Friday 16th July 2021
There are various ways to reach the Outer Hebrides (aka the Western Isles) by public transport from the south east of England.
Travelling via Inverness then the train to Kyle of Lochalsh, bus or coach to Portree and Uig on Skye and the ferry to Tarbert on Harris (or Lochmaddy on North Uist) is one; another is to hit the extreme south island, Barra, either by ferry from Oban or plane from Glasgow. But most people arrive at Stornoway on Lewis, in the north, by plane from Inverness or Glasgow or ferry from Ullapool although Ullapool isn’t well served by public transport these days.
I did a combination of the foregoing on Wednesday this week combining speed of journey, value for money fares and delightful scenery for much of the journey in Scotland.
I took an easyJet flight from Gatwick to Glasgow which at £26.99 gave amazing value considering it was also far far quicker than the train. We took off from a quiet Gatwick at 08:55 and touched down in Glasgow Airport not long after 10:00. Of course, it was also the most damaging from a carbon footprint but that makes the pricing even more anomalous when you consider it already includes Air Passenger Duty.
From Glasgow Airport the reduced frequency (half hourly) First Glasgow operated Airport Express route 500 leaving at 10:30 whisked me into Glasgow in about 15 minutes at a cost of £8.50 using the First Bus app. They’re nice buses with smart interiors.
After a ninety minute break in Glasgow it was on to ScotRail’s West Highland Line on the Fort William (and Mallaig) bound train leaving at 12:23.
A Railcard discounted single is £21.90 – almost as much as the easyJet flight from Gatwick – no advanced purchase tickets seem to be available from ScotRail at the current time. In the past I’ve been able to secure some amazingly cheap ticket prices on this line by booking in advance.
Glasgow’s Queen Street station is looking absolutely amazing with its transformation from a dowdy terminus to a full on ‘wow’ factor proud-to-be-a-major-city terminus feel almost complete.
The expansion of the station’s southern boundary towards George Square has given much more circulation space either side of a realigned ticket barrier line, and there’s now so much more natural light shining down.
There’s also a magnificent view of the original arched glass rear of the original station. It’s simply splendid.
The three hour 46 minute journey from Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William is undoubtedly one of the best in Britain, if not the best. The train had four coaches which would normally be very busy at this time of year but numbers were reasonable but well down on previous experiences.
Two further coaches for Oban detached at Crianlarich and were much busier and it’s fantastic news to see the refurbished Class 153 coaches to take bicycles and some luxury style ‘premium’ seating for added comfort and scenery spotting are to be added to a couple of trains a day on this line from next month with more to follow.
After arriving in Fort William at 16:09 a two hour and 31 minute break gives time to explore this lovely town before the final stage of the journey, taking the 18:40 departure on Scottish Citylink route 915 to Portree.
This coach had left Glasgow at 15:00 so could have offered an alternative travel option to ScotRail – the scenery is different but just as delightful, taking in Loch Lomond and Glencoe – but it would have been more expensive at £26.40. As it is I paid £34.30 for my single journey from Fort William to Portree. – the most expensive fare of the journey. Had I travelled by coach from Glasgow all the way to Portree it would have cost £47.10.
The CityLink coach left Fort William slightly late (7 minutes) as the driver taking over had to go and refuel at the depot during the 25 minute stand time but only left to do this at almost 18:30, but there weren’t many of us travelling – only about half a dozen and after Kyle of Lochalsh for the final hour just two of us and then just me after Broadford.
It’s a gorgeous three hour and five minute coach journey with fantastic scenery as I’ve described before, not least once you hit “The Road to the Isles”. The driver and I arrived into Portree on time at 21:46 and we both headed off our separate ways to rest for the night.
We were both back suitably refreshed at 08:30 yesterday morning to travel the half hour journey to Uig on the north west coast of Skye from where the ferry leaves for Tarbert. The single fare from Portree to Uig is a very reasonable £4.20.
The same driver had swapped coaches and this one offered an even greater amount of legroom for the front nearside seat!
I wish I’d travelled in this coach from Fort William on Wednesday evening as it would have given superb views to the front which were obstructed by the unnecessary sun blind down again and the front seats being out of commission, saying nothing about the poster obliterating the first offside window. Still I had great legroom again.
The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry was already docked as we approached Uig arriving spot on time at 09:00 with one other passenger besides myself.
Boarding began immediately but the number of foot passengers was very few for the time of year – around a dozen, although there were a good few cars and motor caravans and some commercial vehicles being loaded.
A single ticket from Uig to Tarbert is a subsidised £6.70 for a foot passenger and the ferry crossing takes one hour 40 minutes arriving at 11:10.
There’s a lot of construction work going on at Tarbert Pier so foot passengers have to leave via the car deck and rather meanly were made to wait until all the vehicles had driven off the boat, so it was just after 11:15 when we disembarked.
So from Gatwick Airport take off to Tarbert docking took 26 hours 15 minutes costing a very reasonable £71.59. But to this must be added the cost of a hotel in Portree overnight which was £139 – I couldn’t find anything cheaper situated conveniently close to the Square.
Of course there’s a whole range of travel combinations to reach the Outer Hebrides to compare price and time, some of which I described earlier, not least the Caledonian Sleeper for an even pricier option. Or there’s a small airport on Benbecula (in between North and South Uist) although bus links to and from it are extremely limited as are flights.
But after five hours on Harris and Lewis I headed home again yesterday afternoon and this time took the absolute quickest option flying from Stornoway to Glasgow and then to Gatwick. And here’s the thing: the flight from Stornoway to Glasgow took just forty minutes flying time but it cost £118.46. I could have got this down to around £83 if I’d booked a few months ahead but it dwarfs the easyJet fare of £35.99 I paid for the onward flight to Gatwick.
It was still much cheaper than the journey up, including the hotel, and much quicker at five hours 35 minutes and that included a long 3 hour connecting time in Glasgow getting back into Gatwick soon after 21:30 well ahead of the scheduled 22:05 arrival time last night making for a superb 36 and a half hour adventure.
Whichever way you go the journey there and back is superb and even better, travelling by bus on the Western Isles is truly spectacular, but I’ll tell you more about that in a future post in a few weeks time.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.