A Beginners Guide to Scottish Island hopping

When I first started travelling around the scottish islands, I could have done with a beginners guide to let me know the information I needed to help me effectively island hop.  Although I had a guide book (once I started island hopping regularly), they never really explained the complexities of booking the ferries, or, for example, not just being able to turn up and pay to go to an island as a passenger.

Whenever I go island hopping, it is usually for a week or two and involves visiting several islands, usually within a group (such as the Inner Hebrides or Shetland Islands). When planning to go island hopping, my golden rule is to always book everything in advance.  Accommodation and tours can be booked on the day, but it is a long way to go to be turned away!

Scottish Island Hopping - ferry to the isle of Kerrera

Scottish Island Hopping – ferry to the isle of Kerrera

The first thing you will need to book is your accomodation – especially during the summer months.  On islands such as Colonsay, it can be incredibly difficult to book accommodation in summer, especially B & B’s or the islands only Hotel (the Colonsay Hotel).  During the winter months it is much easier to book accommodation on the islands.  However, you need to make sure that if you are staying in a B & B or camping, that the B & B or campsite is not closed.  I once spent an interesting week in France in October – camping out of season.  I had never thought to check!

The next thing to organise is booking the ferry. Again, this can be challenging!  For example, I recently visited the Small Isles over 5 days.  In order to get to the Isle of Muck, I had to get an early Caledonian Macbrayne ferry at Mallaig that called at the Isle of Eigg, then went to Muck.  Because that was the only ferry that day, I had to book a return journey with Arisaig Marine that sailed to Arisaig.  I then had to catch the bus back to Mallaig (where I was staying).  Obviously, some of the larger islands have regular ferries and this will not be a problem.

For the busy crossings, you can usually book the Ferry online, but for some of the smaller crossings, such as Rhubodach to Colintraive (Bute) and Lochranza to Claonaig (Arran), the ferry is run on a first come-first served basis.  If you are taking a car on the ferry, it is imperative that you book.  Otherwise you may end up waiting for the next Ferry, or if it is the last Ferry of the day, waiting until the next day. Caledonian Macbrayne do offer island hopping tickets that can save you money when travelling between islands.

Next year, I have booked a self catering cottage on South Uist. The ferry from Mallaig only goes once a day, so I need to book this ferry as soon as it is available. But as the summer timetables for 2020 are not out until around October/November, I will need to wait until then to do so.  If that ferry is booked up, I would need to either get the ferry from Oban to Castlebay on Barra and then get a ferry from Barra to Eriskay (which may not be possible on the same day) or alternatively get the ferry from Uig on Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist. This is why it is really important to make sure that you check the ferries FIRST if you are booking accommodation at short notice, especially in the summer months.

Scottish Island Hopping - Ferry from Oban to Barra

Scottish Island Hopping – Ferry from Oban to Barra

So, once you arrive on the island, you need somewhere to go.  The easiest place to find this information would be the relevant islands website (virtually all the Scottish islands have their own website).  You could then print this information out to take with you.  My personal source of information is the most up to date copy of the Rough Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland., which is an indispensable book that covers all the general information you will need when visiting the Scottish islands.  Most other guide books cover the islands OR the highlands.  The Rough Guide covers both.  To get to the islands, you usually have to travel through the highlands, so it is good to be able to visit some other attractions on the way.

What the book will not provide you with is local knowledge.  Whenever I visit an island for the first time, I research to see if there is an island tour or a local guide to show me around the island.  I highly recommend this, especially if you are only visiting the island for a day.  Local Guides have a wealth of information about the island and will often take you to places off the beaten track.  Examples of island tours includes:

  • See Shetland – tours around the northern isles of Shetland
  • Round Rousay – tours around the Orkney island of Rousay
  • Westraak – tours around the Orkney island of Westray
Scottish Island Hopping - Rousay Tours

Scottish Island Hopping – Rousay Tours

Some islands do have excellent information for tourists, as soon as you leave the ferry.  The best example of this is on the Isle of Canna.  When you leave the ferry, there is a large information board with an excellent map of the island and places to visit.  Even better than that is if you look under the information board, you can buy a detailed map of the island for £1.  It is an Honesty Box, so just take the map and put your £1 in the slot.

One thing that travellers often forget when scottish island hopping is to take a rucksack with waterproof clothes and food and drink.  On the small, remoter islands, there may not be a shop or the shop may only be open at certain times of the day, or even certain days (such as the shop on Fair Isle).  As most people know, the weather in Scotland is very changeable and therefore it is essential to bring waterproof clothes with you, even if it is a gloriously sunny day.  Also, wear layers, so if it is warm you can remove a layer and if it is cold you can add a layer.

Scottish Island Hopping - Arisaig Marine ferry to Rum

Scottish Island Hopping – Arisaig Marine ferry to Rum

So, in summary, before going island hopping remember to:

  • Book your island accommodation
  • Book ferry/boat to the island
  • Book any island tours or trips or hire a local guide
  • Visit the relevant islands website/bring a book about the island
  • Bring rucksack with waterproof clothes, layers and food and drink

One final tip – get yourself some midge spray.  You won’t need it too often, but when you do, you’ll be grateful you have some.  I use AVON Skin So Soft, which is not specifically for midges, but does the job well. Other sprays include Smidge or Jungle Formula.  I recently went to the Isle of Rum and the island is synonymous with some of the worst midges in the whole of Scotland.  Luckily, I knew this, so was well prepared for the swarm of midges that met me off the boat.  Once, I had moved away from the water, the midges disappeared.

Do you have any advice for new island hoppers.  If so, please add it into the Comments section below. For more information and avice on scottish island hopping read my Top Tips.

2 Comments

  • My top tip is to eat on the Ferry if you will be arriving on an island in the evening. Many hotels stop selling food at 8 or 8.30pm and there are limited or no takeaways on most of the more distant islands, and you never know if the weather might delay your ferry. CalMac food is actually very good and decent value, so take advantage.

    • Great point Kathy! I agree about CalMac’s food, it is very good. If you are arriving late, on the islands (especially the smaller ones) it is a good idea to get something to eat before you disembark. Also, if you are visiting the Outer Hebrides and arriving on a Sunday, it can be quie difficult to find cafe’s and restuarants open.

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