day trip to Inchcolm Island from Edinburgh: An offbeat adventure
So I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I’ve got a thing for abandoned places. And islands. And boat travel. Luckily, I was able to combine all three of these things on my adventure to Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey from Edinburgh! This easy day trip is a quirky, magical little journey that set my inner explorer into overdrive. Sail the Firth of the Forth with me and take the Inchcolm Island Ferry. Come wander the abandoned Inchcolm Abbey with me (watch out for the twisty staircase!). Get the skinny on the Three Bridges and Inchcolm Island boat tour. I’ve got your guide to the ultimate offbeat Inchcolm Island day trip.
Then it’s seals, lighthouses and seabirds ahoy! What are you waiting for mateys? Grab your life vests and let’s get going!
Inchcolm Abbey is the best-preserved monastic building in Scotland
Why Visit Inchcolm Island?
Inchcolm Island first caught my eye a few years ago. I was traveling north by train, crossing Edinburgh’s Firth of the Fourth, a large estuary where several Scottish rivers meet the North Sea. As we soared across the Forth Railway bridge, we got a bird’s eye view of the islands scattered across the waters of the Forth. I noticed that some of these islands had abandoned buildings on them.
Exploring the History of the Forth’s Abandoned Islands
A quick bit of research revealed that Edinburgh’s forgotten Forth Islands have played host to all kinds of mysteries across the centuries; from abandoned WWII forts, to castle ruins to a syphilis quarantine zone. And yes, and abandoned 12th century abbey.
That was it. I knew in my heart I was destined to come back and explore some of these islands.
Grab a pal and go! My accomplice on this trip was fellow writer and explorer Alex Penland
A day trip to Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey from Edinburgh really packs a punch in terms of variety of things to explore. An easy 20 minute train ride from Edinburgh’s Waverly train station, you’ll first arrive in the charming town of North Queensferry. North Queensferry is worth a visit all on it’s own. It’s also an ideal place to stop for an alfresco lunch before you head across the street to hop on your boat ride.
From there you’ll be treated to a sweeping view of the architectural wonders of the three major bridges that span the Firth of the forth. Get ready to catch unparalleled views of Edinburgh’s skyline from the water and get up close and personal with seals and other marine life on the Three Bridges and Inchcolm Island boat tour.
Then once you’re on the island…are you brave enough to traverse the steep staircase of the Inchcolm Abbey bell tower to scope out a medieval fresco? Skulk through underground tunnels and dodge seabirds to see an amazing vista? Or perhaps you’d like to do a bit of sea kayaking?
It’s all within reach on your Inchcolm Island day trip…
View of the three bridges from the top of Inchcolm Island
Looking for more easy day trips from Edinburgh? Check out my post on Berwick Upon Tweed!
Inchcolm Abbey’s exterior…are you ready to take a peek inside?
I made you a little interactive map with all of the places listed in this guide. Click on the pins to learn more about each destination including directions, opening times, phone number, web address, contact info, reviews, and more. Enjoy!
Getting to Inchcolm Island
The Forth Railway Bridge is truly a marvel to see from the water
It is possible to get to Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey from Edinburgh (mostly) using public transit.
From Edinburgh’s Waverly train station, hop the train to North Queensferry. North Queensferry is about a twenty minute train ride from central Edinburgh. At the time of writing this, an off-peak single return ticket costs between 6.10 and 9.80 GBP.
You’ll want to get off at the stop before North Queensferry, Dalmeny, as it’s slightly closer to the pier where the Three Bridges and Inchcolm Island tour leaves from.
From Dalmeny station, follow the path downhill. This is a wooded path with some steep stairs involved, so if you have any mobility issues, please take care.
The path will bring you to the waterfront. Hawes Pier, where sightseeing cruises from North Queensferry depart, is right across the street.
Take a moment to snap a dramatic photo at the Three Bridges viewpoint, or if you’re early, stop for lunch!
Lunch in North Queensferry
North Queensferry is an adorable town well worth a day trip in my opinion.
But you’ve got adventures to have today!
Why not fuel for fun with an alfresco lunch at The Railbridge Bistro? I’ve eaten here a few times now and it never disappoints. Lovely food, lovely staff. They even have nice little souvenir shop and a stand that sells dairy free ice cream.
It’s a perfect place to kill time before your tour because you can keep tabs on the boats arriving at Hawes Pier from their outdoor dining area.
Inchcolm Island Ferry
Trying to find information on the Inchcolm Island Ferry was the most frustrating part of planning this trip. That’s because (spoiler alert!) There is no such thing as the Inchcolm Island ferry. At least, not in the sense of a public boat that shuttles you back and forth from the island.
I’ll save you some hassle: in order to get to Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey, you’re going to have to book a private boat tour.
That’s okay because I’ve found a great one that I want to share with you. The Three Bridges Boat Tour will be your ticket to your offbeat Inchcolm Island day trip.
Three Bridges and Inchcolm Island Tour
The boat ride was a shutterbug’s dream come true! Photo Credit: Alex Penland
The Edinburgh three bridges cruise is a 90-minute boat tour of the wonders of the Firth of the Forth that can include a visit to Inchcolm Island and Incholm Abbey if you want it to.
The Three Bridges boat tour embarks from Hawes Pier and first takes you on a leisurely cruise around the Forth to check out the architectural wonders of the three bridges. You’ll also pass by Inchgarvie Island up close, with an abandoned fortress dating back to 1513.
This narrated boat tour gives you some excellent background on Edinburgh’s maritime history. It also allows you to catch a very rare view of Edinburgh’s skyline from the water, which I enjoyed immensely.
On the way, we were treated to a small detour to watch seals happily sunning themselves on a buoy, something you definitely wouldn’t get on a regular ferry ride.
The boat docks in a small harbor on Inchcolm Island and those of us who were interested in exploring the Island disembarked.
Note: If you wish to go onto the island, you’ll be subject to the Inchcolm Island landing fee of 7.50 GBP. This goes toward preserving the Island’s historical attractions and natural environment.
I highly recommend booking your boat cruise in advance as the boat can get pretty crowded on a nice day. You want to make sure you get your preferred times.
Exploring Inchcolm Island
The ruins of Inchcolm Abbey
When you arrive on Inchcolm Island the staff at Three Bridges boat tour will inform you of the time the next boat will arrive to collect you and return you to the mainland. Usually they leave you with about 90 minutes to explore, but we were lucky on our visit and got a whole two hours.
Inchcolm Island has a visitor’s center with some interactive exhibits, a gift shop and cafe, and toilet facilities.
When you first arrive, a guide will meet you at the ridge between the gift shop and the Abbey and give you a general overview of the island. After that, you’re on your own.
The island is small enough that you can explore the entire place self guided, on foot. There are a few areas that tourists are not allowed to go, but they will be clearly marked.
Another thing to watch out for is nesting sea birds. We visited in early June, which is prime nesting season. The rocky paths up and down the island were dotted with nests and very highly guarded by some aggressive mother birds.
Understandably, we were warned to keep strictly to the paths and to stay out of the way of dive bombing mamas!
The stone facade of Inchcolm Abbey
Did you know that Shakespeare makes mention of Inchcolm Abbey in Macbeth? In fact, a few local theater companies have mounted stage performances of the Scottish Play in Inchcolm Abbey over the years. What could be more dramatic?
Inchcolm Abbey is also the best preserved monastic quarters in all of Scotland. The cloisters, chapter house, warming house and refractory are all still intact, so you can pretend you’ve stepped through a portal to the past as you wander around, if that’s your jam.
If you are brave enough to take the steep stairs up to the bell tower, you’ll be rewarded with a view of a rare medieval fresco. I was too much of a wimp to go up to the bell tower (fear of heights and fear of close spaces, check!)however if those things don’t freak you out, I’m told it really is well worth the climb and more than just a musty old stair.
Alex was brave enough to climb the steep steps to the bell tower!
For the history nerd in you, Inchcolm Island was established as a priory in 1140 by David I, after his brother Alexander had a dream about building an abbey on the Island after sheltering there during a storm.
So I guess what I’m saying is that this island has been inspiring everyone from religious leaders, to royalty, to great playwrights for centuries.
Why not allow it to inspire you?
Feeling inspired in the Abbey.
Craving another easy day trip from Edinburgh? Why not give Rosslyn Chapel a try?
Seabirds and Wildlife
The view of Edinburgh from Inchcolm Island, as seen through the spring’s Queen Anne’s Lace
As I touched on before, Inchcolm Island is critical to Scotland’s ecosystem as a nesting place for seabirds such as seagulls, and even puffins depending on the season. Respectful bird watching is both allowed and encouraged on the island.
The best place to scope out the variety of bird life is on the hill just above the visitor’s center. Take care as you go up the steep steps. I learned on my visit to Inchcolm Island that seagulls actually like to make nests in rocky pockets close to the ground. If you don’t watch your step you could end up disturbing some hatchlings.
See what I’m doing in this photo? Just don’t do it. Seriously, it’s dumb. I’m standing only a few feet away from a nest of hatchlings.
There’s also a very nifty tunnel that will take you from one side of the island to the other. Just make sure you bring something that lights up because it can get dark in there.
Do birds freak you out? You can pretty much avoid close encounters with birds by skipping the hill and sticking to the abbey and the beach areas.
There’s other wildlife to see on Inchcolm Island anyways. It’s also a home to oyster beds and some very lazy seals.
Outdoor Activities on Inchcolm Island
Yes, those are gnomes! One of Inchcolm Island’s caretakers definitely has a sense of humor.
I noticed some sea kayakers pulling their boats onto the beach as we arrived. This looked like an amazing experience so of course I had to do some research…
Dun Eideann Sea Kayaking does half day sea Kayaking tours to Inchcolm Island that are beginner friendly! Now I am FOMO-ing super hard because what a perfect way to explore!
All this means is that I’ll have to find an excuse to go back. Going by kayak is definitely a cool alternative to doing the Three Bridges Boat tour and yet another interesting way to get to Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey from Edinburgh.
Weddings on Inchcolm Island
The pipes were calling, but not for me
Picture my surprise when I strolled out of Inchcolm Abbey to the sounds of this piper piping! What had I done to deserve such fanfare?
Turns out, there was a wedding earlier that day at Inchcolm Abbey and I was about two steps away from photobombing the happy couple.
Imagine turning your wedding into an Inchcolm Island day trip? It’s totally possible!
Inchcolm Island is also a popular venue for weddings and if you’ve read this far, I don’t have to explain why. Go ahead and have a drool at these photos though.
Staying in North Queensferry
If you’re keen to spend a wee bit more time outside the Big Smoke (that’s an old-school, folksy term for Edinburgh) then North Queensferry has lots of options.
Ferrycraigs House is a charming victorian B&B that gets excellent reviews.
If Ferrycraigs House isn’t exactly your cup of tea, there’s plenty of options to explore on Tripadvisor.
Getting Back to Town From Inchcolm Island
The view of North Queensferry on our way back, as snapped by Alex Penland
Although we didn’t want our Inchcolm Island day trip to end, The Three Bridges boat tour returned as promised to shuttle us back to North Queensferry. On the way back, we took another long route that allowed us to see even more seals and learn even more about Scotland’s history.
We returned home exhausted, restored, rejuvenated and inspired. Amazing how one little day out on the Forth could have such a positive impact.
All in all, this day really exceeded my expectations in terms of all of the incredible history and nature we got to experience.
If I were you, I’d move an Inchcolm Island and Inchcolm Abbey day trip from Edinburgh to the top of your Scottish bucket list.
Want more Scottish travel inspo? Check out 12 Easy Car Free Day Trips From Edinburgh!
ask me anything
Got questions about car-free solo travel in Scotland? Ask me anything. on Instagram @alyssaowrites
I’m building a network of fearless solo women abroad in their 30s & 40s. Follow me on Instagram!