but WHICH island?
April 21, 2017 9:16 AM   Subscribe

A friend and I are going to be in Scotland May 7-15. We are using Glasgow as a home base, but we want to go visit an island. I'm having trouble figuring out 1. which island; and 2. how to get to said island. Does anyone have any Scotland tips?!

Things we are into include: magic rock formations, whiskey, fluffy cows, cool nature, weird experiences. If there is some way that we can sleep in a castle on an island then I am 100% in.

My preference would be to take the train+ferry, but would be down for flying. I guess I would be willing to rent a car if someone convinces me that this is the absolute best plan in the world, but am hesitant because that means less whiskey for the driver and also trying to figure out how to drive on the opposite side of the road than we are used to.

If anyone has any non-island recommendations that are easy to get to from Glasgow, I would appreciate that too. So far we are planning to also take a day trip to Edinburgh and to do this tour.
posted by aaanastasia to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Mull would seem the most viable option by public transport - there's a train from Glasgow to Oban and you can get a ferry across, then buses to get around Mull itself.

The absolute quickest you're going to do that in is about 5 hours each way, though.

Alternatively, fly to Barra from Glasgow. You get to land on the beach, it's super cool and it's a stunning (tiny) island.
posted by parm at 9:35 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wife and I went to the Isle of Mull, largest of the Inner Hebrides, in October.

Distillery with single malt, check.
Fluffy cows, check.
Train/bus and ferry ride from Glasgow, check.
Castles, check.
Castle sleeping, unsure, but Tobermory has the Western Isles Hotel, a charming place standing watch over the harbor.
Rock formations, unsure, but on clear days you can see many of the other Inner Hebrides islands clearly across the sea.
Cool nature, unsure; we were hosted by friends and tied to their vehicle for disability reasons, so not a lot of inland hiking for us.
Even cooler sub-island, check; Iona is a short ferry-ride from Mull and is naturally well-suited for monastic living and experiences.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:36 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

(should say, no distilleries on Barra, but there's Tobermory on Mull)
posted by parm at 9:36 AM on April 21, 2017

I went to Skye two years ago, and am planning to head back this summer because it was just that awesome.

It's a bit of a schlep from Glasgow (but actually only about an hour further than Mull), but the scenery on the drive up was gorgeous; we stopped in Fort William on our way back, which was cute. Nala did most of the driving, because when I attempted to take the wheel (along Loch Ness, since we went up to Inverness first), I promptly drifted over to the left shoulder, and thanks to some pointy rocks, got a flat tire. Nala said it was mostly fine for him, since he started out on nice, wide, divided highways, which got his brain to switch before we got to the smaller, windy roads. Also, some of the roads on Skye are basically one-car wide, so the side doesn't matter: you just have to pull over to let the other cars by when you see them.

The whiskey consumption of the driver was not too effected: we mostly went out hiking during the day, and then enjoyed whiskey back at our B&B, while watching the sunset over the Black Cullins. It was magical.

There is a castle. As for cool nature, there's the aforementioned Black Cullins, the Fairy Pools, and ton of beaches. And just really incredible vistas everywhere.

Also, whiskey, specifically, the Talisker Distillery. Not to mention all of the whiskey at the B&B.
posted by damayanti at 10:00 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Skye! The West Highland Rail line will take you to Mallaig, from which you can take the ferry. It's a breathtaking train ride. Both the Old Man of Storr and Flodigarry are high in magical rock formation-ness.
posted by batbat at 10:07 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was on Arran a few weekends ago and loved it. Should be dead easy to get there from Glasgow - train to Ardrossan and then ferry. Cool nature is abundant and climbing Goatfell has an absurd reward to effort ratio (non professional photo in my profile). There's a distillery (and a brewery) and I'm sure plenty of fluffy cows but the deer are more interesting.

Islay is where you want for whiskey particularly. Skye is bigger and has more to see and do but is that bit further away and harder on public transport.
posted by neilb449 at 12:10 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mull is pretty easy to get to. Take the West Highland line (which is omgwtfbbq gorgeous) to Oban (which is also a pretty great little town with whiskey and an amazing Victorian folly) and then the ferry to Mull. The ferry gets in at Craignure and the internet tells me there's a bus from the ferry terminal to Tobermory but I've never made the trip.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:33 PM on April 21, 2017

I'm going to second Skye. I went there last September and am going back in July, that's how good it is. The Talisker distillery-only is magnificent, there's a reason half of all "Scotland is pretty" pictures have the Quiraing in them, etc., etc ., etc. It's just great. There's tons of hiking, there are fairy tales and legends about various places, there are neolithic ruins, etc. A tiny bit of research will reveal tons of gems.

You can get there over a nicely paved bridge, but I'm going to suggest another route. Drive up to Glencoe* if you have time to spare (avoid driving along Loch Lomond if you can), and enjoy Glencoe - the land around there is astonishingly beautiful, it's a lovely village, and there's a very nice restaurant in nearby Ballaculish. Then go from Glencoe to Glenelg, which will sacrifice some time for a lovely drive, and you can then take the skye ferry over to Skye. The ferry is fun, it's off the beaten path, and you can see a doofy border collie try to help tie up the boat. Then you're right near an otter hide for otter/whale/seal watching and can drive over to the A87 along a scenic and only moderately terrifying path.

*Glencoe really is terrific as well.

Enjoy! And look things up on walk highlands.
posted by The Gaffer at 2:44 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

For a short & memorable but fully achievable multi-island tour incl. rock formations, you can go to Mull then Iona then Staffa.

Mull is easy from Glasgow, as everyone has already said - train from Queen St station to Oban, then the ferry. From the ferry terminal at Craignure, you can catch a bus to Fionnphort, at the south-western extremity of Mull. From there, you can get a small & frequent ferry to Iona, which is a beautiful island in its own right - small enough to walk all the way around in a couple of hours, lovely beaches on the western side, has an abbey with a resident community, and a fascinating history & culture that goes back to St. Columba in the sixth century. Genuinely a unique place with a very peaceful atmosphere. Stay overnight on Iona.

Then for the third island in your mini-tour - Staffa. You can take a trip in a small boat which takes about an hour or so to get to Staffa - which is home to Fingal's Cave, very famous for its basalt rock formations & the inspiration for Mendelssohn amongst many others. You'll see dolphins & puffins if you're lucky.

When you're back on Mull, head for Tobermory at the northern end - cute little harbour, there's a distillery there, and great pubs - the Mishnish is world famous.

Everyone else's other suggestions are also awesome. Basically, you can't go wrong. All the Hebridean islands are well worth visiting, each for their own reasons. You'll have a great trip.
posted by rd45 at 3:21 PM on April 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Skye is stunning but also, depending on when you're there, absolutely heaving with tourists. May is pretty early in the season so shouldn't be so bad, but peak summer holiday time places like Portree are unbearable, the roads clog up and it's basically impossible to take any of those beautiful Scotland photos that don't have at least 15 other people in them.

But if you do go, when you visit the Talker distillery, go on up the hill to the Oyster Shed for some of the freshest seafood with the absolute best view you'll ever have.
posted by parm at 3:22 PM on April 21, 2017

We did exactly rd45's route a few years ago, and its awesomeness is heartily seconded. And Staffa was so cool.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:26 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'll put a word in for Arran as easy to get to by train/ferry and possessing stone circles and beauty. Last time I was there was New Year.

(Also, don't forget Kelvingrove while you're in town! Plus any Macintosh stuff you want to see. So glad you're choosing the West as a base)
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:36 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mull is cool and all, but it's a bloody long trip and it's just beginning full-on midge season. Midges are very special. It takes about a day to get there and a day to get back. Iona and Staffa are at the far end of it. It could easily rain for all of it.

If you're only going to be in Scotland for a few days, Arran is where you should go. Super easy to get to. Distillery and castle, check. Stones? Machrie Moor. Mountains, rocks, critters: all yup.

Seconding thanks for starting in Glasgow. Edinburgh is cold and smells funny.
posted by scruss at 7:33 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

You'll have a lovely time on whichever island you pick.
+ for Skye. You can take the train to Kyle of Lochalsh. But better off hiring a car to drive around Skye.

Anytime I've ever been it's been jam-packed with rainbows, music, and whisky (and tourists in the summer though. Heed that warning).
The Old Man of Storr hike is weird+cool nature if you go in the mist and while the drive to Talisker is worth it, you can also try Gaelic Whisky for a lesser known and a relaxing pub lunch.

Not a direct answer to your question, but if you're so inclined, whet your appetite with Iain Banks's book Raw Spirit. It's probably more of a "check out of the library and read quickly" than a "buy new and don't leave home without" but might make a nice teaser.

Fleece and a waterproof coat!
posted by peppertree at 7:50 PM on April 21, 2017

Mull from Glasgow is a 3-hour train journey (plus a 1-hour ferry). Arran is a 45-minute train journey plus a 45-min ferry. Plus, travel on the other end - Mull and Arran both have bus services that meet the ferry coming in, but on Mull it'll take an hour to get to Tobermory (the main town), while on Arran the main towns are Brodick (where the ferry terminal is) or Lamlash (10 mins on the bus). (Although, Mulls distillery is in Tobermory; Arran's is in Lochranza, which is a 45-min bus from the ferry).

Given your time constraints I would go for Arran over Mull, but not JUST because of the time to get there. Arran is really lovely. Its selling point is that it's 'Scotland in miniature', and it packs a lot of geographic variation into one island. And for interesting rocks, it's got Hutton's Unconformity, plus the standing stones at Machrie Moor.

Other islands - I recommend CalMac's guide (CalMac are the ferry company covering most of the islands). Suggestions: Islay (for the whiskies), Bute and Cumbrae (for easy gettable-to-ness from Glasgow), Barra (cool plane journey from Glasgow with an airport landing strip that's literally a beach, plus barely any midges because it's more windswept than the inner islands and they don't like wind).
posted by Catseye at 11:44 PM on April 21, 2017

Agree with everyone above but must add:

"From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas;
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides."
- Anon
posted by lungtaworld at 7:33 AM on April 22, 2017

Bute is very accessible from Glasgow - could be day trip. Train to Weymess Bay & then 30 mins on ferry. Arran also good if you don't to go too far and they do say it's Scotland in miniature. If you want a mini island then try Inchcallioch on Loch Lomond - you get small boat over from Balmaha which you'll be able to get to by bus. - my house over looks it! Could combine with walk up conic hill which sits on highland boundary fault & then meal at the nice pub in Balmaha.

Other things to try: Auchentoshen is distillery in outskirts of Glasgow so you'll be able to get there by public transport. If you like Rennie Makintosch then trip on train to Helensburgh to see Hill House is worth it. If you are up for hiring a car then drive up through Glen Coe is stunning and you can squeeze into a day just about. In Glasgow the Riverside transport museum is worth visit. Glasgow v well connected by train so could do day trip to St Andrews or to Perth & Scone palace.
posted by smudge at 2:41 PM on April 22, 2017

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