If asked to guess, how many islands would you say there are in Scotland? A few dozen perhaps, or a couple of hundred? Would you raise an eyebrow if we told you it’s actually more than 700? And that Scotland has more than 10% of Europe’s entire coastline? That’s a lot of islands to explore – and a whole lot of ferry journeys. So, which ones are worth crossing the seas to see? Here’s our guide to the finest Scottish islands.
For history: Mainland, Orkney Islands
To an Orkney islander “mainland” does not mean Scotland, but the largest island in this archipelago of 70-odd. This where you’ll find one of Europe’s most important UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This collection of monuments harks back to the prehistoric era, and you can stand among ancient stone circles or even lay a twenty-first century palm on a prehistoric monument at the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. Both of these sites are believed to have been involved in ceremonies celebrating the relationship between living and past communities.
You can delve further into the life of a Neolithic community at the surprisingly modern-looking Skara Brae. Each sunken dwelling here has stone beds, dressers and seats; add a roof and you could live in these homes today – albeit uncomfortably. The settlement dates back some 5000 years and was only uncovered by a storm in 1850, hence its excellent condition.
Nearby, Maeshowe is not to be missed. This is the finest building of its time in northwest Europe, a masterpiece of Neolithic design and stonework – also some 5000 years old. Enter the grassy mound and find yourself inside a perfectly constructed tomb, made in part with whole stone slabs weighing up to three tonnes. The experience is truly magical, especially for three weeks before and after the winter solstice when sunlight floods the tomb each day at sunset, illuminating, in more ways than one, the intelligence of Neolithic man.