For 40 years I have treasured the memory of my first experience of the Summer Isles. I had arrived exhausted at the harbour of the tiny village of Achiltibuie after 48 hours crammed into a car packed with tents, waterproofs, enough food to last for two weeks, and a small rubber dingy. With me was a teenage companion and the expedition leader, a retired army colonel and family friend. Ignoring the stench of a dead seal lying on the “harbour” – in fact a stretch of shingle beach with a small jetty at one end – we pumped up the boat, loaded it and headed out towards Tanera Beag, one of the larger of the chain of mostly uninhabited islands that lie off the coast of northwest Scotland. As a mist descended and the sun set, the approaching island looked forbidding – dark granite cliffs topped by jagged, close-cropped hills, and a huge Atlantic swell that made the landing terrifying.
But we managed it – and there we remained for two exhilarating weeks. We ate mackerel we pulled from the sea by the bucketload, drank brown peaty water from the loch, pottered about among the islands in our boat under bright blue skies searching for seals, explored caves and tiny coves and hunted for crabs and sea urchins in the clear water. We saw sharks and porpoises, and one evening, as we were fishing in the fading light, a huge black shape broke the surface just yards from the dingy, accompanied by an explosion of expelled air. I had seen my first whale.
We saw no humans on the island, just fleeting glimpses of a herd of sheep as they fled from us, dragging enormous coats of wool (local rumour had it that a farmer had brought his sheep to the island for winter pasture and had such a frightening time unloading them he never returned). We made occasional journeys back across the bay to the one tiny shop in the village and to the bar at the Summer Isles Hotel, where we were made welcome by curious regulars.
To a teenage boy the freedom to roam about such a wild and stunning terrain was thrilling. When I returned this spring I dreaded that I would be disappointed – that the sea could never be as blue as I remembered, the islands as perfect, the landscape on the mainland as grand, the views across the Minch towards the Outer Hebrides as spectacular and the village as hospitable. I was wrong.
This time we travelled by train, leaving London in warm spring sunshine to catch the overnight sleeper and arriving next morning in Inverness amid a blizzard that drove snow horizontally up the streets. But on the two-hour drive across the Highlands to the fishing port of Ullapool, 40 minutes south of our destination, the sun came out and the beauty of Loch Broom unfolded.
Paul Webster (standing left) on the long drive to ScotlandIt was the road from Ullapool to Achiltibuie that brought the memories flooding back – the view that unfolds of the little village of white cottages and ruined crofts straggling along the shoreline, then the chain of islands stretching out into the Minch, the largest and the only one to be inhabited – Tanera Mor – in the foreground, then Tanera Beag, Priest Island, Horse Island and the rest.
Achiltibuie appears to have barely changed since I saw it last – a few new grey houses, a community centre, a huge greenhouse close to the shoreline where herbs and salad plants are grown for sale using a Heath Robinson-style irrigation system known as hydroponics. The small Summer Isles Hotel is still there, boasting a fine restaurant serving an elaborate menu using local produce, such as freshly caught scallops and smoked fish. It is a friendly place, and the view from its rooms, across the fields down to the sea and then out over the islands, is utterly beautiful.
Tourism has left little mark on the village. It still has just one grocery shop, with some very basic supplies and a rack of dusty postcards. A notice on the board invites everyone in the community to the wedding of a local couple. Around the bay, a tiny gift shop doubles up as a tea room. I explain to its owner as she fills the kettle that I visited the islands as a teenager, and she anxiously inquires whether I was part of the family her husband deposited on Tanera Beag for the day and then forgot to collect. The village is also home to the club where local youngsters go – with evident enthusiasm and dedication – to learn the bagpipes.
The community centre has a gallery where local people sell their crafts, including beautiful hand-knitted clothes. There is a primary school, too, but its numbers are dwindling, and it is only able to sustain one class for all ages. And there is the smoke house, where the still-abundant stocks caught by local fishermen are treated and despatched across the country. Sadly it is relocating, too far for the workforce to travel, and local people dread the impact on their community when the jobs are gone.
But it is the landscape that makes the journey to one of the wildest stretches of Britain’s coastline worth the effort. And the islands. On our last day we were taken out to them by the local postmaster, who ferries tourists around during the summer. He defied the swell to navigate gingerly into some of the more spectacular caverns, then on to an island where a large colony of seals were sunning themselves, then he deposited us on Tanera Mor, where we climbed to the highest point to enjoy the most spectacular view of all, west towards Harris and Lewis and south to Skye.
Then it was back to Achiltibuie harbour, and the stretch of shingle beach where, all those years ago, I first appreciated the beauty of the Summer Isles. Forty years on, the experience was every bit as magical.