WESTERN ISLES CAR FERRIES
Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) have a fleet of car ferries that knit together the numerous Scottish Islands with the mainland. Some of these are little more than short hops, whereas others are more ocean going in nature and sail out to remoter locations such as the Outer Hebrides.
Ardrossan (Mainland) to Brodick (Isle of Arran)
The ferry to the Isle of Arran sails from Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast. This is one of the shorter trips we make, and involves a stretch of water that is pretty well sheltered from the full Atlantic by two land masses the Kintyre Peninsula and the Isle of Arran itself. Arran itself is always reassuringly in view throughout the 55 minute duration. Ferries on this journey are plentiful as it’s a popular day trip or the Glasgow weekend market
In 2019 the service benefited from the introduction of some new vessels.
Lochranza (Isle of Arran) to Claonaig (Kintyre Peninsula, mainland)
Lochranza sits at the north west tip of the Isle of Arran, with our point of arrival (Claonaig) clearly visible from Arran. The crossing is one of the easiest we’ll make. It only takes 30 minutes to complete and has a generous check-in arrangement of 10 minutes before sailing. In addition to this, the crossing also sits quite deep into the Firth of Clyde itself which ensures that it’s one of the most sheltered. The chances are we’ll be looking to make the first ferry out in the morning which typically leaves at 08.15. Having suggested this though, we needn’t discourage you from accepting something akin to a twilight time at Machrihanish Dunes and exploring Arran in a little bit depth then perhaps you’d been able to manage the previous day. That being so, the midday sailing or the 13.15 might work better, or maybe even the 15.00?
Kennacraig (mainland) to Islay of Islay (Port Ellen or Port Askaig)
The ferry to the Isle of Islay sails from Kennacraig. This is a return journey rather than an onward point-to-point. The first 20 minutes of this trip are sheltered since Kennacraig lies halfway up Loch Tarbert. This means only 110 minutes would be considered sea faring. Even then, the Isle of Islay provides some additional shelter from northerly and westerly winds.
Tides determine which of Islay’s two ports we’ll need to use. It’s usually the case that morning sailings put into Port Ellen, Islay’s main centre, whereas afternoon sailing use Port Askaig on the northern side of the island. We’ll need to transit between them if necessary since Machrie is much nearer to Port Ellen then it is Port Askaig. Having said that, if we’re able to make us of the Ardfin course, then this is nearer to Port Askaig. The crossing to either port takes 2 hours and 20 minutes
The arrival into Port Askaig is certainly the more inspiring of the two. The final 20 minutes involve sailing down the ‘Sound of Jura’, a narrow channel of water with Islay on one side, and Jura on the other. The two mountains (‘the Paps of Jura’ dominate the skyline
Mallaig (mainland) to Lochboisdale (South Uist)
At three and half hours long, this is the longest single sailing we make. In the winter months we could sail from Oban (which involves longer on the water) but during the summer we have to use Mallaig.
The ferry between Mallaig and Lochboisdale sails at 17.20 with a check-in of 45 minutes before. With a bit of ambition we can add serious value to your day throughout. The road journey from Oban is going to take us near enough to Glencoe for you to consider taking an hour up exploring this most notorious of places from the pages of the Scottish history books, scene of the infamous massacre of 1692. We’ll also drive past Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel. Whether it be the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, or Harry Potter, the railway viaduct at Glenfinnan and the monument to ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ that looks down the length of this most arresting of lochs is an easy 30-45 to justify
Finally, just before you get to Mallaig, there’s a true gem of a nine hole golf course at Traigh (pronounced ‘try’). If you’ve made an early start at Glencruitten, then it needn’t be beyond the realms of the possible to play Traigh as well. We advise that you consider preparing a ‘packed lunch’ the night before however as you won’t have much time for eating if trying to fit everything into one day, and also that perhaps you consider taking your evening meal on the boat, as you will be arriving fairly late into Lochboisdale. Luckily the Polochar Inn is close to the port (about 10 mins), and Askernish is also nearby for the following morning. Everything is on the southern end of the island
IMPORTANT – we do make one appeal to you about this particular sailing though. Please make it! If you miss the deadline for checking-in and can’t sail … then yes … we do have a problem! This is the only sailing of the day. Missing the ferry is going to mean scrambling around for late accommodation and will also throw our other timings out of kilter
Beneray (North Uist) to Leverburgh (Harris)
This is another ‘return’ journey albeit undertaken on the same day. The Beneray to Leverburgh sailing would have legitimate claims to be considered one of the most interesting ferry trips in the entire Western Isles. Again, the channel is comparatively shallow, punctuated as it is by a series of small islands (skerries). Tides are an issue and we’ll need to consult the timetable closely to explore whether indeed it is even possible to play a round at the Isle of Harris golf course, and get back to North Uist on the same day. Don’t worry though, the green at the golf course is subject of an ‘honest box’ payment on the day. It’s not as if we need to pre-book and pay it and put the money at risk
It’s certainly a crossing worth trying to stay up on deck for as the ferry weaves its way in and around the skerries against the bleak and beguiling landscape that gently slides by on all sides. The crossing takes 60 minutes one-way, so time management against a fluctuating tide is actually the key to making this work. It might be possible of course to put the Isle of Harris leg on the day previous, but with our outward point of departure back to the mainland of Scotland being at Lochmaddy (North Uist) the geography works better if we take the Isle of Harris on our second day in the Outer Hebrides, perhaps even putting the second round at Askernish under review if we can’t make the sailing times work for us on any given day
Lochmaddy (North Uist) to Uig (Isle of Skye)
If everything has gone to plan, this is our sixth and final sailing and takes about 1 hr 45 mins. Uig is our destination, perched on the extremities of the fabled Isle of Skye, which itself is probably home to Scotland’s most evocative landscape. The journey from Uig through Portree and onto Lochalsh is a delight and something of a legitimate attraction in its own right. If we’re travelling in the height of summer, then you’ll benefit from extended daylight up until about 22.00 in the evening, or even beyond. If you have the energy, you can easily justify setting 90 additional minutes aside to take a more picturesque route to get to Lochalsh
The safety record of the ferries that serve British coastal waters is excellent. Between them, they’ve sailed millions of times now and in over a century, only one has been lost in peacetime, and that was in the English Channel and not remotely connected to Scotland.