Three Isles Tour: Behind the Scenes

Ever wondered how to bag 3 Scottish islands in just 10 hours? I can’t say I had either… For us, this jam-packed mission was about to become a reality as we packed our overnight bag, left Edinburgh behind and headed west.

We would be travelling with West Coast Tours, Calmac and Staffa Tours, a tripartite journey that was entirely included in the ticket price. Arriving in Oban bright and early (and finding day parking for just £5, a real-life miracle when you live in Edinburgh) we stopped by the West Coast Tours offices to collect our tickets before boarding the ferry.

Here are a few of my favourite snaps from the ten hours we were island hopping. I’ll be sharing edits over on my Instagram account too over the following months! As always, a big thanks for following along.

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Leaving Oban, 10amGrey morning skies over this quaint little seaside town, known in guidebooks and on tourist paraphernalia as ‘The Gateway to the Isles’. With ferries going to Mull, Tiree, Coll and Lismore among other destinations, it comes alive with visitors and locals alike making the most of our short-lived summer. I took this photo just after our ship, the MV Isle of Mull, pulled away from the terminal. Initially B and I were sitting inside, recovering from our drive west from Glasgow with coffee and hot chocolate, but when we saw the scenery — which was actually so much more atmospheric because it was grey! — we spent the rest of the crossing outside. Can you beat fresh sea air?

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Dream houses. More shots from the ferry as it passed Kerrera, Oban’s neighbouring small island. Clocking up a tiny 4.7 square miles of space, there are apparently around 30 people who live permanently on the isle. Regardless of how rural it is, you can’t deny that they know how to do perfect houses. This detached home looks back towards the town of Oban itself, with the beautiful Roman-inspired McCaig’s Tower on the skyline. Just around the peninsula is a more modern equivalent of this house, with a geometric roofline and an extended balcony. Imagine sitting there and, instead of watching cars blur by on a busy road, seeing the ferries glide in and out the bay, followed by gulls and tiny fishing boats. Bliss, right?

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The wheels on the bus… After stepping off the ferry at Craignure and sprinting through a downpour, we huddled into our two seats on the West Coast Tours bus. The driver — who was also the guide — talked us through our itinerary for the day. First, we were heading for Fionnphort where we’d be transferred to a small Staffa Tours boat. From Staffa, we’d return to Iona where we’d have two hours to wander the island. A quick stop at Fionnphort before being bused back to the Craignure ferry, we’d then arrive back in Oban by eight o’clock. A busy day ahead!

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Bus views. Just one of the pretty scenes we saw as the bus wound through the south coast of the island. The driver told us how, if we were lucky, we might be able to spot golden eagles, deer and otters… Unfortunately though, it was a bad wildlife day! That didn’t stop us from enjoying the landscapes and hills, which were touched by the odd ray of sunshine between the rain showers. Another highlight was squealing as the bus driver crossed a narrow, stone bridge. I had mentally prepared for a disaster (i.e. the bus tumbling off the overpass) but luckily the driver was far more talented than I am in front of the wheel.

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Our first view of Staffa. After hopping on the powerful Staffa Tours boat and clearing the protective coast of Iona, we were out into the Atlantic. The swell grew, pushing waves against the hull of the boat, and everyone on board began to keep their heads down to fend off the spray. So, by the time we’d actually spotted the island, it was right in front of us! And it was the most impressive way to see it. Out of the sea rose the huge basalt columns and, at the south end of the island, two cave mouths. It was mythical and breathtaking.

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Fingal’s Cave. Visited by artists and authors like Mendelssohn, Keats and Wordsworth — not to mention Queen Victoria! — this is the most famous cavern on Staffa. The boat’s skipper went right up to the mouth of the cave, and we were honestly in awe of the scale of the place. Waves bashed into the basalt pillars, creating a bath of foam at the entrance, and visibility disappeared into darkness as we gazed into the cave. Sadly, due to the size of the swell, it wasn’t safe to land on Staffa… Which just makes me all the more determined to get back there and see the puffins close up!

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Waves & the Boat Cave. Fingal’s smaller neighbour takes on the incessant waves that batter it and the surrounding cliffs. The swell continued to rock our small Staffa Tours boat as we left the island behind, causing many tourists to take refuge inside the cabin with a sick bag for company. We remained outside, benefitting from the fresh air and sea spray, but I won’t lie: I was beginning to feel rather nauseous. It’s been a while since I’ve been out in seas like that!

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Approaching Iona. Thankfully, some calmer seas as our Staffa Tours boat approached the beautiful harbour at Iona. The sun was shining, so we sat beside this beach eating our picnic lunch, and watching a fellow tourist muck around with his drone. Whilst we ate our squashed sandwiches, some confident sparrows approached the table, shying away from seagulls as we tried to feed them scraps. A pretty perfect spot for a picnic, wouldn’t you agree?

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Inside the Abbey. Although largely rebuilt in the twentieth century, Iona Abbey remains on the site of St Columba’s original monastery and hasn’t lost any of its ethereal magic. As with all religious spaces, you experience a suspended silence when you go inside, like time has stopped and you’re safe from whatever’s going on in the outside world. I loved how the hymn books, in their blue and green coupling on the pews, added a burst of colour to the building. The site is now maintained by Historic Scotland and, for £7.10/£4.30 entry, you’ll also be given an informative audio guide and access to the neighbouring museum.

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Old and new. It can be challenging when you’re exploring ancient places to differentiate between the old and the refurbished (I felt like this at the Roman Forum and my brother reported the same during his recent visit to the Forbidden City). The above image of the Abbey cloisters highlights this well, I think: although it’s clear that the cream, clean stone behind is from a recent restoration, we weren’t sure about the grey material in the foreground. Was this from a mid-twentieth century restoration, or did it date from centuries ago when the cloisters were enlarged in the 1400s? Like the rest of the Abbey and its mythical beginnings, it’s a bit of a mystery.

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Iona’s ancient burial area. Our last stop-off of the day before we rejoined the ferry and West Coast Tours coach, we wandered along the medieval Street of the Dead. This cobbled walkway, leading from Iona Abbey to Reilig Odhrain burial ground, was an early Christian processional path that was originally lined with crosses. We imagined monks, with their flowing cloaks (probably soaked in mud, knowing Scottish weather!) moving slowly towards Reilig Odhrain with coffins of clan chieftains and kings on their shoulders. Ancient artefacts found on this plot include early Christian tombstones, the eighth century St Oran’s Cross and graveslabs belonging to the local Lords. They are now carefully preserved in the adjacent museum (entry fee included in original ticket).

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The best wellies. As we waited on the embarkment call from the Calmac ferry, the rain finally closed in on us for the day. We’d come prepared for all weather — as you always should in Scotland! We went from sitting outside in just a t-shirt to wearing all our fleecy and waterproof layers, but I couldn’t have done the day without my Bogs. These comfy, waterproof wellies were an absolute saviour. I didn’t have to worry about soggy socks, paddling in the turquoise water or even splashing through mud like a child. And the addition of those handles on the wellies is so practical and makes that tricky pull-on manoeuvre a million times easier.

A massive thanks to West Coast Tours for an unforgettable 10 hours! Which west coast islands have YOU visited?

 

6 thoughts on “Three Isles Tour: Behind the Scenes

  1. Absolutely love Mull and Iona. I’m very impressed that you did all this in a day haha that’s a lot! I dream of seeing Staffa and we didn’t manage during our trip there last year, but I would be so seasick, it scares me a bit haha

    1. Hey Camila! How are you? How serene is Iona?! Loved that island, and the colour of the water was just so beautiful. And Staffa was incredible too, but I felt very sick. I wasn’t sick though, thank goodness, but apparently the Staffa Tours guys are quite used to queasy customers…! Maybe you could book last-minute so the sea won’t be as crazy?! haha x

  2. This looks wonderful!! I’ve lived in Scotland all my life and am ashamed to say I’ve yet to visit a west coast island (well, I’ve been to Skye, if that counts….) but this trip has been added to my to-do list for 2017 . It looks like a great way to see the islands.

    1. Hi Andrea 🙂 Thanks for commenting! I know how you feel though – sometimes, when you live somewhere, you just don’t do the touristy stuff! (That’s kinda how I feel having recently moved to Edinburgh!) I would DEFINITELY recommend this Three Isles Tour though. Such a good way to tick off a few isles in a day! If you have any other questions about it just let me know. Have a lovely weekend 🙂

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