Island fling: The ultimate guide to the Scottish Isles
Whether it's the whisky of Islay, the mountains of Skye or the smooth white sands of Harris that bring you here, the magic of the Scottish islands doesn't easily let you go. Use our guide to start planning your ultimate tour to the UK's most northerly frontier, and scroll to the bottom for some fab Scottish island itineraries...
The poster child for the whole Scottish archipelago, there's a reason - well, several - why the Isle of Skye is one of the most visited islands in Scotland. The mountainous peaks of the Cuillin and the famous 'Old Man of Storr' rise over a wild, heather-strewn landscape, while birds like the red-throated diver and Atlantic puffin keep the nature-lovers coming every year. Harry Potter fans will find the train journey up the West Coast easily as exciting as the arrival, with the West Highland Railway passing over Glenfinnan viaduct, traversed by the 'Hogwarts Express' in the films. Even the jumping-off point on the mainland, Kyle of Lochalsh, has its own spectacular claim to fame: Eilean Donan castle. Stretching picturesquely out onto Loch Duich, this beautiful monument is one of the most photographed historic sights in the world.
How do I get to Skye?
The Skye bridge makes it easy to simply drive onto the island - it's just under 6 hours by road from Glasgow and around 2.5 from Inverness, but the views more than make up for the time. If you're travelling by public transport, the Citylink buses operate a route up to Skye via Fort William. You can still cross by ferry from Mallaig, so this is a good option if you're catching the train from Glasgow.
Relatively near to Glasgow, Arran is brimming with Scottish character, from its local specialities whisky, ice cream and oatcakes, to the Victorian splendour of Brodick Castle, Garden and Country Park. It’s also well-kitted out for visitors if you’re not keen on the Robinson Crusoe experience – you’ll find all manner of activities like cycling, climbing, golfing, as well as watersports like windsurfing and kayaking here. There are well-marked walking routes for all levels, such as the easy Glen Coy and Fairy Glen path, or the looming peak of Goatfell (6.5 miles) if you’re up for more of a challenge: both of these are accessible from the Brodick estate to the east of the island, so it’s worth basing yourself in Brodick town for a day or two. Try the Auchrannie Resort and Spa for a bit of island pampering, surrounded by a surprising clutch of palm trees, due to the island’s mild Gulf Stream climate.
How do I get to Arran?
You can drive all the way from Glasgow using the Ardossan - Brodick ferry (55 minutes, book in advance if bringing a car) or get to Ardrossan Harbour from Glasgow Central in just under 40 minutes by train. Once arrived, Arran is a good option if you’re coming to the Scottish islands without a car, as Arran Coaches do private hire minibus tours from £10 for four hours.
Known as ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ and the most southerly of the Scottish islands, Islay certainly has a sense of majesty, whether you’re hiking along the cliffs of the Oa peninsula, looking out over the Atlantic, or gazing at an echo of Scotland’s Celtic past, Kildalton High Cross. Of course, you can’t come to Islay without sampling some of the finest Scottish island distilleries out there – after all, there are eight to choose from! Visit the island’s oldest whisky producer, Bowmore Distillery, spectacularly seated on the shores of Loch Indaal, for a sampler of what makes Islay whisky so sought after. The capital of Bowmore itself makes a good base with plenty of the local inns and hotels making good use of local produce in their kitchens. Try the Bowmore Hotel for delicious Islay beef, scallops and salmon dishes as well as a few slightly more unexpected menu options, like crocodile steaks!
How do I get to Islay?
Get the Citylink bus from Glasgow to Kennacraig, then jump on the Calmac ferry to Islay (booking recommended). You could also rent a car from Glasgow airport and make the road journey to the ferry terminal via the Erskine Bridge - there are actually any number of wonderfully scenic routes that take you past Argyllshire's finest countryside and attractions like Inveraray Castle, depending on how much time you have.
Wild, whale-shaped Jura is most easily accessed from Islay so you have to travel a bit to get here, but it’s a romantic’s paradise of deserted moorlands and red deer, roaming beneath the backdrop of the ‘Three Paps’ mountains of the western portion. There are few settlements here save for Craighouse to the east, Jura's capital, where you'll most of the island's self-catering accommodation in characterful old farmhouses and cottages overlooking the sea. Perfect for a wilderness walking holiday, if that’s your bag.
How do I get to Jura?
The Port Askaig - Feolin ferry from the northeast of Islay takes all of five minutes to reach Jura, so you easily make it a day trip if pushed for time.
The most accessible of the Scottish islands off the west coast, Mull's thunderous crags contrast its cute seaside towns, and the bright unspoiled shores of the Ross of Mull, and the island is also a big wildlife haven, with whale-watching tours and eagle-spotting some of the most popular activities on the isle. The main hub is Tobermory, a pretty port with a colourful harbour and its own distillery, as well as occasional visits from the local school of Bottle-Nosed Dolphins on calmer days. Mull’s Calgary Bay featured in our top ten Scottish beaches – discover more perfect spots for a stroll and a dip here.
Mull is a great base for day trips to some of the smaller Hebridean islands...
Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, tiny Iona has been a centre for pilgrimage in Scotland for well over a thousand years, ever since St Columba founded Iona Abbey in 563AD (around 15 minutes walk from the ferry pier). Today, there are myriad ruins which evoke the island’s spiritual past – take the 5-mile hike from Iona village to St Columba’s Bay to visit the magical ‘Hill of the Angels’, its roots in both fairy-lore and Christianity, and walk through the ancient stones along the cliff tops.
An extension of the same fascinating basalt columns that form Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, the rocky shoreline of uninhabited island, Staffa, makes for an epic trip from Mull. The main attraction is Fingal’s Cave, a yawning cavern the size of a cathedral. Look out for seals and puffins amongst the surroundings of this otherworldly spot.
How do I get to Mull, Iona and Staffa?
Jump on a ferry from Oban and you can be on Mull within 45 minutes. Iona is only a 10-minute ride on the Fionnphort - Iona ferry, and crossings are as frequent as every 20 minutes during the summer. Tours are available from Oban to all three islands as well so if you're in a hurry, check out companies like Staffa Tours for one, two and three-day options.
Lewis & Harris
Though one and the same land mass, Lewis (to the north) and Harris (to the south) are very distinct island communities. As the ‘gateway to the Western Isles’, Stornoway is a lively harbourside town home to good black pudding, the imposing, nineteenth century Lews Castle and a proper attitude to Sundays – don’t expect to be able to travel or purchase anything aside from a pint on the seventh day here! Settle yourself at the Royal Hotel with its nautical features and The Boatshed restaurant, to be sure of a comfy place in which to do absolutely nothing.
Down in slightly smaller Harris, it’s all about nature: lofty peaks, remote fortresses and broad lochs – as well as winding roads that take you past all three. Drive from Lewis to Harris via Loch Seaforth and take the small Maraig road to the left, and follow until the B887 junction to the right. This track is rightly considered one of the best Scottish island road trips, with views of northerly mountains of Bunabhainneadar, a detour past the gates of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and the incredible beach at crofting settlement, Huisinis.
How do I get to Lewis and Harris?
You can fly into Lewis via Stornoway airport from Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. From here, Harris is best accessed by road.
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Cross the Sound of Harris to Berneray, and you’ll find yourself in the string of southerly islands linked by causeway, often known simply as the Uists. Comprised of North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula sandwiched in between, these are true Gaelic outposts, with much fewer visitors and the genuine possibility of losing yourself in the landscape – be prepared for boggy conditions underfoot if you’re hiking here! By contrast, there are some beautiful beaches to be found along the western coastline, or rather, one long beach right the way down the side of South Uist, ending in the sands of Traigh na Croise, where you can gaze out over the Sound of Barra in silent contemplation, alongside the Polachar Standing Stone.
How do I get to the Uists?
Take the Calmac ferry from Uig on the west coast of Skye, or fly into Benbecula Airport from Stornoway, Glasgow or Inverness.
Part of the same island chain as the Uists, Barra deserves a mention for the airport alone – you can land right on the beach if you fly here! Aside from the novelty, Barra has beauty by the bucket-load: stay in the pretty stone settlement of Castlebay for views across to Kisimul Castle – for which you’ll need to commandeer a boat to reach. Squeeze in a trip across the causeway to Vatersay, famous for its thriving lobster and crab industry and some out-of-this-world beaches. Though it's the only option, the uninspiringly named Vatersay Community Hall Cafe actually does very good tea and cakes, as well as homemade soup to sip before making the crossing back to Barra.
How do I get to Barra?
For the landing of a lifetime, fly to beachside Barra Airport. An alternative is to take a ferry from nearby South Uist at Lochboisdale (just over 2 hours) or all the way from Oban on the mainland (just under 5 hours).
A land that time truly forgot, the St Kilda archipelago has been uninhabited since 1930, when the last islanders who’d made their living and their home here were evacuated to the mainland. Originally a self-sufficient farming community, you can still roam the abandoned dwellings and eerie, ruined village streets like an outdoor museum during the summer months.
How do I get to St Kilda?
Contact local boat operators directly to reach St Kilda from the Western Isles – and pray for good sea conditions!
Actually several islands, Orkney is an archaeological marvel of ancient Neolithic, Viking and Medieval sites. Its most famous attraction is probably the Ring of Brodgar on West Mainland, a mystical ring of stones that easily rival Stonehenge in atmosphere and historical significance, but don’t miss the other portion of this island World Heritage site – Skara Brae. The best chance you’ll have to see life preserved almost as it was in prehistoric times, this ancient village site is a whopping 5000 years old. Raise a toast to the legacy at one of the UK’s most northerly breweries – the Orkney Brewery and Visitor Centre, just a mile away from Skara Brae, which incidentally also does a mean ‘Dark Island Hotpot’, a stew made with the locally-produced Dark Island bitter.
How do I get to Orkney?
You can fly to Kirkwall on Orkney's Mainland within an hour from Edinburgh, and it takes just 3 to 4 hours to make the connecting flight from London.
This collection of 100 islands mark the northern limit of the UK, almost halfway between Britain and Norway and naturally have an identity that’s completely their own. Aside from the diminutive ponies, Shetland is a wildlife paradise whatever time of year you come, from the winter migrations of purple sandpipers and black guillemots from Scandinavia, to the grey seal colonies which once would have inspired the Scottish selkie myths – gazing over the heather-clad headlands through the mist, it’s not so hard to imagine half-human sea creatures emerging off the coast. Shetland Wildlife runs a good selection of tours from day trips to two-week nature holidays all year round, or come in June to experience the long, near-24-hour days of the ‘Simmer Dim’, or summer twilight.
How do I get to Shetland?
You’ll fly into Sumburgh at the very southern tip of the Shetland Mainland. In the summer you can also fly on to Fair Isle (home of the famous islands knitwear!), directly south from Sumburgh, but otherwise you will need to head north to capital Lerwick to fly from Tingwall airport, on the 8-seater Islander plane.
The islands of Scotland are neatly arranged in groups that makes it easier than you may think to see several in one trip. Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona and Staffa are a fairly straightforward 'collection' to explore within a couple of weeks, also being handily located near Glasgow if you need to hire a car or catch a bus to the ferry port. As there's an airport at either end, many people opt for an Outer Hebrides Lewis to Barra itinerary, starting in Stornoway and taking in Harris, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist before flying back from Barra Airport.
Skye is best explored as part of a self-drive Highlands and Islands tour, as its close proximity to the mainland and easy access via the Skye Bridge makes it the perfect Scottish islands road trip. Smaller isles like Rum, Raasay and Eigg off the coast of Skye mean there's plenty of scope for further exploration.
Check out companies like Absolute Escapes for ready-made island-hopping holidays in Scotland. Consider a seafaring voyage to save time hopping between farflung isles like Orkney and Shetland, with UK cruise operators like National Trust for Scotland.
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