Tiny and enigmatic, the island of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides is proof positive that size isn't everything
“Euston, we have a problem,” seemed to be the gist of the announcement, but after a short delay the sleeper train to Glasgow pulls away. A four-hour bus-ride from Glasgow to Tayinloan in Argyll, past mountains and sea lochs, and I am sitting on a beach waiting for the ferry to the island of Gigha. And concentrating on what Roy from Paisley is saying. “The snooker table needed dusting. You could see it through the window before the house was sold.” He’s talking about eight-bedroomed Achamore House, originally bought off the last Laird by the island’s 100-strong community, before being sold on and now run as a B&B. But the subtropical gardens are still owned by the trust and open to the public, and the island is blissfully forgotten among bigger neighbours like Jura.
Kelp gently waves hello in the clear waters as the ferry bumps against this low drop of land. The short walk up to the only hotel, bar and restaurant confirms it has that quintessential island-life quality - very few decisions are required. One of them is to hire a bike from the village shop to explore the island, seven miles long by one wide. Tractors and cows are the most frequent traffic on the one road; rush hour at milking time is a nightmare. Ordering an ale at the bar, John, the island’s joiner, learns that it is my first visit. “Well, can I buy you a welcoming pint then?” Sitting in the beer garden, the mainland ferry port now seems like a socket that I have blissfully disconnected from.
I cycle north for sunset, whistling at cats hunting in the early dark of hedgerows, until I find a deserted white sand beach. Gold and grey clouds fade over the Paps of Jura, the neighbouring island’s mountains. The following day, guidebook in hand and striding woods, hillsides and Achamore’s fascinating gardens, I learn why the thistle is Scotland’s emblem. In 1203 the Viking King Hakon came to Largs to fight the Scots, mustering a fleet of 250 galleys off Gigha. Barefoot, they went ashore in the dark, trod on the thistles, started shrieking and ruined the surprise. Scotland won.
There's more than gardens to discover here. Golfers can head north from the shop and walk 1km along the road on the left to the nine-hole course. Pay the dues in the honesty box and play nine holes on the remote course, but beware the ninth if you aren’t competent. Close by, the peak of the island, Creag Bhan, is a cycle and a brief walk to seriously panoramic views. Head north from the shop and turn left at Druimyeon More Farm. Back down near where the ferry docks, the Cairn near the Boathouse is for visitors to Gigha to bring and leave a stone from their own community, illustrating how the islanders welcome others. Lunch at the Boathouse is a good plan - the leek and potato is excellent.
Apparently there are also seals here, so post-victuals I head back past Achamore House, find a rocky inlet and creep out to the water's edge. Eight of them are sunbathing on a rock. Then I send a pebble clattering. Imagine a Fat Camp if someone yelled “ice cream!” A moment of stampeding blubber and they vanish, except one curious one that keeps swimming up.
“If you sing to them, they’ll come closer,” another John, a Scottish BBC director, explains in the hotel beer garden later. We watch the evening colours play across the mainland. “It’s a thin place here”, he muses. “The difference between the finite and the eternal is very thin.” At closing time some of the island’s younger population invite me to Emma’s farm to watch Moulin Rouge. The next day Laura, one of the farmworkers, takes me riding on one of the two ex-army horses from London they use to herd sheep.
We walk north to the Queen’s beach, so named because when Britannia cruised the Western Isles, Her Majesty would come ashore and picnic. After cantering across the white sand into the shallows, Laura tells me my horse, Luca, was actually ridden by the Queen in a parade. I wish I had worn my best headscarf. Into the shaggy green fields behind Emma’s farm, we race up the hill, nothing but a wind-blown sea and the island of Islay beyond. I want to yell “Freedom!” like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.
Swapping Luca for a ferry home, I watch as the island quietly recedes. Why the gulls laugh at dawn, when an infant sun hangs over seals hunting the dark waters of the Sound, has become obvious. If I woke up here every day, I would be laughing too.