The Hebridean and Clyde Islands Served by CalMac Ferries
The diversity of the landscape on the islands provides visitors with a wide range of activities to enjoy, from a leisurely cycle round the Isle of Cumbrae to windsurfing off Tiree. Each island also hosts a program of events offer a wide range of events and activities for visitors to experience during their stay that bring the islander and visitor together reflecting the community spirit that makes the islands what they are.
Ten Great Island Things to Do
Looking for inspiration? CalMac Ferries have listed a few of their favourite Scottish island adventures to help you decide which island to go to this season.
1. Have a dram or three on the Island Whisky Trail.
Sample some of Scotland's most challenging malts in their own homes. Take a tour of one or more of Islay's seven distilleries.
2. Kit yourself out in trendy tweed.
Harris tweed, which can only be made by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides, is the fashionista's favourite fabric of the moment.
3. Go 'Doon the Watter'.
The traditional seaside towns of Millport, Rothesay and Dunoon are just a short drive away from Glasgow. Build sandcastles on the beach at Millport, enjoy ice-cream and a stroll along the prom or take afternoon tea in a seaside cafe.
4. Get a real taste of the islands on the Arran Taste Trail.
Sample artisan cheeses, hand-made chocolates, fine ales and malt whiskies on a gourmet day out on Arran.
5. Take to Skye via the Road to the Isles.
Drive the scenic Road to the Isles from Fort William to Mallaig and then sail 'Over the Sea to Skye' on CalMac's Mallaig-Armadale service.
6. Hopscotch and Golf.
CalMac's Island Hopscotch connects some of Scotland's finest golf courses. Choose one or all of Arran's seven courses before using CalMac's Lochranza-Claonaig service to access Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre. Finish off by hopping over to Islay to tackle championship standard Machrie Golf Links.
7. Go wild in the Islands.
Scotland's beautiful and unspoilt west coast islands are are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife species. The ferry trip itself is often a one of the best places to spot sealife - sit out on deck and scan the sea for whales, dolphins, seals, basking sharks and porpoises.Mull and the Outer Hebrides are CalMac's top tips; look out for golden & white-tailed eagles, otters, puffins and corncrake.
8. Have a Real Island Adventure.
Ever wanted to try surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, kayaking or paragliding? The island way of life may be relaxing but the activities they offer are anything but. Try Tiree for windsurfing, Arran for paragliding or Harris and Lewis for world class surfing and mountain biking.
9. Take a stroll along a perfect beach.
The islands offer mile after mile of brilliant white shell beaches. Go in autumn when you'll have the place to yourself. Wrap up warm and go with someone you love. CalMac's favourites are Luskentyre & Scarista (Harris), the Bay at the Back of the Ocean (Iona), and Kiloran (Colonsay).
10. Spend a day in the garden.
Some of Scotland's finest gardens can be found on the islands. Enjoy a day out to Achamore Gardens on Gigha, Benmore Botanic Gardens near Dunoon or Mount Stuart House, Bute.
Isle of Arran
Impressive mountains and lush glens characterise Arran, making it a haven for walkers and climbers from all over the world. Known as ‘Scotland in Miniature’, Arran is a condensed version of the best that Scotland has to offer; golf, castles, distilleries, outdoor activities and gourmet food.
One of the most southerly Scottish islands, Arran ’s history is rooted in Celtic myths and legends.Visit Brodick Castle and its’ turbulent past, explore the standing stones on Machrie Moor or find the very cave where Robert the Bruce was supposed to have encountered the spider.
Or you could eat your way round the island – Arran is fast becoming a foodie destination with a reputation for excellent local produce. Take to the Arran Taste Trail and learn about traditional production techniques as well as sampling the malts, cheeses, beers and chocolates on offer.
Go horse-riding, play golf on one of the island’s 6 golf courses or get your boots on and climb Goatfell. Whether you choose to spend your day browsing craft shops or paragliding, Arran really does have something for everyone.
Easily accessible from the Central Belt and only a 55 minute crossing from Ardrossan to Brodick, the Isle of Arran offers a chance to escape and relax all year round. The island can also be reached via CalMac's Claonaig-Lochranza service form Kintyre. Visit in the autumn for spectacular colours, enjoy the beauty of tall peaks topped with snow in winter, take a restorative spring break or visit in the summer for a traditional Scottish island holiday. Advance reservations are advisable on CalMac's Ardrossan-Brodick route.
Isle of Barra
The mainly Gaelic speaking island of Barra, nestled at the foot of the Outer Hebridean chain, is small and perfectly formed. From your first sight of Kisimul Castle standing guard over Castlebay, you know you have arrived in a place where a sense of tradition runs deep.
From the emails CalMac receive, CalMac know that Barra is one of your favorite islands. Often noted for its beauty, Barra is only five miles across by eight miles long, with a ring road all the way around it. Barra is a compact paradise with stunning coastal scenery – the island boasts white sandy beaches, remarkable wildlife and diverse flora and fauna. The rare machair environment is home to over 1000 different species of wild flowers, including Irish Lady’s Tresses and Wild Rattle. The waters around Barra are also home to a playful, friendly school of dolphins.
With so much to see, the island is a favorite with walkers and cyclists, many of whom use the island as the starting point for a long distance route of the entire Outer Hebridean chain. Hoourver, the island’s 20 mile circular route offers a gentler, relaxing way to experience the whole island in just one day.
A close knit community that really knows how to have fun, everyone is welcome at the island’s legendary ceilidhs and social gatherings. The Castlebay Bar makes the ‘ Scotland the Best’ list of good pubs and the islander’s wry sense of humour and strong character immortalised in the film ‘Whisky Galore’ lives on.
For those interested in Barra’s fascinating history, Kisimul Castle, the ancient seat of the Clan MacNeil, is a good place to start before moving on to the Dualchas Heritage Centre.
Finally, CalMac challenge you to leave Barra without stocking up on Hebridean Toffee, the luxury Scottish tablet that is gaining a gourmet reputation around the world.
In summer, Barra is served by CalMac daily (3 times per CalMacek in winter) Oban-Castlebay route (5 hrs 20 minutes crossing time) and links to the rest of the Outer Hebridean chain via CalMac short Barra-Eriskay service (40 minute crossing, up to 5 crossings per day). Advance reservations are advised on both routes.
Isle of Bute
From the Edwardian splendour of Mount Stuart House with its wonderfully restored gardens and excellent visitor centre, to some of the best fish and chips you’ll ever taste, the island of Bute packs a lot into a small space.
The jewel in Bute’s crown is undoubtably Mount Stuart , a magnificent gothic palace and the ancestral home of the arquis of Bute. The house combines powerful architecture with intricate details and lavish design - it’s worth a visit for the stained glass windows alone! The house also boasts one of Europe’s finest gardens and an award-winning contemporary design visitor centre. Mount Stuart's reputation was sealed in 2003 when it hosted the celebrity CalMacdding of fashion designer, Stella McCartney.
Mount Stuart aside, Bute is worth a visit for loads of other reasons. The island’s main town, Rothesay is a splendid Victorian seaside town, complete with palm trees on the waterfront, and a Grade-A listed Winter Gardens housing an innovative visitor centre, The Isle of Bute Discovery Centre. Even the Victorian toilets on the pier are worth a visit.
Enjoy a stroll along the prom as you admire the architecture with a bag of chips from the West End Café, twice winner of the UK Best Fish and Chip Shop Award. A slightly longer stroll is the island’s West Island Way. This easily accessible 30 mile route begins at the beautiful beach at Kilchattan Bay and finishes at Port Bannatyne, taking in coast and country along the way. Bute is also a great place for golf and horse-riding and boasts some of the best fishing in Scotland.
Easily accessible from the Central Belt, Bute can be accessed via CalMac Wemyss Bay-Rothesay route (35 minute crossing) or via CalMac Colintraive-Rhubodach service (5 minute crossing) from the Cowal Peninsula . Advance bookings are not required for these routes. During the summer season, SPT also offer a special value Mount Stuart ‘Great Days Out’ ticket which includes ferry and train transport from any SPT station as well as admission to the house and gardens.
Isle of Coll
Crofting, lobster fishing and lobster farming form the basis of the thriving island community that is Coll. Loved by birdwatchers, nature lovers, archaeologists and those in search of peace and tranquility, this is the perfect place to get away from everything.
The low, lying island of Coll is characterised by its landscape of sandy beaches, freshwater loches, Lewisian bed-rock and machair and the island’s only village is the quiet, fishing village of Arinagour . It’s the perfect place for those wishing to escape modern life and do nothing more strenuous than walk the island’s beaches or discover the local flora and fauna. In summer particularly, the sound of skylarks, the fragrance of the flowers and the views of distant shimmering islands make this a very special place.
From May to August, Coll’s RSPB reserve play a crucial role in the protection of the corncrake, a bird that is globally endangered but one of the rarest and fastest declining in the UK due to intensive agricultural methods. On this reserve, and throughout the islands, the RSPB encourage corncrake-friendly farming methods. However, the corncrake is just one of many species found on the island – the opportunity to see redshanks, lapwing, snipe and in winter, barnacle and Greenland white-fronted geese make this an ornithologist’s paradise.
And its not just a place for nature lovers, those interested in the islands heritage will be fascinated by Coll’s iron-age forts, crannogs and “Na Sgeulachan” (Teller of Tales) standing stones.
Isle of Colonsay
Colonsay, a delightful little island only eight miles in length, can be reached by ferry from Oban three times a week. At low tide, Colonsay is joined to Oronsay, one of many Scottish Islands bearing this name - it means tidal island.
The island has around one hundred inhabitants most of whom live in the main village of Scalasaig (where the ferry terminal is located), with most of the remaining population split between the hamlets of Kiloran and Kilchattan.
Colonsay is an ideal place for those with an interest in archaeology as artefacts dating back to the Stone Age have been found here. There are also many historical ruins and ecclesiastical relics on the island.
Both islands are noted for the diversity of their wild flowers with more than four hundred species recorded.
Isle of Cowal
Worth a visit in its own right, CalMac's Gourock-Dunoon route is the best place to start if you’re exploring Argyll. From Benmore Gardens with its giant redwoods to the largest annual Highland gathering in the world, this is somewhere that does things on a different scale.
The Cowal Peninsula is the gateway to Loch Lomond, Stirling and the Troassachs National Park and CalMac's scenic Gourock-Dunoon crossing is the perfect starting point for a day trip exploring Argyll. Stop for lunch in the pretty seaside town of Dunoon or venture further and enjoy the spectacular scenery as you drive through lush, dense forests and past tranquil lochside villages en route to destinations such as Tighnabruaich, Inveraray, Kintyre and Oban.
A highlight of a trip through Cowal is the chance to visit one of Scotland ’s finest gardens, Younger Botanic Gardens at Benmore. The gardens boast a world famous collection of conifers, a formal garden and the impressive Avenue of the Giant Redwoods.
Argyll Forest Park also offers exceptional mountain biking and walking. Ardgarten Information Centre is the starting point for the new 47 mile Cowal Way as well as the base for several mountain biking trails for riders of all abilities.
However, CalMac's hottest tip for Cowal is the Cowal Highland Gathering, held on the last weekend in August each year. The biggest and most spectacular highland games in the world, the event attracts visitors and competitors from around the world to take part in or watch events such as piping, highland dancing, caber tossing and shinty. If you only ever make it to one highland games, this is the one to come to!
CalMac's Gourock-Dunoon route (20 minute crossing) is approximately 45 minutes drive from Glasgow and crossings are hourly. Advance booking is not required on this route. To get the most out of a visit to this area, CalMac recommend CalMac's Hopscotch® tickets (Hopscotches®1-4) which allow you to include Bute or Kintyre in your trip for similar prices to CalMac's 5 Day Return fares. During the summer season, SPT also offer a special value Benmore Gardens ‘Great Days Out’ ticket which includes ferry and train transport from any SPT station as well as admission to the gardens.
Isle of Cumbrae
A childhood favourite destination that brings back memories of ice-cream, days spent building sandcastles on the beach and cycling round the island. Easily accessible from the mainland, Cumbrae is still a great seaside day out for kids and adults alike.
The smallest of the Clyde islands CalMac serve, Cumbrae is just a ten minute hop from the mainland and a daytrip or summer holiday to Millport, the island’s main town, has been an institution for decades. Cycle the quiet, easy roads round the island’s 10.25 mile circumference and then reward yourself with a homemade ice-cream from the Ritz Café, Millport’s wonderfully old-fashioned classic café.
When the sun shines, seek out Crocodile Rock or play a round of crazy golf (or even real golf: the island’s 18 hole golf course is one of the most scenic courses in Scotland ). Alternatively, book the kids in for a painting session at the funky Painted Pots studio or visit Europe’s smallest cathedral. The island is also home to the National Watersports Centre which offers world class instruction in dinghy sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, scuba diving and power boating in a spectacular location.
In late summer, Millport is transformed into the Wild West when the town hosts its annual week-long Country and Western Festival, complete with live bands, line dancing workshops and street displays.
Less than an hour’s drive from Glasgow, CalMac's Largs-Cumbrae (10 minute crossing) service operates hourly in winter and frequently (up to every 15 minutes) during the summer season. Advance booking is not required on this route.
Isle of Gigha
The small Island of Gigha lies between Islay and Kintyre and can be accessed by ferry from Taylinloan on Kintyre.
The island has many fabulous white sandy beaches to the south that visitors can explore by foot or bicycle, which can be hired from the local shop. A visit to the famous Achamore House Gardens will find you wandering through 50 acres of exotic shrubs.
Those interested in Celtic culture should seek out the Gam Stone on the West Side of Gigha. Carved on the stone is an example of Celtic writing that is so old and rare that it has not yet been fully deciphered.
Other ancient relics such as forts, standing stones and chapels can be found all over the island. For those who enjoy a game of golf there is a very nice 9-hole course a little to the north of Ardminish, the main village. Don't forget to sample the local hospitality at the island's only inn.
Isle of Harris
Almost separated from Lewis by the deep incisions of Loch Seaforth and Loch Resort, the landscape of Harris is mountainous. An Clisham, at 2,622 feet, is the highest mountain in the Western Isles.
These hills offer excellent challenges for climbers and hill walkers alike. The rocky east coast contrasts sharply with the more fertile west coast that has many superb beaches, some of which literally stretch for miles.
Harris has ferry ports at Tarbert and Leverburgh, with connections to Skye and North Uist. A trip across the Sound of Harris is a must for anyone who loves the sea. The ferry runs from Leverburgh at the south end of Harris and makes its way amongst the islands and sandbanks to Berneray, which is joined by a causeway to North Uist.
Harris has a genealogy and exhibition centre at Co Leis Thu? at Northton (Taobh Tuath) in Harris. Records have been compiled here of families in the Western Isles dating back 200 years.
The Island of Taransay, made famous by the BBC documentary set there, lies off the western coast of the Harris. The distance between them is about two miles at the shortest crossing, but the Sound of Harris is open to the full swell of the Atlantic Ocean, and it is frequently impossible to cross to Taransay, especially in the short days of the winter and spring. There are no harbours for large boats on either side, so calm weather and sea are necessary to make the crossing.
Isle of Iona
A small island situated off the south-west tip of Mull, Iona can be accessed by a regular passenger ferry service from Fionnphort, Mull.
Iona is often referred to as 'The Cradle of Christianity in Scotland' as it was here that Columba first landed after being banished from Ireland in 563AD. Once Settled on the island, Columba and his followers built a wooden monastery. This was later replaced with stone when the monastery was turned into a Benedictine Abbey around 1200. Today the abbey has been fully restored. It is owned by Historic Scotland and open to the public.
The highest point of the island is Dun I at 323 ft and commands wonderful panoramic views towards Mull, Staffa and beyond.
The ferry to Iona is a non-reservable service. Tickets for this service can be purchased at CalMac's office in Fionnphort or on-board the ferry.
Isle of Islay
Islay can be reached by ferry from Kennacraig, on the Kintyre Peninsula, making it a great place to visit as part of a Clyde Hopscotch.
Once the headquarters of the Lord of the Isles, Islay is the most southerly of the Hebrides and is known for it's rich and colourful landscape that has been shaped by natural forces and human influence spanning thousands of years.
The farmland, woodland and peatland set below the sweeping hills support a wide variety of wildlife from many bird species, including the rare corncrake. Each autumn the island witnesses clouds of geese arriving to winter on the mild pastures, with Loch Gruinart in the north as the island’s main reserve.
Islay is popular with whisky enthusiasts all over the world as it is the only Scottish Island where you will find seven whisky distilleries. Each one has its own process and unique appeal which makes them well worth a visit. More information on whisky distilleries can be found on CalMac's Whisky Hopscotch page.
The Isle of Jura, where George Orwell wrote his famous novel “1984”, can be accessed by ferry, run by Argyll & Bute Council, from Port Askaig on Islay.
Isle of Kintyre
The Kintyre peninsula, Scotland’s only "mainland island", was made famous by the Paul McCartney song ‘Mull of Kintyre’.
If you take the time to explore the hills, lochs, and bays you will be rewarded with an astounding variety of views, wildlife, and communities whose roots stretch back into the mists of time.
Arran can also be accessed by the ferry from Claonaig, south of Tarbert, to Lochranza. Making it an ideal stop as part of a Clyde Hopscotch.
South of the town the narrow roads cut through the hills to a scattering of dwellings on the famous Mull of Kintyre that overlooks the coast of Ireland.
The west side of the Kintyre peninsula, which carries the main arterial road, provides breathtaking views across the Atlantic fringes and should not be missed. The village of Tayinloan lies about halfway up this coast and it is from here that the ferry to the beautiful island of Gigha leaves. Further to the north, the port of Kennacraig is the terminal for ferries to Islay and Colonsay.
The land to the north of Tarbert, known as Knapdale, offers a huge variety of opportunities for the explorer. If you are in the area then you must explore the beautiful Loch Sween, with its castle on one side.
From the picturesque villages of Crinan and Lochgilphead you have the choice of heading north towards Oban or northeast up the shores of Loch Fyne where you will come upon Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyll, with it's fascinating insight into hundreds of years of Scottish history.
Isle of Lewis
Your journey to the Isle of Lewis begins at the picturesque village of Ullapool where you board the 'MV Isle of Lewis'. The 2 hour 40 minute crossing takes you down Loch Broom, through a scattering of islets called The Summer Isles and into the Minch. Remember to watch out for Dolphins and porpoises during the crossing, as they are regular visitors to the Minch.
Lewis, the largest of the Outer Hebrides, makes an ideal start or finish point for a Hebridean Hopscotch. Lewis has many spectacular sandy beaches, a rugged coastline, and a landscape that is worth investigating by detouring down all the little roads you find. It is also ideal for fishing, cycling, golfing, walking and bird watching.
Most visitors to the island take the time to visit the Standing Stones of Callanish which date back over 4000 years. There are a number of stones, some over 4m high, arranged in a huge cross with a circle in the middle. The positions of the stones appear to relate to the moon in the night sky, however no one really knows who built them, or what they were for. The visitor centre nearby tells you as much as is known and is worth visiting. Whilst there visitors should also spend some time investigating the Carloway Broch, a hideaway used by residents to escape the vikings.
Isle of Lismore
Caledonian MacBrayne sail to the island of Lismore from Oban 6 days a week. The crossing takes 50 minutes and will take you seven miles up the Firth of Lorne.
Lismore is an unusual island in that it is almost entirely composed of limestone terrain and everywhere there is evidence of historic lime works. It is barely 16km long and about 2.4km broad but its position and relative fertility gives it historic significance.
In fact, such was St Moluag’s rush to secure Lismore as a base for his monastery before his contemporary St Columba, that he cut off his pinkie and hurled it onto the shore, thereby staking his claim.
Lismore has a tranquil, rolling landscape and is ideal for cyclists. The main village of Achnacroish lies halfway along the island’s eastern coast. As well as having the shop and the school, the village is the terminal for the main ferry service from Oban.
The highest point on the island is the hill at the southern end known as Barr Mòr - at just short of 130m high, the views from this low summit are unforgettable.
Isle of Mull
Mull, the second largest of the Hebrides, is easily accessible with a regular service from Oban.
The island is an island of peninsulas giving it a long and varied coastline that offers visitors endless days of exploration and discovery.The mountains that stretch across the middle of the island rise to over 900 metres and are particularly popular with hillwalkers. Mountain ranges in the south and the east are pierced by glens and waterfalls.
The population of around 3000 is well spread throughout the island, and the ferry terminals at Tobermory, Fishnish and Craignure are well used.
The island's main town of Tobermory is the setting of the CBeebie's series, 'Balamory'. As a result, Tobermory has become the top holiday destination for kids desperate to see the colourful houses where PC Plum and Suzie Sweet live.
Mull is home to a wide range of wildlife and is one of best places in Europe to see the Golden Eagle ( Aquila chrysaetos ) and White Tailed Sea Eagle. It also offers a home to the elusive European Otter (Lutra Lutra).
Organised Whale and Dolphin watching trips on which Minke Whales and Dolphins among others can be seen, are available on the Island.
Isle of Mull Wildlife Expeditions, founded by David Woodhouse, is at the forefront of eco-tourism initiatives in Scotland and has been operating for over 25 years.
This has recently been recognized with the Caledonian MacBrayne sponsored “Excellence in Tourism” Award at the Scottish Council for Development & Industry (SCDI) Highlands & Islands Awards ceremony, and has been mentioned on BBC “Springwatch” series which described Mull as one of Britains Top 10 Wildlife Destinations.
Isle of Raasay
The island of Raasay, which lies off the east coast of Skye, can be accessed by ferry from Sconser on Skye.
Raasay has rich and diverse wildlife with Golden Eagles, roe deer and otters being found there. The islands landscape is made up of high moorland around the islands highest point, Dun Caan and rich woodlands.
One of the main attractions on Raasay is the Outdoor centre that offers a number of activities from sailing and windsurfing to rock climbing and abseiling. The island also has a number of significant historical sites including the ruins of St Moluag's Chapel and Brochel Castle.
Rathlin is a small island off the north coast of Ireland that is accessed by passenger ferry from Ballycastle.
Rathlin was once home to 1000 residents although these days, in the winter months, the island has a population of approximately seventy. This number is boosted in summer by its many visitors made up of birdwatchers, botanists, sea-anglers and those who just want to get away from it all and admire it's rugged scenery and spectacular views, observe it's seals and explore its sea caves. Rathlin’s many wrecks also makes it a popular destination for divers.
All visitors must travel to Rathlin by foot as no cars are permitted on the island.
Isle of Skye
One of the largest and most stunning of the Hebridean Islands, Skye is served by the ‘MV Lord of the Isles’ from Mallaig.
The Cuillins, the highest, craggiest, and most majestic mountains in the Hebrides, form a continuous ridge to provide a truly spectacular aspect.
Mountaineers and rock climbers from all over the world come to these peaks to test their mettle, such is the quality and variety of challenges available, and the views are astounding. On a clear day, from the top of the Cuillins, the entire Hebridean archipelago is laid out on the blue Atlantic - a pattern of islands on a shining sea.
The Isle of Skye has a huge range of activities to offer. The rugged mountains supply exciting opportunities to serious hillwalkers and climbers while the coastline, and the less elevated hills and moors, give less energetic ramblers an endless choice of interesting walks.
Mountain guides can be hired to take you places in the Cuillins that you might not otherwise dare go, and there are a variety of organisations who will take you on gentler walks, and interpret the landscape and the wildlife you see on the way.
The waters around the island are ideal for all types of watersports and there are centres on Skye where you can go sea-kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, and diving.
For those who prefer less strenuous activities, several fascinating museums, castles, and gardens are on offer where visitors can learn about the past life of the island, or just while away the time enjoying the scenery.
Isle of Tiree
Lying to the south west of Coll, Tiree clings to the very edge of the Atlantic ocean. Apart from two small hills, Tiree is flat and green, making it an ideal location for recreational walking and cycling. Other popular activities on the island are golf and fishing Scarinish, the main village on Tiree, houses shops and a hotel as well as providing the Ferry Terminal for the island.
The coastline of Tiree is a mixture of rocky outcrops and long stretches of white sandy beach which, along with the uninterrupted Atlantic winds, makes Tiree a perfect place for windsurfing.
The Small Isles
Made up of Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rum, the Small Isles lie between Skye and Ardnamurchan. The MV Lochnevis, which came into service in November 2000, makes regular sailings from Mallaig to each of the Islands during the summer, and a passenger-only service. As this service is non-reservable passengers can simply turn up, buy their ticket and travel.