When you think of Scotland do you envision epic cliffs and coastlines? Towering mountains and sprawling glens? Crystal clear waters and sandy beaches? Delicious whisky and tasty local produce? This 2-week itinerary for the west coast of Scotland covers all that and more. Follow this route and take in some of the most beautiful places in the Inner Hebrides and Argyll – a trip to the west coast you will remember for a lifetime!
This post is part of the West Coast Waters campaign and focuses on Wild About Argyll. Regions all along the west coast of Scotland have joined forces to promote the country’s beautiful west coast from Argyll to Wester Ross. 2020 is the Year of Coast and Waters – the perfect excuse to plan a trip and immerse yourself in the sounds, views, aromas and textures of Scotland’s west coast!
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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.
If you ask me, nothing beats an escape to the west coast of Scotland. What could be better than being surrounded by mountains, yet never far from a Caribbean-looking beach or a lush blooming garden? Every time I visit, I am blown away by the diversity of landscapes and things to do near the coast.
My trip to ring in the Year of Coasts and Waters brought me to one of my favourite regions in Scotland – Argyll and the Isles. Not only is it easily accessible from cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh, but it also has the longest coastline of all Scottish regions – two good reasons to plan a trip here and follow my footsteps!
This blog post contains everything you need for your extended trip to the Scottish west coast: from travel info for the region to a day-by-day itinerary for your holiday. I kept the description of each destination deliberately brief in this post, but make sure to click through to my destination guides for more detailed accounts of what to see & do. Don’t worry, it’s still a “monster post” with lots of practical advice and inspiration!
Without further ado, let’s hit the road!
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West Coast of Scotland Road Trip Video
Travel Info: Argyll & Inner Hebrides
Where is Argyll?
Argyll is a large region in the west of Scotland and covers an area spanning from Kintyre peninsula in the south, across the Isle of Bute and Cowal to the western shore of Loch Lomond in the east, up towards Bridge of Orchy, Loch Etive and Loch Creran in the north, and Oban in the west. Additionally, the region also contains most of the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland. The Heart of Argyll, or Mid-Argyll, which is covered in this itinerary lies south of Oban and includes places like Loch Awe, Kilmartin Glen, Loch Fyne, Inveraray, Crinan Canal, Knapdale Forest and Tarbert.
What are the Inner Hebrides?
The Hebrides are an archipelago of islands off Scotland’s west coast and are split into the Inner Hebrides, closer to the mainland and the Outer Hebrides also called the Western Isles. The Isle of Skye is the largest and possibly the most famous Inner Hebridean island.
The Inner Hebrides that are part of Argyll are the Isles of Mull, Coll, Tiree, Islay, Jura and Colonsay and a vast number of smaller islands such as Kerrera, Lismore, Iona, Staffa and Gigha. 36 islands in the Inner Hebrides are inhabited and this itinerary takes in seven of them.
Map of the Inner Hebrides & Argyll
Check out my interactive map below or click through. I’ve marked all the places I mention in this itinerary, including places to stay, natural points of interests such as beaches and hills, things to do such as distillery tours and outdoor activities, where to grab a bite to eat, and a few practical places to know such as petrol stations and shops.
Transport for this itinerary
Hire car | I hired a car for my west coast adventure. This trip is conceptualised with a car in mind and ideal for a Scotland road trip. I covered about 470 miles on the road and took eight ferry crossings, some of which must be booked in advance with a car.
Check out my practical guide to renting a car in Scotland.
Ferries | Regardless of how much time you spend on this itinerary (see below for shortened suggestions), it is important to check ferry time tables. Not every crossing mentioned in this itinerary is available every day of the week and winter timetables (roughly Oct to April) can vary significantly from summer schedules (roughly May to Sept).
It makes sense to check ferry schedules before you book your flights in order to choose the best arrival/departure days accordingly.
Public Transport | Most places on this itinerary are also accessible by public transport. However, keep in mind that not having a car will slow you down and limits how many stops you can fit into one day. Bus services on islands can be limited (Islay, Jura) to non-existent (Colonsay), so it’s important to be realistic and prepare for active days without motorised transport.
Cycling | You can cycle to the majority of destinations on this route or hire a bike to explore individual islands. Colonsay and Gigha for example, are perfect to explore by bike because they are small and there is very little traffic on the roads.
How much time to spend in Argyll & the Inner Hebrides?
I actually did this itinerary in 10 days, but it was a tour de force. Additionally, I had been so some of the regions before, so I didn’t mind picking some activities over others I had done in the past. If this is your first trip to the Scottish west coast, I, therefore, recommend spending 2 weeks on this route (13 nights/14 days). This allows you to slow down a little and experience each destination to the fullest.
Here is a quick overview of this itinerary:
Kintyre Peninsula | 3 nights
Isle of Islay | 2 nights
Isle of Jura | 2 nights
Isle of Colonsay | 2 nights
Heart of Argyll (=Mid-Argyll) | 3 nights
Glasgow | 1 night
What if you only have one week?
If you only have one week to explore the west coast of Scotland in Argyll, I recommend cutting one of the island destinations from this itinerary (Islay, Jura or Colonsay) and reducing your time in Kintyre and Mid-Argyll by one night. If you fly out on the next day and unless you have a very late flight, I recommend sticking to the final night in Glasgow instead of racing to the airport from Argyll – just in case there are issues with traffic.
What if you have even less time?
Of course, you can visit Argyll with less time at your hand – that’s the beauty of its proximity to Glasgow! If you have less than a week – say 3 to 5 days – I recommend choosing one or two destinations to focus on.
You could stay on the mainland and explore Kintyre and Mid-Argyll, like I did for this 3-day Argyll itinerary, or mix it up a little and choose one mainland region and one island. Islay and Jura work well in combination with Kintyre or Mid-Argyll, as the ferry terminal in Kennacraig is easy to reach from north or south. Colonsay is better reached via ferry from Oban and thus best to combine with Mid-Argyll.
Two Weeks on the West Coast of Scotland
Visit the Kintyre Peninsula (3 nights)
Kintyre is also known as Scotland’s only mainland island. Looking at the map of Argyll, Kintyre is the long finger-shaped mass of land separating the Firth of Clyde from the Atlantic ocean.
Legend has it, that in a dispute between the Norwegian king Magnus Barefoot and the Scottish king Malcolm III, Malcolm told Magnus that he could rule over all land he could encircle by boat. Up for the challenge, Magnus made his men drag his boat across the 2-mile strip of land that connects Kintyre to the mainland and thus claimed authority over the entire peninsula. It was only a few years later that Malcolm’s younger brother invaded Magnus’ stronghold on the Scottish west coast and won back the isles, Kintyre and the mainland region of Knapdale.
While signs of this early medieval Viking rule in Kintyre remain tangible today – from place names to archaeological finds – the region offers a quintessentially Scottish experience, which is perfect for anyone looking to discover Scotland off the beaten track without missing out on all things “typically” Scottish.
Spending three nights in Kintyre allows you to explore the peninsula in-depth. I suggest a road trip to Southend on the first day, a day on the east coast, a day trip to the Isle of Gigha and a day on the west coast to fully immerse yourself in everything Kintyre has to offer.
Day 1: Arrive in Kintyre + Road trip to Southend
After landing in Glasgow and picking up your rental car, make your way to Campbeltown – see the yellow Travel Essentials box below for two different route options.
From here, head out on a road trip to Southend, the southern tip of Kintyre, and the Mull of Kintyre. Don’t forget to download Paul McCartney’s song Mull of Kintyre and play it on full blast along the way – if you are like me, this song will be stuck in your head until you move on to the next region… There are several things to do at the Mull of Kintyre, including a walk to the historic lighthouse from where you can see the coast of Northern Ireland – at least on a clear day. In Southend, pay a visit to St Columba’s Chapel and his Footprints. St Columba landed in Kintyre before continuing his journey to Iona. Across the bay, stop by the ruins of Dunaverty Castle, a former stronghold of the MacDonald clan, the Lords of the Isles.
After refreshments? Stop at Muneroy Tearoom for a full meal and/or home baking.
In the late afternoon, make your way back to Campbeltown or on to Carradale, a charming village along the east coast of Kintyre – the perfect starting point for tomorrow’s adventures.
Day 2: East Coast of Kintyre
Today you will spend time on the east coast of Kintyre. From Carradale, head out to Torrisdale Bay to take in the views of the beautiful beach and explore the rock pools to the north. At the nearby Torrisdale Estate, book a tour at Beinn An Tuirc Distillery of Kintyre Gin. The distillery produces small-batch craft gin and is entirely powered by a hydro-electricity plant on the estate. Pretty green and very delicious!
For lunch, head back to Carradale for a soup and sandwich at the lovely Drumfearne Tearoom.
Driving south once again, stop at the entrance for Saddell Castle. Park your car near the gatehouse and walk the rest of the way towards the sea. The castle is privately owned and rented as a holiday let, but the beautiful bay is open to the public. Soon you will, without doubt, stumble across Antony Gormley’s cast-iron statue which is perched on the rocks of the bay, exposed at low tide, submerged in waves at high tide. It’s eerie, but a beautiful encounter with public art in nature.
Finally, make your way to Campbeltown for a tour at Glen Scotia Distillery. Campbeltown was once the most prolific whisky region of Scotland, with more than 30 distilleries in the same town. Today, there are only three left. Glen Scotia was founded in 1832 and is one of Scotland’s smallest whisky producers. Distillery manager Iain McAlister showed me around the distillery and brought out the big guns – a tasting of several drams drawn straight out of the casks at the distillery’s Dunnage Warehouse. The Managers Tour is available for £75 per person, but the standard tour starts at only £7.
Day 3: Day Trip to the Isle of Gigha
The Isle of Gigha lies just 3 miles off the west coast of Kintyre and is connected by a regular ferry to Tayinloan (multiple crossings per day) – about 30 minutes from Campbeltown. It makes for an easy and rewarding day trip in the Kintyre region. You can either bring your car across or hire bicycles on Gigha to get around – there are only a few roads on Gigha and very little traffic.
After the short crossing, head north to some of Gigha’s beautiful beaches. The Twin Beaches at Eilean Garbh can be reached via an at times muddy footpath from the main road (park on the grass near the wooden sign for the beaches). The two sandy beaches lie back to back and open up to two beautiful bays and views across to Islay and Jura. Take plenty of time to explore along the coastline and keep an eye open for birds and seals.
For lunch, heat to Gigha Hotel who have a wide range of meals including plenty of vegan and gluten-free options.
In the afternoon, choose between a trip to the surprisingly exotic Achamore Gardens and Leim Beach in the southwest of Gigha; or charter a local fishing boat to take you to Cara Island. I found my own captain in Stuart McNeill, a local fisherman, who took me out on his boat (phone to book: +44 78860 07090). We sailed past Gigalum Island (which made me giggle a lot), seals sunbathing on the rocks exposed by the low tide and on to Cara, where I went on land to explore the bays in the north.
You could spend your third night in Kintyre on Gigha or around Tayinloan, or return – like me – to your accommodation in Campbeltown for a fresh start tomorrow.
Day 4: West Coast of Kintyre
Spend your final day in Kintyre on the peninsula’s west coast. If you are curious and active, book a surf lesson with Pete’s Surf School at Westport beach. The surf is great here and on a good day, there are always plenty of others out in the water. Pete is a great teacher, very reassuring, and keen to make sure you’re having a great experience on the board. I really enjoyed myself!
Another beautiful beach in this area is Machrihanish Bay, which is also great for birders. The Seabird Observatory provides a hide for wildlife enthusiasts.
Hungry after my surf lesson, I drove to Glenbarr Cafe for a delicious and rewarding vegan meal.
In the afternoon, head back to the east coast one last time and visit Skipness Castle – or hang around Glenbarr for a little longer and get your energy back after a tiring morning (which is what I did). In the evening, make your way to Kennacraig to catch the day’s last sailing to the Isle of Islay.
Visit Islay and Jura (2 nights each)
The Isles of Islay and Jura are often visited together. They are very different, very close and well connected, but an additional factor is surely that Jura does not have its own car ferry connection to the mainland – although, there is a passenger ferry during the summer.
Islay, also known as the Queen of the Hebrides or Whisky Island, is the third-largest island in the Inner Hebrides and offers a huge variety of landscapes, activities and attractions. From the obvious – whisky distilleries – to the new and exciting, such as fat-biking on the beach or sampling wine made from barley; Islay does not get boring.
Jura is its rugged neighbour to the north. While it is over half the size of Islay, it counts less than 10% of its population. Only about 200 people call Jura their home and most live in the bustling village of Craighouse. Most of Jura is mountainous, bare and boggy, which makes for stunning, but challenging days out on the trail. A small ferry commutes between Port Askaig on Islay and Feolin on Jura. Many visit Jura on a day trip from Islay, but I recommend staying a while to immerse yourself in the wilderness – and the welcoming local community.
Day 5 + 6: Isle of Islay
Begin your first day on Islay at the island’s Whisky Coast, where three distilleries – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – lies within just a few miles from each other. All the distilleries on Islay are open to the public and offer tours and tastings – it is a must to visit at least one! My personal favourite is Ardbeg Distillery, which produces some of the peatiest whisky in the world. Their visitor centre has a lovely cafe with delicious vegan options.
In the afternoon, tour some of the other distilleries, taste locally produced wines at Islay Wines in Port Ellen, visit Kildalton Cross or go for a rewarding walk to the American Monument on the Mull of Oa.
On your second day on Islay, get active. Book a half-day activity with Kayak Wild Islay. Together with Dave, you can either head out in sea kayaks – or if the water is choppy or you’re up for a new activity, try fat biking on one of Islay’s beautiful beaches!
For lunch, treat yourself to a meal at The Machrie Hotel, overlooking the golf course and the ocean beyond. The vegan food here was my favourite of the entire trip, but of course, there are also plenty of non-vegan options!
In the afternoon, take in Islay’s beaches in the north. Saligo Bay will make your jaw drop, as will Machir Bay a bit further south. And why not visit Islay’s newest distillery Ardnahoe – you might not be able to taste their whisky yet, but from the tasting bar and the still room you get the most beautiful views of your next destination: the Isle of Jura!
At the end of the day, catch a ferry across to Jura and drive to Craighouse for the next two nights.
Day 7 + 8: Isle of Jura
You will arrive on Jura late on Day 6 and leave early-ish on Day 8, which means you have one full day to spend on Jura. Make the most of it!
Craighouse is the bustling centre of the island and great for a little shopping sprawl, for example at the Whisky Island Gallery & Studio and a tour at Jura Distillery. Their tasting room is certainly one of the most beautiful and impressive I’ve ever seen! There are several walks you could do near Craighouse too – for example to the village viewpoint (description here), to Market Loch (description here), the distillery’s water source, or along the bay to Corran Sands, one of Jura’s most beautiful and easily accessible beaches. Along the way, you can often spot seals perched on the rocks exposed at low tide – they look like upside-down bananas!
If you’re a bit more adventurous, you could climb the highest peaks of the island, also known as the Paps of Jura (description here). The hike takes about 10 hours, so make sure you leave early in the day and tell someone about your plans.
If you are visiting in September, try to schedule your stay on Jura during the Jura Music Festival, which has been going on for many years and brings local, national and international musicians and visitors together for a weekend of beats and rhythms.
After two nights on the island, on Day 8, head back to Feolin in the morning. Get the ferry to Port Askaig, only to board yet another boat to take you from Port Askaig to the Isle of Colonsay.
Visit Colonsay (2 nights)
Depending on the seasonal ferry schedule, you might get to Colonsay around mid-day (summer timetable), in the late afternoon (Nov, Jan, Feb) or early in the morning (Dec, Mar). I arrived on a Saturday around 1.30 pm, which gave me enough time to spend the afternoon exploring parts of the island. The ferry back to Oban leaves at 7 pm on Day 10, which means you might actually have 2.5 days on Colonsay if you stay 2 nights.
Day 9 + 10: Islay to Colonsay
The ferry arrives in Colonsay’s main village of Scalasaig, which is also home to most of the islands 124 inhabitants. Even though you can see Mull, Islay, Jura and the mainland from Colonsay, it feels like you are at the end of the world – it’s so remote. But also breathtaking!
One of Colonsay’s most famous beaches is Kiloran Bay, a vast stretch of sandy beach on the north of the island. From Kiloran, you can climb Carnan Eoin, the highest point of the island or explore a series of caves in the next bay over (description here). Alternatively, you can follow the broad farm track leading north to Balnahard Bay, hands-down one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Watching the crystal clear water from the wind-sheltered sand dunes, one could easily forget that they are in Scotland and day-dream of swaying palm trees and rum cocktails with little umbrellas. Scotland or the Caribbean? Who knows!
Colonsay also has a very productive larder, especially when it comes to alcoholic beverages. Wild Thyme Spirits, who produces Colonsay Gin, offers tours and Gin Retreats at their stunning house in Upper Kilchattan. In Scalasaig, you can visit Colonsay Brewery and Wild Island Botanic Gin for a tour and a taste.
Another absolute highlight is a trip to Oransay – or Oronsay – in the south of Colonsay. You can reach this island by foot – but not via a bridge or causeway, but when the tide retreats and reveals a land-bridge across The Strand.*
Wear wellies or brave the cold and cross The Strand in bare feet as there is usually remaining water in the bay. It only takes about half an hour, but it’s better than getting to Oransay with wet shoes!
* Note, that the crossing is only safe at low tide and current time tables are available at the local post office, The Pantry, the Colonsay Hotel and other local businesses. It is important that you know when it is safe to cross and don’t attempt to outrun the tide.
Visit the Heart of Argyll (3 nights)
You will get to Oban late on Day 10, so it is up to you where you want to spend the night – either in Oban or closer to next day’s activities.
Day 11 + 12: Argyll
Despite a late night on Day 10, I rose early on Day 11 and made my way to Ellenabeich on the Isle of Seil. I joined a boat trip with Seafari Adventures to visit the Gulf of Corryvreckan, which is the third-largest tidal whirlpool in the world. An adrenaline- and fun-packed morning!
After the boat trip (approx. 2 hours) you could spend more time on Seil or cross over to the small, car-free Isle of Easdale for a wander.
Next head south to Arduaine Garden, which features a wide variety of rhododendrons, magnolias, Himalayan lilies and more. There are several trails crisscrossing the garden and stunning viewpoint over the bay below.
Stop for lunch – or check-in for a night – at Loch Melfort Hotel next to the Garden. Spending a night in one of their sea-facing rooms will make for a morning view you will never forget!
On the next day, it is time to deep-dive into Scottish history. Drive south to Kilmartin to visit Kilmartin Museum and a collection of Sculptures Stones at the cemetery. The glen below the village is home to a huge number of ancient and prehistoric monuments from standing stones to cairns and carvings. The Nether Largie Standing Stones are a must to see, and from there you can follow the farm track to the Temple Wood Stone Circle and one of the Nether Largie chambered cairns. Further down the glen, make sure to stop for a walk up Dunadd Fort, the former seat of the ancient Scottish Kingdom of Dalriada.
Day 13: Argyll to Glasgow (1 night)
Today is your final day on the road and it is time to return to Glasgow. From Kilmartin, it is a 2-hour drive to the city, but there is a lot to see along the way! That’s why I recommend driving back to Glasgow on Day 13 and heading to the airport from there on Day 14.
Leaving Kilmartin behind, you will make your way through Lochgilphead and up the coast of Loch Fyne. You could stop at Crarae Garden or in Inveraray to visit the Castle. My favourite place for a walk is Ardkinglas Woodland Garden which is home to some of the biggest and tallest trees in the UK. The Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint makes for a scenic stop to enjoy a peaceful glimpse of Highland scenery. The final stretch of the route leads along Loch Lomond, where you could stop for lunch and a wander in the scenic village of Luss, or join a boat cruise on the loch from Tarbet.
Before you know it you will be back in Glasgow, looking back at an eventful 2-week journey to the west coast of Scotland.
Day 14: Departure Day
Time to head back to the airport and bid farewell to bonnie Scotland – haste ye back!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the Visit Scotland Growth Fund – more information at https://www.westcoastwaters.co.uk/about.