A breath of fresh air

The trip from London to the Hebridean island of Eigg can take 24 hours. Once there, the tranquil atmosphere makes it feel even more remote, says Roger Harrison

Those who suffer from claustrophobia need not fear a visit to Eigg. Estimates put the permanent population of this Hebridean island at 70 when everyone's home, and it hosts a maximum of about 100 holidaymakers and day-trippers in high season. If it's discos and alcohol-fuelled excitement you're after, head for the Med. But if you want relaxation, wildlife, hiking, swimming, boat trips and plenty of exercise among stunning scenery, this Highland splinter in the Atlantic Ocean is for you.

Those who suffer from claustrophobia need not fear a visit to Eigg. Estimates put the permanent population of this Hebridean island at 70 when everyone's home, and it hosts a maximum of about 100 holidaymakers and day-trippers in high season. If it's discos and alcohol-fuelled excitement you're after, head for the Med. But if you want relaxation, wildlife, hiking, swimming, boat trips and plenty of exercise among stunning scenery, this Highland splinter in the Atlantic Ocean is for you.

Eigg shot to something approaching fame seven years ago, when its residents finally raised enough money to buy the island outright from the landlord they despised. It is now run by the Isle of Eigg Trust, a collection of local people and representatives of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Council. The Trust now aims to establish a sustainable economy for the benefit of Eigg's inhabitants and to preserve the island's distinctive identity, so don't expect multi-storey hotels and marinas any time soon.

Your trip isn't going to set you back too much - accommodation is limited and cheap. Unless you want to eat out every night at the island tearooms, you will need to budget for buying goods at Eigg's only shop, where prices are about 25 per cent higher than at the average supermarket. Cars cannot land on the island, but you can hire bikes or take the island's minibus that serves as the public transport network. A boat ride on the Shearwater, which links Eigg with nearby Rum and Muck, will set you back a few pounds, but everything else - the sea, the hills, the fabulous clear highland air - is free.

Although Eigg is more than 11,000 miles from Sydney, Australia's largest city is in some ways more accessible from many parts of the UK. Eigg isn't just a holiday, it's an expedition. The nearest airport is Glasgow, from where the journey on the legendary West Highland railway takes about five hours to the port of Mallaig.

It's a fabulous ride and rated the most scenic rail route in Britain, with lochs, mountains and moors all sides. The lonely traverse of Rannoch Moor takes you miles from any roads with only deer for company. But take your sandwiches with you, as the buffet trolley disembarks at Ardlui on Loch Lomond leaving passengers to survive the last four hours without refreshment.

On the last departure from Glasgow you may miss a lot of the scenery in the gathering darkness, as the train does not arrive in Mallaig until 11.30pm. Don't worry, you'll catch it on the way back. Mallaig, population a few hundred, has a handful of modest hotels; we stayed at the West Highland, the best of a particularly modest bunch.

While feasting on a full Scottish breakfast to compensate for your meagre fare the night before, savour the view (assuming there is one, what with the capricious Scottish weather) from the window. Eigg rises across the water, plateau-shaped with its one peak, the Sgurr, pointing upwards like a thumb. Beyond it lies Rum, dark and mountainous, while to the right sits Skye, with the flat peninsula of Sleat backed by the rugged peaks of the Cuillins. This must surely be one of the finest views in Europe. From different angles, these hills will form the view you will be enjoying during your stay, weather permitting.

Waiting for the Loch Nevis, the sturdy ferry which serves the four small isles of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna, there's time to look at Mallaig's two main attractions, the Sea Life Centre and the Mallaig Heritage Centre. All being well, you'll land on Eigg at 1.30pm. Travellers who left London a good 24 hours earlier could have reached Australia sooner.

The last part of the journey is the most fun, since the Loch Nevis can't tie up at Eigg. A new pier to enable her to do so is being tested right now and is set to open in April, so romantics please hurry. Instead, you - together with the day's freight, in our case bags of cement and a set of window frames which were winched out of the hold - are fetched ashore by a very workaday tub, the Laig Bay, which bounces the last few yards to the stone landing stage.

The pier is the social centre of the island, and the arrival of the boat constitutes Eigg's rush hour. Here the tea room, craft shop and store are accommodated in one modern building. The second settlement, Cleadale, to the north west, is slightly larger. The three-mile road connecting the two metropoles passes the doctor's surgery, the Church of Scotland, the school (six pupils), and the old corrugated iron store and post office, now a little museum. It then breasts the summit, where a glorious view unfolds of Rum and Skye, the sparkling silver beach of Laig and the croft houses sheltered under the table-shaped mountain of Ben Buidhe.

An island five miles by three is easy to explore in a few days, and you will be accompanied by ravens on the walk around the crest of Ben Buidhe. On the south coast you may find the massacre cave, where the MacDonalds smoked out the MacLeods in a bloody medieval clan war. The entrance is small and easy to miss - if you do locate it you will need a torch to go inside. At the end of Eigg's only road you will find the island's most famous property, Howlin House, which apparently once belonged to JRR Tolkien.

Eigg's main peak, the Sgurr, is a small hill but the last few hundred feet represent a precipitous climb. In the panorama from the summit the inner Hebrides are laid before you: Mull, Coll and the Treshnish Islands to the south, Rum and Skye to the north, and the whole range of the mainland to the east from the lonely Knoydart hills to Ben Nevis and Ardnamurchan.

It's also well worth tagging along with one of the regular walks organised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust warden, John Chester, whose expert eye will pick out things that you'd otherwise miss. Have a look, too, at The Lodge, home of the lairds and built by the Runciman family in the early 20th century, now sadly abandoned and waiting to be rescued.

Finally, take a trip on the Shearwater to the neighbouring isles of Muck or Rum. On Rum (that's now the recognised spelling, Rhum being a Victorian temperance-inspired affectation) visit Kinloch Castle, finalist in the BBC's recent Restoration series. It was the sporting retreat of the eccentric George Bullough, a cotton millionaire from Accrington who built the property in 1900 and deserted it in the mid-1920s.

Visitors must take their shoes off as they are escorted round the lavish rooms, which have been left just as they were in Edwardian times and echo to the ghostly sound of a mechanical organ tucked away under the stairs.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Unless you live in western Scotland you will probably need to travel to Glasgow first on GNER, Scot Rail or Virgin Trains (08457 48 49 50 for times and fares), or from a range of UK airports on British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com), BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) or easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com). Trains run from Glasgow to Mallaig at 8.12am, 12.40pm and 6.10pm. The latter arrives in Mallaig at 11.30pm, where you'll need to stay until the next morning. No ferries sail on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday. On the remaining weekdays the boat leaves at 10.25am for the

80-minute crossing. On Saturday it leaves at 9.15am, but takes longer. A return ticket costs £10, or £8.75 per person for stays of up to five days. Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650000; www.calmac.co.uk)

MALLAIG

Mallaig Marine World (01687 46 22 92), is open Monday-Saturday, from 9am-6pm, September to June, 9am-7pm in July and August and on Sundays from 11am-6pm, October to March.

Mallaig Heritage Centre (01687 462085; www.mallaigheritage.org.uk).

ACCOMMODATION ON MALLAIG

Roger Harrison stayed at the West Highland Hotel (01687 462210; www.westhighlandhotel.co.uk), which is closed until 11 March. Bed and breakfast costs from £35 per person thereafter. The Seaview Guesthouse (01687 462059), offers B&B from £17 per person.

ACCOMMODATION ON EIGG

Places to stay on Eigg are limited to self-catering, bar one guesthouse - Kildonan House (01687 482446). Otherwise there are three cottages to let: Lageorna (01687 482405), Glebe Cottage (01687 482422) and Top House (01362 668435). Go to www.isleofeigg.org for information on the smaller, more basic bothies.

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