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West Coast and islands


My husband and I are in the early stages of planning a 4 week trip to Scotland in August/September 2019. We are from Australia and have been to Scotland before - Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William and steam train to Mallaig.

This time we will have a car and are planning to venture to the more remote parts of the north and west. There are many islands to choose from but we are tentatively thinking of Lewis and Harris (2 nights), Skye (4 nights), Mull/Iona (3 nights) and Islay (2 nights).

I would love to hear from anyone with personal experience/recommendations on these or other islands.


Posted by
1376 posts

Hi, gandy79,

You definitely need more than two nights on Harris and Lewis. There are so many historical sites on the island, plus the beaches of South Harris are the equivalent of any in the world. You may want to consider a boat trip to St. Kilda, which is an amazing experience. There are two companies which go to St. Kilda from Leverburgh on Harris.

Hope that helps a little bit. Best of luck with the island hopping!

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
1218 posts

I love Iona but I don't know that you need 3 nights there. Maybe add that night to Lewis? And make sure to see Eilan Donan just on the mainland from Skye.

Posted by
5678 posts

I agree that you could do with at least an extra night on Harris/Lewis. If you walk at all, you'll want to take some time to walk along the cliffs. I disagree about reducing the time on Mull/Iona. I spent three nights there 17 years ago and filled the time easily. I would recommend staying in Tobermory. One day, you can drive down to Fionphort to catch one of the tours to Staffa and Iona. Another day can be spent touring the castles--one is very old and has a magnificent view, the other is newer, but has interesting gardens. I quite liked the study and would have been very happy to have it as my home office! On the third day, you can do wildlife boat trip or tour the Talisker tour. Spend some time in the Mish, the local pub. There is a wonderful series on the eagles of Mull.

And BTW you don't have to go all the way to Oban to catch the ferry to Mull. Check out the different routes.

On your way down to Islay checkout Kilmartin's Glen. You can climb up Dunadd.


Posted by
1090 posts

Hi there,

I agree that 2 nights isn't enough to scratch the surface of Lewis/Harris. You will probably want to see Callanish (ancient stones), and the amazing beaches on Harris. There is fantastic hiking everywhere.

I live on Skye but have lots of contact with visitors as I run a B&B. Four nights is probably about right to see the main sights and if you a 'foodie' you will have a fine time here, with a number of excellent restaurants. Just to say also that Talisker distillery is here on Skye, not on Mull (that's Tobermory distillery).

Wherever you travel on the islands, but especially on Skye, you will need to book accommodation well in advance (for Skye you would want to be booking around March at the latest to get a good choice for August/September). If you want to avoid the dreaded midges, you might better looking at late August/early September.

Best wishes

Posted by
3122 posts

Since you asked about other islands, I'll just mention that I understand Islay and Jura are famous for migratory birds. If you're seriously into birdwatching -- or if you simply want to choose a destination different from those that are more popular with tourists -- these islands may be of interest.

Posted by
1376 posts

Hi again, gandy79,

Since you are planning to travel north and west in Scotland, here's a possible itinerary:

Inverness to Kinlochbervie, Scourie, or Lochinver.

CalMac from Ullapool to Stornoway.

CalMac from Tarbert to Uig. (Or Leverburgh to Berneray for a visit to the Uists, returning to Uig on CalMac from Lochmaddy)

Cross Skye, then take CalMac from Armadale to Mallaig.

A830 from Mallaig to Lochailort, then the A861 south to Salen.

From Salen, take the B8007 (an amazing road) west to Kilchoan, for the CalMac to Tobermory.

After your time on Mull and Iona (be sure to visit Ulva), CalMac from Craignure to Oban.

From Oban, south on the A816 to the A83 at Lochgilphead, then the A83 south to Kennacraig for your ferry to Islay.

Once you return from Islay, you can take the B8001 (watch out for loose chippings!) to Claonaig for the CalMac to Lochranza on Arran. Arran is particularly beautiful, although Brodick and Lamlash can be overrun with daytrippers. Once you get off the beaten path, it's gorgeous.

From Arran, you can return to the mainland via CalMac from Brodick to Ardrossan, which gives you plenty of options, with Glasgow or the Ayrshire coast being only a short drive away..

This route should give you plenty of island hopping without backtracking. CalMac probably has an island hopscotch ticket which will save you a few pounds.

Best wishes for your holiday, and as skyegirl pointed out, be sure to make your reservations early. Skye fills up quickly, and Harris has become another destination that has the same dilemma. These islands are becoming more well known, which is good for the tourism industry, but not so good for island infrastructure and budget travelers like me.

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
57 posts

Thank you all for your thoughtful and useful responses. I really appreciate your insights.

Posted by
1276 posts

Gosh Mike, that's a heck of a good schedule/itinerary you've put up there! Tempted to go do it myself before it becomes the gold standard for Rick Steves fans island hopping trips!

I have a slight advantage in that I'm a Brit (Sassenach though) and I have chums who have recently bought a property on Arran, which as you note is spectacularly beautiful and not for nothing named as 'Scotland in miniature'.

As regards trips through the Outer Hebrides, having travelled there in recent years and been based in one location, we came to the conclusion - as had others - that the very best way to travel there was to hire a camper van and ferry across to either the top of bottom end and then work your way through ferrying off again at the far end.

Also note that the Sabbath is strictly observed in the Outer Hebrides. Everything closes for the day, and when I say everything I mean EVERYTHING! We even saw swings in a kids playground that were chained up for the day so they couldn't be used. So travelling through on a Sunday, particularly if you are only there a short while, might be best avoided. Otherwise, it's magnificent!


Posted by
1376 posts

Hi, Ian,

Not to worry about the Rick Steves' fans discovering Arran or the Outer Hebrides. They get no mention in his book, nor does Aberdeenshire for that matter. That's why I always recommend the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Things aren't quite as bad, Sabbath wise, as they used to be in the Outer Hebrides. We were on Lewis and Harris during the summers of 2016 and 2018, and there were shops and attractions open on Sunday. However, once you get north and west of Stornoway, your warning holds true. Also, South Uist is a little more lively than North Uist, but you can still find lots to do on both. You could spend hours at Balranald, and most of the hotels serve Sunday meals to non-residents.

I'm one of those odd people who love ferry travel. I've been on most of the West Coast CalMac ferries at one time or another, even to Rum, Eigg, and Canna. Can't wait to go back!

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
57 posts

Here is a rough first draft of a possible itinerary:

Drive via Kirkaldy, St Andrew's, Dundee and Perth
Drive via Aviemore and Culloden
Inverness - day trip to Loch Ness and surrounds
Drive via coast road
John O'Groats
John O'Groats - day tour to Orkney
Visit Dunnet and Thurso, drive to Ullapool
Ullapool - day trip north of Ullapool - Lochinver and surrounds
Ferry to Stornoway
Lewis & Harris - ?location
Lewis & Harris - ?location
Lewis & Harris - ?location
Ferry from Tarbert to Uig
Skye - ?location
Skye - ?location
Skye - ?location
Skye - ?location
Drive via Kyle of Lochalsh, Glenfinnan and Glencoe
Ferry to Mull
Mull - ?location
Mull/Iona - ?location
Ferry to Oban, drive to Kennacraig, ferry to Islay
Port Ellen
Port Ellen
Ferries/drive to Dunoon
Dunoon - day trip to Loch Lomond

A few points to note:
We will be flying into Edinburgh
We are used to driving on the left
We have friends who live in Dunoon
We will not be visiting St Kilda


Posted by
1376 posts

Hello again, Gandy79,

Just a few comments, since you asked:

As you're flying in to Edinburgh, don't hire your car until you are ready to head up north. Having a car in Edinburgh is a definite liability, unless your lodging provides free parking. If that's the case, then it may be worth hiring the car right away.

You may want to consider staying in Thurso instead of John O'Groats. That way, you can take the ferry out of Scrabster for your day trip to Orkney. There's absolutely nothing to do in John O'Groats, and it's not even the easternmost or northernmost part of the Scottish mainland. If there were sidewalks in John O'Groats, they'd be rolling them up well before 5:00 p.m. :)

It is a long drive from Thurso to Ullapool via the coast. There are no diagonal short cuts from the north coast to the west coast. Be sure to get an early start. You'll be stopping often to gaze at the awesome vistas.

When you take your day trip to the Lochinver area, be sure to take the B869 circular road via Stoer and Drumbeg. It's one of the most spectacular coastal roads in Scotland. However, if it's absolutely lashing down rain, take the unclassified "Wee Mad Road" south out of Lochinver for Achiltibuie. You can return to Ullapool via the Stac Pollaidh road.

You're going to have to backtrack if you want to visit Glenfinnan, as you're taking the Skye Bridge from Kyleakin to Kyle of Lochalsh. You'd be taking the A87 as far as Invergarry, then the A82 south to Fort William and Glencoe. Glenfinnan is about 20 miles west of Fort William on the A830. Unless you had your hearts set on visiting Eilean Donan castle, you'd be better off taking the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig, then taking the A830 on to Glenfinnan and Fort William, and visiting Glencoe from there. There is much to see along the 830.

I can recommend B&B and hotel accommodation on Harris and Skye, if you're still searching, plus a comfortable, but inexpensive B&B in Oban. Also Tobermory and Fionnphort on Mull.

Best wishes for your plans!

Mike (Auchterless)

p.s.: Be sure to check with CalMac to find out if you'd be saving money on the Ullapool-Stornoway-Tarbert-Uig route by purchasing an island hopscotch ticket. And if you take the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig, you could add that voyage to your ticket.

p.p.s.: As you're definitely not going to St. Kilda, you may want to consider a day trip to the isolated peninsula of Knoydart. It's only accessible via a 16 mile hike in from Kinlochhourn, or by a boat from Mallaig. That's if you do end up in Mallaig. Inverie, the main (actually, only) village in Knoydart, is fascinating. You could have a pint at Britain's most isolated pub, hike off in one of several directions, or check out the house once owned by famous Nazi sympathizer Lord Brocket, who was made famous in the song "Seven Men of Knoydart."

You could even stay overnight on Knoydart. There are several very nice places to stay.

Posted by
57 posts

Hi Mike

Thanks for your observations and suggestions which are most helpful.

We will most definitely not be hiring a vehicle until we leave Edinburgh. We always use public transport/walk in major cities.

I will consider Thurso as an alternative to John O'Groats. Also, we are not planning on driving the coast road from Thurso to Ullapool but rather to backtrack south on the A9 towards Inverness and then head west on A835. Much and all as I would love to take the coast road, I feel that to do it justice would take more time than we have available. My compromise is to take a day trip exploring between Ullapool and Lochinver.

Thanks again for your ideas. I am sure I will have more questions as we continue planning.