The best way to get to the southern end of the Western Isles is via the ferry connecting Oban with Castlebay on Barra and Lochboisdale on South Uist. For current timetable and fare information, and for bookings, visit CalMac's website.
This has also traditionally been the way to travel between Barra and South Uist. However, since 2003, improvements to the Sound of Barra Ferry to Eriskay make that by far the best way of travelling between Barra and the rest of the Western Isles.
There are around six sailings on the trianguar route each week from Oban and Lochboisdale, and most sailings call at Castlebay en route both ways: though not all do. The passage between Oban and Castlebay takes just over 5 hours, with about 1hr 45mins between Castlebay and Lochboisdale.
The ship usually used on the route is the M.V. Clansman. This modern vessel was built in 1998 at Appledore in Devon, weighs in at 5500 tons, and is a fraction less than 100m in length. It can carry 100 cars and 638 passengers. Also sometimes used on the route since 2003 has been the Lord of the Isles, released from the Mallaig to Armadale route by the new MV Coruisk. The Lord of the Isles was built on the Clyde in 1989 and can carry 56 cars and 506 passengers. An occasional visitor to the route is CalMac's relief vessel, the Isle of Arran, built in 1984.
This route is one of the most scenic on CalMac's network. After clearing Oban Bay around the north end of Kerrera you pass by the southern end of the island of Lismore and sail the length of the Sound of Mull, with Mull on your left and Morvern, and later the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, on your right.
Highlights include Duart Castle, perched atop a rock overlooking the sea; Tobermory, glimpsed sheltering in its bay; and the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point. Further out, you pass the north end of the island of Coll, before coming into sight of Barra. Here you marvel as the ship is reversed onto the loading ramp while avoiding the nearby rocks around Kisimul Castle in Castle Bay itself. From Castlebay you have another amazingly scenic trip around the east side of Barra and Eriskay before reaching Lochboisdale.
Clansman is an excellent ship in many ways, with comfortable lounge, cafeteria and bar areas. It is a shame, however, that CalMac have chosen to use it on a route as scenic as this. The Clansman's main failing is its serious shortage of open deck areas. Passengers wanting to enjoy the view have access to only a few confined areas at the back of the ship.
Because of this it is more difficult to enjoy what would otherwise be a wonderful journey. In contrast the Isle of Arran has a more functional feel internally, as you'd expect from its greater age. But it more than makes up for it with the size and range of the open deck areas available to passengers: including an open area just below, and in front of, the bridge.
But whichever ship you find yourself aboard, this remarkable ferry trip makes an excellent start, or finish, to any tour of the Western Isles. And for anyone thinking of doing this, it is worth bearing in mind that the Sound of Barra Ferry is also operated by CalMac, and is included in the choices available as part of their good value "Island Hopscotch" tickets.
These allow you to string together a number of different journeys for much less than the total of the individual fares. This, combined with a new and much larger Sound of Harris Ferry makes it easier than ever before to see the whole length of the Western Isles.