Scoraig – almost an island

There are one or two places on the west coast of Scotland that are not islands as such, but which are, to all intents and purposes, islands. Scoraig on Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is one. To reach Scoraig you can either go by boat (the easy way – though always weather dependent!) from Badluarach on the south shore of Little Loch Broom – or you can walk. There is no road, no vehicular access, only a dramatic 5-mile cliff-side path. This was the route we chose. The walk starts at the road end at Badralloch and offers spectacular views down the length of Little Loch Broom.

Until the mid 1800s the peninsula supported a number of farming townships: houses grouped together surrounded by feannagan – ridge and furrow rigs for growing crops. By the mid-19th century, however, the estate had been sold and the new owner dramatically changed the landscape of the area by breaking up the townships and laying out crofts. These were hard, harsh times in the Highlands and Islands. New homes had to be built from scratch, infertile land worked until a living could be eked from it.  And all the while increased rents, both in kind and in labour, were being demanded by landlords.

But battle on they did, and that so many survived is a tribute to the courage and determination of the inhabitants. Life continued, families grew and according to Scoraig’s community website, there were 61 children at the school in 1873. However, as steamer transport declined and road and rail routes passed Scoraig by – as well as the drastic toll of two world wars – the population began to dwindle and it looked as though Scoraig was finished.

The path alongside Little Loch Broom towards Scoraig

But surprisingly Scoraig didn’t die. The story of the hard-work, determination and ingenuity that have kept Scoraig alive is one well-worth the telling. And in this month’s Scottish Islands Explorer I’ve tried to do just that. It’s a story with plenty of hardship and heartbreak along the way, especially when resistance from landowners doomed a ground-breaking post-war scheme to rebuild and repopulate the area. But persistance paid off and a new wave of settlers arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and have succeeded in rebuilding this unique community.

New housing in Scoraig!

Back then some of their practices were regarded as odd – but their approach to self-sufficiency, wind and solar power are now seen as the way forward for the rest of us. They were real innovators, hard-working pioneers ahead of their time. And thanks to them, Scoraig has continued to grow and thrive; that the community supports a nursery and a primary school is proof of that. What was once seen as ‘alternative’ living has stood the test of time and proven its worth. And can teach us all something for the challenges we face today.

The jetty at Scoraig

The jetty at Scoraig

‘Neolithic chic’ – Coillabus on Islay

Holiday accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the reality turns out to be not quite as it seemed in the brochure, while on other occasions you arrive to find it’s even better than expected. Coillabus on Islay was one of those, especially when we arrived at the lodge and saw the breathtaking 180° views over the north-west of the Oa. In fact, we could even see all the way along Glen Astle to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the small island of Orsay!

Set into the hillside, the lodge is almost invisible from the road, with curving stone walls and a turf roof that blend into the surrounding landscape: “Traditional black house meets neolithic with a healthy dose of contemporary chic”, as one description imaginatively puts it! And that’s not far wrong. Even the instructions on how to get there were magical: “The road becomes narrow with twisty corners in places. Continue past…the house with hens and other livestock.  Go up round past Connachan’s Grave, a chambered cairn on your left…then up a really steep bend past a house with…more hens who might be responsible for your breakfast eggs”!  How often do you get directions like this!

An example of a traditional black house of the kind that inspired modern-day Coillabus

The Oa is home to a large RSPB reserve as well as a wealth of archaeological and historical sites. The American Monument, visible from miles around, marks the tragic loss of life when two US troop ships sank off the peninsula in 1918. And, as on so many Scottish islands, there are signs of old abandoned settlements, many from the time of the Clearances, when landlords forced tenants to leave their homes. This area once supported many more families than it does today.

However, there is continuity with the island’s past as the Coillabus lodges lie within a family-owned working hill farm and were built with local stone by local craftsmen. The modern, environmentally-friendly underfloor heating makes for a warm and comfortable stay. We were fortunate to have good weather during our visit, but the lodge is so well insulated the weather almost didn’t matter! In fact, you could say it’s a ‘weatherproof’ house where the drama of a storm raging outside would be thrilling to watch through the magnificent panoramic windows.

In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at some of the ways architects are taking the best from the past and combining it with modern technology.  Coillabus, and properties like it, give the lie to the notion that eco-friendly living means a primitive existence! In Scotland we’re well on the way to meeting our electricity needs through renewables. Using air and ground source heat pumps, it’s great to see a growing number of buildings where the old meets the new to create something both sustainable and comfortable – and in this case very much in keeping with a glorious island setting. Coillabus is undoubtedly an example of the way to go!

Coillabus Ecoluxury Lodges

Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

Isle of Islay