Scotland – Jura, Islay and Mull

Diner before sex

The waitress recognises us. “Didn’t you have kids yesterday?!” Panic-stricken, we scan our surroundings, an almost deserted Scottish pub. Of course, this is not a real amber alert, we are merely playing along. But on the other hand, it was quite a close call. We just came back from a mountain hike that got so tough, that our children refused to walk any further. Mother dear wanted to keep on going, “just to get to the top”. Yours truly was willing to go on, but the steep gravel path between us and the top made his hands sweaty and his heart race. And so the kids went on strike. They did so with a display of unity and conviction that you really only see at a Dutch farmers’ protest. Arms tightly crossed, feet firmly in the mud, and a look in their eyes reminiscent of a violent thunderstorm. Of course we went back. We are not slave drivers, and you have to know your limits. And even without the summit experience, it was a fantastic hike. But now that we’ve survived the adventure and are back in our Scottish village, generation-Z does not want to go to the pub with us. No licking wounds together, re-hydrating and celebrating the holiday. They prefer to sit on the couch. In our cottage, across the street.


We are on Jura, one of the more than five hundred islands off Scotland’s west coast. The island belongs to the Hebrides, the southern Inner Hebrides to be precise. And the hike we mentioned earlier took us to Beinn on Oir. It is the highest peak of the Paps of Jura, the island’s central mountain range. That it was going to be strenuous we knew in advance. The Paps is the site of the Isle of Jura Fell Race: twenty-seven kilometres of trail running, including twenty-three hundred and fifty-three metres of altitude. And all that through a swampy and rocky wilderness. Of course, we don’t run, we walk, and much less than twenty-seven kilometres, but still: we plough through the same swamp. With every step, you have to be prepared to sink into the mud. And then to think that the weather has been sunny for a few days now. It is equally likely that the ground is completely impassable after days of rain, or that you will wander through dense sea fog during your hike.

What also comes into play: there is no one here. That ultrarun is mainly a solo exercise, with no peloton and no audience. The same is true of our hike. We encounter more snakes – three, that is – than people. To get through the most difficult moments, we give our children a dispensation to use “motivational earphones”: their favourite playlist in their ears to keep on going. But even with that measure, the hike was a bit too much. At the exact moment we take our last step and approach the car, my running watch indicates that I have burned one whole megacalorie. Turning around before the summit was a wise decision.

We left home four days ago. The journey was a holiday in itself. First by sleeper boat from IJmuiden to Newcastle, then a day’s drive to the west coast, followed by a ferry crossing to Isle of Islay, and finally by ferry across from Islay to Jura. That last ferry sails by request only – we had booked it by phone from home just to be sure. I was sitting next to Ellen when she called the ferry company; on the other end of the line was a man with a thick Scottish accent. Ellen had to give the man her phone number. This could easily have turned into a marriage crisis.
“Nine, two, and then six.”
“Um no, six”
“So, sex?”
“Well okay then…sex…if you wish”
Awkward, our kids would say, because there are three sixes in Ellen’s number. Meanwhile, I wonder how in a Scottish pub you would say you want to have dinner before six.

As soon as you drive onto Jura, you can already see that this is not a people’s island. On the short drive to our holiday home, we see numerous deer, a raptor and a bunch of rabbits. About ten new houses are being built on the outskirts of the village of Craigshouse; it seems to double the housing stock. The lack of people perhaps explains the cordiality with which other road users are being greeted. People here really still take the time to wave when you pass a car. And I mean waving like a queen: so wave back and forth at least twice, and with a full hand. Compare that to our fleeting Dutch wave. In the Netherlands, you often don’t even have time to tell whether all fingers are raised or just the middle one.

What else do you do on an island like this, apart from pushing your children up the mountain? Walking, leisurely this time, to a little peninsula in Lowlandmans’ Bay, where a seal colony is basking in the sun in front of us (and, slightly less pleasantly, a sheep and a lamb are decaying). When we don’t feel like walking, we take a drive up the east coast. At Inverlussa, about ten kilometres north of Craigshouse, we make good use of Tea on the Beach. It’s the perfect antithesis of a busy beach bar: this “beach pavilion” is an unmanned horse trailer containing a thermos of tea and a lemon drizzle cake, and a piggy bank to put your money in.

In the evening, there is hustle and bustle in our village pub. A duo plays Scottish folk music, on guitar and the fiddle. The older one of the pair is chatting the songs together. He has the audience laughing. And that while nobody seems to really understand him – well, we think they don’t. As it happens, apart from ourselves and an occasional Scot, the audience consists mainly of Americans, in a tour group that has descended on Jura for a few days. For these pampered Americans, all sorts of things are being pulled out of the hat. They are the main reason there is live music in the pub in the first place. An elderly local lady, Fiona, tries to teach them Scottish dance steps. It feels like we have landed on the set of an American sitcom. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that the spoiled yanks have brought their own cameramen on holiday. Taking your own holiday pictures is so passé!

For one day, we take the ferry back and forth to Islay. The landscape on Islay is much more gentle than on rugged Jura. The roadsides are exuberantly coloured yellow. Thanks to the granny helpline, we know this is caused by broom bushes. On the southern tip of Islay, we hike to the American War Memorial. The sun is shining with a vengeance and the views over the black cliffs are phenomenal. During World War I, two warships in one year perished here, by German torpedo and storm respectively. The memorial was erected by the American Red Cross in memory of the victims.

Nowadays, Islay is mainly famous for its whiskies. The island has nearly a dozen distilleries. The smoky varieties are particularly rampant here. We love Scotland but whisky-wise the relationship remains a tad superficial. All the drinking has to be done by me: the children don’t like whisky yet and Ellen’s not a fan of hard liquor. What we do take home with us though is Lussa Gin, a spicy drink brewed by two women on Jura. And we cannot escape visiting Jura Distillery, since it’s within crawling distance of our cottage. There, it turns out that “Princess” Fiona – the one from the pub dance class – runs the tasting room. Multitasking is so island-like! She pours me a tasting glass. I take a sip, look interesting, take another sip, and let the flavour settle for a moment.  “Yes, give me that one,” I say to Fiona, while pointing to a winter coat with the distillery’s logo.

Isle of Mull

After a week, we leave Jura – by taking the ferry to Islay and subsequently taking the ferry from Port Ellen to Kennacraig. We will spend the second half of the holiday on Isle of Mull. But before we head north, we are going to experience what it is like to be a castle lord (m/f/x). Ellen has booked an overnight stay at Stonefield Castle Hotel – how lovely is that? The castle is on the east coast of Kintyre, the peninsula we all consciously or unconsciously know from the song. (I must confess I thought Mull of Kintyre was an old folk song, but it is a tune by none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Also check out the “Mull of Kintyre test” on the internet for a spicy (urban legend?) story about this peninsula). The castle hotel meets all expectations: a long driveway, a huge garden with beautiful rhododendrons that extends to the sea, and a dining room with panoramic views over the bay.

The next day we drive towards Oban. It is raining – for the first time on this holiday. We brave the weather and view the historic gravestones at Kilmartin. Before boarding the ferry to Mull in Oban, we buy (more) coats, visit Dunollie Castle and have a particularly tasty meal at a seafood restaurant in the harbour.

“Ah, you are staying in the shoebox.” We have a chat with the petrol station owner in Bunessan, close to our cabin on Mull. His petrol station dates from the early days of the industrial revolution, which perhaps explains his lack of enthusiasm for our modernist cottage. It stands out indeed, this cubist wooden cabin with the large sliding glass doors. It is the base for our first three days on Mull. It’s completely off-the-grid. Heating comes from a wood-burning stove, and electricity from a windmill and a couple of solar panels twenty metres up the hill. The latter produce enough power for a fridge and a few LED lights. There is one socket, but it is explicitly for laptop and phone chargers only. So our own Nespresso machine – a permanent guilty pleasure during car holidays – stays in the boot. Let’s not forget to pack an extra windmill next time.

From our shoebox, we explore the south part of Mull. After the rugged wilderness of Jura and the rolling fields of Islay, the question arises what the hills of Mull remind us of. When we see a motorcyclist riding with an action cam pontifically perched on top of his helmet we know: a Teletubbies landscape. We see lots of sheep and lambs and cows and calves, on slopes that are often stripped bare. The weather is beautiful; it could be so much worse on the Scottish islands. We take a walk on the mudflats at Erraid and dive into the icy seawater at Uusken Bay and eat some fantastic fish and chips at the Creel Seafood Bar in Fionnphort. At the Whitetail distillery we buy rhubarb gin, and we visit an artisan weaving shop.

On Tuesday, we leave the shoebox. We move to the other side of the island. As Ellen and I put the suitcases in the car, our children get into a heated fight. It’s exceptional that things escalate like this. Usually, on holidays in particular, they are good friends. Of course there are occasional annoyances, regular ones even, but again: rarely this intense. Maybe it’s because of the weather. Yesterday was the last sunny day. That is: according to the forecast. In reality, the sun just reappeared. “Mum you said it was going to be bad weather today, didn’t you?” The undertone of regret is clearly audible. Sunny weather means hiking, and endlessly dwelling on vistas and sunsets. “Bad” weather increases the chance of couch-hanging, with comfort food and WiFi.

Another explanation for the sudden change in mood is that the prank we pulled yesterday is taking its revenge. We told them we were on our way to a MacDonald’s. On arrival, it turned out to be a petrol station with the same name. As such, we didn’t lie, but you can’t afford to make these kinds of jokes too often as a parent. And it was already the second time they had fallen for it. M(a)cDonald(s) is a very common name in Scotland. The fast-food chain itself is notably absent here. Incomprehensible that not many more parents go on holiday here.

Arle Lodge is situated about ten kilometres below Tobermory, Mull’s capital. It is a simple hotel with a communal kitchen. A youth hostel, in other words, one where we introduce the youth factor. The kitchen, as it happens, is populated by over-50s only. There’s an elderly English couple carrying a year’s supply of home-baked cakes, generously sharing them with us. There is also a group of Welshmen who – how British can you get – drink half-litre cans of beer until the wee hours of the morning. There are also some Dutchies: a friendly elderly couple with home-knitted jumpers, and a group of four male (former) teachers. The purpose of their trip is to visit their adopted child – a barrel of whisky. Here’s the deal, roughly speaking: you invest your savings in a cask of embryonic whisky. The benefit for the distiller is obvious. He gets some money in advance. Normally he would have to wait a decade for some profits. The advantage for you as a micro-investor is that you can drop by at regular intervals to taste, and be advised on what to do next: bottle it or age it for a few more years? I can assume that at the end of the journey you will also share in the proceeds, but before that happens you will have a pretty sound excuse to regularly travel to Scotland with your friends. As far as there’s any need for an excuse, of course.


From Arle Lodge, we visit the aquarium in a rainy Tobermory. It is of the interactive kind: if you wish, you can briefly hold the sea creatures, under expert supervision. It’s a tiny, but lovely aquarium. But the most memorable excursion, perhaps of the whole holiday, is the trip to a couple of small islands just west of Mull. A glance at the map tells us that there are quite a few islands out there. One of the most famous ones is Iona, just off the coast in the south-west. It owes its fame to an early-medieval monastery. You can get there by ferry. We skip this trip, as we suspect it is very touristy. We do however board the boat to Staffa and Lunga, two uninhabited islets a little further north. Both fellow travellers and islanders tipped us off that this is very worthwhile trip.

The name Staffa dates back to the Vikings. It is a reference to the hexagonal basalt pillars that characterise the face of the island. A little later on in history, in 1829, astonishment came from a different source: composer Felix Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and was inspired to write his concert overture ‘The Hebrides’. Our skipper lets that very piece of music blare across the deck as soon as we dock. You should know, our skipper is not very much into the business of explaining. Sailing is his core business. He does have a sense of humour, though. He commented when we sailed out of the harbour in Mull: “To your right is X. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about X.”

You do understand of course that I didn’t remember anything at all about X, not even the name.

Along the rim of the isle of Staffa, we walk across the basalt to Fingal’s Cave. Two questions arise. First: why does nature choose to solidify lava in the shape of such a hexagonal mosaic? Physicists claim to have found the answer to this question…and then hid it behind a paywall. (Did I mention that I’m in favour of Open Science?) The second question is a bit more practical: is it going to be okay here, with all those elderly people being chased out of the boat onto the highly uneven basalt?

The path to the cave is a bit slippery in places, but quite manageable. After about ten minutes, we arrive at the cave. You can walk into it for a short distance, along a narrow ledge along the wall. This allows you to experience the impressive acoustics that grabbed Mendelssohn by the balls. A few metres below the ridge, waves are crashing against the wall, the same waves that have shaped this cave over thousands of years. I understand Mendelssohn quite well; it is quite a spectacle. Yet my first impulse is not to compose, but to seek safer ground. Not that it’s scary per se; you can hold on to a chain along the wall, and the ledge itself is wide enough for people to overtake each other (though in such a situation I always make sure I’m the one being overtaken and not the overtaker, that chain is there for a reason). But still. When we are back in the boat at the designated time, there is a bit of a commotion. It becomes evident that someone did indeed fall into the freezing water. Fortunately, the report soon arrives that it ended well, and after some communication with a crew of another boat, we set sail for Lunga.

Lunga is the largest of the Treshnish islands. It has been whispered to us that there is a good chance of seeing puffins here. Previous tête-à-têtes with these cuddly little birds proved to be quite a challenge. In Iceland, Ellen managed to photograph just one of them, with angelic patience. Today is a different story. After a short climb, we arrive at a green mountain meadow bordered on one side by a steep cliff. In the grass are hundreds, if not thousands, of puffins. If you lie down on the ground, they come and do their thing half a metre in front of you: digging out their hole, having a little fling with each other, or just fiddling around like we sometimes do at home on a beautiful spring afternoon. It is overwhelming and endearing at the same time. As a bonus, a pair of razorbills descend on the mountain meadow. Their black heads with a white line makes them the perfect mystery guests at the puffin party. Meanwhile, weather conditions are extremely un-Scottish; the sun shines persistently. A crazy end to this holiday.


It’s not really the end of course, we still have to return to the Netherlands. And we also made a Harry Potter-related promise to our daughter. On Friday morning, we take the ferry from Craignure to the “mainland”. After an overnight stay in Rothbury, we visit Alnwick Castle the next day, just under an hour from the ferry port in Newcastle. Many castles in this day and age will struggle with the question of how to maintain their historic heritage. Alnwick has found an answer to it: Harry Potter. The castle courtyard offers all sorts of activities and workshops loosely linked to the world of the popular sorcerer’s apprentice. Tessel loves it, Teun finds it quite fun too, and Ellen gets the chance to demonstrate her famous archery skills. The biggest hit is a broomstick flying course, taught by actors whose British humour gets everyone on the broom and on their feet, children and parents alike. If this all sounds a bit too cheesy or commercial, just remember that the castle itself is on display completely intact and Potter-free. It provides a nice overview of history, from big (Napoleon & co) to small (the Percy family that has inhabited and managed this castle for 700 years). Attached to the castle as well is an impressive garden – of which we only got a small glimpse due to lack of time. And on top of that, they do all sorts of community things with derailed youngsters and lonely elderly people. Alnwick is doing something nice here.