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.
For walking: Arran
A well-worn cliché it may be, but Arran’s moniker “Scotland in miniature” sums it up: Arran is part Highland drama, part Lowland lushness. The Highland Boundary Fault runs right through this chunky island, a dramatic granite ridge that dominates the landscape and provides plenty of great hiking.
The temptation is always to head straight up Goatfell, the highest peak on the island at 874 metres, and it’s well worth doing if you’re fit enough and the weather is behaving. It takes about five hours from Brodick Castle, the most popular ascent starting point, and involves steep but fairly straightforward terrain. The view is an apt reward for the physical exertion; you even can see Ireland from here on a clear day.
Alternatively, hike the Isle of Arran Coastal Way, which runs around the island for 65 miles, taking in sandy beaches and cliffs, caves and waterfalls, on its rambling circular route around the coastline. This six-day hike is the best way to get to know this beautiful island.
For food: Skye
Scotland’s larder groans with exquisite shellfish, quality meats and tasty cheeses – and Skye has some of the very finest on its doorstep and around its coastline.
The best restaurant on the island is acknowledged far and wide to be the Three Chimneys, which has twice been included in Restaurant Magazine’s world’s top fifty restaurants list and has a loyal following. A small building by the sea, it may not look much from the outside but miss it at your peril, for here you will find chubby scallops the size of a fist, the sweetest lobster and oysters dragged from the water just hours before.
Indulge in the Isle of Skye showcase menu here for a mouthwatering, eight-course introduction to the island’s produce before heading out around its dramatic landscape to feast on fresh local lamb, Skye-smoked fish, wild raspberries and the island’s whisky, Talisker.
For whisky: Islay
Far be it from us to name Scotland’s best whisky (frankly, we wouldn’t dare), but Islay can lay an assured claim to being the leading island when it comes to a wee dram.
On the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands you’ll find eight distilleries, most located around the coastline. The three southern distilleries are perhaps the most famous – Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig – and make use of the local peat to produce full-flavoured whiskies with glass-filling smokiness.
All three offer distillery tours where you can learn the age-old secrets of traditional whisky production, but savouring their produce is best done fireside at the Ballygrant Inn’s whisky bar where the drinks menu runs to some 300, dozens of them from Islay itself.