Scottish Island Obsession

From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The Laird of Muck hunkers down on top of his Scottish island. And so do I. An Atlantic gale threatens to lift and blow us both out like October leaves, over the sheer cliff at our feet and across the bay 400 feet below, dropping us in the surrounding ocean. Then the laird’s sheepdog creeps up, and blond, bearded Lawrence MacEwen pets him with gentle hands. The howling wind, rage as it might, can’t make this lord uncomfortable here, atop his island in the Hebrides, where he looks—and is—perfectly at home.

Like other Scottish islands, Muck had a medieval land-ownership system in Gaelic times, when Scottish islanders battled invading Vikings in these very waters. Land ownership took deep root in the Inner Hebrides, rocky isles anchored off the northwest coast of Scotland. Geographically isolated, lashed by the North Atlantic, these brave outposts nurtured an individuality and an independence that have lured adventurers and romantics for centuries, from the ancient Celts to 19th-century poets, painters, and composers. Even Queen Victoria came, beguiled by the raw, defiant landscapes, alternately sublime and bleak.

It’s hardly surprising that a Kansas flatlander like me would find these craggy oceanic domains captivating. According to my plainspoken wife, however, captivation had grown into more than that. “You’re obsessed,” she’d said when she caught me yet again studying my well-worn map of the islands. “High time you stopped dreaming about the Hebrides and got yourself on one of the ferries.” She was right, of course: My keen interest had swelled into a hunger of the soul. I needed to not only visit these places. I needed to make them my own.

SWEEPING HIS EAGLE GAZE across the archipelago known as the Small Isles—vivid in sunlight here, slate gray behind sheets of rain there—MacEwen is giving me a visual tour of his neighborhood. Nodding to the north, he yells, “That island is Eigg. The one to the west of it is the Isle of Rum. It gets twice as much precipitation as we do.” I watch heavy clouds dump rain on its hulking mountains. “Just beyond Rum is the island of Soay.”

In the howling wind, my voyage is taking shape. Not only can I see my island journey laid out before me—Muck to Eigg to Rum, then down the coast to the whisky isles of the south, Islay and Jura—but MacEwen is sweeping me into his island world. I feel as if I’ve closed a guidebook and opened a novel as he shares local lore: that Muck had barely skirted oblivion when its population shrank to 13 souls; that the crofters of Eigg had run off their lairds (lords); that the Isle of Rum once enjoyed stupendous Victorian wealth. Wee places, these, not much traveled today, inhabited by dreamers and stoics. Retreats from the world. Blank canvases for quixotic quests.

“I have sheep to move,” MacEwen abruptly announces when rain drifts toward us. We start down the bluff. As we stride along, he catches me up on island details: Volcanic Muck is two miles long and half as wide; its greylag geese eat vast amounts of grass; and MacEwens are buried in a Bronze Age stone circle here.

Sheepherding interrupts his flow. Tie, the sheepdog, is circling a flock—and not doing it well. “Away to me, Tie. Away to me,” meaning the dog should circle to the right. He doesn’t; he goes straight up the middle of the flock, creating confusion.

“Tie.” MacEwen’s voice drips disappointment. “That will never do.” The dog shrinks with shame.

MUCK IS LARGELY a MacEwen enterprise, has been for a century. Laird Lawrence runs the farm with his wife, Jenny; son Colin, newly married, manages the island cottages; and daughter Mary runs the island hotel, Port Mor, with her husband, Toby (he manages the hunting). Mary and Toby love that their two boys can wander the island on their own and sail dinghies on summer days. “They go out the door and come back only when they’re hungry.” But island life has its compromises. For one, electricity on Muck remains a sometime thing. My first evening, I wait anxiously for the lights to turn on. The next morning I find Mary setting out breakfast by flashlight. But I get used to it—along with no cell phone service. “There is mobile reception on the hill,” Mary tells me. “Most people last a couple of days, then just put the phone in the drawer.” So I do.

Everything on Muck seems delightfully improbable. The boat today brings over groceries—and a woodwind trio, which hops off carrying bassoons and clarinets. Its concert in the island’s tearoom proves a smash hit, with islanders tapping their wellies in time to Bach and Poulenc.

That night, sitting by a glowing fire as it rains outside, Lawrence MacEwen tells me how he met his Jenny. “Her father saw a croft on the isle of Soay advertised in the Times, and bought it sight unseen. He’d never been to Scotland. Jenny was sent to manage the farm.” Did Jenny know anything about running a farm? “She had good typing skills.”

Buying a house sight unseen isn’t that unusual on these islands, I learn. The clarinetist at the concert had done so. Did these people know what they were getting into? Or was that the alluring part?

I go to bed with rain and awake to more rain. But I eat well, virtually every last morsel of food coming from the tiny island: lamb, beef, pheasant, seafood, vegetables, fruits—an unexpected variety. Mary sends me down to fisherman Sandy Mathers for fresh lobster. As I watch, he hoists a whoppingly big one out of the cold waters. I carry it back through the village, cross the hotel’s grounds (after closing the gate so sheep won’t get onto the lawn), and deliver the crustacean to Mary at the kitchen door. By 7 p.m., our lobster dinner is on the table, delicious beyond reckoning.

Also beyond reckoning: my ferry ride the following morning to my next island. Over the preceding two months, many of the scheduled ferries had been canceled because of high seas. If my ferry didn’t come, I’d be stuck on Muck for two more days. Which, now, was what I secretly longed for.

The ferry came.

Too bad it wasn’t going where I wanted to go. Weather, tides, and ferry schedules are stern masters in the Hebrides. I’d envisioned hopping from one island to the next, but Hebridean travel is its own version of “you can’t get there from here.” To reach Eigg, just seven miles north, I had to ferry 20 miles northeast to the mainland port of Mallaig, overnight there, then catch a ferry to Eigg the following day. But Eigg proves worth the deviation: As the ferry approaches the 12-square-mile island, its landmark, a black tooth of pitchstone called the An Sgùrr, is raking rain out of gray banks of clouds. Braids of black volcanic sand, washed down from the surrounding cliffs, twist their way across a white shell beach. My photographer’s eye cannot get enough of the scene.

Owned by a succession of off-island proprietors, Eigg would gain fame in the 1990s when islanders got fed up with their absentee landlords and bought them out, thereby ending centuries of “recreational colonialism,” as one islander put it. This proved a turning point in Scottish land ownership: Common folk formed a trust, raised the money, purchased the island—and became their own lairds.

“It was being owned by a mad German artist that clinched it,” Maggie Fyffe tells me in her cottage filled with bookshelves sagging under the weight of tomes about everything. “We said, ‘We can do better than this.’ ” The way Fyffe tells her small-island tale, it becomes world-class drama. When the German artist put Eigg on the market again, in 1997, “everybody here was like, let’s go for it.” The islanders needed 1.5 million pounds ($2,463,000) to buy Eigg. More than 10,000 donations flooded in. “We raised half a million from folks around the world. Then a woman who’d followed the story gave a million quid.” They bought their island. “Scots love the idea of the little guy winning over the big guy. It was an amazing thing to be part of.”

Eigg’s new islander owners have been transforming it into a “green island” with an additional 1.5 million pounds they’ve raised for sustainable-energy technology: water, wind, solar. “It’s brilliant, what happened here,” says Fyffe. People are moving back; the population is growing.

As evening falls, I poke around Eigg’s main settlement, Cleadale Township, a hamlet huddled under cliffs on the island’s west side that once was full of crofters and the laughter of their children. I sense a bittersweet Highland melancholy here, left from the 1800s, when the clearances removed the local crofters to make way for something more profitable—sheep.

Yet tonight, Eigg’s new community hall is jumping: It’s Halloween. Children are arriving from around the island (how can there be so many?), costumed for a contest. I vote for the mummy but praise the pirate, the skeleton, and the gremlin profusely. Life is good. So is the beer.

RUM, ONLY SEVEN MILES to the northwest as the raven flies, is another story. One comes to this larger island (42 square miles) for two things: the hilly green landscape and to size up a stupendous folly. I’ll be staying in the folly, Kinloch Castle, docked on its lawn like a red aircraft carrier decorated in Scots baronial style, battlements glued onto towers and facades wherever they would stick.

Disembarked from the ferry, I make my way over to the castle. The derelict structure—so fervently conceived in 1897 by Rum’s inheritor, British aristocrat George Bullough, but now the stuff of Fawlty Towers humor—delights with its Edwardian craving for excess, set in stone.

Bullough, heir to a fabulous fortune, ran through a measure of it entertaining London society at Kinloch. He renamed the island “Rhum,” allegedly so he wouldn’t be known as the laird of Rum, and lavished his castle with special touches. Tuxedoed guests and their dates, for example, would be called to the grand hall by a mechanical musical contraption known as an orchestrion. The baronet—whose colorful life is recounted in the 2011 book Eccentric Wealth: The Bulloughs of Rum, by Scottish author Alastair Scott—later caught the attention of King Edward VII, who knighted him for his help during the Anglo-Boer War, including mandating that Kinloch Castle be put at the disposal of wounded officers.

When World War I came, luxury became unsightly and Bullough spent less and less time on Rum. Today Kinloch is a time capsule administered by the Scottish National Heritage, not so much preserved as ossified in place. Though Bullough and his guests are long gone, I walk the halls hoping for a trace of those vivid times: the click of billiard balls, the whiff of cigars. I find it, finally, hanging outside Lady Bullough’s bedroom: a daring portrait of her, in the nude.

GEORGE BULLOUGH WASN'T the only one to fall under the spell of the Hebrides. I’m headed to Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean islands and home of another who decamped to a remote place to reimagine himself.

Mainlander Mark Reynier had a thing for whisky. So he bought an Islay distillery.

“First time I saw Bruichladdich, my jaw just dropped,” he says, speaking of the old structure. “It was awful. Trees growing out of the roof.” But Reynier is nothing if not a whisky believer and evangelist. As we walk through today’s modernized complex, he describes his dream of bringing back traditional Scottish distilling. Everything about his distillery is a marvel of antique machinery and unbridled energy. The pot stills steam. Casks in the warehouse waft out the heady, pungent “angel’s share” of whisky vapor.

“The air on this shore of Islay is what the whisky breathes; it absorbs the flavor,” Reynier explains. “I can’t make Bruichladdich anyplace else in the world.” Islay farmers grow organic barley for him just so he can trace the provenance and terroir of each of his bottlings. “The organic barley isn’t some sort of twee thing. It’s because it tastes good. I can tell this barley comes from Mid Coul and the mains of Tullibardine.”

In 2006, he made a whisky that was quadruple distilled to a whopping 90 percent alcohol. “I got the idea from a 17th-century Hebrides explorer who described usquebaugh-baul: perilous whisky.” Perilous indeed. Reynier once received an e-mail from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency asking why one of the distillery’s eight webcams wasn’t working. Seems the defense agency had been using images from Bruichladdich webcams to help train its people in how to differentiate between a chemical-weapons factory and similar-looking civilian machinery. “Apparently our old equipment resembled what they were looking for in Iraq for the production of chemical weapons,” says Reynier. Sensing an opportunity, he turned right around and produced a bottling of WMD—Whisky of Mass Distinction. It sold out almost immediately.

That night I board a ferry for the five-minute ride northeast to Jura, my final island. I can’t wait to meet more folks who’ve let these islands tease out inner gifts.

Such as Andy McCallum and his wife. They’d never lived on a Scottish island—and up and bought a hotel. I reach the Jura Hotel, in the town of Craighouse, after driving the island’s sole road east from the Feolin ferry terminal across moors grazed by Jura’s 6,000 deer (versus 200 people). Camped on a pitch of green by Small Isles Bay, the homey three-story lodge looks more like a big house.

Visitors come to Jura to hunt—seven hunting estates patchwork the island—or to relax. “Things are a wee bit slower here,” McCallum tells me. “They kind of glide along, like the sea or the wind.” Across the street, at Jura Distillery, manager Willie Cochrane echoes the sentiment. In his decades on Jura he has accepted that island life is slow, that whisky takes time. That Jura has special water. “It’s the water that makes the whisky,” he says.

Jura’s hills are sodden with the stuff, I learn when I go tromping across them with Gordon Muir, head stalker at the nearby Tarbert estate (owned by the stepfather-in-law of the current British prime minister, David Cameron). The ground beneath my feet, soaked with rainwater, quivers when I stomp on it. Ahead of us rise the old, rounded mountains known as the Paps of Jura, now wreathed in clouds that slide down, wrapping us in fog. Walking this ancient island landscape alongside bearded Muir—kitted out in plus fours, deerstalker cap, and crook—I feel as if I’m in a Highland painting.

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BEYOND THE PAPS, to the north, lies a sea inlet called Loch Tarbert that cleaves Jura nearly in two. I pass it the next day on my way to the island’s upper reaches. Within five miles I find myself at the end of the road—and at Ardlussa, an 18,000-acre estate that encompasses a guest lodge and comes with a young laird, gregarious Andy Fletcher. His family has owned Ardlussa since 1926. Lady Fletcher is Claire, who soon points out the obvious: “Andy was born to this.” She wasn’t.

“I was a radio station manager in Glasgow,” she says, “where I was the boss.”

They share their island story in the kitchen, the oldest part of the 400-year-old-house. Claire met Andy when she came to Jura as a journalist in 1991 to cover a performance by the British band KLF; Andy was hired to drive reporters around the island, Claire lodged at Ardlussa—and they fell in love. The couple lived in London, then Glasgow. But when Andy’s father died, five years ago, Andy moved back to save the estate.

Claire notes the challenges of island life. “It’s 40 minutes to school for the children because the bus stops to deliver groceries, milk, and the paper.” But she’s hooked. “I’d have a hard time living back in the city having had this experience.” Plus, the busy life in London wouldn’t leave her time for such things as her “stitch-and-bitch group. We each bring our sewing or knitting and a bottle of wine.”

Time is plentiful here, to wander, to explore, to discover. Which is how, on a grassy verge 17 miles from the nearest village, I come across a most unlikely sign next to a small folding table. “Tea on the Beach.” I wander over. On the table sit a menu and a walkie-talkie. I speak into the walkie-talkie, and Georgina Kitching answers.

“Would you like some tea and cakes?” Well, yes, I would.

Kitching walks down from her nearby cottage with a tray in hand. Just for me. What possible economic model makes this work? And how did it even come about?

“My husband said there was a house for sale at Inverlussa. I said we better buy it.” Simple as that, her dream comes true. But to support this island life, her husband rides his motorcycle an hour down to Feolin, takes the ferry across to the island of Islay, then rides another 20 minutes to the school where he teaches. Every day.

After settling her family into their new life, Kitching decided she wanted a little business (she laughs), got the walkie-talkies for Christmas (laughs again)—and voilà! Tea on the Beach. It’s a small idea. But last summer, she tells me, a group arrived at her tea table from Ardlussa. Ardlussa, New Zealand. Halfway round the world.

Kitching falls silent, caught by the thought. I’m stunned. Somehow, without really meaning to, she has done a remarkable thing: She has brought people here, to this place at the end of a remote island road on the ancient isle of Jura.

By any civilized reckoning, the folks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on my Hebridean voyage were mad to think they could buck the modern world and forge an alternative life on these dwarf universes. Yet they did. Like Kitching, they’ve made these islands of rock and wind their own. And, by golly, so have I.

Author and contributing photographer Jim Richardson has been to many of the islands in the Hebrides—but is glad he has more to discover.

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