How to visit Scotland's islands
The west coast of Scotland is littered with islands, over 50 of them inhabited. This guide sets out to show you how to visit them.
They split into two main groups - the Outer Hebrides, and the Inner Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides are a linear chain of islands connected by causeways and ferries to each other, while the Inner Hebrides are each usually accessed from mainland Great Britain. A state-funded ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne (or CalMac) provides lifeline access all year round, while there are also some other ferries and flights.
Beyond that, these islands defy categorisation. Some are remote, some are in smaller archipelagos, some are close in to shore. Some are low and sandy, some mountainous and rugged, some with thriving communities while others limp along. There's even no firm agreement on which islands are part of the Hebrides. So I'm aware that this guide will always be less than perfect in some eyes. Even so I hope to collate in one place a visitor's guide to them, which I've not found available elsewhere.
Ferries to the islands are heavily subsidised by the government, even more so recently with the introduction of "RET" or Road Equivalent Tarriffs, based on the premise that someone shouldn't be disadvantaged by the lack of a road and so the ferry fare should be the same as a bus fare would be. However, some of the focus of the subsidies may catch you out - foot passenger fares will seem low compared to taking your car over. And multibuy deals seem to be subsidised further, supporting the regular local traveller over the visitor. Fair enough. The upshot is that you'll find it very cheap to go as a foot passenger, less of a bargain with your car. To the extent that you may look for ways to hoof it even if your default method of travel is to take the car. Also non-landing cruises aren't subsidised, so getting off at an island will be cheaper than staying aboard.
Of necessity I'm going to break this down into some individual island articles, then one article for the Outer Hebrides, and various smaller satellite islands will have to be treated as offshoots of their larger parent island. Complicated!
The Outer Hebrides
Also known as the Long Island and the Western Isles (which confusingly is also used for all of the Hebrides), these are quite culturally distinct from mainland Scotland, with a high number of Scots Gaelic speakers, and generally being more religious and traditional. The main islands, from North to South, are Lewis and Harris (which are actually joined as one island), North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Barra. To visit these islands is a more major undertaking, with longer ferries or flights, and the need to figure a mode of travel around once there. Ferries leave from three main points on the mainland - Oban, Uig on Skye, and Ullapool.
Uninhabited St Kilda lies beyond the Outer Hebrides, is sometimes considered part of them but usually treated separately.
The Inner Hebrides
Skye is mountainous and spectacular, an extension of the Highlands, and is now bridge-linked to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh. There's also still a ferry across from Mallaig, a short crossing which avoids the hours of drive to Kyle. The brittle rocks of the Cuillin Hills attract rock climbers and more capable hillwalkers, and in the north the long landslip of the Trotternish Peninsula has led to exciting landforms such as the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr (a bulbous rock pinnacle), and the jumbled landscape of the Fairy Glen. Satellite islands include Raasay, Rona and Scalpay.
The Small Isles are four little islands served by one ferry out of the port of Mallaig. Rum is the largest, it's mountainous with a range called the Rum Cuillin; the island was the private playground of a Lancashire industrialist in Edwardian times, and his holiday home Kinloch Castle can be toured. Nowadays Rum is a nature reserve, home to deer and eagles. Eigg is the most populous of the four islands, and was traditionally seen as the chief island of the group. It's dominated by a dramatic pitchstone stump called the Sgurr of Eigg, which is actually an easy walk. The remaining two are Canna and Muck, each the home to mere handfulls of people, but providing a quiet retreat in a spectacular setting.
Mull is large, second in size only to Skye in the Inner Hebrides. It's linked to the mainland by three ferry routes, and has a population of around 3000 with the bulk of these living in the only town, Tobermory at the northern end. The main ferry is from Oban to Craignure. Satellite islands include Ulva and Gometra on the west, and Iona and Staffa in the south-west. Iona is famed as the place St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland, while Staffa's geology makes it a big draw - composed of lava which cooled into hexagonal blockwork like the Giant's Causeway, but with an incredible sea cave Fingal's Cave.
Further out than Mull are the twin islands of Coll and Tiree. Tiree holds the record for the most sunshine hours in the UK.
Jura, Islay and Colonsay make up the informal grouping of the Southern Hebrides, though Colonsay sites remotely on its own. Jura is mountainous and sparsely populated, while Islay is lower-lying and home to over 3000 people and a number of distilleries.
Then we have all the bits which don't fit in elsewhere. The Slate Islands are close to shore, south of Oban, bridging the gap to Jura. Offshore from Oban are Lismore and Kererra. Gigha is just offshore from the Kintyre peninsula of the mainland, looking across to Islay. Further north beyond Ullapool are the Summer Isles, though many would hesitate to call them Hebridean. And inwards from Kintyre, in the broad Firth of Clyde, we have Arran, Bute, and Great and Little Cumbrae. Again these are probably beyond our scope.
Other Scottish Islands
Off the North coast of Scotland is the Orkney archipelago, and further on is Shetland. North Rona is and island which lies north from both the northwest tip of the Scottish mainland and the Outer Hebrides. It's now uninhabited, impossible to visit without chartering your own boat, and not normally considered one of the Hebrides.
This is the parent article for individual island articles which will be added later.