Forged by fire and scoured by ice, fifteen miles from the mainland and across the glittering sea, the Isle of Rum strikes an unmistakable silhouette against a velvet sky. The largest of the Small Isles, a small archipelago of islands off the west coast of Scotland which include Canna, Eigg and Muck, Rum is sharp and diamond-shaped.
The origin of the island’s name is shrouded in mystery. For a while, the island was known as ‘Rhum’ (the insertion of the extra letter rumoured to be because of a previous owner’s distaste for the liquor); however, the earliest written record of the name is ‘Riuminn’, which was shortened to ‘Rùm’ (pronounced room) in Gaelic. Today though, it’s most often known simply as ‘Rum’.
Upon arriving on the small white ferry from Mallaig, Rum – so formidable when seen from the waves – unfurls its craggy tors and welcomes you into its hidden, sheltered bay.
Stepping onto the small jetty in Kinloch, a road curls around the shore to a tiny hamlet composed of a bunkhouse, school house, small campground, village shop and a handful of weather-washed cottages. From here, there is so much to explore.
Roughly eight miles in length and breadth, located between the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the Isle of Skye, the dramatic Rum Cuillin mirrors the famous Skye ridge. Deep glens carved out by glaciers hurtle down below towering peaks while the presence of featherbed bogs, beaches of rich white sand and saltmarsh means the landscape is diverse, bounded as it is by imposing sea cliffs.
Having been declared a National Nature Reserve in 1957, many of Rum’s features are considered to be of international importance, including its geology, habitats and seabirds. A diamond in more ways than one, it is respected as one of the world’s foremost places to study volcanic action and rock formation. Therefore, one of the first buildings you visit upon strolling from the ferry is the visitor centre: a robust outpost that tells the island’s history, geography and eclectic biodiversity. Here, you can look at a large area map and choose your first adventure by following the wooden signposts that stand firm against the sea breeze.
When walking on the Isle of Rum, it is impossible to ignore the island’s history, so entwined as it is in the topography of the land. Besides the sweeping glens and sky-dusting ridgelines, the memories of what once was linger in the stone imprints of blackhouses and the shadowed undulations of lazy beds used to cultivate crops. Before cultivation, there were hunter-gatherers, the island providing some of the earliest records of human habitation in Scotland. Later, crofting houses, barns and kailyards formed coastal settlements, while cattle, goats and tough native sheep grazed the island pastures. The ruins of these sites act as an evocative and stark reminder of the dark days of the Highland Clearances. Between 1826 and 1828, around 400 islanders were driven from their ancestral homes and shipped to Nova Scotia. One shepherd and 8000 sheep replaced them.
The history of the island is also occasionally brilliantly bizarre. In particular, during the time that George Bullough inherited it after his father’s death in 1891. It was George, the son of John Bullough, a self-made millionaire, who built the striking yet strange Kinloch Castle, which sits at the head of Loch Scresort. It took three years to build and the workers were paid an extra shilling a week to wear Rum tartan kilts. The castle was the second place in Scotland to have electricity (after Glasgow) and the first private residence in the country to have an internal telephone system. It was a place of outrageous decadence and while undoubtedly built out of a rather outrageous passion for the finer things in life, also acted as a testament to Bullough’s love for the rugged Scottish island.
Now, with the castle standing empty, it is primarily red deer, not young aristocrats, who roam the wild beauty of Rum. The deer population has been monitored for scientific research since 1972 – making it one of the longest-running research projects of a large mammal anywhere in the world. The work has resulted in pioneering insights into deer behaviour and its findings inform deer management all over the world. There are highland cows on the island too, as well as goats that insist on grazing rocky outcrops with a type of reckless abandon.
Above the deer and the cattle, white-tailed eagles soar, known in gaelic as iolaire sùil na grèineas – the eagle with the sunlit eye. With a heavy yellow bill and impressive curling talons, they pluck fish from beneath the white-crested waves. In spring, manx-shearwaters return from the South Atlantic, gathering in their thousands on the choppy water. As the long summer evenings slip into shadow, their eerie calls can be heard as they retreat to their mountain burrows. Paired for life, the birds raise one solitary chick within the confines of the earth before leaving them to spread their september wings to make their maiden flight to sea.
Oystercatchers, red-throated divers and curlews can be seen on lochside shores, while snipe, golden plover and meadow pipits skim over the purpling heather. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and great skuas whirl in the salty air as Rum ponies, sure-footed and strong, canter over the tufted grassland.
It is a place, the locals say, that you cannot arrive by accident. A trip to Rum, is a trip with purpose. And whether that purpose is to rock gently in a seaside hammock listening to the bubbling call of curlews or hiking along one of Scotland’s most impressive ridgelines, it undoubtedly means time spent somewhere truly precious. That is, time spent on a diamond-shaped island in the middle of the sea.
You can get to Rum from Mallaig via the ferry. If travelling by car, parking is available in Mallaig while trains run daily from Glasgow and Fort William. Rum welcomes visitors all year round.
Join us on a scheduled walking holiday taking in the Knoydart Peninsula, with day trips to the Small Isles. You could also explore the Small Isles by boat on two types of sailing adventures: Sailing & Walking – Knoydart, Skye and the Small Isles or Sailing the Inner Hebrides.