You usually have to cross the Atlantic to find your own private island, writes Robin Mead. Richard Branson flies 3,000 miles or so to reach his holiday hideaway in the Caribbean. The island of Eriska is somewhat closer to home – and the Atlantic crossing is made by way of a rattly metal bridge just 125 yard long.
One of the smallest of Scotland’s 500 islands, Eriska is in the Western Highlands, about 15 miles from Oban and separated from the shore by the slimmest possible stretch of the otherwise mighty Atlantic. In fact, there’s a tidal causeway connecting it to the mainland, but when the Buchanan-Smith family bought the island 30 years ago they wanted a more reliable link with the shore and had the battered bridge restored.
They also restored the nineteenth-century “Big House” – an imposing pile which had served as a holiday home for a variety of wealthy Victorian families attracted to the area by what was then the new rail link from Glasgow to Oban. The magnificent oak-panelled hallway and imposing staircase date from the house’s golden years – but when they turned the “Big House” into a modern hotel the new owners had to fight hard to keep these features, which fire-conscious officialdom objected to on safety grounds.
Now the “Big House” lies at the heart of the award-winning Isle of Eriska Hotel, a country house hotel where guests enjoy the privacy and solitude that only a private island can offer.
The shoe shop-sized collection of Wellington boots in the entrance say what the Isle of Eriska is all about: exploring its 300 acres of woodland and foreshore on foot, walking along clearly marked pathways, or fossicking on the beaches.
Tread softly, and you will spot your fellow-residents – and very few of then indeed will be two-legged humans. Here you’ll find shaggy Highland cattle, and inquisitive donkeys who will protest noisily if you haven’t brought them a carrot or two.
Grey seals sunbathe on the rocks offshore, and otters play happily on the beaches in full public view. Pine martens, the rarest of mammals, have been spotted on Eriska, too. And, come sunset, a flock of tiny pipistrelle bats circle the Big House in search of an insect supper. But the best of Mother Nature’s surprises is reserved for the late evening.
Then, a handful of brave badgers – led by two big males known as Bertie and Brock – present themselves on the steps of the library for a supper of brown bread, nuts and milk, served by the head barman. Hotel guests, having just finished dining off rather more sumptuous fare, gather nightly to watch this extraordinary sight and photograph the badgers through the library windows.
Many of the younger badgers – there are a family of about 60 on the island – are still a little camera-shy, but Bertie and Brock are old hands at the portrait business these days, and seldom flinch at the flashlights.
With all this, and a superb purpose-built swimming pool and spa complex too, there is little need to roam far beyond Eriska. But Oban is popular for its shopping, plus a glimpse of McCaig’s Folly: an extraordinary, Greek-style edifice towering above the town and built there in 1897 by a philanthropic local banker keen to do his bit towards easing local unemployment.
Very regular ferry services link Oban with the unspoiled island of Mull, whilst a drive up the shores of Loch Linnhe in the opposite direction to Oban will bring you to the tourist centre of Fort William, nestling in the giant shadow of Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. There’s a Scottish Sea Life Centre along the way, if you happen to have missed out on Eriska’s furry or feathered or finned friends.
Nearer “home” – which is what Eriska quickly feels like – is the neighbouring island of Lismore: a five-minute ferry ride from the mainland. But, with 176 inhabitants, it feels a bit crowded after Eriska, your own private island.
Eriska is a two-hour drive from Glasgow. By rail, Virgin Trains’ fast London-Glasgow services link up with ScotRail’s three-hour Glasgow-Oban connection.
The Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa and Golf: Benderloch, By Oban, Argyll, Scotland PA37 1SD (tel: 01631 720371, or firstname.lastname@example.org) is very expensive if you only want to stop for one night, but look out for a big variety of special deals such as a three-night break for two people costing £1,500. There is also a cheaper self-catering property in the grounds, from which guests can enjoy all the hotel’s facilities.