The area of the West Coast we are dealing with is surprisingly well-connected with the rest of the UK, and beyond. If you want someone to work out an itinerary for you, go to the Traveline Scotland website which is excellent. You can also phone them on 0871 2002233. Otherwise, explore the options of ferries, trains, buses and planes. If you really get stuck, and have the money, Coastal Connection based in Oban will sort you out in one of their RIBs, more economical if there are up to 12 of you as it costs £250 for two hours.
Steamers began to ply around the islands in the first part of the 19th century, bringing tourists from Glasgow and beyond. The modern equivalents are the ferries, the lifeline between the islands and the mainland. They transport more or less everything from cars to cows, and from people to ponies
Caledonian MacBrayne — CalMac for short — has the monopoly on almost all the routes, but to me as an outsider they seem a pretty good organization. However, recently they had have dreadful problems with ships breaking down, delayed replacement ships, and overcrowding in the summer. Of course, it is a characteristic of islanders that they moan about the ferries, but then their livelihood does depend on them. You need a CalMac timetable to help you plan crew changes, or escapes back to work if you get marooned by bad weather.
CalMac will take you from Oban to Craignure on Mull (and then you need a bus to Tobermory), Coll, Tiree and Lismore. And from Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert to Islay (either Port Ellen or Port Askaig), and from Tayinloan in Kintyre to Gigha. There is a short ferry run by Argyll and Bute Council from Port Askaig on Islay across the Sound of Islay to Feolin on Jura, but this is in the middle of nowhere and you then need the bus to Craighouse. Better, at least for crew changes if you don't need a car, is the passenger-only ferry from Tayvallich to Craighouse (but you do have to get yourself to Tayvallich which is not that easy by bus, or by car). And the shortest CalMac ferry ride of all, is across to Kerrera from the mainland. CalMac will also take you across the Sound of Mull from Fishnish to Lochaline, and across Loch Sunart between Tobermory and Kilchoan. And across the Sound of Iona.
There is a wee ferry across the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Drimnin.
There is a small passenger-only ferry between Port Appin and the north end of Lismore, run by Argyll and Bute Council, but this is of no great help for crew changes. They also run the very short ferry across to Luing from Seil Island.
Across Loch Linnhe there are two small ferries run by the Lochaber Transport Forum. One between Fort William and Camus nan Gall, and the extraordinarily expensive Corran ferry further south across — not surprisingly — the Corran narrows.
Going further north, the small isles — Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna — are served by the CalMac ferry from Mallaig. You can also get to Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna on the passenger-only Sheerwater run by Arisaig Marine. And from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye with a CalMac ferry.
She is not a ferry, but if you get the chance, take a ride on the Waverley, the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. She took her first passengers in 1947. You often see her in this area, although she does also cruise around all the British Isles. She stands out a mile because of her elegant shape and broad beam, and she has a very characteristic sound from the triple expansion steam engine (now oil rather than coal-fired).
Personally I like trains. They are usually comfortable, you can get up and wander around, there is food available normally, you can read the paper or a good book, and I think the views are better than from buses. And there are toilets. But they are more expensive than buses although sometimes there are very good deals, particularly if you book in advance.
Trains from the deep south arrive in Oban, Fort William, Mallaig and Arisaig. The Scottish network is run by ScotRail. Their relevant trains start from Glasgow Queen Street Station, often splitting at Crianlarich with one half going on to Oban and the other to Fort William and then change for Mallaig. Getting off at Connel Ferry, the stop before Oban, is an option for say Dunstaffnage, but there is no taxi rank so you might as well wait until Oban. On the Mallaig line you can get off at Arisaig and easily walk down to the anchorage.
These two routes must be amongst the great train journeys of the world, certainly of the UK. The trains may be slow, creaky and squeaky, and somewhat eccentric — but the countryside is outstanding, both to the left and right. Lochs give way to mountains to moorland and back to lochs, both freshwater and sea lochs. Wonderful! Why worry, join the slow movement (unless of course you happen to be on business). The train crew are friendly, they seem to know many of the passengers, and everyone is ever so relaxed. One problem is that there are not that many trains every day, and sometimes there is no trolley service, so best to be prepared.
A treat in the summer is to take the Jacobite steam train between Fort William and Mallaig, real little boys' stuff, and big boys' too.
Buses are a very handy means of getting about, for example if you are moving your boat along the coast and need to get back to your car, or maybe the railway station. And of course if you live in Scotland and are over the age of 60 you get to travel free — like me. As you now do up to the age of 22.
West Coast Motors cover Argyll down to Campbeltown and up the coast to Oban and Fort William, as well as Mull They connect up with Scottish CityLink buses between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Campbeltown, Oban and Fort William.
On Islay, the buses are run by B Mundell Ltd.
On Jura, Garelochhead Coaches run a bus up and down the main — and only — road.
Shiel buses connect up Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Mallaig and Fort William.
No international airports hereabouts notwithstanding the many high vapour trails of planes flying to and fro across the Atlantic. But, if you must, you can fly from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Islay and Tiree with Loganair which seems to be on a bit of a roll and expanding its routes. There is also a small operation — Hebridean Air Services — which runs scheduled flights from Oban aerodrome in North Connel, hardly an airport although it badges itself as such, to Coll, Colonsay, Tiree and Islay (but by no means every day of the week). You may be able to sneak a ride with a sight-seeing ticket if the plane isn’t full.