I knew I’d arrived when my taxi driver said, “Enjoy your wee Hebridean jaunt.” But I was left in no doubt when I discovered tartan carpets and upholstery in my room. Later, I even saw tartan VW vans!
In fact, my adventure was not wee at all, but fifteen islands and three weeks long. I began in the south on the Scottish Isle of Arran, an easy drive and ferry ride from Glasgow airport.
Arran lies at the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, sheltered by Kintyre and warmed by the Gulf Stream. It is known as Scotland in Miniature — and so it is. I drove around the island twice and its wild and varied scenery changed round every corner. My husband had spent time in the Clyde region in the 70s, but I’d never visited Arran. He was recapturing memories, and we both were anticipating a full-day photography workshop, which also turned out to be a private guided tour and a wildlife safari.
Arran loomed out of the mist as the CalMac ferry approached Brodick, the main town on the east coast where we stayed. After a full Scottish breakfast with haggis, we set out on a misty, moody day to discover why Arran captures the spirit of Scotland. Most roads are winding country lanes with passing places and blind corners. Cyclists caused me the most concern as I focused on driving on the left and tried not to change gear with the door handle. We often turned off the main road to explore.
We passed beaches, cliffs, red rocky shores, fertile wooded slopes, and small villages with palm trees. We stopped for sheep, spectacular views of moorland and mountains, and wandered around ancient castles. We ate delicious local seafood and tried a wee nip at the Isle of Arran Distillers in Lochranza. The weather presented photography challenges in the bright but misty light, and I made a mental note to ask Jackie Newman, the photographer at Arran in Focus, for guidance the next day.
Jackie picked us up at our hotel and determined our individual requirements. Her counter-clockwise tour began with shooting into the sun along the eastern shore where rust-red rocks border the island and strips of small cottages line the road. While our needs and cameras differed, she taught us how to spot meter and to use exposure compensation to improve our backlit shots. It was instantly easier to get the images we wanted.
The high road from Brodick to Lochranza runs through a golden glen called Chalmadale. Craggy mountains lie to the south and moors sweep to the north. The air was fresh and the views begged to be photographed. Here we practiced using our polarizing filters effectively and never focussing on the clouds, but on a distant sharp edge. More success.
The ruins of a castle built in 1262 dominate Lochranza. It is said that Robert the Bruce landed here on his return to claim the Scottish throne.
A herd of Red Deer live close by and gave me the chance to lie on the grass and use my long lens. We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the western shore and more backlit photography of the Twelve Apostles, a row of tithed cottages.
As we rounded the southern tip, the land became wilder and more inaccessible. Kildonan provided an approach to see the Pladda lighthouse and we hiked a mile under the cliffs to photograph the seals. Focus on their eye,” Jackie said, as we hid behind rocks to avoid spooking them.
The day ended in her studio with a recap of the day’s teaching and a critique session. Both my husband and I told Jackie that her workshop was fun and an excellent way to improve anyone’s photography at any level. That night we made notes and looked forward to putting everything into practice. We were thankful that the session was at the beginning of our month-long trip.
Next day we flew to Tiree, a jewel of an island in complete contrast to Arran. It’s small, treeless, and windswept. Although fully exposed to the Atlantic as the most westerly of the Hebrides, it basks in more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK. The island has attracted me since I was at school with a girl from Scarinish, the main village. I found the island unspoiled and stunning.
Tiree is a place of endless sky and turquoise sea with scents of a salty breeze, wild thyme and clover, and the sounds of birdsong, sheep, and waves tumbling onto white sand.
The coast looks tropical but the whistling wind discourages tourists from wearing shorts.The only traffic is sheep spilling onto the lanes; the only food shop is in Scarinish; and the only way to explore it is by rental car or bike, and on foot. This best-kept secret is ten miles long and five miles wide, and we took a whole day slowly savouring every corner and shooting photos under deep blue skies. Our results were vastly better than before our workshop and we were becoming more adept at recalling the correct menu settings.
My favourite spots were the beaches. To walk them alone but for the occasional seabird above and waders at the water’s edge was my kind of bliss. The best food we found was in a tiny café in Balemartine whose proprietor also raised award-winning Highland Cattle. They were in a field opposite, along with their calves, and obviously were used to having their portraits taken. The lack of tourists, the breathtaking views, and the sense of remoteness will draw us back to Tiree for a longer stay next time — and there will be a next time.
I had packed sweaters, a hat, gloves, and a scarf for my mid-September visit and I had not forgotten my rain gear. Much to my surprise I didn’t need them in the south or in the Outer Hebrides where the temperature peaked at 86F (30C) the following week.
If You Go
Both islands are served by Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries. Rental cars are expensive, limited, and available at the ferry docks.
My most useful item of clothing on my adventure were hiking boots
- A three or four day stay would be ideal.
- Every type of accommodation is available.
- Excellent restaurants with fresh local produce, including seafood.
Car rental: http://www.arran-motors.com/ 100yds from the ferry dock.
Photography workshops with Jackie Newman:
- Two nights is the minimum stay to see Tiree.
- Get there by CalMac ferry from Oban and Barra, or flights from Oban and Glasgow.
- Accommodation is limited, and the two hotels disappointed us; there are a few B&Bs and self-catering cottages. Book early if going in July to mid-September.
- Rental cars are expensive, limited, and available close to the ferry dock.
- The best food was at the Farmhouse Café in Balemartine.
Car rental: Maclennan Motors