A guide to Scotland Island Hopping – or as Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) calls it, Island Hopscotch! Actually, not all of their Hopscotch tickets involve visiting islands, but it can be a fun way to travel. Also, CalMac ferries are not the only way to access some islands and in fact are not the only ferry operator, there are some other operators as well.
Luskentyre Beach on Harris
Once upon a time there were three ferries that took the visitor over the sea to Skye, although, before you all burst into song, we’re travelling from the mainland and the words refer to a certain Flora MacDonald taking Bonnie Prince Charlie, although he was known as Betty Burke that day, from Benbecula in the Western Isles back to Skye. The ferries I am referring to left from Mallaig (the one I used), Kyle of Lochalsh (now replaced by that bridge) and Glenelg (summer only). Anyway, the journey from Mallaig takes about 30 minutes and the views can be stunning – to the southwest are the Small Isles, Eigg, Muck and Rum; to the south the white sands; east is Lochs Nevis and Hourn with the Knoydart peninsula sitting in between. Then there is also the Isle of Skye fast (for a ferry at least) approaching in the northwest and what an island it is. The rugged Cuillins dominate the landscape from many points, but there is so much more to see – and there are a couple more ferries that leave from Uig, on the Trotternish peninsula, ready to take you on the 2 hour journey across the Little Minch to Harris or North Uist! Once on the latter, it is possible to drive across Benbecula and on to South Uist, which to some make these all part of one island, so maybe Skye isn’t an island any more either? Harris can also be reached by sailing from Ullapool to Lewis (a crossing of 3 hours) and then driving onto Harris as Harris and Lewis are in fact both parts of the same island! Small ferries also run from Mallaig visiting each of the Small Isles mentioned above as well as Canna and Muck.
Travelling down the west coast of Scotland from Mallaig, the next major ferry port that is reached is Oban and there are a selection of sailings available here!
The most obvious is Mull, the most northern island of the Southern Hebrides, with regular sailing from Oban itself to Craignure, which takes around 40 minutes. There are also ferries running between Fishnish and Lochaline in Morvern (15 minutes) and from Tobermory, which some will know better as Balamory, to Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula (35 minutes). Ardnamurchan Point, on the tip of that peninsula, is the western most point on the British mainland. These two sailings offer a good alternative to driving as Mull is always worth a visit.
Returning to Mull now, the island hopping doesn’t stop there. In fact there are three more possibilities and one of the most favoured would have to be Iona. It’s a small island, but well over 100,000 people make their way there each year in a pilgrimage to the abbey, following in the footsteps of those that have followed the same journey, albeit with different forms of transport, for around 1500 years. Other islands it is possible to visit include Ulva & Gometra and the world famous Staffa, although sailing to the latter, let alone setting foot on the island, is dependant upon the weather!
The Western Isles can also be reached from Oban with the main journey, to South Uist, taking around 5 hours and 20 minutes. A much shorter journey is the 50 minute sailing to the small island of Lismore, which sits in the mouth of Loch Linnhe. If you are looking for a journey that lasts a bit longer, although maybe not quite as long as the one to Lismore, there are two more options, each with their own hops beyond. The first is the Isle of Coll, to the west of Mull, which takes around 2 hours 55 minutes, with a further hour between to its smaller neighbour, Tiree.
On the Calmac ferry to Islay on a beautiful evening
The other option is to travel to Colonsay, to the south of Mull, with this trip taking around 2 hours and 20 minutes. Colonsay is attached to its neighbour Oronsay at low tide, so a ferry is not required there, but on a Wednesday the ferry service continues to Port Askaig on Islay, taking just over 2 hours to reach the larger island further south! From Islay it is possible to hop over to Jura from Port Askaig, which takes 10 minutes, or to continue back to the mainland. This last option can be taken from Port Askaig on a Wednesday, completing the hop from Oban or from Port Ellen, with either journey taking approximately 2 hours 20 minutes to Kennacraig at the northern end of the Kintyre peninsula, otherwise known as the Mainland Island.
Two more islands accessed from Kintyre are Gigha, to the west, or Arran, to the east, with these journeys taking 20 and 30 minutes respectively.
Arran is described as Scotland in miniature and with its mixture of higher ground to the north and relatively low-lying land to the south it is easy to see why. It is also more usually approached from the east, on a ferry that takes 1 hour to cross from Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast to the island, landing at Brodick on the eastern side. As the ferry approached the town, Goat Fell, which is the highest point on the island, dwarfs Brodick Castle and offers a taste of what awaits the traveller.
However, travelling from the island back onto the mainland allows for more island hopping opportunities. To the north of Ardrossan is Largs, yet another ferry port that offers a connection to the small island, known as Great Cumbrae, that site about a mile from shore. The smaller Little Cumbrae sits to the south of its larger partner. Back on the mainland, there is another ferry point further north at Wemyss Bay with the ferry this time making a 35 minute crossing to Bute.
This last named island sits close to the Cowal peninsula, separated by the 1 mile wide Kyles of Bute to the north of the island. This also marks our next potential crossing point, leaving the island and making the short hop back onto the mainland! Once on Cowal there are a couple of options for travelling if ferries are to be considered. First of all, on the eastern side of the peninsula, are Dunoon and Hunter’s Quay with ferries running from each to Gourock to the north of Wemyss Bay. On the western side of the peninsula, at Portavadie, there is a 20 minute crossing to Tarbert at the northern end of the Kintyre peninsula, which would neatly bring this section full circle!
Calmac Ferry Hebridean Isles arrives at Colonsay from Oban
However, returning to Gourock instead, a couple more ferries run from there. The first heads north to the Rosneath peninsula while the second heads northeast to Helensburgh. However, it should be noted that these are passenger only boats.
So, once more returning to the northern end of Kintyre, it is time to consider some of the other islands that can be visited. One, Davaar at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch, can be walked to at low tide. Another, Seil, can be driven onto over the Atlantic Bridge. Of course, some purists might not consider these to be islands!
Arriving back on the Kintyre mainland at the northern end, it is worth taking the trip south to Campbeltown. From there it is possible, at low tide, to walk across to Davaar Island. The safe times for this journey are available in the Tourist Information, as are details of trips to Sanda off the southern coast. Davaar has an unusual attraction to offer the walker – a painting of the crucifixion in a cave on the southern side of the island. (This has been recently restored since an act of vandalism earlier this year.) The walk is across rocks so solid footwear is advisable! There is also a lighthouse at the northern end and from there Arran is usually easily spotted, especially as it is the largest island around.
Ferry arriving on the Isle of Gigha
Even if the option is not taken to go to Sanda, driving to the southern tip of the peninsula is worthwhile as, on a clear day, the coast of Ireland is visible. Taking the road to the Mull of Kintyre is also recommended for the possible view of Rathlin Island, to the north of Ireland. A piece of advice for those that decide to walk down to the lighthouse – remember the return journey is uphill and cars are no longer allowed on the final stretch of road! Another island that can sometimes be seen from around this area is Ailsa Craig, a very distinctive dome shaped lump in the middle of the water!
Now it is time to return to the northern end of Kintyre once more and continuing north on the road to Oban. For the next island to be visited a ferry will not be required as, like Skye, it is possible to drive to this one! Access to Seil is via the Atlantic Bridge although at this point, and especially at low tide, the Atlantic is not very wide. However, a bridge has been built and it would be a shame to ignore that! Also, a trip to Seil allows two more hops to two more islands – Luing to the south Seil and Easdale to the west. The former and larger of the two has a car ferry, while the latter is accessed by a small boat. Just make sure you have money with you as the ferry man collects the fares on the return trip!
Collectively, these three islands are known as the Slate Islands due to the fact that they are made of slate. This has been quarried extensively to provide roofing material for Scotland and beyond, including Nova Scotia! Slate also makes for good skimmers, flat rocks that are thrown across water in such a way that it (hopefully) skims, or more accurately bounces, across the surface. Chances are at the side of any body of calm water people will be seen taking part in this popular activity. So popular in fact there is even a World Championship that has taken place each year since 1997 – on Easdale, which also happens to be the smallest, permanently inhabited island off the coast of Scotland!
Calmac Ferry Routes in the West of Scotland
Time for a round up with an overview of ferry ports and their destinations:
From Ullapool in the North west:
Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis (Eilean Leodhais)
From Uig on the Trotternish Peninsula Isle of Skye:
Uig to Tarbert on Harris
Uig to Lochmaddy on North Uist
Ferries in the Outer Hebrides
Tarbert on Harris to Lochmaddy on North Uist
Roneval on South Harris to Berneray
Berneray to North Uist
Loch Baghasdail to Castlebay on Barra
Ludag South Uist to Eriskay
Mallaig to Armadale Skye
Mallaig to Castlebay on Barra (summer only)
Mallaig to the Small Isles; Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna
From Oban in Argyll
Oban to Lismore
Oban to Mull
Oban to Lochboisdale on South Uist
Oban to Coll and Tiree
Oban to Colonsay and Port Askaig on Islay (summer only)
From the Kintyre Peninsula
Kennacraig to Islay Port Ellen and Port Askaig
Tayinloan to Gigha Island
Claonaig to Arran Lochranza (summer only)
From Islay a ferry sails to Jura (Port Askaig – Feolin)
For an overview of Hopscotch Tickets have a look at www.calmac.co.uk