When we go away to research places for the guides we usually stay in one place for a week or two so we can do lots of day trips, and really get to know the area. This August our touring base was Mallaig, a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland.
Mallaig is also one of Calmac’s busiest ferry terminals and ships sails from here to the islands of Skye, Rum, Eigg, Muck, Canna and South Uist.
More recently, Mallaig has become known as the end destination of the Jacobite Steam Train. During summer, the town’s population swells each day when the train disgorges a few hundred passengers who mill around for a couple of hours whilst waiting for the train to return to Fort William.
So Mallaig would seem to be a town that most people visit because they’re just passing through on the way to go to somewhere else.
We felt that was a bit unfair to Mallaig as it’s a town that has a great location for exploring a wide variety of attractions and you could easily stay here for a week and do something different every day.
So here’s how we suggest you might spend 7 days in Mallaig.
If you can manage to stay longer then do, but Eigg is worth the effort even if it’s just a day trip.
You can get to Eigg via the CalMac ferry service from Mallaig, but there is also a smaller passenger boat that operates from the pier at Arisaig (April to September). If you are prone to seasickness then you would be better on the Calmac ferry as it’s a larger vessel. But you need to study the CalMac ferry times as a day trip to Eigg really only works with the Monday sailing times. Fortunately, the service that operates from Arisaig is more frequent and sails Tuesday, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with an additional Monday sailing in July - August.
Both services give you ~5 hours on Eigg, which gives you enough time to consider the following options.
If you want the best viewpoint on the island then you ought to head straight for the island’s most prominent feature, the rocky outcrop of An Sgurr (which is a Gaelic word for a sharp rocky peak). From your arrival at Galmisdale pier to the trig point at the top of An Sgurr, it’s a brisk hike of ~60 minutes to the summit, but allow 90 minutes if you aren’t in shape.
The path to the summit is not very well signposted and there are some boggy bits where the route becomes a bit confusing as people have wandered in different directions to avoid the mud. One you you get up onto the ridge, the going gets easier as some kind soul has painted red dots on the stones to help you find the safest route up to the trig point. It’s well worth the effort as you can get a 360 view that takes in the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the Morar coast, the Cuillins on Skye, the Islands of Rum and Muck, as well as almost all of Eigg.
If you make a fast descent, you can be back at Galmisdale pier with enough time to explore the Massacre Cave (tidal conditions permitting). The cave gets its moniker from a gruesome incident when 400 members of the MacDonald clan were slaughtered by MacLeods from Skye. The MacLeods discovered the MacDonalds’ hiding place and then built fires at the narrow cave entrance to suffocate everyone inside. Human remains are still being found in the cave.
A cheerier option, and the one I chose, is to chill at the Cafe beside the pier and enjoy some great home baking washed down with a pint of locally brewed beer.
Whilst I was “Re-hydrating” at the cafe. Aury and Junior were making the most of their 5 hours by hiring bikes so they could cycle to the Singing Sands at Lagg in the island’s northwest corner. You don’t have to work up too much of a sweat to get to the beach as the gradients are gentle and the roads are quiet so it is an ideal activity if you are traveling with kids.
Once at the beach, you can practice walking with a foot scuffing motion to make the sands emit a high-pitched “chirp”. The noise has something to do with the sand being made from silicates with sharp edges that grate against each other, but you need to get sand that has just the right amount of moisture in it to get the best effect.
Cycling from the pier to the Singing Sands and back shouldn’t take much longer than 4 hours and that’s including time for a leisurely picnic and a bit of a paddle.
Yes, another Island Day Trip, but Eigg and Rum are distinctly different islands and it’s well worth doing them both if you’re staying in Mallaig for a week.
The timetable for the CalMac ferry service to Rum is a bit complicated and the only day when the timings work for a day trip is Wednesday (based on the 2022 Summer Schedule). You can leave Mallaig at 10:10 and arrive on Rum at 11:30, which gives you almost 5 hours to explore the island before catching the 16:20 ferry back to Mallaig
The skyline of the island is dominated by a ridge of mountains known as the Rum Cuillins. These are rugged and forbidding peaks with Norse names that sound like places you’d find in “Lord of the Rings” (e.g. Hallival, Askival, Barkeval, Trollabhal). Although not the highest of mountains, they provide challenging ridge walks that are ranked among the hardest climbs in Scotland.
Since we only had 5 hours on the island, we decided to climb as high into the Rum Cuillins as we could in the time that we had. This meant we had to skip a visit to the village of Kinloch where there is a Tea Shop that everybody raves about. Next time we go to Rum we’ll stay in their beautiful new Bunkhouse and make sure to write a report about the food at the “Tea Shop”.
The path that leads up to the Cuillins, starts from Kinloch Castle which was the grand hunting lodge of an Edwardian millionaire called George Bullough. The Bullough’s owned Rum until 1957 and kept it as a private island where they threw extravagant parties.
The castle is now a bit of a time capsule and has been left virtually untouched in its pre-World War One state of decor. It is closed to the public, but you can peer through some of the windows and catch glimpses of its decaying decadence.
From the castle, you follow a good footpath through the gardens to join a hill path that climbs rapidly alongside a small river called “Allt Slugan a' Choilich”. This is a lovely walk as it passes through an area of Scot’s Pine forest that is naturally regenerating.
Once above the tree line, the going gets much boggier and the path becomes much less distinct until you manage to get up onto the ridge that connects the summits of Hallival and Barkeval. This ridge gives you a great viewpoint from which you can clearly identify the crater that once would have been the centre of the massive volcano that created Rum. It’s one of the wildest and east inhabited landscapes in Scotland, and a place that very few tourists explore.
After a picnic on the ridge, we decided it was better to have a relaxed return to the ferry so we ambled back down the hill, took a nosey around Kinloch Castle and were back at the ferry terminal with a good 10 - 15 minutes to spare.
A few miles south of Mallaig there is one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland, Loch Morar.
From the village of Morar, you can follow a single-track road for about 4 miles east along the north shore of the Loch, but this road only gives you a small taste of the beauty that Loch Morar has in store. To really appreciate the wilderness scenery of this area, you need to pull on your boots and hike the ~5.5 miles from Bracorina on Loch Morar to Tarbet on Loch Nevis
Fortunately, there is a good path to follow and the going isn’t too strenuous although there are some boggy bits that you need to navigate. I’ve read somewhere that the path was built in the 1800’s as part of a job creation exercise by a local landlord who was concerned about the poverty of local people who had been evicted from their crofts. Migrant workers would have used this route to get to the remote harbour at Tarbet when the herring fleet were fishing on Loch Nevis.
The path takes you through some lovely woodlands and gently undulates from pebble beaches on the shore to elevated viewpoints that let you take in the full sweep of the loch.
It's a long hike and you may start to despair that you'll never get to its destination, but we'd urge you to stick with it. Not too far after you pass the large hunting lodge at Swordland, the path swings north away from Loch Morar to cross the narrow isthmus of land between the fresh waters of Morar and the salty waters of Loch Nevis. There is a small settlement here that consists of an old schoolhouse which now serves as a bunkhouse, a couple of houses, and a jetty where a boat can pick you up for the return to Mallaig, should you be too lazy to walk back. The current population of Tarbet is 3 humans, 9 ducks, and a small herd of Hebridean sheep.
There is also history to be discovered along the way, such as the ruins of the 18th-century Inverbeg chapel that was built to replace the chapel on the island of Eilean Ban that “Redcoat” soldiers torched after Culloden.
This isn’t the only reminder of the aftermath of Culloden, you will also see the ruins of several abandoned croft houses. The people of Loch Morar were victims of the Highland Clearances and many left here for new lives in Newfoundland.
The Loch claims to have some reclusive residents who have stayed here for a very long time. Indeed, according to some, they might have been here since the Jurassic period. Yes, Loch Morar has its own monster called “Morag”. Morag is a bit shier than Nessie, but there have been sightings as recent as 1969 when two Mallaig men reported their boat being bumped by a beast that was 25 - 30 feet long. They claim to have fended the beast off for some 5 minutes using their oars.
You might scoff at such claims, but Loch Morar is the deepest freshwater loch in Scotland so it isn’t entirely implausible that some prehistoric creature might have survived 1,000 feet down in its murky cold waters
This is an outing to consider if you get a wet day as there’s quite a lot of driving involved. It’s also a place where you have a few wet weather attractions to kill time on a rainy day.
The main reason to head to Ardnamurchan is to visit the lighthouse which stands almost at the most westerly tip of the Scottish Mainland. You can climb to the very top of the Lighthouse and step outside onto the vertigo-inducing balcony for a (hopefully) clear view towards the Small Islands and Skye. Tours of the lighthouse are conducted by guides from Monday - Friday so it is wise to call ahead to book a tour time. There is also a small cafe housed in the old stable block, which is good if you are looking for a bit of cake and a coffee.
The other attractions on the Ardnamurchan peninsula are Sanna Bay, which is just a couple of miles east of the lighthouse, but you have to take a 30 minute / 9 mile drive on slow single track to get to it.
And there's also the relatively newly opened Ardnamurchan distillery. Production just started in 2014, but from the stuff I’ve tasted, I reckon this distillery has great potential, and bottles of their early releases may become very sought after.
On the subject of things that taste good, we also recommend that you stop at the Ardshealach Smokehouse on your way to Ardnamurchan. This is a small business located in Glenelg (a few miles south of Lochailort on the A861) and they produce some of the best tasting smoked salmon in our opinion. Their smoked bacon is also a taste sensation!
There are lots of lovely beaches near Mallaig and you only need to follow the coastal road from Morar to Arisaig to find them. But these are easily accessed beaches and you’ll seldom ever find them empty.
For a beach that is utterly stunning, and big enough that you can be sure of a corner all to yourselves, we suggest that you head to Camas an Lighe in Moidart.
The charm of this beach is preserved by the fact that you have to hike 2 hours to get to it, but the hike is not too strenuous and you could even do it by bike.
One of the things that we love about this beach is the approach to it. After walking through a dense forest of conifers, you see a cute little wooden sign pointing “Beach”, and then you only have a few hundred yards to walk before stepping out from the tree line onto a perfect sheltered bay of glistening white sand.
You might find one or two other families on the beach, but the bay is a sequence of little sandy coves, so just keep walking along the coast until you find your own private corner.
So far we’ve talked about some of the places you can visit using Mallaig as a “springboard”, but there also good things to do in Mallaig and we allowed ourselves a bit of chill time on this holiday (a rare thing for us) to just take it slow in the village.
An enjoyable way to kill an hour is to join one of the Wildlife Spotting boat trips on board the MV Western Isles. This is a good activity for kids and they are issued with a list of the wildlife that might be encountered so they can tick off all the creatures that they see. This includes lots of seals (more of less guaranteed), dolphins, porpoises, whales and basking sharks, as well as a variety of seabirds. And if Mum and Dad need a break, there’s a whisky bar below decks.
You don’t have to go on a boat trip to see seals as there are a couple of seals who hang out in Mallaig Harbour. If you descend the steps at the end of the pier, you’ll maybe see one of these seals lazily swimming around and quite unfussed about your presence.
If you are planning to go for a picnic you really ought to stock up on bread from the Old Quay Bakehouse which is located in the attractive grey stone building beside the Boatyard. They do superb focaccia and sourdough bread. It took massive amounts of willpower not to eat all of the bread before we walked back to our cottage. If you are planning to get bread here for a picnic, it would be wise to go their website and pre-order what you want as they are so good that they often sell out.
The other “Foodie” experience that we recommend in Mallaig is dinner at the Chlachain Inn on Davies Brae. The Inn is also a pub and it’s a popular place so you really need to book a table in advance. The menu has lots of local produce and, as you’d expect in a town built around the fishing industry, there’s a greater choice of Seafood. Very much our kind of place with good food, friendly staff, and a relaxed atmosphere.
They also have 3 bedrooms … should you wish to stay a few nights in Mallaig.