Getting to the Isle of Kerrera feels like something of a test. The slipway for the ferry is barely signposted, the boat itself is a primitive-looking landing craft with no seats or roof, and its skipper seems intent on not communicating with his passengers unless absolutely necessary. On arrival, only a hand-painted map on the side of a shed helps you to get your bearings.
It might feel like a test, but the reward - entry to an enchanting other-world about thirteen minutes away from urbanisation (a ten minute drive from Oban, plus about three minutes to cross the Sound of Kerrera) makes the initiation not only worthwhile, but part of the adventure.
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With a population of less than 50, Kerrera's attraction is as much in what it lacks (shops, industry and people) as in what it has (remarkable geology, a striking castle ruin and a booming population of wild goats). It is a wonderful, windswept contrast from the fish and chip shop bustle of nearby Oban, but despite being the closest island to that 'Gateway to the Isles', it is also, because of its out-of-town departure point - the easiest to miss.
There's something alluring about naming your business a Tea 'Garden' as opposed to plain old Tea Room, particularly in a place where wind, rain, and midges are likely keep you from sitting out in said garden. The title makes sense when - after less than an hour's walk along the coastal track - you reach Lower Gylen and realise that the view of the ruined 16th century Gylen Castle jutting into the Firth of Lorn virtually compels you to be outside.
Just in case you would prefer four walls though, the 'garden' also includes a cosily decorated byre, with tiny windows that allow guests to enjoy the view in comfort (a word here for the premises' toilet which is made from a recycled cable drum with a seat that boasts a similar view).
The Tea Garden's new owners Martin Shields and Aideen Gallagher have given up creative careers (he working in radio, she as a professional musician) to take on this venture, though they have found room to display some artistic attention to detail here too, with little features like parrot cushions on the comfy sofas (a nod to the neighbouring parrot sanctuary) and colourful mismatched crockery helping the Byre to feel less a shed and more a sanctuary.
The menu is simple and homely, and that feels right for the setting, with a focus on fresh local ingredients, and home cooking that extends beyond the necessary sweet treats to elements like their own chutney and bread. Tea for one came in a cheerful yellow teapot, and scones with a warning, that, as they were baked that morning, it was pot luck whether you got fruit or plain - the fruit one we were presented with was delicious, with just the right degree of crumbliness.
"I've always enjoyed cooking for friends and family," says Martin, who had been coming to Kerrera as a visitor for several years before making it home once he discovered the Tea Garden was for sale. "To have the opportunity to make a living on an island like this at all is fortunate, for it to be doing something we love is just amazing."
Kerrera's Gylen Castle has never been one of Scotland's most visited, but descriptions of the distinctive one-time stronghold of the MacDougalls of Lorne must have been enough to convince Joseph Turner to include a trip in his 1831 tour of the Highlands. Though the celebrated artist made 25 sketches of the castle, now preserved by the Tate in the 'Staffa sketchbook' (http://bit.ly/17iMH48), it was never captured in a more substantial work, and one can't help but speculate that the inhospitable elements and a lack of refreshment drove him back to Oban. Had there been a Victorian Tea Garden with a cosy byre and a cracking cuppa on hand, who knows, perhaps we would be admiring 'Gylen Castle in a Gale, oil on canvas' today.
Info: Kerrera Tea Garden and Bunkhouse, Isle of Kerrera, open seven days 10.30 am - 4.30pm www.kerrerabunkhouse.co.uk.
Getting there: From Oban, head towards the main ferry terminal, then follow signs for Gallanach. The Kerrera ferry does not leave from the main terminal, but from a slipway about 3km mile further west. Hand-painted signs on rocks guide the way to the tea garden from there.
Mini menu: Scone (with jam and butter but no cream) and a small pot of tea £3.60. Tuna melt on home-baked bread, with salad £5.95
Tea tip: There is nowhere for walkers to shelter (not even a decent-sized tree) between the slipway and the tearoom itself, so come well equipped for bad weather and a moderately challenging walk.