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  • [ Gulls squawking ]

  • -Hi. I'm Rick Steves,

  • back with more of the best of Europe.

  • This time, we're gettin' to know the locals,

  • and that includes the seagulls.

  • We're exploring the islands of Scotland.

  • Thanks for joining us.

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  • Scotland's islands may be on the distant fringes of Scotland,

  • but those who venture here are richly rewarded.

  • As if fortified by the powerful sea,

  • these fabled isles are protectors of tradition --

  • each offering dramatic landscapes,

  • a rich heritage, and a warm welcome.

  • While Scotland has countless islands,

  • we'll visit what I consider the most rewarding:

  • Iona, with its tranquility and ancient Christian heritage;

  • Skye, with its remote and rugged landscapes;

  • and Orkney, with its prehistoric wonders

  • and fascinating World War II history.

  • The United Kingdom includes England, Wales,

  • Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

  • Scotland is ringed on the west by the Hebrides Islands.

  • We'll venture from Oban to Iona and Staffa;

  • then, Skye;

  • and then, in the far north,

  • sail to the Orkney Islands.

  • Oban's been the unofficial capital of Scotland's West Coast

  • ever since the train arrived back in 1880.

  • The hub of the local ferry system,

  • this low-key resort is nicknamed "the Gateway to the isles."

  • Oban's harborfront is lined with Victorian facades

  • recalling the early arrival of tourists

  • just over a century ago.

  • Before then, its economy was dominated by fishing.

  • Even today, a tiny fleet stays busy.

  • When the rain clears, sun-starved Scots

  • enjoy their esplanade and the beach.

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  • The townscape is dominated by its busy ferry port.

  • The port has long been a lifeline

  • to the Hebrides Islands.

  • Today, it's a popular springboard

  • for island adventurers.

  • The best day out from Oban is the three-island tour

  • and we've caught the early ferry on our way

  • to Mull, Iona, and Staffa.

  • Right away, we're immersed in grand island views.

  • Be on deck to make the most of the experience.

  • After an hour, you approach the isle of Mull.

  • Everything is coordinated and a bus is standing by,

  • ready to take us across the island.

  • Enjoying the drive, you're struck

  • by the pristine scenery, the sparse population,

  • and how Mull feels hardly touched by civilization.

  • On the far west of Mull,

  • another ferry makes the short crossing to the isle of Iona.

  • Iona is tiny, but with a big history.

  • It's just one village, 3 miles long,

  • 150 people, almost no cars.

  • [ Baaing ]

  • It's famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.

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  • The year was 563.

  • A nobleman, who became Saint Columba,

  • fought a battle over in Ireland.

  • He won, but was so sickened by the bloodshed

  • that he left his homeland, vowing never to return.

  • According to legend, this was the first piece of land

  • he came to out of sight from Ireland.

  • He stopped here and built a church,

  • which eventually became this abbey.

  • Iona became a center of Celtic Christianity.

  • [ Tender tune plays ] From here, Saint Columba's monks

  • spread the gospel throughout Scotland.

  • This remote, little island was a center of art and learning

  • back when most of Europe was almost illiterate,

  • mired in relative darkness.

  • The exquisitely illustrated Book of Kells --

  • this is a copy on display in Dublin --

  • is perhaps the finest piece of art

  • from Europe's early Middle Ages.

  • Monks wrote it here, on Iona, in the 8th century.

  • Over the next centuries,

  • Columba's monastic community grew

  • in religious importance.

  • The abbey became the burial place for chiefs and kings.

  • According to legend, dozens of ancient kings,

  • Scottish, Irish, and even Scandinavian, rest here.

  • [ Outro plays ] [ Gulls squawking ]

  • After many generations, in about the year 800,

  • Viking raiders were terrorizing coastal communities

  • all across western Europe, including Iona.

  • After one terrible massacre,

  • 68 monks were killed right here on this beach.

  • The survivors packed up their treasures,

  • including the precious Book of Kells,

  • and returned to Ireland.

  • Today, a thoughtful calm

  • pervades Scotland's holiest of islands.

  • After centuries of pillaging,

  • little remains of the original abbey,

  • but if you're interested in tranquility

  • and a bit of meditative peace,

  • Iona is a fine place for a break from your busy itinerary.

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  • Next, a fastboat takes us to our third island of the day,

  • Staffa -- famous for its bird life

  • and striking volcanic rock formations.

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  • Our captain gives us a dramatic sneak preview

  • of the fabled Fingal's Cave.

  • He then drops us off for time to explore.

  • Walking across the uninhabited island,

  • we head for the hidden nests of a colony of Atlantic puffins.

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  • We wait patiently and quietly, observing the hardworking adults

  • bringing home a fishy breakfast for their chicks.

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  • Hiking along the base of the cliffs,

  • using Staffa's distinctive six-sided basalt columns

  • as stepping stones, we reach Fingal's Cave.

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  • Peering into the geological darkness,

  • so surrounded by nature, I savor the moment.

  • Enjoying the interplay of the sea and the rocks,

  • I think of the generations of romantics

  • who've stood right here and been inspired.

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  • [ Jaunty tune plays ] After enjoying

  • our three-island day, we're driving farther north.

  • The drive's scenic, the roads are good,

  • and the traffic's light.

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  • Ferries connect these islands

  • with Scottish government-subsidized fares,

  • keeping island-hopping inexpensive.

  • Next up, the rugged Isle of Skye.

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  • Offering some of Scotland's best scenery,

  • the Isle of Skye is understandably popular.

  • Narrow, twisty roads wind around Skye,

  • in the shadows of craggy, bald mountains,

  • and the coastline is ruffled with peninsulas;

  • and sea lochs, or saltwater inlets.

  • Skye, while Scotland's second-biggest island,

  • about a two-hour drive from south to north,

  • has only 13,000 residents.

  • And it's been that way since the Highland Clearances

  • [ Baaing ] back in the 1800s.

  • That's when wealthy landlords decided sheep

  • were better for their bottom line than people.

  • Landless peasants were driven out and, to this day,

  • the island's population is half what it used to be.

  • While plenty of tour buses cover Skye,

  • it's a great place to have your own wheels.

  • The island is dotted with scenic roadside attractions.

  • The Sligachan Bridge offers a classic Skye view

  • and a good reminder to stop the car and get out.

  • The Cuillin mountains tower high above

  • and above the bridge looms the cone-shaped Glamaig Hill.

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  • Around here, people really know how to have fun with nature.

  • As a matter of fact, every summer, there's a race,

  • from the bridge to the top of that mountain and back.

  • Last year's winner? 44 minutes.

  • [ Flute plays haunting tune ] If you know where to look,

  • the island is strewn with the scant remains

  • of past civilizations.

  • Just a short hike from a handy parking lot

  • is Skye's best-preserved Iron Age fort:

  • Dun Beag.

  • To get the most out of our Isle of Skye road trip,

  • I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide

  • Colin Mairs.

  • Exploring this prehistoric stone tower

  • connects us with Skye's distant past.

  • Judging from these stones,

  • the tower once stood much taller.

  • I love scrambling through ruined castles

  • and this one is particularly evocative.

  • -Well, people have been living on the Isle of Skye

  • for thousands of years and this place, if you imagine,

  • it probably had a timber frame inside, three stories high.

  • They would get in here under times of attack.

  • They could gather in here, the community,

  • men, women, children, and their domesticated animals,

  • and we think this was built around about 2,000 years ago.

  • ♪♪

  • -Skye's best home base is the town of Portree,

  • nestled deep in its protective harbor.

  • Portree, with its narrow streets

  • and humble shops, restaurants, and hotels,

  • is the island's largest town and tourism center.

  • As Skye gets more and more popular,

  • Portree gets jammed with visitors in the summer.

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  • The harborside, once busy with its historic kelp-gathering

  • and herring-fishing economy, like the rest of the town,

  • is now dedicated to tourism.

  • Fish and chips is a standby for a cheap lunch.

  • Grab a spot and enjoy the view.

  • But be on guard.

  • Those seagulls are hungry, too.

  • -[Squawk] -Hey!

  • Well, the gulls are well-fed and, now, it's our turn.

  • Time for a pub lunch.

  • We're here in July

  • and every restaurant in town is busy with tourists,

  • many escaping the heat of southern Europe

  • for the cool of the north.

  • Places that take pride in their food

  • have raised pub grub to new levels:

  • creative dishes, fresh vegetables, and salads.

  • And, anywhere in Britain, I go for the local beer.

  • Here on the island, it's Skye Gold.

  • [ Outro plays ]

  • [ Mid-tempo tune plays ]

  • The highlight of our Isle of Skye visit

  • is driving around the scenic Trotternish Peninsula.

  • The coast is lined with jaw-dropping cliffs

  • plunging into the sea.

  • This one's nicknamed Kilt Rock

  • because its volcanic lava columns

  • look like pleats in a Scottish kilt.

  • A steep climb inland leads to a trailhead

  • at the summit of the Trotternish Ridge.

  • ♪♪

  • Man, we're lucky to have a place to park.

  • -Right.

  • -Skye is well-discovered, these days,

  • but you can still get away from the crowds.

  • Make a point to get out of the car and take a hike.

  • [ Poignant tune sweeps ]

  • ♪♪

  • From here, we enjoy the easy walk

  • across a dramatic escarpment called the Quiraing.

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  • Hikers are richly rewarded, enjoying unforgettable views

  • of the Isle of Skye and the distant mainland.

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  • In addition to the stunning scenery,

  • there's history and heritage in the land.

  • We stopped at a peat bog that tells a story.

  • Until a generation ago, bogs like these,

  • where organic matter is slowly working its way

  • to becoming coal, were harvested to heat homes.

  • So this is a peat spade?

  • -Yeah, so that's just for cutting the peats.

  • And it's a task like chopping firewood.

  • It's a matter of survival, really.

  • Peat was really important

  • for people historically, on the Isle of Skye.

  • So you would cut the peat from a bog, like this.

  • Then, you'd dry it out, first, put it on the fire,

  • and that lets off a sweet, smoky smell.

  • It's used through the harsh winter, heats the home,

  • provides a fuel source for cooking.

  • It's used widely in the whiskey industry

  • and I really love the smell of burning peat.

  • [ Jaunty tune plays ]