Weaving Through Scotland’s Western Isles and Highlands
In this blog, Ffestiniog Travel tour leader Geoff Lumley, takes you on one of his favourite journeys, island hopping through Scotland’s Western Isles and Highlands. He has visited Scotland many times and provides some visual advice in words on how to get the most out of travelling so far north to the Scottish Highlands and Outer Hebrides and offers suggested routes you can take, by train, ferry and road. It follows a similar path taken by our escorted tours, an example of which can be viewed here where you can book online
For many years, my retreat of choice has been the west coast of Scotland and the islands that lay off it. Where does the holiday begin? It’s an awfully long drive from the south of England, it’s a great trip by train but you do need to hire a vehicle when you get there if you go that way. I’ve done both.
For many, a ride on the West Highland line is a must but too many start this in Fort William and just do the 40 miles to Mallaig.
The real adventure begins as the train leaves the Firth of Clyde on its 100 mile plus journey from Glasgow, skirts Loch Long and then the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond and, after Crianlarich, climbs to cross the lonely Rannoch Moor which no mere road has ever attempted to do. Later on, of course, there is always the world famous Glenfinnan Viaduct with great views, even if you are not on the Jacobite Steam Train.
From the small fishing village of Mallaig, ferries leave for the isles of Rhum, Muck and Eigg or the remote mainland hamlets on the shores of Loch Nevis. Most travellers cross the narrow strait to Skye but there is the longer trip out to the Outer Hebrides through outstanding scenery as you weave between the inner isles.
The Uists, Benbecula, Barra, Harris and Lewis await the traveller that catches the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Lochboisdale or one of the other Hebridean ports. There’s always good food on board, and always something to see from the decks.
The Uists are hilly on the east and low and flat, covered in dunes and machair grass, to the west. Along with the other islands, they boast some of the best beaches in Britain – probably in Europe and maybe further afield too.
Roads weave down to long sea lochs from the main north/south route up the islands which hops across Benbecula on causeways built to make inter-island travel easier.
You need a ferry to go south to Barra though (there is, however, now a causeway linking it to its even more southern neighbour Vatersay). There’s a great view from the top of the hill on Barra, the picturesque Kisimul castle in the bay at Castlebay and the unique beach airport that can only operate at low tide.
North of the Uists another ferry, one of my favourite trips, crosses to Leverburgh in Harris. The town is named after Lord Leverhulme the soap manufacturer and the island is of course famed for its tweed. The hills are bigger here, the beaches as beautiful and you will agree the trip was well worth it. A narrow isthmus links Harris with the much larger Lewis to the north.
From the prehistoric Callanish stone circle, to the preserved black houses and broths, there is plenty to explore. Stornoway, the only sizeable town on the outer islands, has a castle and is ready for the tourist.
From Stornoway you can sail back in to Ullapool on the mainland, an excellent cruise. The shortest trip back from the outer isles though is from Lochmaddy on North Uist, a peaceful village with a great prospect; this trip crosses to Uig in the north of Skye.
Skye is the famous island everyone thinks of when they hear about the Hebrides. Castles, lochs, mountains, historic sites, Skye has it all. Doctor Johnson moaned that, on Skye, “a few miles require several hours” but you would not want it otherwise, for there is something to see at every bend of the road.
There’s no longer a need to speed a bonny boat over the sea to get back from Skye (though you can still do so in the summer months), there is now a fine bridge between Kyleakin and Kyle of Lochalsh.
The A87 is a fast road from here, but don’t miss stopping at Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most iconic views. Driving on you are heading for the Great Glen, one road brings you out beside Loch Ness whilst the main route comes to Invergarry and Loch Oich. To Inverness or Fort William? There is much more of Scotland to explore…
If you’re thinking about a trip but don’t know how to get there or the best way to organise it, I thoroughly recommend joining the Ffestiniog Travel tours in September 2021 or September 2022.