Having lived most of his life on Scotland's remote Outer Hebrides islands, James MacLetchie loves sharing the rugged beauty of his homeland with others. As a guide for Rick Steves' Europe, James leads our Scotland itineraries, including our new Heart of Scotland tour. He also captures Scotland's dramatic scenery through photography, which you can find on our Guides' Marketplace.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into guiding?
When I was six years of age, I was fostered in the Outer Hebrides, and in that moment, I was placed into a world of big skies and endless horizons. I grew up in a small village, where my foster mum was a head teacher in the primary school and my foster dad worked in a seaweed factory and ran a croft with about 50 sheep, some cows, and some chickens.
At the age of 18, I became a fisherman and worked on a local boat catching lobsters and crab in the Atlantic. I spent many years enjoying this life until I became the first countryside ranger in the southern isles of the Hebrides. This allowed me to hone my skills as a guide for the environment and led to taking people out around our islands in the summer.
In 2004, I was given the opportunity to go to Iceland and work on international projects within nature-based tourism, and I met many people from other countries. I was so impressed with the guides and the people I met that when I finished, I went to San Francisco and studied international guiding and management. I returned to the Hebrides and continued delivering small tours around the islands. Then I worked as a guide around Britain and on cruise ships before being recommended to Rick Steves by one of his long-serving guides, Anne Doig, and the rest is history.
You live on Scotland's Outer Hebrides. What's it like to live remotely on an island?
Living in the remote Outer Hebrides has been a wonderful experience, giving me a freedom that most people never know. We all know each other, and there still remains a true sense of community across these islands. During the pandemic lockdown, the true value of this place came to the fore in that we could go out in our daily lives and still enjoy the countryside and nature despite the impact Covid-19 was having on the world. While living in the Outer Hebrides is a beautiful thing, we have no shops or theaters and few restaurants to experience, and at times it can be isolating when friends live elsewhere, but I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Do you have a favorite stop on the Best of Scotland tour?
There are so many stops on this tour that each has their own beauty and place in my heart. But I am someone who loves the west coast and coming from Oban to the Isle of Skye is dramatic, uplifting, and totally stunning. The moment you reach Skye, you are greeted with the magnitude of the Cullins and sweeping drops to the ocean. Everywhere there's an endless, sweeping view that draws you in and leaves an impression on the heart. Head along to the fairy glen or follow the road to Staffin and you truly are in the wilds with awesome views across to the Hebrides. Skye has something for everyone, from its rugged appeal to its picturesque little harbor town of Portree. It is one of the many highlights on the Best of Scotland tour.
What have been some of your most rewarding moments as a guide?
There have been many moments as a guide that have been rewarding, but for me, it is the reaction of people as they travel through the land with us on a Rick Steves tour and how it transforms their dream to reality. On the final night, hearing people thank you for making their dream come true is a beautiful reward, and to know that this one trip could transform their lives or fulfill a lifelong desire to see the beauty of Scotland is so enriching and rewarding. Seeing their reactions to our world is so uplifting that you just want it to last forever.
In addition to guiding, you're also an accomplished photographer. What catches your eye when you're looking for a good picture?
I have a huge collection of photographs, and each one is a part of my journey through life and my encounters with nature. The most important thing for me as a photographer is to try and capture the essence of a place through light, motion, or action. I try to take photographs that appear like paintings and that generate a sense of serenity from what I see. I took a number of shots called "images in lockdown" that were sent across social media to bring people a sense of calm in these trying times. That enabled me to bring a part of my world to those that had nothing in theirs and a sense of hope that the beautiful world was still there. (You can find James' photos on his website.)
Here's what James won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"James is the soul of Scotland. What a fantastic guide he was. We had lessons in Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, he gave us travel tips that followed the 'Rick Steves' method, and he provided us with so many little extras — including his singing in the abbey on Iona so we could listen to the acoustics. And in Dunkeld, his knowledge of the Jacobite rebellion, tracing the steps of men in the battle, really brought the story to life."
― Cindy in Aurora, CO