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.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands & Islands, your essential guide for visiting Scottish islands.
1. For history: Mainland, Orkney Islands
To an Orkney islander “mainland” does not mean Scotland, but the largest among Scottish islands in this archipelago. This is where you’ll find one of Europe’s most important UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This monument harks back to the prehistoric era, and you can stand among ancient stone circles or even lay a palm on a prehistoric monument at the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
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 B&B: Ardconnel Bed and Breakfast
- For rural setting: The Old Smokery
Where to stay on Orkney Islands
2. 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 to 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 one of the most beautiful Scottish islands.
3. 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.
On this tailor-made Highland Tour, you will discover the beautiful region of Perthshire, the famous Loch Ness and Inverness – the capital of the Highlands. Get a chance to admire Europe’s oldest mountain, stroll along the sandy beaches of the Scottish islands, and visit the mysterious Isle of Skye.
4. 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 one of the leading Scottish islands 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. However, savouring their produce is best-done fireside at the Ballygrant Inn’s whisky bar where the drinks menu runs some 300, dozens of them from Islay itself.
- For coastline and beaches: The Islay Hotel
- For tranquil stays: Dha Urlar
Where to stay on the Isle of Islay
5. For a leisurely exploration: the Isle of Mull
The second largest of the Inner Hebrides, Mull is by far the most accessible: just forty minutes from Oban by ferry. As so often, first impressions largely depend on the weather – it is the wettest of the Hebrides (and that’s saying something) – for without the sun the large tracts of moorland, particularly around the island’s highest peak, Ben More (3169ft), can appear bleak and unwelcoming.
There are, however, areas of more gentle pastoral scenery around Dervaig in the north and Salen on the east coast, and the indented west coast varies from the sandy beaches around Calgary to the cliffs of Loch na Keal.
The most common mistake is to try and “do” the island in a day or two: flogging up the main road to the picturesque capital of Tobermory, then covering the fifty-odd miles between there and Fionnphort, in order to visit Iona. Mull is a place that will grow on you only if you have the time and patience to explore; a couple of nights here at least is recommended.
- For sea views: Western Isles Hotel
- For location: Isle Of Mull Hotel and Spa
Where to stay on the Isle of Mull
6. Best Scottish islands for birdwatching: Treshnish Isles
Northwest of Staffa lie the Treshnish Isles, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islets, none more than a mile or two across. The most distinctive is Bac Mór, shaped like a Puritan’s hat and popularly dubbed the Dutchman’s Cap. Lunga, the largest island, is a summer nesting place for hundreds of seabirds, in particular guillemots, razorbills and puffins. The last of these are the star attraction, and, for many, the main reason for visiting.
It’s also a major breeding ground for seals. The two most northerly Scottish islands, Cairn na Burgh More and Cairn na Burgh Beg, have remains of ruined castles, the first of which served as a lookout post for the Lords of the Isles and was last garrisoned in the Civil War. Cairn na Burgh Beg hasn’t been occupied since the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
This tailor-made trip to Scotland's Wildest Natural Scenery is a breath of fresh air and perfect to explore the most enchanting landscapes of the Highlands. It will allow you to get to know the wildest landscapes of Scotland, its fast-paced history and its amazing traditions.
7. For mountains and beaches: Lewis and Harris
Shaped rather like the top of an ice cream cone, Lewis is one of the largest Scottish islands. You’ll find the best-preserved prehistoric remains on this coast – Dun Carloway (Dùn Charlabhaigh) and the Callanish standing stones.
The landscape is mostly peat bog – hence the island’s Gaelic name, from leogach (marshy) – but the shoreline is more dramatic, especially around the Butt of Lewis, the island’s northernmost tip. To the south, where Lewis is physically joined with Harris, the land rises to over 1800ft, providing an exhilarating backdrop for the excellent beaches that pepper the isolated western coastline around Uig.
Harris, whose name derives from the Old Norse for “high land”, is much hillier, more dramatic and much more immediately appealing than Lewis, its boulder-strewn slopes descending to aquamarine bays of dazzling white sand. The shift from Lewis to Harris is almost imperceptible, as the two are, in fact, one island, the “division” between them embedded in a historical split in the MacLeod clan, lost in the mists of time.
Nowadays, the dividing line is rarely marked even on maps; for the record, it comprises Loch Resort in the west, Loch Seaforth (Loch Shìphoirt) in the east, and the six miles in between. Harris itself is more clearly divided by a minuscule isthmus, into the wild, inhospitable mountains of North Harris and the gentler landscape and sandy shores of South Harris.
8. For fishing: South Uist & North Uist
Compared to the mountainous scenery of Harris, North Uist – seventeen miles long and thirteen miles wide – is much flatter and for some comes as something of an anti-climax. Over half the surface area is covered by water, creating a distinctive peaty brown lochan-studded “drowned landscape”. Most visitors come here for the trout and salmon fishing and deerstalking, all of which are critical to the survival of the economy.
Others come for the smattering of prehistoric sites, the birds, the otters, or the sheer peace of this windy isle and the solitude of North Uist’s vast sandy beaches, which extend along the north and west coasts.
South Uist is the largest and most varied of the southern chain of Scottish islands. The west coast boasts some of the region’s finest machair and beaches – a necklace of gold and grey sand strung twenty miles from one end to the other – while the east coast features a ridge of high mountains rising to 2034ft at Beinn Mhòr. There are few places to stop for food and drink until you get to the south of the island
9. For outdoor activities: Inchmurrin Island
Inchmurrin Island is a lake island on the freshwater lake of Loch Lomond. It is about 1 mile long and about half a mile wide and is located at the lake's southern end. The island is part of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
Inchmurrin Island is popular with visitors for its natural beauty and serenity, as well as plenty of options for outdoor activities. Here you can enjoy hiking, fishing, boating and wildlife watching.
There is also a hotel and restaurant on Inchmurrin Island, giving visitors the opportunity to stay on the island and fully enjoy their stay. The island can be reached by boat, with regular ferry services operating from several points along Loch Lomond.
10. For distilling tours: Raasay
The hilly, fourteen-mile island of Raasay (Ratharsair) – meaning “Isle of the Roe Deer” – sees few visitors. Yet in many ways, it’s the ultimate Skye escape, with plenty of walks and rich flora and fauna, including golden eagles, snipe, orchids and the unique Raasay vole, not to mention the castaway thrill of a small island. Most visitors come on foot – if you come by car, be aware there’s no filling station.
The ferry docks in Churchton Bay, near Inverarish, the island’s tiny village set within thick woods on the southwest coast. The chief attraction here is the Isle of Raasay Distillery, a state-of-the-art facility which began distilling in 2017. You can partake in one of three different tours; the views from here are fantastic. You can stay here, too, at Borodale House.
Ready for a trip to Scotland? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to Scotland or The Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands & Islands.
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