Journey to the Western isles

A country as diverse as Scotland, you could return time and again, and always find new places to discover. I was lucky enough to see quite a bit of Scotland during my Erasmus time, although in hindsight I regret not having taken more advance of the possibility to travel. In my early twenties though, I had never travelled alone before, and most of my trips were either organized by the university or with other Erasmus people. When at the end of the Erasmus semester my travel partner backed out at the last moment I decided to go alone. And so I went, on my first trip alone. A decision not taken lightly of course. The walk to the Dundee bus station that night was one of the hardest moments of my entire Erasmus period, but once determined I wouldn’t wait for anyone else to make my dreams come true, I went off. And fell in love with Scotland once again.

There is something about the Scottish islands. On that journey six years ago I visited Orkney, Mull and Iona. Orkney is home to some of the oldest signs of civilization in Europe, with settlements as Scara Brae dating back to 5000 BC. On Orkney life seems to slow down. With the limited public transport options (sometimes one bus to go per day, one bus to return) I had no option but to discover places to the full extent, taking time where I otherwise might have rushed. I had conversations with random bystanders and made friends with the local bus drivers, who would go to lengths to drop me at the exact place I wanted to go, despite the lack of bus stops anywhere near. I got stuck on Orkney when that Icelandic volcano with the impossible name erupted and never minded it one bit. An exceptionally beautiful place, Orkney is well worth the visit, although I wouldn’t recommend taking the ferry if you easily get seasick: the sea between mainland Scotland and Orkney is notoriously rough! And if you go, do stay at the Orcades hostel: the most beautiful hostel I’ve ever stayed at – by miles!

Mull and Iona were striking for other reasons. Mull’s main sight is Duart Castle, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Surrounded by water and hills in all directions, it could not have been build at a more wonderful spot. Less touristic than Eilean Donan, it is definitely every bit as beautiful – and maybe even more! It was here that I met a real Highland chief. The head of Clan MacCleod casually inquired about my opinion on the castle, and it was only later I found out he in fact owned the place! I guess I was taken off guard because he wasn’t wearing a kilt..

Iona, just off the coast from Mull, is an island well known in history. It is from here that St Columba spread Christianity in Scotland. A tiny, tiny, tiny island, it is in fact so small that no cell phone service was available. With ferries only a few days a week an overnight stay is required, to which I of course did not object. If every Scottish island has its own character, this is even more true for Iona, a place of great religious significance.

After my exchange semester two places remained on my travel wish list: the Shetland islands (halfway between Norway and Scotland) and Harris and Lewis, the Scottish ‘bounty islands’. It’s only one island in fact, Harris and Lewis being linked by land. This really is Scotland at its most beautiful: mountains and beaches with white sand and turquoise water. It is a little off the beaten track, as you have to take a ferry from Skye or Ullapool to get there, but is so so so worth your efforts!

Home to some 20,000 people, Harris and Lewis in many ways is modern, yet it also feels like stepping back in time. In some ways life is still like it was hundred years ago, although the last people left their ‘blackhouses’ a couple of decennia ago. Internet and cell phones have arrived on the island, yet people still live from fishing and weaving. The most important export product is Harris Tweed, that is woven by hand using the old methods. Here you can find people practicing husbandry as a hobby, like the local shepherd I came across near Callandish. An engineer working in the oil industry, he also has a large flock of sheep and a number of dogs for training, and I was lucky enough to see them in action before my very eyes.

Callandish is but one of many stone circles in Great Britain. It is the centre of a large number of circles on Harris and Lewis, that no one knows the function of for certain. Like the pyramids, these circles of stones make you admire the civilization that created them thousands of years ago – without the help of modern-day technology. And for those interested in ancient times, if you happen to find yourself on Harris and Lewis, do not pass by Bosta Beach to admire the recreation of the Iron Age House. The friendly lady in charge of the place can tell you everything about Scotland and Iron Age life. Just be prepared: the awful smell of the Iron Age fires is not going to leave your clothes any time soon!!

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