As Scotland is surrounded on three sides by water and has about 790 islands, of which 130 are inhabited, ferries are a major means of transport. The islands can be divided into two main groups - the Inner and Outer Hebrides (the latter also known as the Western Isles) off the west coast and Orkney and Shetland off the north coast.
Caledonian MacBrayne operates the majority of ferry services on the Firth of Clyde and to the Hebrides, sailing to 23 islands. Most ferries carry vehicles, although some (e.g. to the Small Isles) only convey passengers. The summer timetable runs from mid-April until mid-October (inclusive). A reduced frequency of service operates in the winter. On most services, it is possible to make advance vehicle reservations. This is advisable during the summer and at other peak times.
Caledonian MacBrayne offers two flexible tickets - Island Hopscotch and Island Rovers, enabling visitors to make their own touring and accommodation arrangements.
The Firth of Clyde and Hebrides Island Hopscotch: There are many different ways to see the islands - the Island Hopscotch is a range of economy fares for cars and accompanying passengers on a selection of pre-planned ferry routes. 24 different routes cover all islands serviced by Caledonian MacBrayne. Tickets are valid for three months from the date of the first journey.
The Island Rovers: This ticket offered by Caledonian MacBrayne is also offered to foot passengers or those with cars, caravans, trailers and motor cycles. There are two types of tickets available; one valid for 8 consecutive days, and one for 15 consecutive days. These allow unlimited travel on Caledonian MacBrayne's ferry services, except to Kilcreggan, Gigha, Lismore, Raasay, Scalpay, and the Small Isles. The purchase of an Island Rover does not automatically ensure vehicle space on a particular sailing, so advance booking is always advisable.
There are also short break fares providing an economical option for 4 day/3 night trips (not valid on certain peak services). For further information on the above, day excursions and inclusive holiday tours, contact:
Western Ferries operates services between McInroy's Point (Gourock) and Hunter's Quay (Dunoon) on the Firth of Clyde, and between the islands of Islay and Jura.
Northlink Ferries sail to Orkney and Shetland from Aberdeen and Scrabster (Thurso).
Approximate passage times:
Aberdeen to Lerwick - 14 hours
Scrabster to Stromness - 1 hr 50 mins
Aberdeen to Stromness - 10 hours
Stromness to Lerwick - 8 hours
The main crossing from the Scottish mainland to Orkney is from Scrabster (near Thurso) to Stromness. The main crossing to Shetland is from Aberdeen. Ferries depart Monday - Friday. It is also possible to sail to Shetland via Orkney and this service sails twice weekly in the summer months and once a week in the winter. It is advisable to book in advance on all sailings for cars, and also for passengers from Aberdeen to Lerwick (there is a choice of accommodation available on this overnight sailing).
Orkney Ferries operate several of the services between the various Orkney islands.
Shetland Isles Council
Shetland Isles Council operates ferry services within Shetland. Shetland Islands Tourism produce a guide, the 'Inter-Shetland Transport Timetable'. This is available for a small charge.
In the case of both Orkney and Shetland, the inter-island services are frequent and comparatively cheap, making island hopping, even with a car, quite straightforward. However, advance booking on occasions and at peak times may be advisable.
There are frequent cross-channel ferries to England, with a good motorway network to Scotland. There are also ferries from Eire, with services from Belfast to Stranraer with Stenaline, and Larne to Troon with P&O Irish Sea Ferries.