The Small Isles is not exactly a name to get the spirit soaring and the heart rate racing. Despite the prosaic moniker the quartet of Small Isles – which lie tucked spectacularly between Skye to the north and Ardnamurchan to the south – all have plenty to justify a visit to them, or even better, to the whole archipelago.
Getting to the Small Isles has never been easier with CalMac’s Lochnevis providing a decent ferry service and RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) fares making it more affordable. You could also explore the Small Isles in serious style aboard Hebrides Cruises’ Proud Seahorse, a live aboard vessel that comes complete with a hut tub on deck.
The largest of the Small Isles is a rugged mountain charmer. On first sight she can strike fear and trepidation into the hearts of the timid hillwalker. That is no bad thing as unless you have hillwalking experience and the right gear you should steer well clear of the mighty peaks of Rum and its epic Cuillin ridge.
Rum fortunately boasts plenty of gentler charms. The most striking is Kinloch Castle, an unlikely Edwardian country house pile set adrift in the Hebrides. The wee village of Kinloch itself sports a wee heritage centre and a village hall that is the hub of local life, complete with a café, free wifi, a pulpit, pool table and an inexplicably large collection of roller skates!
The wildlife is exceptional on Rum. Hike its hills and even glen floor routes and you will come across plenty of red deer, the largest land mammal in the British Isles, while in the air look our for the giant hulk of sea eagles. Handily a spick and span 20-bed bunkhouse has recently opened on Rum with a kitchen where you can cook up the wild venison that is sold in the island’s shop.
I love all the Small Isles, but Eigg may just be my favourite. A major part of the reason is that the island has been community owned for the last two decades, a real self sustaining green gem that shows the way forward perhaps for the future of other less vibrant Hebridean isles. The welcome, as it is all on the Small Isles, is a warm one, but the residents of Eigg stand out for their energy and positive spirit as they continue to take ownership of the island and its future.
Eigg is also home to my favourite hike in the Small Isles, up An Sgurr. This unmistakable volcanic plug shoots up to 393m and looks unassailable from the ferry quay. She is actually quite easily tamed if you hike around the back. On a good day the views from the top are mind-blowing as all the other Small Isles and Skye shimmer all around.
Eigg not only produces all its own electricity from green sources, but plenty of local produce too. You can enjoy this produce with a view at one of the waterfront benches at the Galmisdale Bay Cafe. I love that they keep their shellfish fresh hanging it in creels off the pier! The island also sports a wee microbrewery – I can personally vouch for their pale ale. The wigwams near the ferry pier are a great place to stay.
This National Trust for Scotland owned island is a wee stunner. That she is backed up by another island gem (Sanday) is a bonus with a wee footbridge connecting the two. Canna still functions as a working farm and you will see plenty of sheep and cows as you amble around. You can learn more about the island and its unique heritage at the wee museum housed in the farm dairy.
Canna, with its mild climate, is a great place to just sit and watch the world go by and the yachts slip in and out of the best natural harbour in the Small Isles. The best place to recline is in Café Canna, where you can feast (with a day’s notice) on Canna lobster and also on local rabbit stew. The wee honesty shop next door is charmingly open 24/7.
A major attraction on Canna are its seabirds. They tend to occupy the high cliffs and hills so hiking off in search of them is the best plan. Last time I was here I yomped up Compass Hill admiring the gulls and guillemots, not to mention a massive golden eagle who followed me up. I also squeezed in a walk around Sanday to check out the puffin colonies on its sea stacks. Cutting across the island nature put me firmly back in my place as the local bonxies (great skuas) swooped down to divebomb me off their territory.
Little Muck may be the smallest of the Small Isles, but she packs a fair whack into her two mile by one mile area. She reminds me in some ways more of the likes of Coll and Tiree with her farming, low hills and beaches. Like all the isles she had a rich history.
My favourite walk on Muck starts right at the ferry pier. You push inland on a sinewy ribbon of sealed road across the island to Gallanach, where a wide beach tempts. Then you start to ascend across boggy ground up Beinn Airein. The views here awe-inspiring and remarkable given that the peak is only 137m high. I love that you can make out Muck’s fellow Small Isles, but also gaze south to Coll and Tiree and west out to the 130-mile long archipelago that is the Outer Hebrides.
Options for eating and staying over on Muck are limited, but excellent. The superb Gallanach Lodge is a newish, stylish accommodation where you are lulled asleep by the sound of Atlantic waves breaking on the shore. The lodge is also a great place to eat. You can feast on fresh local produce here and congratulate yourself on discovering another of the glorious Small Isles.
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