The Inner Hebrides are those islands lying close to the mainland of Western Scotland. If you have a notion to see "the Highlands and Islands", without being more specific, the place you're looking for is among the Inner Hebrides. But you shouldn’t plan to visit many of them on a single trip, let alone try to bag them all. 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.
So you need to pick your island, or group of islands in the instances where they do naturally link. All of them are described in detail on their own pages, and general advice on air and ferry transport is in the “Getting around” page for Scotland. This page just gives a brief overview to guide that choice and itinerary. The islands are therefore considered below not in any geographical sense, but in order of potential for visitors: accommodation and food, things to do and see, and convenience of getting there. This is inevitably very subjective but if for a first visit you choose an island near the top of the list, and get around to the others on future trips, you’re unlikely to go wrong. Or if you find yourself charmed by one particular spot, returning whenever you can and never mind the others, that’s equally good.
The Inner Hebrides are a large, scattered archipelago; what they have in common is their rugged, thinly populated terrain. Their land was always too poor for anything beyond subsistence farming, eked out with fishing. In the 19th century the population was systematically (and sometimes violently) evicted from their small farms by the landlords, and the land turned over to sheep-grazing and deer-stalking - the “Highland Clearances” still bewailed in local oral history. Later redevelopment schemes came to little; but in the 20th century tourism developed as transport and island accommodation improved. Gaelic culture and language did survive, though if you hear it spoken, it may just be a college lecturer from Wisconsin showing off.
A long weekend will do fine for any of the islands. Cross your fingers for the weather: when it’s good it’s glorious, when it’s poor it’s misery. Summers bring tourists and clouds of midges – think twice about camping if you react badly to bites. Winters are very quiet, and many facilities shut down when the clocks go back in October.
The main islands
For a first-time visit, the choice is between Skye (with Raasay), Mull (with Iona), Islay (with Jura) and Tiree (with Coll). These islands are large, with little or no public transport, and you need a car. They all have "satellite" islands that may not rank highly as destinations in their own right, but are easily visited as side-trips.
- 1 Skye (Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach or Eilean a' Cheò) must stand 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. This does make Skye very touristy and crowded in summer, but it is a wonderful place, weather permitting. Portree is the main settlement.
- If you’re driving to the Outer Hebrides, you probably need to travel via Skye and factor in an overnight stay. Then from Uig you take the ferry either to Tarbert for Harris and Lewis, or to Lochmaddy for the Uists. Skye is also the base for visiting the small island of Raasay (Gaelic: Ratharsair).
- 2 Mull (Muile) is scenic, and its main settlement of Tobermory is picture-perfect. The island scores highly on things to do and see, and places to eat, drink and sleep. It’s reached by a 45-minute ferry ride from Oban to Craignure; there’s no air service. The main attractions are in and around Tobermory, plus Duart Castle near Craignure. Mull is seldom crowded.
- Iona (Ì Chaluim Chille) is reached via Mull: you drive across to Fionnphort and leave the car there, taking the short ferry to Iona and walking to the abbey. Boat trips also 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.
- 3 Islay (Ìle) 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.
- 4 Jura (Diùra) is reached via Islay, by the short ferry crossing from Port Askaig. Jura is big but bleak.
- 5 Tiree (Tiriodh) 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.
- 6 Coll (Cola) 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.
These have far less in the way of facilities and sights, and you might not need a car, or indeed be allowed to bring one.
- 7 Colonsay (Colbhasa) is a small but charming island reached by a 2 hr 30 min ferry ride from Oban, or twice a week from Kennacraig via Port Askaig on Islay (3 hrs 30). There's also a flight from Oban via Islay two days a week. At low tide, walk across the strand from Colonsay to the tidal island of Oronsay. Many visitors bring a car, but you can explore without one.
- The Small Isles consist of 8 Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna. They're usually admired from a distance, forming the dramatic view looking south from Skye. They have very limited accommodation and most visitors come on day trips, sailing from Mallaig (about 90 mins) or Arisaig. You're not allowed to bring a car to these islands, which only have about a mile of road each.
- 9 Lismore (Lios Mòr) has medieval ruins but is almost undeveloped for tourism. A day-trip from Oban will suffice.
- South of Oban are what might be called the Even Smaller Islands of Kerrara, Seil, Luing, Easdale and Scarba. Think of these as individual farmsteads and holiday cottages that happen to be separated from the mainland by a short boat ride; in fact Seil is connected by a road bridge. Beyond Scarba lies the roaring maelstrom of the Corryvreckan.
- 10 Gigha (Giogha) away to the south is just a 15-minute ferry ride from the Kintyre peninsula. You’d probably visit as part of a tour of Argyll, leaving your car at the mainland pier and walking round the island. The main sights are Achamore Gardens and the Ogham Stone.
- And smaller still and smaller: the islands and coasts are fractal, so whatever you focus on, some even smaller place swims into view. Focus on Mull and you notice Ulva, and then the short channel separating Gometra, off which are . . . and so on. What they have in common is that they're uninhabited and don't have a ferry service, and they're protected as reserves for seabirds and other wildlife and habitat. So they're not "destinations", but summer boat-trips may visit them.
Beyond the Inner Hebrides
Several other major Scottish island groups are not part of the Inner Hebrides – they’re described on other pages. Chief of these are:
- The Outer Hebrides: Harris and Lewis are a single large island. Eriskay, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist are effectively one island, being linked by road. Then Barra lies to the south. These are much barer and bleaker than the Inner Hebrides, with fewer sights and facilities. They can easily be combined with a visit to Skye, because a common access route is to drive across Skye and take the ferry from Uig.
- The Northern Isles are the Orkney and Shetland islands. They're quite different from the Hebrides and from each other, being Norse not Gaelic, with many well-preserved prehistoric remains. They're low-lying, treeless and breezy, with lots of amenities and sights.
- Firth of Clyde islands are Arran (the most charming), Bute, and Great Cumbrae. Pleasant, accessible, all can be done as day-trips from the Glasgow area, but that means they'll feel busy and touristy if you've just come from the Hebrides.
- St Kilda is not the name of any island, but a lonely archipelago miles out in the Atlantic. Hirta the largest is where you land to see the abandoned village. It's only visited on occasional boat trips, weather and sea conditions permitting.
- Knoydart is the "mainland island", the last populated region of Great Britain to have no road connection to the rest of the country. It's possible to hike there over the moors, but usually you take the ferry from Mallaig to the main village of Inverie.
There are daily Loganair flights from Glasgow (GLA IATA) to Islay and Tiree. A tiny plane links Oban (OBN IATA) with Coll, Tiree and Colonsay, but baggage limits are restrictive, and Oban has no passenger air connection to the global network.
There are no rail bridges to the islands. The mainland terminals are at Kyle of Lochalsh and Mallaig for Skye (and Small Isles from Mallaig) and at Oban for Mull, Coll, Tiree and Colonsay. Kyle of Lochalsh has trains from Inverness, and Oban has trains from Glasgow Queen Street. From London you usually change in Glasgow, but the Highland Sleeper from Euston has a portion for Inverness and another for Fort William, change for Mallaig.
Calmac ferries sail from Kennacraig to Islay, from Mallaig to Skye and the Small Isles, and from Oban to Mull, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay and the Outer Hebrides.
Or sail your own yacht or motor-boat there.
You can nowadays drive all the way to Skye on A87 which crosses on a toll-free bridge. Buses from Glasgow follow that route, running 2 or 3 times a day to Portree (7 hours) and Uig the ferry port for the Outer Hebrides. Another scenic route is to leave A82 at Fort William and follow A830 ("The Road to the Isles") via Glenfinnan and Arisaig to Mallaig, for the ferry to Armadale.
For Oban, leave A82 at Tyndrum and follow A85 west. For Kennacraig, leave A82 at Arrochar on Loch Lomond, and follow A83 west then south.
You need a car on Skye, Mull, Islay and Jura; you probably need one on Tiree, Coll and Colonsay. These are large islands, with lonely miles, summer downpours, and midges, midges, midges. The few buses are either linking to incoming ferries, or for school run; so there's only one or two per day, not convenient for sight-seeing.
Walking or bike hire will do fine for the smaller isles.
- There are historic and prehistoric 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 Rùm is an incredible late Victorian country house. Alas you can only admire it from outside, as it's fallen into disrepair.
- 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.
- There are many good beaches on the islands. Of particular note are the beaches on Tiree and Islay.
- The islands are good for walking, including the possibility of walking a full circuit of some of the smaller ones. the outdoor access code should be followed if you are walking on land away from the road or marked paths.
- Windsurfing is popular of Tiree.
- There are several golf courses on the islands.
- Listen to music in one of the bars at the weekends in Tobermory, or go to a ceilidh held occasionally in a hall on any of the islands.
- 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 8pm.
- 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.
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.
There are breweries on Skye and Colonsay.
People are very friendly, and crime is to all intents and purposes non-existent in many rural parts. Many of the Hebridean islands are remote and sparsely populated and the weather can change very rapidly; it is therefore important to be well prepared before venturing onto the hills or moors.
It's a choice of continuing west out to sea to the Outer Hebrides, or returning to the mainland.