By Saheli Pal – Breaking Out Solo
Off The Beaten Path Scotland The Small Isles
Tucked in between the more famous isles of Skye and Mull, just off the coast of west Scotland in the Inner Hebrides is a small archipelago that is certainly off the beaten path Scotland. Collectively, this area is known as the Small Isles. While the islands of Rum, Canna, Muck and Eigg are termed the Small Isles, they are actually not very close to each other. They are also quite difficult to get to. Moreover, they each have their own unique character making them all places you must see if you end up being one of the rare visitors to experience these atypical destinations.
Considering how popular Scotland is as a tourist destination, the Small Isles don’t see many foreign visitors. While locals know the area quite well, the complicated ferry timings and unpredictable Scottish west coast weather makes it challenging to travel to the Small Isles thus again why they are off the beaten path Scotland.
Each of the islands in this archipelago has its own unique characteristics which make them worth a visit. It’s possible to get a general feel for the Small Isles by taking a series of day trips. However, I recommend you add all of them to your Scotland bucket list and spend at least a few days on each island in order to truly appreciate each island’s individual spirit. If you have any comments or questions about these hidden gems, feel free to send us a message below, and we’ll get back to you in a flash!
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How To Get To The Small Isles Off The Beaten Path Scotland
From Mallaig, the Caledonian Macbrayne (shortened as “Calmac”) ferries service the Small Isles. The Calmac ferry, the MV Loch Nevis, continues on to all four islands touching back at Mallaig from various points in the journey. The route and timings vary throughout the week. Here is the link to the Calmac Small Isles summer ferry timetable. Additionally, during the summer months, the MV Sheerwater ferry runs from Arisaig and stops at each of the islands.
NOTE: Both the ferry service and the weather usually deteriorate during winter months, so travel during the winter time is extremely challenging.
Isle of Rum – Scotland Off The Beaten Path Scotland
Covering an area of about 105 sq. km, Rum is the largest of the four Small Isles.
There is abundant open space on the Isle of Rum, making it an excellent location for trekking and exploring.
I saw a good bit of wildlife while I was there, including these Hinds (female Red Deer).
Kinloch is both close to the ferry pier and is the only village on the island in which people live. The village has its own castle, a quirky building built by the previous owner of the island, George Bullough, as a hunting lodge he used to entertain his friends.
Funds from the Bulloughs family’s cotton mill supported the castle’s construction. The Bulloughs also hired many of their cotton mill workers as the laborers to construct the castle. Since the laborers were most familiar with building cotton mills, the underlaying structure of the castle most closely resembles a cotton mill. Later on, the laborers added turrets to give the structure more of a castle-like appearance.
Eventually, the Bulloughs family handed over the castle to the National Trust of Scotland. It still retains the Bulloughs’ eclectic collection of goods from all over the world, including stuffed animals and fish. George Bullough himself was an eccentric inventor, and some of his creations are still on display at the castle.
On the west of the island in Harris lies the family mausoleum of the Bulloughs built in Greek Doric architecture. This unexpected piece of architecture in such a remote location is yet another reason why the Small Isles are part of off the beaten path Scotland.
Things To Do Isle of Rum
To the north of the island is Kilmory Beach, with a glorious view of the Skye Cuillin across the water. People say it is one of the Queen’s favorite picnic spots, with the Britannia anchored by the shore. Kilmory Bay is the site of a long running study on red deer, and it has a healthy population roaming the grasslands. The island is also home to the Rum Ponies, a native breed that has been around since the ice age. The ponies have a strong nose for food. Visitors are best off if they safely stow away their lunch boxes while they are in this area. Rum is famous for its colony of Manx Shearwaters and many other sea birds. It is a good spot to watch the majestic Golden Eagles too.
Finally, the beautiful Rum Cullin mountain range spans the southern side of the island. The Viking influence on Rum is apparent in the names of its hills – Askival, Ainshval, Barkeval, Hallival, Orval, Trollaval as well as in the old villages of Dibidil, Papadil and Gurdil. The hills on Rum are not high. There are no Munros (hills above 3000 ft / 900 m), and only a couple of Corbetts (hills above 2000 ft / 600 m). However, it is the remote wilderness that draws hillwalkers, both locals and visitors from abroad. As an aside, some of the best hikes in Ireland are just a quick plan ride away from Scotland. So, if you’re keen for the great outdoors, make sure to check some of those out too.
Accommodations Isle of Rum
The uniqueness of Rum is in its rugged wilderness. Askival and Ainshval form the characteristic silhouette of Rum along with the rest of the range. The population of the island hovers around 20, and in the summer months, the number of visitors exceeds the island population. There is only one shop on the island that is open according to the ferry schedule. There is a community centre which hosts local bands and Ceilidh evenings. Dormitory accommodation is available in the Rum Bunkhouse. However, make sure to check out the most current list of Rum Island accommodations.
Isle of Eigg – Off The Beaten Path Scotland
At 30 sq km and significantly smaller than Rum is Eigg, the second largest, but the most populous of the Small Isles.
Things To Do Isle of Eigg
The main reason for visiting Eigg is its beautiful scenery. With its steep cliff faces and glorious beaches looking out to impressive views towards the Isle of Rum, it is a photographer’s paradise. To the north of the island lies the Singing Sands, named as such because of the squeaking noise the sand makes under dry conditions with a strong wind or when walked on. And of course, there is the prominent shape of the Sgurr that makes Eigg instantly recognizable. It is an easy walk up to the 400m outcrop in the centre of the island.
Accommodations Isle of Eigg
Eigg has its share of gruesome history of clan conflicts in its hidden caves on the cliff faces. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust owns the whole thing, and with the population at just about 90, this is indeed off the beaten path Scotland. Eigg is the only island that has proper tarmac roads; however, visitors are not permitted to bring their own vehicles. Scattered through out the island are a number of villages, which is why I had complete solitude on my many walks on Eigg. There are a few accommodations and a camp site on Eigg. I stayed at the Glebe Barn. While it was certainly not as rustic as motorhome wild camping in Scotland, it was still quite nice. This used to be an old barn that has now been converted to a dormitory and private room accommodation with a grand view towards the Scottish mainland. There is a shop and post office by the ferry pier.
Isle of Canna – Off The Beaten Path Scotland
The Isle of Canna is tiny at only 11 sq kms. Canna connects to the even smaller island of Sanday via. a footbridge. It is the second smallest in the Small Isles, yet it has much to offer. The Isle of Rum shelters Canna from harsh winds, and combined with the warmth from the Gulf stream, Canna is a verdant paradise. There are extensive stretches of green meadows, and the island is also home to an abundance of wildlife, which rightfully earns it the name ‘The Garden of the Hebrides’. The privately owned island changed hands a few times, but ultimately it came into the possession of the Campbell family who eventually handed over both Canna and Sanday to the National Trust of Scotland in 1981.
Things To Do Isle of Canna
While simply walking around the beautiful island is an activity in and of itself, Canna has quite a few landmarks worth a mention. The most unique is Compass Hill, which due to its high iron content causes compasses to deviate off course. Close to it are the ruins of Coroghan Castle, a 17th century hilltop tower. On Sanday is the Church of St. Edwards, a lighthouse and some amazing sea stacks which are home to the puffins during the summer months. Canna House on the island has an archive of Gaelic materials from the collection of the Campbell family. The Rocket Church is near the pier. The locals named the church as such due to its shape. It houses an exhibition about the island’s natural and archeological history. The pier itself displays old photographs taken by the lady of the Campbell’s house, an interesting collection.
Accommodations Isle of Canna
Canna is a close knit community, with a historic population of under 25. There are a few accommodations on the Isle of Canna. There is also a community shop which stocks basic goods. It works on an “honesty policy”, with a log book to record purchases and a money box for self-payment and change. There is also a the Canna Cafe, but make sure to check their hours for their most up to date opening hours.
Isle of Muck – Off The Beaten Path Scotland
Things To Do Isle of Muck
The smallest of the Small Isles only covers an area of 6 sq kms. The ferry service to Muck is the most disrupted among the four isles, consequently it enhances the feeling of remoteness when visiting this island.
Muck is best for easy walking, as it’s mostly flat. The 14 km coastal path provides spectacular views towards Eigg and Rum. It reaches its highest point at Beinn Airein. With a height of only 140m, it provides beautiful views across the open seas taking in Rum, Eigg and Canna and of course the mainland. The population of the island, a farming community of about 30, can access their homes via two points, Port Mor and Gallanach, connected by the only road of the island. In between, you will find a couple of isolated houses scattered about. The residents of Muck mostly use the island for farming, as this is their main livelihood. Muck has a colony of grey seals residing in the area of Gallanach. The sea cliffs on the east are home to a variety of seabirds.
Accommodations Isle of Muck
There are a few accommodations on Muck. At the time of writing, there is one small shop, but if you plan to have an extend stay on this very off the beaten path Scotland destination, make sure to bring your own resources.
Closing Thoughts on The Small Isles
Community – The Life Force of Small Isles
After I visited all of the Small Isles, I came away feeling most fascinated by the uniqueness of each island. From rugged hills to rolling green meadows, to a treeless landscapes to walking under a green canopy, to beautiful sandy beaches and impressive sea cliffs, the Small Isles have a wide range of diversity in their landscapes. Nature has endowed these lands with immense beauty. The wildlife here is undisturbed and flourishing. There are no proper roads on the islands, apart from Eigg, and the wilderness is breathtaking.
The residents of the islands live in close-knit communities. It is practically impossible to survive in such remote wilderness as individuals, thus the communities function as families. People here hold multiple roles in their daily lives. The person I met at the ferry pier in Rum, who was bringing luggage to the hostel was also my tour guide the next day at the Kinloch Castle. I met a person at the village community hall on Canna, and he was doing doing some repairs. As it turns out, he was also the same person bringing in the ferry boat. Without the cooperation of every individual on the island, the community would not survive.
Small Isles In A World Of Their Own
And finally, there is this feeling of intense isolation. That was the most dominant emotion that I felt when visiting all these islands. Islanders depend completely on the ferry. However, the weather often disrupts the ferry. When I was visiting Canna and Muck, the weather turned, and I felt uncertain about the feasibility of continuing my journey. It was such an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and excitement, which the islanders have to learn to live with. Basic necessities like medical help is only available on the mainland or on Skye, either way requiring a helicopter pick-up. And there is no mobile network. All these definitely change one’s perspective on life.
During my days out on these islands, I barely met anyone. Probably the most intense was Muck, where once I had checked into my room, I did not have any further human interaction for the next two days. The farm animals and sheep dogs were my only companions. Standing on the rugged cliffs on the east of Muck, I realized I have never felt as isolated as I felt then. The cloudy day only enhanced the melancholy mood. Probably it was the timing of my travel which made this experience so unique. In early spring, the visitors were yet to arrive and farming wasn’t very busy either. Only the arrival of the ferry woke up the community from their slumber.
While leaving, at the pier in Muck, someone asked me how my visit went. However, I did not have words to explain my feelings. But probably they already knew.
Saheli is an avid traveller and photographer. She has been traveling solo for over a decade and regularly posts about her adventures on her Facebook page, Breaking Out Solo, and when time permits, she also pens the stories on her blog Breaking Out Solo.