Taking the road less travelled on a west coast Scotland road trip through Wester Ross, Skye, Harris and Lewis
Recently I undertook an epic adventure around the North West Highlands and Islands on a west coast Scotland road trip. Starting in Wester Ross, I crossed over the sea to Skye before taking a ferry to Harris and continuing on my journey to Lewis. The circular driving route around the west of Scotland eventually brought me back to Wester Ross where I finished off my trip at one of my favourite places.
This particular road trip took me through some of the most attractive parts of the country and some places that I thought I knew pretty well but it turned out there was plenty more for me still to discover. This was a journey with a difference as it was part of partnership to promote the #WestCoastWaters Campaign which encourages visitors to take the roads less travelled around western Scotland and find ways to immerse their senses along way.
I do believe that too many people rush around Scotland trying to tick as many things off as possible and don't take the time to really absorb their surroundings so I relished the opportunity to slow down and explore in bite-size chunks.
Although this west coast route will take you through some of the most popular Scottish tourist haunts, it will also take you off the beaten track and provide you with an original itinerary for exploring these well known places.
MY WEST COAST SCOTLAND ROUTE
It is worth noting that I started in the north of Wester Ross and travelled south, however this itinerary can easily be adapted so you start in the south at Plockton, cross to Skye and include the Wester Ross section at the end of your trip.
It is also worth adding that I did this trip in 9 days due to time constraints, however I would make it a 2 week itinerary if you can by adding extra nights in Ullapool, Gairloch, Plockton, Skye and Harris.
FURTHER READING - 15 ACTIVITIES YOU CAN DO ON THE SCOTTISH WEST COAST
DAY 1 - ULLAPOOL
I really like Ullapool, it is an attractive little town with whitewashed cottages lining the shores of Loch Broom. It has lots of quality independent shops and nice places to eat and drink which makes it a popular base for tourists visiting this part of Scotland. In fact, I have spent 2 separate holidays there myself recently and thoroughly enjoyed both.
The town has a long connection with the sea and was originally founded as a herring port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society. Although the industry has declined, fishing still remains at the heart of the town and the Ullapool Museum is a great place to find out more about the history.
I arrived on a warm September day and the waterfront was lined with fellow tourists soaking up the autumnal sun. I joined them for a while, sitting at a picnic table with a harbour view and snacked on my tasty haddock wrap from The Seafood Shack. A place I regularly buy lunch from when I'm in the area.
Although Ullapool can be a busy wee place, it is still possible to find a little oasis of quiet just a short distance from the town. I took the small ferry boat from nearby Ardmair jetty to Isle Martin, which is currently uninhabited and looked after by the community of Lochbroom and Coigach. Although no-one has lived permanently on the island since 1949, many people have lived and worked on Isle Martin over the previous centuries.
There is a little museum, walking trails and a quiet beach with views over to the Summer Isles. It definitely ticked my criteria of taking the road less travelled and getting a new perspective on a familiar place. Sitting on a rock with a 360 degree view of the surrounding loch, mountains and islands was also the perfect spot to immerse my senses.
I didn't put myself under any pressure to rush around exploring everything in the Ullapool area. Instead I was happy to spend a bit longer on Isle Martin to gain a deeper understanding of the history and people who once called this island home. I do recommend adding another night in Ullapool if you can and I have listed more things to do in the area below.
FURTHER READING - More things to do in and around Ullapool
WHERE I STAYED - Aschcroft Bed & Breakfast in Letters was just perfect. Natasha is a brilliant host and the space is beautiful, clean and comfortable. The self contained apartment has 2 large bedrooms, a sitting room and shower room. A connecting door to the kitchen of the main house provides access for making drinks and this is also where breakfast is served which was generous and delicious.
Natasha's dog was my new best friend and I actually felt sad leaving her! If you like to temporarily adopt dogs on your holiday then this is the place for you! The accommodation is also situated in a quiet area overlooking the loch which meant I got a great night's sleep.
I highly recommend staying here and if you've not used Airbnb before you can get a £25 discount off your first booking with my personal discount link.
SOME WAYS TO ENJOY THE COAST & WATERS AROUND ULLAPOOL
DAY 2 - ULLAPOOL TO GAIRLOCH
A day trip to Bute is a great choice for an outing from Glasgow. In just over 90 minutes you can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and enjoy some island tranquillity. The Isle of Bute is often overlooked in favour of better known Scottish islands but it has a unique charm all of it's own.
Although one day won't be enough to take in all the history, wildlife and activities that Bute has to offer, it will certainly give you a flavour of the island and a reason to return.
HOW TO GET TO THE ISLE OF BUTE
Wemyss Bay to Rothesay Ferry
There are two ferry route options to the Isle of Bute, one at the more secluded north end of the island and one that takes you to the main town of Rothesay. If you are travelling over for a day, the easiest option is the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay ferry route.
The cheapest and most convenient way to get there is by public transport. A one hour train journey from Glasgow Central Station runs direct to the CalMac ferry terminal at Wemyss Bay Station. From there, a 35 minute connecting ferry ride takes you to Rothesay, the main town on Bute. This makes it one of the most accessible islands to get to in Scotland. Buying a combined rail and sail ticket from the station or on the train can potentially save you money.
There is also the option to drive to Wemyss Bay and leave your vehicle in the car park at the train station although be aware there is a charge and spaces are quite limited.
If you are only going on a day trip to the Isle of Bute, then there really is no need to take a vehicle across on the ferry unless you really want to. My recommended suggestions can all be easily visited on foot or by using public transport.
The island is also popular with cyclists so you may even want to bring your bike across and explore on two wheels.
How to spend a day on Bute
Bute is the little west coast island oasis that I called home for 5 years. Knowing all that it has to offer has made it difficult to narrow down the list of places you should visit in a day. However, I feel that visiting an island should be a relaxing experience and I think my suggested things to do find a balance between exploring some interesting attractions and taking the day at an easy pace. Hopefully you will leave feeling not only chilled out but with a little bit of knowledge about this historical Scottish island and a yearning to come back.
I recommend spending the morning exploring Rothesay itself as there is more than enough to keep you busy. First stop as you leave the ferry terminal should be the Victorian Toilets, yes I know that might sound like a weird suggestion but you will hopefully thank me for it.
The toilets date back to 1899 when Rothesay was a fashionable and popular seaside holiday resort. The decor, fixture and fittings are almost completely original to the day they were built and are quite special to see. Although it is the gent's lavatories that are the real attraction, ladies can visit too, just check with the attendant that they are empty first! There is a small entry charge.
Next, take a short walk to The Discovery Centre which is housed in the old Winter Gardens. Here you will find tourist information and a free multi-media exhibition that explains some of the history of Bute. It is only a few minutes from the ferry terminal and a great introduction to the island.
If the sun is shining, take a stroll along the Esplanade, admire the beautiful flower displays and the views over the Firth of Clyde to the mainland. You can even enjoy a shot on the putting green or take a seat by the pretty fountain.
Rothesay is the main town on the Isle of Bute and also the place that, until last year, I called home for the previous 5 years. The town has lots to offer day trippers and holidaymakers will find it an ideal base for exploring the rest of the island. To help make the most of your time, I've put together a list of my recommended things to do in Rothesay below.
The town is famous as a once thriving seaside resort, particularly for Glaswegians who would head 'doon the watter' to Bute for their holidays. Like many British seaside resorts, package holidays to sunnier climes brought about a downturn in the economy.
Today it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. While some tired looking premises rely on nostalgia to survive, a host of new local businesses catering for a quality driven generation of travellers have opened in recent years.
Rothesay can be reached in just over 90 minutes from Glasgow, making it one of the most accessible island escapes in Scotland. The ferry to Bute leaves from Wemyss Bay on the mainland and for those not wanting to drive, a train runs directly to Wemyss Bay from Glasgow Central Station.
The Isle of Bute has many more attractions worth visiting outside of the main town but I'll tackle them in a future blog post. For now, this article hopefully provides plenty of inspiration and options for those wondering what to do in Rothesay.
If you're up early, you might just catch a 'buteiful' Rothesay sunrise
One of my favourite things about the Isle of Bute is the choice and diversity of beaches. Compared to its Firth of Clyde island neighbours, Arran and Cumbrae, the sandy bays and sheltered coves on Bute are far prettier in my opinion. Oh, and I should add that even on a sunny day, on most of the beaches mentioned, you are unlikely to encounter many other people which makes them even more appealing!
Another great thing about Bute is the accessibility of the coast as the road follows close to the shoreline around much of the island. Regularly placed benches, numerous parking bays and way-marked walks allow you to easily enjoy a variety of seaside scenery at your own pace.
It always amazes me that despite its proximity to Glasgow, Bute is often overlooked as a holiday destination. Once extremely popular as an escape from the city, it has fallen out of favour over recent times. However, if you are looking for an easy Scottish island escape with some lovely coastline then Bute ticks the boxes.
Below is a list of my favourite Isle of Bute beaches, some are classic sandy affairs while I've picked others for their scenic setting. I have also included some additional points of interest and history to help you get the most out of your visit.
Ettrick Bay is the most popular beach on Bute, however even on the hottest of days you will still have plenty of space to sunbathe, paddle and even swim if that's your thing. It is a classic golden sweep of sand, stretching for about 1 mile along the west coast of the island. Being on the west coast, is is also a great spot for watching the sunset behind the Kintyre Peninsula.
There are car parks at either end, with a popular tearoom located at the north end, while the south end is popular for overnight camper van parking. Just along from the car park at the south end is a bird hide which is a great place to watch the many seabirds that frequent Bute.
Rewind to the Edwardian era and a tram would convey excited holidaymakers from Rothesay to Ettrick Bay. Today, you can walk part of the old tram line on a marked walk between St Colmac's Church and the tearoom.
It is hard to imagine now, but the beach was once bustling with hundreds of visitors and over the last couple of centuries has witnessed horse races, sand-castle competitions, donkey rides, entertainment shows and dances. At times thousands of people gathered here to watch major events. Today, it is a much quieter place, much like the whole island, but when it comes to finding space to stretch out on the beach, fewer people can be a definite bonus.
Scalpsie Bay is personally my favourite beach on the Isle of Bute. A short walk from the car park leads to an expanse of sand which feels a little wilder and quieter than Ettrick Bay. The views across to Arran and the Holy Isle are just one of the reasons that this west coast beach is more appealing to me.
However, the main reason I have spent many an hour here is the colony of over 200 seals which can frequently be seen basking on the rocks at the north end. Providing you are quiet and don't disturb them, it is possible to get within a reasonable distance of the seals which is an amazing wildlife experience. There are plenty of rocks where you can sit and watch their antics as they playfully splash and swim just off the shoreline.
When you first reach the beach, you might notice some distinctive wooden posts in the sand which were designed as anti-glider defences during WWII. The cottage close to the car park was also used as a listening post for enemy submarines.
Drive further past the car park to the top of the hill for a great viewpoint over Scalpsie Bay which you can enjoy from the enclosed picnic benches.
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