Exploring the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides

Have you ever visited somewhere that felt so perfect that you didn’t want to leave? That’s how we felt after our short break on the Isle of Eigg.

Reached by a 1.5 hour ferry ride from Mallaig, Eigg is one of the Small Isles south of Skye. I’d been a little worried our journey would be choppy but the sea was calm. Instead the excitement was provided by the dolphins following our boat and a minke whale spotted blowing nearby.

Welcome to Eigg
Welcome to Eigg

Our Calmac ferry docked at Galmisdale, the main port on the island. We’d booked a self-contained flat annex at Glebe Barn which also offers hostel accommodation to visitors. Stuart, the owner, found us wandering on the pier, picked up our luggage and pointed out the house on the skyline, aptly comparing it to Father Ted’s house on Craggy Island. He explained we could either walk along the road or take the adventurous route via the shoreline. We played it safe and walked the road route for our first trip but soon realised the shoreline route was much quicker.

Glebe hostel, Isle of Eigg
Glebe Barn hostel, Isle of Eigg

The flat annexe consisted of a main living area, kitchen and bathroom. It usually sleeps 2 people but can accommodate 2 extra children if you don’t mind a bit of a squeeze in the bedroom. Although we had a separate entrance we were also connected to the rest of the hostel by an internal door. This was handy for the kids as they could pop down to the common room to play table football, their main source of entertainment. Unless you count watching golden eagles from the kitchen window!

Shell collecting on Glamisdale beach, Isle of Eigg
Shell collecting on Galmisdale beach, Isle of Eigg

After unpacking our bags we headed out to find the alternative route between the hostel and Galmisdale. The path from the hostel heads down through the bracken to meet up with the shoreline. Using this route it was, in theory, possible to walk to Galmisdale in about 20 minutes. However, this does not take into account stoppage time to sift through the shells at Galmisdale Bay beach.

Shells on Galmisdale beach
Shells on Galmisdale beach

I have visited several places which promote themselves as shell beaches. But the understated nature of Galmisdale Bay beach, which must contain hundreds of thousands of shells, makes it one of my favourites. Added to which the peace and views of the mainland make it a place I’ll remember for a long time.

Our planned destination was the cafe-bar near the pier in Galmisdale. Yet the shell beach wasn’t the only distraction. The light was perfect for photography and the boats in the harbour made for great subjects. Dragging ourselves away from the view we finally made it to the bar and rewarded ourselves with a drink.

Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Galmisdale Bay cafe, next to the pier, is a magnet for both tourists and residents. Open every day during the summer months it offers home baked food during the day, turning into a popular bar and restaurant most evenings.

Alongside the cafe we found the Isle of Eigg store and a small gift shop. We’d bought our own food with us as I wasn’t sure what was available on the island. I needn’t have bothered lugging bags of pasta as the store was well stocked although understandably more expensive than the mainland.

Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg

Leaving the bar we took the road route home as the sun was setting and we hadn’t bought torches with us. The sky turned pink and purple and it was difficult to keep our eyes on the road. Visitors are not allowed to bring cars on to the island so we were quite relaxed about road rules. However we soon discovered most of the locals had cars and some drove pretty fast, presumably because they weren’t expecting much traffic or pedestrians!

Sunset on the Isle of Eigg
Sunset on the Isle of Eigg

Eigg is 5 miles by 3 miles with plenty of walking opportunities. The next day we explored the north of the island, visiting the stunning beaches at Laig and Singing Sands. You can read more about our walks here.

As we walked we saw plenty of evidence of how environmentally aware the islanders are. Eigg generates its own electricity through a combination of hydroelectric, solar and wind power. Waste has to be burned or taken to the mainland so there’s imaginative local re-use and recycling.  Even the small school has been awarded the Eco-Schools Green Flag award.

View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg
View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg

On a sunny summer day I could imagine giving up a hectic life on the mainland and taking up crofting on Eigg. Back home a quick look on Rightmove threw up a couple of building plots and a house we’d admired in Galmisdale Bay. But we visited in summer. I’m pretty sure reality would kick in around October when the weather and a bored teen would take the shine off the idyll.

Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Later that day we still had some energy left after our walk in the north so it was time to return to our favourite shell beach. The kids found a rope swing over a stream nearby and messed about on this before heading towards the pier. As it was Sunday evening the cafe-bar was closed so no refreshment stop but we still enjoyed our evening stroll.

Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg

We spent the morning of our departure exploring the area around the Cathedral and Massacre caves before heading back into Galmisdale. On Monday mornings during the summer there’s a craft and produce market in the Community Hall, along with a cafe run by Eiggy Bread. We’d seen hardly anyone else on our Eigg walks so it was a shock to see so many people, both tourists and locals, in the hall for coffee and a chat. We soon realised why when we ate the best food of our holiday, a delicious plum and almond tart.

Isle of Eigg community hall
Isle of Eigg community hall

We still had a couple of hours to fill before our return ferry departed so took a final stroll along the coast. I spotted a colony of seals out on a group of rocks and we sat and watched them.

Seal watching, Isle of Eigg
Seal watching, Isle of Eigg

The funniest moment occurred when a gull flew in low over the seals and almost every one of them launched into the sea. It was hilarious to watch. I wonder whether this happens every time a gull flies over?

Seals, Isle of Eigg
Seals, Isle of Eigg

It was a reluctant walk back to the ferry pier. We’d only stayed for 2 nights but all of us had fallen for the island. Our departure was accompanied by the island piper, playing her bagpipes at the end of the pier. I’m not sure we’ll ever return to Eigg but our short visit will remain in my memory for a long time.

Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry
Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry

Read part two of our Isle of Eigg adventure here.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William, then picked up a hire car for the final stretch to Mallaig. Read more about our journey here.
  • We used the Calmac ferry from Mallaig to Eigg. A return ticket costs £13 for adults, children aged 5-15 years are half price.
  • The self-catering annexe at Glebe Barn costs £52 per night for 2 people. There is an additional charge of £12 per person if additional beds are used.
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A family trip on the Caledonian Sleeper; London to Fort William and on to Mallaig

Flying has lost its allure and sitting in traffic on the M6 has never had any but there was an air of anticipation as we waited to board the Caledonian Sleeper. Is there a better way to start a family holiday than going to bed on a train and waking up in the hills of Scotland?

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper

We had booked on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service which was scheduled to leave London Euston at 9.15pm. Fearful of missing the train we’d arrived incredibly early so endured a long wait on the concourse before boarding commenced.

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston
Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston

Thankfully we were able to check in 30 minutes before departure. As there were four of us travelling we’d booked two sleeper berths (each sleeping two) and our steward unlocked the door between them to make one cabin.

Each room has a set of bunks, a small storage area and a sink; compact but well designed. There are toilets at the end of the carriages. There isn’t much space, either in the rooms or the corridors, but you quickly get used to squeezing in to let people past.

Despite its tiny size the kids had great fun exploring the room. Both immediately bagged the top bunks and unpacked the goodies (soap, eye mask and ear plugs). A few minutes later we felt the train move, we were off!

Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper
Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper

As we couldn’t encourage the kids to have an early night we all made our way to the lounge car. This consisted of several tables and sofas which face each other across the carriage. We’d eaten earlier but some people were tucking into haggis, neeps and tatties which looked a lot better than the offering on our local trains. We ordered drinks from the steward and enjoyed the novelty of our accommodation before retiring to bed.

Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge
Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge

I’d love to say I slept perfectly but I didn’t. Whilst the mattress and pillows were comfortable the sound of the train creaking and squeaking kept my daughter and I awake for much of the night. Conversely my partner and son had a great sleep and slept through until 7am.

Breakfast in the Highlands

We had coffee, juice and Scottish shortbread delivered to our compartment in the morning. Still hungry we decided to return to the lounge car for breakfast. I knew the train had split during the night with separate sections going to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, but I hadn’t realised the lounge car had been disconnected and moved around too!

Views from the Caledonian Sleeper
Views from the Caledonian Sleeper

Fortunately we found the lounge (in the opposite direction) and ordered breakfast. It’s not haute cuisine but eating porridge and watching the Highland scenery go by was one of the highlights of the trip.

The train stops at several stations in the Highlands, including Rannoch Moor. Looking out on the platform I saw a couple of walkers waiting for the train, complete with midge nets over their heads. When I looked closer I could make out the clouds of midges surrounding them. I was very grateful not to get off at that stop!

Arrival in Mallaig

There weren’t any midges to welcome us when we arrived at Fort William. Instead we were met by the car hire representative. Whilst it’s possible to take a train all the way to Mallaig we needed a car to reach our evening accommodation and it was much cheaper to hire in Fort William than Mallaig.

The road takes a similar route to the railway so we didn’t miss out on the views. It was also convenient to be able to stop at Glenfinnan, home of the Jacobite Rising but more recently famous because of its Harry Potter film connections.

Glenfinnan dining car
Glenfinnan dining car

You’d have thought we’d have had enough of railways by this time but I’d already decided on a unique lunch spot, the dining car at Glenfinnan. We enjoyed a great lunch in the restored 1950s carriage; the homemade soups were really tasty although my other half wasn’t so sure about his black pudding toastie. Diners also receive a free ticket to the small Glenfinnan Station Museum which tells the story of the West Highland Line.

Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct
Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct

Glenfinnan viaduct

After lunch it was time to stretch our legs. From the station we walked along the Viaduct Trail which has impressive views over Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct features in the Harry Potter films and is a magnet for photographers, particularly when the Jacobite steam train (which travels between Fort Wiliam and Mallaig) crosses on its regular tourist run.

Glenfinnan viaduct
Glenfinnan viaduct

I’d hoped to co-ordinate our walk with that of the Jacobite returning across the viaduct. I had a vague idea of its arrival time but we were too early so instead we sat on the platform at Glenfinnan Station waiting to see if it came through. However something much more exciting happened as a pine marten popped out of some undergrowth and ran along the track!

Road to the Isles stopover
Road to the Isles stopover

Giving up on the Jacobite we drove on to Mallaig. Of course, soon after leaving Glenfinnan we saw the steam train coming towards us. I was able to pull over so we could watch the train although it spent most of the time hidden behind trees on the other side of a loch.

Haggis supper, Mallaig
Haggis supper, Mallaig

Our journey ended in Mallaig, a small port on the west coast of Scotland. We were staying in one of the nearby villages before heading to the Isle of Eigg a few days later. More posts will follow but in the interim I’ll leave you with a photo of the deep fried haggis my partner had for tea!

More info:

  • The Caledonian Sleeper runs every evening except Saturday. We paid approximately £145 for the one way journey between London Euston and Fort William. This covered 2 adults and 2 children using a family railcard. Whilst it may sound expensive you save on accommodation costs and travel ~500 miles. Plus it’s a pretty unique and fun experience!
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Campsite review – Sands Caravan and Camping, Gairloch

Sands Caravan and Camping site is a bigger and busier site than we usually choose, but it was its outstanding location in the north west highlands of Scotland that pulled us in.

The site

Sands is 3 miles out from Gairloch village, out along a coastal road.  It offers camping, touring and static caravan pitches and wooden wigwams. The camping and caravan sections are set apart from each other, with campers able to pitch their tents in amongst the dunes. The pitches all looked pretty flat and spacious.

The campsite is in a fabulous location, as you’ll see from this picture.

View from wigwam at Sands Campsite
View from wigwam at Sands campsite

In front of our spot, over the dunes, is the sandy beach.  The small uninhabited island of Longa is visible directly in front, with Skye a little further out. On the other sides are mountain vistas. Could the location be any more spectacular?

Our wigwam

I’d booked us into a wooden wigwam, partly because it saved us carrying all our camping gear and partly as protection against rain and midges.

Rona - our Sands Campsite wigwam
Rona – our Sands campsite wigwam

The wigwams are basic enclosed wooden shelters with platforms and mattresses to sleep on. You need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.  There is a small storage area, a kettle and a heater, which we definitely didn’t need.  Each wigwam also has a picnic bench and fire pit outside.

Inside the wigwam at Sands Campsite
Inside the wigwam at Sands Campsite

We needn’t have worried about the rain as it was unexpectedly warm and sunny throughout our stay. However the midges drove us crazy!  We were near enough confined to our wigwams once they came out each evening.  Due to the heat the wigwams resembled saunas as we kept the windows and doors shut in an attempt to keep the midges out.

Campsite facilities

There were plenty of toilets and showers, and they were kept pretty clean given the number of people using them. Annoyingly, the shower buttons had to be pressed every few seconds to stop the water turning off.  Very tricky when you’re trying to wash your hair!

You’re not allowed to cook in the wigwams, and as we’d managed to forget our camping stove we were thankful for the hob in the undercover cooking area (£1 for 20 mins of electricity). There’s also a dining area, which some people were using to escape the midges.

If you don’t fancy cooking, there is a small onsite cafe with home baking, lunches and breakfast rolls.  It’s open from 9am-5pm, then reopens again 6-8pm for evening meals. We popped in for drinks and cake, but didn’t eat there in the evenings.

Sands Campsite cafe
Sands campsite cafe

The camp shop is well stocked and sold just about anything you could possibly need on holiday. It opened at 8.30am, and we were always there ready to pick up freshly baked chocolate croissants each morning. Very tasty and highly recommended.

The shop has tourist information and details of walks in the local area. Directly across from the campsite entrance they’ve created a 1km looped trail, which was popular with the dog walkers. If you fancy a little more action you can also hire bikes (£12 a day) and kayaks (£25 a day) from the shop.

The beach

Beach at Sands Campsite, Gairloch
Beach at Sands campsite, Gairloch

The sites biggest attraction for families is the sandy beach which the campsite fronts onto. I’m guessing that for most of the year its pretty wild and windswept, but during our stay it was the scene of sandcastles, paddling and beach BBQs.

One last tip – if it is sunny during your stay, head up to the dunes to watch sunset (which can be pretty late in summer).   The pinks, gold and orange reflect onto the sea, creating an amazing spectacle. Certainly an impressive end to the day!

Sunset at Sands Campsite beach
Sunset at Sands campsite beach

More info

  • To book, or find out more,  see the Sands Caravan and Camping website.

Costs

  • Our family of four paid £48 per night for the wigwam. This was peak summer pricing. You can get smaller wigwams, these cost £32 for two sharing.
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Things to do in and around Gairloch

Gairloch is a small coastal village in Wester Ross, in the north west highlands of Scotland.  We chose it as a holiday destination because of its fantastic scenery, wildlife watching and walking opportunities. The downside is usually the rain, but we were incredibly lucky as our trip coincided with the UK heat wave. We camped at Sands Caravan and Camping; there’s plenty of other accommodation if camping isn’t your thing.

Looking back over Gairloch beach
Looking back over Gairloch beach

Gairloch village

The village is strung out along the shores of Loch Gairloch.  The harbour area, also known as Charlestown, has several operators offering boat tours.  If you’re lucky you might see the Sammy the seal, who follows the boats in and hangs around the pier area.

Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour
Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour

From the harbour you can take a path up and over to the beach behind the golf course.

Gairloch beach
Gairloch beach

Jellyfish are pretty common in the waters around here as it’s in the warming path of the Gulf Stream, so you certainly need to keep an eye on the beach when you’re walking.

Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!
Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!

Away from the beach you’ll find the aforementioned golf course, a few cafes and inns, beach shops, a leisure centre and a tourist office (with free wi-fi).  There are no large supermarkets in the area, so we stocked up at Strath Stores.  The shop has a very popular sandwich bar, which we made use of every day of our holiday. Gairloch also has a Heritage Centre, which I’d saved for a rainy day, but the weather was so great that we didn’t get around to visiting it.

Sealife glass bottom boat

Gairloch is one of the best places in the UK for marine wildlife watching. I’d have loved to go on one of the whale watching tours, but the cost was prohibitive for our family, and I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed the reality of a day at sea in a small bumpy boat. We therefore settled on a glass bottom boat tour around Gairloch harbour. Whilst this didn’t initially sound so exciting it turned out to be a great decision.

Sealife boat trip
Sealife boat trip

The tours are run by Richard, an enthusiastic and knowledgable Lancastrian.  The boat is converted so that everyone can have a viewing portal into the sea under the boat. The underwater viewing works best in shallow waters, in deeper areas you just see your reflection in the window. The kids were given an ID sheet and tick list to record the wildlife. Amazingly within about 5 minutes of setting off they were able to tick harbour porpoises off the list!

Underneath the boat we saw several different types of jellyfish, starfish, sea urchins, anemones and a variety of seaweed.  We were also lucky enough to see common and grey seals. At one point Richard scooped a jellyfish out of the water, to give everyone a closer view. The kids were given an opportunity to carefully touch it, before it was released back into the sea. The highlight for the kids happened on the way back, when they were given a chance to steer the boat. Both thought this was amazing and had huge smiles on their faces.

Trusted with the tiller!
Trusted with the tiller!

Rua Reidh Lighthouse

We set out to walk to Rua Reidh lighthouse from Melvaig one evening.  It’s only 3 miles to the lighthouse along a straightforward track but after a mile or so we almost had to admit defeat.  The midges were horrendous!

Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse
Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse

At the lighthouse we immediately spotted minke whales through our binoculars. After a while the whales moved on so we walked the last short stretch down to the lighthouse.  It’s still a working lighthouse, but also has a guesthouse and self-catering apartment. It looks like a lovely place to stay, but is 12 miles from the nearest shop, so probably not for everyone. No facilities are available for casual visitors, and the private road can only be used by those with an accommodation booking.

Beaches near Gairloch

You can head north or south from Gairloch and find deserted beaches in the most stunning locations.

North from Poolewe
North from Poolewe

We drove to Poolewe, which was used in the Second World War as a base for convoys to gather before sailing to Arctic Russia. We took the road out to Cove, to visit the remains of gun emplacements and a memorial to the sailors who took part. It’s difficult to imagine how different this peaceful area would have been 70 years ago. The local community is campaigning for a new museum in the area to tell the story of the convoys.

Beach near Cove, Wester Ross
Beach near Cove, Wester Ross

Another road, heading south from Gairloch, took us to the village of Badachro and then onto Opinan Beach. The view over to Skye was stunning, and the beach itself had lots of interesting shore life to discover.

View out to Skye
View out to Skye

Walks

There are plenty of mountain walks for experienced and well-equipped walkers, but we found the walks more limited for family rambles. Apart from strolls along the beaches we walked up to the waterfall in Flowerdale Glen, which was named by the estate owners for its displays of wild flowers. The walk was enjoyable but marred slightly by the abundance of horse flies at the falls. We decided not to stop for our picnic, and headed back to Gairloch to eat near the harbour.

Kids view:

The boat trip was fantastic, I didn’t realise we’d see so many things. Steering the boat was epic! (Highest praise indeed)

More info:

  • The only downside to our holiday was the unwelcome wildlife. Midges, ticks and horseflies abound.  Midges are active on calm evenings and early mornings from May-August.  We used insect repellent liberally but were still bitten in places that we didn’t think to use it (inside ears, under watch straps). Our son also managed to pick up a couple of ticks, whilst rolling around in long grass. These should be carefully removed as soon as you find them. 

Costs

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