TRAVEL

Life in a Lighthouse — our spectacular Scottish getaway

 

Have you ever dreamed of living on your own island? An island with a lighthouse and cottager, visited by puffins and seals, surrounded by shimmering lochs extending over the horizon?

Well I have. And my dream came true for one magical week in August.

We travelled to Eilean Sionnach – an island off an island (Ornsay) off an island (Skye) off the west coast of Scotland – an island with a lighthouse built in 1857. We stayed in the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage, watched the tides (and the sheep) come and go, ate local lobster…. and roasted marshmallows and played cards round the log fire.

This was a once in a lifetime holiday, a magical experience. Let me tell you all about this incredible trip, but beware! You too may fall in love with this adventure, and will book it before the spell is broken.

The adventure began with a trip on the Caledonian Sleeper – an overnight train from London Euston to Inverness. We picked up a rental car on a grey Scottish morning, then drove through the Highlands and over the bridge to Skye. The entire way we ooo-ed and ahh-ed at the scenery, stopping frequently for photos and fresh air. At the tip of the island, we were met by Skipper Gus and his zippy speedboat – our taxi for the week – who took us to our final destination, Eilean Sionnach itself.

The place is epically beautiful –from the breathtaking landscape to the enchanting architecture of the lighthouse and cottage. And incomes with a fascinating history. The Ornsay Lighthouse (next to Eilean Sionnach) was originally designed by the father and uncle team of the famous novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson. For history buffs, the story of Scottish lighthouses alone will keep you busy for the entire holiday. Now, the lighthouse is automatic and unmanned, which is why the lighthouse keeper’s former cottage is available.

 

The cottage has four spacious en suite bedrooms, a kitchen big enough for baking up a storm, a dining room for feasts of local lamb and delectable lobster, and a great living room for cosy fires and card playing, with views out for sketching, bird watching and boat spotting.

Outside, in addition to the lighthouse, the changing tides and incredible skies, there is a secret garden, a fire pit, a heather hill, rocky outcrops, jellyfish coves, and a chance to walk across the sea floor… it ticks all the boxes of a remote island adventure. Wake up with a cup of tea and head out to go crabbing and seal spotting in your pyjamas and wellies. Actually, Ornsay is technically an islet, not and island, because for two hours a day, either side of low tide, you can walk back to Skye.

This unique aspect of being out there is means that during low tide, the sheep from Skye can come visit. So in addition to the epic 360-degree views from the cottage, with skies taken directly from a Turner landscape, you also have fluffy, cute, and very shy little sheep dotting the foreground of the painting that is your window. One thing that does not change is the beauty. In all weather and times of days, from grey overcast mornings, to sunny afternoons, golden twilight, or starry nights with the full moon and the lighthouse blinking away, it was all picture perfect.

This is a holiday to allow salt water to spray in your face – one of the main reasons my children loved taking the boat! This is a holiday to take few belongings, turn on your out-of-office, and fill pockets with beach glass. Yes, you can have someone cater you meals here, or simply indulge in a hot bathtub with views of the shimmering ocean. And if you are wise, you will nibble away on one two many bites of this homemade Scottish shortbread after sunset while teaching your children new card tricks. Then curl up under cloud-like duvets while reading a selection from the well-stocked bookcases, in front of a fire.

Yes, it really is that romantic. Your schedule (if you don’t immediately, and understandably, abandon it completely) is dependent only on the tides which create a rhythm and allow your internal clock to change. The rising and falling of the sun… these are the things that slow you down, restore and recharge you. Meals, tides, sleep. That is the daily focus. Press pause, then recharge. Soaking it all up. We soaked it up so much in fact, that we still talk about it a month later as if it was just yesterday. This is truly a good for the soul getaway.

Here are my tips for a perfect trip. Follow my lead and you will have an amazing time.

  • Sleep all the way to Scotland. To get to Skye, make the trip a part of the adventure. This is not a trip I recommend for a long weekend, but rather a week or more. We left London Euston and took a Caledonian Sleeper Train to Inverness. I will write more on that experience soon. Sleeping in bunk beds, waking up to the views from our window, and eating a bacon roll. That could honestly have been the entire holiday our children’s excitement levels were off the charts! You leave London in the nighttime, and you wake up in Scotland. From there we hired a car and drove two hours (ish) to a boat to take us to the island. We drove the north route one way and the south route on the way back. You won’t want to miss the Eilean Donan Castle (for Instagram fame in recent years), the breathtaking Highlands, the lovely Loch Carron, or the famous and mysterious Loch Ness. Frequent re-fueling of tea, ice cream, and fish and chips too… it really is not just about the destination but the journey! Book early (very early) for the train and get your own sleeper cabin(s) and off you go.
  • The element of surprise… Don’t show any of the website, photos, etc of Eileen Sionnach to your family before the trip. Whoever books the trip gets to see. We always do this and it means everyone else can enjoy the adventure in a pure, unadulterated way. Plus, I have to say, my husband’s facial expression was one I will never forget as we first drove around the bend in the road and he got a glimpse of the lighthouse in the distance — our temporary home for the week. And there were squeals of delight from the children as they got on their life vests and instantly shed their urban kid vibes. Traveling somewhere without preconceived notions makes arriving that much sweeter. But with this trip in particular, it allows for more of an adventure for everyone, without expectations and with pure wonderment. Try it for this trip and tell me what you think.
  • Pack lightly, pack warmly. I am a firm believer that less is more especially with luggage, and especially when trains, cars, boats (and changing tides) means a lot of moving about. And also don’t forget about layering. The weather is wild and unpredictable. We each had a small carry-on size bag, we wore wellies (which are an absolute must regardless of weather and time of year), we did not bother with a buggy, or any baby gear except a baby carrier for the mainland visits (which we left in the car for our infrequent trips to the mainland). What we wore /what we packed: a wetsuit (crucial if you plan on swimming) for each of the children, a bathing suit, a pair of Native water shoes that work on land and in the sea, a raincoat, a pair each of wool socks (yes it was August and yes, you need at least one), one wooly jumper, a cardigan / jacket, two pairs each of comfortable pyjamas, a scarf each, and a few shirts, trousers, and a short / skirt / dress. We really could not have cared less what we looked like, and rotated clothes constantly. The sheep are the only other living thing you might see for days. Or Skipper Gus! Plan ahead and pack wisely, and lightly.
    • I should add that the team at Eilean Sionnach took care of high chairs and baby cots (if you need it). Actually, the team at Eilean Sionnach were the most helpful hosts one could ever ask for!  They welcomed us fully but also allowed us to come to them. When we arrived a bespoke hamper with special treats was waiting for us  — from whiskey for the dad to crayons for the children. Plus they have endless local knowledge which is invaluable in making the trip perfect, gently suggesting things based on weather, tides, and interests. A wonderful aspect of the booking, and something many rentals do not get right. They did more than get it right, they balanced it beautifully. The team is a trio of support — Manager Ailsa, who’s name is apropos as it also means island,  Skipper Gus with the speedy boat and super tips, and Dawn who is the  loveliest woman and will make your stay cosy and comfortable. You may be on a remote island but you will not feel far from support. Any question or request was just a text away.
  • Food. I made a mega shopping list the week before departing London and we ordered all our food in advance from the lovely women at An Crùbh. It is a cafe, post office, and shop and they sourced local produce – butchers, fishmongers, brewers etc. All the items were ready and waiting for us on our arrival at the cottage. It meant we didn’t have to think of a thing, and we had half of our week’s meals ready before we headed out for trips to Skye later in our week. The other local business we loved was Skye Bridge Seafood who coordinated a box of mixed mussels, oysters, lobsters, crab (which we made this crab linguine with), mackerel… oh it was so delicious, right from the sea surrounding us. We really love the best flavours of where we travel, and this is the best way to taste what Skye had to offer.
  • And relax. For three days after our arrival, we did zilch. We enjoyed Eileen Sionnach. And we discovered little coves where jellyfish collect at low tide, chased sheep, watched the sunset, roasted marshmallows over the fire-pit. We felt little need to go anywhere, and had everything we needed right on our island. It was pure bliss. It was delightful watching the kids explore, pink cheeked, wind in their hair, loving every second. This was the best way to really unwind. Dips in bracing seas help too. You can book a private chef, a mountain guide, tour guide, go sea kayaking or even have a sports masseuse visit you at Eilean Sionnach Lighthouse Cottage. We decided to relax, with just us, as a family of five, with a few good books.  
  • Day trips. On the fourth day, we decided to head over to Skye to explore. A change of scenery is around the corner and there is so much to choose from. That isn’t to say you won’t be tempted to explore the further reaches of Skye, but there are great gems close to your Eilean Sionnach base so you needn’t go far. Our recommendations are: one day to leave the island without a boat! We crossed over at low tide on foot, an adventure with three kids in itself, and I of course was the only one to fall in the mud! (Classic!) But we had a good laugh, and walking on the sea floor is an impressive concept for the kids to take in. It is a great way to first reappear into the world, muddy skirt in my case. And on another day we that we left the island, we took the boat and en route went to see nearly twenty seals sitting on the rocks and sliding into the sea. What a way to start a day, thanks to Skipper Gus! Definitely a highlight. Then let someone else do the cooking, and treat yourselves to a meal at Kinloch Lodge. Pre-book a lunch or an afternoon tea. Kinloch is the ancestral hunting lodge to the MacDonald Clan and it is a cosy retreat – with blazing fires, colourful rooms filled with beautiful old oil paintings to admire. Delicious local food perfectly prepared with the very finest service. So, so, delicious! The MacDonalds chose a breathtaking spot for their hunting lodge. And my children fully indulged in all the sights, tastes, and smells – they felt so at home that off came the wellies and they curled up on the sofas in between courses. Fortunately this relaxed attitude was both allowed and encouraged by Mrs MacDonald, the lovely owner. (Phew!)

Happy bellies can then head a few minutes drive to the MacDonald Clan’s Armadale castle and playground. With views over the Sound of Sleat, this castle, garden, nature path, is no ordinary park playground. Tree climbing, garden exploring, sea otter and porpoise watching, and of course pretending to be knights and Kings and Queens. This is a place to enjoy for a long afternoon. Spectacular views are everywhere.

Be sure to also take a driving tour of one of our favourite highlights, the Tarskavaig / Ord loop. This is an easy route to drive. We stopped numerous times to take it all in. Take photos. And Stop and take a dip in the Lochs in just knickers (as our children did) with crumbling castles in the distance, while collecting rocks… it will feel as carefree and joyful as it gets. With rolling hills and ever changing terrain, and cows and sheep… And pinch ourselves. You will honestly wonder ‘how much more beautiful can it get’? And then you will remember that you are actually going back home to a lighthouse. 🙂

  • Slow down. Back at the base (Eilean Sionnach) there are books, games, and cards.  Countless places to play and to relax. So again, bring very little. Let the rest unfold. There is not a television anywhere in sight, thankfully. This is all a part of how you really get away. We packed a Dobble, a set of water colour pencils, a sketchbook, a few Scottish fairytale books (in truth we didn’t need these — they have plenty). Collect seashells, and beach glass. Organise it by colours, and run around playing with seaweed. We picked up a few crabbing lines before we got to the island here which is fun too. Bake (these Cranberry & Orange scones were our favourite breakfast treat). Have tea. Wear pyjamas for twenty four hours straight. Explore. We loved finding out more about all the various seaweed, plants, sea life, with our Seek app, I’ve written more about that here. And that was it. All we needed was time together, and it was the very best. Less is more. Adventure is in your backyard. Enjoy your own island and lighthouse. How special it is! How sweet it is!

…And those are your seven tips to success. Start by booking this treasure of a trip. Have an adventure that isn’t which isn’t polished, shiny, pampered luxury, but instead is utterly magical. If you want character, wind in your hair as you unwind, to explore, and to really and truly get away from the outside world… well this is it.

Remote, romantic, restorative, and the very best way to bond with loved ones. The transformative power of nature and stunning landscapes will leave you truly speechless. You will wake up dreaming about this trip weeks after you have returned home. Trust me, I am not alone, all of my family agree. We wake up still not sure if it was all a dream. It is an adventure that will always be with us. And my only regret, is that our youngest (14 months old when we visited) won’t remember it, so I guess we will just have to come back one day again. It is as good of an excuse as any!

I am certain you too will find Eilean Sionnach to be a beautiful, memorable, holiday. It is good for the soul, and wonderful for the family. But please ask me any questions. And let me know… have you also dreamed of staying in a lighthouse like I have? Well, I know the perfect place you should go…

Enjoy

Lara

PS For more travel inspiration, check out this French villa, this favourite home in Cornwall, this gorgeous escape to Granada, and these Welsh eco-lodges. Can you tell, we love to travel?


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Comments (4)

Julia
October 15, 2020

We took a holiday at Cynefin Retreats this summer because of your lovely review a few years ago; it looks like Eilean Sionnach might be next on our list! Have you seen the absolutely beautiful book Hello Lighthouse, by Sophie Blackall? My three-year-old is enchanted with it, but so am I, so it might work for all of yours after this magical holiday. https://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/childrens/hello-lighthouse,sophie-blackall-9781408357163 I’d buy the hardback: it is even more specially gorgeous.


Lara in London
October 23, 2020

We are definitely on the same page. I did recently buy that book just before seeing your comment. It is SUCH a good book. And hopefully it will inspire you to book this special trip as well. Very happy to hear you have enjoyed my other travel tips. Stay tuned for more very soon! Have a lovely weekend. x


Hannah
October 15, 2020

Wow, this sounds like the most wonderful and magical trip, thank you so much for sharing, what beautiful photos too. It is going on my wish list for sure! x


Lara in London
October 23, 2020

Thanks Hannah! It is truly a spectacular place. A must see!


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