What do you know about Scotlandâ€™s islands? Well, one thing we can confirm is that more people are falling in love with them than ever before.
A recent study called The Islands Survey revealed that of the 425,000 visitors who went to the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney between 2012 and 2013, around three quarters said that they would be likely to return in the next five years for a holiday or short break.
And today (19 February), it was announced thatÂ Lewis and Harris, the northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides, came top in a poll of the best islands to visit in Europe as part of theÂ TripAdvisor 2014 Travellersâ€™ Choice Islands Awards.
I wholeheartedly agree with them â€“ why wouldnâ€™t visitors want to come back, time and time again?! Our islands are indeed truly unique and special places.
They are easily accessible, by either ferry or plane, but once youâ€™re there it feels like youâ€™re in a whole other world. Think long stretches of white sands, tranquil and pristine waters, and remarkable natural landscapes combined with rich, fascinating histories, abundant marine and bird wildlife, and diverse island cultures.
Whether youâ€™re a regular visitor to our isles of the west and the north, or youâ€™ve never ventured from the mainland, there are plenty of reasons why the Year of Homecoming Scotland 2014 is the perfect time to experience the magic of these islands. Thereâ€™s a packed calendar of events taking place across dozens of islands, from Barra to Unst – here are just a few to consider:
Orkney Nature Festival, 10 â€“ 18 May
Taking place across nine days, join in with a whole range of events where you can discover Orkneyâ€™s wealth of dramatic terrains, coastline, wildlife and geology. There are distillery tours followed by moorland walks, afternoons spent looking for farmland wildlife, beachcombing, snorkel safaris, sea tours and trips to Orkneyâ€™s smaller uninhabited islands. Itâ€™s a real celebration of the islandsâ€™ natural wonders that nature lovers should not miss!
St Magnus International Festival, Orkney 20 â€“ 26 June
Set against the stunning backdrop of Orkney in midsummer, this annual arts festival is famed for its unique blend of world-class performances and community participation. At the heart of the event is a bill of concerts by international orchestras and recitalists, but the festival also showcases theatre, dance and literature events – youâ€™ll even find courses for writers and composers, too. The festival utilises a range of venues around the island, from the Romanesque grandeur of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall to the poignant intimacy of the Italian Chapel on Lambholm.
Shetland Nature Festival, 5 â€“ 11 July
Visit Shetland in July and experience a place where the sun hardly sets, sea cliffs are alive with seabirds, wildflowers are in full bloom, and whales and dolphins can be spotted in the coastal waters. Itâ€™s the perfect time for a festival where you can take in the natural heritage of the Shetland Islands. Highlights include events which tie in with European Geopark Week, where you can discover more about the islandsâ€™ incredible geographical diversity.
Hebridean Celtic Festival, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, 17 â€“ 20 July
Now in its 19th year, HebCelt, as itâ€™s affectionately known, is returning to the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway. This family festival is packed with a range of Scottish contemporary acts along with musicians from across the UK and beyond. This yearâ€™s line-up is looking strong so far – former Runrig lead singer Donnie Munro, Scottish 80s hit-makers Big Country, singer-songwriter Rachel Sermanni, and folk-punk band The Levellers will all take to the main stage during the three days of music and culture.
Harris Tweed Hebrides Tattoo, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, 8 â€“ 9 August
Lews Castleâ€™s grounds play host to another stirring event in August. Pipe bands come from all over – from the Highlands and Islands to as far away as Canada – to dazzle large crowds. In two days of the very best in piping and Gaelic song, expect a carnival-like atmosphere. See Highland dancers in action accompanied by samba bands and hear the rousing sounds of the pipes being played while fireworks light up the sky â€“ itâ€™ll be a feast of tradition for both the ears and the eyes.
Shetland Wool Week, 6 â€“ 12 October
If youâ€™ve seen our famous Shetland ponies wearing some rather fetching cardigans, you might have guessed that wool is a big deal on the Shetland Islands. So much so, that there are seven days of events dedicated to this natural fibre! Thereâ€™s a busy schedule of knitting master classes in Fair Isle and Shetland Fine Lace, workshops in hand-spinning, weaving, dyeing and felting, and great exhibitions and tours â€“ you can even make your own Shetland Island teddy, a perfect souvenir from the isles.
Once youâ€™ve had a moment to digest all that, start planning your island adventure!
The Islands Survey also corroborated another trend that we had a sneaky inkling about â€“ lots of visitors share their holiday experiences online during and after their trip, with almost a third uploading their pictures to social media sites. And we love your holiday snaps, so keep them coming! Share the best of your island experiences with us, using the hashtag #brilliantmoments on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social channel of your choice.
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