The Hebrides: Five go wild on Gigha

With its coves and caves, this beautiful Hebridean island is the stuff of adventure stories – and its recent history has been aptly gripping. Just bring ginger beer, says Frank Partridge

If a latter-day Enid Blyton wanted the ideal setting for the adventures of a group of chums, a few days on Gigha would give her all the material she needed.

On safe, white beaches, the children would play among the breakers, collecting exotic shells and perhaps discovering a priceless treasure washed ashore, or a bottle from a far-off land containing a coded message that would take many chapters to unravel. They would cycle up and down the single-track road that runs for six miles along the spine of the island, encountering as many tractors as cars, and stopping halfway at the shop for lashings of ginger beer.

They would play hide-and-seek in the coves, caves and ruins along the 25-mile shore. The weathered standing stones would fire their imagination. They would fly kites in the ever-present breeze, gather wriggly things from the sand and crabs from the rock pools, spot seals and otters, and sing-song around campfires through endless Hebridean evenings when it never gets truly dark.

Gigha, the most southern inhabited island of the Hebrides, brings such visions of long ago to mind because, at first sight, it appears to have been bypassed by the modern world. But less than 20 years ago, the small community was on the point of ruin, when the island's absentee owner went bankrupt and "Men from the Ministry" swarmed all over the place, stamping "ER" on front doors. With their future uncertain, several families fled across the three-mile sound in search of a more secure life on the mainland. Fewer than 100 people remained – Gigha's smallest population since the 17th century.

What happened next might, indeed, have been lifted straight out of the pages of a children's adventure story. Instead of bowing to the inevitable and waiting for some millionaire to spot a real-estate bargain at a London auction, theislanders took advantage of Scotland's imaginative Land Reform Act to buy it for themselves, raising more than £3.5m to secure it.

Six years after the buy-out, Gigha is thriving. Some deserters have had second thoughts and returned, and along with a diverse group of newcomers from far and wide, they've raised the population beyond 150, reversing a trend that's afflicting many communities in Scotland's Highlands and Islands.

New houses are being built, and among several start-up businesses is a wind farm with three turbines known as "the dancing ladies of Gigha", which earn the island around £100,000 a year through the sale of the excess energy to the National Grid.

This is an adventure story, mind, not a fairy tale: most of the money the islanders borrowed to secure the purchase has still to be repaid, and everyone who considers relocating to Gigha is rigorously assessed to see what benefits they might bring.

"Getting the right people is important," says ferryman Alisdair McNeill. "For much of the year, life here can be pretty harsh, with the winter storms, the long, dark nights, and what have you."

Mindful of western Scotland's capricious climate, almost all of Gigha's tourists arrive between April and September, when it claims to be the warmest spot in the country. Just six-and-a-half-miles long by one-mile wide, it's not big enough to create its own climate, and while its much larger neighbours, Islay and Jura, bear the brunt of the Atlantic's fury, "God's Island" (as it was known to the Norse 10 centuries ago) basks in the warm embrace of the Gulf Stream.

It was this unique micro-climate that caught the attention of the bedtime-drink manufacturer Colonel Sir James Horlick, who bought Gigha in 1944 to indulge his passion for horticulture, and laid out 52 acres of gardens containing camellias, azaleas and ferns that have no right to grow with such vigour within 3,000 miles of a Hebridean island. The secret is the network of pines that Horlick planted as windbreaks, protecting the shrubs against the salt of the sea-spray. The Gulf Stream does the rest.

Achamore Gardens, with an honesty box at the gates (adults £3.50, children £1.50), are being restored to their former subtropical excellence. They form another of the community's assets, along with the wind farm, the hotel, a boat and a nine-hole golf course, but the solid country house in which Horlick lived for more than a quarter of a century remains in private hands; without the proceeds of its sale in 2002, the buy-out would not have been achieved.

The house, featuring a magnificent library, snooker room and detailing that may be the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was bought by an American, Don Dennis, who has caught the mood of island self-sufficiency by moving his flower-essence business to Gigha. Some of the essences are made and bottled there, including Gigha Quartz (said to relieve back pain), while the rest of the property has been turned into a luxurious guest house, creating more of those much-needed jobs.

Other incomers from the mainland include Russell and Caroline Town, who arrived from Lancashire five years ago to take charge of the Island Stores and Post Office, the community-owned shop. The noticeboard outside is an intimate snapshot of island life: "Tea with home-baking every Wednesday in the village hall. Baking, preserves, second-hand books and other items"... "The podiatrist's next visit to the island is on Thursday week" ... "W-reg Renault Espace for sale" ... "Try our bog myrtle remedy Itch Ease for midgies".

The Towns have filled the shelves with a range of fine food and beverages that wouldn't be out of place on a mainland high street. "Quite early, we started stocking things like avocados, which hadn't been seen on Gigha before," recalls Caroline. "They sold out in no time, so we keep an eye open for something a bit different." They open from nine to five, but the daily bustle doesn't get under way until 9.30am, when the newspapers arrive off the ferry.

"There is only one inn on the isle," remarked a visitor to Gigha in 1700, and the hotel's friendly bar, open all day and attracting all kinds of interesting passing trade, remained the island's only licensed premises until 2004, when two graduates with long-standing Gigha connections came back to renovate the old boathouse and opened a café-bar near the pier.

Seven tables are arranged around a wood-burning stove in a building that also contains a launderette and shower room for passing yachties. There was great celebration last spring, when Joe and Lyndsay were able to serve up the first halibut produced at the island's new fish farm.

"Grilled Gigha halibut with lemongrass crust served with chips and green peas" is now a £6.95 staple of the menu – and a symbol of Gigha's recovery.

The Boathouse, gardens, hotel, shop and harbour all lie near the centre of the island, but nowhere is more than three miles away. For those who live on Gigha all year round, this can be suffocating. "Sometimes you need to go somewhere where nobody knows you," admits Heritage Trust administrator Lorna Andrew, but the island has much to offer the holidaymaker. The north is markedly bleaker, the south greener; the east coast is sheltered, while the west is exposed to the Atlantic breakers – and its incomparable sunsets.

As the road approaches the top end, a lay-by and a gap in the stone wall are the only clues to the whereabouts of one of Gigha's finest attractions. A rough path leads for a mile through field and bracken to a secluded corner of the west coast, where the sea has almost turned the headland of Eilean Garbh into a separate island. A few thousand more stormy winters will probably do the trick, but for the time being, we're left with two peerless white beaches, lying back-to-back on the connecting isthmus.

The more northern of the two is known as Queen's Beach, and lived up to its name in the summer of 2006, when the Queen and her party berthed overnight during a cruise of the Hebrides. Russell, the shopkeeper, was sorting through the Sunday papers when the Princess Royal turned up on a bicycle and asked if her mother could have a lift to the gardens at Achamore House.

The island's two largest vehicles were hastily pressed into service. "You can't really say no, can you?" says Russell, whose famously inscrutable passenger chatted throughout the 10-mile round trip, wanting to know all about the community buy-out. It's the kind of episode that might have found its way into that unwritten adventure story, and in the spirit of doing things the old-fashioned way, Russell didn't mention the nasty men with their ER stamps, and decided, on balance, to waive the £12 fare.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

From most parts of the UK, the best gateway is Glasgow, about 120 miles away by road and ferry. Take the A82 to Tarbet, then the A83 to Tayinloan (accessible by three Scottish Citylink buses a day from Glasgow; 08705 505050; www.citylink.co.uk). Weather permitting, the ferry (0800 066 5000; www.calmac.co.uk) makes the crossing to Gigha, 10 times Monday-Saturday; six times on Sundays. The return fare is £20.70 per car, plus £5.60 per passenger.

Staying there

The Gigha Hotel (01583 505 254; www.gigha.org.uk). B&B from £86.

Achamore House (01583 505 400; www.achamorehouse.com). B&B from £110. www.boathouse-bar.com"

More information

International Flower Essence Repertoire, Gigha (01583 505 385; www.ifer.co.uk)

www.visitscotland. com; 0845 22 55 121 http://www.visitscotland.com"

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