Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The remote Islands of Scotland: Islay & Lewis-Harry

Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, has nearly 800 islands including the Hebrides (Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and the Northern isles (Shetland and Orkney) – see map. The Inner Hebrides which are a group of small islands located off the west coast of Scotland are subgrouped into the Northern Hebrides (isle of Mull, Iona, Cool, Tiree and the Slate Island) taking part of the Argyll and Bute council. Whereas the Outer Hebrides archipelago (or the Long Island) in the northwest of the Highlands encompasses the main islands Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist and Barra.

First of all I would like to talk about the “Queen of the Hebrides”: the ISLE OF ISLAY. It is the most southern island of the Inner Southern Hebrides and it is famous for its rich smoky-peaty Malt Whiskies worldwide. It is said that the production of Whisky in Scotland started on this island in the 14th century by some Irish monks. Although it is a small island of about 600 m², it has 8 distilleries which some of them are very well-known. The reason why the Whisky on Islay possesses a smoky flavour is because peat is used to dry the germinated malt. Peat is a local natural resource and it is a mixture of decomposed plant material that has accumulated in a wetland. Most part of the Highlands is covered with peat which is commonly used for combustion like firewood (in fact peat is the earliest stage in the formation of coal). So by drying and roasting the malt in the fumes of the burning peat for days, the Whisky will develop a smoky-peaty character. The smokiest single malt Whisky are Ardbeg (50 ppm), Laphroaig (30-40 ppm) and then Lagavulin (25-30 ppm) ppm = Part Per Million of Peat. The other 5 less peaty Single Malt Whiskies of Islay are: Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Kilchoman. My favourite Whisky is definitely Laphroaig. I have visited the distillery and the very friendly local staff gave a true experience through the world of Whisky production... brilliant and very interesting!

The inhabitants on the island are approximately by 3400 where 50% still speak Gaelic. Besides Whisky the Islay isle offers birdwatching, fishing and romantic natural scenery: low smooth hills, few trees, isolated villages and a varied fauna and flora. A cultural attraction is the Kildalton Cross which is the ringed Celtic cross dating back to 800 AD. The natives are absolutely easy-going and warm-welcoming as in the whole of the Highlands and islands. Absolutely you can’t miss out of a delicious home-cooked fresh roasted venison or roasted lamb with a creamy mint sauce. Recommended restaurant is at the Bowmore Hotel; a kind of old ugly looking house but offers a relaxed, family atmosphere with friendly staff and outstanding food for a good quality-price relationship.

After describing a bit about one of the Inner Hebrides Island I will give you a few information about another amazing place: the OUTER HEBRIDES ARCHIPELAGO. The largest island is composed of Lewis, the Northern part, and Harris, the Southern one. The other major islands are North Uist, South Uist and Barra.

Lewis is a flat treeless desolated area mainly covered with peat but it offers outstanding cultural attractions, all located on the West coast, encompassing the museum and a real reconstruction of the Black House in Arnol (typical thatched-roof stone house used by the locals until 1930), the impressive Carloway Broch (a 4-story drystone fort built in the 1st Century BC), the mysterious arrangement of the 50 Callanish Standing Stones dating back 5000 years and the Iron Age house next to the gorgeous Bostadh beach in Great Bernera. In terms of landscape the Southern part of Lewis is definitely worth it with endless small nooky places hiding stunning corners at the edge of this world!! The most amazing paradisiacal bay is Uig (see pic) where the famous 78 ivory-carved Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 (in exposition at the British Museum).

Harris, in comparison to Lewis, is very rocky and mountainous and the beaches are wide and open with white sand and turquoise water. Luskentyre beach (see below pic) is one of the most famous white-sand beach in the world on which is nice to go for a walk (don’t forget to wear gloves, a scarf and a heavy jacket... it can be very windy and cold!). Harris also offers challenging mountain-bike tracks like the 20km-Reinigeadal tour. A highly recommended restaurant is at the Hotel Hebrides in Tarbert where you can enjoy a tasty local beef burger and lamb shank (and so cheap as well!!).

In general all the islands of Scotland have something unique to offer that you will hardly find anywhere in the world. If you have time I would highly recommend visiting the remotest British island of St. Kilda. It lies 66 Km west of the Outer Hebrides and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I did not have the time to visit it but I would have loved to. The history about the natives who were evacuated in 1930 and the seebird breeding is incredibly fascinating! Before visiting the islands, especially during the low season, have a look at when organized tours take place. I am sure you will love it!