The beautiful Scottish Islands conjure up visions of windswept landscapes, remote homesteads, foreboding mountains and a history dating back centuries. All these attractions tempt travellers to holiday in these unique islands to experience Britain’s most northerly location.
There are over 900 Scottish islands, most of which are in four main groups: Outer Hebrides, Inner Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. The majority of these Scottish islands are inaccessible, but many others are open to holidaymakers and offer a glimpse at the natural wonders of these remote destinations.
In this post, I highlight the most beautiful Scottish islands to visit on your next holiday in Scotland, plus useful travel details to help ensure you have a great trip.
Do you need to arrange travel insurance, car hire or accommodation? Please check out my resources page to help you plan your trip.
Helpful Information about the Scottish Islands
Best way to reach the Scottish islands
It is much simpler to get around the islands in Scotland than you may think.
Caledonian MacBrayne has many routes from the Scottish mainland to the islands and between neighbouring islands. This easy way to travel allows you to base yourself in one location and “island-hop” to more remote areas during your trip.
You can take your car on the ferry to the larger Scottish islands. Alternatively, travel as a foot passenger to the smaller uninhabited ones.
Best time to travel to the Scottish islands
April to October are the seasonal months for visitors to the Scottish Islands. Weather patterns in Scotland can be hugely temperamental, with downpours and sunshine experienced on the same day.
Between June and August, the islands get busy, and visitors will book accommodations and ferries quickly. There is also the problem of “midges” (small biting flies) in abundance in the summer months. Ensure you have repellant, long sleeves, and trousers to alleviate the bites!
In September and October, summer crowds have decreased, and the Scottish islands begin to return to some normality. Midges have disappeared, but so has the sunshine as Autumn brings in grey skies and lower temperatures.
I travelled to Skye in September, but only two days out of four were dry. I still enjoyed a wonderful week exploring this beautiful Scottish island and taking atmospheric photographs of the spectacular landscape.
Winter in Scotland is harsh, but you can look forward to cosy cottages, crackling fires and hearty meals. Oh, and not forgetting the possibility of seeing the Northern lights in the late autumn and winter seasons when the nights are cold, and the skies are clear of clouds. It’s not just in the Nordic Arctic towns that they can be seen!
What to pack when visiting the Scottish Islands
There is no escaping from the fact that it rains throughout the year in Scotland. Make sure you come prepared for all weather.
Invest in a decent waterproof coat, walking boots, comfortable socks and warm layers, and you should be ready.
Don’t let the Scottish weather put you off. When the sun shines, the islands are completely stunning, and the blue waters and golden beaches wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean or Asia.
The Thai tourist board even used West Beach in Berneray in Outer Hebrides in an advert to promote Kai Bae Beach in Thailand!
How to capture the best photographs of Scotland
One Simple Answer – this incredible Scottish guidebook, Photographing Scotland, will take you to Scotland’s most beautiful and photogenic places.
Classic Scottish views are included along with many lesser-known and hidden gems in the Lowlands, Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Whether armed with your DLSR or phone, this guide will ensure you find the most stunning photograph locations.
Where to see wildlife in the islands
The answer is everywhere! If you are looking for puffins and other seabirds, then St Kilda and Staffa are the perfect places to start.
Where to see the northern lights in Scotland
Aurora Borealis can be seen anywhere in Scotland if the conditions are right in the winter months, but you will stand a much better chance in the most northern parts of Scotland.
The Inner and Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney are all islands where the ‘colourful lights’ can be sighted.
How long to stay in the Scottish islands
Scottish islands such as Skye and Lewis are the largest and offer more to see and do for holidaymakers. They also offer a wider selection of places to stay when booking a holiday in Scotland.
A week in one of these locations highlighted in this post will allow you time to do some “Scottish island-hopping”.
Tours to the Scottish islands from Inverness
Visit the Scottish Outer Hebrides Islands
The Outer Hebrides lie about 40 miles (65 km) from the Scottish mainland. From Lewis in the north to Barra in the south, they stretch over 130 miles (210 km).
The main Scottish islands that make up the Outer Hebrides are Lewis and Harris (names given to the north and south parts of the island), North Uist, South Uist, Berneray Benbecula and Barra.
Most of the Outer Hebridean population lives on the island of Lewis and Harris. Many other smaller islands remain uninhabited and are not accessible due to turbulent seas and weather fronts.
Lewis and Harris
Visit the Scottish Inner Hebrides Islands
The Inner Hebrides lie on the West Coast of Scotland and comprise 35 inhabited islands. The archipelago’s largest islands are Skye, Mull, Jura, and Islay, with most of the Hebridean population living in these locations.
Stretching 150 miles (240 kilometres) from Skye in the north to Islay in the south, there are also 44 uninhabited islands forming the Inner Hebrides.
Other famous Scottish islands in the Inner Hebrides are Rum, Coll, Colonsay, Iona, Ulva, Oronsay, Scarba, and Staffa.
The Isle of Skye
Located in the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland, it offers the visitor a chance to explore ancient castles, thunderous mountains, enchanting lochs and a dramatic coastline, all creating an unforgettable trip.
Being only 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, it shouldn’t take long to circumnavigate the Isle of Skye. However, winding roads, animal encounters (yes, there are many sheep on the roads), and changeable weather conditions can turn what should be a short trip into a considerably longer one.
Of course, this gives you time to take in the beauty of your surroundings. The colours of the magnificent landscape are astounding. I travelled in Autumn, and the greens, browns and purples all around gave the island a mystical feel.
Skye is bursting with natural and historical beauty. The Fairy Pools, Man O’ Storr, and Coral Beach are stunning outdoor locations. A visit to Dunvegan Castle, the McLeod clan’s seat for over 800 years, should also be on your itinerary. Don’t forget to book a tour of the Talisker distillery for an authentic taste of Scotland.
While on the Isle of Skye, I stayed in a cottage on the Dunvegan Castle Estate, which was a real experience.
The Isle of Mull
The Isle of Mull is a true all-rounder among Scottish isles. It is easy to get to and offers plenty of things to do and various landscapes, yet it is much quieter and further off the beaten track than other more popular islands, like Skye. Mull is an excellent choice for an active island holiday without crowds.
The ferry from Oban to Mull takes around 45 minutes. It arrives in Craignure, a tiny hamlet on the west coast with several great accommodation options, such as Craignure Bunkhouse, a seaside campsite or the local hotel.
In Craignure, you have a central location to explore all parts of Mull within a short driving distance. Three nights on Mull are the absolute minimum, but you could quickly fill a week with different activities, hikes and beaches to visit – my favourite is Calgary Bay.
Mull’s bustling capital, Tobermory, features a picturesque waterfront with colourful houses. A whisky distillery is open for tours, charming shops selling local crafts, an interesting arts centre and endless sea views.
The island is very mountainous. There are walks for all levels – from family-friendly coastal walks to lighthouses to challenging mountain routes around Ben More, the only Munro mountain (over 3,000 ft).
My favourite thing about Mull is that it is well-located to continue island hopping to smaller surrounding isles, such as Iona to learn about history, Staffa to visit Fingal’s Cave, Lunga to see Atlantic puffins or Ulva for fantastic nature walks.
The Isle of Islay
Islay, pronounced eye-la and known as “The Queen of the Hebrides, ” is one of Scotland’s most visited islands despite its far-flung location. And this is due to it being home to some of the world’s most famous Scotch Whiskies, with seven distilleries on the island known for their distinct peat-smoked malts like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bowmore. It’s more or less whisky heaven in Scotland.
With few non-whisky-related tourist attractions on Islay, the island is otherwise limited in tourist interest. Still, there is no doubt about the beauty in the wild and rugged coastlines and interior peat bogs that dominate the landscapes. It feels remote and off-the-beaten path.
It is easy to reach Islay with regular ferry services leaving Kennacraig with two ports of arrival on Islay at either Port Ellen or Port Askaig. But Port Ellen is recommended for those travelling on foot.
It marks the beginning of Islay’s “Three Distilleries Pathway”, connecting 3 of the better distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) following a 3-mile walking route on the south coast of the island.
We did this on a day trip to Islay when travelling by car. Car ferries are easy and regular to find due to the large haul of whisky that goes to-and-from the island daily, and Islay is a great place to cover on a road trip.
The Isle of Rum
Little-visited Rùm sits pretty in the shadow of the super-popular Skye, but an adventure to the largest of the Small Isles is equally endearing. It begins on your CalMac ferry (£4.45) from Mallaig, where you shouldn’t be surprised to find a pod of dolphins or a crowd of porpoises welcoming you.
Rùm boasts outstanding hiking, gorgeous beaches, brilliant birds, and bizarre history.
Stepping off the ferry, you won’t miss Kinloch Castle, the Edwardian holiday home of the eccentric George Bullough. Tours of the castle (£9) take you through many grand rooms where all sorts of treasures and trinkets from around the world are on display.
But outdoor enthusiasts might be more interested in Rùm’s Cuillin Ridge – an epic day with five outstanding summits.
You’ll have fantastic views of the Outer Hebrides, Skye, the mainland, and even as far as Jura. Time your visit right, and you’ll spot an incredible number of Manx Shearwaters desperately hiding from the eagles above them.
Complete a memorable day with a stay at remote Dibidil Bothy, or continue walking to check out Bullough’s eye-catching mausoleum in Harris. A more relaxed option is to walk to picture-perfect Kilmory Bay, one of Scotland’s best wild-camping spots.
Otherwise, there are campsites, bunkhouses, hostels, and B&Bs in Kinloch, where you’ll get to know the locals outside the Post Office on a Saturday with a tin of beer. Stunning Rùm, wild and remote, is worth getting to know.
The Isle of Iona
The Southern Hebrides Isle of Iona is the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. In large part due to St. Columba’s efforts, who arrived from Ireland in 563 and established a monastic community that created the illuminated Gospels called the Book of Kells (now housed at Trinity College in Ireland).
Today, you can tour the serene Iona Abbey. Constructed in the 13th century and rebuilt from ruins in the 20th century, Iona Abbey encompasses the original Shrine Chapel to St. Columba, dating to circa 750.
Outside the Abbey, the Reilig Òdhrain cemetery contains the burial places of the monastic communities and some kings. The grave slabs, effigies, and commemorative ring-headed High Crosses showcase Iona’s distinctive West Highland stone carving school.
Finally, you can wander through the remains of a 13th-century Augustinian nunnery and St. Ronan’s Chapel, which served as the island’s parish church until the 17th century.
Many consider the sublime Isle of Iona a “thin place” between heaven and earth. It continues to call to the contemplative pilgrim, artist, photographer, historian, and nature-lover in us all.
If you’re blessed with a sunny day, don’t get back on that ferry without hiking up to the highest point, Dùn I, on the island for a blast of fresh sea air and brilliant views or walking to one of the four beaches for a picnic by the turquoise waters.
The Isle of Staffa
There are many reasons to visit Staffa in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, and the journey there is just one. Zipping across the sea in a small boat from neighbouring Iona, you’ll have a fair chance of spotting whales and dolphins in these waters.
The island, uninhabited by humans, is one of the smallest in the area. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in drama, folklore and wildlife.
When approaching from the south, you’ll notice a vast gaping cavern framed by spectacular basalt columns, which form a natural structure of striking beauty and stature. This cavern is Fingal’s Cave, which has had many famous visitors and has inspired many musicians due to its natural reverberation.
The basalt columns extend into the sea, and legend says that this ‘Giants Causeway’ extends to Ireland, allowing Scottish giant Fingal to fight his Ulster equivalent, Finn McCool.
And if the rocks don’t impress you, then maybe the wildlife will, as Staffa is home to a considerable puffin colony. These little birds are cute and curious, and they adore human company. So nestle down on the cliff’s edge and wait for them to come and say hello.
Staffa is both awe-inspiring and heart-warming in equal measure – you must go!
The Isle of Ulva
The Isle of Ulva is a short distance from the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.
In the 1800s, it had over 600 residents who made a living from kelp farming and was one of ‘the’ places to visit during a tour of Scotland. It was the birthplace of Sir Lachlan Macquarie, one of the early settlers in Australia. Over the years, people moved away, but the community has purchased it to secure its future.
We discovered this island by chance, seeing the ferry signs outside Acharonich on Mull. The small ferry was an adventure in itself. Calling the boatman with a little sliding sign, he heads across the short stretch of water to collect you and take you to the Boathouse Tearoom.
Nothing is too far on this small island, and there are no cars, so walking around is a pleasure. Sheila’s Cottage, close to the jetty, has been restored as a small museum about the crofters, showing how life would have been here nearly 200 years ago.
On the island’s far side are Ormaig village’s remains, and it is hard to believe the life the kelp farmers would have had.
It is possible to walk the whole coastline of the island in a day, but the small coves, birdlife and marine life make it easy to get distracted. Ulva is a gentle island perfect for a day of walking with wildlife.
The Isle of Eilean Shona
If you seek a secluded island holiday, try Eilean Shona. Located in the Inner Hebrides, just off Loch Moidart, this idyllic getaway offers fantastic scenery, copious wildlife, and complete peace and tranquillity.
Eilean Shona is the island that inspired T.M. Barrie to create Neverland in his famous novel Peter Pan, and I can most definitely see why. The landscape is so varied and utterly breathtaking – it is magical.
We visited the island after reading about it in the Sunday newspaper. As fans of isolation and travelling with our dogs, we thought this would be a perfect holiday and were not disappointed. We stayed for a week and loved the feeling of seclusion-seeing only three other humans the entire week but plenty of wildlife!
The island has no facilities, and it is car-free, so you must be prepared for your visit – we meticulously planned our meals. Park your car at the meeting point and board the RIB boat with your food and luggage, which will take you to the island in 10 minutes.
You can choose how off-grid you go with your accommodation, from total luxury to a remote gas-powered cottage. We went somewhere in the middle and had electricity and a very comfy bed.
Think back to nature activities here; writing, photography, walking, reading, painting, and more adventurous rock scrabbling and wild swimming.
We did check our emails at the ‘village hall’ once or twice during the week for a shot of civilization but otherwise kept happily cut off from everyday life. We loved this place and the opportunity to step back to nature, complete relaxation and have quality time to breathe.
Scotland’s Orkney Islands
With thousands of years of history to explore, gorgeous coastal walks and a vibrant arts scene, we took a long weekend trip to Orkney.
Visitors to Orkney come for the history – all 8000 years of it! Stone-age nomadic tribes, iron age Picts, Norse Viking settlers and finally, the Scots have all inhabited these islands – and you can explore everything they have left behind!
We discovered the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an incredibly well-preserved community of stone-age houses and huge chambered burial cairns.
Most famous are Orkney’s 5000-year-old huge stone circles, including the incredible Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, and Skara Brae, one of the world’s best stone-age sites, a village made up of nine identical houses built with nothing but stone and animal tools. It is genuinely humbling to wander amongst such ancient history.
Discover Orkney’s Coastline
Orkney’s coastline is just stunning. We loved the walk at Birsay, famous for Vikings documented in the legendary “Orkneyinga Saga’ written in the 12th century. Visitors can still see outlines of longhouses on the Brough of Birsay today; it is well worth crossing to the island at low tide.
Made up of an archipelago of 70 islands, 20 inhabited, Orkney might feel remote, but this island group is just 10 miles off the coast of North East Scotland.
We got to Orkney by flying to Kirkwall, on the Orkney ‘mainland’, from Edinburgh, but you can also catch the ferry to Orkney from Aberdeen, Gills Bay, Scrabster or John O’Groats.
You can visit most of the sites in Orkney on a long weekend, but it is well worth visiting for a longer holiday – visiting beautiful Orkney is an incredible way to delve into Scotland’s past.
Tours to the Orkney Islands from Inverness
Scotland’s St Kilda Archipelago
St Kilda is a remote group of Scottish islands, 50 miles west off the coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. One of the most distant parts of the British Isles, this UNESCO World Heritage Site can only be reached by boat.
This island is a photographer’s dream location, world-renowned for its history and wildlife. St Kilda’s largest island, Hirta, has vertical sea cliffs that are the highest in the UK. They are home to over one million nesting birds as well as Britain’s largest colony of puffins.
There is no accommodation available for overnight stays in St Kilda. However, The National Trust for Scotland run a small campsite with basic facilities, which must be pre-booked before arrival.
If you love Puffins, you might like to read my review of How to See Puffins on Skomer Island in Wales.
Scotland’s Shetland Islands Archipelago
You will find Scotland’s most remote islands in the far-flung reaches of the Atlantic Ocean.
Juxtaposed between Scotland (130 miles north of the mainland), the Faroe Islands and Norway (200 miles to the east), they offer holidaymakers a truly remote destination to explore. Shetland has an outstanding geological heritage and holds the status of a UNESCO Global Geopark.
This group of about 100 islands, with only 15 inhabited, allows the intrepid traveller to immerse themselves in a unique landscape.
Adventure seekers can climb, hike, sea-kayak, horse-ride, cycle, and get close to the abundance of wildlife on Shetland.
Of course, the Shetland pony is a famous resident of the islands. Arts and crafts lovers will enjoy visiting the local crafters that still carry out traditional methods of lace-making, wool spinning (to create the Shetland knitwear), glass-blowing and painting – you may even come home with a watercolour of these spectacular Scottish islands.
Options for getting to Shetland include flights, a ferry (the crossing takes 12 hours from mainland Scotland) or maybe part of a cruise around the islands in Scotland.
I hope this post has given you plenty of great ideas for Scottish island locations to visit on your next holiday in Scotland.
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