At last, the weather is really starting to feel like Spring is on its way so it’s time to get out and do some new tours of Scotland. This month’s big trip was to Skye as we had been receiving word from friends that there were several good new B&Bs that we should be considering.
Now I’m going to be a bit controversial here and say that Skye is not my favourite island and I do get a bit frustrated that a lot of tourists blindly put Skye on their list of things to do in Scotland without really considering the other islands. Each island has its own special qualities. Islay has great whisky and a real sense of an island community. Arran has a little bit of everything that you come to Scotland for; castles, mountains, whisky, standing stones, beauty. Mull is steeped in history, dramatic geology, beautiful beaches and some lovely villages. I could go on, but you get the picture.
In one of the Skye B&Bs where we were staying, we met a lady from Malaysia who was doing a tour of Scotland all on her own following the unexpected loss of her job in London. As always, I use these opportunities to ask visitors how they decided where they were going to go in Scotland. Skye had been top of her list because she had seen photographs of the island. I wonder if she’d ever seen pictures of the Torridon mountains or the beaches of Morar.
Unfortunately, the Malaysian lady was finding that Skye in early March was not a great tourist destination as it rains a lot and island has very few wet weather attractions. A pity as we could have warned her and suggested some better options. Of course, the weather has a lot do with it, but Skye is a place where you really need the weather to be on your side.
So this conversation got us thinking about where we would head if we were going to take a holiday break in March. The criteria for the holiday location being; a choice of good restaurants that are open all year, some all weather all year round attractions (distilleries, museums, etc), a castle or 2 to visit, historical places, great scenery and maybe a boat trip.
We had a six hour drive to get home from Skye so we had lots of time to discuss the options and our conclusion was that we’d head to the Oban / Inveraray area. We’ve always been drawn to this corner of Scotland as a place where we’d like to live, but the area is also a great place for visitors so let me explain why.
When it comes to seafood Oban scores big points with the excellent Waterfront and Ee-Usk restaurants which are both open all year round. Head over to Inveraray and you have the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. This place started out as a roadside stall selling fresh oysters from buckets, but their reputation grew and the business now owns several restaurants.
The area also has one of our favourite museums at the Inveraray Jail. Yeah, we know museums usually a bit stuffy and boring, but not this one! You start off by reading about all sorts of horrendous methods of punishment that they used to dish out before the more civilised Victorian practice of locking criminals up in jail. You can even get “banged up” (the meaning of that may get mistaken in some places) by one of the Prison officers that are very convincingly played by local actors. The jail is open all year round, which is a bonus as a lot of Highland tourist attractions are only open from Easter to October.
If you are staying in Oban town, you can enjoy a distillery tour and sample the produce without worrying about the drive home. Few distilleries are quite as integrated into their surroundings as Oban’s. Actually, we think it is more historically correct to say that the town integrated into the distillery as this building is one of the oldest on the shore front.
In terms of history, the area around Argyll is as rich as anywhere in Scotland and there are some great stories. Take nearby Castle Stalker for instance (by the way it is privately owned and can only be visited by appointment and even then you’ll need a boat). The castle was built in the mid 15th century by Sir John Stewart, who had an illegitimate son by one of the daughters of the MacLarens of Dunstaffnage. Sir John wished to ensure that his son would inherit the castle, so he arranged to marry the mother. Unfortunately, he was stabbed outside the church on the way to his wedding. Fortunately, he managed to live long enough to complete the ceremony and legitimise his bloodline.
Going further back in time, you can visit Kilmartin, which is surrounded by Neolithic sites of interest including standing stones which were used as a “Lunar Observatory” to measure when the moon was setting at its northern and southern extremes.
Within a few miles of Oban there are lots of little islands that can be explored and they each have their own charm. Kerrera is the easiest to access and it is worth exploring for the very well preserved remains of Gylen Castle at its southern end. There is also a great tearoom / restaurant near the castle, but it isn't open all year so don't expect to get a meal here in early March.
About 30 minutes to the south of Oban, you have a cluster of islands that were once the centre of a thriving slate mining industry. We refer, of course, to the Isle of Seil, Luing and Easdale which are all very easy to access and worth a visit at any time of year as they offer great coastal walks, pretty villages with terraces of little white washed cottages and some very good pubs where you can warm up on a cold winters day.
And whilst the crowds of tourist are fighting for a spot to get a picture of the Fairy Pools on Skye, you can be enjoying the peace and quiet of the "Fairy Bridge" which is only 19 miles from Oban and only visited by a handdful of people a year.
We could go on, but please drop us an email if you are going to travel to Scotland out of season. It could save you from having a miserable day sitting outside closed attractions in the rain!