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; Weather permitting, the ferry (0800 066 5000; 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; B&B from £86.

Achamore House (01583 505 400; B&B from £110."

More information

International Flower Essence Repertoire, Gigha (01583 505 385;

www.visitscotland. com; 0845 22 55 121"

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice