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Inner Hebrides

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Travel Guide Europe United Kingdom Scotland Scottish Islands Hebrides Inner Hebrides

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Introduction

The Inner Hebrides are those islands lying close to the mainland of Western Scotland. The Inner Hebrides are very widespread and it is difficult to think of them as a single group. They vary enormously between Skye, Mull and Rum with substantial mountains to the islands of Coll and Tiree with little by way of contours. You shouldn’t plan to visit many let alone all of them on a single trip. Transport routes radiate out from the mainland, with limited inter-island links, so you’d end up spending a lot of time waiting on draughty jetties or in Glasgow airport transit lounge. And the main charm of the islands is their relaxed, away-from-it-all feel – they’re not places for frenetic sight-seeing and hurrying on to the next attraction.

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Geography

The islands form a disparate archipelago. The largest islands are, from south to north, Islay, Jura, Mull, Rùm and Skye. Skye is the largest and most populous of all with an area of 1,656 km2 and a population of just over 10,000. The southern group are in Argyll, an area roughly corresponding with the heartlands of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata and incorporated into the modern unitary council area of Argyll and Bute. The northern islands were part of the county of Inverness-shire and are now in the Highland Council area.

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Islands or Island Groups

  • Skye - this includes Rona and Raasay. Skye must rank first because of its spectacular mountain scenery, things to do and see, places to eat, drink and sleep, and accessibility. There’s no air service but it’s linked by toll-free bridge to the mainland, with buses and trains from Glasgow, and there’s also a ferry between Mallaig and Armadale. However this does make Skye very touristy and crowded in summer, and to that extent it doesn’t feel Hebridean. But it is a wonderful place, weather permitting. Portree is the main settlement.
  • Small Isles - Rum, Canna, Eigg and Muck. The Small Isles of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna are usually admired from a distance, forming the dramatic view from Skye out to sea. They have very limited accommodation and most visitors are on day trips, sailing from Mallaig (about 1½ hours) – leave your car there even if you’re staying longer.
  • Islay Group - Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Gigha. Islay is scenic round its coastline (the interior is a soggy heath), and has lots to do, see and especially to drink: it has an impressive number of whisky distilleries. It has flights to Glasgow, and ferries from Kennacraig in Argyll to Port Ellen on the east of the island and to Port Askaig on the north (some continuing to Colonsay); both take around two hours.
  • Mull and its neighbours - Mull, Iona, Staffa, Ulva, Treshnish Isles. Mull is scenic, and its main settlement of Tobermory is picture-perfect. The island scores highly on things to do & see, and places to eat, drink and sleep. It’s reached by a 40-minute ferry ride from Oban to Craignure; there’s no air service. Many of the visitor attractions are along the highway between Craignure and Tobermory, and this strip can sometimes feel touristy. But Mull is seldom crowded. Mull is the base for reaching Iona – you drive across to Fionnphort and leave the car there, taking the short foot-ferry to Iona. Boat trips run from Mull to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, to the Treshnish Islands, and to Ulva. Short ferry rides link Craignure with Lochaline on the Morvern peninsula, and Tobermory with Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan, alternative routes back towards Oban and Glasgow. Ferries to the outer isles pass close to Mull but don’t call.
  • Coll and Tiree - Tiree has different scenery, being sandy and low-lying. So it’s more fertile and has a stronger cultural history for its small size, and the stiff breezes deter the midges. It has flights to Glasgow and a four-hour ferry crossing from Oban. Two days a week there's a flight to Colonsay. Nearby Coll is more rugged and thinly populated. The ferry takes three hours from Oban, continuing to Tiree; there's also a flight connecting Coll to Tiree and Oban. So these two islands can easily be combined, though there isn’t a link every day.
  • Lismore and Kerrera - Close to Oban are what might be called the Even Smaller Islands of Lismore, Kerrara, Seil & Luing. Think of them as farmsteads and holiday cottages that happen to be separated from the mainland by a short boat ride, and indeed Seil is connected by a road bridge.

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Sights and Activities

  • There are historic sites scattered about all the islands. Many of these are open all the time, and you just have to walk up to them.
  • Mull has several castles, including the impressive Duart Castle near Craignure.
  • Dunvegan Castle on Skye is in a impressive coastal setting, and there are also several ruined castles on the island.
  • Kinloch Castle on Rum is an incredible late Victorian country house. You think that you have stepped back 100 years when you go in the door.
  • There is great coastal scenery, with only the occasional house to enhance the picture.
  • There are some good birdwatching opportunities with RSPB events and reserves on Mull, Islay and Coll.

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Weather

The influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Atlantic Current creates a mild oceanic climate. Temperatures are generally cool, averaging 6.5 °C in January and 15.4 °C in July at Duntulm on the Trotternish peninsula of Skye. Snow seldom lies at sea level and frosts are fewer than on the mainland. Winds are a limiting factor for vegetation: a speed of 128 km/h has been recorded; south-westerlies are the most common. Rainfall is generally high at between 1,300 and 2,000 mm per annum, and the mountains and hills are wetter still. Tiree is one of the sunniest places in the country and had 300 days of sunshine in 1975. Trotternish typically has 200 hours of bright sunshine in May, the sunniest month

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Getting There

By Plane

Islay, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree have flights from Oban with Hebridean. Islay and Tiree are also served by Flybe from Glasgow Airport. From 1 September 2017 Loganair will be operating FlyBe's island routes.

By Train

For most of the Inner Hebrides the nearest railway station is Oban. For some - the Small Isles and Skye - it is Mallaig. You can also travel to Skye by taking the train to Kyle of Lochalsh. All 3 routes are scenic and worth the trip for that alone. Oban and Mallaig stations have connections with Calmac ferries. From Kyle of Lochalsh you'd take a bus across to Skye.

By Car

You can drive to Skye and Seil as they both have bridges connecting them to the mainland. For many of the others you can take your car across on the ferry. Eigg (and the other Small Isles, I think) does not allow visitors to bring cars onto the island. Easdale has no roads and the ferry is passenger only. On some smaller islands a car's only purpose would be to keep the rain off (not to be underestimated) and walking or cycling are the best ways of getting around. Colonsay fits into that category.

By Bus

Scottish Citylink connect Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness with Fort William, Oban, Kennacraig, Kyle of Lochalsh and various points on Skye. Additional local buses serve the larger islands; for more information contact Traveline Scotland.

By Boat

Calmac ferries serve the larger islands. For smaller ones it will be either an independent operator or the local council which runs the service. Calmac's website links to other operators' sites. Calmac timetables change between summer and winter.

The Inner Hebrides are a popular destination for sailers, with many sheltered ports and inlets offering beautiful and tranquil achorage.

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Getting Around

With the possible exception of Skye (which is easily reached by the Skye bridge), the Inner Hebrides are undoubtedly most easily explored on foot and by public transport, since ferry charges for cars are high and few islands are large enough to justify bringing a vehicle.

In addition to the buses and trains detailed in the 'Get In' section above, a number of local buses serve the larger islands. Very few buses run on Sundays, and most operate a schedule around school times and days. It is highly advisable to check travel times in advance. Traveline Scotland can provide point to point multi-modal transport advice, although some may find bus timetables from island websites more useful.

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Eat

Most places to eat on the islands are individual locally run places - there are almost no chain restaurants. This means that you are much more likely to get freshly cooked home made dishes than in a city. In many places the hotel may be the only pace to est in the evening, and last orders may be as early as 8:00pm.

The seafood caught around the shores of the islands is excellent, and in particular it is worth trying the local shellfish such as scallops.
You may also find local lamb, beef or venison on the menu. Some good cheeses are made on Mull.

If you are self-catering you will find small independent shops on all the islands, and Co-op supermarkets on Mull, Skye and Tiree.

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Drink

Whisky

There are several whisky distilleries on Islay, generally producing peaty single malts. Laphroaig is usually regarded as having the strongest peat taste, and whilst much appreciated by connoisseurs, may not be the best for beginners.

Jura has a single distillery, producing a variety of single malts, some peated, some not.

Mull has a distillery in Tobermory. The whisky is sold under the Tobermory and Ledaig brands. Ledaig is peated like an Islay whisky and Tobermory is smoother.

On Skye there is the Talisker distillery at Carbost.

Beer

There are breweries on Skye and Colonsay.

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Sleep

There are dozens of options scattered around the islands, including many B&B's, but also camping sites and luxury hotels.

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Contributors

as well as davidx (2%), Peter (1%), Sam I Am (1%)

Inner Hebrides Travel Helpers

  • IainT

    I've visited several of the Inner Hebrides islands rin the last 3 or 4 years - Skye, Tiree, Kerrera, Mull, Iona, Staffa, Ulva, Seil, Easdale, Luing, Gigha, Islay, Eigg & Colonsay from memory.

    I've become quite adept at working out the Calmac ferry schedules, and other options by flying in some cases.

    Ask IainT a question about Inner Hebrides

This is version 18. Last edited at 15:48 on Jul 5, 17 by IainT. 12 articles link to this page.

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