Sustainable island travel

Active & sustainable travel, Arran, Barra, Eigg, Island enthusiast, Outdoor Activities, Skye

By Robin McKelvie

e-bikes at Eigg Adventures

Leave your car on the drive. Take the train to Mallaig. Jump on the CalMac ferry and arrive on your island paradise. Walk up the pier to the new bike hire shop, where Owain awaits with a beaming smile. Head off exploring Eigg on one of the fleet of bikes that are the first 100% green electrically powered e-bikes on any island in the world. Welcome to the Hebrides, where there are myriad ways of doing your bit to stop the rapid denigration of our planet, with Scottish Islands Passport on hand to help.

Super green, impressively community-owned Eigg is the shining star of Scotland’s island sustainability drive, with Owain Wyn-Jones’ e-bikes at Eigg Adventures just part of a push here, as he puts it, “to help people help themselves, help Eigg and help the planet by enjoying more sustainable holidays that are, if anything, even more rewarding than those they are used to.”

Owain Wyn-Jones

I’ve spent a number of low-impact breaks on Eigg (an isle you are simply not allowed to bring your vehicle over to) and I can massively recommend them. As well as hiring your bikes from Owain, you can put money directly into the community at the new food shop, souvenir store and bar/restaurant at the swish new An Laimhrig community hub. There are even 100% green electricity showers – you just pay contactless. The easiest place to stay is one of the low-key wooden pods that sit just uphill. Make sure to snare some fresh local, low food mile produce to enjoy over the fire pit as you gaze out over the Hebrides back to the mountains of the mainland. Sustainable bliss.

Cooking local produce on Eigg

Sustainable tourism can mean many things. Some hotels seem to think it is just an excuse to get people to use less laundry; some travellers consciously, or unconsciously, as a way to ease their planet-bashing guilt by flying less. It is something I struggle with as a travel writer, both in my travelling and the holidays I write about. Handily for all of us Scotland’s islands offer the chance to be more sustainable. Whether you take that opportunity is up to you. I guess if you’ve read this far you want to, so let’s explore how to put together more sustainable island breaks.

Getting to the isles can be the hardest part. If you’re from outside the island of Britain you may not want to lose some of your limited holiday time on convoluted non-flying travel plans. If you’re on this island, though, there really are better options than flying. Book ahead for better rail deals, and note that Scottish Government-run Scotrail has made all fares off-peak until June 2024. And how about the Caledonian Sleeper from London? The beds are not cheap, but they stack up against a hotel for the night and there are cheaper seats too. And you wake up deep in the Highlands at Fort William.

Western Isles Cruises

Getting to the isles is often a pleasure with CalMac, despite their well-publicised issues in recent years. And how about putting some money in the pockets of smaller local companies like Arisaig Marine Western Isles Cruises and the Glenelg ferry to Skye?

If you’re aiming further North to Shetland or Orkney, then NorthLink and Pentland ferries offer fantastic views across the top of Scotland as you head to the Northern isles.

Getting around the isles can be enjoyed in a sustainable way too. You can hire bikes on many isles these days, or bring your own. Public transport can be a good fall back or use a combo, with the innovative Scotrail dedicated cycle carriages to Oban and the flurry of CalMac ferries that link up there. Walking remains a brilliant way to get around especially if you plan your trip ahead. Once you get it into your head you can walk 5km from the ferry to your hotel and 3km to the pub it’s actually a wildlife-viewing and scenery-appreciating joy.

Once you start to think sustainable it opens up a world of possibilities. Instead of a bus tour chugging around Barra, how about bashing out on a sea kayak with the local seals spotting whales and dolphins as you go? Or how about really planning your travel, making scouring island bus times part of the joy of travel, planning to link up places you might have driven between?

Robin kayaking off Barra

I’ve admitted already I struggle with being more sustainable personally and professionally. One positive way forward I find is trying to use – and by doing so, fund – as many community projects and groups as possible. I interview many groups for my work with community tourism body SCOTO. All of their members are community groups and companies that want to welcome visitors in a positive, engaging way as ‘temporary locals’. You come with an open mind and spend in the community and you’re rewarded with a rich experience a million miles from a trudging tourist bus tour.

Sheila Gilmore, who works for Visit Arran on the eponymous Firth of Clyde isle, has seen a real uptake in interest on sustainable travel in recent years: “It’s great to see people being more engaged with the environment and how to protect it. We’ve put a lot of effort into telling people about local public transport and developing paths and cycle routes. Two wheels is a brilliant way to explore Arran if you’re short of time, while the Arran Coastal Way has deservedly been recognised as one of Scotland’s Great Trails for hikers.”

Trying to go more green is not always easy, but here Scottish Islands Passport can help you. Update to the latest version of their app and you will now see travel stamps to be collected while on island along with a new dedicated travel section to help you navigate each island. Island travel businesses are listed along with local bus providers to make it easier to find your way around. There are even some walks to get your island adventure started.. why not get out and explore more in 2024!

The Scottish Islands Passport stamps that you can collect on each island have also been tweaked, so that you bring in multi-nodal transport. So if you walked, cycled or wheeled while on the isles, collect your travel stamps now. I think that is a great way for people to pat themselves on the back for being more sustainable and also encourages them to keep up the great work.

It’s all fine and well talking the talk about more sustainable travel, but so much harder actually doing it. It can seem daunting at first, but with Scottish Islands Passport to help out you have a dynamic green friend by your side who informs, affirms and motivates. So if you want to do your bit for preserving those wondrous isles that glitter off Scotland’s coast then download the app, start marking those sustainable stamps and grab the brace of their excellent travelogues – Meet The Makers and  Shaping Our Islands. What are you waiting for?

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