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Navigating Scotland's ferries

Smitten by a recent MNT on the Outer Hebrides, I plan to fly into Glasgow, train into Oban, and take the 5 hr. ferry to Barra where I'll stay for 3 nights. 1. Is there a shorter way to get to Barra, possibly from Skye? 2. Also, from Barra (heading for Inverness) to Portree, another ferry. Planning this is much more difficult than using RS' guide books for the rest of Europe. 3. Any ideas for a good resource to navigate these locations?

Posted by
7021 posts

Yes, Calmac, which is the main ferry provider, has boats going to Barra from Oban, and it details it very well on its website. https://calmac.co.uk/destinations/barra Just scroll down until you see where it says, "Getting to Oban from Glasgow." These sites will also give you some good information. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/barra/obanferry/index.html and https://www.barra-accommodation.co.uk/getting-to-barra/

ETA: I just saw your question about a shorter way to get to Barra, and if you want to get there quickly, you can fly from Glasgow. That would be faster, and also a fun experience, as the runway on Barra is on the beach.

And to get to Portree from Barra, you will need to catch the Castlebay - Lochboisdale ferry, and then the Ulg - Lochmaddy ferry. I'm not sure about the details, but you should be able to look through the Calmac site and find it. I'm sure someone else will chime in and give you more detailed info about that.

I was in Scotland last year and took 7 ferries altogether, and loved the experience!

Posted by
672 posts

As Mardee mentioned there's a LoganAir flight from Glasgow to Barra. There's also a flight from Benbecula to Inverness. My wife tends to get seasick, so flying is always a favored alternative. There's a bus to the Eriskay ferry and from there to Benbecula in about 3 1/2 hours. Not sure what an MNT is and if there's transportation available.

Posted by
177 posts

@jjgurley, I'm pretty sure OP is referring to the weekly Monday Night Travel series that Rick Steves hosts on Zoom (and posts episodes from here on this site). I watched that Scottish Islands episode with James Macletchie and was likewise captivated!

Posted by
6722 posts

MNT is Rick's Monday night travel.

There is no normal ferry between Lochboisdale and Castlebay. Due to a shortage of ferries during the winter refit period there is a temporary one, but that is not normal. The Eriskay ferry below is the normal service.

Usually the ferry to Lochboisdale (South Uist) sails from Mallaig- 3:30 crossing. Sometimes in Summer that ferry sails for Oban instead, especially in poor weather but also for animal livestock transport. At the moment there are a few Uig (Skye) to Lochboisdale positioning sailings but those are as rare as hen's teeth.

From Skye you would normally take the Uig to Lochmaddy (North Uist) ferry- 1:45 saiing time then the 1:15 drive down the Uists to Eriskay for the ferry to Ardmhor (Barra) then the short drive to Castlebay.

EDIT- For anyone who missed the Zoom call this is the recording- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA1CTz-JffU&t=6s

While in Castlebay you shouldn't miss the drive to the southernmost populated island of the Outer Hebrides- Vatersay.

The sailing from Oban to Castlebay up the sound of Mull and round Ardnmurchan point is fantastic and that first 1:30 is in sheltered water. After Ardnamurchan it is open sea but in poor weather the ferry diverts into more sheltered water via the Small isles or sometimes as this last week a route via Hyskeir light station (Isle of Canna)- in other words they take the best available route. On a Wednesday the ferry usually diverts via the islands of Coll and Tiree- a longer passage time but added scenery.

Posted by
45 posts

Suggestions to drive plus ferry are great if you're driving. I am depending on ferry and bus (and bought an 8 day train pass which doesn't help me much so far.)

Posted by
6722 posts

Look at the bus timetables issued by the Comhairle (the local council).

There is quite a good bus service around Barra (and a more limited one to Vatersay) which also serves the airport and Ardmhor ferry port. On the Uists there is a spine road service (as it's called) #W16/W17 which links the ports of Lochmaddy, Lochboisdsale and Eriskay together, as well as Benbecula airport and Berneray port (for the ferry to Harris and Lewis, for the ferry to Ullapool from Stornoway).
It connects with all scheduled flight arrivals at Barra and Benbecula
For the size of population the service is very good. The fares are very reasonable as well.

For the Lochoboisdale ferry take the train to Mallaig (likely the breakfast time one) from Glasgow.

You would then have to overnight at Lochboisdale before moving on south to Barra or north up the Uists.

For Skye, take the train from Glasgow (as you now have a train pass) either via Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, then Citylink bus to Uig port; or to Fort William to pick up the same bus there.
You should be able to make a same day connection on the evening ferry to Lochmaddy, overnighting there before moving on next day.

At Uig the bus takes you to the ferry terminal. Unless it has changed very recently you check in, then the bus takes you down the linkspan to the ship.

This is the Scotrail timetables page- https://www.scotrail.co.uk/plan-your-journey/timetables

Castlebay (Barra) has a good range of hotels and guest houses. But any hotel on Barra is on the Barra circular bus route, so don't feel confined to Castlebay when searching for a hotel.

The exception to that is the Oban ferry- if arriving on that you will need a taxi to get out of Castlebay that evening or to the port in the morning as the morning sailing is early.

A good idea would be to work up from Barra to Stornoway (or vice versa) using the buses and the Berneray to Leverburgh ferry.

The ferry from Stornoway goes to the mainland port of Ullapool for a dedicated citylink connecting bus to Inverness Rail Station. Or there are flights from Stornoway to Inverness- INV now has it's own rail station for onward connections.

Posted by
45 posts

Is it possible to travel north in one day (from Barra) to the Lochmaddy ferry to Uig and somehow get to Portree for overnight there? (No car or plane)

Posted by
6722 posts

Yes, from the attached timetables-

Castlebay depart 0845 to Ardmhor for the 0915 ferry.

The connecting bus at the Eriskay slipway departs at 1010, all the way to Lochmaddy Ferry Terminal arriving at 1215.

That bus continues to Berneray Slip, arriving at 1235 for the 1330 ferry to Leverburgh. A bus connects out of that at 1435 arriving at Tarbert (Harris) at 1520. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday the ferry leaves Tarbert at 1620, arriving at Uig at 1800.

Also a bus departs Castlebay at 1033 for the 1110 ferry, Eriskay depart by bus at 1235 Lochmaddy a 1505.

On the Summer timetable on a Tuesday the ferry leaves Lochmaddy at 1630, arriving Uig at 1815, on a Thursday 5 minutes earlier, and on a Saturday at 1645.

Citylink departs Portree at 1815 (which is a ferry connection) arriving at Portree at 1845. That is the winter timetable which will be adjusted for summer ferry times (not yet issued).
There is also a local bus from Uig at 1820 (#57C) which goes the wrong way round the Trotternish peninsula arriving at Portree at 1936.

Posted by
1341 posts

When are you planning to go?

In 1987 I could wing it; finding accomodation when I wanted, but in 201X we tried twice to get from Oban to Barra, but were discouraged because there was no avaliability. Finally in 2022 after having planned it for a little more than two years and with help from https://hebrideanhopscotch.com/ we managed to get our 2 week trip from Castlebay on Barra to Stornoway on Harris, using only busses and ferries. I would like to do it again, but I am not yet ready for the planning needed.

What I mean to say is: get your accomodation planned early.

Posted by
45 posts

I will be in Scotland from June 19--July 3, with the block of June 24--28 in the Outer Hebrides. This will be the most difficult and challenging trip to plan, as all the previous trips since '92 were inspired and guided by Rick Steves' guide books. He doesn't touch the Outer Hebrides, so this forum is proving really supportive. Yes, I have obtained lodging on Barra already.

Posted by
6722 posts

You see dates are very useful to know as some routes, like Berneray to Leverburgh are subject to tidal amendments. That route is probably the most challenging in the CalMac network for the crew to navigate, due to the shallow water and islets in the sound. It also makes it one of the most scenic for the passenger aspect, for anyone who has to route that way.

Especially because the passenger deck is raised, at bridge level, so you get the most fantastic views. The current ship was bespoke designed for the route.
On 24 June the early afternoon ferry from Berneray is cancelled due to low water, and on 25 June runs 15 minutes early (still connecting bus to bus). The route is not tidally affected on 26 to 28 June.

By the way some of the connections look tight to the untrained eye, but ship waits for bus, and bus waits for ship, other than in the most severe of circumstances.

At that time of year it probably is best even for foot passengers to book in advance on the CalMac website. Not months in advance (although you can) but a week or so ahead anyway.

Posted by
6722 posts

For reference for others the other CalMac routes subject to tidal changes are-
Oban to Lismore
Mallaig to Armadale
Mallaig to Lochboisdale
and
Claonaig (Kintyre) to Lochranza (Arran)

Posted by
7021 posts

suewink40, I know Rick Steves does not offer guidebook for this area, but I wanted to recommend the UK Bradt books, which offer a guide devoted to the Outer Hebrides that you might be interested in. They are very good books and well worth buying. This one is a few years old, but is on sale. https://www.bradtguides.com/product/outer-hebrides-2/