“Each ruin, each knoll, carries some tale, some secret tradition, unique to that spot” so writes Donald Black about Lismore. And he is right. The Isle of Lismore lies in Loch Linnhe, just north of Oban. It is 10 miles long and one mile wide and is easily reached from either Oban or Port Appin by ferry. Lismore means ‘Lios’=garden and ‘Mor’=great, reflecting the fact that Lismore is one of the most fertile islands in the Inner Hebrides. Lismore has a population of just over 200; this is an increase of 30% between 2001 and 2011. With more than half the population over 60 it makes Lismore the Scottish island with the oldest population; one third of the population speak Gaelic. Robert Stevenson built Lismore Lighthouse; there are ruins of two 13th Century castles, a Broch, 6th Century monastery and a beautiful parish church. Facts and figures are all very well but I have been to Oban many, many times over the last 50 years and every time I go I always say that I must go to Lismore and each time I have never made it; there has always been something else to do. I don’t know why something always got in the way, maybe because Lismore didn’t have a tea room or places to shelter from bad weather and it looks, gazing across from Oban, that it might be quite exposed. Just excuses really.
With a complete set of waterproofs, bottle of water and chocolate (what more could you want), we set off to Lismore from Oban by ferry in 2013, on an early boat. It was a beautiful day and the crossing was calm. As the ferry draws up to the harbour you can see a number of houses but it isn’t clear which way you should go. Following our instinct we walked past the school. This feels like a very ‘alive’ community. It wasn’t what I expected. We took the map out and were faced with a number of options. Of course, what we hadn’t done was take the map out the night before and study Lismore and work out exactly what we were going to do. We hadn’t banked on such good weather. We originally had an idea that we would wander around the ferry landing, have a bit of a paddle and go back on the next boat. Quick rethink.
We had a maximum of 7 hours on Lismore; you can do quite a lot in 7 hours but we weren’t sure about the terrain. It says that it is quite flat but you never know. Actually, the highest point of Lismore is just 417 feet above sea level. Not mountainous territory, which makes for easy walking. With map in hand we decided to head for the Heritage Centre. We had worked out at what point, in terms of time, that we had to turn around and head back for the ferry. Lismore is very fertile, lots of trees and shrubs, especially sycamore and ash; there were sheep with youngish lambs and cattle; we passed lots of cottages which were obviously smallholdings. There were two new houses being built and others being repaired. As we walked along, the sound of birds was incredible. Progress was slow because there were so many photo opportunities. This was like another world. We kept asking ourselves why we hadn’t been there before. Clearly in full waterproofs we were overdressed. The water and chocolate were devoured quickly. Then we passed, and stopped at, a shop that wasn’t on the map. This was good because, keeping up with a healthy diet, we had some crisps. Big disappointment because they didn’t have a tea towel but, let’s face it, there wasn’t going to be a tea towel on an island as small as this.
It was difficult to judge how far we had walked but we continued following the sign for the Heritage Centre, although it did seem a little unlikely that there was going to be such a place. Suddenly, on top of the hill, was a building. It was difficult to see what it was and there was no indication that we had reached our destination. As we grew closer, we saw a sign saying that the Heritage Centre cafe was open. A cup of tea would be nice. The Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre is a truly amazing place. There is a information centre with the history of the settlement of the island as a Celtic Christain Centre, as well as about lime quarrying; there was a small craft shop and, lo and behold, a tea towel, this tea towel. Before I did anything else, I bought it. I thought there might be a rush on them. After I got over the excitement of the tea towel I found the tea room selling loose leaf tea, amazing cakes, a great savoury menu. There was a veranda so if the weather was clement you could sit and look out over the amazing scenery. This was bizarre; we were not expecting it. There were several people in the cafe that we had seen on the boat coming over (who could obviously walk faster than us) but also quite a few locals. We had the most amazing soup, followed by some great fruit cake. But loose leaf tea? Who would have expected it?
In the shop, buying the tea towel, the volunteer was very helpful, as we talked about the route we had come by and that we would just reverse the route back to the ferry. He suggested that we should do a circular route, off the road, where we could walk along the coast. The best way, he said, was to go up the road a little way, take the track on the right, at the bottom near the wooden gate cross the fields, over the stile, pass the chickens, pass the Celtic Memorial Cross to Waverley Arthur Cameron (inventor of the Waverley nib pen who drowned off the coast), through the back gardens of the cottages and back to the ferry. Listening to him, this sounded really good and we knew we had a few hours to spare. However, the success of this journey required remembering his instructions because the route wasn’t marked on the map. Lovely day, we said. Let’s give it a go, we said. It’s shorter than retracing our steps, we said. First of all, we took a wrong turn and ended up in a field high above the coast, in the middle of a field of cows. We knew we had gone wrong; we retraced our steps and realised we turned too early; the rest of the way was fine, once we had escaped the cows and were back on track. Whether we would have done it without the guideline of keeping the Celtic Cross on our left hand side, I don’t know but we did manage it and it was certainly worth while. Walking by the sea, seeing seals offshore, was stunning. Walking through Crofters’ gardens was a bit odd but it appeared to be an accepted route for walkers. We were back in time to paddle in the sea, whilst waiting for the ferry.
This was one of those occasions when I was really pleased that there was a tea towel, that would always remind me of a truly magical day on Lismore; even better was the fact that the tea towel is a map of the island reminding me of those beautiful places I have visited. Lismore would always be somewhere that I would yearn to return to.
Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum