Car free island-hopping vacations in Scotland

“Traveling without a car made us travel with less, slow down and engage more with people around us,” says Mark Gurvis, who travelled on an island-hopping around the Inner Hebrides with our partner McKinley Kidd. “We had a wonderful time meeting people from Scotland and all over.”
Robert Kidd, co-founder of McKinley Kidd, has pioneered car free and rail vacations in Scotland since 2003. “It does need planning,” says Robert, “but it’s very doable. I’ve done it myself several times, traveling on the islands using public buses with local people. It’s quite liberating.”
When you think of car free vacations in Scotland, you’re likely picturing classic train journeys like the West Highland Line, Kyle Line, Far North Line and steaming across the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct aboard the historic Jacobite Express. But just because you’ve come to the end of the tracks doesn’t mean that your vacation has to end too.
“We were the first to introduce vacations to Skye by rail,” says Robert. “Most ferry ports have a train connection, so it’s an obvious extension. Some people thought we were mad, but it works very well to have a taxi and get around like that.”

Why go on a car free island-hopping vacation in Scotland?

There are three key reasons why you would want to explore the Scottish islands without a car. The first is that being without can give you a completely different appreciation of touring the Scottish islands – one that allows you to engage more thoroughly with their landscapes and the people who live in them at a slower, more gentle pace that feels entirely appropriate.

On each island there are plenty of walks and day trips accessible by bus or taxi which, if you travel with one of our responsible travel partners such as McKinley Kidd, will be carefully curated based on their years of experience and local knowledge. Viewpoints, activities and independently owned places to eat and shop – many of them off the tourist track – are all recommended based on their accessibility for people traveling without a car. And these are tailor made itineraries, so they can be crafted to meet your personal interests, from wildlife to photography to whiskey.

Traveling car free is simply more environmentally friendly of course. Anything that reduces traffic and pollution in Scotland’s communities and countryside is to be welcomed. This kind of vacation, where there is so much scope for eating seafood fresh off the boat and locally grown veg, has a very small carbon footprint.
Lastly, the third reason we suggest leaving the car at home is sheer practicality. The Hebrides, for instance, are small and quite remote: it’s a 45-minute ferry journey to Mull from Oban on the mainland, which itself is 160km from Glasgow. And on the islands, most roads are single carriageway, leading to potential traffic delays. You’ll also encounter the odd one-lane road, where you need to always have your mind on potential places where you can let someone approaching in the other direction pass. There’s much to be said for letting someone else take the wheel while you relax and drink in the scenery through the bus window.
Since you’re traveling without the services of a tour guide, the logistics can appear challenging. You’re best off putting yourself in the hands of experts who will grapple with the timetables for trains, ferries and buses, filling in the gaps where necessary with short taxi journeys, and adjust matters to accommodate any delays or rescheduling. Certainly, getting around by public transport is slower, but it’s also a more enjoyable and immersive way to see the Scottish islands.
“Recognise that you’ll spend a bit more time getting between places than you otherwise might,” agrees our traveler Mark Gurvis, “so let go of the rush to ‘get there’. And pack light.”

Our top Scotland railway Vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Experience authentic Scotland independently and car-free

From £1185 to £1245 8 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made from April to the end of October.
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If you'd like to chat about Scotland railway or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Where can you go in Scotland without a car?

The Inner Hebrides are a popular tourist destination with well-placed hotels and good public transport connections, which lends themselves to traveling without a car. A typical vacation sees you traveling up to Oban on the coast from Glasgow using the West Highland Line, and then taking the passenger ferry across to Mull. From Mull, you can then continue over to Iona, its spiritual and mystical heritage an appealing introduction to island life.
Back on Mull, you might stay in Tobermory, famed for its lovely candy-coloured houses and superb wildlife watching opportunities. Guided walks along the coast in search of birds, whales and dolphins can be arranged, and the port with its seafront pubs has a lively atmosphere in the evenings.
After Mull, you can cross back over to the mainland, connecting again with the West Highland Line for the picturesque village of Spean Bridge. Here you can savour views of Ben Nevis, the Great Glen Valley, and Loch Lochy (the lochiest of all the lochs).
From Spean Bridge you could then continue to Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides and – because it’s connected to the mainland by bridge – also the busiest. Here you could join a guided day tour as part of a small group to see the island, while you’ll stay in a sheltered cove, your hotel a bustling community hub where Scottish Gaelic is the usual parlance, and where sharing the ‘craic’ makes the bar a reliably entertaining place to spend your evenings. Leaving the Inner Hebrides, you’ll return by rail to Glasgow, which is under six hours from London by train.

Practicalities

You might be traveling independently, but it won’t feel like that, as our vacation partners will provide you with all the information and plenty of helpful hints in your welcome pack. They’ll also be available at all times to give support if it’s needed, such as managing a delayed connection.

In the Inner Hebrides, the transfer times between mainland and islands are very manageable. From Glasgow direct to the Oban ferry terminal on the West Highland Line, through the Highlands and passing Loch Lomond on the way, takes under 3.5 hours. It’s around 45 minutes by ferry from Oban to Mull and 50 minutes from Mull to Iona. Back on the mainland, the train from Oban to Spean Bridge takes under five hours, and from Spean Bridge across to Skye (by boat rather than across the Skye Bridge) will take you between two and three hours.

These are tailor made vacations so it’s up to you to make your train, bus and ferry connections, though our travel partners are very attentive to any delays or changes in schedules. Week-long vacations typically operate between April and late September to ensure you get the best of the weather in Scotland. And as for packing, smallish (40L or so) soft-shell backpacks and bags are ideal. Trains and buses can be crowded in peak season, and you’ll be lifting your luggage on and off frequently, so you want something that’s not too bulky and awkward.

Where will I stay?

“On larger islands like Mull and Skye you need to be careful where you stay, so you’ve got activities around you,” says Robert Kidd. “In Orkney there is good public transport infrastructure on Mainland, so you can get from place to place easily.”
The accommodations are among the highlights of Scottish island vacations. You will stay in locally owned and run places wherever possible, situated in some wonderfully scenic spots. On Iona, for example, you can stay in a waterfront hotel with ever-changing views across the Sound of Iona over to Mull; on Mull, perhaps it’ll be a restored fisherman’s cottage; in Spean Bridge, a small hotel with a number of pleasant walks right on your doorstep.
And the food. Oh, the scran you’ll sloch. Shellfish landed at the pier. Local game. Home-cooked organic meals served up piping hot from the oven. Whiskey from prestigious island distilleries. Feel free to overindulge whenever the mood takes you – it’s not like you’ve got to drive the next day.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Phillip CapperFollow] [Topbox: Glen Wallace] [Road, Skye: Andrew Ridley] [Windy ferry: Tim Regan] [Iona: Peter Burdon]