Oban and the Inner Hebrides


Oban at sunrise

After landing in Scotland at midday, my plan was to hop into an awkward, right-side driver car, and begin the westward journey to Oban. The entire drive should have taken about three hours, which left plenty of time for my rental car reservation to completely fall through, and enough time for me to find another one and still make it to Oban before nightfall. My original reservation was with Fox Rent-a-car, which I couldn’t locate in the carpark with the rest of the rental companies. After some googling, I discovered that you had to take a shuttle to a different location, along with a plethora of horrible reviews about the company and their pricing schemes (which I was not responsible enough to look up before arriving). I am having trouble locating the same forums now, six months later, but my advice would be to just rent from a well-known company from the get-go. This is what I ended up doing after still being unable to figure out how to get to the Fox Rent-a-car offices. All of the major companies are located just a couple minutes walk from the baggage claims.

Once I recovered from the rental car fiasco, I was ready to attempt driving from the righthand side of a car. I managed to make it outside of the parking lot without scraping anything in front of the staff, and then I was on my way, anxiously trying to get out of Edinburgh and onto the country roads. The drive to Oban was pleasant, and I pulled off the road for a short hike about two thirds of the way there.

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My hike was shorter than anticipated, as night was falling – just through some farmland and up a hill, but it was nice to get out of the car and stretch my legs for a bit. I finally arrived in Oban just before the sunset, and managed to find my hotel and park without issue. It was a relief to leave the car behind for the night and walk to dinner.

I had two nights in Oban and originally planned for one full day in the area, during which I wanted to take a cruise tour out to the Isles of Mull, Iona, and Staffa. The main pull for me was seeing the basalt columns of Fingal’s Cave (the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn’s overture), but I also wanted to explore a few islands and this seemed like the perfect trip. Unfortunately the original reservation was scrapped due to very poor weather, and I had to rearrange the tour for my second day. This put a bit of a crimp in the plans, as it would mean leaving Oban in the afternoon and rushing to reach my second stop on the Isle of Skye.

During my first day, I actually ended up driving to Glenfinnan Viaduct, where some scenes from the famous Harry Potter movies were filmed. Seeing the Hogwarts Express was the most exciting part of the day; by far the most miserable part of the day was breaking out in hives later that evening and going to the hospital at midnight when I could no longer sleep. (The Scottish doctors were very pleasant, it didn’t cost me a dime, and I still don’t know what caused the breakout.) The misery carried on into the next several days, making it painful to walk at times, but thankfully the hives never reached my face (a relief considering I was supposed to present my research at a conference the following week)!

On the second day in Oban I woke up early, before sunrise, to go and fetch my ticket for the ferry. I booked with West Coast Tours, and they were delightfully communicative throughout the whole process (from canceling and rescheduling for better weather, explaining where to catch the ferry, and how to meet at each departure point for the different islands). I am not an early riser, especially on chilly mornings, but the sunrise from the Oban point of departure was totally worth the effort. It was the start to the most beautiful, sunny day I experienced during my entire stay in Scotland. (Unfortunately every other day was mostly rainy, making it really difficult to get out of the car and sightsee.)

Oban sunrise

The ferry was massive; it seemed plenty of people were there for reasons besides touring. It included a nice cafeteria that served breakfast on the way to our first stop, the Isle of Mull.

When we landed 45 minutes later, it definitely looked like there was a bit going on in Craignure, Mull (i.e. the island wasn’t entirely isolated from society). Dozens of cars were being transported to the island and what seemed like hundreds of people. Our tickets were easy enough to follow onto a tour bus that would transport us across the island, to another, smaller boat that we would use to continue onto the Isle of Staffa. As we drove across the island, the buildings became more and more sparse, and the untouched land was beautiful just after the golden hour of sunrise. In between the two ends of the island, we didn’t pass even a small town. On the map it appears that any other settlements are located right on the coast, and we drove through the center of the island.

About an hour after leaving Craignure, we arrived in Fionnphort, where we caught a boat to the tiny, uninhabited Isle of Staffa. This took another 45 minutes or so on a much smaller boat, in much rougher waters. By the time we got to the glorious Fingal’s Cave, everyone was thoroughly seasick. I was thankfully doing alright, as I had my head down trying to sleep for most of the ride, due to the late night hospital visit. After viewing Fingal’s Cave and learning a bit about the geology that makes it so unique, our tour operators attempted to land so that we could explore the island, and even walk down to the cave and hear the natural acoustics. However, after just a few minutes it became obvious that the sea simply wasn’t going to cooperate, and we headed toward the Isle of Iona. (Maybe I’ll have to return one day?) As I write this, I am getting severe déjà vu from an eerily similar experience I had in Chile, although it is only now that I realize how similar the two events were (stay tuned for Chile posts)!

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By the time we got to Iona, everyone was desperate to get off the boat. There was plenty to explore, but most people immediately headed to the lone pub in search of warmth and food to settle their stomachs – even though it was sunny, the wind was fierce and chill on the sea. This was only day two and I was already debating buying another jacket. (I did eventually, and I wear it almost every day still.)

After a depressing lunch (I really can’t say much for the Scottish cuisine), I braved the cold again to explore Iona a bit before we finally made the journey back to Oban. On a short walk I passed the the Iona nunnery, an Augustinian convent established in the 1200s that today makes the most complete remains of a medieval nunnery in Scotland. My end point was the Iona Abbey, a gorgeous church surrounded by Scottish cattle. I was much more amused with the cattle that were kind enough to let me pet them without biting, and didn’t bother paying for an informational headset, but apparently the Abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland, is one of the oldest religious centers in western Europe, and remains a popular site for Christian pilgrimages to this day (and that’s all in just the first three sentences of the Wikipedia article)!

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Despite the cold, and the slight nausea, and the hives, this was probably the best day of my first week exploring the Scottish countryside. It was definitely the day I got to do the most exploring thanks to the sunny weather.

Upon arriving back in Oban I began the drive to the Isle of Skye (a short distance, but on winding country roads). My visit to Glennfinnan Viaduct was supposed to be during the day on the way to Skye, and makes much more sense in that order, so I will include it in the next blog post. Check back soon, and thanks for reading!


– Emily

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