Spring in Japan- day 2

BLOSSOMS!

Woke this morning an hour or so before sunrise and already it was clear that it was going to be a lovely sunny warm day, so we decided to get out at dawn in the hope of getting a few snaps before the rush hour crowds swept through the streets of Osaka.

The blossom forecast on Japanese tv (yes they really do have that) announced that blossoms were now in full bloom in and around Osaka so the carefully made plans for today were completely trashed in favour of a visit to a local park, followed by a long walk around Namba on the look out for cherry and Apple trees!

At the local park we found that it was true…

Even in the low light, with an early morning haze hanging over the city the trees looked amazing.

After a while, with it still quite early, we decided to head over to the Castle Park to see if the trees there were the same.

We arrived around 7am to find the park quiet apart from some keen photographers, dog walkers, joggers and around 50 Japanese military personal with armoured vehicles and machine guns!

The castle park looked amazing as I ran around grabbing shot after shot of the blossoms. I had to remind myself to put down the camera every once in a while otherwise I wouldn’t have had any images from my phone to use in the blog!

The camera phone didn’t really do justice to the range of colours so im looking forward to sharing some of my camera images with you all on Facebook and Instagram when I get back!

After an hour or so of wandering around snapping away it was obvious that the news about the blossoms had filtered through as bus loads of people began to turn up, with people literally running into the park to pose with and photograph the blossoms in full bloom before the rest of the crowds turned up!

Ive tried all day to come up with a similar event in the UK where people just get out and celebrate nature in such numbers and with such obvious passion and enjoyment and I can honestly say I can’t think of a single example. It seems to be an uniquely Japanese thing and its something I feel very lucky to be a part of right now.

Business men in suits on route to work were stopping to photograph trees they probably walked past every morning for months without looking up; from the youngest to the oldest everyone seemed caught up in the excitement of it all and it was infectious! I was running around with the rest of them snapping away, taking close ups, “arty” shots, etc. With no regard to composition or the usual care taken when I’m out photographing normally.

I really need to get some good quality images on this trip that I can add to the upcoming exhibition and also to illustrate an article I’ve written for a popular photography magazine, so i kinda need to have some good quality black and white images soon but the riot of colour and the excitement of realizing that despite all the things that could have gone wrong in the last 195 days of preparing this trip, we’d managed to arrive the day before the blossoms bloomed took over and I was swept up with the crowd and snapping at everything and anything that looked like blossom!

After a walk around the Castle and in the middle of a large and growing crowd of people we decided to call it a day and head back to the city centre for some breakfast and to take care of the planned admin for the day.

It was still only 10am as we queued for our rail passes the set off to track down some food.

This afternoon was spent in the Umeda area doing some early gift shopping before calling it a day and heading back to Namba for food, a well earned beer and then the walk back to our appartment.

Tomorrow is a trip to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I didnt visit this location last year so im looking forward to the trip. Bamboo groves, temples, gardens, monkey’s and hopefully lots of blossom. I just hope I can show a little more control around the blossoms!

Oh, and the heavily armed soldiers? No idea what was going on. Last I saw them they were preparing to abseil over the side of the huge walls that overlook the moat which surrounds the Castle. Not to be outdone by the civilians, the military had a photographer with a drone recording whatever they were up to.. it may have been my imagination but im convinced the drone spent more time sweeping over the blossoms and hovering above the trees than it did recording the soldiers. Even the military, it seems, gets caught up in the moment sometimes! ūüôā

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Spring in Japan- day 1

Of all my trips to Japan, this was the one that was most finely balanced in terms of timing. I had to book the flights 195 days in advance, aiming to be here for an event which is famously difficult to predict and which can begin anytime over a 4-6 week period and can last for as little as 7 days. Short of block booking a 6 week holiday over March and April, which unfortunately wasn’t an option, there was always going to be an element of luck around this trip.

Even tour operators who specialise in tours to see the famous Hanami, cherry blossom festival, warn that trips solely to see the blossoms will rarely catch them in full bloom, so fleeting and unpredictable is the event.

So, right up to the point of boarding the plane it was still far from certain that we would even catch a glimpse of the blossoms, let alone see them in full bloom.

The latest forecast is that the best time to view the blossoms in Osaka this year will be a four day window around March 31st to April 3rd, so fingers are crossed, but nothing guaranteed.

I was encouraged slightly when leaving the airport to find cherry blossom decorations everywhere. While on the train into Osaka, we passed roads lined with cherry blossom trees beginning to bloom, so its just possible that the timing will work out… or still fail miserably!

Apologies in advance for the blogs over the next 10 days or so…

If the timing has worked and luck is with us, you’re about to be subjected to day after day of pink cherry blossom photos! If my timing has failed and my luck ran out, you’re about to experience day after day of self pity, moaning and whinging from yours truly!

Read on at your peril! ūüôā

Day 2 will see a brief trip to Osaka castle to see if the blossoms are in full bloom there, followed by some shopping around Umeda and the purchase of tickets etc for the rest of the break. We may even fit in some okonomiyaki in Dotonburi later in the day. ūüėČ

Im writing this at 4am on day 2, don’t you just love jetlag?!

Hebrides: Island 17 of 51: Isle of Tiree

Isle of Tiree: Population 653 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides

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Somehow a month slipped by between my last Hebridean island and today, and it’s felt like no more than 4 or 5 days. ¬†It’s scary just how fast time flies when we’re too busy with our “must do this today” day jobs… just another example of why we should all make the most of our time; blink and a month’s gone by! ¬†(Since writing this intro another WEEK has gone by before I was able to post this…!!)

I realized that I needed to get back out on my Hebridean project as soon as possible, but, if I’m honest I had five or six very good business reasons not to do the trip today, but, as there are only two days a week where it’s possible to get to Tiree and back in a single day, and I’m already booked up for the next two weeks, I decided to do it today anyway, ¬†so, after a few hours sleep, I woke at 2am, packed the camera gear, filled myself with coffee, and set off at 3.30am towards the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland.

Normally when heading for Oban this early in the morning, I’d go west through Glasgow, over the Erskine Bridge and along the western shores of Loch Lomond, but this morning was different as I knew several sets of road works lay between me and Loch Lomond, so instead I headed north towards Stirling and from there, west through the villages of Doune, Callander and Lochearnhead.

I don’t think I saw another car as I drove north along pitch black roads, through Callander and out along the shores of Loch Lubnaig. ¬†A light mist was rising from the loch, which, combined with moonlit hills and wisps of vapour swirling around the glens on the opposite side of the loch, gave the whole scene an eerie otherworldly feel. ¬†It reminded me of a project I had planned many years ago, but, never quite got around to doing. ¬†I made a mental note to make a start on that work as soon as possible as the views this morning were exactly what I’d had planned.

If I hadn’t been on a tight schedule to get to Oban, I’d have probably pulled over and made a start on that work this morning as the conditions were perfect, but, reluctantly I continued northwards, up through Glenogle, narrowly avoiding some red deer which seemed to appear out of nowhere as they lept a small stream onto the road in front of me before just as swiftly running off to the left and down towards the foot of the glen.

By the time I’d reached Loch Awe, the stars had gone and the moon had dipped so low that it seemed to sit on the summits of the hills as I drove through the narrow Pass of Brander. ¬†A little later, as I reached the outskirts of Oban, it had sunk even lower and appeared huge over the houses on the opposite side of the bay, so I pulled over and snapped a quick shot. ¬†(apologies as it’s hand-held so a little shaky!)

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I made my way to the car park near the ferry terminal, changed to my walking boots – still caked in blood red mud from my walk two days earlier at the Devil’s Pulpit – then walked around past the station to the terminal to buy my tickets for today’s adventure.

I’m not sponsored in any way by Caledonian MacBrayne (I did ask them at the start of this project if they’d be interested in featuring my blogs on their social media – an offer which they completely ignored…) but I have to say, the cost to visit the Hebridean islands has really come down in recent times…

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Four hours sailing each way, so, an eight hour cruise in total, for just ¬£20.60 return. ¬†You can’t beat that!

The sun had risen by the time we slipped berth and began the outward journey, past Kerrera and out into open water as we headed towards the Sound of Mull.

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The weather was perfect, so after a quick coffee to wake myself up, I headed out onto the deck to snap some photos of Mull and the mainland as we sailed along the narrow Sound of Mull which separates the island from the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

insta_3W2A0864(Above: Mull from the ferry / Below: Ardnamurchan)
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As we approached Tobermory, it quickly got around the deck that dolphins had been spotted swimming alongside the ferry, so we all headed over to the side to see if we could spot (or photograph!) them…

 

With around an hour to go before our first stop at the Island of Coll, I decided to head indoors for some breakfast as I wasn’t sure what the food situation would be like once I got to Tiree and as I hadn’t eaten today I thought it was a good idea to have a meal before the planned 5hr hike on Tiree…

I got some breakfast and settled down at a window to watch the world go by when something caught my eye just at the side of the ferry… a couple of dolphins were swimming alongside the ferry, just under the surface, then suddenly they’d leap out of the water before plunging back under. It was fascinating to see – and so close I could almost touch them.

After a couple of minutes (or in breakfast terms: a sausage, some mushrooms and a little bit of egg…) they seemed to tire of the game and swam off back towards the open water.

I finished breakfast and was just sipping down the last of my mug of tea when I noticed, no more than 30ft from the window, a HUGE slow moving basking shark idly swimming in the opposite direction, again just under the surface, but, with it’s dark red / brown body perfectly lit by the sun against the clear blue-green water. ¬†I watched as it cruised past the ferry before gulping down the tea to get back on deck in case there were more to photograph…

Of course there wasn’t but it was great to finally see a basking shark in the wild. ¬†That was a first for me! ¬†Magnificent creatures.

As I’d been eating, we had sailed out into the Sea of the Hebrides and continued across to the first stop of the day, Arinagour on the Isle of Coll.
I have to confess, I was tempted to hop off the ferry here and count Coll as island number 18 – but that wouldn’t be fair to the 192 good people who live on the island, and I certainly couldn’t do the place justice in just 15 minutes, so I stayed on board and snapped a couple of reference shots as we waited for the cars to disembark, and the Coll vehicles to board.

insta_3W2A1039(above: The Isle of Coll, with The Isle of Eigg beyond)

I’m going to say something stupid now… something that could probably only come from a city dweller who grew up in a Glasgow tenement miles from the sea… but, you really only begin to appreciate the relationships between the various islands off the west coast when you start sailing around them all. ¬†You can look at a map as often as you like and convince yourself that you know the geography of your country very well, but, it’s not until you actually get out there and sail around that you really get a feel for where everything is relative to everything else…

For some reason I hadn’t expected to see the small isles of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna today, nor the Black Cuillin of Skye, or the Paps of Jura.

Anyway… cars loaded and new passengers on board, we set off once more to head for Tiree, second of three stops and my destination.

Its another 40 minutes or so to Tiree, so I headed back inside to wait out the rest of the trip with a comfortable seat, as I wasn’t expecting to be seated much on Tiree!

We docked and I made my way down the walkway and onto Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides and the 17th island in my quest to visit all of the permanently inhabited Hebridean islands.

insta_3W2A1087¬†I only knew one or two things about Tiree before I arrived, and some of that came from a Billy Connolly joke! (“The misty hills of Tiree”)

I knew (from the joke) that Tiree is flat – “you could play snooker on it” according to the Big Yin and indeed the highest point on the island is the summit of Ben Hynish which is just 463 ft above sea level. ¬†I also knew it was home to a sizeable population of Corn Crakes, a relatively rare bird in the UK.

So off I set to explore parts of the north western end of the island, as the ferry left for it’s third port of the day, Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

My planned walk took me out from the main village of Scarinish and north towards Traigh Mhor bay, turning left at Gott and heading out, away from the coast towards Loch Riaghain, and the western coast of the island.

insta_3W2A1121(above: the extremely flat Tiree landscape with Loch Riaghain in the foreground)

Just before I reached the western coast I stopped to watch an aerial battle between a Heron (I know what they look like) and another “big brown bird” – which I later had identified (thanks to the Boardman’s for the help!) as a Skua. ¬†The battle raged for a while but as I’m not a wildlife photographer I was totally unprepared for the tussle and only managed to snap a few images using what is probably one of the worst lenses for wildlife photography… a 35mm wide angle!

Battle over, at least for me, I continued on westwards towards the coast past another 2 or 3 small lochs before the scene opened up in front of me and I had my first view of the west coast of Tiree and out in the distance, the Outer Hebrides on the horizon.

The route I had planned for today took me out to one of Tiree’s best known features, the Ringing Stone, a huge boulder balanced on other smaller stones which, when struck, rings with a metallic sound. ¬†The stone was obviously important to ancient people as it was carved, over 4500 years ago, with elaborate cup and ring markings.

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Of course, I had to try to get the stone to ring. ¬†I struck it with a stone from the shore and sure enough it rings with an odd, metallic sound. ¬†I tried a few more times and quickly discovered it’s a bit of a hit and miss thing, some times it rings, other times it doesn’t.

From the ringing stone, I continued northeast towards the Dun Mor broch, an ancient circular fort, thought to date from the 1st century AD.  The broch lies on the crest of a hill with great views out towards the small isles of Eigg and Rum.

After a wander around Dun Mor, I followed the coastal route southeast towards the stunningly beautiful beach of Traigh Bhalla before turning almost due south across the island to reach Traigh Mhor again for the long walk back to Scarinish.

insta_3W2A1277(above: Traigh Bhalla / below: Traigh Mhor)

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I wandered back across Traigh Mhor towards Scarinish, pausing every few minutes to grab photos. It’s beautiful on a nice day and I’d definitely recommend a trip to Tiree if you get the chance!

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I arrived back at Scarinish slightly early (an hour) for the ferry trip back to Oban, so I did what I always do… I found a pub! ¬†I settled down in the Scarinish Hotel with a beer (from my hometown of Glasgow) and did a spot of people watching… my favourite hobby…!

You learn a lot about a place by sitting down where people feel comfortable and just listening. ¬†Today was no different. I’ll not share what I heard as there’s every chance some of the people involved could read this, but, I learned a lot about island life, and, inter-island rivalry! ¬†I learned about how people plan their life around the daily ferry visits and, more importantly, the winter / summer timetables. ¬†It’s fascinating stuff and to someone like me who grew up no more than a few miles from the centre of the biggest city in my country, the second city of the entire British Empire, it’s riveting to listen to people discuss plans which involve a 4 hr sailing and a 3hr drive.

I honestly don’t know if I’d have the patience for that kind of life, but, I’m in total awe of those who do.

So… I started the day doubting if I should go and, if i’m honest, a lot of the problems which I feared might happen did happen – but, I’m so glad I took the time to visit Tiree. It’s a beautiful island which, as I’ve only seen about a third of it, is already drawing me back to visit again.

We sailed home, first to Coll, then back along the Sound of Mull, but, exhausted, I didn’t take many photos. ¬†The early rise and the prospect of another 2.5hrs drive home (coupled with a 7am start tomorrow…) seemed to take the edge off any creative enthusiasm I might have felt.

We landed, on time, I walked back to the car, changed my boots – this time caked in silver sand – then set off home. ¬†A perfect day and one I’m very glad I had.

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)

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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 C√ļl 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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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!

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

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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!

HEBRIDES: ISLANDS 11, 12 & 13 OF 51: ISLES OF LISMORE & KERRERA, PLUS ERISKA: PART 2

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.

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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.

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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.
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(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…
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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! ūüôā

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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! ūüôā