To get round all of the Scottish islands could take you, uhmm, perhaps a lifetime. There are at least 700 of them, with 100 or so inhabited. (Yeah, that’s more than I thought there was as well!)
So here follows quick descriptions of the main Scottish islands groups – just summaries that should help you in your trip planning. We’ll work north to south via the western seaboard and be down-to-earth. No tourism brochure language, I promise.
Ready? Let’s start with Shetland. It’s the only major Scottish islands grouping that you can’t see from mainland Scotland and has always struck me as not really being Scottish at all. Its heritage is Scandinavian, its outlook independent and its sense of identity and culture strong and distinctive. Its most famous statistic is probably that no part of the archipelago is more than five miles (eight km) from the sea. (Though that figure varies!) It’s great for wildlife, traditional Shetland fiddle music, prehistory and Viking heritage. It’s an adventure. And it’s worth going all the way to the end of Scotland for that view of Muckle Flugga on the very tip of Unst. I’d go back any time.
(Pictured) St Ninian's Isle, Shetland - this is one of the finest active sand tombolos in Europe.
Skipping past Fair Isle, the next Scottish islands grouping is Orkney. You can tell by the pages on this site already that we are Orkney fans. Many visitors only get as far as Kirkwall and its environs on Mainland (as the largest island of Orkney is called). This is a pity, as Hoy is spectacular; Rousay filled with archaeological wonders, North Ronaldsay just plain wacky, and lots of excursions to other islands well worthwhile. Stunning archaeological sites, great wildlife, pretty good places to stay and dining options, lots of Viking heritage here too. Orkney is different – and totally captivating. And also windy.
(Pictured) Orkney – cliffs at Yesnaby, Orkney Mainland near Stromness
The Western Isles
The Western Isles are these days often referred to as the Outer Hebrides to make them sound far away. Not so long ago, the top end of this long Scottish island chain – mostly Lewis – had a pretty buttoned-up reputation, where joyless religious folk would be thundering their protests at ferries sailing on a Sunday, and such-like sinful goings-on. (Whether or not the children’s swings in the play-parks were ever chained up on a Sunday, I am uncertain, though it was a story often told.)
However, this wholesome, straight-laced characteristic has been somewhat diluted in recent years. Lewis and Harris have fabulous beaches, as you can see from the pic here. (Tolsta Beach, Lewis.) There’s something about it that makes it recognisable as a scanned colour transprency, not originally shot with a digital camera, wouldn’t you say? The Outer Hebrides are a stronghold of Gaelic culture and language, and the Standing Stones of Calanais are very impressive. Don’t go at midsummer, as, like Stonehenge in England, the power of the stones – cue plinky-plonky stringed music – attract a lot of alternative lifestyle folk. Please reverse this suggestion about not going then if you already have an alternative lifestyle, obviously. You could stay in Stornoway - the main town on Lewis - or head west or south to stay in Harris.
Heading south down the Hebridean Scottish islands, the Uists and Benbecula are extraordinary. The environment of machair (shell-sand flowering meadows) and mountains, linked lochs, causeways and beaches is quite unlike anywhere else in Scotland. It’s wild, unspoilt, loved by otters and I once saw a hen harrier almost collide with a crofter’s washing line in South Uist. Yes, wildlife and nature thrusts itself on you. Otters? You’ll get blasé after a week.
Continuing south, Eriskay is one of our favourites amongst all of the Scottish islands, when the sun shines. The colours, ah, the colours. And the corncrakes, ah, the corncrakes – and the infernal noise they make all night. Pictured above is the causeway linking Eriskay to South Uist and some Eriskay ponies. Off the pic, to the right, is where the SS Politician went down with its wartime cargo of whisky (the famous ‘Whisky Galore’ book and film). Next, below Eriskay, Barra is fascinating, and the chain of islands runs beyond that, even further than you expect. It’s 70 miles or so from the Butt of Lewis down to Barra Head at the very end.
Amongst Scottish islands, Skye is the one that’s best known. ‘The Misty Isle’ is a romantic way of saying that it rains a lot. When it doesn’t, the mountains are spectacular. There are craft shops, good eating places, a castle and heritage centre or two – but it’s mostly the scenic spectacle that will knock your socks off, at the Quiraing, the Storr as well as Glen Brittle. Oh, and they say that the view from Elgol, across Loch Scavaig to the Cuillins is just the finest anywhere in Scotland. (Though the path along the coast gave us the heebie-jeebies, long before the famous ‘Bad Step’.) It’s just one long geological field trip hereabouts. Rotational slippage, anyone? (See it best at The Quiraing, above. Another scanned transparency, as you can see…) There’s a lot more pictures to view, mostly of Sleat, South Skye, if you check out that link.
Mull is one of the largest of the Scottish islands. Distances are further than they look on the map, as most of the roads are single-track. You do need to know the passing-place conventions and be polite when driving here. The scenery is sublime, in a green and lush but rugged kind of way. There’s a description of the Mull ferry – Oban to Craignure – here.
Everyone is mad about sea eagles on Mull and you can’t raise a pair of binoculars to your eyes without other cars stopping and their occupants doing the same. (OK, I exaggerate, but not much.) The choice of decent dining and local seafood is frankly, brilliant. Tobermory seafront is charming. Most people take in the little island of Iona when they go to Mull, though the road along the Ross of Mull can seem endless. Staffa with its famous Fingal’s Cave is another popular excursion. Pictured above are the Mull hills from the little island of Ulva.
Amongst Scottish islands, Islay and Jura are usually paired together, though one has whisky and a golf course and a woollen mill and geese and seals and beaches and folk doing real jobs not necessarily connected to tourism. That’s Islay. By contrast, Jura just has a long road and a lot of deer and one hotel and distillery at Craighouse. It’s wild, rugged, lonely and mostly empty, as if the Highland Clearances had just finished. And you have to leave the car if you want to go all the way to the top of the island to see the famous Corryvreckan Whirlpool and possibly also the house where George Orwell lived when writing his novel 1984. (Best to take a Corryvreckan boat trip if you want to see the whirlpool. Lots of options.)
And the other Scottish islands? Coll and Tiree are another pair, well worth a look. Sands, surf, sunshine on the machair and those corncrakes again. Colonsay is a little gem. Choughs are much talked of. Out of the way little smudges n the horizon, these places just get on with surviving and mucking in together. Same applies to the Small Isles, where Eigg and its community buy-out drew a line under the uncaring stewardship that has been a hallmark of too many of these little islands in Scotland’s story. No space here to describe the personal fiefdoms of rich English industrialists, past and present, such as Sir George Bullough. He, as part of the family wealth made in textiles in the north of England, inherited the island of Rum and built the extraordinary Kinloch Castle. Rum is now a national nature reserve and the castle a renovation headache.
Leaping via Gigha (another community buyout success) over the Kintyre Peninsula, we arrive at other islands, sometimes referred to as the islands of the Clyde, that is, of the Firth of Clyde. Arran is the most popular and the largest of this group. It played its part in the history of tourism in Scotland by giving folk on the Clyde conurbation (centred on Glasgow) a fine attractive island to visit via a short ferry crossing from Gourock. In their summer fortnight away from the shipyards and all the other now vanished industries of the ‘Workshop of the Western World, the families came ‘Doon the Watter’ in droves.
That’s also why, for example, the town of Rothesay on Bute carries an air of having seen better days – but is quite charming in spite of it. Its castle, right in the centre, was once invaded by Vikings, and then much later by day-trippers from Glasgow. But nowhere captures the atmosphere better than the restored Victorian toilets by the Rothesay ferry pier. Actually, strictly speaking, they are men’s urinals – as ladies have had to make do with a modernised version. But they are such a popular attraction that they are reviewed on TripAdvisor – and women also sneak in to take a look (I said ‘take a look’), and give them five star reviews. Lovely walks at the south end of the island. St Blane’s Chapel is our favourite religious place in all of Scotland, if you must know. And we aren’t at all religious.
Oh, almost forgot Great Cumbrae. Level, great for cycling. Nice seafront. Ho-hum.
Our favourites? Anywhere in Orkney – just for being Orkney; Eriskay for that special blue you get as the shallow sea laps over white sands; Mull for seafood, and the walks on Ulva; Bute for the ghosts of the generations who came by steamer for an all-too-brief day out. Or you can hop off to the islands from this northern-rim Viking-themed Scottish tour.
Also, check out our thoughts on (and suggestions for) some Scottish islands accommodation.