The Inner Hebrides are those islands lying close to the mainland of Western Scotland. If you have a notion to see “the Highlands & Islands”, without being more specific, the islands you’re thinking of will be among the Inner Hebrides. But 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.
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 & 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 & 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 northern Inner Hebrides are made up of:
- Skye and its surrounding smaller islands, including Raasay
- The four Small Isles of Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rum
The southern Inner Hebrides are made up of:
- Mull and its surrounding smaller islands including Iona
- Slate Islands
- Treshnish Islands
Towns and villages
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 19 C 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 20 C 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.
Note that there are several other major island groups that are not part of the Inner Hebrides – again, they’re described on their own pages. Chief of these are:
And then there’s lonely St Kilda, miles out in the Atlantic.
The main islands
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.
If you’re taking your own car 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 & Lewis, or to Lochmaddy for the Uists. Skye is also the base for visiting the small island of Raasay.
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.
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.
Islay is the only way to reach Jura, by the short ferry crossing from Port Askaig. This is big but bleak, you need your own wheels, and a day-trip will do nicely for most visitors.
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.
Colonsay is a small but charming island reached by a 2¼ hour ferry ride from Oban, also twice a week from Kennacraig via Port Askaig on Islay; plus a flight from Oban via Islay two days a week. At low tide, walk across the strand to the tidal island of Oronsay.
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.
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.
Gigha, away to the south, is similar, just a 15-minute ferry ride from the Argyll mainland. You’d probably visit as part of a tour of Argyll, leaving your car at the pier and walking round the island.
The northern Inner Hebrides of Skye and the Small Isles are reached by two roads that branch off the A82 Inverness to Fort William road. The A87 is the further north, and travels to Kyle of Lochalsh and the now toll-free bridge to Skye.
Kyle of Lochalsh, Mallaig and Oban are accessible by scheduled ScotRail passenger trains. Approximately three trains a day connect Mallaig to Fort William (for sleeper trains to London six nights a week) with at least one continuing on to Glasgow Queen Street. A similar number of trains connect Kyle of Lochalsh with Inverness for connections to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London. Several daily trains operate between Oban and Glasgow, normally coupling to and from Fort William and Mallaig trains at Crianlarich.
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.
The Inner Hebrides are a popular destination for sailers, with many sheltered ports and inlets offering beautiful and tranquil achorage.
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.
- 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.
- 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 in this part of Britain, and crime is to all intents and purposes non-existent in many rural parts. Many of the Hebridean islands are remote and sparsely populated, however, and the weather can change very rapidly; it is therefore important to be well prepared before venturing onto the hills or moors.
There are several other groups of Scottish Islands, which have some similarities and some differences from the Inner Hebrides.
- Outer Hebrides, the main islands are: Barra (which has a weekly ferry from Tiree), South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris, Lewis.
- Orkney Islands an archipelago of some 70 islands off the North of Scotland.
- Shetland Islands, some 100 islands (15 inhabited) to the North of the Orkney Islands.
- The islands in the Clyde, principally Isle of Arran, Great Cumbrae and Isle of Bute