When the Sun Shines In Scotland

February 18 – 25
Isle of Luing, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

On a late February day in the northwest of Scotland, we had been given a gift.  It came in the form of a radiantly beautiful day, one in which a low-slung winter sun glazed the pastures and seacoast of the Inner Hebrides with a warm, topaz light.  For the first time in months, we striped down to our thermal layers without a thought for the down coats that, of late, had become as much a part of our outward physical appearances as our fingers or toenails. After days of Scotland’s horizontal rain and a biting chill, it was time for us to venture outside.

We had taken up a temporary residence in a small crofter’s cottage bang on the only road that lead through the township of Toberonochy (pop. 17) on the wee Isle of Luing.  Sixteen miles south of Oban, remote Luing (6 miles long and 1.5 miles across) was connected to the rest of the world only by a ferry that departed from another island that was, in turn, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Once a thriving slate-quarrying and cattle-rearing community, the island’s population had steadily receded since the First World War.  From the ferry at Cuan Point clear down to the southern tip of the island, we took turns spotting the former farmsteads that had long been reduced into crumbling sheaves of slate and mortar.

Our first fine day on the island followed an evening in which we learned the nuances of lighting and maintaining a peat fire.  In the morning my eyes were still bleary and blackened around the eyelashes, but the sun was out and already the children had set themselves off to explore our surroundings.  Armed with an ordnance map, we made a southwestern course toward the old byre at Kilchattan, just south of a 600 year-old cemetery that overlooked both the strait and flanking island of Shuna.  Here, several head of stocky and hale-looking cattle rose to meet us and warily kept an eye to Oliver’s erratic galloping and stumbling stride.  Twenty-one months old on that very morning, Kendley lowed softly at them and appeared proud of the fact that she had finally learned “what the cow says”.  They had short, thick necks and hides of the deepest auburn, and appeared to subsist even in these cold months on the roughage and sparse grasses that sprang up all along the roadside.  I later learned that the “the Luing”, established on this very island from a cross between Shorthorn and a Highland breeds, was an officially recognized pedigree that was exported worldwide and renowned for its hardiness.

Several times we breached cattle grates and farm stiles and, using a skill he had cultivated several years ago while in New Zealand, Oliver employed his best behavior when traversing a working farm. Each time we passed through a gate or over a fold, he conscientiously returned them to their closed and tethered positions.  We soon ascended a ridge that was topped with a wind turbine and flanked by a stand of scrubby Scotch pine that served as a rookery for the resident gray herons.  Beyond the miniature forest and all around us was the sea, still and opalescent.  The afternoon sun had diffused throughout the haze that settled around the surrounding isles and skerries.

I surveyed the narrow strip of marsh that separated us from the raised shoreline.  “Wouldn’t we just cut straight through?” Ryan gestured at the telltale band of clustered mat grass that grew over the bog. “You won’t find a solid footing on that,” I replied.  “Follow the sheep track through it and it will drop you straight down to that beach”.  We picked our way gingerly through the marsh, mindful of the lime-green sphagnum that veiled the most treacherous of surfaces.

The coast was solemn fringe of dark slate, polished smooth as boot blacking by the powerful tides that swept around the island. Two oystercatchers, startled by my arrival, fluttered across the strait, their kleep kleep a standard for so many of the isolated shorelines I had visited in the past.  Above the strandline, map lichen so ancient that it pointed the way back to the last Ice Age, bloomed across the rocks.  A merganser wailed and plunged beneath the surface and the tide licked past clusters of barnacles and limpets. Across the channel, what might have been a farmhouse that had fallen into disuse, slouched toward the sea that was as quiet and even as my breath in the bright air. I found a bit of softer ground near a fairy knoll and watched as Oliver cast an improvised fishing line with a washed up stalk of oar weed.

It occurred to me that, for the moment, we were living here, and participating in the life of this island.  Of course we weren’t bailing hay or keeping the inventory at the little general store up the road, but, for the moment, this island was all that our lives entailed.  I rather liked it.  A long walk up through the heath in the morning, counting the rock pools that dotted the coastal fringe, a bit of surveying here, noting the changes in the landscape there.  Before long, Oliver came galloping; he was clutching the skull of a roe deer that he had found lying in the heather.  We discussed his discovery at length, imagining the former animal and pondering over what might have brought it to its untimely end. When we looked up, the sun had settled back further in the southwest and was cradled among the cliffs of the nearby island of Scarba.

I was in the midst of explaining to Oliver that Corryvreckan, the third-largest natural whirlpool in the world, lay just a few kilometres to the south of us, when I heard Ryan shout.  I looked up to see him in the middle of the marsh we had crossed to reach the shoreline.  He was still carrying Kendley in the carrier on his back, only now he was horribly cantilevered over his left leg, flailing his arms and visibly standing nearly a foot shorter than he ought to.

“Oh God.  He’s gotten himself stuck in the bog”.

Sure enough, Ryan had tried to take a short cut back to the sheep track through the mat grass, but had put a foot down in the wrong place, only to sink up to his knee in the mire.  Not only that, the weight of the baby and carrier on his back was driving him over, face first.  But before Oliver and I could get to him, he had somehow managed to free himself and, quite miraculously, both his shoe and his poor knee were still in proper working condition.  Kendley, in tears, was visibly shaken. The wind shifted and brought along with it a chill from the northeastern highlands.  It was time to make our way back to the cottage where a fire and a pot of Scotch stew that had cooled all afternoon on the back hob of the little stove in our kitchen was waiting for us.


  1. What gorgeous photos! I have wanted to see the Hebrides ever since I was a little girl and saw a photo essay in one of Grandma’s National Geographics. It sounds like you have a wonderful temporary “home” in that beautiful place–I really admire the way your family takes home with you everywhere you go, living in the moment together. It’s very inspiring and beautiful. Love you guys!

    1. Courtney, you would absolutely love this country. It has your name all over it…long hikes alternating between wild and pastoral, sweeping seascapes, quiet nights by a peat fire. Pack up your tent and sleeping bag and come join us! There’s always room for one more! Btw, we are heading to the Outer Hebrides next week…stay tuned! xxoo

  2. What a tale! Quicksand, whirlpools, a bog of eternal stench! (Okay maybe I’m mixing David Bowie’s Labyrinth in a bit…)

    Thanks for the love on Twitter, you guys look like you’re having a great time! Do you take all of the photos on this site? Really beautiful stuff.

    1. That is a GREAT movie, much loved by all of us here! Happy to spread the love; I’m looking forward to reading your back issues and receiving your updates. Ryan and I lived in Southern CA on and off for 4 years, and I hail from the East Coast originally, so a lot of your articles remind us of home. Thank you for the compliment on the photos! I (Emily) am the photojournalist in the family, and am learning as we go. Your photos are gorgeous, too…if you have any traveling photog tips/tricks, would love to hear/read about them!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.