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8 of Scotland’s Best Island Ferry Routes

There’s something special about ferry journeys. They offer a sense of adventure, a link to our seafaring past, and a showstopping island conclusion.

As you step off the mainland, you leave urban intensity behind for the promise of island calm. On deck, salt spray fills your lungs and hot coffee warms your bones. You are bound for a place of machair, of Neolithic stone, of dark green land broken by rock.

Land ahoy! You catch sight of the coast, sparkling in the sunshine or looming out of the clouds. What adventures await?

Climb aboard and discover some of Scotland’s most disarming ferry routes.

Kennacraig to Islay

100 miles west of Glasgow, past the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, and down the coast of Loch Fyne, you’ll find the port of Kennacraig. From here it’s a two-hour journey with CalMac to Islay, Scotland’s whisky island. The ferry takes you through the Sound of Islay, between the twin coastlines of Jura and Islay. It’s a lovely journey. On Islay you’ll find whisky distilleries (of course) but it’s also a home to seabirds of many descriptions, and its surrounding shores are crowded with life. Minke whales, dolphins, basking sharks and seals are just some of the underwater residents you might encounter around the isle’s coastlines. At the end of a day of exploring, reward yourself with one of the island’s famous smoky peated whiskies. That’s the spirit.

Find out more about Islay.

Oban to Coll

Coll, in the Inner Hebrides, is a sparsely populated island home to Iron Age forts, standing stones and some of the darkest skies in Europe. The journey to this peaceful island is an adventure in itself. The CalMac ferry leaves Oban and glides down the Sound of Mull, past the pretty houses of Tobermory and Ardnamurchan Point (the most westerly tip of the UK’s mainland) before a short crossing over the open sea to Coll. The island – officially designated a ‘Dark Sky Island’ in 2013 – has no streetlights, making it a perfect pilgrimage spot for stargazers. Coll’s remoteness is part of its charm, and its empty beaches will stun you with their lonely beauty.

Find out more about Coll.

Aberdeen to Shetland

Dreaming of a voyage to distant lands? The most northerly point in the British Isles is a good start. Northlink Ferries make the overnight journey from Aberdeen several times a week and the thrill of a night-time sail is like no other. Leaving the bustling city of Aberdeen, you’ll arrive as dawn breaks over Lerwick and the Shetland Isles. Home to ancient stone monuments, including Iron Age brochs and mystical standing stones, Shetland is an enigma. The combination of Scottish and Scandinavian history will fascinate you, while the serenity of the land and seascapes will delight those with a painterly eye.

Find out more about Shetland.

Ullapool to Lewis

Your journey begins in the far north west of Scotland, all wildness and grandeur. Your destination: the Isle of Lewis. A place that is sure to capture the imagination. The trip from Ullapool to Stornoway, the island’s capital, will fill you with the wonder of the glistening and restless sea. On dry land you’ll find that Lewis is an exciting combination of rugged hill ranges and machair, a Gaelic word meaning fertile low-lying grassland. Throughout the year the colours of the machair are in flux, with yellows dominating at first before fading into reds and blues. Walking on Lewis is a rare pleasure, and sights like the ancient Calanais standing stones are sure to inspire. Not to mention the wonderful beaches with their silky white sand.

Find out more about Lewis.

Scrabster to Orkney

Northwards now to Orkney, with its pristine early settlements that will transport you deep into the past. There are a number of ways to get to Orkney, but this route from Scrabster will take you through the dreamy backdrop of the Highlands by train, bus or car. It is also the only crossing which sails by the Old Man of Hoy, a teetering sea-stack jutting out from the sublime cliffs of Hoy. Orkney has a magic effect on all who visit, stirring the soul with its endless skies and fascinating heritage. The Neolithic Heart of Orkney World Heritage Site in particular is one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Elsewhere, in Kirkwall, you’ll find the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, while the town of Stromness is a charming place to spend a few hours exploring.

Find out more about Orkney.

Oban to Barra

The allure of this Outer Hebridean island is like the scent of a wildflower, irresistible! Barra’s remoteness doesn’t dampen the community spirit you’ll find on the island, where centuries of tradition have shaped the local identity. The journey from Oban by CalMac ferry takes around 5 hours, plenty of time to admire the sea or dive into a good book. On the approach to Castlebay, look out for Kisimul Castle, built on a rock in the middle of the bay. There’s a good chance of spotting seals too, relaxing on the shoreline. Be sure to visit some of the island’s many food and drink outlets, which are full of fine local produce.

Find out more about Barra.

Mallaig to Skye

The ferry to Skye takes a mere 45 minutes but what an approach (‘speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing’, as the famous song goes). You arrive at Armadale on the south side of the island, which is renowned for its beaches, forests, lochs and glens. The choices on Skye are vast, you could go hiking in the north to the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing and the Cuillin, or delve into history in the island’s towns, castles and museums. Take a look at our 12 Undiscovered Spots on the Isle of Skye article to find hidden gems away from the tourist trail. Thinking of bringing your bike? Skye is a great place to explore on two wheels. Forget trying to see everything in an afternoon on this iconic island, stay awhile, unwind, and experience ‘Skye time’.

Find out more about Skye.

Mull to Iona

Time for a bit of island-hopping. To reach Iona, the ancient resting place of Scottish monarchs, you’ll have to get the ferry to Mull first. On your way you’ll encounter the awe-inspiring natural masterpiece of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave – formed of hexagonal basalt columns 59 million years ago. An immaculate white sandy beach greets you as you arrive – pure perfection. Less than a mile across, you won’t be able to take a car to Iona – but it’s easy to navigate on foot. Iona has a special place in the heart of many people the world over, especially those with an interest in Scottish ancestry. Its importance in the history of Christianity in Scotland is central, but there is also much more to the island’s story.

Find out more about Iona.

Interested in taking a holiday in the Scottish islands? Take a look at our island-hopping page or learn more about getting around by ferry. Bon voyage!