May 272015
 

During early May, I went on a touring holiday of the Hebrides organised by Railtrail, who I toured North Wales with a couple of years ago. This is a report of my holiday.

Day 1 – West Coast main line

Instead of going directly to Glasgow, where the tour was to start, I decided to go to London and travel up to Glasgow on the West Coast main line. I went down to St Pancras on the 07:48 East Midlands train from Alfreton, arriving in London around 10:15. This journey was comfortable and uneventful and the train arrived on time.

After a short walk to Euston station, and a visit to the first class lounge, I took my seat on the 11:30 Virgin Trains Pendelino. I have never travelled on this tilting train before, and I was looking forward to the journey.

Sir John Betjeman statue

Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras International station

The train left Euston five minutes late due to the inbound train being delayed by signalling problems at Watford Junction, but worse was to come. A charter train ahead of our train failed after Oxenholme station and had to be shunted into a siding by a freight train travelling behind. Our train was held at Oxenholme for well over an hour and by the time we reached Carlisle, we were over 70 minutes late.

The decision was taken to terminate the train at Carlisle, and all passengers had to transfer to a later train. I eventually arrived at Glasgow Central station 130 minutes late.

After a tiring 20 minute uphill walk, I arrived at my hotel around 19:00 where I enjoyed steak and chips before having an early night.

Day 2 – Isle of Bute

On the second day of my holiday, Saturday May 2nd, I made the short train journey to Wemyss Bay where I boarded the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry to Rothesay on the Isle Of Bute. One of the smaller Scottish isles, Bute enjoyed its heyday in the 20th century and is now a shadow of its former self. The large station at Wemyss Bay showed clearly the decline in the area as our four car train was dwarfed by the long platforms.

Snow covered peaks at Rothesay

Snow covered peaks at Rothesay

Rothesay is a pleasant town with some lovely floral arrangements and a castle with moat. I didn’t have time to venture too far from the town, but I did have a short stroll along the promenade in the stiff breeze.

After a couple of hours in Rothesay, I made the return journey to Glasgow and went back to my hotel to freshen up before joining the rest of the tour for evening meal. Soon after I returned to my hotel, the forecast rain set in for the evening.

Day 3 – The Road to the Isles

Day three saw my tour take in the long, but spectacular rail journey from Glasgow to Morar via the West Highland Line. The weather was misty and rainy with low cloud on the highest peaks, but this didn’t spoil the experience.

Along the way, we saw herds of deer on the wild moors, rushing mountain streams and a snow-covered Ben Nevis. Harry Potter fans were delighted when the train stopped for photographs on the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Looking down from The Cross

Morar Hotel and loch from The Cross

The only downside to the journey was spending over five hours in a cramped class 156 train. It was with some relief that we arrived in Morar on time before strolling across the road to our hotel for the evening.

The Morar Hotel was under new management and the inexperienced, mainly Eastern European waiting staff made many errors. Obviously some training was badly needed. The location and the stunning views more than made up for the catering issues.

Day 4 – Over the Sea to Skye

After a stroll round and a last look at the beach where scenes from ‘Local Hero’ were filmed, we boarded our coach for the short trip to Mallaig and the Skye ferry. The weather had brightened up considerably from yesterday and the crossing to Armadale was very pleasant.

Our first call on Skye was to the Clan Donald Centre which had some delightful gardens. It was nice to get away from the tourists and stroll around the grounds.

Castle Moil

Castle Moil at Kyleakin

After lunch, our coach took us to Kyleakin where I saw my first view of the Skye Bridge, which hadn’t been built when I was last here 35 years ago.

A short drive up the coast took us to our hotel for the evening in the town of Broadford. Although the hotel had good facilities, I was lumbered with a single room for the first time on the trip. The roast beef carvery more than made up for the disappointment of the room.

Day 5 – Outer Hebrides at last

Today was the day when my tour finally arrived in the Outer Hebrides.

As our coach left the Dunollie Hotel for a drive across Skye, the rain began to fall, and didn’t stop all day. Despite the rain and mist, the 40 mile trip to Uig was pleasant, with some dramatic views.

Isle of Skye Brewery, Uig

Isle of Skye Brewery at Uig

Upon arrival at the ferry port, lunch was taken in a local restaurant while we waited for the ferry to arrive for our two-hour trip to Lochmaddy in Benbecula. The trip was smooth, despite the wind, and I managed to catch up on some sleep as we cruised to the Outer Hebrides.

From Lochmaddy, there was a short coach journey to our hotel where we settled in before having an excellent meal. Outside, the rain continued to fall and the winds strengthened.

Day 6 – A brief tour of Harris

The rain and winds continued into day 6, so it was only the foolhardy who ventured outside to take a look at the area around the Dark Island Hotel. There was a beach nearby, but I settled for the warmth of our hotel before joining the coach for a journey to the Berneray ferry.

A stroll in the breeze

Strolling down to the beach on a breezy afternoon

After a trip over to Leverburgh, we were joined by our guide for Harris and Lewis who took us to see Rodel Church, a short trip from the ferry terminal. We returned to a restaurant at the port for lunch before heading to our hotel in Stornaway, stopping off briefly for a walk on one of the stunning white beaches on the west coast of Harris.

Our coach continued through Harris and Lewis arriving at our hotel, the Cabarfeidh, our home for the next two nights.

Day 7 – Tour of Lewis

Day seven of my holiday saw the weather brighten up, though it was still very windy, especially at the very northern point of the Hebrides – the Butt of Lewis. Here the waves were crashing into the high cliffs as a lone lighthouse looked out on a wild North Atlantic.

Cold seas

Rough seas at the top of the Hebrides

On leaving the north, we visited Port of Ness for a short break before our journey took us to Arnol Blackhouse, a traditional thatched blackhouse settlement. Not as impressive as the Gearannan Blackhouse Village that I visited the last time I was in the islands, but interesting all the same.

After the opportunity of some photos, the coach took us to the Carloway Broch, an ancient dwelling and stronghold dating back to the first century. A steady climb took me to the top of the hill where wide views were seen over the west coast of Lewis.

Callanish Standing Stones (6)

Callanish Standing Stones

A short drive down the road is the Callanish Standing Stones, a group of stones dating back to the Bronze Age, said to be a prehistoric lunar observatory and calendar. I have visited the stones before, but I still enjoyed the walk to the top and the views around the area.

When the tour of ancient ruins was complete, the coach took us into Stornaway for a stroll around the town before returning to the hotel for the evening meal and an early night ready for the long journey to Inverness.

Day 8 – Cruising to Skye and on to Inverness

My final full day in Scotland needed an early start for the sailing back to Uig, on Skye. Our original destination of Ullapool was changed due to work on the harbour there, so our coach left the hotel at 06:30 for the sailing to Uig.

The weather was fine and the sea calm for our three-hour cruise. Breakfast was taken on board, which was better than I expected and I settled down to enjoy the trip. I took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep as I had been up since 03:00 watching the General Election results come in.

After we disembarked, another 40 mile trip across Skye followed as we re-traced the route taken on day five. The better weather made for a more pleasant journey as we travelled towards Inverness, crossing the Skye Bridge back on to the mainland.

Reflecting in the loch

Eilean Donan Castle

Lunch was taken at Eilean Donan, a small island where three locks meet. On the island is Eilean Donan Castle a very picturesque location dating back to the 13th century. This was a great photo opportunity with the castle reflecting into the waters with blue skies overhead.

The drive on to Inverness was very picturesque also, but I was ready for stretching my legs by the time we reached our hotel mid-afternoon.

Our final hotel was the Royal Highland, situated on the station concourse. A grand old Victorian hotel with a feature staircase and dated, but atmospheric rooms. After a short stroll around the vicinity, an excellent evening meal was enjoyed.

Day 9 – Homeward Bound

Another early rising to catch the 07:55 train to London King’s Cross. An eight-hour journey which cost me just £33.65, a great advertisement for advance booking and the senior railcard.

Arrival in London was on schedule and I had a couple of hours to kill before my train back to Alfreton, time for a coffee and a baguette and a stroll around St Pancras.

The journey back to Alfreton was uneventful and the train pulled into the station on time. A short taxi journey later, I was back at home and looking forward to my bed.

A Flickr gallery of all the photos I took on the tour is available by clicking here.

Conclusions

Although I enjoyed the tour, and I learned a little more about the ‘Islands on the Edge’, I found the amount of travel involved a little too much. I would have been happier to make the journey as an independent travel so that I could go where and when I wanted. I don’t think organised tours are for me.

Now for my next trip …

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