Summer Break Part 2: Eilean Shona and the Road to the Isles

Usually we are careful to choose a location for our summer escape; this year we felt like distancing ourselves from the hustle and bustle of a hectic world … ‘a week on an island or in a cottage next to a Scottish loch’ was the brief given to me when I asked what would be an ideal family holiday earlier in the year.

A little Googling and before I knew it, I had booked a holiday, it all happened within 30 minutes, this had to be a record as I would usually spend days enjoying deliberating over the choices.  The decision had a sense of inevitability about it,  Eilean Shona is a private island with no roads, with a large house (unoccupied when we were there) and a handful of holiday cottages for rent.  The accommodation is not lavish but it is well conceived, purposely sparse, spotlessly clean and perfectly comfortable.  Our stay was booked through Unique Cottages after just one phone call, we didn’t consider any other options, as this company ticked all the boxes straight away. 

So why choose Eilean Shona? Well, imagination plays a major part,  the island is most famous for housing J. M. Barrie whilst he developed the ideas for Peter Pan.  Like most things in life we didn’t originally plan to be there, it wasn’t our first choice from the website but when the pleasant lady at the travel company suggested we might consider taking a break in ‘Timber Cottage’ and went on to expound a little about the place, our imaginations were sparked immediately … it would be our own secret island, a place with potential for adventure, perfect to relax in basic but comfortable self-imposed isolation whilst exploring a wild world.  To be honest though, our cottage was the only 4 birth accommodation on the island, so choosing where to stay was simple and that sealed the deal.  There are four or five other rented cottages, mainly suitable for couples; some young and not so young adventurerous partners were staying in the nearby accommodation and two young families with children were staying just below us in Tioram Cottage (that sleeps 8 people), giving a squad that had a good mix of ages and a few friends for our kids to visit.  At this point I realise that it might sound almost crowded but the reality is that you had to work hard to bump into people when out and about but when you did it was a pleasure as it transpired our clan for the week were were all kindred spirits, fresh and enthusiast islanders …  well, perhaps not quite true, as a few of our party had visited a few times before … but it’s fair to say we had an immediate sense of community and everyone got along fine, people greeted each other with a holiday glint in their eye whenever they met on the paths and swapped tips and tales, where to walk and what to see, whilst having a little gossip about who the neighbours were and where they came from.

What really bound the visitors together was enjoying the simple things in life with family and friends, taking time to look at the world around us.  The  retired couple living down at Sawmill Cottage for the week were well into the spirit of things, young at heart, we came across them enjoying themselves bounding around with their two Labradors and after a brief chat on the path, we wandered down to see their accommodation and spent an hour or so chatting outside their cottage right next to the water’s edge, as the kids and dogs made the most of the waterside setting.  The island is a great place for young and old to cut loose, we were all free to act like explorative kids.  The newly married couple staying in the most remote cottage, which relies on gas light (having no electricity) are worthy of a mention as perhaps representing the other extreme, we bumped into them twice on our travels, both times they came along the path grinning from ear to ear.  The first meeting was as we began our ‘ascent’ to the top of the 265 metre peak … the second get together was on the last full day, unfortunately, dark grey skies and squally rain showers were buffeting us as we worked our way to the remotest part of the island.   The white sandy beach of Shoe Bay was something we hadn’t tackled earlier in the week but as our four-year old had managed a hike to the peak we thought we’d push it and tackle the long walk to the end of the island.  It had been a fair old slog to get to and we trundled out of the heather and bracken onto the pristine sand like wild heathens, gate crashing a fairly intimate setting; it was the happy couple’s 1 week wedding anniversary but we didn’t know this and as we’d walked for two hours to get there, we weren’t about to turn back now.  They seamed pleased to see us, this might have been a side effect of drinking Champagne and eating a fresh Pot Noodle, with water boiled in a tin can over a little twig fire but they were the generous type who were happy to great all comers .   Despite the grey clouds and drizzle, we were having a ball and I had to admire their sense of fun; in fact as the male was wearing the kilt he got married in and the female was more sensibly dressed in full waterproofs including leggings, I had to comment that it gave me confidence that they were set for a long and happy married life; swapping the trousers on occasions and taking the rough with the smooth was a fairly healthy metaphor for how to get along, I felt it was only fitting to accept a glass of the fizzy stuff and enjoyed waxing lyrical whilst sipping from my thermos beaker in the rain, a decent flute might have been better but it didn’t really matter.

So to summarise, a free wheeling holiday was had by all; days were filled with idle wanderings, poking in rock pools, playing sticks, fishing a little (not too seriously), walking a bit (sometimes seriously to get to the high peak and visit Shoe Bay) but most of all, we were all content to be hiding away from the world and taking it easy in such an astounding place; whilst most of Britain was busy rioting, we were kept busy watching Red Squirrels, catching Mackerel, Pollock and Wrasse, smoking wild Mussels with garlic and white wine in tin foil fresh off the beach on log fires, spotting the Deer in the early morning and watching Pine Martins visit the kitchen window sill for scraps as dusk fell.  The Inner Hebrides proved to be a very welcome tonic, it was great to gulp in the air, soak up the views and get near to nature, listening to the shriek of Sea Eagles echoing off the hills with the back beat of bubbling waterfalls.

I had planned a day fly fishing on the river Moirdart; I had been given the heads up that this was a possible opportunity and did a recce on the return home when we took a day trip off the Island.  We visited the local town of Mallaig where you can catch a ferry to Skye; we also visited Camusdarach Beach, near Morar (featured in films ‘Local Hero’ and ‘Highlander’) and after our day out there was time to spare to drive along the river and spot a few fish, abundant rises had my hackles up so I knocked on the door of a nice old lady who had given us directions when we were trying to find the jetty to our island a few days earlier.  I was lucky that the local lady was such a font of knowledge and after a brief chat I even knew where to head for my day ticket.  It looked like everything was panning out perfectly… unfortunately though, destiny barred my exit from the island once we back under its spell.  The day set aside for venturing off the island on my own to get into some serious fishing was dissolved by a full day of relentless stair rods, it had to be seen to be believed.   I wasn’t totally beaten though and instead I had a trip out in my waders and best waterproof jacket to fish for Mackerel.   I tried a few spots and ended up in a vast but intimate bay, standing on a low rock, level with a surprising motionless sea; if the sun was out it would have been like a mill-pond, flat calm and balmy but the streaking vertical rain fizzed away across the sea’s surface; there was very little wind but a hell of a lot of falling water.  There was a sense of calm about it all though and the weather could do nothing to obscure the wild beauty, it was great to be alone in such a stunning place with the elements doing their best to wash the island away for good; I caught a few Wrasse but couldn’t repeat my earlier successes with catching Mackerel, so after a couple of hours or so, I was happy to head back for the great indoors.  The  easy ambling gravel paths we had walked along in sunshine a few days earlier were now running like small streams, previously mild mannered water falls were now gushing torrents, hissing venom like angry vipers … it was an easy choice to stay hidden away on the Island on a day like that, as a full day out with only a single boat crossing to get back later in the day wouldn’t have been pleasant at all, a couple of hours were manageable but the rain was so relentless it would have pierced even the best of clothing and made a lengthy visit dreadful.  I felt no shame in giving myself a break from fly fishing for a change whilst on holiday.

Out of all the places I have visited, this is one place I offer to readers with a little reluctance, as it is special and should perhaps be kept a secret to be found through your own efforts; Neverland just wouldn’t be the same if everyone knew how to find it … I will definitely be returning to soak up the energy of the place in the future and next time I may even get around to tackling the trout fishing on the mainland as well.

Tight Lines, Splash.

The fly fishing treasure is not on the island!:


11 responses

  1. Nicholas Steedman

    Fantastic write up Toby, loved the pics as well. You can’t beat the Hebrides.

    November 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  2. kate

    Hello Toby,

    I’ve been visiting Eilean Shona for over forty years as my grandparents owned the island until ’81 and, luckily, subsequent owners have rented out the crofts even since. I love your write up and photos which I came across by accident. I have caught mackerel from boats before in the area but never from the coast. Where did you manage this? It looks like you were near the old school house from your photos.

    June 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm

  3. Thanks for the comments – I caught the Mackerel in the first bay clockwise around the island from the track leading to the old schoolhouse, we were casting off the rock which is in the mid picture point of the seventh picture as you scroll up.

    I was using a simple solid silver metallic spinning lure, a bit like a Sand Eel or small fish fry (approx 28g or perhaps 50g if I remember correctly, you can buy them in any fishing shop, I think I bought it from the provisions store in Mallaig); the trick is to cast as long as possible and then to work the lure at different depths until you find some fish, like most fishing, there is an element of luck but it also helps to use a system to increase your chances – the shoal have to be there in the first place as well of course and fishing around the high tide is generally thought to be the purple patch (although like most things, it’s not always the case).

    To begin with you might let the lure drop to the bottom and count it down (or if you suspect it snarling, keep going deeper and deeper for as much as you dare), this is done initially so you’ve got a concept of the lure’s depth within the water column to work with; imagining how the lure is operating is key to improving your chances. When you know the maximum depth you can try counting it down to different depths each time, knowing your starting point as you begin the retrieve you can then work out how to control the lure and maintain its position at different depths – generally, fish are going to like a certain depth which will depend on various factors but as a rule of thumb, they are often near of just up from the bottom (but not always of course). You do this depth finding in combination with aiming to move the lure like a natural fish; the height it returns will vary with the way you wind and pull the rod and line in. Combining different methods of winding and pulling the rod back works the lure in different ways (you can look this sort of thing up on YouTube and see how others do it). You are aiming to try to imitate a darting or an injured fish etc. whilst maintaining the depth that’ll find the fish, generally, the more natural it looks, the more it’ll improve your chances (although it’s said that fish do attack sometimes if it’s behaving in an odd way) … when you do get lucky, repeat it a few more times and it should work again if the shoal is still there. If it doesn’t work, then cast around in more positions and try and find them as they move through, although they might have just been passing through rapidly, so there’s not much point in trying for too long if they’ve gone away again. We caught the two Mackerel in the picture within minutes of each other on that day, this was after about 30 minutes of experiments – we caught other fish species the same way in other likely spots; the Mackerel appeared to come and go (probably on the tide) whilst other fish types could be caught for longer over the high tide. Hope this helps!!!

    Aside from the fishing though (which I didn’t take all that seriously, as I was on holiday), it’s a lovely place to just explore and have fun, we hope to return some day soon.

    June 26, 2012 at 11:51 am

    • Steve

      Have booked the sawmill cottage for a week in April… Can’t wait… Your review sealed the deal with my wife who although she loves walking wasn’t too sure!

      February 4, 2013 at 10:48 pm

      • Thanks; didn’t really think of the post as a review but if it helps then so be it. Plenty of walking possibilities – shoe bay was a long trip but that’s because it was wet and our little daughter was the speed limiter. Should be able to search for muscles on the shore line from where you are based.

        February 5, 2013 at 10:27 am

      • Ken

        Hi Steve.
        We’re about to book Sawmill Cottage in early Sept 2014, and would love to hear what you have to say about it – good or bad!
        Thank you.
        Ken & Moira

        February 18, 2014 at 10:28 am

  4. Anne Kelly

    Have also found your description very helpful. We are visiting the end of this month together with another family. I presume we should travel light and plan meals etc in advance. I have always had terrible luck when fishing so I don’t think I can rely on that!

    July 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm

  5. The fishing is tricky, if you don’t do it normally, there will be easier places to start than this. You can get off the Island at some times but not often (unless you pay extra), we did some sightseeing and one shop mid week if I remember correctly. I would say you can pack just as you would for any leisure holiday in a cottage, the rib (boat) that collects you is fairly large, so as long as the kit is well packaged for transferring on and off a jetty, you should have no problems. The more you take the more needs to be loaded on and off though of course. There is a quad bike and trailer at the other end for moving your stuff to the cottages. It’s a simple holiday style though, I like to travel minimally but don’t hold back on spare waterproofs and walking kit for example, the accommodation and self catering facilities are well considered, comfortable and well equipped. Food stores are probably the thing to concentrate on as there’s no nipping to the shops. Watch out for midges!

    July 4, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  6. Nina

    We’re heading off to Eilean Shona tomorrow & are also staying in Timber Cottage. We’re all very excited.

    August 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm

  7. Melanie

    Your photos are lovely. We went on honeymoon to a Eilean Shona 25 years ago and it was absolutely idyllic! Maybe we should go back…

    February 8, 2014 at 8:21 pm

  8. fiona & tim

    Loved reading your blog post on eilean shona. Myself and my fiance have just booked a week in sawmill cottage for our honeymoon in July and we can’t wait. We are bringing our dog too we think she will love it! Hope the weather is good for us!

    February 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm

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