A ferry to the isles – why wait for summer?

We’ve recently updated the Travel and Lifestyle section of Age Scotland’s website, including a feature on visiting Scotland’s islands.  Waiting for milder weather before making the trip might seem like a good idea, however for guest blogger Pat Craig winter has proven the ideal time to take the ferry.

A ferry

It’s not often that the Captain of a ferry comes down from the Bridge for a chat. Mind you it’s rare to be the only passenger on a ship which in summer is full to the gunnels.

In early January I decided, on impulse, to do the ‘West Highland Line’ – rated as the second most beautiful rail journey in the world. Headed for Mallaig for no other reason than that it was the end of the line, I’d forgotten that it’s also the starting point for the car ferry to Skye and the Small Isles. My B&B host hadn’t.

Meeting me at the station he offered to deliver me to and pick me up from a local hostelry where I could have an evening meal. But I’ve travelled before in winter, so had come prepared with a tuna snack meal and fruit. I’d also brought extra socks just in case it was cold but I didn’t need to worry. My accommodation was warm and cosy. The welcome, too, was warm and thoughtful.

As we discussed what you could do in Mallaig on a Sunday, mine host shyly told me that he’d taken the liberty of checking what boats were sailing in the morning and had decided that a trip to Canna, the furthest away of the Small Isles would be best. There would be no need to get off onto the island which, managed by the National Trust, now has a population of 8! It would just be a mini cruise.

Dead on 9am walking up the gangway of a Calmac ferry ready for the six and a half hour round trip I remembered the joy of many previous ferry trips. There is something magical about being afloat, no matter the weather.

I had to pinch myself when I remembered that we were only a few hours from Glasgow. Initially a little rough the sea was calm as a millpond at Canna and the temperature, warmed by the gulfstream, several degrees higher than the mainland.

Spoiled for choice I explored the boat and took in the views from different vantage points wondering what it would be like in high summer when 195 passengers could be on-board.
On the return journey I had lunch with two fellow passengers, workmen who’d been doing a job on Canna and were now on their way home.

Late afternoon we tied up at Mallaig. Mine host was waiting for me on the car deck. He’d watched the boat pass his kitchen window, realised it was torrential rain and, not wanting me to get wet, had driven to the ferry terminal to pick me up.  Would he have done that in the summer? I don’t think so, if only because he’d have a houseful of guests.

Winter travelling brings the best out in people, and you get a better idea of what life is really like in small remote communities.  I can’t wait to do it again.