‘Let me get this straight. You are taking four children aged 9 years to 18 months on a train, car, boat and then smaller boat to an island where there are no cars, no shops, no TV and no internet,’ said my best friend her voice getting higher and higher as she realised from the look on my face that I was serious.
‘It’s a great idea,’ I said a little too cheerily, as her words seemed to bring home the monumental nature of the task.
The idea was simple, we wanted our children to experience the sense of freedom to explore that we had when we were children.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could let them be truly wild. It would be so good for them,’ I said to my husband Stuart, getting carried away with the idea after finishing a chapter from Swallows and Amazons.
I went online searching for a wild adventure and somehow the Summer Isles off the coast of the Highlands in Scotland popped up and I was sold.
Only one of the Summer Isles is inhabited, the beautiful Tanera Mòr. It has just six holiday cottages, a tiny post office and cafe, no cars, no modern life intruding. Bliss.
Packing our bags a few days before I thought many times about the enthusiasm I’d generated among my family and silently cursed myself. Packing for four young children is a task that would make the most organised person tremble, but packing for an island where we needed to bring wetsuits, fleeces, waterproofs, wellies, swimsuits, fishing tackle…and a week’s supply of food, almost sent me delirious.
Loading our six cases and bags of food onboard the Summer Queen, Captain Hootie asked if we were moving to the island.
‘Ahhh no,’ sighed my husband as he lugged another heavy bag down onto the boat. ‘My wife likes to be prepared.’
So I went to sit at the front of the boat with my four children. From that moment every reservation about the journey, the weather, the remoteness disappeared.
Yasmine, 9, my oldest, stood at the front of the boat like a figurehead her long, blonde hair blowing in the wind.
‘A porpoise’ she squealed. The porpoise dived into the water and arched back out. Then it was gone. But that was enough, my daughter was hooked. She stood on the deck for the entire journey ready to spot more wildlife. She’d read how Jane Goodall stayed outside for her journey across the sea to Africa and was determined to do the same.
We passed seals and their pups lazing on the rocks, barely lifting their heads after a hard night’s fishing. Great Northern Divers swam elegantly passed the boat much to the delight of the birders.
As Tanera Mòr came into view the children jumped up and down.
‘That’s our island,’ they shouted, proudly claiming ownership.
The Summer Queen landed on the main pier, and we began to haul our luggage ashore.
It’s an hour’s walk from the cafe to our cottage, so a smaller boat soon arrived with Lizzie, the island’s owner. Her broad smile and enthusiastic welcome made us feel like family rather than paying guests.
We arrived at the stone pier and walked across the shingle beach, watched by a pair of Greylag Geese and their goslings, which comfortingly outnumbered mine.
I looked out at the tiny islands and the kelp swaying in the sea and I never wanted to leave.
The next morning we awoke to the peeping sound of Oystercatchers.
Breakfast never tasted so good as we sat at the table with one of the best views I’ve seen looking out towards the sea.
A few fishing boats bobbed around close to the salmon farm in the distance, but apart from that there was no one, anywhere.
By 9am the children had wetsuits and lifejackets on and were dragging both the red kayak and their father into the sea.
The bay was sheltered by tiny rocky islands just a few metres long, inhabited only by birds. It gave kayaking a new dimension of excitement for the children.
Paddling on the sea is one thing, but transporting your brother to an island is an expedition that would make Enid Blyton proud.
‘This is the best holiday ever,’ exclaimed Yasmine as she paddled back to shore to watch Emil climb the rock on the island and wave his arms in the air so enthusiastically it looked like he’d conquered the world.
I had a go on the kayak. It was truly beautiful. The sea was only a few metres deep and the seaweed swayed magically below the surface like a mermaid’s kelp forest.
In a few minutes I was near a huge black and white Eider duck. I felt free.
We decided to walk to the cafe, on a mission to find the loch that provided drinking water to our house.
Hiking adventures are a very hit and miss affair in our family. The children either love it and are captivated by everything on the way, or they moan and make the whole experience excruciating.
Fortunately Tanera Mòr had cast her magical spell and everything was enchanting to the children.
My seven-year-old son, Emil told Sissi, our four-year-old, that she was on a Dora The Explorer adventure.
Thank heaven for Dora, not only did she teach our children to count in Spanish, we always call on her in challenging outdoor situations, like the Goddess of Adventure.
Emil made up challenges for Sissi.
‘Dora says can you walk like a crab?’ he shouted excitedly as they sidestepped through the thick gunky mud.
‘Jump, jump, jump like a frog,’ he encouraged as they hopped from stone to stone over trickling burns. Sissi was mesmerised and didn’t notice the steep climbs or the slippery stones.
Thick heather covered the hills. It was springy and saved us from falling as we grabbed it by the handful to stabilise ourselves.
Yasmine and Emil spotted a sign, Meall Mòr, playfully translated to ‘The Big Lump.’
They excitedly decided to climb it’s 124 metres to look for the lochan. When they got to the top we heard a triumphant fanfare from their whistles.
The panorama was breathtaking. Large pools of peaty water framed the curved bays of the sea.
We made our way down the hill towards the cafe, but we’d lost track of time and it was closed. We were hoping to ask Tim, the island’s manager, to row us back over the sea, we hadn’t counted on walking and for once my ever full snack bag had nothing left.
Two kayakers had pulled up to make a cup of tea on a small stove and eat their food. They’d just rowed for 90 minutes from the mainland.
Thank heavens they had chocolate biscuits and they shared them with us. We gratefully gobbled up two each while trying not to stare at their sandwiches and cup of soups.
We wondered whether Stuart should walk back, fetch the rowing boat and take us all across the bay. But the clouds looked dark and it was starting to rain. The children would get cold and fed up. They would have to wait for at least an hour probably much longer.
Ginger, one of the kayakers, whisked the children into a whirl of enthusiasm.
‘You can do it, you’re great adventurers,’ he told them. They believed him, even though we had our doubts. So we set off, with the children singing happily.
They even picked sorrel on the way home to use in a salad and gathered peppermint leaves for tea. I was so impressed and quite frankly astonished by their determination and attitude. I thought we’d have tears and sit down strikes all the way home.
Emil stood in bird poo and then tackled the slippery rocks down the hill.
‘Bear Grylls says it will stop my boots from slipping,’ he announced proudly, much to the impressed glances of his sisters.
We made it home. I was exhilarated but exhausted and couldn’t wait to get out of my soaking wet coat and boots.
But after a quick pasta and pesto with the wild leaves they’d gathered, the children felt rejuvenated and want to go kayaking again.
I realised I didn’t know my children’s stamina nearly as well as I thought I did.
The next morning it was sunny. The children were excited about our expedition up the mountain behind us.
We tramped through thick heather and fell down marshy holes. Then we scrambled over steep, sheer rocks to get to the top. The view was staggering.
The Summer Isles looked beautiful in the sunshine from on high and in the distance, Stac Pollaidh’s
To the south the island of Harris peaked from beneath a cloud. It was an impressive view that even our youngest appreciated.
We walked back down the mountain to our cottage for lunch at the picnic table overlooking the beach.
Just as we finished eating, two bright yellow, familiar kayaks came around the island.
It was Bob and Ginger, our chocolate biscuit donating friends from yesterday. We jumped up and down and waved at them with the enthusiasm of islanders who treat house visits like royal occasions. We invited them ashore and gave them cups of tea and pancakes with maple syrup.
They chatted about the seals they’d seen popping up behind their kayaks and making big splashes. It was their last day so they got on their way and the yellow kayaks quickly disappeared into the horizon.
The sun was still warm and we decided to take a little walk. But a little walk always turned into an adventure on this magical island. We watched three cuckoos at the top of the hill.
There was a natural tidal pool full of bright green spongy moss. We watched the Oystercatchers peeping and flying around their territory. It was a beautiful evening.
Back at the cottage three families of Greylag Geese were waddling in the garden, one parent in front, one behind for each family.
Yasmine and Emil crept outside in their pyjamas and laid a trail of bread to entice the geese and their goslings closer to the cottage. They held hands and hid behind the stone walls.
Yasmine slowly peered over and made a silent squeal as she saw them right the other side. Emil couldn’t contain himself and jumped up.
The protective geese parents hissed at him shepherding their brood back to the safety of the water.
In the morning the bread had gone. The children were delighted.
It was our last day and we walked to the pier to catch the boat across the bay and then take the Summer Queen back to the mainland.
The island is for sale, but fortunately they are booking again this summer so we will be reserving our special cottage.
The children are already planning their expeditions up the mountain.
It’s remote, but isn’t that the point.
We took Virgin Trains from London to Inverness
From Inverness it’s a 2 hours 45 mins drive past wild high land and the spectacular Corrieshalloch gorge to the pretty fishing village of Ullapool.
From Ullapool either take the Summer Queen to Tanera Mor, or drive through the North West Highland Geopark, past some of the oldest rocks in the world to Achiltibuie where the boat will be waiting to take you to the Summer Isles.
Or you can take a bus from Inverness to Ullapool and then another bus to Achiltibuie
Summer Queen Cruises Ullapool
Contact Lizzie and Richard Williams
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