Finding Your Way to the Isles of Harris and Lewis by Sea
When it comes to the Scottish Islands, there’s nowhere quite like the stunning Isle of Harris. The adjoining Isle of Lewis is equally as beautiful. Both are located in the far north west of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides, across the water beyond the Isle of Skye. Their beaches look more like the Caribbean than Scotland. The experience of walking alone on miles of golden sand is something almost impossible to experience anywhere else in the world. All along the west coast of Harris and Lewis are a series of beaches each more stunning than the last.
You can read all about the southern of the two islands on my recent Isle of Harris trip post. A follow up post will be coming soon on Lewis as well. In this post I’ll be giving you the low down on the different options if you want to travel by ferry to the Outer Hebrides.
Why You Should Get the Ferry to the Outer Hebrides
Harris and Lewis are great places to explore. To get the most out of any trip to these islands it really pays to have a car with you. If you want to take the ferry to the Outer Hebrides there are loads of options to choose from. We have driven twice from our home in Cologne, Germany to stay on Harris. so the islands are accessible from all over Europe with a little bit of imagination. There are various routes to choose from and I’m going to explain them all to you in this post. Thankfully the lovely people at Caledonian Macbrayne ferries make things pretty easy. Their website is easy to use and the ticket options are fairly simple – I’ll describe the island hopscotch concept later on in case this is new for you.
Caledonian Macbrayne – Serving Scotland’s Island Communities Since 1851
The ferry company Caledonian Macbrayne (or Cal Mac as they are known) have an extensive route map across the Outer Hebrides, which means that there are loads of options if you want to get to Harris or Lewis. There are a couple of really simple and obvious routes like Ullapool to Stornoway (Lewis) or Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris). Many of the holiday homes on the islands rent from Saturday to Saturday, if you want to take these routes on a weekend book as early as possible. One year we found that all the Saturday sailings for the August week we wanted had been totally booked by May, there are plenty of other options but do bear this in mind.
Thanks to the various Island Hopscotch options that Cal Mac provide there are many other ways in and out. With these tickets you can take ferries to and from the Outer Hebrides in just about any route you can imagine. At the same time you can explore even more of this beautiful corner of Scotland. The hopscotch means that you don’t have to return the same way you arrived either. The map above will help you get your bearings about the main ports and the different routes I’m about to talk about.
Across Skye Then the Direct Ferry from Uig to Tarbert
The most direct route to the Isle of Harris is to drive to Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland, cross the Skye Bridge and then head up to Uig at the top of the Isle of Skye. From Uig, you then take the direct ferry to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. The service runs once or twice a day depending on the day of the week and you can find the summer timetable online. The trip takes 1 hour 40 minutes and is normally operated by the MV Hebrides, which is one of the biggest and most comfortable ferries in the Cal Mac fleet. A new ferry, likely to re-use the famous name MV Claymore will take over on the Uig route in 2019.
The MV Hebrides has room for approximately 90 cars and over 600 passengers. There is a shop and information desk in the entrance lobby area. At the front of the ship is a comfortable lounge while the Mariners cafeteria is also located at the bow. There is also the Chieftain Bar, which is a great place to taste some Scottish beer if you aren’t the driver of your car. Naturally with so many lovely views to see, the open deck area is a great place to get some fresh air and enjoy the scenic views across the Minch.
The Big Ferry to Stornoway
The other quick and direct route to take the ferry to the Outer Hebrides is the new and very impressive MV Loch Seaforth from Ullapool to Stornoway. The flagship of the Cal Mac fleet, it came into service in 2015 and the journey takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes. Such an impressive ferry looks even more amazing up close in the tiny harbour at Ullapool. If you do sail on this ferry, there are some lovely cafes in Ullapool to grab a breakfast beforehand – just make sure to leave plenty of time because half of the ferry will have the same idea. One of the most popular hopscotch routes is to come across from Ullapool to Stornoway and then head back from Tarbert to Uig (Hopscotch 13) – or the other way round of course.
Opening Up Uist Options Via The Berneray to Leverburgh Ferry
Having covered the 2 direct routes on how to get the ferry to the Outer Hebrides, there are a bunch of other options available thanks to the small ferry that runs between Berneray at the top of the Uists and Leverburgh on the South coast of Harris. For many years the low water levels in this area made it impossible to run a continual ferry service. Thanks to modern water-jet propulsion technology, the MV Loch Portain has been able to make the 1 hour crossing in almost all tides since it came into service in 2003. It’s not a huge ferry, being able to take 34 cars and around 150 people but it expands the options for getting to Harris and Lewis considerably.
The route that the ferry takes is breathtaking, winding its way through the small islands that lie between the North Uist and Bernaray to the South and Harris to the North. There are a number of sunken reefs as well and the ferry plots a very well charted course safely through them all up to four times a day in each direction. On our last two visits to Harris, we have stayed in a self catering cottage called Mile Sgeir. There was nothing nicer than relaxing with a nice beer and watching the ferry plotting its course through the Sound of Harris.
Hopscotch from the Uists – Exploring More Of the Outer Hebrides
Taking the ferry to the Outer Hebrides via the Uists to the South of Harris opens up a whole new set of travel and exploring options. South of Harris, the Outer Hebrides continues with Berneray, North Uist, followed by Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay. The first ferry option to consider is to drive to Mallaig, a little beyond Fort William, and from there take the recently introduced ferry to Lochboisdale on South Uist. The journey takes around 3 and a half hours on the legendary Cal Mac Ferry “Lord of the Isles”. Once in Lochboisdale you can drive the length of the Uists and Benbecula to Berneray and the ferry to Harris.
Another, perhaps even more adventurous option, is to take the 4 hour 45 minute ferry from Oban to Castlebay on Barra. From there you can take another ferry from the North coast of Barra to Eriskay, which is then connected by causeway to South Uist. All of these islands are wonderful to explore and worthy of a holiday in its own right. The ferry times won’t necessarily enable you to make some of these longer journeys in a single day. But who needs an excuse to stop and linger in such wonderful places.
Ferry to the Outer Hebrides – Route and Hopscotch Summary
To summarise everything, here are all the main options to Harris and Lewis so you can see everything in one place. All the information is based on the Summer Timetable, for the Winter Timetable check out the Cal Mac website. Hopscotch routes can be taken in either direction.
Direct to the Isle of Lewis: Ullapool to Stornoway: Duration 3 hours 30 minutes, 2 return crossings per day.
Direct to the Isle of Harris: Uig (Skye) to Tarbert: Duration 1 hour 40 minutes, 1 1/2 return crossings per day.
Hopscotch 8: Oban to Castlebay (4 hours 45 minutes), Barra to Eriskay (40 minutes), Berneray to Leverburgh (1 hour), Stornoway to Ullapool (2 hours 30 minutes).
Hopscotch 9 (Assuming that Oban is replaced with Mallaig): Mallaig to Lochboisdale (3 hours 30 minutes), Berneray to Leverburgh (1 hour), Stornoway to Ullapool (2 hours 30 minutes).
Hopscotch 11: Uig to Lochmaddy (North Uist – 1 hour 40 minutes), Berneray to Leverburgh (1 hour), Stornoway to Ullapool (2 hours 30 minutes).
Hopscotch 13: Uig to Tarbert (1 hour 40 minutes), Stornoway to Ullapool (2 hours 30 minutes).
Hopscotch 14: Uig to Lochmaddy (North Uist – 1 hour 40 minutes), Berneray to Leverburgh (1 hour), Tarbert to Uig (1 hour 40 minutes).