Scottie's Diary

- 21st Century Road to the Isles

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One of the great things about the Internet is that we can undertake a "virtual journey" to places that take our fancy and we can view lots of graphics and read up about the places we would like to go to. I suspect that many users of the Rampant Scotland Web site do just that and have imaginary journeys to Scotland. Even though I live in Scotland and do a lot of travelling around to many places, I am restricted to locations in central Scotland that I can drive to and return home to Glasgow within a day. Mind you, that can include Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders... But I have always had an ambition to visit Orkney and also some of the Western Isles and achieving that in a day needs a bit of time travel - or taking a virtual journey there via the Web. So why not join me in a virtual tour of some of Scotland's more accessible islands?

Some of the most remote and desolate but most stunning areas in the United Kingdom are the outer Scottish islands. Scotland has over 790 offshore islands, most of which are divided into four main groups: The Shetland Islands, The Orkney Islands, The Outer Hebrides and The Inner Hebrides.

Although many of these islands are accessible by boat, and some by bridges, these areas are far removed from the main centres in Scotland such as Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. This is why increasingly flights are being used from the remote islands to larger Scottish airports and other regions in the UK. These Scottish island airports are Benbecula Airport, Barra Airport, Islay Airport, Kirkwall Airport in Orkney, Stornoway Airport on Lewis, Sumburgh Airport (serving Shetland) and Tiree Airport. These air links are indeed the 21st century "Road to the Isles".


I've wanted to go to Orkney for many years but there has always been something making it difficult to do so. For anyone such as me with an interest in history and or archaeology, Orkney is a delight. The islands have been inhabited for 6,000 years and remains of Neolithic villages, tombs and stone circles are scattered across the islands. One of the most famous is Skara Brae, built from roughly 3100-2500 BC. It is Europe's most complete Neolithic village and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

It lay hidden under grass and soil until 1850, when a major storm stripped the grass from a large mound near the sea. The outline of several stone buildings was revealed and initial excavations were undertaken. By 1868, four buildings had been uncovered but the site then lay largely undisturbed until 1925, when another great storm breached the mound and damaged the previously exposed structures. A seawall was subsequently built to protect the site. Between 1927 and 1930 excavations revealed the full extent and remarkable nature of the village. The seven stone buildings, linked by stone passageways, constituted a clustered village built out of flagstones that were naturally eroded by the ocean. Dwellings (which were largely below ground level) contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes.

A Neolithic "low road" connects the magnificently preserved village of Skara Brae to the huge burial mound of Maeshowe, passing near the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar (see graphic in the previous paragraph).

The tomb at Maeshowe was built after Skara Brae, around 2750BC. It is a mound 35 metres (115 feet) in diameter and 7 metres (23 feet) high. The entrance passageway, lined with stone slabs, some weighing over 3 tonnes, allows the mid-winter sun to shine directly on the back wall of the central chamber. The grass mound hides a complex of passages and chambers built of carefully crafted slabs of flagstone. The central chamber measures 15 square feet (1.4 square metres). The original roof may have risen to a height of 15 feet (4.6 m) or more.

Orkney was part of Norway for many centuries, the Vikings having settled there during the 9th century and most of the local place names originate from the days of the Viking occupation. It was only after the Battle of Largs and the death of King Haakon Haakonson in 1263 that Norse power decreased. Even so, Robert the Bruce's sister married King Erik of Norway. Earl Henry Sinclair (reputed to have sailed to America in 1398) was the last Viking Earl of Orkney. In 1266, by the Treaty of Perth, Norway renounced its claim on the Hebrides but it took to 1471 before Orkney and Shetland were annexed by Scotland from Norway.

While visiting Orkney, another "pilgrimage" I would have to make is to the Highland Park Distillery. Having for many years been a fan of Speyside malt whisky, in recent years I have been converted to Highland Park - made in the most northerly distillery in Scotland. The standard Highland Park malt is matured for 12 years but one of the presents I got for my 70th birthday was a bottle of 18 year-old - voted by some as the best malt whisky in the world. An opinion I would not disagree with!

Being so far north, daylight hours in the summer are very long and although the sun does set below the horizon, there is still enough light at midnight in June to allow you to read a newspaper. I fancy sitting out at midnight on Orkney, sipping Highland Park single malt and reading Sir Compton McKenzie's "Whisky Galore"!

Kirkwall Airport is the main airport serving passengers in the Orkney Islands region, and has a variety of facilities such as a caf, broadband internet services and TV. The airport offers services to Scottish airports such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, Sumburgh, and during the summer months you can fly to Bergen in Norway.


Barra is a small settlement with approximately 1,050 residents and is a picturesque location with a castle, rare flowers and wildlife and long white sandy beaches. It is these which make Barra Airport so unusual as it is the only airport in the world which has scheduled flights landing on a tidal beach. The timetable carries the unusual caveat of being "subject to weather and tides..." The Loganair planes used for the Barra service are Twin Otters, which are very small planes so they can land on the beaches but also fly to larger Scottish airports. Barra is also a filter airport from services to/from Benbecula. After his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie reached Benbecula and it was from there that he sailed Over the Sea to Skye with Flora MacDonald.

Barra's name is derived from St Barr and there is a 12th century church as well as prehistoric brochs and cairns on the island. It also boasts Kiessimul Castle, the ancestral home of the McNeils of Barra. The castle was restored by the 45th McNeil chief in 1937 when he returned to the island from his home in America.

There is a road which circles the island which was the prototype for Compton McKenzie's "Little Todday" in his book "Whisky Galore" The author settled on the island in 1928 and is buried there. The film of Whisky Galore (known as "Tight Little Island" in North America) was shot largely on Barra. Even though the movie is shot in black and white, the scenery is gorgeous.


Islay Airport is one of the smaller island airports in the islands. It originated during World War I when the RAF built an airfield at Glenegedale, which later became the civil airport for the island. From Islay, there are only air services to Glasgow. Islay is often referred to as the Queen of the Hebrides and is famous for its beautiful scenery, great wildlife - and the potent malt whiskies from its eight distilleries. The graphic here shows Port Ellen, the largest town on the island. Exposed to the full force of the North Atlantic, Islay has also become the site of Scotland's first wave power station near Portnahaven.

Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, around 25 miles (40 km) north of the Irish coast, which can be seen on a clear day. It is the fifth largest Scottish island and is home to many bird species, making it a popular destination throughout the year with bird watchers - known also as "twitchers" (of which I count myself as one). There are large migrant flocks of barnacle geese from Greenland overwintering on Islay. Resident birds include chough, hen harrier, the magnificent sea eagle, oystercatcher, cormorant and many wading birds.

Tiree has a population of only around 800 but is served by a sea ferry and an Airport - a large RAF airfield was built on Tiree during World War II which became the civil airport after the war.

Tiree is the most westerly isle of the Inner Hebrides and has scheduled flights to Coll, Glasgow and Oban. Tiree is known for the 1st century BC Dn Mr broch (a large circular tower, built without the aid of mortar) and for a prehistoric carved Ringing Stone. Tiree is relatively small - about twelve miles long and only three miles wide - and very flat; the highest point on Tiree is Ben Hynish which rises to just 463 feet (141 metres). Tiree has sometimes been described as 'a raised beach' and 'the land below the waves'. Tiree has some of the highest levels of sunshine recorded anywhere in the UK and it benefits from the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream (as does much of the west coast of Scotland).

Tiree is also popular for windsurfing and the worlds best windsurfers compete against each other at one of the most challenging of UK sporting events, the Tiree Wave Classic each October.

Lewis and Harris
Lewis and Harris can be a bit confusing as the names are applied to two separate areas of one island, rather like Siamese twins who have never been separated. Harris covers the lower third of the island, south of Loch Seaforth and the hills of Harris, while Lewis covers the northern two thirds. The reason for the double-barrelled name goes back to when the island was divided between two Macleod sons and that artificial division has remained. North Harris is mountainous with Clisham at 2,600ft the highest mountain in the Western Isles. In the west coast there are sandy beaches (including the lovely Luskintyre Beach) and low lying land while the east coast is rockier, with many inlets. Lews Castle (pictured here) is a Victorian era castle located west of the town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. It was built between 1847 and 1857 as a country house for Sir James Matheson who had bought the whole island a few years previously with his fortune from the Chinese Opium trade. Later, industrialist Lord Leverhulme gifted the castle to the people of Stornoway.

Lewis and Harris have their own Neolithic stone monuments - of which the Callanish Stone Circle is the most widely known. It is situated near the village of Callanish on the west coast of the isle of Lewis. Archaeologists usually refer to the main monument as "Callanish I", because there are several other megalithic sites in the vicinity. Construction of the site took place between 2900 and 2600 BC - though there were possibly earlier structures before 3000 BC. A tomb was later built into the site. The 13 primary stones form a circle about 13 metres in diameter, with a long approach avenue of stones to the north, and shorter stone rows to the east, south, and west. The overall layout of the monument recalls a distorted Celtic cross - though constructed thousands of years before Christianity. The individual stones vary from around 1 metre to 5 metres in height, with an average of 4 metres, and are made of the local Lewisian gneiss. The tallest of the stones marks the entrance to a burial cairn where human remains have been discovered.

Stornoway Airport is a slightly larger facility than many on the islands as Lewis and Harris form the largest of all the islands. Running from Lewis, the airport has modern facilities and flies to Inverness, Benbecula, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. The Lord's Day Observance Society has managed to stop any sea ferry services sailing on Sundays for many years, but despite noisy protests from some (and support from those residents who wanted to buy Sunday papers on a Sunday for the first time), an air service now has operated on Sundays for some years. In July 2009, ferry sailings direct to the mainland began - with the ferry company claiming they were "forced" by European Union equal opportunity laws...

Getting There

All the island air services are operated by Loganair, under a Flybe franchise. The airline has hubs at Glasgow Airport and also at Edinburgh Inverness, Dundee and Aberdeen. There is a Flybe-destinations guide which offers a comprehensive guide to the routes that Flybe operate to and from UK airports. There is a specific page dedicated to Glasgow Flights for example and from within the site you can research your route and book your flight. Flybe-destinations also provides details of airport facilities including location, parking, transport, car hire, conference and items of interest about the local town or region such as shopping, sports venues and tourist attractions. The Flybe blog will also update users with the latest news about the airport and the routes flown by the airline.

Most of the graphics for this page were sourced from Wikimedia and some of the descriptive text is abstracted from Wikipedia.

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?

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