The Small Isles lie 15-20 miles (25-40 km) off the west coast of Scotland and (like Skye to the north) are part of the Inner Hebrides. Four are inhabited and have a ferry service: Rùm, Eigg, Muck and Canna. There are also numerous tiny uninhabited islets and skerries.
- 1 Rùm is the largest, with its only settlement at Kinloch. There's a grandiose Victorian castle, but it's in disrepair and closed to visitors.
- 2 Eigg is a moorland plateau, with the scarp of An Sgurr brooding over it. It's the only island whose population reaches three figures: 105.
- 3 Muck is the smallest of the four, but is low-lying and fertile. It has the most accommodation, including the Small Isles' only hotel, and the only yurt.
- 4 Canna is joined by a roadway to uninhabited Sanday. It has three churches and a collection of ancient sites.
The markers on the map below are for the ferry piers on each island. In each case, that's on the east, sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic weather, and with the main settlement and amenities close by. From each pier, a narrow lane runs for a mile or so before giving out into farm track and rough hill trails. All four islands are covered by Ordnance Survey maps Landranger 39 (2 cm = 1 km) and Explorer 397 (4 cm = 1 km).
First you need to reach Mallaig, the mainland ferry port. Coming by public transport you need an overnight stay there, as the daily ferry usually sails around 10:00, and the earliest bus or train doesn't get in until afternoon. You might be able to return south without an overnight stay on days when the ferry returns to Mallaig mid-afternoon, in time for the last train around 18:00. With your own car and a very early start from Edinburgh or Glasgow you could catch the morning ferry, and certainly in summer the F Sa & Su afternoon ferries. You can't take (and don't want) a car over there, park in the free lot next to the ferry terminal.
CalMac Ferries sail daily from Mallaig, but to different islands on different days. The April-Oct schedule is:
- Monday: to Rum, Eigg and Canna
- Tuesday & Thursday: to Muck and Eigg
- Wednesday: to Rum and Canna
- Friday: to Muck and Eigg, back to Mallaig, then out again to Rum and Canna
- Saturday: to Rum, Canna and Eigg, back to Mallaig, then the interplanetary grand tour of Eigg, Muck, Canna and Rum
- Sunday: to Rum and Canna, back to Mallaig, then Eigg and Muck.
Still following all this? Then the Nov-March schedule is Monday to Eigg, Muck and Rum; Tuesday & Thursday to Rum & Canna; Wednesday & Friday to Eigg and Muck; Saturday to Rum, Muck and Eigg; and on Sunday only to Canna.
The crossings take 90 minutes to 4 hours depending on the route. Ferries sail on swiftly from each island. In summer day-trips are possible from Mallaig, and between islands on days when the ferry makes a double call. Peruse the Calmac timetable for permutations: the individual island pages offer suggestions. No day trips are possible in winter.
Calmac return fares are £8-11 for adults, children 5-15 half fare, toddlers and bikes free (Dec 2019). You can also make a trip around the islands, not landing, for £11 per adult. The usual ferry serving the Small Isles is the roll-on, roll-off MV Lochnevis, which can carry 190 passengers (and a dozen vehicles for islanders and visiting contractors, but leisure visitors' cars aren't permitted.) There's a cafe and passenger lounge, plus outdoor seating both towards the stern and (unusually) the bows.
From May to Sept a small boat runs daily from Arisaig, 10 miles south of Mallaig on A830, for day-trips around the islands with some hours ashore. See Arisaig Marine for timetable, fares and facilities aboard. Single and non-day-trip fares may be available if you plan to stay on the islands. Buses and trains to Mallaig also stop at Arisaig, about half a mile from the boat jetty.
Walking and cycling are the best ways of getting around, bikes may be available for hire locally.
Visitors are not allowed to bring cars to the islands - this means that Google Street View has not explored the Small Isles. There are a few residents' cars on the islands.
The Small Isles are not places for rushing round ticking off "sights". The main attractions are simply the scenery, environment and wild-life. All of them have excellent bird-watching. There are many ancient remains scattered about, mostly Pictish and Norse, with stones, grave-markers and monastic cells. On Rùm you can admire the exterior of Kinloch Castle (interior closed), and the family mausoleum.
Got a few million pounds or dollars spare to buy a Victorian castle? And more than a few million per annum for the restoration and indefinite upkeep of one great sprawling, draughty, leaky, tottering, unsuitable yet monstrously magnificent pile? Honestly, what do you do with a place like Kinloch Castle on Rùm? It's not actually on the market, being owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, which makes it the taxpayers’ problem. Some commentators would rather see the place demolished, as representing Highland landlordism at its worst. Do nothing and it falls into ruin; but it’s a Category A listed building and legally must be preserved. Does it stand idle, does it have a use? – any proposed use eg as a museum will involve throwing more money at it, for scant return. A swanky hotel, spa or clinic? A religious retreat (the flakier the better), an Alcatraz? It’s a conundrum... the only certainty is that the experiment with keeping alligators will not be repeated. Pointless once you've experienced the local midges.
Walking is the main pleasure activity, mode of transport, and source of grief when the weather turns sour. On Rùm, the Cuillin counts as a Corbett, at 812 m. On Eigg, An Sgurr is a pleasant climb.
Eat & drink
Every island has a small cafe. Eigg has a micro-brewery and restaurant, Canna has a restaurant. They're all very small with limited provisions, so phone ahead, otherwise they may either run out or close up early.
There's accommodation on all four islands of hostel/bunkhouse standard, plus self-catering cottages. Canna has B&Bs, as does Muck plus the only hotel.
For self-catering, stock up in Mallaig before you sail, at Spar (+44 1687 460257) or the Co-op (+44 1687 462240). You can also phone an order from the islands, which they'll put on the next available ferry, for a small charge. Orders should be placed before midday on the day before delivery.
The hazards here are natural: cold and wet, rough sea crossings, boggy or slippy ground, and midges.
All ferry routes lead back to Mallaig on the mainland.