There’s something very special about visiting Scotland’s islands, though it’s often difficult to explain what this is. Maybe it’s the ‘ferry-feeling’ of adventuring over water to explore secluded places that offer room to breathe. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the island welcome or an envious wish for the slower pace of island life. Whatever it is, the draw of Scotland’s islands is quite intoxicating.
Some of our more secluded islands can be difficult to reach. But you can still have an amazing Scottish island experience, even if time is short.
As part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020/21 celebrations, we’ve put together a list of islands you can visit for a day, though of course, you’re very welcome to stay for longer!
Just remember to plan ahead, to enjoy the best possible experiences and #RespectProtectEnjoy when you’re there.
South & Central Scotland
Great Cumbrae, Ayrshire & Arran
Cumbrae is probably Scotland’s most accessible island and is ideal for a fun family day out by the sea. Millport, the only town on the island, is just a 15-minute bus ride from the ferry terminal and the kids will love Crocodile Rock and the bays of Newton and Kames too.
One of the best ways to explore Cumbrae is by bike – you can bring your own on the ferry or hire one in Millport. A 10-mile cycle around the island’s main road is ideal for families with older kids and offers great views. If you’re lucky you might spot some of the island’s wildlife too.
Places to visit include the Cathedral of the Isles – one of Europe’s smallest, the Museum of the Cumbraes, the Robertson Museum & Aquarium or take a tour of Isle of Cumbrae Distillers. There are lots of great places to eat and drink in Millport too.
Getting there and around: Regular Scotrail services take an hour from Glasgow Central to Largs and Largs Ferry Terminal is just a short walk from the station. CalMac run regular 10-minute ferry crossings between Largs and Cumbrae and Millport Motors provides bus services on the island.
Isle of Bute, Argyll & The Isles
A short ferry trip across the Firth of Clyde leads to Rothesay on beautiful Bute. This pretty seaside town is steeped in Victorian heritage, and you’ll also find Rothesay Castle – an imposing 800-year-old fortress. Many of Argyll’s Taste of Place trails criss-cross the town, so you won’t be stuck for something tasty.
Don’t miss Mount Stuart, one of the finest neo-Gothic mansions in the world, and a walk along Ettrick Bay offers stunning views over to Arran and the Kintyre peninsula. If you prefer to stay for a few days, then why not walk the West Island Way?
Getting there and around: Bute is a great option for ditching the car and taking the train. Scotrail services run from Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay and take about an hour. Then it’s a 35-minute CalMac crossing from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. West Coast Motors provide bus services on the island.
Inchcolm Island, near Edinburgh
Cared for by Historic Environment Scotland, Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, is an island with a long history dating back many centuries.
The Augustine abbey originally founded by David I as a priory in 1140, is one of Scotland’s best-preserved monastic sites, though the island’s links with Christianity go back many centuries before. Inchcolm also withstood naval raids in the 14th century and was garrisoned, along with nearby islands, during the world wars to protect Rosyth Naval Base.
Explore the abbey and climb its tower for fabulous views, relax on the two small beaches and explore the fascinating wartime defences. Just remember to watch out for nesting seabirds between May and July.
Getting there: Scotrail services run from Edinburgh to Dalmeny Station if you prefer to leave the car. Then take the Maid of the Forth or the Forth Belle from Hawes Pier in South Queensferry, to cruise below the three Forth Bridges, before stopping at Inchcolm to explore the island.
Isle of May National Nature Reserve, Fife
If you’re interested in watching wildlife, then the Isle of May, lying on the outer limits of the Firth of Forth, is a must-visit day trip.
Up to a quarter of a million seabirds raise their young here between April and September, with seabird ‘cities’ springing up along the cliffs. Whilst out in the Forth, you might see seals, porpoises and whales.
Like Inchcolm, this island also has long links with early Christianity and the remains of a 12th century monastery, commemorating St Aidan, who was martyred here by Vikings in the 9th century, still stand. You can also find The Beacon, Scotland’s oldest lighthouse, which was built in 1636 here too. After your trip, remember to call into the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar for delicious fish and chips.
Getting there: Anstruther Pleasure Cruises and Isle of May Boat Trips run regular 45-minute sailings from the town of Anstruther. The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick also runs boat trips to the island in summer. It’s worth noting that the island is open to visitors between the beginning of April and the end of September each year.
Inchcailloch Island, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
Go quietly and you might see some of the island’s wonderful wildlife, and there are excellent walks to enjoy in all seasons. Take a picnic and visit in late spring, when the woodlands are awash with bluebells, or come in autumn for fantastic displays of seasonal colour.
Visit the 13th century church dedicated to St Kentigerna and an ancient burial ground, where you’ll find the grave of the Clan Chief of MacGregors. Just remember, when you visit this special place, to leave no trace and take all your litter home with you.
The Inner Hebrides
Iona and Staffa National Nature Reserve, Argyll & The Isles
With some careful planning, here are two Scottish islands you can visit on the same day from your holiday base on the Isle of Mull!
On Iona, the 13th century Benedictine abbey and nunnery is a must-see attraction. In Baile Mòr you’ll find the Iona Heritage Centre, the Aosdana Gallery, and a great selection of places to eat. Alternatively, enjoy a lovely walk to White Beach in the north of Iona.
The approach to Staffa, with its impressive volcanic basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave, is quite spectacular. Alongside the cave, popularised by Mendelsohn’s Hebrides Overture, Staffa is renowned for puffins and seabirds that visit during the summer months. Look out for dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and minke whales on your boat trip too.
The Staffa boat trip provides around an hour on the island (weather permitting) and can return you to Fionnphort, where there are great places to eat, including The Ninth Wave, The Creel Seafood Bar and The Keel Row.
Getting there: From an overnight stay on Mull, take an early 10-minute CalMac sailing from Fionnphort to Iona (or you can stay on Iona if you prefer). This gives around 3 hours to explore the island, before catching the 12.15pm Staffa boat tour.
Isle of Kerrera, Oban
Lying in Oban Bay, you’ll find lovely Kerrera – an oasis of tranquillity and a great place for watching wildlife. There are no roads on the island and visitor motor vehicles are not permitted, so it’s a walkers’ paradise.
A rewarding walk explores the south of the island from Kerrera’s ferry jetty and takes in Kerrera Tea Garden & Bunkhouse, which offers home baking, soups and sandwiches, if you’re feeling peckish. Further on, explore Gylen Castle perched spectacularly above cliffs. The castle dates back to 1582 and was originally a stronghold of the Clan MacDougall.
On your walk you might see the island’s feral goats and sika deer. Off the coast, look out for seals, dolphins, whales and basking sharks and if you’re lucky, a glance skywards might offer a sighting of a massive white-tailed sea eagle.
Getting there: CalMac operates the Kerrera Ferry, which runs from the small hamlet of Gallanach, about 2 miles south of Oban.
Isle of Lismore, Appin
The Isle of Lismore in Loch Linnhe, offers dramatic views towards Morvern, Mull and Appin. At 10 miles long and 1 mile wide, the best way to explore the island is by bike – either bring your own or hire one from Lismore Bike Hire. Or join an Explore Lismore Land Rover tour. Single-track roads on the island are quiet and there are great places to exploore along the way.
The Dutch Bakery offers tempting home-baking in the Telephone Box by the Point ferry slipway. Visit the Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre & Museum (the Isle of Lismore Café offers treats and meals here too) about 4 miles south of Point. Then take a short detour off the main road to the ominously named Castle Coeffin. Or a 9-mile walk from Point takes in both Castle Coeffin and Tirefour Castle, an ancient Iron Age broch. Accommodation is available on the island for longer stays too.
Getting there: Two ferry services connect Lismore with the mainland. In the north, there’s a foot passenger ferry service from Port Appin to Point that takes just 10 minutes. Further south, CalMac operate services between Achnacroish and Oban.
Isle of Raasay, Highlands
Set between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland, you may have seen Raasay in Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins. But don’t worry, there are no interrogations or gruelling challenges to undergo when you visit this beautiful island.
Don’t miss the Isle of Raasay Distillery in Inverarish, for a tour and a dram. They also offer accommodation for overnight stays. At Raasay House Hotel, enjoy lots of outdoor activities, delicious meals, and one of their 21 beautifully appointed rooms if you want to stay longer. And browse The Raasay Gallery and Taigh nan Cearcan for gifts and mementos of your trip.
Getting there: Regular CalMac ferries cross to and from Sconser on Skye and Clachan on Raasay, and the crossing takes 25 minutes.
There are over 900 islands in Scotland, of which, 118 are inhabited. So, if the above whets your appetite for more island experiences, and let’s face it there are plenty of options, take a look at islands and island hopping holidays and get planning. This might well be the start of your Scottish Island Bagging journey!
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