The Scottish isle of simple pleasures

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Author Lennox Morrison on the Hebridean island that will bring out your inner child

An afternoon sparking with salty sunlight and in Port Ellen, a trim, white Hebrid-ean village hugging a sandy bay, a Jack Russell is barking excitedly at something – or someone – beneath the shifting waters of the harbour. I follow the terrier's gaze and there, just below the surface, is a set of eyes, saucer-like and dark, peering straight at me.

To see a seal on Islay, one of the jigsaw-piece isles cast off from the raggedy coastline of western Scotland, is not unusual. In fact, at Loch an t-Sailein (Seal Bay) you are almost guaranteed to find grey seals doing their onshore stretches. But to be close enough to shake a flipper is a fresh experience. And I don't need to be Doctor Dolittle to see what it wants. "If only I had a fish," I remark to a local on the quayside. (On Islay, the habit of talking to strangers is soon acquired.)

A plump mackerel is placed in my hand. I dangle it above the waters and the seal surges up. As it tears the fish from me I feel the cod-liver-oil strength of a creature which cruises the firths and skerries under its own propulsion. I, too, feel a surge of energy. For a few enchanted moments, as the seal's gaze meets mine, despite the 40-odd birthdays behind me, I'm filled with a childlike sense of wonder. It's magical and yet, on Islay, it's one I've come to expect.

I didn't grow up here, but in the 20 years since my parents made the place their home, time and again, when visiting, I've found myself transported down the rabbit hole of memory to reconnect with my seven-year-old self. With its white sandy beaches, traffic-free roads (mostly single track) and sea-bathing warmed by the Gulf Stream, this southernmost of the Hebridean isles is the perfect destination for families with young children. But it's also one of the best places on the planet to experience the deep sense of relaxation that comes from conjuring up your childhood self.

The spell is cast partly by simple pleasures which cost very little, or nothing at all: catching ribbons of seaweed between your toes as you pad-dle through the shallows, island-spotting from cliffs crowned with wild orchids, buying fish and chips cooked by an island family. But a large portion of the charm comes from spending time in a community of 3,000 or so where people leave their house door open, their car unlocked, cash for the milkman on the doorstep.

Ninety nine per cent of islanders welcome strangers with a smile and even teenagers return a "hello". Local youngsters cannot go anywhere without their name being known but have the freedom of roaming far more independently than on the mainland. It's the existence "lifestyle refugees" seek when they flee Britain for the Auvergne or Abruzzi. Yet on Islay, it's a way of life unfolding, season by season, within the sterling zone. And, despite pure wind-scoured air and 239sq miles of solitude shared with golden eagles, otters and three kinds of deer, it's not the back of beyond.

Islay is in the Inner Hebrides, not the Outer. Nobody chains up children's swings on a Sunday or gives up buying a tax disc for their car. Letters are delivered daily by plane from Glasgow (a 45-minute flight) and most babies arrive in the same way. Everything else, including newspapers, arrives before lunchtime on a Caledonian Macbrayne car ferry, a two-hour sail from Kennacraig in Argyll.

Islay is therefore the gentle beginning of beyond; just remote enough for you to have a beach to yourself. (In August, admittedly, things can become more crowded. Last year, I counted eight beachcombers, two dogs and four pony trekkers all on the same bay.) The official tourist board delights encompass eight whisky distilleries in idyllic settings, including Lagavulin and Laphroaig, a celebrated links golf course and some of the finest natural wild brown trout-fishing in Europe. Add to that a world-class example of Celtic carving, the bluestone Kildalton Cross, and the former home, at Finlaggan, of the Lords of the Isles, who once ruled much of western Scotland.

But for me the main joy is that wonderful unloosening of stress that comes from putting several dozen sea miles between my hard-worked everyday self and the more playful, inquiring person I was as a little girl. The return to the past begins either on a red-funnelled ferry (listen for the captain announcing dolphins or porpoises alongside) or a small aircraft which dips low over loch, mountain and sea.

There are coaches from Glasgow to the Kennacraig ferry and buses on Islay, but it's best to have your own wheels – two or four. The island is free of double yellow lines and traffic lights, so drivers can also return to a golden age when Shell guides to rural Britain were penned by John Betjeman and courtesy prevailed. You'll soon learn to raise a hand from the wheel in greeting and to beware of unfenced sheep and cattle sharing the road.

You'll also be charmed to discover that a day at the beach need not involve lying like sardines on a barbecue. My favourite beach, Kilnaughton, is a sweep of pale honey sand, sheltered by grassy dunes where rabbits play and Highland cattle graze, watched over by a white lighthouse and a ruined chapel. The bathing is safe and, by Scottish standards, warm. Afterwards, I love to trace the shoreline, letting tide-furrowed sand tickle my feet as I gather razor scallops.

Kilnaughton is a five-minute drive west of Port Ellen. Shank's pony takes 50 minutes but brings the fun of climbing beeches in Cairnmore Woods (signposted on the left opposite Cairnmore House) before the path wends down the cliffs through the remains of a Victorian bathing house.

Wide island skies produce an inrush of light, and of pristine air, from all sides, but there's also mental refreshment – in this age of the Satnav and Google Earth – in following a walk you can learn by heart and in discovering geography, directly, with naked eye and scraped knee.

At Saligo Bay, on Islay's Atlantic side, nature slaps you in the face with ocean spray and dares you to scramble in a Boy's Own adventure over dark, dramatic rocks battered by boiling, foamed waves. Unlike pre-packaged theme-park thrills, there's no queue, no need to pay.

This emotional intensity, so rejuvenating, can likewise be kindled contemplating a stealthy Hebridean sunset – better than any TV show – when molten gold and violet drip slowly from the heavens. By day, there are so many moments when I lose myself, watching a seagull raise worms by stamping on fresh-mown grass or an orange-billed oyster-catcher stalking the shore. The full Ladybird Book learning experience is available on guided walks at the RSPB's nature reserve at Loch Gruinart.

But for people-watching – equally enthralling – take a perch on the main seafront in Port Ellen, the larger of the island's two ferry ports. Depending on the time of day and year, you can see fishermen landing crab, lobster and clams; children playing Swallows and Amazons on tractor tyres; yachts gliding out of the 24-berth marina; and worshippers making their way to St John's Church of Scotland. It's here that on Friday and Saturday evenings a bright yellow time machine – otherwise known as the Nippy Chippy – arrives. I liken it to Dr Who's Tardis because the haddock and chips taste as good as when I bought them from pocket money.

The other culinary treat with the effect of Proust's Madeleine, reminding me of Sunday school picnics, is sultana scones. These and other home-baked goodies are served in grand style in Bowmore (famous for its Round Church with no corners for the Devil to hide in) at the exceedingly comfortable Harbour Inn, in a conservatory overlooking the sea loch of Lochindaal and the glowering black peaks of the Paps of Jura.

However, for full nostalgia there's nothing to beat a church or charity coffee morning. Watch for what the locals choose first – they know who bakes the best shortbread and the lightest scones. Then relax and enjoy "the hundred thousand welcomes" as Gaelic so warmly puts it. Many islanders understand this ancient language but it's never used to exclude. If you see a live music night promising a Mod Gold medallist then don't miss it – these are the best living exponents of a story-and-song culture and you're likely to be spellbound. For what's on, pick up the fortnightly newspaper The Ileach (pronounced ee-lach) or study the notices in shops which announce everything from funerals to ceilidhs.

I love Islay in any season, even in winter when waves flail Carraig Fhada lighthouse. However, May to September are the months for sea bathing and with the Great British Holiday back in fashion, it's crucial to book accommodation before you land.

At the Bridgend Hotel I found a walled garden blooming with fuchsia ballerinas. Set in bluebell woods, this well-run 11-room establishment also has its own kitchen garden and the fresh fish and game at table come from Lord Margadale's Islay Estates, to which the hotel belongs. One step into the hidden garden and I return to a once upon a time, pre-Harry Potter, when The Secret Garden was a much-loved tale and at school in Aberdeenshire we sang about westering home to Islay.

Now I'm all grown up I know that the song lyric is true and that this really is the "goodbye to care" island.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Caledonian McBrayne (0800 066 5000; sails between Kennacraig and Port Ellen or Port Askaig. Flybe (0871 700 2000; flies from Glasgow International to Islay. Bridgend Hotel (01496 810212;; Harbour Inn (01496 810330;

Further information

Isle of Islay Tourist Information

Suggested Topics
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss