Take a short ferry ride to the island of Lismore, off the west coast of Scotland, to experience a place of great beauty, unique charm, and total relaxation
Sometimes we need to get away from the city, leave behind the stresses of work, traffic and noise. The Scottish island of Lismore is the perfect place to do just that. A day here will leave you feeling peaceful, refreshed and free. It has everything that you would expect of a Scottish island: superb scenery, hospitable locals, no traffic, ruined castles, and the sweet sound of silence. The island is only 17km long, so taking a bicycle to explore is very much recommended.
Lismore feels very remote, but it is easy to get to and not as cut off as some of Scotland’s island communities. It is serviced by four ferries per day from Oban, and the ferry timetable allows for a generous day trip - but to really appreciate the island, stay at least one night. I can guarantee that you will have one of the best sleeps of your life because there is absolutely no noise bar the occasional sheep calling out to its buddies. You will also be able to experience staying with a friendly islander in one of the bed and breakfasts and fill up on home-cooked meals.
Oban itself is well connected to Glasgow by train. I took my bike on the first morning train, got off two stops early at Taynuilt and cycled through Glen Lonan. This is the ancient route that Scottish kings were once transported along to their final resting place on the island of Iona. I was on cloud nine because of the near enough car-free road, lush hills, valleys and streams. I took some video footage of this ride and this shows how fantastically perfect this place is for cycling. It will take about two hours to cycle from Taynuilt to Oban, allowing plenty of time to connect with the ferry to Lismore.
The ferry is a tiny vessel, so if you are hoping for duty free, casinos and a cappuccino bar, you are on the wrong boat. There is nothing to do except delight in the simple pleasure of looking across a clear blue sea towards the hills and islands. The gentle motion of the boat and the sound of it cutting through the water will quickly put you into a state of deep relaxation.
Arriving at the ferry slip, you may notice a gentleman offering a free minibus ride to the museum, the island’s principal attraction. If you came by foot it is not a bad idea to take up his offer, as he will also drive you back in time to meet the return ferry. If you brought your bike or car, there is only one road to follow.
When you reach the first junction, turning right will set you in the direction for the museum and reconstructed croft house. Here, you will discover everything you need to know about the island’s fascinating past in a small room with large, colourful interpretive panels. You can read about the legendary race between St Columba and St Moluag to be the first to land on Lismore and establish a monastery. St Columba was a superior boatman and was in the lead as the finishing line approached. So St Moluag took the drastic step of cutting off his own finger and throwing it on to Lismore, thereby claiming victory.
The museum has Lismore’s only cafe; in fact, it is the only place on the island where you can have something to eat or drink. There are no restaurants, pubs or hotels. If you have been cycling, you will appreciate the loose-leaf tea and home baking as a reward for making it this far. If you are not cycling, treat yourself anyway - the caramel coconut slice is to die for. If the weather is good, take advantage of the cafe’s outside balcony. Rest assured that nothing is wasted in this cafe, as the menu proudly proclaims: “We recycle as much as possible. Stale cakes go first to the family. Then the dog. Then the hens and finally to the compost bin.”
If you are staying the night, all of the bed and breakfasts offer an evening meal. I stayed in the Old School House, with owner Maureen creating a feeling that you could be staying with your mum or granny. There is no sign on the building to say that it is a B&B, so I cycled right past it at first. It did have a sign proclaiming it the Old School House, though, so within a couple of minutes I decided to head back, thinking to myself, “Come on - how many Old School Houses can there be on one tiny island?” The front door was wide open and knocking produced no result. My city upbringing told me that it was wrong to simply walk in, but faced with no other choice, this is exactly what I did. I found Maureen in the kitchen and she explained that this is the way they did things here; locking doors was simply unheard of. It was such a release to be free of the worry of taking care of valuables and be able to leave my bike in the garden overnight.
Before dinner, I cycled the short distance to the Broch. Brochs are Iron-Age roundhouses that can only be found in Scotland. The one in Lismore is quite well preserved, with the tall thick walls and entranceway still very apparent. The location is stunning, with some of the best views on the island, and on a clear sunny day I found it to be the perfect spot for catching some rays. Who says that sunbathing can only be done on a beach? Lying on top of a broch is just as pleasurable. You can get there so far by road and then it is necessary to walk the last stretch. My way was blocked by a gang of cows starring me out, but I gingerly made my way through as they reluctantly let me pass.
There was no television in my room at the Old School House, so evening entertainment consisted of reading and conversation around the dinner table. Home-made Scotch broth followed by salmon steak with vegetables is the sort of filling and tasty meal you can expect. I shared the table with a Canadian woman who was here to trace her ancestry and a woman from near Edinburgh who had been visiting Lismore regularly for the last 20 years. It was lovely to listen to their stories of island life and history. My favourite tale from the old days was that whenever the police came for one of their rare visits to the island, this somehow got transmitted through the grapevine and everyone would hide the untaxed cars behind bushes, in barns or anywhere that was out of sight.
It was still light after dinner and there looked to be a glorious sunset on the way. Maureen took the women in the car to view it from a favourite spot, but I could not resist some more cycling. The roads were deserted, with exceptional views out to sea and the distant islands, everything bathed in that silky light of a summer evening.
The following day could not have been more of a contrast, with heavy drizzle, but that is the gamble you have to take when you're visiting Scotland. The best advice is to bring rainwear and get out and enjoy it! I cycled to the walking trail for Castle Coeffin, a ruin that can be traced back to the Viking era. A 20-minute trek across fields, through many gates and then a descent to a bay is all it takes to reach this impressive sight. The poor weather actually intensified the romantic and mythical quality of the castle’s location, shrouded in a low mist with waves crashing below. I could not have asked for a more memorable way to end my Lismore adventure.
How to get there
Lismore is a 50-minute ferry ride from Oban; the ferry carries vehicles. There is also a ferry from Port Appin (20 miles north of Oban) to Lismore. This ferry does not carry vehicles and the crossing time is 10 minutes. It is run by Argyll and Bute Council. Times and fares for both ferries can be found at www.calmac.co.uk
Where to stay and eat
The Old School House does not have ensuite rooms or the latest designer interiors, but it has plenty of charm and a warm island welcome. The dinner, bed and breakfast package for £30-£40 per person is recommended because there is nowhere to go out for an evening meal on Lismore.
You can find details about other bed and breakfasts on the Lismore community website at www.isleoflismore.com
The cafe at the museum occasionally opens for themed evening meals. It might be worth checking if one of these nights coincides with your visit. Contact details are on the Lismore community website.
If you would prefer to stay in a hotel, you could opt for the Pier House Hotel at Port Appin, using the regular 10-minute ferry crossing to get to and from Lismore. This establishment boasts a Finnish sauna and offers aromatherapy treatments. Its seafood restaurant is very good and opens up the possibility of a lunch or dinner outing from Lismore, with clever use of the ferry timetable.
If you don’t have your own bike or don’t fancy bringing a bike on the train, Lismore Bike Hire will deliver cycles anywhere on the island; call 01631 760 213 or email email@example.com.
You can also arrange bike hire at Port Appin by calling 01631 730391.