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Kerrera: the island so remote yet so near Tesco's

Visiting the island of Kerrera, lying off Oban in Argyll, was a disappointment for us - but we hear things are now much better. Tea Garden & castle to see.

Kerrera – an island escape on Oban’s doorstep.

Read this first!

This is what happened to us when we visited Kerrera in August 2009. It’s an account of a weekend trip. Some time ago I wrote a little note at the start of this tale of woe to the effect that perhaps things have changed. Well, indeed they have – certainly according to the TripAdvisor reviews for the Kerrera Tea Garden and Bunkhouse.

There are new people there. Repeat: new owners. Nice folk. Want to make a success of it – and they even tentatively got in touch to say could I amend any of the justifiably grumpy things I said about Kerrera back then. Oh, all right then…

So, I have inserted a few updated comments below, ranging from the sheepish to the faintly apologetic. At the foot of the page you will also find a link to the Kerrera Tea garden and the impressive TripAdvisor comments.

Overall then, read this information about the island Kerrera as a snapshot of how it once was – and for anyone in the tourism business reading this – as a reminder how turning round a bad impression in the minds of a visitor can take a long time, perhaps. The original copy starts below…

Kerrera is a good example of how, in Scotland, remoteness is often a state of mind, or a perception. The island of Kerrera, near Oban in Argyll is on Scotland’s western seaboard.

This island calls itself remote, yet its south tip is barely three miles away, as the raven flies, from, say, a large Tesco store in the centre of the substantial town of Oban. (Tesco is the British supermarket chain with the slogan ‘Helping you spend less every day’. Technically, this is only accurate for the first three words.)

When we visited, the island of Kerrera, in spite of its nearness to such temples of consumerism, has no real shops of its own, no school, little in the way of smoothly-surfaced roads but lots of the by-product of its sheep everywhere, so don’t wear your best shoes.

It has, however, a friendly local ferryman, a dramatic castle and nice views of the much larger island of Mull to the west.

Looking from Kerrera north-east to Oban

Looking from Kerrera north-east to Oban

(Pictured here) Looking from the island of Kerrera north-east to Oban

Though it takes only moments to cross the narrows of the Sound of Kerrera, it feels like going back a century. The island has one place to stay, a bunkhouse about a two mile walk to the south.

Good friends of ours had booked the place for the weekend. To be honest, I’d never slept in a bunkhouse, especially one converted from a former 18th-century stable. It was well ventilated, especially by the two inch gap below the door.

Any bigger and the sheep would have been in to share our beds. OK, I exaggerate, but didn’t like to think what wildlife could have come in. (I bet the new people have changed this! Remember, this was a few years ago now.)

Our unhappy tale from 2009 - BUT IT ISN'T LIKE THIS NOW

Naturally, we had to provision ourselves for our stay – that’s also why I mentioned Tesco. But it had been arranged days beforehand (by phone) that our packs would be picked up if we left them in the shed by the pier, after the ferry dropped us off.

However, this suddenly was a problem, after we had walked to our lodgings. The old bunkhouse ‘management team’ were going to a party so would it be all right if we didn’t get our luggage, consisting of all our food, wine, toothbrushes, night attire, change of clothes and so on, till the next morning?

Well, what were they expecting us to say at 4pm on a Friday? Presumably ‘No, that’s fine. We’ll just sleep in the clothes we’re in and suck on a packet of mints one of us has brought. You go off and enjoy yourselves….’

We remained relentlessly polite and so it was with reluctance they agreed to send someone down with a little truck to get our luggage later, as per the original arrangement. (It’s too late now, don’t you think? Especially as there is no hint of ‘service recovery’. Still, it isn’t as if they knew their thoughtlessness was going to be recorded anywhere.) 

While waiting for this ‘traditional island hospitality’ to swing into action we took tea and cake in their tea garden.

We were in time, as they closed at 4.30pm. We sat outside, slapping at the midges. (Our anti-midge cream was, of course, in the packs that had not etc.) We watched as an older couple with a young child, who certainly all looked as though they had been for a long walk, arrived breathless and dishevelled at 4.31pm. They were hoping for a reviving cup of tea at least.

But no, another opportunity to demonstrate ‘traditional island hospitality’ and to go the extra mile was missed on Kerrera . Instead, the walkers got a glass of water and looked very downcast. (Don’t you think that when you get bad service you tend to look out for more examples to corroborate how you have interpreted matters? We were kinda ‘sensitized’.)

Isn’t it funny how first impressions count? I don’t expect I’ll ever want to write about Kerrera again, (wait a minute! – I am writing about it again, which is good,) and though it has a photogenic old castle, there are lots more in Scotland. And the same is true if you’re looking for a friendly island experience. There are plenty more Scottish islands to choose.

Kerrera should be a trip back to an unspoilt Scottish island. But all I’ll remember is the feeling that, basically, as visitors, we were an inconvenience in this place that was just a large sheep-run with some nice views. Naturally, it rained all the next day but I tramped round the mucky paths anyway, missing the usually magnificent views of Mull to the west.

(Another example of how some of this was bad luck. It rained on our island day. Oh, great…and we were starting to hate the place anyway!)

It is only fair to add this picture of Gylen Castle, former stronghold of the MacDougalls, which you’ll find at the south end of Kerrera. Great setting – but if you’re on a schedule, it probably isn’t worth the four mile walk (round trip to ferry) as there are plenty of alternative and interesting places to visit in the Oban area.

Wait, wait. This is a bit harsh. Gylen Castle, in the sunshine, was pretty impressive. JMW Turner thought so anyway, when he sketched it on a trip to Scotland.)

Gylen Castle, south end of Kerrera

Gylen Castle, south end of Kerrera

Tell you what: if you are visiting Oban, then maybe after all you could consider getting yourself down to the Kerrera ferry, a couple of miles south of Oban. Once on the island it's a long-ish but perfectly do-able walk to both the tea garden and the nearby castle.

Check out the Kerrera Tea Garden and Bunkhouse and also their impressive Kerrera Tea Garden on TripAdvisor reviews. If time permits and you are fit then there are other walking options to see more of the island.

And maybe the sun will shine for you