10 Captivating Scottish islands

Ailsa Sheldon 15 June 2022

Who needs holidays abroad when you've got dramatic scenery and prehistoric sites on your doorstep? Use this guide to discover the best of Scotland's islands

With airports and passport queues busier than ever, make this the year to explore Scotland's wonderfully diverse islands.

Ferries and accommodation should be booked in advance, but otherwise keep your plans flexible. You could join in a Highland Games, go to a ceilidh, or ask locals for recommendations for the best experiences.

Be prepared for changeable weather too—pack waterproofs, suncream and midge repellent in summer.

Arran

View of Goatfell from Glen Rosa on Isle of Arran, ScotlandGoatfell is the highest point on the Isle of Arran, which you can reach via a walk through Glen Rosa

Known as Scotland in miniature, Arran has it all—rugged mountain ranges, sandy beaches and tree-lined glens.

Explore picturesque villages like Lochranza and Catacol, visit ancient standing stones on Machrie Moor and spot seals at Kildonan.

Walk to King's Caves and Drumadoon Point from Blackwaterfoot and marvel at the lofty basalt cliffs.

The energetic amongst you can climb Goatfell, play a few rounds of golf, or rent bikes to circumnavigate the island.

Arran is just a quick hop across the Firth of Clyde from the mainland, so it's easy to get to all year round, and well worth exploring.

CalMac ferries run from Ardrossan, Claonaig (summer) and Tarbert (winter).

Harris

Glass bottle of Harris gin with beach and blue sky in backgroundThe award-winning Harris gin uses sugar kelp seaweed as its key botanical ingredient

Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, Harris feels like nowhere else on earth. Driving the Golden Road is a visual overload with shimmering lochans, craggy mountains and tantalising glimpses of beaches.

Stride over wildflower machair to beautiful beaches at Luskentyre and Seilebost, and enjoy a bracing swim in the turquoise sea. Cross the bridge to Scalpay and walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse for incredible coastal views.

"Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, Harris feels like nowhere else on earth"

Visit The Harris Distillery to discover their delicious gin (and the whisky still to come). Pop into the Tarbert Tweed Shop for genuine Harris Tweed and cosy jumpers—perfect for a windswept Harris day.

CalMac ferries run from Uig (Skye) to Tarbert, and Ullapool to Stornoway (Lewis).

Tiree

Blue skies and sandy beach on Isle of Tiree, ScotlandTiree's long sandy beaches and high winds make it the perfect place to try out windsurfing

The Gaelic name for Tiree is Tir fo Thuinn, meaning “the Land Beneath the Waves”. It’s one of the sunniest and windiest places in Scotland, making it perfect for water sports.

Beautiful long white beaches extend into sand dunes, and sand blown inland creates the lush sandy machair where wildflowers bloom.

Tiree hosts the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing competition every October, but you don’t have to be an expert to have a go.

You can learn to windsurf and paddle board inland in the shallow freshwater Loch Bhassapol before trying your skills in the sea.

Take surfing lessons on beautiful Balevullin beach or try kayaking or kitesurfing.

CalMac ferries run from Oban to Tiree.

Eigg

Isle of Eigg beach with An Sgurr in background and reflected into blue sea waterFrom renewable energy to banning tourists' cars, the Isle of Eigg is renowned for its community's approach to sustainability 

The Isle of Eigg is very special. Since the community buyout in 1997, Eigg has become a leader in sustainability and it’s an inspiring place to visit.

Climb An Scurr for amazing views of the Small Isles. In summer rent a kayak from Eigg Adventures by the pier and paddle around Galmisdale Bay—with inquisitive seals if you’re lucky.

Hire a bike and cycle to Laig Bay, where quartz black basalt and white shells form endlessly changing patterns on the sand. Further round the coast you’ll find the beautiful Singing Sands.

Visitors can’t bring cars, but accommodation providers offer lifts.

CalMac ferry from Mallaig (variable timetable).

Mull

View of Tobermory bay on Isle of Mull with famous colourful houses and trees behindThe colourful houses at Tobermory's bay inspired the popular CBeebies television show, Balamory

Mull is 30 miles long but boasts 300 miles of coastline with sea lochs, rugged cliffs and sandy beaches.

The landscape isn’t the only draw—visitors also love Mull for wildlife, culture and food and drink. Visit Mull and Iona has both a food trail and an art trail, allowing you to eat well and meet local producers while connecting with arts venues and the wonderfully diverse artistic community as you explore the island.

In colourful harbour town Tobermory, enjoy excellent seafood including hand-dived scallops, mussels, smoked salmon and locally caught fish.

Climb Ben More, visit Duart Castle or take a boat trip to look for whales, dolphins and eagles.

Mull is a great island to visit year-round, but the colours in autumn are spectacular.

CalMac ferries run from Oban, Lochaline and Kilchoan.

Skye

View from Dun Beag Broch, the remains of a stone tower on Isle of Skye, ScotlandDun Beag Broch is an Iron Age stone tower that would have once cast an imposing silhouette from the Isle of Skype

The dramatic scenery of Skye is unmissable. The dark Cuillins constantly demand your gaze and come rain or shine, Skye is atmospheric and awe-inspiring. If you can, travel off-season to avoid the crowds. 

Skye is steeped in history—visit Dun Beag Broch, Armadale Castle and the Museum of Island Life to learn more.

If the mountains beckon, Walkhighlands has easy-to-follow guides for low-level walks. To tackle more ambitious peaks employ a qualified guide—use the Association of Mountaineering Instructors to find one.

Discover award-winning restaurants and maybe try a dram at the Talisker distillery. Whatever you choose to do, one visit to Skye won’t be enough.

CalMac ferry from Mallaig, or bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh.

Orkney

View of Skara Brae neolithic settlement remains on Orkney, ScotlandSkara Brae is the best preserved neolithic settlement in Western Europe, which was first uncovered by a storm in 1850

Orkney is an archipelago of around 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. To explore, you’ll take a lot of short boat trips, and planning where to go next is all part of the fun.

Windswept Orkney is perfect for anyone with an interest in history. Visit Skara Brae, the best preserved prehistoric houses in Europe, which were hidden under the sand until 1850.

"Visit Skara Brae, the best preserved prehistoric houses in Europe"

The mysterious Ring of Brodgar stone circle is a must visit, as is The Italian Chapel, painted by prisoners of war during the Second World War.

In Kirkwall, the largest town, tour Magnus Cathedral (known as the “Light in the North” by locals), which was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald.

Travel by ferry from Scrabster, Gill's Bay and John O' Groats.

Rum

Puffin takes off from sea in ScotlandBird watching enthusiasts will find more than 200 species to spot on the Isle of Rum

Mountainous Rum is a National Nature Reserve. Seals, otters, red deer and over 200 species of bird make a home here, where their habitats are carefully looked after.

Rum has one of the largest colonies of Manx Shearwaters in the world with over 60,000 nesting pairs.

White-tailed eagles flourish here too, after a successful species reintroduction in the 1970s. Golden eagles breed on the island as well as red-throated divers, guillemots, kittiwakes, shags, kestrels and merlin.

Ferries only run on certain days and there is limited accommodation, but for nature-loving visitors it’s well worth the organisation required.

Follow marked walking trails from Kinloch—walking boots and binoculars are a must.

CalMac ferry from Mallaig (variable timetable).

Inchcolm

Inchcolm Abbey and beach near EdinburghIncholm gets a special mention in William Shakespeare's Macbeth as a burial site for an invading Danish force

One for the day-trippers, Inchcolm is in the Firth of Forth and can be easily seen from Edinburgh and Fife. Take a tour boat from South Queensferry, sail under the impressive Forth bridges and explore this interesting little island.

The name means “Isle of Columba” after the saint who reputedly visited in 567 AD. The monastery here is dedicated to him. The oldest parts of Inchcolm Abbey date from the 12th-century and it’s remarkably well preserved. Climb up the belltower for expansive views.

The island is also dotted with defensive structures from the World Wars and home to a large population of seabirds.

Tour boats run from South Queensferry.

Lewis

Callanish standing stones on Isle of Lewis, ScotlandThe neolithic Callanish standing stones are thought to have been arranged so that they connect with the sun and moon's paths

Attached to Harris but treated as a separate island, Lewis has a charm all of its own. It’s wilder and more rugged with impressive cliffs to the north and west of the island interspersed with sandy bays. Inland, follow single-track roads over vast expanses of peat bog.

"The standing stones were erected around 5,000 years ago, predating Stonehenge"

The Callanish standing stones are unmissable, hewn from ancient metamorphic Lewisian Gneiss. The standing stones were erected around 5,000 years ago, predating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. First century Dun Carloway Broch is nearby.

Visit the well-preserved thatched blackhouses at Gearrannan village and Arnol Blackhouse to learn about crofting life on Lewis. Walk on the beautiful sands at Uig, where the Lewis chessmen were discovered.

Ferries from Ullapool or Uig on Skye (via Harris).

Read more: Scotland's 9 most beautiful castles

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