Ferry ride from Tarbet to Mallaig

[on the 24th May 2019]

I’m standing by the slipway in Tarbet Bay, waiting with a couple of other people, chilly in the wind, for the 3:30pm ferry to arrive. Then we notice a small green boat has slipped into the bay. An even-smaller orange dinghy detaches from its stern and heads over towards us.

50 little boat approaching, Ruth waiting for ferry in Tarbet, Scotland

We look at each other. Is that the ferry? Not quite what we were expecting. It’s tiny!

We wait, politely, at the end of the slipway. As the dinghy draws nearer, a group of four walkers seem to appear from nowhere, and push past us. I think I recognise them. I think they’re the hikers I saw earlier.

The man steering the dinghy hands them life jackets, and then the walkers climb aboard. The little boat rocks alarmingly. There clearly isn’t room for us too, so we can only stand and watch as they chug back across the water to rendezvous with the little green ferry.

51 out to private ferry, Ruth Livingstone in Tarbet, Scotland

‘Hope it returns for us,’ says one of my companions. We don’t say what we’re all thinking – ‘How rude to push past us.’ The couple tell me they’ve walked here from their B&B on the Morar shore, but their car is parked in Mallaig.

Two more walkers join us on the slipway. I think they must be the older walkers from the foreign group. The little boat returns, and we step forwards, but the boatman waves us back and motions to the older walkers to get in.

‘This is a private ferry,’ he explains. ‘Yours should be here soon.’

52 second shuttle to private ferry, Ruth's coastal walk, Tarbet

Oh. It’s not our ferry, after all. We watch the dinghy make its way over to the larger boat, and then watch as the green ferry leaves the narrow entrance of Tarbet Bay and disappears into the distance. The noise of the engine fades and we stare across the empty water and wait. And wait.

At 4pm we hear a faint chug-chug sound, and then a dot appears out in Loch Nevis, and grows larger. We exchange sighs of relief. It’s our ferry – a proper ferry – with a large cabin and railings around the decks. It doesn’t approach the slipway, but sends over its own dinghy – a robust, no-nonsense, metal affair.

We climb aboard (no life jackets needed) and cross the bay to board our ferry. As we climb up onto the deck, a group of people are preparing to get off. They have a huge collection of luggage with them – bags and cases, bottles of water and sacks of food. Everything including, possibly, the kitchen sink.

53 shuttle boat to our ferrry, Ruth's coastal walk, Tarbet, Scotland

One of the crew explains this group of passengers has rented a place nearby. Obviously there are no roads to their holiday home, and they have to bring all their supplies with them, including drinking water.

I watch as the holidaymakers set off in their metal craft. They’re not actually staying in Tarbet, but are continuing their journey further up Loch Nevis. Sounds like there is no escape from this holiday until the ferry comes to pick them up again. Hope they like each others company!

54 trip to remote cottage, shuttle boat from Tarbet ferry

When I booked the ferry a few days ago, the website said you had to pay extra for bringing shopping bags with you. At the time, I thought it was a bit mean to charge for shopping bags but now, looking at the luggage piled high, I understand why.

As our ferry pulls out of Tarbet Bay, I spot a wonderful house on the shore, with a rounded section. It looks like a castle. How lucky to stay there! But then, I gather from conversations with the crew, they’re staying in a much smaller cottage further along.

34 castle house, Tarbet, Ruth on the ferry

The ferry turns to the left, heading north-westwards, and begins it’s journey towards Inverie.

I gaze to the east, looking towards the top of Loch Nevis. It’s supposed to be one of the most remote areas of Scotland and I love the dramatic view. I also notice a few scattered cottages along the shore, and wonder which one the holidaymakers are heading for.

55 looking up Loch Nevis, Ruth on the Tarbet Ferry, Scotland

It’s a good half-hour journey to Inverie. There are only 4 passengers on the boat – myself, the couple I waited with at Tarbet, and a woman who is working in Inverie and has come along for the cruise. While ferries shuttle regularly between Mallaig and Inverie, this is the only one of the day that comes up Loch Nevis to Tarbet.

Remembering the ferry’s website promised whisky in the bar, I pop down into the cabin and then down a further set of steps into a tiny windowless bar area, where a bored-looking young man pours me a glass of whisky. I think I’m his only customer!

Taking the whisky up onto the deck, I sit and enjoy the scenery. It doesn’t get much better than this – a great day of walking, a tasty nip of whisky, and a wonderful ferry ride down Loch Nevis. All you could wish for now was some sunshine.

Inverie comes into view. It is supposed to be one of the most remote villages in Scotland, with no road access, and set in the wilderness of the Knoydart peninsula.

56 approaching Inverie, Ruth on the Tarbet Ferry, Scotland

The couple were telling me they were disappointed with Inverie when they visited it earlier this week. Now, as we draw nearer to the wharf, I’m surprised to see cars moving around on the roads. I thought there were no roads in Knoydart, and no cars either.

57 Inverie wharf, Ruth on the Tarbet Ferry, Scotland

It seems that half the population of Inverie has turned out for the ferry. More people get on, a couple of large kayaks are manhandled onto the deck, a pile of cases are brought onboard, and passengers jostle for a good spot on the seats.

The mooring ropes are slipped and the ferry sets off again. Suddenly, a man next to me says, ‘Oh no, I forgot the canoe.’ ‘Too late now,’ says someone else. ‘Ask them to bring it over on the next crossing.’

We’re heading westwards now, towards Mallaig. This section of the journey is choppy, as we leave the more sheltered waters of Loch Nevis and face the open sea.

ferry to Mallaig from Inverie, Ruth's coastal walk

We have to hover outside Mallaig for some time, waiting for a much larger ferry to clear the harbour.

58 approach to Mallaig, Ruth on the Tarbet Ferry, Scotland

By the time we finally dock, it’s nearly 6pm. Much later than I anticipated – partly because the ferry was late, and partly because I hadn’t realised it would take so long to travel up Loch Nevis. I’m not sure of the train times, or the bus times…

Tomorrow I’m heading back home to Manchester. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to have to work out how to tackle the Knoydart peninsula – one of Scotland’s least accessible areas. It’s going to be a challenge.

The kind couple I met in Tarbet offer me a lift in their car. They’re passing through Morar, so I feel no guilt in accepting. It’s a comfortable way to end today’s expedition.


About Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.
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14 Responses to Ferry ride from Tarbet to Mallaig

  1. There’s always something magical about a ferry, I think, whatever the size.

  2. That ferry ride and all the associated shenanigans was a fitting conclusion to your most recent walks. Fantastic remote area, all the best with your plans for Knoydart, it won’t be easy but by now you’ve probably been and done it.

  3. Chris Elliott says:

    I suspect that the big castle like house is Cameron Mackintosh’s house – the impresario, as he owns the Tarbet estate. When I walked this section of the coast I had planned to stay in the chapel at Tarbet which used to be a bothy when David Cotton walked here in 2002. Unfortunately it no longer is as Cameron Mackintosh is converting it into residential accomodation for visiting artists (or so I was told). I ended up being given a lift back to Mallaig in a very swanky motor cruiser from one of the estates further up the loch at about 19.00 in the evening! I’m looking forward to hearing how you did Knoydart. I originally planned to walk all the way around Knoydart but in the end wimped out and walked the usual route from Inverie to Barrisdale Bay and on to Kinlochhourn. (The ghillie for the Knoydart estate advised me not to attempt the walk around Knoydart with a big heavy pack as he said the north of the peninsula was very rough.) All the best.

    • Hi Chris. Interesting to find out who the estate belongs to, and shame about the bothy. Looking at my photos on the previous blog post again, I realise the house on the east side of the bay does look like an old chapel.

  4. jcombe says:

    I had also read about the chapel and was trying to search for it, but it is now rented out as you say. Glad the ferry turned up, it must be quite nerve racking but at least you were with someone else. Is there a mobile signal there? I might have tried ringing to confirm the ferry was really coming!

    I’m planning to do the same route. As to my next route north from here beginning to wonder if I might drive to the end of the road (if I can find somewhere to park that isn’t under the “No Parking Turning Area” sign!) and then try to walk out to Tarbet then on along the coast or mountains as far as the bridge over the river and back in a day, rather than risk walking from Inverie to Tarbet in a day and hoping to arrive before the 1 a day ferry. Thanks for the information you posted that the bridge is repaired again, that is good to know.

    Just got back from a trip to the Highlands myself. I covered the gaps I’d left from Poolewe to Gairloch and then the coast round as far south as Lower Diabaig. A wonderful section of the coast but quite tough, too.

    • There’s no mobile signal there, Jon, and you need to book the ferry in advance as I got the impression that they don’t run it if nobody is booked to or from Tarber.

      Did you walk along the coast from Red Point to Lower Diabaig, Jon? Is the path OK? And how did you manage the transport between? That’s going to be my next section, although I don’t think I’ll get back to Scotland until spring now.

      • Chris Elliott says:

        Hi Ruth – the walk from Red Point to the bothy at Craig is one of the harder stretches of the UK coast as the path is a bit indistinct. there are also a lot of burns to cross which can be tricky when in spate. So it needs a bit of care. But it is a low level relatively flat coastal walk across mainly fairly short low lying heather. From Craig the walk to Lower Diabaig is fine as the path is much better and I don’t recollect there being any burns. From memory i think it took me four hours to do Red Point to Craig with a big heavy 18kg pack on in appalling weather. Some Germans i met at Craig did it in the same time with their eleven year old daughter. I was told the walk takes generally 3-5 hours depending on conditions. i took 1.5 hours to do Lower Diabaig to Craig but that was when i was shattered having walked from Shieldaig the same day. It was also very wet again. I’m afraid I can’t help on the transport as I stayed in the old YHA bothy at Craig. You could always do it with two there and back walks from Lower Diabaig to Craig and back and Red Point to Craig and back as the circuit around by road is a long way – too far to cycle I would imagine.

        • Thanks Chris. Yes, two there-and-back walks sounds like the best plan for me.

          • jcombe says:

            Yes I was aware you needed to book the ferry in advance. After your previous post I was a bit concerned you might not have done and the ferry was not going to come – I’m glad to hear that was not the case.

            Yes I wondered about the phone signal as wondering if I go ahead and try to walk from Inverie to Tarbet in time to get the ferry if it takes longer and I’m not going to get to Tarbet for 3:30pm at least I could phone the ferry and let them know, I don’t imagine the ferrymen would be too pleased to come out to Tarbet and find no one there, but it does not sound like that is an option sadly.

            Regarding Red Point to Lower Diabaig yes I did do that part. I really enjoyed and thought it was a wonderful walk so I’d advise not missing this bit out if you can help it. I did the walk there and back on the same day from Red Point. I had done a short walk earlier in the day to fill in a small gap I left (which was perhaps a mistake) and decided if I didn’t make it to Craig early enough I’d turn back there. Chris has already suggested this too and I’d agree it’s good advise. But I did make it so continued to the road at Lower Diabaig and then walked back to Red Point. I made it back about to the car park 20 minutes before it got dark! I briefly stopped to shelter in the Bothy at Craig because of a shower. There is no electricity etc there of course but it looked quite comfortable (I had a look upstairs too).

            Chris has given some good information and advise. I’d agree with what he says the path east from Craig (to Lower Diabaig) is much better. There are actually a few burns to cross on that bit but they all have bridges except for one which has large and very easy stepping stones. From Red Point to Craig it is much harder, the path is mostly rocks and boggy gound so you have to watch where you are walking constantly. The worst part is when you turn off the coast along the west side of the river as far as the wooden bridge. There are several burns to cross on this part but there were rocks close enough together you could step over, but did need to be careful.

            It is lovely though so I don’t mean to put you off. It took me a little under 8 hours there and back including a brief stop at Craig and a lunch stop, but I did walk fairly quickly where possible (because I wanted to get back before it got dark).

            As Chris advises it’s a long way between them by road, probably about 90 minutes I’d have thought. I know Colin and Rosemary used two cars (their own and a hire car) to do this bit and ended up driving a total of about 100 miles between them!

    • jcombe says:

      I’ve put the photos from this walk online now if of interest for your planning : https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncombe/albums/72157711093881063

  5. Karen White says:

    What a delightful ferry ride – I’m glad it eventually arrived. Lucky Cameron Mackintosh owning a big house/castle in that remote place.

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