A dark and foreboding sky hid the sun for most of the day. During the evening, wet clouds came down and embraced the hills, caressing the trees with misty fingers. The only sounds were those of animals and wind. A charming tea garden awaits the weary traveler. Not far away, perched upon a rock, Gylen castle looks towards the grassy path. It has been waiting there for hundreds of years, hoarding memories of amazed travelers in its thoughtful stone. Welcome to Kerrera.
During September 2016, we rented a car and drove around Scotland for two weeks. We eventually arrived at a guest house in Connell, a small village near Oban. During our first breakfast there, we started talking with a couple from Belgium. That’s how we learned about the often-overlooked island.
This serene and moody piece of land has impressed me to such a degree that I decided to start writing about some of the beautiful places on Earth that I’ve had the luck and honor to visit. So, I hereby invite you to travel together with a writer and his photographer wife to a special island on the West coast of Scotland.
To say that this is Scotland’s hidden gem may sound like a bit of an overstatement. If it’s a gem, well, that you’ll have to decide for yourself by looking at the pictures (and by hopefully going there one day). Is it hidden? That, it certainly is. Large tour operators are busy with the easy or famous routes. Most tourists traveling in small groups seem to underestimate its value.
We took a tiny ferry from Oban to the island at 12:30, the last one before a 90 minute break. And I do mean tiny. The ferry’s capacity is 12 people or one car. They don’t seem keen to allow tourist vehicles on the isle. They don’t need to either, since you can circle Kerrera, on foot, in about three hours if you keep a decent pace.
We took the short route towards the isle’s highlight – the Gylen castle and the tea garden closeby. Even so, we spent more than one hour and a half one way. On Kerrera, we rediscovered that there are places where the less is happening, the more there is to experience. A profound calmness greeted us there. We could feel it from the moment we got off the ferry together with the postlady and her son. Carefree, she left her child unattended. He played next to the water, among stones and sand. Just a few days earlier, in busier places, we’ve seen parents holding their children in a leash.
Here was a little boy having a healthy childhood, playing around the tiny dock without supervision, absorbed in a curious yet respectful exploration of his surroundings. The mother had gone to prepare the mail buggy she was to drive around the island. We strolled through the grass next to the dock for a while before joining with the country road leading to the castle and the tea garden.
The path led us through farmlands where herds of sheep and cows were going about their daily life. Dry grass and thriving nature breathed their heartbeat through our nostrils. It smelled like summer, even though it was the middle of September. The only man-made sounds were our footsteps. Every now and then, we would reach a metal gate, separating the farmers’ herds. There were very few other tourists. We met less than 20 people during our 5 hours here. This contributed to the feeling of peacefulness that descended upon us while exploring this magical island.
Like two children chasing their curiosity through an enchanted forest, having the adventure of their lifetime, we followed the signs leading us to the druids’ cottage. Whoever these druids were, they seemed to have a penchant for tea, cake and cute signs.
The tea garden is quite close to the Gylen castle. We had a tasty sandwich and soup there. Even though a bit on the pricy side (given the quantity), the waitresses (ahem, druids) were very kind and their establishment was beyond charming. Even the “Loo with a view” was embellished with cute pictures and funny quotes.
Kerrera is part of the Scottish Inner Hebrides group of islands, just like the famous Isle of Skye. There are about 30 people living on the 7 by 2 kilometers wide island. Gylen castle was built in 1582 by the Clan MacDougall. It was occupied for a relatively short period of time before being besieged and burned by the Covenanters^ in 1647.
We proceeded towards Gylen at around 16, about two hours before the last ferry back to Oban. We had no expectations whatsoever, especially since Kerrera didn’t show up on our radar during our relatively thorough pre-holiday planning. We had already seen four famous castles of Scotland, including the top two tourist destinations. We also saw two ruined castles, which we actually liked more than the famous ones.
We weren’t exactly prepared to be mind-blown. However, as we were walking on the grassy path, Gylen emerged from behind a hill. It felt like Scotland was suddenly personified as boxer and it wanted to catch us off guard with a punch from the left. There, in front of us, enthroned upon a steep rock, waiting under the dark after-noon sky was a lasting remnant of a bygone age.
This is, by far, the most beautiful castle we’ve seen in Scotland. It is placed upon that cliff, overlooking the sea as if ready to take whatever the world can throw at it. Its architecture – like for example the supporting corbels^ that would have made it difficult for attackers to escalate the walls – speaks lengths about its purpose. The castle is quite well preserved (and partially restored). It’s also deserted, as in there are extremely few tourists around. There’s so little traffic that the grass is still intact everywhere around it. All in all, it’s touching.
The feeling of being there, completely alone, is amazing. Indeed, there was nobody in sight for a good while. We did meet another couple, there at the castle. Two fifty-year-olds that have been here two decades ago and were now retracing their steps – the perfect encounter to round off such a magical day.
I keep highlighting the fact that the lack of tourists contributes to the beauty of Kerrera. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not anti-social and we’re aware that we’re tourists too. But it’s a special feeling to be in such a lovely place all by yourself. When choosing to go on the road less traveled, there’s something related with free will that tingles with joy. The happiness brought by a new discovery fuels this most inner human need to dance with curiosity.
I’d take Gylen’s green lichen tapestry any day over the pompous walls of nameless palaces. The soft dressing inundates the walls, hinting at abandoned glory and wet, misty mornings. It’s interesting how there is more humanity and nature in this ruin than in the gardens of Versailles during a busy summer day. You’re alone with your thoughts, listening to the wind chase bygone memories through empty window frames.
Our time on Kerrera has definitely come up on top as the most unexpected find during our 14 days tour of Scotland. After so much driving, one gets to start having somewhat of an impression about a place. We knew that Skye is going to be great and we expected Loch Ness to be overrated. Both those assumptions proved themselves to be correct. What we did not expect was our marvelous day on Kerrera. And that is why for us, Kerrera has become Scotland’s Hidden Gem.
Now please proceed and forget everything that you’ve just read, because this place needs to be preserved deserted as it is. If this place were to somehow, overnight, become as famous as Loch Ness, it would be ruined. This is a rather annoying fact, but that’s how it goes with beautiful, wild places.
So, forgive my sarcasm when I joke: please go to Loch Ness, visit castle Urquhart and the other famous tourist traps. You can find gift shops there! There is no such thing here, aside from a few locally crafted wares that you can buy at the tea garden. You don’t want to disturb the calm sheep, the serene nature, nor the majestic goat we’ve seen just as we were leaving the castle grounds, still hypnotized by the lonesome beauty of Gylen.
Sarcasm aside, Gylen is still there, waiting for those that will appreciate it for what it is. What you’ve just read is what it was for us – a subjective account, of arguable value. I doubt I’d have enjoyed this visit as much as I did had it not been for the ominous sky and the lack of expectation I had when I went there.
Most pictures made by Crina^, except the picture with the tea garden, © Trip Advisor.
You can access the full album here^.
My proposed soundtrack for reading this text:
And, if you’re feeling adventurous, try Clubroot – Low Pressure Zone^
References & further reading: