The Hebridean Islands – island-hopping Scotland
What do you think of when I say Scottish ‘Hebridean Island’? The Isle of Skye? Probably. How about stunning white sand beaches and turquoise seas? Definitely. Or what about Calmac Ferries? Of course. From the slower pace of life to the unique island culture and welcome, step off a ferry onto one of Scotland’s Hebridean islands and you will be hit with an undeniable sense of otherworldliness. Ready to go? Here’s my guide to going ferry hopping in the Hebrides.
The need to know, before you go…
- The Hebridean Islands sit off the west coast of Scotland and contain 100s of islands home to far more seagulls, puffins and skuas than people.
- Far from the trope of ‘crofters scratching out a living on a remote & windswept Scottish isle’, there are 51 inhabited Hebridean islands on which 44,000 people make their home. The island of Lewis and Harris are the most populated islands in the Hebrides, swiftly followed by the Isle of Skye, Islay and Mull.
- The first mention of the Hebrides was in 77AD by Pliny the Elder (the Roman famous for his rambling Natural History books and being killed at Pompeii) who named the islands ‘Hebudes’ – like many words in Scots we don’t really know what it means.
- In Gaelic, the islands are called ‘Innse Gall’ which means the “islands of strangers” and refers to when the islands were colonised by the Vikings up to the 13th century.
- You can count back 10,000 years of history on the islands – from the oldest human occupation in Scotland on Rum (they found hazelnut shells dating to 8590 BC) and prehistoric mummies on Uist to stone circles on Uist.
How to get to the Hebridean Islands
Apart from travelling to the Isle of Skye (although you can still get to Skye via ferry) and the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ to Seil, you need to catch a Calmac Ferry (real name Caledonian MacBrayne) to visit the Hebridean Islands.
Calmac ferries run from all across the west coast rather from one main ferry port. You can sail from Oban (to Mull, Coll, Barra, Islay) Mallaig (for Skye, the Summer Isles, South Uist) Uig on Skye (North Uist and Harris) and smaller harbours at Kennacraig (Islay) and Ullapool (for Lewis). Check out their map of the Scottish ferry routes.
booking Ferries in Scotland
It is recommended that you book Calmac sailings in advance – especially for Skye, Mull, Barra, Harris and Lewis. Some smaller ferries such as Ardnamurchan to Mull you cannot book, you turn up and queue for a ticket. You need to be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before your sailing, much longer if you haven’t a ticket. There is wifi at the Calmac terminals – useful if you are waiting!
For those with a UK number, Calmac has a text alert service which updates you on delays, cancellations and route changes. For each service there is text number – For Islay text “Calmac subscribe 09’ to 60030. Calmac will also give you a call if your ferry is cancelled so make sure you leave a phone number with your booking. The weather in Scotland often leads to delays – so be prepared – but remember the ferries are used to dealing with it and you will get home or off to your next island!
Calmac hopscotch tickets
Calmac offer hopscotch tickets which make it easy to ferry hop around the Hebridean Islands. They don’t offer any discount but do make it easier to book your journey. Calmac Hopscotch tickets are valid for 31 days and you can go either direction on the route. You may still need to book your places on the ferries if you are travelling by car or campervan. Calmac have both summer and winter timetables – some routes may run to different timetables so check before you book.
So, which Hebridean Islands should I visit?
The most popular of the Hebrides are:
- The Isle of Skye – by far, Scotland’s most popular island to visit and with natural wonders such as the Black Cuillin, the Fairy Pools, the majestic Quiraing and Old Man of Storr, remote Neist Point Lighthouse and the waterfall pouring over the cliff (or Kilt Rock) to visit, its no wonder. The Isle of Skye’s outdoor attractions are legendary. Skye is also an incredibly busy island, so make sure you also visit the island sustainably, park sensibly, learn how to drive on a single track road and book your accommodation in advance. Read my guide to the Isle of Skye.
- Mull & Iona – whether you reach Mull by ferry from the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula or from the busy harbour town of Oban, the Isle of Mull is one of the most popular Scottish islands to visit and is famed for its beaches, wild walks, wildlife and wilder nights in Tobermory (will you remember the stories?) The Isle of Mull also has the only island Munro outside of Skye, with great views across the islands. Read my guide to the Isle of Mull.
- Islay & Jura – Islay and Jura might be more famous for their whisky distilleries than their wildlife, but these Scottish islands are a binocular wielders paradise. The best way to discover Islay is to head out to its remote peninsulas and brave the often wild weather – don’t worry, you will always have a whisky distillery nearby to warm you up! Next door to Islay is Jura – home to more deer than people. Read my guide to Islay.
- The Outer Hebrides – The Outer Hebrides are one of the best places in Scotland for an outdoor adventure – and with 15 islands making up the chain you could visit time and time again and still find more things to do. Base yourself in Harris, North Uist and Barra – or hire a campervan and ferry hop right across the whole island chain for an outdoor adventure you will never forget! Read my guide to the Outer Hebrides.
Ferry Hopping in the Inner Hebrides islands
The closest islands to the west coast of Scotland, there are lots of ways to ferry hop around the Inner Hebrides Islands. Here are my favourite hopscotch routes
1/ Skye, Ardnamurchan and Mull (HOP7)
Explore the west coast of Scotland on this itinerary ferry hopping from the Isle of Skye to stunning and remote Ardnamurchan, across to Mull and back to Oban. This ferry hopping road trip makes a great extension to the North Coast 500.
- The Isle of Skye – Climb the Black Cullin, visit the Fairy Pools and Fairy Glen, see Kilt Rock, the Old Man of Storr, climb The Quiraing, visit Neist Point Lighthouse, Loch Coruisk, explore Dunvegan Castle and drink Talisker whisky – phew.
- Ardnamurchan – The most western part of the British mainland and home to just 2000 people. Many of the on Ardnamurchan here compete against the best in the world, so make sure you visit Camusdarach Beach, Arisaig or Sanna. Driving across Ardnamurchan’s volcanic caldera gives an incredible view of the small isles of Eigg and Rum and on a clear day, back to the Cullins on Skye. Read my guide to Ardnamurchan.
- The Isle of Mull – Tobermory is a bustling and lively place, with lots of busy harbour bars. Whisky fans will want to visit the Tobermory Distillery, located right on the waterfront. Make sure you visit beautiful Calgary Bay – you can see why it is one of the most photographed beaches in Scotland.
- Oban – Oban is a fantastic town to spend an evening – there are seafood restaurants aplenty, and great beer and pub food at my favourite, the Cuan Mor. To walk it all off climb up to McCaig’s Tower for a fab view back across the Hebridean Isles you’ve just ferry hopped!
How to Ferry Hop Skye, Ardnamurchan and Mull
- You will need to book hopscotch ticket HOP7. From Skye ferry hop from Armadale to Mallaig. From Kilchoan catch the short 40-minute ferry across to the Isle of Mull. Leaving Mull, catch the 55-minute ferry from Craignure to Oban.
2/ Islay, Jura & Colonsay (HOP8)
Whether it’s the island’s beautifully wild landscape, incredibly friendly locals, or the cask strength whisky, there is something about Islay that grabs your heart and holds on. It is no wonder that Islay is known as Banrìgh nan Eilean – the Queen of the Hebrides. Along with neighbours Jura and Colonsay, a ferry hopping trip to Islay is one you won’t forget – unless you drink too much whisky that is!
- Islay – With 9 distilleries to visit, Islay is a paradise for whisky fans, but beyond the still there is a beautiful island to explore. Walk to the American Monument on the OA cliffs, discover the remote Machir Bay – a sweep of perfect sand, Visit Portnahaven to see the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse on the island of Orsay and spot dolphins from the lighthouse at Carraig Fhada.
- Jura – Catch the ferry from Port Askaig on Islay to Feolin on Jura and explore this lovely remote island home to 180 people, 5000 deer and one whisky distillery – and the impressive Paps of Jura.
- Colonsay – Just 10 miles long and 2 miles wide, visit the lovely gardens of Colonsay House, and the beaches at Kiloran Bay and Balnahard, and the sea cliffs on the west coast which are home to hundreds of seabirds and seal colonies. Please note, no campervans are allowed on Colonsay.
How to Ferry Hop Islay, Jura and Colonsay
- You will need to book hopscotch ticket HOP18. Sail to Port Askaig through the Sound of Islay with an incredible view of Jura’s three famous hills – the Paps of Jura. Hop the short journey Colonsay before returning to Oban.
Ferry Hopping the Outer Hebrides islands
A visit to the Outer Hebrides is an otherworldly dip into Scotland’s remote edge of the world island culture. However, the Western Isles are more than Harris Gin, the home of the Gaelic language, the famous Callanish standing stones, Norseman tales and world-famous beaches and turquoise seas. For this 130-mile-long island chain 24 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland also makes for an incredible adventure playground.
- Lewis and Harris – The largest of the Outer Hebrides 15 inhabited islands, Lewis and Harris aren’t actually separate islands, although they are frequently referred to such. Visit the capital Stornoway, the Callanish Stones, the Isle of Harris Distillery to try the famous Harris Gin and explore Harris’s incredible beaches including Seilebost and famous Luskintyre.
- The Uists – North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist & Eriskay – A one-hour ferry crossing takes you across the Sound of Harris to the tiny Island of Berneray where you join The Uists. The beaches here are as arguably as good as Harris’s but this is a land of lochans, crannogs and standing stones – and remnants of Norse history when the Uists were part of the Kingdom of the Isles.
- The Isle Of Barra – Most famous for its airport on the beach (the baggage reclaim is also a bus stop) but this beautiful island ‘Barradise’ has lots to offer for the visitor – not least an incredible castle which gives the main town Castlebay its name. Catch the Barra ferry from Eriskay (look out for the white Eriskay ponies) across the Sound of Barra
How to Ferry Hop the Outer Hebrides
Need a little more temptation to visit the Outer Hebrides?
Off ferry hopping in the Hebridean Islands? Let me know your favourite route…
Love, from Scotland x