Because Scotland has so many islands, plus the great Firth of Clyde waterway, ferry services are of paramount importance. Most ferries transport vehicles as well as foot passengers, although a few smaller ones are for passengers only.
It's a good idea to make a reservation ahead of time, although reservations are not absolutely necessary. Most travelers show up on the day of departure and buy their tickets from the stations at the ports. Keep in mind that these are working ferries, not tourist boats. Although journeys are scenic, most people use these ferries as their daily means of public transportation to and from their hometowns.
The main operator is Caledonian MacBrayne, known generally as CalMac. Services extend from the Firth of Clyde in the south, where there's an extensive network, right up to the northwest of Scotland and all the Hebrides. CalMac sells an 8-day or 15-day Island Rover runabout ticket, which is ideal for touring holidays in the islands, as well as an island-hopping plan called Island Hopscotch. Fares can range from £4 to £5 for a short trip to almost £50 for a longer trip with several legs.
The Dunoon–Gourock route on the Clyde is served by Western Ferries (for cars) and CalMac (for passengers only).
Northlink Ferries operates a car ferry for Orkney between Scrabster, near Thurso, and Stromness, on the main island of Orkney; and between Aberdeen and Kirkwall, which is also on Mainland, Orkney. Northlink also runs an efficient and affordable ferry to Lerwick, Shetland, and Kirkwall, Orkney. The journey to Lerwick is overnight, but comfortable cabins are available for those who prefer to take the waves lying down. These ferries can be busy in summer, so book well in advance.
Traveler's checks (in pounds), cash, and major credit cards are accepted for payment.
Caledonian MacBrayne (0800/066–5000. www.calmac.co.uk.)
Northlink Ferries (0845/600–0449. www.northlinkferries.co.uk.)
Western Ferries (01369/704452. www.western-ferries.co.uk.)
Hebridean Island Cruises (01756/704700; 855/866–8612 in U.S. www.hebridean.co.uk.)
National Trust for Scotland (0866/211-7573. www.nts.org.uk.)
Cunard Line (0845/678–0013 or 800/728–6273. www.cunard.com.)
Holland America Line (0843/374–2300 or 877/932–4259. www.hollandamerica.com.)
Princess Cruises (0845/075–0031 or 800/774–6237. www.princess.com.)
Seabourn Cruise Line (0843/373–2000 in the U.K.; 866/755-5619 in the U.S. www.seabourn.com.)