A Beginners Guide to Scottish Island Hopping

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 4 comments

Whenever I go island hopping, it is usually for a week or two and involves visiting several islands, usually within a group. So for example, this May, I am off to the Orkney Islands and I will visit different islands throughout Orkney whilst I am there.

Neolithic VIllage, Skara Brae, Orkney

Neolithic VIllage, Skara Brae, Orkney

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!

The first thing you will need to book is your accommodation – 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. 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!

Kiloran bay, Isle of Colonsay, Hebrides

Kiloran bay, Isle of Colonsay, Hebrides

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 sailings 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.

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:

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.

Gylen Castle, Isle of Kerrera, Argyll

Gylen Castle, Isle of Kerrera, Argyll

One thing that island hoppers often forget is 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.

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/buy 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, Jungle Formula and a completely natural one called Bug Soother. 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.

Sunset over the island of Barra, Outer Hebrides.

Sunset over the island of Barra, Outer Hebrides.

Some island hoppers prefer to just arrive on an island and take things from there. This is fine and often this will work out well, especially on the bigger or busier islands. However, on the smaller or more remote islands, it is definitely safer to plan your trip. Then all you have to worry about is when you can come back …

Our very grateful thanks to Lee Allen of Love Scottish Islands for this brilliant beginners guide to island hopping. Check out Lee’s website and Facebook for more info and photos.

All photos (except Skarabrae) copyright of Dennis Hardley Photography.

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Comments (4)
  1. kevan Hubbard says:

    Great article. Just been to lismore, the Scottish island off Oban (there’s a place in Ireland, home of the travel writer dervla Murphy of the same name).you can now do lismore as a return sleeper train trip from southern England. I took the 2115 sleeper from London got off at bridge of orchy walked to tyndrum via the west highland way then onwards to Oban ferry to lismore ,train to crainlarich and sleeper back! Previously this was not possible as there was no train from Oban to connect with the sleeper. Coming north the sleeper gives you a 3 hour wait in either crainlarich or tyndrum (it has 2 stations,upper for the sleeper, lower from Oban about 1km apart) hence my walk back from bridge of orchy.

  2. Dorothy Lakner says:

    Loved Lismore too, a lovely little island which is also accessible from Port Appin–a tiny ferry takes you to and from Lismore. We saw mostly sheep on our walk around the island, but found lunch mid-island at a wonderful café about 4 miles from the ferry (great sandwiches with crawfish and Mull cheddar, plus baked goods, a real treat.

  3. Steve Mardon says:

    I’m a recent convert to island hopping, some via day trips and some via longer trips with overnight stays. The photos brought back memories of trips to Orkney, Small Isles and Inner Hebrides.

    Part of the fun for me is the route planning, synchronising travel timetables with accommodation availability. Taking a bicycle, which is free on most ferries, allows one to explore.

    I’d recommend taking cash, along with extra food for those days when you can’t find anywhere open.

  4. Ian Chalmers says:

    When driving on the islands single track roads allow cars behind to overtake. This stops traffic jams forming when only 3 vehicles can get into the passing place.

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