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Isles Highlights with Robin McKelvie

Scarista beach on Harris


As a travel writer I've spent the last couple of decades hiking, biking, kayaking and cruising around Scotland's remarkable coastline. Indeed as I write this I'm cruising this heavily indented coastline, with its 800 odd islands, epic sweep of scenery, bountiful wildlife, intoxicating history and superb seafood.

As I admire Scotland onboard for a week I'd like to share some of my favourite Scottish island experiences with you, experiences that you don't need go on a cruise ship to enjoy. You can enjoy all of these world-class experiences by simply hopping on a CalMac ferry. What are you waiting for?

1. Hiking in the Arran Hills

I've tackled hill walks in over 50 countries and the hills in Arran are up there with those anywhere in the world. They are also very versatile too. On a good day most well-equipped people can make it up the 2,866ft high Goatfell. Indeed I recently took my eight-year-old daughter up and she loved it. I loved sharing with her too, although I held back on trying out some of the fun scrambling routes that lead off from the summit towards North Goatfell and other even more testing challenges. You could spend a week in the Arran Hills and still find new routes and scrambles to take on. I go back to the isle every year and thoroughly recommend that you check out these epic hills for yourself. If you want to join a guided walk get in touch with Arran Adventure or the National Trust for Scotland ranger service at Brodick Castle.

2. Scallops, Folk Music and Paddling in Castlebay

If Arran is 'Scotland in Miniature' then wee Barra is very much a microcosm for the Outer Hebrides. My ideal time ashore here is hiking up Heaval, the island's highest point, which rears up above the capital Castlebay. Then it's back down to the 'big town' for lunch at Cafe Kisimul . Barra dishes up some of the finest seafood in Scotland (you can try some aboard CalMac) and at unassuming Café Kisimul they conjure up a dish of wonder. The king scallop pakora has to be tasted to be believed. After a wee rest it's then off on a kayak out in the bay across to a deserted beach with Chris from Clearwater Paddling . I recommend you finish things off with a pint at the legendary Castlebay Hotel. If your luck is really in the Vatersay Boys will be in playing a session. If they are strap in for a long and brilliantly fun night you will never forget. For more information see my Barra CalMac blog.

3. Beach Bumming on Harris

The best beaches in the world for me are on Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I remember once talking to a North American visitor at Scarista when I was researching my National Geographic guide to Scotland. He hailed it as being 'just like the Caribbean'. I pointed it out that as this landscape is much older it was the other way round! The white sand beaches of the west coast are just jaw dropping, the sort of beaches that make you just want to drop everything and sprint down to the water as you soon as you clap eyes on them. I'll let you in on a wee secret. There is a beach north of Scarista, Luskentyre, where you can find plump edible cockles. Last time I was there I plucked them out of the sands with my delighted wee daughters and then we cooked them up as a brilliantly local, fresh seafood feast. For more information on Harris see my CalMac blog.


4. Island Hopping in the Small Isles

This is sort of cheating as I'm squeezing in four isles here, but as they are all remarkable in their own right I hope you can forgive me! The granddaddy of the quartet is mighty Rum. This majestic hulk boasts its very own Cuillin mountain range (like Skye) and the otherworldly charms of Victorian timewarp Kinloch House . Eigg is perhaps the most distinctive, with the volcanic charm of An Sgurr striking a glorious profile. The walk up it is easier than it looks. I like the sustainable green way of living here too, with the community running things since a buy out in 1997 and generating all their own electricity. Wee Canna is run by the National Trust for Scotland, who do a great job of protecting both the bountiful wildlife and human habitation here. Last but certainly not least is tiny Muck, with its gentle walks and great views of the other isles. With CalMac ferries you can sweep off on an island hopping adventure. If you want to read more about the Small Isles see my Rail and Sail to the Small Isles blog.

5. Wild Camping Heaven on Iona

As the author of Cool Camping: Scotland I know swathes of great campsites, but there is nothing quite like the freedom and pioneering spirit of wild camping. You must always, of course, strive to make as little impact as possible, not annoy the locals and follow the Outdoor Access Code - their guidelines are here . One of my favourite spots is somewhere I discovered recently on the spiritual wee isle of Iona. Head away from the village over to the west of the island and you will find a sweep of sandy white beaches. Break slightly to the north and you will come across a hidden bay. This is Port Ban, one of my favourite beaches in the world. The chances are you will have it all to yourself. You can camp down just back from the water, but on a calm night I once camped a bit higher up to enjoy a burning sunset and dram with a view across a sprinkling of distant isles, a quintessentially Scottish experience that beats anything you can experience onboard a cruise ship.

Robin in The Arran Hills 3 Sea Kayaking with Clearwater Paddling Hiking on Eigg with Rum behind Port Ban on Iona 

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I've written a few more blogs for CalMac that may help you plan your day trip adventures so feel free to check these out.

Bio: Robin McKelvie has been travelling on Scottish ferries ever since he was a wee boy and writing about them and the places they serve since he became a travel writer in 1997. Robin has travelled to over 100 countries, but still rates Scotland 'as easily my favourite destination in the world'. These days, as well as penning travel articles for newspapers and magazines across five continents, Robin also writes guidebooks, does a lot of social media and also talks travel for the BBC. He also blogs about Scotland for multiple websites. 

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