The town of Oban, with its permanently
Old -- Scotland's Inner Hebrides
Text and photos ©
by Robert W. Bone
|Fingal's Cave inspired
Mendelssohn and others.
GLASGOW, Scotland -- We picked our way gingerly over the
difficult landscape, the surging ocean below us threatening the
of any misstep. Under our feet there was no dirt, only bizarre stones
seemed to be hexagonal stairs carved by an inebriated architect who
know whether to go up or go down.
A pathway was worn over the centuries by fellow tourists, beginning
perhaps with the Vikings. They named this island Staffa, the Norse word
for the vertical staves once used for building Scandinavian houses. We
were walking on the smooth ends of these strange columns of volcanic
basalt, shaped millions of years ago by forces which were never
Today Staffa is a small, rugged and
uninhabited piece of Scotland, a steep islet off other islands of the
Inner Hebrides. Our careful route was also selected by numerous august
personages of the past, including 18th and 19th century Romanticist
poets and artists.
John Keats, William Wordsworth, Jules
Verne, and Joseph Turner were among those who wrote, drew or painted
their awe-inspired impressions of the unusual island. Even Queen
Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal children managed to explore the
place in 1847, the queen pronouncing it "most extraordinary."
Our hike ended just inside the entrance to a grand, columnar
cavern, into which the sea surged back and forth with ear-splitting
roars for 277 feet into the dark recesses at the end of the cave. The
accompanied by countless echoes,
|Inverary Castle, home of
the Dukes of Argyle.
drowning out the cries of scores of sea
birds. We felt we had ventured inside a huge pipe organ, and indeed this
place inspired another visitor, Felix Mendelssohn, to write his Hebrides
Overture, subtitled with the name of this natural feature, Fingal's
The island was last privately owned
by an American, John Elliott of New York. In 1986 he gave it to the
National Trust for Scotland in memory of his wife.
Staffa with its dramatic caves and
flocks of puffins and guillemots was a highlight of a week-long
excursion by car and ferry
northwest of Glasgow. The route first took us through the county of
(or Argyle), previously known to me only as the home of that diamond
popular on men's socks. (Of course you can buy them there.)
|Ancient Celtic footprint,
used in coronations.
Here, too, was Loch Lomand,
celebrated in that "high road, low
road" song that once hummed, is hard to get out of your head. Actually
Lomand's bonnie banks were no bonnier than those of many other lochs in
part of the country. Locals say it got its reputation mainly because the
lake is close enough for day trips from Glasgow, Scotland's largest
Argyll is also the site of Inverary
Castle, the ancestral home
of the Dukes of Argyle, and most of it is open to the public. The dukes
Campbells, the clan that spent much of Scottish history warring with
clans, notably the MacDonalds.
A kilt-wearing friend named Ian
MacDonald joked that he felt a
little uneasy wearing his MacDonald tartan while touring here in
country. Ian is a thoroughly modern Scot, who finds his traditional
sporran a handy pouch for carrying his cell phone.
In Argyll, too, we climbed the hill called Dunadd, where a
footprint carved around a millenium ago in the rock at the summit
the inauguration of the Celtic kings. This may be where the Picts and
Scots first came to some agreement, and some historians now call Dunadd
``birthplace of the Scottish nation.''
|Lachlan MacLean, at home
in Duart Castle.
One of our first objectives was the
small coastal city of Oban,
distinguishable from other Scottish communities not by a castle, but by
incomplete reproduction of the Roman Coliseum perched atop a nearby
Its eccentric builder died before finishing it, and his heirs put a stop
this outflow of funds immediately after his demise.
From Oban, the ferry leaves for Mull,
the largest island of the
Inner Hebrides. Historically, Mull was the home of the MacLeans,
the third most powerful clan in the country, and one which spent
often involved in the difficult relations between the MacDonalds and the
Almost the first sign of habitation
on the ferry route across
the Sound of Mull is Duart Castle, the traditional home of the MacLeans,
perched alone on a windswept headland. Later, when we toured the ancient
|Tobermory, a colorful
stronghold, our guide turned out to be Lachlan MacLean himself, the
head of the clan and who grew up playing within the structure's
Duart Castle was used as a
set for the film
"Entrapment'' and the duke became friends with actor Sean Connery and
while his home was used for several important scenes in the thriller.
The 350-square-mile Island of Mull
today is a popular summer
getaway for British visitors charmed by its small towns, narrow roads,
friendly residents. A professional theater troupe, the Mull Players, is
headquartered here in a tiny theater, and it often takes its productions
over Scotland. Its principal town, Tobermory, presents a whimsical face
a series of waterfront businesses painted in bright contrasting colors
no discernable reason.
Mull is not only the jumping off
point for Staffa, but also for Iona, a sacred island since
|Iona, a sacred island for
more than 1000 years.
Celtic times. Iona became the Scottish
headquarters for the traveling Saint Columba in 563 when he began to
Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. The richly illuminated Book of Kells
was begun on Iona, but finished in Ireland, where it was considered safe
from the frequent raids of Norsemen.
Like nearby Staffa, Iona has been
visited by the great and the
powerful over the centuries. In the Middle Ages its abbey and other
were considered so sacred that many secular and religious leaders of
northern Europe sought to be buried there. The real Macbeth is spending
eternity on Iona, along with his victim, Duncan, and 46 other Scottish
kings. Their graves, like those of many early rulers, are unmarked but
certainly somewhere under the Street of the Dead near the ancient
Among later travelers, Dr. Samuel
Johnson and his biographer,
James Boswell, visited the McLeans of Mull and then the island of Iona
their trip through the Hebrides in 1773, long after the religious
fell into decay.
"We are now treading that
illustrious island, which was once the
luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving
barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of
wrote an admiring Johnson.
The great lexicographer was noted for
his reluctance to leave
London for any reason. But he made a once-in-a-lifetime exception for
excursion to Argyll and Mull.
Solving the Loch Ness puzzle.