White sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, stunning mountain scenery and endless coastlines – that is what you can expect from the Scottish Islands. But where should you begin? This guide will help you to turn your dream about island hopping in Scotland into reality.
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Disclaimer: Always check local travel guidelines and restrictions, especially when it comes to visiting Scottish isles and other remote areas post-Coronavirus.
This post answers all the practical questions you might have about island hopping in Scotland:
- who are the different ferry operators?
- how do I buy tickets for Scottish ferries?
- what do I need to do at the ferry terminal?
- what is it like to be onboard a Scottish ferry?
- how can I include islands in my itinerary? and
- are there any organised island hopping tours?
If you are looking for a rundown of Scottish islands to give you an idea which might be the best for your Scotland itinerary, check out this post first and come back here to figure out the logistics.
Still looking for advice on island hopping? Let’s dive right in!
How to get to the Scottish Islands
Most Scottish islands are serviced by two of Scotland’s major ferry operators: Calmac or Northlink Ferries.
Calmac operates connections to most islands on the Scottish west coast, such as Skye, Mull, the Outer Hebrides and Islay. There are several ferry hubs along the coast – Oban, Mallaig and Ullapool pop up for many island hopping itineraries, but depending on which islands are on your itinerary you might also want to leave from ports such as Ardrossan, Kennacraig or Uig on Skye.
Northlink Ferries operates ferries to Orkney and Shetland from Thurso on the North Coast 500 and Aberdeen on the East Coast.
There are many smaller ferry operators servicing shorter ferry routes, such as John O Groats Ferries between John O Groats and Orkney, Western Ferries between Gourock and Dunoon or the Corran Ferry from Nether Lochaber to Ardgour.
You can bring a car across to most islands, however, there are some Scottish isles that are car-free or limit the use of cars to locals. These are serviced by smaller passenger ferries, such as the Isle of Kerrera or the Small Isles, Rum, Muck and Eigg. Some “ferries” are actually just boats that fit around 10 people – for example, the Ulva Ferry from Mull to Ulva or the Handa Ferry on the NC500.
The only island that is connected to the Scottish mainland by a bridge is the Isle of Skye. That means you can save money and travel to Skye on the road. But it also makes Skye the most popular Scottish island with the highest footfall – and it gets busy in the summer!
Buying Ferry Tickets
I highly recommend booking tickets in advance for major ferry connections, such as boats to the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Mull, the Outer Hebrides, Islay, Arran, Orkney or Shetland. There are only so many ferry crossings per day (or per week) – even in the summer season – which means there is a limit to the number of cars that can sail across. Many of these crossings are incredibly popular and your preferred times (early morning or evening crossings) may book out months in advance.
You can book tickets for many popular Calmac ferries and Northlink Ferries online, but there are some smaller routes that cannot be booked in advance. These services are operated on a first come, first serve basis. Make sure you check the ferry connection you plan to take before your trip, so you are not caught out by surprise.
If you travel by rental car and book ferry tickets in advance, you can select “I don’t know”.
As the ferry operator with the most routes in operation, Calmac offers a variety of combination packages to make island hopping in Scotland even easier. These tickets called Hopscotch can cover a variety of routes on suggested itineraries across the Scottish islands and are valid for 31 days from the date of the first journey. They don’t offer any discount but are a convenient solution if you want to make sure you book all the correct ferries for your itinerary.
Find out more about Hopscotch tickets here.
Arriving at the Ferry Terminal
When you booked a ferry ticket in advance, you should arrive at the ferry terminal about 30 minutes before the advertised sailing time to check in. Otherwise, they might fill your spot! At some terminals, you have to enter the ferry terminal and check in at a registration desk; at smaller terminals, a member of staff might come up to your car to check you in.
When you take a smaller ferry on a first come, first serve basis, you should aim to arrive well in advance of your preferred sailing time – 40 to 60 minutes. Alternatively, be prepared to take a later ferry if it is very busy.
At the ferry terminal, an attendant will direct you to a lane to park in and wait until the ferry is ready for boarding.
Boarding a Scottish Ferry
Once the ferry is ready for boarding, an attendant will signal you to drive onto the ferry and point you towards the correct lane to park. Keep an eye out for other members of staff waving you through and follow their instructions. The same counts for when you disembark at the other end.
In an effort to get as many vehicles as possible onto the ferry, they instruct drivers to park really close together. It can actually feel a little claustrophobic. Driving slowly and with utmost care is essential.
Usually, passengers should stay on the vehicle and disembark together with the driver once the car is safely parked on the ferry. On some crossings, passengers should board on foot and only drivers remain in the car to drive on. Once on the ferry, everyone has to leave the car deck for safety purposes. The ferry staff will make an announcement for drivers to return to their vehicles shortly before arriving at the destination.
Cyclists are usually asked to push their bikes onto the ferry before cars board. On large ferries, pedestrians board via a separate gangway, but on small ferries, you might simply walk onto the ferry before cars board.
When boarding a ferry, a member of staff will usually collect your ferry ticket from you. Some destinations might also require you to fill in a landing card so that local authorities know who is on the islands.
On Board a Scottish Ferry
Scottish ferries come in different sizes and with varying facilities. Routes such as the Northlink Ferries connection between Aberdeen and Shetland have overnight cabins and a spacious restaurant – they feel almost like cruise ships. On shorter crossings, such as between the islands of the Outer Hebrides, the ferries offer little more than a vending machine, an outdoor observation area and an interior lounge for bad weather.
The majority of popular Calmac ferries I have come across have a restaurant or at least a cafe on board for hot drinks and meals and usually also a bar for alcoholic beverages.
Most larger ferries have an observation deck with panoramic views towards the front of the boat as well as comfortable chairs and TVs along the sides. Near the cafe, bar and restaurant you will find plenty of tables and seats. If the weather is good, I like to hang out at the outdoor decks as long as possible and watch the Scottish coastline fly by.
Many ferries also have child-friendly play areas set aside. Pets travel for free with Calmac, but facilities vary – sometimes you might find a designated pet area. Bigger boats usually have plenty of space for luggage, if you are travelling without a car. Bikes also travel for free on ferries and will be stored on the car deck.
Food on Ferries
The restaurant food on Scottish ferries is freshly prepared and tastes surprisingly good! Options range from breakfast rolls and fully cooked breakfasts on morning ferries to main meals such as baked jacket potatoes with different fillings, fish & chips, pies, curries, burgers and pizzas.
Vegan options are not overwhelming though. On morning ferries you might be able to get a vegetarian breakfast if they use vegan-friendly Linda McCartney sausages. Lunch and dinner are trickier, so it’s best to bring your own snacks onto the ferry. The veggie curry on the menu is vegan-friendly, but will be served without the naan bread (contains milk). The falafel burger is theoretically vegan, but the bun is not, so it would be served without.
If you are lucky your ferry crossings doubles up as a wildlife cruise! Dolphins and porpoises are regularly spotted between the islands and even whale sightings are not out of question.
During the spring and summer months, Calmac works with ORCA, an NGO that works for the protection of dolphins and whales to conduct wildlife surveys on board some of their routes. If you see an ORCA Officer on board, feel free to approach them and ask them questions about the local wildlife. You can find their route schedule here.
What to do on a long ferry crossing
The ferries offer WiFi, but it is usually not very fast or does not work at all – I somehow have never managed to keep myself busy on my phone after we left the ferry terminal.
There are TV lounges and bars on board most ferries. Here are a few things I would recommend doing on a long ferry ride:
- Spend time on deck and take photos of the Scottish coastline.
- Bring a book and curl up in a comfy chair.
- Listen to podcasts or audiobooks on your phone.
- Make new friends and exchange travel stories.
- Or play a game of cards – don’t forget to bring a deck.
Dealing with Seasickness
Crossings to islands such as Mull or Skye are fairly sheltered, so unless you are very sensitive towards seasickness, you should be fine. Longer crossings, such as the Isle of Coll, the Outer Hebrides or to Shetland might be trickier, especially if the sea is rough going.
The only time I have really struggled myself was on the overnight ferry to Shetland. We travelled there in January for Up Helly Aa and a storm hit the boat throughout the night. I can usually avoid feeling dizzy or sick by looking out the window and focussing on the horizon, but when you are inside a cabin and it’s pitch-black outside, there is not much you can do.
Here are some tips to avoid sea-sickness on rough crossings:
- Look out the window and focus on the horizon.
- Eat something with ginger – it’s a natural remedy for motion sickness.
- If all else fails on longer crossings, take sea sickness pills. Just be aware that they might make you drowsy and thus unable to drive.
Planning Scottish Island Holidays
Right, now that you know everything about the practicalities of taking ferries to the Scottish islands, it is time to pick your islands and put together an island hopping itinerary.
Choosing which Scottish Islands to go to
Choosing the perfect islands for your Scotland itinerary is tricky – they are all so gorgeous! Ask yourself what you want to get out of your time on the islands, how many days you’ve got, what mode of transport you are using – like do you have a hire car? – what kind of activities you are interested in and how much time you are willing to spend on a ferry.
If you mainly want to focus on the mainland, but add an island or two, I recommend choosing those with quick crossings and near other islands to maximise your island hopping. If you have two weeks and want to focus primarily on islands, your itinerary will look completely different.
My overview of Scottish islands is a great starting point if you are not quite sure what the different islands have to offer and how long you should spend on each.
Suggested Island Hopping itineraries
Many islands can fit very seamlessly into traditional Scotland itineraries, but others require you to set aside more time or go a bit out of your way.
The Isle of Skye can easily link into my classic 7-day itinerary through the Highlands, but could also be substituted for the Isle of Mull, if you want to go off the beaten track. If you have a few extra days and want a dose of wilderness, the Small Isles are also nearby.
If you focus on the Southern Highlands and the region of Argyll – my favourite – then your island opportunities are almost endless. Tiree, Coll, Colonsay and Mull can be reached from Oban within a few hours, Islay and Jura are at the doorstep of Kennacraig and the isles of Arran and Bute are both within a few hours reach of Glasgow. Check out my 2-week island hopping itinerary for the west coast, which can also be cut to one week or less!
Orkney can be combined with a road trip around the North Coast 500, while Shetland really requires its own adventure by taking the overnight ferry from Aberdeen.
The Outer Hebrides are quite far away from the mainland. Harris and Lewis could fit well into an extended North Coast 500 loop or can be combined with a trip to Skye. However, if you want to make the most of a trip to these islands, you will have to dedicate more time to them and also visit the Uists and Barra.
Get in touch and let me help you plan a trip that is 100% YOU!
Scottish Island Tours
Many organised multi-day tours around Scotland include island destinations – for example, I have done dedicated tours to the Isle of Arran and the Isle of Islay in the past. Some islands can also be visited on independent or organised day trips. Mostly smaller islands such as Staffa or the Isle of May, but even the Isle of Skye is not out of reach if you are based in Inverness.
Here are some suggestions for tours to Scottish islands:
- 3-day Isle of Arran tour incl. beautiful castles, standing stones, a visit to a whisky distillery and two different ferry trips – read my review of this tour here!
- 4-day Isle of Islay tour incl. several whisky distilleries and the natural beauty of the island – read my review of this tour here!
- 3-day tour to the Isle of Skye from Edinburgh or 1-day Skye tour from Inverness.
- 5- to 6-day tours to Orkney and the Outer Hebrides + Skye.
- Rabbie’s even offers two longer Island Hopping itineraries of 14 days or 17 days that include Mull, Skye, Iona, Orkney, and the Outer Hebrides!
You will know yourself if guided group tours are up your street, but I encourage you to give them a try. As much as I love independent exploring, I’m a group tour convert as long as the groups are reasonably small (Rabbie’s only has 16-seater mini-coaches) and the itinerary not too busy. The driver-guides are a wealth of information and always provide the best commentary and context for the places you visit. They also work with local businesses and can adapt the itinerary to include something for everyone in the group.
Islands can be hard to impossible to explore without your own transport, so guided tours are the perfect alternative if you do not want to hire a car. I love the fact that I don’t have to drive myself when I go on a tour!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.