Access to non-emergency medical services on the islands is limited and many places do not even have a pharmacy. For peace of mind, you should stock up on any medication you regularly need before your trip.
The majority of islands do have some form of doctors’ surgery, district nurse or community nurse. Hospitals are only located on Skye, in Portree and Broadford and in Bowmore on Islay; on the mainland you can also find them in Lochgilphead, Oban and Fort William, but serious or specialist cases are often flown to Glasgow.
Although this apparent lack of services might seem intimidating, it is important to realise that although health care might not come in a form that you are accustomed to, there is always a plan of action in place: well-trained community first responders are on call nearby, dispensing doctors can prescribe medicine where pharmacies are not available and health professionals generally have more time to spend on each patient than you would find in busier parts of the UK; brand-new defibrillators are also now attached to walls in many places across the islands.
Note, too, that prescriptions are free in Scotland. Dentists are few and far between, often only offering emergency appointments.
In terms of both residents and visitors, the Inner Hebrides are very safe. Most inhabitants do not bother to lock their doors and if any criminal activity was to take place then the culprits could not get very far before being stopped at the ferry terminal; in many places, the honesty box shop is still a workable business model.
To reach Mountain Rescue, just call the normal emergency number (999 or 112) and ask for ‘police, mountain rescue’. Do the same to call the coastguard and simply ask for ‘coastguard’. You can also contact 999 via SMS text message, which might be easier in areas of poor network coverage, but it is easier for the emergency services if you have registered your phone in advance; this service should only be used when a phone call is not possible.
The best way to avoid getting into trouble in the first place is to be well prepared and understand your own capabilities. Land- and seascapes that appear gentle in photos can turn out to be much more severe with the addition of Scotland’s famously relentless weather. If you are unsure of your ability or a total beginner, don’t try something new without being accompanied by a more experienced and trustworthy friend or guide.
Though walking is the most accessible activity on the islands – and one which many people can enjoy with appropriate clothing and a little forward planning – navigation becomes vital when hillwalking inland. Map-reading skills and a compass, along with the possible addition of a GPS device, are essential.
When swimming in the sea, it is important to be aware of rip tides. If you find yourself being dragged out, do not fight the current, but swim out sideways, parallel with the shore, to escape. Another obvious hazard can be waves. You should be able to tell if the sea looks too rough to swim in, but even on calmer days you can hurt yourself by being pushed on to the rocks at the side of a bay. Only very confident swimmers who are used to similar conditions should swim out of their depth when alone at the beach.