not to go it alone.
Skye and Raasay
Although Raasay is just a giant's stone's throw from the mainland, to get there you must first ferry to Skye. So many tourists come to Skye that lines at the ferry crossing at Kyle of Lochalsh sometimes stretch for a mile or more. But once you're off the main tour routes, even on Skye you can find an amazing array of getting-away-from-it-all options.
Rent a little "self-catering" cottage _ meaning, you can cook for yourself in its kitchen _ down some narrow road such as the one to Tarskavaig, or arrange for a few nights in a bed-and-breakfast at some isolated village such as Orbost.
Skye is an island of peninsulas that seem to fly out in all directions. Scotland in miniature, it offers fjords, lochs and bays, rocky coasts and ancient ruins. You can climb the Cuillins, perhaps Great Britain's most rugged mountains, or explore the island's gentlest garden spot, Sleat. You would have to spend weeks to experience all of Skye's out-of-the-way offerings.
Although Raasay seems almost close enough to Skye to touch, comparatively few visitors take the 15-minute car ferry across the sound. Skye protects this gentler island from both tourist hordes and Atlantic gales. Raasay's most distinguishing feature is Dun Cann, the flat-topped summit where Dr. Samuel Johnson reportedly danced a jig during his 18th-century visit. A climb to the blustery tabletop offers fine views of the Cuillins and Scotland's coast.
Most of Raasay's 150 residents are crofters who belong to the Free Presbyterian Church and observe a strict Sabbath. They speak Gaelic as well as English and are noted for their generous hospitality. Visitors who come on weekends enjoy gentle Sundays reminiscent of less harried times.
Like much of the Highlands and Islands, Raasay suffered the heartless deportation of most of its peasantry in the 19th century. You can wander through some of the wind-stripped little coastal ghost towns that the emigrants were forced to leave behind. Narrow roads and paths lead to carved Pictish stones, an abandoned mine, crumbling ruins and pleasant farms. You can hike a road built single-handedly, and experience a wide variety of flora and fauna. Most of the terrain provides easy walking and, except in stormy weather, a mood of quiet prevails. Lodging is available in a scenically situated hostel and a small hotel. Several families offer bed and accommodations, and share information and lore of their beloved island.
Tourists do pour off the little foot ferry all day long to visit the beautiful stone abbey on Iona. They walk the short distance from pier to church, wandering through the remains of a handsome, 12th-century, pink granite convent and up the road past vegetable gardens.
Some come to pay tribute to St. Columba, said to have sailed to Iona on a tiny boat from Ireland in 563 A.D. and brought Christianity to the British Isles. Other visitors, believing that heaven lies closer to Earth here than anywhere else, come to experience the island's mystical aura. Still others simply come for the beauty of this gentlest and most verdant of the Hebrides.
Many leave with a feeling that they have visited a shrine or holy place, or have experienced a "special feeling."
The history of Iona can be traced back to the days of the Druids. It is said that 60 kings have been buried in the church's graveyard. A small museum displays a fine collection of ancient carved stone slabs and tells the story of the rebuilding of the great church. The hand-illuminated Book of Kells (now in Dublin) was begun here. So was the Iona Community, an experimental Christian-living group that rebuilt the ruined abbey and seeks to serve the world's needy.
Fortunately for those who want to really get to know this island, most of the tourists leave before nightfall, returning to the next-door Isle of Mull or to Oban on the mainland.
To explore, you must go on foot; only residents are allowed to have cars. You can hike to the south coast, to St. Columba's Bay and the Port of the Coracle, where the monk is said to have landed his tiny craft. Here the beach is strewn with polished green "Iona stones." Or visitors can walk the pristine sandy beaches among the tidal pools and serpentine rocks of red and green. Or stroll the rustic windy little golf course, its turf maintained by resident sheep. Or climb Dun I (pronounced "doon-ee") for a broad view of the Atlantic and a panorama of the Inner Hebrides.
About 100 residents, other than the transient members of the Iona Community, live and farm on this island, all of which, excluding the abbey, belongs to the National Trust of Scotland. A handful of locals offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and there are several small hotels and eating places.
As in all the Hebrides, summer sunsets and twilight linger well into the night on Iona, making it easy to capture the remote magic that has become legendary.
IF YOU GO
Travel agents may be able to help with arrangements to visit these islands. You can also make your own arrangements and seek out special fares and rates by studying ferry schedules and delving into materials prepared by area tourist boards. Tourist centers will "book a bed ahead" to your specifications, or you can contact individual lodgings yourself.
All these islands, with the exception of Jura, are served by the ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. (For a schedule, write The Ferry Terminal, Gourock, PA19 1QP, Scotland.) MacBrayne serves Port Askaig on the island of Islay, where you can catch the private ferry for Jura. Islay is also served by air, from Glasgow.
For lists of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and other tourist information, contact:
For Jura and Iona _ West Highlands and Islands of Argyll Tourist Board, Albany St., Oban, Argyll PA34 4AR, Scotland.
For Skye and Raasay _ Isle of Skye and South West Ross Tourist Board, Tourist Information Centre, Portree, Isle of Skye IV51 9 BZ, Scotland.
For general information on travel in Scotland, contact the Scottish Tourist Board, 23 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh, EH4 3EU, Scotland. Or contact the British Tourist Authority in New York, (800) 462-2748.
Candace Leslie is a free-lance writer living in Bryan, Texas.