Robin McKelvie

MERCIFULLY gone are the days when the foodie highlight of a trip to the Scottish isles was a stodgy chip butty on the ferry. Today even the CalMac ferries serve up the likes of Barra seafood and Argyll Smokery salmon as a foodie wave of fresh produce, Michelin star restaurants and exciting young chefs ripples across the Clyde and out into the Hebrides.

Scotland has long boasted a rich natural larder as its Gulf Stream waters are a fertile breeding ground for everything from first-class white fish, through to langoustines, razor clams and on to lobster. Traditionally the best of it has been spirited off to the fine dining tables of London, Milan and Paris, but this is no longer the case as domestic demand has increased amidst a renewed interest in provenance.

Loading article content

This rich bounty of seafood in the isles is backed up by superb lamb and venison and that is not even swirling whisky into the mix. Samuel Johnson famously grumped his ways through the bleak Hebrides in 1773. If he set off today I’m pleased to report he would be able to undertake the kind of culinary odyssey that has put Scotland’s isles firmly on the global foodie map. It’s easy for you to embark on too.

Here's my seven favourites

Arran – The Firth of Clyde’s largest island is much eulogised as "Scotland in Miniature", an epithet that it lives up to on the plate. The isle is home to a whisky distillery, with a second slated that is set to bring a smokier finish to Arran’s foodie party. Arran also sports a brewery and, in the form of Creelers, produce as local as can be – their own fishing boat plucks seafood from the Arran coast, including Lamlash lobster, while their smokery creates delicious delights that they sell in both their shop and restaurant. The island sports a trio of cheese producers, with the superb Bellevue Creamery conjuring up the multi award winning Arran Blue. Stir in Arran Dairies ice cream, a chocolatier, Arran oaties from Wooleys bakery and the Taste of Arran food co-operative, and Arran offers a compelling cocktail.

Gigha – This Inner Hebridean charmer has emerged thanks to its famous farmed halibut that today stars on menus from Melrose to Manhattan. The best place to enjoy it on this bijou self-sustaining island (their wind turbines now sell electricity back to the National Grid) is the Boathouse. Tucked in an old stone building overlooking a typically starched white Hebridean beach – you can camp here if you like – this Tardis serves up a remarkable smorgasbord of marine delights. As well as Gigha halibut, there are locally sourced langoustines, prawns and langoustines. I recommend checking out their chalkboard outside with all the freshest of the catch from the local waters. Another local speciality is Gigha cheese. Although now actually produced on the mainland the milk is from Gigha and the rich flavours remain the same.

Islay – The former haunt of the Lords of the Isles arguably offers Scotland’s finest whisky touring with eight distilleries and another brace in the pipeline You can visit them all, with a smorgasbord of tour options and, of course, the chance to buy. For those short on time the smoky southern trio of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are handily located within walking distance of each other, with a new walk and cycleway making getting between them less perilous. All three are classic distilleries, the raw Atlantic bashing beneath the stark white two hundred year old whitewashed walls that protect the hallowed spirit. Islay’s most complete visitor experience is at Ardbeg. I recommend their tour which includes a trip to Loch Uigeadail, the source of Ardbeg’s water. Afterwards the best stocked whisky shop on the island and a café, where a swathe of whisky makes it into the dishes, attracts islanders as well as visitors. An even better dining spot is at the Port Charlotte Hotel. Book ahead for a window seat gazing out over Loch Indaal and then savour baseball sized Lagavulin scallops and sweet local lamb.

Mull – The waters around Mull are awash with rich seams of seafood. Much of it is exported, but you can feast on a rich bounty of Mull fish and local crustaceans at Cafe Fish. This brilliantly simple bolthole right on the pier in Tobermory peers out over the waters their lobster, langoustines and oysters hail from. Tobermory also sports a distillery and a chocolatier, while on the outskirts lie the producers of the legendary Isle of Mull Cheddar. For an unpasteurised cheddar that appears on menus all over Scotland it is gloriously low-fi, with an honesty bin in their farm shop. They have started fashioning a blue too, which after an inconsistent start is showing promise.

Skye – The largest of the Inner Hebrides can justifiably claim to be Scotland’s number one foodie isle. It is the only island with a Michelin star restaurant - in the form of Marcello Tully’s Francophile temple at Kinloch Lodge - and it boasts genuine strength in depth. Shirley Spear’s Three Chimneys may have lost its Michelin star, but mercurial young chef Scott Davies (of The Adamson in St Andrews fame) is bringing a touch of creativity to the wealth of exceptional produce that Speir built their reputation on. Former Three Chimneys head chef Michael Smith meanwhile after a false start with a restaurant that failed to open in Portree is now at the reins at Lochbay Seafood in the waterfront village of Stein. Back in Portree local boy made good Calum Munro is spicing up the local dining scene at Scorrybreac. Stir in the Tailsker Distillery and The Isle of Skye Brewing Co and the island today is a real foodie oasis.

Barra – Heading out across the Minch on a CalMac ferry you will no doubt be accompanied by a fleet of empty trucks, fresh from spiriting off the island’s fresh seafood goodies to the wider world. Barra is not the sort of place where you get fine-dining restaurants serving up Lobster Thermidor though. Two of my favourite foodie experiences here are gloriously simply. Cafe Kisimul sits in the island capital of Castlebay, just yards away from the legendary Castlebay Hotel. Here the famed local king scallops find their way onto the Indian menu as hand-dived scallop pakoras. They are wonderful, worthy of a visit three nights in a row the first time I tried them. Then in the north of the island the tiny airport, which overlooks the beach and its sand runway, sells garlic infused clams culled straight from the beach outside, a surreal but glorious foodie experience.