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Hopping Around the Hebrides With Haggis Adventures

I’ve been feeling the ‘Deep Scottish Love’ since I was seven years old. That was the year that I was introduced to Scotland in a trip that featured sitting on a canon outside a 13th-century castle (Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull — still one of my favourites!) and my younger brother trying to crawl underneath a group of Scottish men wearing kilts to see if it was true that they didn’t wear underwear (luckily my mom swooped in and grabbed him before he got a chance to find out).

Scotland Map

A map of all our stops (mapped as we went along) that sat on the bus’ dashboard.

In the time since, I’ve made a number of trips back to Scotland, both with family and on my own. Every time, the country’s unique mix of fascinating history and stunning scenery have drawn me in and made me wonder why I’d left it so long to come back. Plus, it always felt like I had a never-ending to-do list there, particularly when it came to the islands off Scotland’s western and northern coasts.

While I am certainly not a traveller that lives to tick off lists — I can’t even tell you the number of countries I’ve visited off the top of my head — the idea of being able to finally see so many of the far-flung spots of Scotland that I’ve always wanted to see really appealed to me, and the Haggis Adventures 10-day “Compass Buster” tour offered exactly that.

Sunny Summer's Day on Loch Alsh

Plus, who wouldn’t want to re-visit a place as iconic as Eilean Donan Castle, which I last saw in 2002 (when I still took photos with a point & shoot film camera)!

The Compass Buster, offered weekly from May until September, is actually a combination of three shorter tours that Haggis Adventures offers: the Hebridean Hopper, the Orkney Raider, and the Highland Fling. Just as you might think it would be difficult to cover all those areas of Scotland in ten days (there were long distances involved, but overall they were manageable), it’s also difficult to cover such a jam-packed tour in one post. Therefore, this post will solely be about the Compass Buster’s first four days, which are also the first four days of the five-day Hebridean Hopper.

Our guide for this leg of the trip, Jamie, absolutely lived up to Haggis’ billing of “unique characters all with bags of energy, enthusiasm and a breath-taking knowledge of their homeland.” Even during his safety demonstration — in which he ran on and off the bus multiple times to demonstrate how one uses the door — his exuberance was obvious; when he bid us farewell on Day 5 as we departed for Orkney, he was no less excited despite having been on the job for four days.

Princes Street Gardens

The Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh — the former site of the Nor Loch.

As soon as we set off from the Haggis offices on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Jamie started the history lessons that would continue throughout our tour. Rather than the drab, recited lines you’ll get from many a tour driver, Jamie’s stories were fascinating and really helped to fill in the gaps in the pieces of history I remembered from my childhood trips. I don’t think any of us knew that Princes Street Gardens, underneath Edinburgh Castle, used to be a fetid lake called Nor Loch. This lake gradually became filled with sewage drain off from the rest of the city and its noxious stink could very well have inspired one of Edinburgh’s nicknames, “Auld Reekie.”

Jamie is one of Haggis’ “driver guides,” meaning they both drive the bus and guide the tour at the same time — something that is only possible in smaller tour groups. Unlike trips like the Highland Fling, the Hebridean Hopper can only take up to 29 people so it is still considered a fairly small tour. Those 29 people get driven around on a brilliantly yellow minibus emblazoned with various slogans. Ours said “Wild and Sexy” on one side and “Stunning!” on the other. It was never a problem trying to pick it out, even in the most crowded parking lots.

Stunning Bus

Our “Stunning!” bus sits in the background as the group walks towards the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye.

As wild & sexy as the bus was, the trip was arranged so we never had to sit on it for too long. Even on the first day, when we drove from Edinburgh all the way to Ullapool and then caught a two-hour-long ferry across to the Isle of Lewis, we still made plenty of stops that were anywhere from a quick hop-off, hop-on to see the Forth Bridge to a hike into Corrieshalloch Gorge.

While we all enjoyed the first day and the fact that the slightly extended bus time gave us plenty of time to chat and get to know the people we’d be spending the next five or ten days with, the highlight of the trip really is (as the title says) the Hebrides. We spent time on three of the most well-known isles of the Hebrides — Lewis, Harris, and Skye. They all offered such a perfect mix of culture, history, and natural beauty that I think everyone was disappointed to see them disappear into the rearview mirror on Day 4.

Clouds Over Callanish

A cloud swirls over the standing stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis.

On the historical side, it’s hard to find many sites in the British Isles that are much older than the standing stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis’ west coast. While these stones are smaller than their much more famous cousins to the south at Stonehenge, they feel so much more real (mainly because you can walk up and touch all of them, with no barriers in sight).

Callanish Standing Stones

The cross formation of the stones is more evident here.

The formation is quite thought provoking as well, since it is a cross, with one side longer than the other, that is enclosed by a ring. In the centre stands one stone that towers over all the rest. Is the cross pointing in a specific direction? Was it built as a primitive observatory where you could witness astronomical events? No one is quite sure.

One thing I was sure of was that the stones seemed to attract their fair share of…shall we say eccentric characters. One woman spent the whole time I was there humming loudly as she traced ever-faster circles around the stones. I didn’t stick around to see whether the result was some sort of spell being cast or her falling over from dizziness!

Duncarloway Broch

Duncarloway Broch.

Since the Isle of Lewis has so many well-preserved historical sites, we didn’t just stop at Callanish. We also visited the Gearrannan Blackhouse village and hiked up a hill to Duncarloway Broch, which is one of the most well-preserved fortified towers in Scotland. While brochs were originally built around 2000 years ago, this one seemed to be much more well-known for being the shelter for the Morrison clan during fighting with the MacAuley clan in the 1500s. It’s also been made more interesting by its partial collapse, which actually allows you to see the structure without having to crawl through the narrow passage between the two outer walls!

Norman Weaving

Norman Mackenzie demonstrating the physical effort involved in weaving a bolt of Harris Tweed.

As for culture, none of us could pass on the chance to meet a Harris Tweed weaver. Unlike at the Blackhouse village at Gearrannan, where there was a weaver that quietly worked the pedals, churning out endless lengths of blue tweed cloth, Norman Mackenzie gave us a crash course on the different types of loom (his was a single-width while some other weavers use a double-width) and the basics of how to set up a loom to begin weaving.

It was quite interesting to see how he loaded wool into the loom in various different ways to create some of the distinctive tweed patterns (as well as some unique designs of his own). It’s still such a manual process that it’s no wonder that tweed is such an expensive material!

Jamie Telling the Sligachan Story

Jamie telling the legend of Sligachan as one of the “actors” in the story plays along.

Perhaps slightly less authentic, but highly entertaining, was the legend of the Sligachan River, as told by Jamie as we stood near an old stone bridge on the Isle of Skye. I can’t spoil the story itself — if you want to hear it, you’ll have to go on either Haggis’ Hebridean Hopper or the Highland Fling — but I can say that the river is rumoured to make you beautiful beyond all measure, but only if you stick your head in its freezing waters for three seconds. A number of us took the plunge; you’ll have to judge from the pictures as to whether the legends are true or not!

Dalmore Beach

Perfect Dalmore Beach on Lewis.

On the natural side, the islands offered an incredibly diverse array of opportunities and I easily could have spent at least a week exploring them. On Lewis, we found Dalmore Beach, one of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever seen — and living in Australia, I’ve seen a lot of beaches! It was a lovely little nook of a cove near Carloway with crystal clear blue water and almost no one else to share the beach with.

The Rushing Sands of Luskentyre

Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris.

More well known is Luskentyre Beach, which has the insane white sands you’d expect to find somewhere in the tropics. Even though the weather had turned grey by that point, it was still stunning to see.

The Sheep of Harris

The mountains and sheep of the Isle of Harris.

Lewis and Harris could not be more different scenery-wise. While they are technically part of the same island, it’s obvious where Harris begins as you drive south; it’s when the boggy, flat land suddenly transforms into shadowy, black mountains. From experience, I can say that the roads on Harris are much more motion sickness-inducing than those on Lewis!

I couldn’t talk about the natural beauty of the Hebrides without mentioning the Isle of Skye. Even though the bulk of our time on Skye was actually in the Highland Fling section of our trip (rather than on the Hebridean Hopper), you can’t help but stare at the mountains of Skye in awe as you drive through them. The Black Cuilin and the Red Cuilin both live up to their names and provide contrasting colours in the landscape, and even when they are covered in mist (and being the Misty Isle, they usually are), they are still impressive.

The Home of the Faeries

The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye.

Rather than just driving through, though, we were lucky enough to be given the option to get up early and visit the famous Fairy Pools. Because of the difficulty of parking and the huge crowds that descend on this spot later in the day, Haggis usually does not include it on any of their itineraries. However, Jamie put it to a vote, and when we unanimously voted that we wanted to go, he found a way to fit it into the itinerary.

We couldn’t thank him enough once we’d seen the Fairy Pools. Despite the fact that he warned us that many photos of the area are Photoshopped to the point that they don’t actually show reality, we still loved it. The Black Cuilin loomed dark in the background as icy blue water ran through a series of cascades and small gorges to make an absolutely picture-perfect scene.

Star Jumping above Loch Duich

Hell yeah Hebridean Hopper!

By the time we were dropped in Inverness to meet our second guide, who would be taking us on the Orkney leg of the trip, we were all on a high from our days in the Hebrides. We all loved being able to explore a corner of Scotland that so few travellers make it to.

The fact that the Outer Hebrides do not have quite the tourist infrastructure of the Isle of Skye and the Highlands didn’t faze us as Haggis took care of all the logistics, and the trip was so well-balanced that there was something for everyone. So, if you only have a week in Scotland, I would highly recommend you head to the Hebrides with Haggis!

Have you ever considered visiting the Hebrides? What’s at the top of your to-do list there?

My Compass Buster tour was provided by HAGGiS Adventures, but all opinions stated in this article are my own. The full 10-day tour (the other sections of which I will be writing about in another post) costs £499 plus accommodation. The Hebridean Hopper lasts 5 days and costs £239 plus accommodation. These prices do not include accommodation, which can be pre-paid at an additional cost. Both depart weekly between May and September from the HAGGiS Adventures office at 60 High St in Edinburgh.

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