West of Mallaig, south of Skye, and north of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula lies a group of four islands collectively known as The Small Isles. The islands of Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck are usually reached by the ferry the MV Lochnevis which operates a pattern of services from Mallaig calling at two, three or all four of the islands on six days of the week. There is no Sunday service. Fare and timetable information is available on CalMac's website.
The MV Lochnevis is far from being CalMac's largest vessel. At 49m long it has room for 190 passengers and 14 cars. It is, however, relatively new, being one of the last ships to emerge from the Ailsa Yard at Troon before it closed in 2000.
The Lochnevis offers a standard of passenger accommodation and comfort that some of its larger sister ships might envy. An excellent cafeteria occupies much of the main passenger deck, and there is a large and comfortable observation lounge above it. And best of all for a vessel used in such scenic waters, there is a lot of open deck accessible to passengers. This allows views to the front, the sides and the rear of the ship, and there is plenty of outside seating for those sunny days.
As a result the Small Isles Ferry offers not just the best way (much of the time, the only way) to get to the Small Isles, but a non-disembarking cruise also makes an enjoyable and comfortable day out from Mallaig.
With the opening of new piers on Eigg, Muck and Rum in Autumn 2004, the MV Lochnevis no longer has to transfer cargo and passengers to and from small flitboats while standing off the islands in open sea. This hazardous-looking and weather-prone operation was a throwback to another era of Scottish island shipping, and while some may have mourned its passing, they probably didn't include those who had to step across from ship to flitboat on a regular basis.
For those thinking of spending more time on the Small Isles, there's more detailed information about Eigg available here. To its south is the smallest of the Small Isles, Muck. This fertile island is only 2 miles long and the main settlement is at Port Mor, near the south east corner of the island and at one end of the island's only road.
The largest of the Small Isles is Rum, measuring some 9 miles north to south and 8 from east to west. This is the most spectacular of the islands, possessing its own range of spiky Cuillin mountains that echo those visible to the north on Skye. The Rum Cuillin may not be as high as the Skye Cuillin, but they certainly have the edge in terms of inaccessibility. The remarkable red sandstone Kinloch Castle can be seen from the ferry, and toured if you land on the island. This harks back to Rum's days as the private estate of the Bulloughs. These days Rum is operated as a National Nature Reserve by Scottish National Heritage.
Canna is the most westerly of the Small Isles and measures some five miles by one. It is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and operated as a working farm. The main harbour, the best on any of the Small Isles, lies between Canna and its linked island of Sanday. Here, too, is the main centre of habitation: though if intending to visit this island of 20 residents remember there are no shops on Canna.