Just a fraction of Britain’s more than 6000 islands are accessible – and even fewer are inhabited. If you’re dreaming of life, or just a holiday, on a remote coastal island you’ll know that islanders have a reputation for being rather quirky. Local traditions and customs are fiercely protected and every British island has a unique heritage.
From the slightly strange to the downright odd, here are the quirkiest islands in Britain that you’ll want to explore.
It’s just 25 miles long, with a population of 3000, and yet this Inner Southern Hebrides island already has eight distilleries (with more planned to come). The unique characteristics of the island’s peat lends its whisky a special beloved smokiness and there’s a rich history in distilling and smuggling. The Isle of Islay is also the place to find the famous “singing sands beach” where, with the right conditions, the sand will ring out when it’s rubbed.
Possibly the quirkiest place in all the British Isles, the Isle of Man is a Crown dependency (but not technically part of Britain) and has a fascinating Celtic and Viking heritage that includes the oldest continuous parliament in the world. Laws come to pass on Tynwald Day when they are proclaimed in a traditional Midsummers Day open-air meeting. All things Isle of Man are called “Manx” – the curious tailless Manx cat originated here – and the Manx language is having a huge resurgence. This beautiful island in the Irish Sea also hosts the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world: The Isle of Man TT.
Proof that the term “mainland” is relative: this island off the northeast coast of Scotland is merely the largest of the seventy fragments of land that comprise Orkney. It’s a stupendous place to watch the Northern Lights, or you can explore Skara Brae, a Neolithic village that’s older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. The winding streets of the old stone town of Stromness house an unlikely artsy crowd and make a great place to base yourself.
This remote and rugged island off the west coast of Scotland is unique because of its beach airport, which is the only one in the world with regularly scheduled flights. Barra has a deserted village at Balnabodach, which is the result of the forced Clearances seen across the Outer Hebrides in the nineteenth century – the remains of typical Barra blackhouses can be seen clustered by the loch.
Connected to the Welsh mainland by two impressive bridges over the Menai Strait, windswept Anglesey claims the village with the longest name in Britain. Anglesey is also where you’ll find the best preserved burial mound in Britain: the Neolithic Barclodiad y Gawres. The name translates as “the giantess's apronful” and legend has it that a giantess on her way to build a house on the island dropped all her stones at this site.
Sheppey (whose name means “Isle of Sheep” and whose inhabitants call themselves “swampies”) has a lot more to it than sheep, prisons and caravan parks. The very east of the estuary island has historic importance in the aviation industry, as in 1909 it was the site of Britain's first aviation factory, producing planes for the Wright Brothers, and in 1913 Winston Churchill learnt to fly there. Oh, and Sheerness Docklands is home to Britain’s only scorpion colony.
Southern England’s Isle of Wight has long been a family favourite destination because of its sandy and shingle beaches, but it also has all sorts of quirky attractions such as Britain’s oldest working telephone box, the eclectic Blackgang Chine amusement park and the option of taking an alpaca for a walk. The island is proud of its moniker “dinosaur island” – the biggest dinosaur to be discovered in the British Isles was unearthed in the cliffs here.
Off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the exotic Isles of Scilly are a sunny, wildflower-covered paradise. Privately owned Tresco is open to visitors – but not to cars – and boasts the world-famous Tresco Abbey Garden, a tropical garden growing plants from all over the world that would never thrive on the mainland.
Sitting between Guernsey and Jersey, and closer to France than mainland Britain, tiny Sark is car-free – you get around on foot, by bicycle, or horse and cart (the transfer to the village from the ferry is by “toast rack” tractor). The Channel Islands are not strictly part of Britain, but they are a Crown dependency; this tangled relationship dates back to 1066 when the islands were part of the Duchy of Normandy and William the Conqueror invaded England. Sark is also the world’s first Dark Sky Island and star gazing here is phenomenal.
© Elke Kohler/Shutterstock
Explore more of Britain with The Rough Guide to Great Britain. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image: Sark © Allard One/Shutterstock.