The Hebrides – Experiencing Celtic Culture on The Isle of Lismore


One Planet Journey’s Enrico Belcore travels to Scotland’s Hebrides Islands, taking you on a personal discovery through the rugged beauty and artistic community on the Isle of Lismore. Traditional ceilidh gatherings and plenty of wild swimming unfold against a backdrop of fairytale landscapes as he explores the island’s wilderness and tranquil way of life, offering a glimpse into the soul of Celtic culture.

Sitting in a circle, we are all waiting for Garret to give the signal with his fife. Laura, a young girl who recently moved to the island, tunes the guitar following the man’s instructions. Then, at the sound of a sharp note, both start playing. Everyone seems to be familiar with the song, and starts chanting the lyrics as in a prayer. 

Someone later informs me that it is a traditional Scottish song about the Hebrides. Ava, the jam session’s host, encourages everyone to participate, offering tambourines, rattles, and shakers she draws from a large basket at the centre of the living room. She sits at the piano and follows the fife’s melody. As a crescendo, the music gets louder with each song, and as the volume increases, the bottles on the table change. Beer gives way to Porter, and Porter to Whisky. Garret puts the instrument down and prepares to sing. As the guitar and piano keep the rhythm, he mutters cryptic words in Gaelic. Three verses in, he switches to English as everyone joins the chorus.

Cattle grazing on a green meadow with a cloudy sky over the sea in the background.
The pastures of the Isle of Lismore


The wild beauty of Lismore

I had arrived on the isle of Lismore a few days earlier. From my apartment in Edinburgh, I headed north towards the great Scottish outdoors, hiking the West Highland Way from afar. Once I made my way to Oban, I took one of the two daily ferries that connect the inner hybrids to the mainland. I was staying at Rory and Ava’s place, a couple of artists who gently agreed to host me in exchange for some help around their property. They told me about the thriving artistic community on the island, the remote beauty that inspires them and its wilderness.

In fact, the Isle of Lismore has remained almost untouched over the years. It hosts about 200 inhabitants, many of whom are families or young couples that moved from large urban areas across the UK, looking for a slower life in contact with nature. With only three public buildings on the island: a school, a small grocery store, and a cafe, Lismore doesn’t fall short on tranquillity. Only one road crosses the 2000 hectares of land, cutting through the island from north to south. The scarcity of infrastructure is probably one of the main reasons that allowed the island to escape the mass tourism that had recently developed around the Hebrides, leaving the austere beauty of Lismore intact.

Soon after my arrival, Rory and Ava called some friends to organise a small ceilidh at their place. Rory is a long and thin man in his fifties, always dressed in working clothes. He speaks slowly in an accent that reveals his English origins. During a break between songs, he explains to me that ceilidh is the Gaelic term for gathering. While this is often used to exclusively refer to the dances, the word carries a larger meaning.

“Ceilidh is at the centre of Celtic culture. It’s the tradition of coming together at someone’s place or at the local pub, and spending the night together. There’s usually someone playing music or telling stories, but it’s just a pretext – it’s people at the very core of a ceilidh,” explains Rory.

The night goes on until late. Garret’s face has turned remarkably red. He has abandoned the fife altogether and now sings every piece at the top of his lungs. We keep talking for some time, until we finally say goodbye, agreeing to meet the following morning for a swim.

View of water with distant islands
On boat in the Hebrides


Wild swims and rural living in the hebrides

As we walk through the property, Laura tells me how she ended up living with Rory and Ava for over a year. From the north of England, she came to the island with the intention of taking a break from the city. Then, she simply didn’t leave. With the help of some friends, she restored an old van that had been parked in the couple’s garage for years, added a small iron stove and moved the vehicle to the limits of the property.

“There is where I sleep and make music,’ she says as we pass near the green van. ‘But I live outside. Or at least, it’s outside that I spend most of my day.” 

We walk past the vegetable garden and we arrive at a small wooden hut filled with audio equipment. Laura, showing me the interior, apologies for the chaos. Since she started recording her album, she spends most nights there, she admits. “Before coming to Lismore I couldn’t even play an instrument. But staying here, it came almost naturally. I wanted to take part in the sessions. And after only a year, thanks to Rory’s help, I’m actually recording my first songs.”

After a quick walk through a pasture that seems to cover the entire island, we reach a bay shielded from the wind. The round pebble beach is covered in a thick layer of seaweed.

Laura insists – I need to dive. Soon after, she is already swimming to the other side of the bay. From the shore, it seems that not a single tree is growing on the entire island, only rocky coasts that fall abruptly into the sea. I look into the distance, as far as my sight can go. On the horizon, I can spot the dark hills of Mull and the ruins of what looks like an old fort.

Green pasture with blue sea ahead.
Natural pool on a sunny day in the Hebrides


I finally find the courage to dive into the water and make my way to the other side of the bay. The water is so clear that I can vividly see the dozens of colours of the sea bottom from meters above. The beach in front of me is now covered in a dense layer of fog, from which emerges the carcass of a sheep brought ashore by the tide. As I get out of the water my whole body twitches like a fizzy candy. I feel energetic and light. As my body gradually warms up, my muscles relax, leaving me in a deep state of tranquillity.


Lismore’s community

While helping Rory to build a clay rocket oven for his DIY hot tub, I got to know him a bit better. Rory has spent years renovating the house. He is a good carpenter, one of those people who can build anything using only old scraps from the garage. However, his true passion is music. Every weekend, he meets up with an old white-bearded man in the back of the garage. They spend hours and hours making music and writing, without ever letting anyone join their private sessions. I was told that the old man is a poet, a quite introverted one, a hermit, according to some. No one has ever seen him on the ferry to the city, and apparently, he wrote hundreds of songs that he refuses to let anyone listen to.

“Many of the young people we hosted ended up staying. Here life is affordable, and it’s easy to find small jobs to do for our community, still having a lot of free time to spend on any project you fancy,” Rory explains to me as we prepare the terrain for the rocket oven. “Thanks to the internet then, the opportunities are endless.”

White stone houses in a green landscape.
Dwellings on the Isle of Lismore


Later on, I met Gonzalo, one of Rory’s former helpers, at the neighbours’ barbecue. We discussed how no one on the island seems to give too much importance to the affairs of the Westminster government. It is as if these sorts of things are left on the ferry. A tacit sentiment of self-regulation rules a bit everywhere on Lismore; it’s a real separation – geographically and socially – from the rest of the country. When the authorities come for routine inspections, everyone on the island knows about it hours before they can even touch land.

“These are some of the advantages of living here,” Isla says, a Canadian sculptor who moved to Scotland a few years ago. She used to live with her boyfriend Finn in Glasgow, but the 2020 lockdown convinced them to leave the city and move to Lismore. They’re both in their early 20’s. Finn is a violinist and he often tours the country to promote his music. He says he has just come back from a trip to Glasgow.

“It was quite exhausting. I’m not used to the noise any more,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the violin, I certainly wouldn’t go back to the mainland very often.”

“We are happy here,” intervenes Isla. “I was a bit scared at first, but we really fit in very easily here on the island. Everyone was excited to see my works, I even got commissioned a couple of sculptures. Now I’m working on an installation in the island’s ruins, it’s my way to give something back to this place.”

Cliff with green pasture by the sea.
Rugged beauty of The Hebrides


Old stories, old songs

The sun is lowering down the shore. The wind has stopped and flocks of midges begin attacking us with no mercy, forcing us to quickly clean up and find refuge in the house.

Inside, a guitar is playing softly in the corner. Garret, who joined us for the barbecue, has left the fife in the cover. Around a sturdy wooden table, he is telling old stories about the island. One in particular sparks a discussion around the table. It’s the story of a wild feline, large as a puma, that for some years it’s believed roaming around the north of the country, devouring sheep and making distracted drivers go off the road. Finn insists on having seen one in Aberdeenshire while driving on a country road.

“The cat-sìth monster!” utters someone, remembering the old Scottish mythology of a witch able to turn into a large cat. Someone else claims that it is in fact the panther that escaped from a London zoo a few years ago and has now found refuge in the wilderness of northern Scotland. Others claim that it is the beast of Buchan, a phantom cat sighted on foggy nights around Scotland since the 1930s. 

The last wild feline still present in Scotland is the Scottish wildcat,  a feline of small size and almost completely extinct. But on a dark night on a remote Scottish island, even a giant witch-cat seems plausible. All of a sudden, the words of the old songs I listened to during the whole week appear more rational than any logic. Without questioning any further, I keep listening to stories of woods and hills, beasts and travelling musicians, and the legends that give life to every hidden corner of this land, keeping its communities together. 


Have you travelled to the Hebrides? What part of Scotland do you want to visit next? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.


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