Day Trip Ferries from Mallaig to Explore the West Coast
West Coast Waters Part II
Day Out Mallaig Boat Trips to Knoydart and the Small Isles
It was in spring, when making my travel plans for the year, that I realised I was coming very close to having travelled, at some point in my 32 years, to almost the entirety of my homeland. The final marker on the mainland, Knoydart, was held back deliberately. The most remote section of all. My precious bank of island recollections has always had one major blind spot too, the Small Isles. Likewise, I’ve been holding them back on purpose also, determined as I was to visit in autumn, and determined to make them part of an experience that I’d never forget. With both accessible via boat trips from Mallaig, it is time.
With the Road to the Isles section of my West Coast Waters marathon complete, my eyes turned to the next chapter on the horizon. For Part II in this series, I maintained my Mallaig base and targeted the following as all-action day trips. Ferries are fairly plentiful in the summer season, more erratic outwith that, and the timetables may well dictate the order and intensity with which you target them.
The boat trip from Mallaig north to the looming peninsula of Knoydart is a curious one. Its reputation as Britain’s last wilderness precedes it of course, and the sense of intrigued anticipation from those aboard is almost tangible. It feels like an expedition, of explorers daring to venture into a rugged unknown.
It’s the honesty box approach to life here. Don’t expect shops in the traditional sense. Don’t expect public services. There are short stretches of road that crawl out from the arrival village of Inverie, but no means of getting here by car. Supplies, fuel and any (extremely limited) vehicular arrivals come and go by boat. Don’t expect to get a phone signal. Even electricity is sourced from the peninsula’s own hydroelectric scheme. Off-grid indeed.
I suspect this prospect will split readers into similarly-sized camps. The terrified and the delighted. The prospect of being cut off, isolated and marooned would appal many….crippled by complete deprivation of Twitter, Instagram and Gmail. But then there’s a new addition to 21st Century society that has swelled in number in recent times – those in near-constant search of serenity and ‘digital detox’. This camp’s members struggle to walk away from devices, apps and constant connectivity. And, in Knoydart, they may have just found a fabulous ally. One that takes away the struggle, the irritating itch to reach for your mobile. Because, in the most straightforward and satisfying way possible, there’s no point.
Look out for….
Unique. I use this word a lot in the context of our Highlands and Islands. To the extent that I’m now wondering how on earth so many of these places I’m describing can possibly be “unique”. Yet, Knoydart is unique. Feeling more like an island than most islands, its splendid isolation and sense of self-sufficient community (a little over 100 people live here) make for a very special presence. Superb local businesses like Knoydart Brewery epitomise this by providing a thoughtfully crafted product – brewed in a former chapel no less – with a distinctive identity merging with delicious flavour, to wonderful effect.
Accommodation options are a pleasant surprise too, with decadent self-catering luxury available at Knoydart Hide. Perfect for romantic breaks as well as a recuperative treat after long days exploring Knoydart’s rugged peaks, the passion and vast knowledge that owner Jackie has for the area shines through in the quality of the property, in and out. She’ll sort you out with locally caught seafood, venison et al and suddenly the prospect of a hot-tubbed, Twitter-free evening under the stars starts to sound more than a little appealing!
Boat Trips from Mallaig to The Small Isles
The Isle of Eigg
It’s an entirely different atmosphere on the crossing to Eigg, this is very much one of more traditional excitement. Now a community owned island, it’s the most populous of the Small Isles and boasts one of the most instantly distinctive peaks in the country. That it has taken me to 2019 to scale this lava-formed sugarloaf is to my great embarrassment.
Sheer cliff face drops suggest that the Sgurr of Eigg is unassailable but a remarkably straightforward ascent route is to be found to the north west. Allow around 3 hours for the up and down, preparing for some boggy patches here and there. Shocking panoramic views await at the summit over a huge chunk of Scotland’s west coast. Distant, misty outlines of the Outer Hebrides and Mull are joined by more immediate vistas over the Skye and Rum peaks and the surrounding Cuillin Sound.
On the descent, I took a free-spirited wander to myself. Veering into thick gorse, it’s a crucial part of these islands’ appeal that solitude can be found so easily. The coastal views…..the first-time feel of it all….there’s comparisons to be made between Eigg and any number of Hebridean islands, but it’s the size and compactness that make it so easy to grasp….and therefore so easy to love quickly. It takes ages to get to know a Skye or a Harris, Eigg makes itself emotionally available much more willingly.
Eigg’s Rugged Coast
Those not up for the Sgurr hike can take a straightforward coastal traverse of Eigg’s south, where caves, infamy and tragedy reside. The chilling Massacre Cave remains accessible (bring a torch) and still holds the screams of the 400 residents of Eigg who were caught hiding here during a raid by the MacLeods of Skye in 1577. Gruesome asphyxiation killed them all as a fire set in the cave entrance smoked them alive. Savage, even by Scottish standards.
There are boat trips from Mallaig to Eigg (landing at Galmisdale) available via Calmac, but I found MV Sheerwater’s timings more convenient (although only operational in the summer season).
The Isle of Rum
Formerly known as The Forbidden Island, Rum was famously owned by the Bulloughs during the first half of the 20th Century. A wealthy Lancashire family, they treated the island as an extravagant (extremely private) hunting estate, complete with ostentatious Kinloch Castle as the centrepiece. Looking ludicrously out of place on an island as rugged as Rum, the architecture lover in me still can’t help but be fascinated. The story goes that George Bullough shipped in all of the materials, at enormous expense, and even paid his staff extra to wear tweed kilts for his…..pleasure. Wait for it though, allow me to present the biscuit taker. His vast and ornamental custom-built gardens even boasted hummingbirds, turtles and…..alligators. I suspect you get the idea.
That rather bizarre chapter aside, though, Rum is one of the most visually mesmerising islands we’ve got. Now a nature reserve, the attentive visitor may spot wild ponies, otters, Golden Eagles and hordes of nesting Manx shearwaters (in summer). The Rum Cuillin, little brother to Skye’s equivalent just over the watter, guards the stunning landmass and makes for some sensational hiking.
Hiking on Rum
Completing the whole range of Cuillin peaks is a serious expedition, so for day-trippers I’d suggest taking on Hallival and Barkeval (allowing around 5 hours or so return from the arrival point at Kinloch). With the sun beating down on an unusually hot and crystal-clear day, and the wind buffeting me around all over the place, it was one of those precious days of extreme Scottishness. Not another soul was on the hike and the panoramic scale across Rum’s neighbouring Small Isles (including Canna, the one I won’t be able to fit in this time) was astonishing. On the descent, the oddest thing happened. I cried. It only lasted a few seconds before I sorted myself out and made a bunch of man noises…..but there it was. Hmmm. I spent the next several minutes taken aback, caught totally unawares at the sudden power of all around to take physical as well as emotional control. This will be a day in the hills for the books.
For something easier, consider the 10-mile return walk (or cycle, bikes can be hired) from Kinloch to Glen Harris in the island’s north west where you’ll find the very odd Bullough Mausoleum. Or similarly the walk/cycle to the north coast sands at Kilmory Bay. Boat trips from Mallaig run at various times during any given week on a complex timetable, on a foot passenger basis. Next to no facilities exist on Rum itself so bring supplies with you.
The Isle of Muck
Muck does not have the visuals or the scale of Rum. Nor does it have the energy and presence of Eigg. It doesn’t need either. For it has serenity. Relaxation is a fundamental ingredient handed out on arrival at every Scottish island, but Muck’s portions are particularly generous.
Mallaig boat trips arrive at Port Mor and the most obvious course of action is to cross over the centre of low-lying Muck to the settlement at Gallanach Bay. A fine sandy beach awaits, as does the lion’s share of the island’s wildlife appeal. Ponies reminiscent of the famous pair that roam Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris provide an inquisitive welcome, matched by the long and playful stares dished out by the Bay’s resident seals. Dolphins made a very welcome appearance on the ferry crossing too, in waters rich in Safari Scotland potential.
With a population of only a few dozen, Muck has a level of intimacy that words can’t really do justice to. Only a couple of hours is necessary to grasp that but there are accommodation options (more than you’d expect) on the island too for longer stays. Be sure to take in the vantage point over Port Mor to the south, with Eigg and Rum in the background, before making your departure.
Next up in this series
Stay tuned for more next week, same time, same channel, as I head back to Skye and the Outer Hebrides……
This blog post is the result of a sponsored marketing campaign with West Coast Waters, promoting the endless highlights of Scotland’s west coast. The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the Visit Scotland Growth Fund – more information at https://www.westcoastwaters.co.uk/about.
All experiences had and any recommendations within are, though, based purely on passing the test of my considerable experience working in this industry and exploring my homeland. I’ll stick my neck out and say that you’ll not be disappointed with what awaits you.
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