Orkney to Oban
In our last post we recapped our visit to Orkney. After a great week on the islands we packed up and headed back to the Scottish mainland and made our way to Oban on the west coast.
We departed Stromness bright and early on the 6:30am ferry. The Stromness to Scrabster ferry passes by the Old Man of Hoy which we were happy to get a view of since we had decided against taking the kids on a five mile hike to see it from the island.
On our way to Oban we made a stop at the Falls of Shin. During the summer this is a great place to see Atlantic salmon leaping out of the water as they make their way upstream to spawn.
We had visited the falls on past trips to Scotland and were surprised to see that the old gift shop has been replaced with a huge playground, mini golf course, and fancy burger restaurant. This was a good place for the kids to run off some energy before we continued on our drive.
Oban Town Center
After a long travel day we made it to Oban in time to have some dinner and settle in. The next day we went to explore the town. We walked along the main street, perusing the many shops and taking in the view of the bay. The kids particularly liked the chocolate shop where one can watch the chocolates being made while enjoying the finished product.
Outside the ferry terminal there are food stalls with seafood (including crabs, mussels, languostines and more) fresh off the boat and cooked to order.
We wanted to get a closer view of the coastal wildlife so we booked a trip with Seafari Adventures. Upon arriving we were outfitted with waterproof jackets and pants and shortly thereafter we boarded an open-top boat.
The water was quite calm in the harbor just before we departed. The picture below shows the remnants of a slate rock quarry that employed most of the local residents until the retaining wall was over-topped in a massive storm, permanently flooding the quarry.
The captain navigated the boat out of the harbor then revved the engines, turning sharply one way and then the other. With the wind whipping through their hair, the kids let out a joyful yahooo! 🙂
We made several stops to see wildlife, including seals, sea eagles, and porpoises.
The trip included a visit to the Corryvreckan, a narrow channel between two islands where the strong tides frequently form whirlpools and large waves. On the day we visited the sea was fairly calm but we did see a couple of small whirlpools.
On the return leg of our journey we boated past the site where the boat chase scene from From Russia with Love was filmed.
Our boat trip with Seafari Adventures was one of the kids’ favorite experiences in Oban and we highly recommend it.
A short ferry ride away from Oban, Mull offers beautiful scenery, wildlife, and charming villages. It is possible to take a car on the ferry and we elected to do this so that we’d be able to explore the island on our own timetable.
After driving off the ferry we headed to the western tip of the island. Most of the roads are single track with intermittent passing spaces where drivers can pull over to let oncoming traffic pass by. In places where the road is windy it is not uncommon for two cars to meet on the single track portion, in which case one driver has to reverse until they get to a spot where the other driver can pass.
Our first stop on Mull was actually the passenger ferry to nearby Iona (more about that in the next section). After spending a couple of hours on Iona we proceeded to Tobermory, the largest town on Mull. Tobermory has a picturesque waterfront, with a row of shops painted in bright colors.
There’s also the Tobermory distillery, which opened in 1798. The visitor center offers tasting paddles of the peated and un-peated whiskies starting at 10GBP.
Hairy coos enjoying a beach day on Mull.
On the drive back to the ferry terminal we stopped to let the kids have a swim. They found the water to be a bit cold to stay submerged for too long 🙂
For visitors to Mull, a side trip to Iona is a worthwhile addition since the ferry crossing is quick (~10 minutes) and inexpensive. Cars are allowed on Iona by special permit only, but a car is not needed since the island is very small and the main attractions are within a short walk of the ferry dock.
The primary attraction on Iona is the abbey. Established by St. Columba in 563 AD, the abbey is one of the oldest Christian sites in Western Europe and houses an active Christian community to this day.
There’s an excellent audio guide with enough content to fill a full day, although we only stayed for about an hour since we wanted to leave time to explore more of Mull. Next time we’d consider spending a night or two on Iona to allow enough time to fully explore the island.
Iona has several high crosses, some dating back to the 9th century. It is remarkable that many of the details in these crosses can still be seen.
When walking around Iona we truly got the sense that we were in a sacred place. For anyone interested in the history of Christianity it is well worth a visit.
Some members of our Intrepid Family are secret (or not so secret) Harry Potter fans. This meant we had to make a pilgrimage to see the Hogwarts Express (otherwise known as the Jacobite steam train that takes passengers between Fort William and Mallaig).
It is possible to get a glimpse of the viaduct any time during the day, but we wanted to see the steam train crossing the bridge so we researched the topic and learned that we needed to travel to the Glenfinnan visitor centre 15 minutes prior to the time that the Jacobite steam train is scheduled to depart from (or arrive at) Fort William. The timetable can be found here.
When we arrived at the visitor centre we were lucky to get a parking spot (someone had just left). We paid for parking and then hiked about a half mile to a viewpoint where we could clearly see the viaduct. Hundreds of other people were also getting into position to take in the spectacle from various viewpoints on both sides of the valley.
The appointed time for the train to pass came and went. We waited, and waited some more. Finally a train came from the direction of Fort William, but it was being pulled by a diesel engine, not the steam engine that we hoped to see.
A few minutes later a train came from the other direction with a diesel engine on one end and a steam engine on the other end. It appeared that the diesel engine was doing most of the work but at least we got to see the steam engine.
According to the Tripadvisor reviews the steam engines are sometimes pulled off the route due to the risk of setting fire to the landscape. It was certainly hot and dry when we visited so this could have been the case.
On the way back from Glenfinnan we stopped by Glen Coe, a masterpiece of nature formed by ancient volcanoes and Ice Age glaciers.
Glen Coe is also famous as the site of a heinous massacre that took place in 1692. In the incident, dozens of members of clan McDonald were killed by government forces.
As we were exploring the area we happened upon the Clachaig Inn, which had a playground for the kids and a wonderful outdoor seating area where we enjoyed some food and drink.
Dunstaffnage dates from the 1200’s and is situated on a strategic (and scenic) spot on Loch Etive a couple of miles from Oban. We were impressed with the high walls and the great view from the top.
Also, the kids enjoyed storming the gift shop.
Bonawe Iron Furnace
Towards the end of our second week in Scotland the kids were starting to get a bit tired of touring castles. For a change of pace we decided to visit the Bonawe Iron Furnace. The furnace operated between the mid 18th century to the late 19th century.
Numbered arrows guided us around the site and the displays explained the raw materials used and the process for turning them into pig iron. The kids like to play Minecraft so it was fun to relate concepts from the game (mining ore and crafting iron) to the real world.
During our visit to Oban we stayed at Clan Cottages, which consists of five traditional thatched-roof cottages. We don’t usually include our lodging in our destination reviews but Clan Cottages deserves a mention because we had a fantastic stay there.
The cottages are right on Loch Nell and the owners provide a rowboat to guests that we made use of several times. The cottages themselves are fully equipped for self-catering and we found everything we needed to cook our meals and enjoy them on the back patio.
Rowing on Loch Nell.
Hairy Coos on the side of the Loch.
It was just warm enough to take a dip 🙂
Oban is a great destination to take in some Scottish scenery, wildlife, and history. In our next post we’ll cover our visit to the Luss Highland games. Check back soon to find out if Wes won the hill climb event! 🙂