Sailing from Islay to Tiree

Contact details

Argyll and the Isles offers some of the safest and most varied cruising in the world. This journey by boat takes you through stunning scenery and past some of Scotland’s most idyllic islands. It’s suitable for motor or sailing vessels that are less than 15 metres in length. You can make the trip in a few days, but if you have the time why not take a few weeks and really enjoy the journey? There are numerous fascinating places to discover en-route. Travel with the correct charts and sailing directions and don’t forget your copy of ‘The Scottish Islands’ by Hamish Haswell-Smith – a fantastic book that’s available from all good Argyll book shops.


Our journey starts at Islay, a beautiful island that’s home to no less than eight world-class distilleries. Port Ellen is the easiest and safest port and offers good pontoons and a friendly welcome. Do go ashore and see Islay. There are companies that will take you on a tour of the island and its distilleries – a great way to get to know the place and its people. You’ll also pass a number of distilleries as you sail around the island, and it’s possible to anchor off some of them and go ashore for supplies.

Islay to Jura

From Islay head east and then north through the Sound of Islay and into Loch Tarbert. You need to check the tide direction of the Sound of Islay as the tide flows at quite a rate – there are plans to place ten tidal power generators in this sound as it has such a strong and reliable flow. Sailing through the Sound of Islay is great fun. The scenery (and distilleries) pass swiftly by as you’re propelled along by the force of nature. In fine weather you get a great view of the Paps of Jura – a fine pair (of mountains) they are too! At the top of the sound head east to find the entrance to Loch Tarbert on Jura. This loch offers a very safe haven. It has a remote feel to it, with no roads, only a couple of buildings – a hunting lodge and bothy.

If you look at the charts you’ll see that the loch is split into three parts: part one for easy anchoring and navigation, part two for very sheltered anchoring and hardy navigators and part three for the (mildly insane) adventurous navigator. I’d recommend part two as it provides complete shelter and interesting navigation using the leading marks. Part three is mad. I’m a little biased as I managed to run my boat aground trying to get into the final basin; I didn’t read the directions properly!

I normally anchor on the north side of the second loch near a bothy on the beach. If I don’t go through the first set of narrows, I anchor at the entrance to the loch just west of the hunting lodge below the raised beaches.

Local’s tip: Anchor in Loch Tarbert and enjoy a peaceful night watching the deer and exploring the many raised beaches . There really aren’t many places left like it. 

Jura to Iona

As you leave Loch Tarbert you may want to visit Colonsay or anchor off one of the stunning sandy beaches on the island or its tiny tidal neighbour, Oronsay. Then head north towards the south-west tip of Mull – but before you do so read the sailing directions. There’s a scatter of rocks off this corner of Mull, but in settled weather and armed with chart plotters and sailing directions it’s all very straightforward.

Now it’s on to Iona. Navigating the Sound of Iona requires close referencing to charts and directions and you’ll need to watch for tidal direction. The water is very shallow so check your draught. Iona is a very special place. It’s a cradle of Christianity in Great Britain. Even I – a life-long non-believer –appreciate its spiritual quality.

Local’s tip: Stop off at Tinker’s Hole, a small island with sheltered waters between Mull and Erraid. It’s one of Scotland’s best anchorages and a well-kept secret. 

Iona to Ulva

Your next stop is Staffa Island to see Fingal’s Cave, which inspired Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It’s a great spectacle, especially if the sea is calm and you can get up close or anchor and go ashore. Then it’s over to the east side of Ulva, a small island just off Mull that offers sheltered anchorage in a protected basin. It’s a great place to spot wildlife. You may see one of Mull’s sea eagles soaring overhead and we’ve often watched an otter catch its breakfast here. It’s just a short row ashore to the The Boat House Café on Ulva. The birds all seem very tame and will eat out of your hand at the café – great entertainment for kids on a nice day. The island also offers great walking.

Local’s tip: If you ask the fishermen on Ulva nicely, they’ll sell you live langoustine. Delicious!

Ulva to Tiree

This last leg of the journey is a lovely sail. There are great views of the Treshnish Isles and the very distinctive Dutchman’s Cap – Bac Mòr – is a fantastic place to stop for lunch and watch the puffins fly by. It’s also worth making a detour to visit the Isle of Coll, which has a good anchorage and moorings in Arinagour. If the weather is unsettled, it’s a safer place to anchor than Tiree. Coll Hotel is a good spot to enjoy a meal and some local banter.

Our final destination – Tiree – is stunning and quite different from all the other islands. I usually anchor in Gott Bay, which offers reasonable protection and an awesome beach. After a barbeque on the beach, walk over the grasslands to Scarinish Hotel for a drink. We’ve had some great nights here and there’s often live music. 

Local’s tip: When you leave Tiree and are heading south, try going via Tobermory and the Sound of Mull.