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Hebrides: Island 16 of 51: Isle of Iona

Isle of Iona: Population 177 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Mull: Population 2990 (2011), Inner Hebrides (3rd visit)


As with my last blog, today’s trip to Iona was on a tour organised by Caledonian MacBrayne from Oban.

Mull continued to tease and torment me with it’s changeable weather, which seems to be a recurring theme throughout this project!

The forecast right up until the night before the visit was “sunny spells and light cloud” for western Mull and Iona.
I woke at 5am to heavy rain, left around 6am and drove through Glasgow and north along the shores of Loch Lomond towards Oban in a constant downpour.
“Iona has it’s own micro climate and the weather here on the mainland is usually nothing like what it is out on the island” I overheard a tour operator calmly reassure a visitor at the Oban ferry terminal before we sailed…

We boarded the MV Isle of Mull and made straight for the restaurant.  The early start had meant no breakfast and with it being a non-stop tour the prospect of nothing else to eat until at least 6pm when we returned to the mainland, meant food was needed!

After a hearty breakfast I headed out on deck to see if I could grab some shots through the rain, but, the visibility was so poor I could hardly make out the mainland so I decided instead to head back inside and attempt whatever the opposite of a rain-dance is!

It didn’t work.

We still had some light drizzle when we arrived at Craignure and made our way off the ferry towards the bus stops and onto the coach for the next leg of the trip.
We handed over our tickets for the journey and settled down for the 1hr trip across the Ross of Mull to Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona.

Iona, or to use its Gaelic name, “I Chaluim Cille” (Iona of Saint Columba), lies just 10 minutes from Fionnphort at the end of the Ross of Mull.

insta_3W2A0146(above: The ferry at Iona, with Mull in the background)

Iona is a beautiful island; just 4 miles long by 1 mile wide, and steeped in history.

If you read my first Hebrides blog (Gigha – blog 1) you’ll have read that Columba, an Irish monk, established a monastery here around 563AD after being exiled from his native land as a result of his involvement in the battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Battle of the Book), thought to be one of the earliest conflicts over copyright theft in history.
In short: Columba copied a manuscript with the intention of keeping the copy – but the original manuscript’s owner, Saint Finnian, argued that as he owned the original, he also owned the copy.   When King Diarmait ruled in favour of Saint Finnian – “to every cow belongs her calf; therefore to every book belongs it’s copy” – Columba started a rebelion against the king, which resulted in more than 3000 casualties, and ultimately to Columba’s exile from Ireland. (who said copyright isn’t important!?).

Once part of the ancient kingdom of “Dal Riata”, then part of the Norse “Kingdom of the Isles”, before being restored to the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266, Iona has enjoyed / endured many cultural influences over the years.  It has held many names: Ioua, Hii, Eoa, I Cholaim Cille, Hi, Eo, Ioua Insula, as well as the modern, Iona.

insta_3W2A0151(above: the view north towards the Abbey from the ferry port)
insta_IMG_9731(above: the same view, on a previous visit – in better weather!)

From the ferry port we wandered west, past the post office and turned right into the remains of the old Nunnery, before continuing north past the Heritage Centre to the Abbey and the ancient burial ground of Rèilig Odhrain.  This burial site is believed to contain the remains of 48 Scottish Kings, 8 Norwegian Kings and 4 Kings from Ireland.
Probably most notable are the graves of the real MacBeth, Duncan and Malcolm.

Sadly the precise locations of these graves have been lost in time as the inscriptions have been worn away by the elements, but, these royal graves, together with those of several saints and at least one modern day politician make Rèilig Odhrain an important historical site.


I’d visited the Abbey on a previous trip (well worth a visit if you’re on your first trip to the island) so decided to walk further afield and continued past the Abbey and out towards the northern tip of the island.

insta_IMG_9650(above: the tomb of the 8th Duke of Argyll and his wife, from a previous visit)

We passed the path to Dun I, an ancient hill fort on top of the highest point on the island, and continued north to the beautiful beach of Traigh an t-Suidhe (Beach of the seat), a beautiful beach with views north towards Staffa and the Treshnish isles.

insta_3W2A0208(above: the Isle of Staffa on the horizon as seen from Iona)
insta_3W2A0214(the beach at Traigh an t-Suidhe, with Dun I in the background)

I spent some time at the beach, shooting video mainly, then after a while made my way back to the ferry port for the return trip over to Mull.

The weather had improved somewhat for the return trip to Craignure, so I used the trip back through Glen More to do some location scouting for my next visit to Mull, which hopefully will be in the next few weeks.

Once on board the ferry we had time for an overdue cold beer before we arrived back in Oban and set off once more on the 120 mile drive home.

I still have another 2 satellite islands to do in the Mull group, possibly 3 if I decide to include Lunga which, like Staffa, is uninhabited but seriously photogenic, so I’ll definitely need to return to Mull at least another once, twice if I include Lunga.

Hopefully the weather will have improved by then!

Hebrides: Islands 14 & 15 of 51: Isles of Ulva and Staffa

Isle of Ulva: Population: 11 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Staffa: Population: zero, Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Mull (2nd visit): Population: 2990 (2011), Inner Hebrides


I spoiled myself today and handed all transport concerns over to Caledonian MacBrayne and their affiliate Turus Mara, a Mull based tour operator, and had a great day just relaxing, walking, sailing and photographing.

My day started with a pre-breakfast departure from a hotel on the banks of Loch Craignish in Argyll and a 30 minute drive north to the town of Oban to catch the 09.50 sailing to Craignure on Mull.

Unlike my previous visit to Mull (Blog island 7) the weather was perfect for walking and photography.  More importantly, it was perfect for landing on the isle of Staffa as landing here is very dependent upon weather conditions, so it was with some optimism that I boarded the MV Isle of Mull and we sailed out past Kerrera and the southern tip of Lismore and on towards Craignure and the isle of Mull.

insta_3W2A9759(above: The Sound of Kerrera, with the mainland to the left, Kerrera on the right)

I arrived on Mull and walked out to the bus stops where several tour coaches were waiting, found the mini-bus with “Turus Mara” written on the side, and jumped on board for the trip north to Salen then out westwards towards Ulva ferry, along the northern shore of Loch na Keal and with stunning views across to Ben More, Mull’s only Munro mountain at 3169ft.

It’s not very far from Ulva Ferry to Ulva and they have a great system for crossing.  When you arrive on the Mull side, you slide a small wooden marker over to reveal a red background.  The ferryman will see this red marker (sooner or later) and set off across the water.  As soon as you see he’s on his way, you slide the marker back to white and wait for the ferry to arrive.  It takes maybe 2-3 minutes to cross.

insta_3W2A9794(above: looking across to Ulva from Mull)

It was an interesting crossing: there were only 3 passengers (including me) and the other two were there to try to spot otters and white tailed sea eagles.  The ferry man pointed to his life-belt and some clear “evidence” of a recent visit by some wild-life and explained that every night when he moors the ferry an otter and her cub climb on board and mark it as theirs!  He found it ironic that people were paying a small fortune to visit the island in the hope of seeing otters at a distance and here was him trying lots of different schemes to keep them away!  His latest scheme, a bottle of “cat and dog repellent”, was at best useless so every morning he still has to clean otter… evidence… from his boat!

Once on Ulva, the first stop is the Boathouse, a seafood restaurant which sits next to the ferry jetty and which also serves as ticket office for the ferry.  As I’d pre-booked my trip through Caledonian MacBrayne, I just had to show my ticket and pick up a complimentary map and guide to the island before setting off to explore Ulva.


Initially, I’d hoped to trek out to the island of Gometra (population: 1) but it’s a 5 mile walk each way and I only had 2hrs so couldn’t complete the trip before I had to be back on Mull for the next sailing to Staffa, so instead I decided to go visit the Thomas Telford church then follow a well defined path around Coille a’ Mhinisteir, before returning again to the ferry port in time for some lunch at the Boathouse then the ferry back across to Mull for the Staffa sailing.

I found Ulva quite a poignant, almost sad, place.   There are signs everywhere that a thriving community once lived here, but, is long gone.

At it’s peak (in 1841), the island – together with nearby Gometra – was home to 859 men, women and children, spread over 16 villages.  There were craftsmen, farmers, fishermen, musicians, boat builders, tailors, weavers and merchants.

When the potato blight devastated harvests across Europe in the late 1840’s the island’s owner, a Francis William Clark, began a particularly brutal clearance policy because, in his own words, he was left with “too many unoccupied tenants”.
What followed was a harsh and cruel eviction from lands that generations of families had lived on for almost 900 years… there are accounts of entire households being evicted, with no warning, when their homes were set on fire and they were turned out into the night.

Most of the residents left for other parts of Scotland, or went abroad to Australia, New Zealand or North America, but the saddest story is that of the residents of Aird Glass. These poor souls could find nowhere else to go as they were old, frail, or disabled, so they were gathered together and left to eke out a meager existence scavenging seaweed and shellfish on the shores below their cottages.
Aird Glass Point still has its row of roofless cottages; bare now and stripped of all belongings and the stone walls and empty windows still stare north out over Loch Tuath. Were the residents to return, they’d no doubt recognise their former homes as nothing much has changed, except the name…  it is now known as “Starvation Point”.
I don’t think any further explanation is needed.

From the boathouse, I walked over to Sheila’s Cottage, a reconstructed traditional thatched cottage, which now acts as a visitor centre.


After some time reading about the history of the island, I set off towards the church.
I’d really hoped to visit some of the ruined villages on this trip, in particular the cottages at Starvation Point, but, as I didn’t have time to explore far from the ferry port, the church served as a good illustration of just how many people have been forced from this island over the years.  Built in 1828, the church has the capacity to hold more than 300.  A stark reminder of just how many people were torn from this community.  The current population is just 11.

insta_3W2A9840(above: the church, Ulva)

After a walk around the church (inside and out), I left some money in the donations box and headed back out to continue exploring the island.  The weather had changed a little and there were now a lot more clouds in the sky so I was keen to make the most of the dry weather, just in case it decided to rain!

From the church I followed a steep path through some trees and out on to a bare hillside, clearly weather beaten with trees stunted and permanently twisted and bent by the prevailing wind, it’s clear to see that this island isn’t always as mild as it was today.


I followed a path which climbed above the woods then followed the line of the trees until it dipped once more into hollow where a wider path followed the line of a stream back down towards the coast.  There was once a quarry further up the road and the remains of buildings could still be seen next to the stream.

I paused by a small pond which had formed behind a dam in the stream to grab some shots and a much needed mouthful of water (from a bottle, not the pond!)


From here it was a short walk back down through the woods to the coast and a well needed bite of lunch.

The Boathouse was very busy when I arrived, with all the outside seating full, so I headed inside and ordered something to eat.  The food was lovely and I’d definitely recommend you pay a visit if you’re over on the island.

After lunch, and with the weather improving again, I paused to take some photos at the jetty until I noticed the Turus Mara boat returning from it’s morning sail to Staffa.
With just around 15 minutes until the next sailing I caught the ferry across to Mull and made my way to the queue for the next leg of my journey.

(above: The Staffa boat returning along the Sound of Ulva, with Ben More behind)

Now, I know I’ve said several times since starting this project that I was trying to visit all the permanently inhabited Hebridean islands, and I’m sure you’ll have noticed that I’ve listed the population of Staffa as zero, so I probably should explain why I’m visiting this particular island…

I really wanted to visit it! I’d never been before and it’s such an iconic “must see” location for many visitors to Scotland that I decided I’d break a few of my self-imposed “rules” and treat myself to a trip while I was in the area.  I’m really glad I did too!

We boarded the boat and set off on time back out along the Sound of Ulva to Loch na Keal then skirting the southern coast of Ulva we headed out past the island of Inch Kenneth and into the Sea of the Hebrides.

Shortly after passing the island of Little Colonsay the ship stopped and we were given a guide to which islands were which as spread in front of us was an impressive array of islands and skerries.  To the south we had the Ross of Mull, the long low lying peninsula I’d driven along on my previous visit to Mull, then Iona, with the Paps of Jura lying beyond, then out in front lay our destination, the Isle of Staffa, with the Treshnish Isles, uninhabited, but an important wild-life habitat, to Staffa’s right, then further out we see the Isle of Coll and it’s neighbour Tiree, then to our north, the Island of Gometra and the south western parts of Ulva, with finally the Isle of Mull beyond.
I found this very helpful as several of these islands are on my to-do list, so it was useful to get some appreciation of where they all lay in relation to each other.

After the break, we continued on to Staffa and the first of several unexpected treats of the day… instead of simply dropping us off at the landing spot, the boat sailed right around to the entrance of Fingals cave and then up into the mouth of the cave!
I wasn’t expecting that at all.



After seeing the cave from the outside, we were taken to the landing jetty and as conditions were perfect for landing, we were dropped off.  With only an hour to see as much as possible, and with at least one other boat full of visitors already on the island and using the narrow walkway around to the island we were faced with two options when we landed.  The first is go around to the cave, the second was climb to the top of the island and go wild-life spotting!

I decided to opt for the cave first, on the basis that this was a one of a kind and unless they had some dodo birds nesting on the island, I could – in theory at least – spot any wild-life present on the island today somewhere else on a future trip…

So, off I headed, along the walkway towards the cave.

I paused at the mouth of the cave to grab a shot of the waves crashing against the basalt columns with the Isle of Iona on the horizon, my next target island.

I’d brought a mini-tripod with me as I expected the cave would be busy, and with the low light, I’d planned to shoot long exposures of the interior in the hope that this would give a nice smoothing effect to the sea, plus have the added bonus of removing many of the people as their motion would blur them from the final image… a reasonable plan, I thought, although I didn’t take one thing into account when devising this plan… most people when encountering something as dramatic as Fingals Cave for the first time do pretty much what I did and just stop and stare, so don’t blur in the long exposure images much!

So, although the people remain in shot, I was happy with the sea smoothing effect, and the fact that the images are sharp.  Not something I could have managed had I opted to shoot hand-held.

After a while in the cave taking some close up abstract shots of the basalt columns which I won’t bore you all with here, I decided to head out and back along to the landing spot then up onto the top of the island to have a look around.


I found the coastline of Staffa almost as fascinating as the cave, with the basalt columns forming huge waves of solid rock which seemed to undulate off into the distance, echoing the sea as if saying “anything you can do I can do better!”

Once on top, I decided to avoid the throng of people heading north on the look out for Puffins and headed over to the other side of the island instead which was much quieter.


After a while shooting some more coastal shots, and a lovely patch of bog cotton I found while wandering over towards the landing spot, I headed back to the landing area to shoot some timelapse video and capture my only “wildlife” image on the island…


We boarded and set off for what I expected to be a return trip via the same route, but, the captain announced that he’d spotted some Puffins on the water further up the coast, so were treated to a detour to go see them!




Once again I was impressed that the boat had done this, but, this was not the last unexpected treat as the captain announced we’d be going back a different way, we were to sail north, loop around the northern tip of Gometra and return to Ulva Ferry via Loch Tuath.  This was because he knew the location of a nesting White Tailed Sea Eagle!

On the way across we passed a large black fin in the water, but, I’m afraid no-one was entirely sure what it was… opinions ranged from Minke Whale, Basking Shark to Orca / Killer Whale!  I’d like to think it was an otter on it’s way to a fancy dress party, but, maybe that’s just me!

If you read my Skye blog (island 10 of 51) you’ll know that I’m not the best when it comes to wildlife spotting or identification (“what’s that big brown thing”) so if it hadn’t been for the captain stopping the boat and pointing the eagle out, I’d probably never have noticed it sat in the tree overlooking the loch!


From here we continued back to the ferry port, pausing only to catch some pics of seals lounging on the rocks.


Once back on shore, we headed for the mini-bus and the drive back to Craignure to catch the last ferry of the day back to Oban.

Another benefit to having someone else do the driving, I normally stress about being at the port on time and invariably end up being embarrassingly early for the ferry.  Even more so when I know it’s the last sailing of the day, but, not today as the bus pulled into the bus stop just as the ferry came into view on it’s way in.

Twenty minutes after getting off the coach I was sitting in the bar of the MV Isle of Mull enjoying a beer and feeling like I’d had an excellent day.

I’d thoroughly recommend taking the trip if you find yourself in Oban with a day free, especially if, like today, the weather is perfect for landing on Staffa.
Make sure you book the tour in advance though! It’s very popular!

My next trip is another tour.  This Sunday I’ll return to Oban, sail once more over to Mull then take a coach out to Fionnphort for the sailing over to Iona.

If the trip is half as good as today’s, I’ll be very happy when I get home on Sunday evening!


Isle of Lismore: Population: 192 (2011), Inner Hebrides
Isle of Kerrera: Population: 34 (2011), Inner Hebrides
Eriska: Population: Unknown (2011), Inner Hebrides

I left Port Appin quite happy with my visit.  Lismore is a great place and if i’m honest I was a little annoyed with myself that in all the times I’ve been to that part of the world, I’d never visited before now.

I left the single track road and re-joined the main route south towards Oban, along the shores of Loch Creran and southwards over the Connel Bridge.  From Connel I continued on to Oban, through the town centre and out along the Gallanach road to the Kerrera ferry and my second island of the day.

I’d read this morning before I left that the owner of the Kerrera ferry had sold the route to Caledonian Macbrayne, and that the last time the ferry would operate as an independent service would be 30 June 2017.  I arrived around noon on 28th June and was surprised to see just how busy the car park was!  I had to wait for two sailings across the narrow Sound of Kerrera before I could board the 12 passenger ferry across to the island.

While crossing I overheard a few American visitors asking the staff about the recent ownership news.  The staff sounded quite positive.  They will all continue to work the route, just with a new owner, and while the ferry will ultimately be replaced (Calmac are apparently having a new vessel built in the Shetlands right now), nothing much will change.  One visitor suggested that the prices will inevitably rise when a new owner takes over but the staff actually suggested that prices will drop, which given a return was extremely cheap to begin with, should surely encourage more people over in the future?

We arrived on Kerrera and I set off towards the south of the island.  I wanted to visit Gylen Castle which looked impressive in the photos I’d seen while researching the trip.
From the ferry port, it’s a fairly easy stroll south along the coast.  After a while we reach a little bay, “The little horse shoe” which has some nice views of the hills to the south of Kerrera, plus a large shipwreck on the shoreline.



From the bay the route climbs slightly with some nice views south past a lighthouse towards the isle of Seil (my blog island 4 of 51) and the remains of an ancient fort to the left.  There was a group of visitors picnicking on the sheltered slopes which housed the fort so I wasn’t able to explore it further.
(above: fellow walkers near Little Horseshoe Bay)

Continuing on, the path steepens past Upper Gylen and winds its way around the side of a small hill, before dropping once more towards the sea and Lower Gylen (which has a lovely Tea-shop and garden).  The Tea-shop has a clever piece of marketing at the highest point on the walk…
Passing through a gate opposite the tea garden (which was full of walkers so I didn’t stop) the walk continues around the base of the small hill until suddenly the view opens up and you catch your first glimpse of Gylen Castle perched on a steep cliff above the sea.
I climbed the steep path to the castle and paused for a while to catch my breath and admire the view across the southern tip of Kerrera westwards towards the Mull coast.

While inside the castle I noticed a fellow walker standing very close to the steep cliffs, so hanging out a window on the 2nd floor (don’t tell my mum!), I managed to snap him.  This image gives some sense of scale of just how steep and high those cliffs are.  I’m not sure he realised just how close he was to the edge!

Apparently the castle was built in 1582 and was once a stronghold of the clan MacDougall, but, following defeat in battle the castle was sacked and burned in 1642.

I stayed for a while and shot some time lapse video of the clouds scudding across the sky through the now roofless castle before setting off to retrace my steps back to the ferry.

There is actually a nice circular walk which continues around the western side of the island and I’d loved to have completed that walk but I didn’t have phone signal now and time was marching on and I still hadn’t heard from my customer with the potential problem so I thought it wise to retrace my steps, get back to the mainland then see if I’d missed any calls or received any emails.
My timing was perfect as they were loading a trailer onto the ferry and this slowed them down a little giving me time to sprint the last 50m and catch the ferry before it headed back to the mainland.

A good friend of mine, who is sadly no longer with us, used to listen to me go on and on about my trips to Skye and how it was perfect for photography and would finish our conversations with “have you been to Kerrera yet?  You should go, it’s beautiful”
He loved the island and would visit it every chance he had.
Today was my first time on the island, and I’ve got to admit, it’s lovely and I’ll definitely be visiting again, not only to complete that circuit of the south, but, also to visit the north.
You were right mate, it’s beautiful.

I arrived back on the mainland and drove the mile or two to Oban, parked up and checked my emails and voicemail.  Still no news from my customer with the “urgent problem” so I decided to head for my third island of the day, Eriska.

I’m going to halt here and give everyone the chance to end your reading here.
What follows is nothing but an angry rant and no photographs!

Still reading?  Ok well, here goes…

I knew Eriska was privately owned.  I discovered that while doing the initial research for this project, but, I’d mistakenly thought that, like Danna (island 2 of 51) or even Eilean Donan (island 8 of 51), I’d still be able to cross onto the island somehow, grab a few pics and say I’d been, chalk it off the list, and move on.

The island lies in a lovely part of the country, due south of Port Appin and so south and east of Lismore.  I even grabbed a few photos of it while on Lismore earlier as I knew I’d be visiting one day soon.
It is reached (by some at least) by a bridge from the mainland which is in turn reached via a road I’d passed earlier to the north of Connel Bridge.

I followed this road towards the island when suddenly I was “greeted” by a cold grey wall with and a sign saying “Isle of Eriska.  Hotel, spa & island” and to the right another sign saying “PRIVATE PROPERTY. ACCESS for residents ONLY”. (their choice of capitals, not mine…)
I should probably point out that I couldn’t even SEE the island or the bridge from this point, I was still very much on the mainland.

I felt this rather cold welcome was a little over the top but not wishing to break any rules, I decided to halt and check the hotel website to see if they had a free room for the night.  I’d stay over if it gave me access to the island and I could complete the planned project.  Alternatively, I’d book some lunch if they had a bar / restaurant I could visit…

Room’s were priced FROM £430 per person per night.  They had one room available that evening for a mere £570 per person.  Goodness knows what the most expensive suite is…

Now, I have nothing against rich people.  I’d kinda like to be one someday, but, I do have a good old fashioned west of Scotland chip on my shoulder about people of privilege using that privilege to exclude everyone else from an entire island.

Let them have their overly expensive hotel (where they can, apparently, “unwind in the Piano room or the Library with it’s art deco fireplace and wonderful selection of whiskies, cocktails and fine wines”) but don’t close off an entire island just so the scruffs can’t get upwind of you and ruin your special spa day!
Alternatively charge people to cross your precious bridge and breathe your “cleaner than mine” air, I don’t mind how access is granted, just don’t bar everyone but the elite few who are rich, and stupid, enough to spent THOUSANDS of pounds to walk on your hallowed ground!!

While writing this part of the blog, I decided to research who owns the island and discovered that Mr. Beppo Buchanan-Smith (no typos in that name) sold the island to a Hong Kong based family-owned business in February of this year.  Hopefully, the new owners will see sense and open it’s doors to us riff-raff in the future, but, until then I’ll be leaving Eriska as unlucky island No.13 on my list and it’s decadent financial apartheid shall be represented as a blank page when I come to produce the final book!

Rant over.

Next blog will be soon as I plan to re-visit Mull and also two, possibly three, of it’s smaller satellite islands in the next few days.
Hope you’re enjoying the blogs – apologies for the rant! 🙂

Oh, and in case you’re wondering.  The customer with the urgent problem?  Didn’t happen.  No calls, no emails and no apology.  I could have had my trip to Tiree afterall..

Hebrides: Islands 11, 12 & 13 of 51: Isles of Lismore & Kerrera, plus Eriska: PART 1

Isle of Lismore: Population: 192 (2011), Inner Hebrides
Isle of Kerrera: Population: 34 (2011), Inner Hebrides
Eriska: Population: Unknown (2011), Inner Hebrides

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley

For the past week or so I’d been planning to visit Tiree before the end of June.  I was really looking forward to the trip as I’d never been and the weather was looking ideal for photography, but, as the above quote might suggest… things don’t always go to plan.

It’s ironic really as I was only chatting the day before the trip about how balancing my photography work with my day job in the lab can be tricky sometimes when at 5pm the night before the journey a lab customer contacted me with a potential problem which needed to be sorted on the day I’d be away.

As the Tiree trip involved a 3am rise, 4am start, a 7.15am ferry and almost certainly no internet connection until at least 9.30pm when I returned to the mainland, I decided to change plans and visit a few other islands instead.  Not a huge problem as I was soon to discover two out of three of these islands are lovely, but, it was the fact I’d be nearer the mainland – and therefore an internet connection – that allowed me to continue with the photography but still be “on call” for the lab problem when / if needed.

So… my alarm still went off at 3am, I was still sipping coffee at 3.10am but with the first ferry to Lismore not until 8am, I had a little time to kill before setting off, so I started writing this blog!

I set off at 5am and headed north, taking the route over Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe. There were dark grey, almost black, clouds hanging low and smothering the summits of most of the mountains for the entire trip, but, as I neared the Kingshouse Hotel on the edge of the moor I noticed that a few small patches of light were beginning to break through onto the hills above Glen Etive so, never one to miss an excuse to drive down Glen Etive, I took a left turn and headed into the glen.

The light didn’t get as dramatic as I’d first hoped, but to be fair it was only 6.40am and I still had a while til the ferry so it was a “constructive” detour!  Plus I did get some photography done, although I can’t share that on my Hebrides blog!

From Glen Etive I continued through Glencoe and south through Appin and Duror until the turn for Port Appin, then it was just a short drive along a single track road (with nice views out over Castle Stalker) to the jetty at Port Appin and the ferry for Lismore.


As forecast, the weather was improving the further west I drove and by the time I reached Port Appin, there were huge areas of clear blue sky and a nice breeze which kept the remaining clouds moving, perfect for photography as simply waiting for a few minutes completely changes the scene in front of you as patches of bright sunlight pick out details which were completely shaded seconds earlier.

Miraculously given my time spent in Glen Etive, I managed to arrive at Port Appin with 5 minutes to spare for the first ferry of the day.  I quickly changed to my walking boots, packed a few snacks and water into my camera bag and set off down the jetty for the trip across the narrow strait and onto Lismore, my 11th island of the project.


The name Lismore is the anglicized version of the Gaelic “Lios Mor” – the Big Garden – and the name is a great description of the island.  Composed mainly of limestone and slate, the limestone in particular has given the island a fertile soil and a rich abundance of flowers, trees and shrubs.
Limestone is relatively rare in the west of Scotland and the Lismore lime was so prized that in the 19th century an entire industry grew up around it’s quarrying, transport and kiln burning.  Shell lime and hydrated lime were transported around the highlands and islands for almost a century until cheap imports by rail undercut the price and the industry failed.
This was a particularly hazardous venture given that shell lime will explode on contact with water, and the lime was being transported by boat!  There are several accounts of shipwrecks exploding when their cargo holds were breached by the sea.

Evidence can still be found of this industrial past as lime kilns, quarries, and even old quarrymen’s cottages still exist around the island…

Once landed on Lismore, I set off on a circular route around the northern part of the island.   I had decided to follow a route described on the walkhighlands website (go follow that site if you don’t already – it’s a great source of walks all over Scotland), a short 3 mile hike around the northern tip of the island, down the west coast and back across to the eastern coast before a walk north back to the ferry port.  I have to say it was a great introduction to the island and one I’d definitely recommend to anyone thinking of visiting Lismore.

Almost immediately after leaving the ferry port, the views north across Loch Linnhe towards Ardnamurchan and Ben Nevis are spectacular.
With a typical limestone landscape, the lush deep green grass on the island contrasted nicely with the bare mountains further north and west.


Of course with limestone, there are usually caves and it wasn’t very long before I stumbled across my first cave, lying maybe 20-30ft above the path, high above sea level, so presumably cut by fresh water.  It was too close to go unexplored…


I scrambled up the steep slope narrowly avoiding a face first trip into “evidence” of recent sheep visits, but it was worth the short climb as the cave entrance made a great natural frame, so I waited around to see if anything interesting would happen outside and it wasn’t long before a boat passed by on its way across to Ardnamurchan so I grabbed a few shots of it’s journey past the island.

From the cave I continued on, around the northern coast of the island and down the western side, constantly looking back over my shoulder as the views north across the islands of Loch Linnhe are incredible and with the light constantly changing it was like a new view every time I looked!

insta_3W2A9379(Shuna Island, which lies to the north of Lismore)

insta_3W2A9414(above: the Ardnamurchan mountains from Lismore)

I had a short climb and then a wander down through farmland towards a path, which became a track, then almost a road as I entered the village of Port Ramsay.


Port Ramsay is pretty much a row of former lime quarry workers cottages.  The cottages are coated in lime whitewash and very photogenic.  I met the first person on my trip here, a builder, from my hometown of Glasgow, who summed up the island in a few words… ” nice… but awfully quiet”.   That’s true, so I couldn’t fault his assessment!

From Port Ramsay I followed the road east across the spine of the island to the west coast.  It’s not very far, maybe 0.5 mile or so, but, so quiet and peaceful.  Swallows were darting in and out over the fields (yes, if you read my last blog, I did actually have to google “wee birds with big tails in Scotland” before I was sure they were swallows…)
With no traffic and the warm sun beating down it was impossible to resist the temptation to find a spot to sit and just enjoy nature doing it’s thing for a while.

After a break I continued to the junction at Stronacroibh before turning left and following the coast north again towards the ferry.


I arrived at the ferry about 20 minutes before the next sailing so took some timelapse video and some photos around the port.


The trip back was interesting, I had a conversation with the ferry man (who was from Glasgow) about a great spot for a future visit.  Turns out he’s also a photographer, and he told me of a great location to the south of the island which requires a long walk and an overnight wild camp, but apparently it’s a great location if visited in September or October (perfect angles for sunset), so I’ll definitely be back to Lismore!

Once back on the mainland, I packed the bag into the car and set off for Oban and the isle of Kerrera.  I had intended to include that trip on this blog but I have so much to say on both islands, plus Eriska, I’ve decided to split this blog into two parts.

I’ll try to post part 2 within the next 24 hours! 🙂

Hebrides: Islands 8, 9 & 10: Eilean Donan, Eilean Ban and Isle of Skye (1)

Eilean Donan: Population: 1 (2011), Inner Hebrides
Eilean Ban: Population: 2 (2011) now uninhabited, Inner Hebrides
Isle of Skye: Population: 10,008 (2011), Inner Hebrides


This trip began with an early morning drive north from Glasgow along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, over the Great Moor of Rannoch, through Glencoe, Fort William, Glen Shiel and finally along the shores of Loch Duich to reach the first island of the trip, Eilean Donan.

A small tidal island sitting at the meeting point of three lochs (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh), the name “Eilean Donan” is probably now more associated with the famous castle which dominates the island rather than the island itself.

INSTA_3W2A3548(above: the castle taken during a previous visit, 2016)

I’ve stopped to photograph the castle and island many times before but I have to confess that I’d never actually set foot on the island before now.  Access is via a bridge which is strictly controlled by a ticketing system from the visitor centre.

So, armed with tickets, we set out over the bridge and onto the island.

There is a “no photography” policy in the castle, so I’m afraid I can’t show you the interior, but, as I was here primarily to photograph the island this restriction didn’t really cause me any problems.

After a tour of the castle, I set off down to the shoreline to photograph the views out across the loch.


The view back along Loch Duich is particularly nice (see above) and is probably worth the entrance fee on its own!  After spending some time exploring the shoreline and photographing the castle from every conceivable angle (it’s difficult to capture unique images of what must be one of the most photographed buildings in Scotland…) we headed back over the bridge towards the car park.
As we reached the car park I noticed a gap in the steady stream of tourists so I couldn’t resist the temptation to take one last shot of the castle and the island from the mainland.


From Eilean Donan it’s a short drive towards the Skye Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh and the location of my second island of the trip, Eilean Ban (White Island).


Quite easy to miss if, like most people in a rush to get to Skye, you simply drive straight over the bridge, but, if you look closely at the Skye Bridge, you will note that it doesn’t span the Kyle Akin in a single bound, instead it crosses first to a small isle before the final arch over to Skye.

This small isle is Eilean Ban.  Once owned by “Ring of Bright Water” author Gavin Maxwell and home to a now decommissioned lighthouse.  I stopped at the small gate on the bridge which gives access to the island, but, it was locked.  I later discovered that the island can now only be accessed as part of a daily tour from the nearby “Bright Water Centre” in Kyleakin on Skye.
Disappointing, but I grabbed a leaflet detailing the tours and contact information and may try again on my next visit to Skye.

Technically the island is now uninhabited, so doesn’t really fall into my plans for this project, but, as it was one of my original “to-do” list of 51 islands, I’ll try to revisit again soon.

From the bridge it was a brief drive over to Skye for what is likely to be one of many visits during this project.

I love visiting Skye.  It was the first Hebridean island I ever visited (way back before they’d even built the bridge!) and so I know the island well.  I’ve walked, cycled, driven, camped and even sailed around most of the island over the years.

On this occasion we decided to limit our excursions to the lower 3rd of the island. Luib on the banks of Loch Ainort was pretty much the furthest north we ventured on this brief visit.

After a quick stop at Luib, we set off south again back through Broadford and Breakish before turning off onto the small road to Kylerhea.

I usually describe the road to Kylerhea as the scariest drive on the isle of Skye – it’s a winding single track road which climbs to just over 915 feet as it clings to the side of Sgurr na Coinnich.   As the road nears the coast it loses some altitude but a steep drop of almost 400 feet to the river off to the right makes it feel much higher!  If your timing is off, you can sometimes meet a procession of cars climbing over from the summer ferry crossing at Glenelg on the mainland and this can give some interesting moments as cars crawl past each other at the narrow passing places with drivers trying to keep one eye on the road, and the other on the steep drop!

So, it’s usually with some relief that I eventually reach Kylerhea…

We parked at the Otter Haven car park above the village and made our way down to the viewpoint and wildlife hide.
Kyle Rhea is a narrow strait which separates Skye from the mainland.  It’s one of the best places in the UK to see a range of sea mammals, including dolphins, whales, otters, seals and porpoises.  It’s also a popular spot for bird-watchers as it’s home to Golden Eagles and White Tailed Sea Eagles (the UK’s largest bird of prey)

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before but my knowledge of wildlife is fairly limited.  Generic terms such as bird, or deer, are about as good as you’ll get from me when I’m out and about!
Thankfully there was an RSPB guide at the hide and he explained that below in the waters there were over 140 common seals, some grey seals further up the coast, a huge number and variety of birds, AND, most importantly for the assembled visitors – a White Tailed Sea Eagle in the trees below where we stood.

We didn’t have to wait very long before the eagle made a crossing to the mainland and we all started snapping away!  After a brief spell in a tree on the opposite shore it returned to the island and disappeared once more into the treetops.

After a short wait, and with an impressive level of knowledge normally only displayed by the likes of Sir David Attenborough, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and uttered the immortal line… “What’s that big brown thing?”
Yeh, you’ve guessed… it was a White Tailed Sea Eagle… the thing we were all supposed to be looking out for!  I should probably stick to my day job, eh?!


After a while we decided to brave the return trip along the narrow road and on to our next destination.  Initially we were planning to visit some beaches on the Sleat peninsula but the weather was beautiful so we decided instead to travel to Elgol.


The view across Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin mountains was stunning.  I’ve been to Elgol many times (last visit was just six months ago) but today was probably the best weather I’ve ever had at Elgol.

insta_3W2A3438(above: the same location, dawn, December 2016)

From Elgol, we returned to Broadford for some food, then on to Luib again.
We had a walk on the shore at Luib and watched the sun dip behind the hills.


All in all, this was a lovely trip to Skye.  I have a few of the smaller isles to visit, plus at least 2/3rds of the island to re-visit and document, so I’ll be back to Skye in the very near future.

I should have another blog in the next few days as I hope to visit one, possibly two, more islands tomorrow.

Plans are in place – and tickets bought – for another 5 islands in the coming weeks and so i’m hopeful that I’ll reach the half-way point of 25 islands before the end of July.

Stay tuned!
I hope you’re enjoying this tour as much as I am!


Hebrides: Island 7 of 51: Isle of Mull (1)

Mull: Population 2990, Inner Hebrides


Mull was always going to be an island requiring several visits.  The diversity of the landscape, the large number of locations to be photographed and the fact that there are another 5 smaller satellite islands to visit means that I had always planned to visit Mull several times during this project… which is fortunate as the weather was unbelievably dire this first trip!

I woke at 3am on a dark and drizzly Sunday morning and began packing for an overnight stay on the island.  Just one day earlier I’d managed to secure a last minute overnight stay in a lovely little cottage near Lochdon (Bramble Cottage) so this trip involved an overnight bag and the camera gear.

Another first:  I had company on this trip as Jonny decided to come along with a view to making a video, so after I’d picked him up we were off on our way north to the town of Oban.

We arrived in Oban earlier than expected, so early in fact there was a slim chance we might be allowed on to the sailing before the one we’d booked, so we headed straight for the ferry port.

We were checked into the “standby” lane and waited in the hope that we might be allowed to board but unfortunately the ferry was full so we had to wait until our pre-booked 11.10 am sailing.

After the earlier sailing departed we were moved over to lane 1 – 2nd place – and informed we had until 10.40 before we needed to be back at the car, so off we headed on a whistle stop tour of Oban, which to be fair, doesn’t take very long on a rainy Sunday morning!


After a quick wander around the town, a visit to the bank and a coffee at the local Wetherspoons, it was time to return to the car and prepare for the sailing across to Craignure.

We boarded the ferry and set off to find a nice vantage point for the crossing to Mull.  Unfortunately the weather was terrible – windy with that fine drizzly rain that manages to get into and under every possible kind of waterproof clothing known to man – but we braved the outdoors on the crossing anyway and snapped a few shots of Kerrera and Lismore, two more islands I’ll be visiting very soon!

Once docked at Craignure we decided to head for Fionnphort on the western coast in the hope that the weather might improve as we went further west; it didn’t.


After a brief stop at Bunessan (above) to photograph the bay during a break in the rain, we continued on to Fionnphort.  We toyed with the idea of crossing to Iona, but, with the weather so bad, decided to explore the coastline a little instead.

OL_3W2A8594(Above: Fionnphort coastline with Iona in the distance)

We photographed and videoed the coast for a while, there really is something magical about just sitting listening to the waves crash against the shoreline, then, hungry and cold, we decided to take a break and grab some lunch at the “Keel Row” in Fionnphort.

Warmed, fed and “watered” (no actual water was harmed during the course of the lunch) – we decided to return east towards Craignure.

OL_3W2A8610(above: Loch Scridain from Pennyghael)

There are a few locations around Scotland that I’m convinced I’ll eventually get a great shot, but have never managed to so far… Every time I visit the light’s not right, or the weather’s less than perfect or, etc, etc…
These elusive locations include (but are not limited to) the Devil’s Pulpit, those annoyingly photogenic Rowan trees on Conic Hill, the view down Loch Garry, the falls at Glen Orchy, and a secluded beach in Argyll…

The view from Glen More down across the three lochs of Loch Sguabain, Loch an Eilein and Loch an Ellen is another one of those locations.  I’ve photographed the place many times, but, I’ve never left with a shot that I think captures the essence of the place…
Apparently a favourite of the white tailed sea eagle, this part of Mull is remote, wild and seriously photogenic, but, I’ve never yet managed to be there just as the light was perfect. Maybe next time?


Moving on from Glen More, we decided to check in to the cottage before arranging the rest of the evening.  Possibly a mistake as the cottage was nice and cosy and the rain was torrential outside, so, eventually, we settled down to watch some Netflix instead!

To be fair, the weather never improved and the sunset was a non-event photographically, so with sunrise at just before 4am, we decided to call it a day and have an early night.

It was a wild and windy night and I was extremely glad we hadn’t decided to camp overnight when I was awakened just before 4am with the rain battering off the windows in my room.

Sunset came and went but I did manage to capture the moment of sunrise through my room window looking out towards Loch Don…


After a coffee, we packed up, said our farewells to Bramble Cottage and jumped in the car to try our luck in the north of the island.

Tobermory is one of those places where it’s impossible to feel down about the weather. The brightly coloured buildings force you to feel like you’re on holiday and, by default, having fun.


Ice creams, a chocolate store and gift shops, several excellent cafes and a whisky distillery make for some enjoyable hours of fun for all of the family!

(Also, I’d encourage a visit to the museum – which I found fascinating)

From Tobermory we decided to head south again towards Craignure, initially with a view to visiting Duart Castle, but, on the way north we’d noticed some shipwrecks on the shore in Salen, so we planned to stop off there first, if we could find a suitable parking place.


After a while exploring the shipwrecks, we headed south to Craignure and a bite to eat at the wonderful Craignure Inn. (Steak pie AND clootie dumpling – perfection!)

Lunch over and with just over 2 hrs until our booked ferry back to the mainland, we decided to visit Duart Castle.
Typically as our allotted departure point approached, the weather improved, so much so that by the time we were leaving Duart, there was actually some sunlight hitting the landscape…

OL_3W2A8821(Above: looking out over the Eilean Musdile lighthouse, Lismore from Duart Castle)

We returned to Craignure and managed to arrive first in the queue. (I’m paranoid about missing my ferry connections…)
As I was sat in the car thinking over this blog, I’d pretty much decided to write the trip off as a “location scouting” visit, but, in retrospect I think that does a disservice to the trip.  Sure, the weather was less than ideal, in fact, it was terrible, but sometimes, bad weather makes for some nice photographs.  No one wants to see blue sky pics all the time.  It rains in Scotland, everyone knows that, it’s why the landscape is so dramatic, it’s why we have such spectacular colours and it’s why I love it, so why not photograph it?!

My next island is likely to be either Kerrera or Lismore, but, I’ll definitely be back to Mull again in the next few weeks, so stay tuned! 🙂

Hebrides: Island 4 of 51: Isle of Seil

Seil: Population 551 (2011), Inner Hebrides, one of the “Slate islands”


It was a sunny May morning when I packed the camera gear – together with an overnight bag (just in case) – and set off towards the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland.  Two and a half hours later I was cruising through a very sunny and exceptionally busy seaside town, attempting to avoid the steady stream of visitors who seemed far more interested in crossing for an ice cream than road safety!

I love Oban.  My first ever commission after I’d finally braved the world of self-employment was here; I’ve had holidays based here, and others which departed from the ferry port here; I’ve had some great nights out and even saw in New Year once (can’t beat a west coast Hogmanay!)
So as I drove past the familiar sights of the sea front it felt more like a holiday than an effort to do some serious “work” on the new project.

I managed to avoid the temptation to stop for fish & chips and continued south back out of town.  Approximately 8 miles from Oban a sign points right where a narrow road hugs the shore of Loch Feochan.  The sign reads “Atlantic Bridge, Isle of Seil, 5 miles”

Turning here I set off along a narrow single track road that climbs steeply past a small cottage before turning south and continuing past Loch Seil.  A mile or so beyond the southern tip of the loch the road forks, taking the right fork the route continues for another mile until a thin blue band of sea comes into view, not very far away.  After passing a long low lying white farmhouse and a short stretch of single track road, suddenly right in front of you, sits Clachan Bridge.

OL_3W2A2969Completed in 1793, Clachan Bridge spans the 22m wide Clachan Sound in a single arch.
As Clachan Sound links at both ends with the Atlantic Ocean it is often said that this is a “Bridge over the Atlantic”

It’s quite an experience driving over the bridge for the first time as it’s remarkably steep (12m above the sea bed) and the fact that it’s single track and a blind summit means there’s a little bit of finger crossing that no one’s coming the other way as you climb to the top and tip down the other side onto the island.
The collection of grooves and scratches on the road at the summit of the bridge are testament to others who have underestimated the sudden drop and found themselves grinding the underside of their cars into the asphalt.

Once safely on the island I parked in the car park and walked back to snap the view north along the narrow Clachan Sound towards the islands of Kerrera and Mull – more islands for me to visit in the near future…

OL_3W2A2980(the view north from the bridge along the Clachan Sound – taken during a previous visit – March 2017)

Apparently every now and then whales have been stranded in the narrows here.   Entering from the open sea the animals find they have no room to turn and as the shallow waters of the Sound restrict their ability to maneuver they beach.
According to wikipedia a 24m (79ft) long whale met this fate right here in 1835, and in 1837 a pod of 192 pilot whales did the same.

After a little exploration of the coast and some more photography I decided to head south to see some more of the island.

Seil is one of the “Slate Islands” a group of islands where the underlying geology is of Dalradian Slate.  Slate has been mined here since at least 1630 and only stopped on an industrial scale at the turn of the 20th century.

The other isles in the group are Easdale, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua.
Of these only the first two are permanently occupied and so I’ll only be visiting those on this tour.

Interestingly there was once another Slate Isle, Eilean-a-beithich (island of the birches) but extensive quarrying on that island to a depth of nearly 250ft below sea level left nothing but the outer rim to show where the island had once stood.  A storm early in the morning of 22 November 1881, combined with an unusually high tide swept most of the outer rim away and today there is little left to see of Eilean-a-beithich – although the town which sprang up to house the men who quarried the island stills bears it’s name – Ellenabeich.

Wiping an entire island off the map just for some roof slate… ?! Insane.

I drove south from the bridge through the village of Clachan Seil and on to Balvicar.  At Balvicar the road splits.  To the right the road heads to Ellenabeich, the ferry port for Easdale.  Straight ahead leads to Cuan and the ferry to Luing.

I intended to visit both islands today anyway, and since Easdale is by far the smaller of the islands, I decided to head to Ellenabeich first, assuming Easdale wouldn’t take very long…

The drive out to Ellenabeich is lovely, especially once the road reaches the sea.  The view out over the small islands to your left is beautiful and with plenty of parking places you can pull over to enjoy the view or picnic by the sea.

OL_3W2A8476I was very impressed with the village of Ellenabeich, it’s a lovely little place and well worth the journey even if you have no intention of crossing over to Easdale.
In addition to the Easdale Ferry, the village is home to a Heritage Centre, Art Gallery,  Restaurant / Bar and the Seafari Adventures boat tours (who run trips out to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool and wildlife trips to see seals, dolphins and whales, or out to Iona and Staffa puffin watching)

My trip to Easdale will be the subject of a separate blog, so I’ll just say that I had a great time on the island and it’s another place I plan to revisit in the future.

OL_3W2A8331(above: Ellenabeich harbour with former slate quarry behind & Easdale Ferry – white boat – and Seafari boat – orange)

Back at the car following my Easdale adventure I set off again for the short drive back to Balvicar then onwards to Cuan and the ferry to Luing.

Cuan feels much more like a working ferry port.  There isn’t an awful lot more going on in the village other than the regular sailings across the fast flowing Cuan Sound to the isle of Luing.

As with Easdale, I’ll leave the details of my trip to Luing for another blog.  I feel that I probably need to visit the island once more to do it justice.   My trip to Easdale took longer than expected (for reasons you’ll discover in the next blog post) and so I didn’t have much time on Luing.  Also, seeing that the ferry could only take 3 cars at a time and there was at least 15 cars already waiting on the island to get back over to Seil I thought that perhaps I’d be tempting fate a little to take the car over.   Consequently I was only able to explore the area immediately around the ferry jetty.

Back on Seil, it was time to head north and back over the Bridge over the Atlantic then on towards my hotel for the night.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day exploring the Slate islands.  If I’m honest, when I was planning the whole project I had expected this to be one of the least photogenic parts of the trip.  Who wants to see lots of cold, grey slate, disused quarries and industrial landscapes, right?  I was wrong.  Seil is a lovely little island, Ellenabeich is a great village and the isles of Luing & Easdale.. well, I’ll tell you about them in my next blog 🙂

So… 4 islands done, just another 47 to go! 🙂

Helsinki, Finland – day 5

Tallinn, Estonia & Finnish Karaoke 

Today was the day trip to Estonia.  

We woke to clear blue skies in Helsinki and the forecast of rain in Tallinn so the trip was in doubt right from the start as the prospect of giving up on a sunny day in a city we’d only just started to get to know to travel for 2.5hrs only to get rained on in an unknown town didn’t quite seem as appealing as it had done when the trip was first being planned.

Thankfully, we decided to brave it anyway and the trip to Estonia became one of the best days we’ve had in Finland! 

We were sailing on the Viking Line express from Helsinki, which despite being what is essentially an international ferry crossing costs only €14 return per person.  

The ferry is huge, 10 decks, 6 of which are full of bars, cafes, restaurants, duty free shops and entertainment. Not to mention 2 decks of external viewing spaces. 

The ferry departed exactly on time and made its way slowly out past the small islands we’d passed on our way to Suomenlinna the other day. Its route slips between the fortress and another nearby island before entering open sea (Baltic Sea / Gulf of Finland) and the captain hits whatever the accelerator is called on a ferry and the ship lunges forward on its 50 mile trip to Tallinn. 

As the speed picks up, the wind increases and chill factor drops so as soon as we’d passed Suomenlinna it was time to retreat indoors to find some shelter…

The Viking Bar on deck 6 seemed the best spot to relax on the journey so we settled down with a nice Finnish beer (and a shot of a Finnish liqueur called Valhala – in hindsight perhaps not the best idea at 12 noon!) 

The crossing is remarkably smooth and fast and in no time we were docking in Tallinn.  We only had 4hrs in Tallinn and a few people had advised spending it all in the old town so as soon as we’d disembarked we set off towards what is described as one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. 

It’s only a 10 minute walk to the walls of the old town, and the stroll through the ferry port and out to the city gates was very pleasant in the early afternoon sun (rain?! What rain?!)

We entered the city through one of the gates and made our way along old cobbled streets past buildings, brightly painted, each of which felt like it had a long story to tell. We followed a route called Pikk down to Town Hall Square, an impressive area flanked on 3 sides by restaurants of all kinds from traditional Estonian, through Russian, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Indian and Finnish.

We decided to do some sightseeing before lunch so, continued down from the square until we reached a path which climbed up a small hill towards a large church which seemed to have a great view of the city. 

After an hour of wandering aimlessly through the back streets, photographing everything and anything, we headed over to a view point which sits high above the medieval town to grab some more shots before packing the camera away and heading off for lunch.  

I’ll share one impressive event I witnessed at the viewpoint before continuing with the day tour:

As we arrived a street musician was playing some traditional Estonian music on a guitar but shortly behind us came a large party of Japanese tourists on a guided walk. Seeing the group the musician immediately asked the guide “Nihon?” And when the guide confirmed that they were Japanese, the guy seamlessly switched from Estonian folk songs to Japanese! Including singing in Japanese! The tour group loved it and were soon singing along and dancing a traditional dance – complete with elaborate hand gestures and fans. We left to the sounds of them all singing the Japanese national anthem! A great touch from the musician I thought.  I hope after they’d all finished getting selfies with him they remembered to reward him! 

From the viewpoint we returned to Town Hall Square. 

Tallinn, like many cities around the world, has a Scottish themed bar so I wanted to pay a visit and have a photo taken but unfortunately it was closed until 5pm, but next door there was a lovely little Estonian restaurant so we decided to eat there. 

Thankfully this place didn’t have the traditional Estonian dish which we saw on sale at most of the other places on Town Hall Square… bear meat.

The grilled salmon and roasted vegetables in a white wine sauce was beautiful and as we sipped a glass of Italian wine we agreed that a longer visit to Estonia was needed to do the place justice.  I may well be blogging about another Estonian trip in the near future!

After lunch we had time for another wander around the narrow lanes and winding cobbled streets of Tallinn before reluctantly returning to Pikk and retracing our steps back to the ferry port. 

When we arrived, the ferry was already boarding so we headed on board and back to the Viking Bar.

I feel I should halt here and explain something. Whenever we mentioned to anyone about our intention to take the ferry to Estonia for the day, every single person said the same thing to us… go to the Karaoke on the return trip…

So. Here we were. Stage side seats in the Viking Bar, the place was packed and everyone seemed in quite buoyant mood as the ferry slipped from the port, slowly turned then accelerated back towards Finland (no islands to negotiate on the way back)

Sure enough, a crew member soon appeared, note pads and song lists were placed neatly on a table before INSTANTLY disappearing into the crowd and they were off… it was a race to see who could select a song, write it down – no easy task with a language where 30 letter words aren’t unusual – then get their entry up and accepted first. I’ve got to say it was a close call as 2 men and a woman bolted for the stage but a winner was selected and he immediately broke into a traditional Finnish song. The audience sang along, hands were clapped, and everyone had a great time. There were even some tears shed as every song was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

The crossing seemed much quicker on the return and the imminent docking back in Helsinki was viewed with some disappointment in certain quarters as rehearsed songs went unsung for another trip.

I’ve been impressed by the Finnish people from the moment I arrived here. They are polite, tolerant and clearly have a little quirky independent streak when it comes to style, art and architecture but those 2hrs spent sailing across the Baltic with them serenading each other confirmed to me that they are a great people. 

From this point onwards if anyone ever asks me to recommend something to do in Helsinki, I’ll be recommending they leave as soon as they can and get the boat to Tallinn, if only so they can sail back again!

Helsinki, Finland – day 4

Woke this morning to heavy snow, so before breakfast I grabbed my camera and headed out to try to capture some pics of Helsinki in the snow. 

It felt very atmospheric as the snow muffled most of the sounds of the city but the distant bells of the cathedral could still be heard ringing out as I wandered up and down quiet streets snapping pics. It was a great start to the day and I managed to get some nice moody snowy photos of the central square, train station, trams, people with umbrellas and statues in the snow. 

As the snow got lighter and the sun began to break through the heavy clouds I headed back to the hotel for some well earned breakfast. 

Today was a relatively free day and as the weather wasn’t ideal for walking we decided to start with some indoor locations so after breakfast we set off on the 1km walk to the “church in the rock”.

Temppeliaukio Church is a popular tourist site due to its unusual architecture. The church was designed in the late 1960s and is carved directly into solid rock, hence the name “church in the rock” or rock church.
The church is covered by a huge copper dome and the interior is lit by natural light which floods in through slats which circle the entire church between the dome and the rock.

Also used as a music venue due to the amazing acoustics, the church is a very popular spot with tourists.

After the church, and with the weather less than perfect for photography we decided to finish off the souvenir shopping before returning to the hotel to drop off the bags.  

The afternoon was spent in an Australian bar eating pizza and watching football for a few hours.

Around 7pm we noticed that the light was improving and the sky had cleared so we returned to the hotel, grabbed the cameras and set off once more for a walk down to the waterfront in the hope of grabbing some nice shots of the seafront at dusk.

It was beautiful in the dark, but very cold as the wind coming in over the Baltic Sea, seemed to cut right through all our layers of “weather proof” clothing to chill right to the bone.  

After a few shots by the sea we headed back to the more sheltered Senate Square to grab more photos of the square and cathedral.  

The walk back to the hotel was lovely as the fading light was ideal for some street photography.  Dimly lit alleys, neon signs and empty trams trundling through deserted streets where the tram lines, lit by street lamps, seemed to run like rivers of fire in the dark all made for what I hope will be some great photographs.  

Tomorrow is a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia so back at the hotel i had just enough time to recharge my camera batteries and clean the lenses before a quick bath and an early night.  

Looking forward to Tallinn tomorrow! 

Helsinki, Finland – day 3

Suomenlinna and multiple seasons in one day

Day 3 began with a stroll to Market Square to catch the ferry across to Suomenlinna. 

It’s a short sailing but an enjoyable one as the ferry weaves between little islands, some of which seem to be just a little larger than the buildings built on them! 

It had rained earlier this morning but by the time we set foot on Suomenlinna the rain had stopped and the the sun was breaking through.  It felt like a pleasant spring morning as we wandered from the main Quay on the island of Iso Mustasaari, the largest of the six islands which make up the fortress. 

Suomenlinna sea fortress was founded in 1748 on a cluster of islands off the coast of Helsinki at a time when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. 

The islands, which once housed quays for warships, heavy gun artillery batteries and barracks for troops and sailors throughout periods of Swedish then later Russian rule has become home to around 800 locals, arts and crafts shops, an art school, museums and cafes. Rather than remove the weapons, the former machines of war have been adapted to more peaceful uses.  For instance, there is a children’s play park where a nearby entrance is formed by huge artillery shell casings and Suomenlinna Church, which stands on a raised point just inside the fortress walls, has a boundary fence made from huge cannons and heavy duty chains.

This idea of adapting the past rather than attempt to erase it or pretend it didn’t happen gives the whole island fortress an optimistic feel. Children playing in former weapons bunkers and people picnicking beneath the huge artillery guns which permanently point West thanks to the period of anti-western Russian rule seems like a much more fitting legacy for the now silent weapons. 

Spring turned to summer as we crossed the little white bridge to the island of Susisaari and continued along the waymarked route to the southern Kings Gate Quay on the island of Kustaanmiekka. 

We stopped for a while to sit in the sun on a lovely little beach which sits in a cove just beneath the gunpowder magazines…

Apparently popular in the summer as a great swimming spot, we only saw ducks and a flock of geese braving the waves today. 

After a short break we continued to the King’s Gate, in summer a second ferry connection point to the mainland, before returning back along the coast towards the museums and cafes. 

After a short walk back we decided to take the ferry back to the mainland and grab some lunch as some very dark clouds were gathering above Helsinki. 

We arrived back in Market Square and spent some time buying gifts and souvenirs before strolling back to the cathedral square to shoot some photos of the white cathedral now starkly contrasted against the almost jet black sky.

After a little more shopping we stopped for some lunch (Finnish beer and Mexican Burrito). Almost as soon as we sat down the heavens opened at snow fell heavily for a while before turning to sleet then rain.  By the time we’d finished lunch, the sun had returned and the snow was melting. 

This evening was spent doing a little more shopping before settling down in a “London themed bar” for a few beers. The bar was having a “weisse beer week” promotion so we tried a local beer then an old German favourite. 

While in the bar the weather outside the window decided to run through the seasons once more as the late afternoon spring sun turned once more to snow, whipped up by sudden gusts of wind into almost blizzard conditions before a temperature drop turned the snow to heavy hailstones which rattled the bar windows and threatened to crack car windscreens. By the second beer the hail had subsided, giving way to some overcast skies which by the time we were leaving had once more turned blue. 

The weather for tomorrow isn’t looking great but the forecast for Monday is good, so tonight we booked our tickets to cross to Tallinn in Estonia on Monday.  We don’t have long (around 4hrs) in Tallinn but I’m looking forward to photographing the medieval streets of what is supposed to be a beautiful little city.

Tomorrow has been left free. There’s still lots to see in Helsinki and theres still the possibility of a day trip out of the city, weather permitting…

Hope you’re all enjoying the trip as much as we are! 🙂