© VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins

Choses à voir et à faire

Best time of Year to Visit Islands in Scotland

You might be tempted to whisk yourself off to a remote Scottish island in summer, but our islands are just as magical during autumn and winter. During peak season, you'll be faced with busy crowds, parking difficulties and let's not forget coming face to face with those pesky midges, but head off-season and it's a completely different story. Less crowds means shorter queues, cheaper flights and accommodation, the opportunity to see captivating wildlife and plenty of visitor attractions and activities remain open, making it the best time of year to visit the islands.

To help you plan the ultimate Scottish island holiday, we've put together some handy guidance and the benefits of visiting off-season as well as top recommendations on visitor experiences off-the-beaten-track.

What are the Benefits of Visiting the Islands Off-Season?

  • Quieter - visitor numbers are far lower during off-season and will almost feel like you have the whole island to yourself. You'll avoid the busy crowds and get the chance to explore further as well as snapping up the perfect photo opportunity without anyone getting in your way!
  • Cheaper accommodation and travel - during off-season, accommodation and travel is considerably less expensive and you're more likely to find some great deals without having to break the bank.
  • Nature - you might think the cooler months are a time for the islands to go into hibernation, but that simply isn't the case. You'll find a wide variety of winter wildlife and the chance to soak up lots of revitalising beach walks - just make sure to wrap up warm though!
  • The night skies - longer nights and the lack of light pollution make the islands a fantastic location to explore the stars.
  • And just maybe... the Northern Lights - you're more likely to see the Aurora Borealis illuminate the night sky between October - March.


We've got five fantastic island destinations for you to explore. Whether you're looking to step back in time to Scotland's rich archaeological past, take a walk on the wild side with a forest safari or marvel at the magnificent night sky, there is something to suit all tastes and budgets. Don't worry if you're visiting during peak season, these fantastic attractions and sites are open all-year round and are a great alternative if you're looking to explore more of the islands hidden gems.

Best for: Impressive dark skies, handmade arts & crafts, wildlife and rich archaeological heritage.

THINGS TO DO

1. Winter Shopping - it's the most wonderful time of the year to do Christmas shopping! When it comes to finding the perfect gift for family and friends, you'll be spoilt for choice in Orkney. From food & drink, jewellery and artwork to soap and candles, the island is home to some of the finest producers. Buy beautiful artwork from Kirkwall artist Jane Glue, furniture from Scapa Crafts, bags and fashion accessories from Island Design located in Stenness, or head to Stromness and treat yourself to a brand new jumper from Quernstone Knitwear. It's fair to say that you won't be going home empty handed.

2. North Ronaldsay Dark Skies - many of us wish to experience the night-time spectacle of the Northern Lights and if you're heading to Orkney in winter, you might be lucky enough to turn your dreams into reality. The best place to catch a glimpse of them is in North Ronaldsay which was recently granted dark sky status for its lack of light pollution and clear starry nights. From September to March, make sure to wrap up warm for a spectacular evening of stargazing.

3. See spectacular wildlife - Orkney is a haven for wildlife. In winter, the island becomes a hotspot for migrating and wintering birds. Keep your eyes peeled for a wide variety of species which includes long-tailed ducks, great northern divers, golden plovers, sanderlings and much more.

4. Visit Skara Brae - step back in time and explore one of Europe's best-preserved prehistoric settlements. Uncovered by a storm in 1850, Skara Brae offers an insight into Orkney life around 5,000 years ago. Get ready for a history lesson like no other as you explore a replica prehistoric house fitted with stone bed enclosures, dressers, seats and more. Make sure to stop by the visitor centre which provides interactive exhibits, fun quizzes for the whole family, and displays of artefacts found from archaeological excavations in the 1970s.

5. Knap of Howar - situated on the west coast of Papa Westray, the Knap of Howar is home to the oldest standing stone buildings in north-west Europe. The two houses were believed to have been built around 3800 BC and were occupied by Scotland's earliest farmers. During your visit, you'll notice that the buildings have a similar resemblance to Skara Brae with its hearths, pits, built-in cupboards, and stone benches.

6. Midhowe Chambered Cairn - it's no surprise that Rousay is often dubbed as the 'Egypt of the North'. This small, hilly island is considered an archaeological treasure and is home to 15 Neolithic chambered cairns. The largest and best to visit during winter is the Midhowe Chambered Cairn. A modern hangar protects the tomb from the harsh weather elements, and you'll be able to admire the compartments from above by walkways.

Discover more of Orkney.

Best for: Museums, forest safaris, walking and wildlife.

THINGS TO DO

1. Isle of Arran Heritage Museum - open from March to October, the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum has been entertaining families for over 40 years with its variety of interesting displays. Children can enjoy many hands-on exhibits while adults can simply indulge in nostalgia. Highlights include old photographs highlighting village life and farming methods, as well as old modes of transport. There is even a large replica of a Viking ship from 1263 before the Battle of Largs, and The Clachaig Man, an old skull excavated at Clachaig cairn in 1900 which is believed to be over 5,000 years old. How cool is that?

2. Wildlife spotting - in autumn, you're bound to see some of Arran's iconic residents otherwise known as the Big Five (red squirrel, red deer, golden eagle, otter and harbour seal). Pack your binoculars and immerse yourself in Scotland's natural beauty.

3. The Preaching Cave - originally used as a parish school, The Preaching Cave was a regular meeting place for sermons between the 17th and 19th centuries. Today, it's a great excuse to stretch your legs and explore more of Arran's natural surroundings. The cave lies south of Blackwaterfoot and can be accessed via the Arran Coastal Way footpath. The walk takes approximately 3-4 hours to complete, and it is recommended that you wear sturdy hiking boots due to its very boggy ground and rocky terrain.

4. Coast Marine Discovery Centre - visit Scotland's first Marine Protected Area visitor centre.  At the Coast Marine Discovery Centre, you'll spend the day meeting extraordinary marine life in the big tank, learn where your seafood comes from, or the little ones can get comfy at Curly's Cave and Books while reading a few sea stories. Of course, a family trip wouldn't be complete without grabbing a quick selfie. Get ready to smile for the camera at the Shellfie booth before you go!

5. Hit the road on a forest safari - if you go down to the woods today you might be in for a big surprise. Head on an off-road safari with Mogabout. During your road trip adventure, you'll see the stunning Glenashdale Falls, uncover a 5000-year-old chambered cairn, and enjoy plenty of stop-off points for lots of scenic photo opportunities.

Discover more of Arran.

Best for: Viking sites, top archaeological sites, wildlife and incredible coastline.

THINGS TO DO

1. Viking sites - Shetland was once a Viking stronghold and it's clear that its history has left a huge mark on the island. From its place names and geographical features, parts of boats and even its different species of birds, the island boasts strong Scandinavian roots. If you wish to follow in the Vikings footsteps, be sure to make a trip to Unst, Britain's northernmost inhabited island.

2. See the Northern Lights - Shetland is closer to the North Pole than any other part of Britain, making it the best place to see the Northern Lights on a clear night from October - March. Wrap up warm and watch the night sky come to life with hues of green, hints of pink and strong displays of red, violet, and white. Did you know that the island of Unst even has its own space station?

3. Orcas - if you wish to see the best of Shetland's marine life, then you're in luck! Orca watching is a particular highlight with visitors. Although Orca season is usually between May and August, you might still be in with a chance of seeing these beautiful creatures in action. Shetland locals have set up a handy Orca Sightings Facebook page sharing lots of photos and the best times and places to see them. Fancy heading out on the water? A range of boat tour operators including Shetland Sea Adventures offer regular whale spotting tours.

4. Visit Prehistoric sites - history oozes from the Shetland isles and the quieter crowds give you the chance to explore more of its archaeological sites in depth which is one of the many benefits of visiting the islands off-season. Take a boat trip to the enchanting island of Mousa. You'll find a magnificent Iron Age broch and wonderful wildlife, with tours operating during the day right through to early evening. If that's not enough, get your history fix by visiting Jarlshof and experience the human settlement of the Neolithic people. You'll find everything from oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch, wheelhouses, Norse long houses and much more.

Discover more of Shetland.

Best for: Museums, gin, cycling and walking adventures.

THINGS TO DO

1. Enjoy a visit to Bute Museum - with its wealth of history, we think this island deserves its own museum. Bute Museum is free to visit and is dedicated to the archaeology, history and natural history of the island. You'll find permanent displays of rock samples illustrating Bute's complicated geology, military items from Rothesay Castle's turbulent past and even a well-preserved skull of a young Bronze Age woman. To keep the kids entertained, there are exciting hands-on exhibits in the Natural History room where they'll be able to handle various natural objects.

2. Home to the most impressive neo-Gothic mansion - beautifully designed inside and out, this sandstone palace was the ancestral home of the Marquess of Bute and was completed in 1719 after it was severely damaged by fire. Today, Mount Bute is adorned with swathes of marble from its chapel and features a flamboyant display of astrology and art within its furnishings. Did you know that Mount Stuart was the first house in Scotland to be wired for electricity, had a lift and a heated swimming pool? Good news, all three are still working!

3. Shop local - when you're visiting Bute, you'll want to make sure that you come back with a selection of goodies. Support local retailers and producers and pick up a souvenir from hand-made candles, artwork, arts & crafts and home interior. Looking for a new gin for your drinking repertoire? Be sure to stop by Isle of Bute Gin. You'll find 5 flavours to choose from and you can arrange your own private bespoke experience, if you book online you'll even be given a 5% discount voucher to spend in the distillery shop!

4. Cycling - it might be cold outside but that shouldn't stop you from exploring the island on two wheels! Pedal until your heart's content while you cycle the 23-mile loop around the whole island offering spectacular views to the Kyles of Bute, Arran and beyond. If you're looking for more things to see and do, make sure to check out the beautiful beaches, including Ettrick Bay and Scalpsie Bay. If you forgot to bring your bike, fret not! Bike Bute is the first island-based community e-bike scheme where you can hire a bike for up to 8 hours per day.

5. Walking - the island is home to some of the best walks, and its stunning coastline is no exception. Start the day off right with a brisk morning walk along the Kilchattan Bay loop, spend the afternoon taking a leisurely stroll along the peaceful Glen More (Ettrick Bay) - Rhubodach or perhaps you might want to extend your walking adventure to a few days with the West Island Way. The route is approximately 25 miles long (40 km) and can easily be done in one to five days, or broken up into shorter walks if you don't want to complete the entire route.

Discover more of Bute.

Best for: cosy winter retreats, wild swimming, castle ruins and whisky distilleries.

THINGS TO DO

1. Visit Finlaggan - known as the Lordship of the Isles, this island settlement lies in the middle of Loch Finlaggan and is a great place to brush up on your Scottish history. There are two islands, Eilean Mòr (the Large Island) which can be easily accessed by a walkway or boat and Eilean na Comhairle (the Council Island) which contains fragmentary remains of buildings. The inauguration of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles took place in Finlaggan. The Lords of the Isles descended from Somerled, the 'King of the Isles', and the lords and the chiefs of Clan Donald chose Finlaggan as their home and the centre of their Lordship, and today Islay is often referred to as the Cradle of Clan Donald.

2. Head to Dunyvaig Castle - located on the south side of the island, Dunyvaig Castle was once the coastal defence for the chiefs of Clan Donald, who held the title of Lord of the Isles. Visit the remaining castle ruins which date from the 13th to 16th century and grab the perfect photo opportunity with the iconic Lagavulin signage in the background.

3. Go wild swimming - are you brave enough to tackle the cold-water temperatures? If so, enjoy the thrill of the chill with wild swimming. Laggan Bay, Loch Gruinart and Loch Indaal are safe swimming spots on the island and benefits include reducing stress levels, improving circulation and metabolism, and helps boost our happiness levels. No matter what time of the year, it's important to stay safe in the water. Be sure to bring a friend along and wear a fluorescent swim cap to help you be seen by other people on the water, and by people on the shore. After your invigorating swim, wrap up warm with plenty of layers, a woolly hat and drink hot sugary beverages.

4. Carraig Fhada Lighthouse - built in 1832, travellers arriving in Islay were greeted by the three-story high lighthouse - the only one in Scotland to feature a square shape. Gaze out over Port Ellen and watch ferries glide across the water. When the tide is out, venture towards the lighthouse for a closer look and for some magical pics, especially during golden hour.

5. Enjoy Scotland's National Drink - with nine working distilleries on Islay, the island is the ultimate pilgrimage for whisky fans. We're here to raise a glass to Bunnahabhain. Best known for its peated whisky, the team behind its single malt success have helped the distillery win several accolades throughout the years. Book a distillery tour and sample a variety of different whiskies. Make sure to stock up and buy some of your favourites and experience the taste of Islay from the comfort of your own home.

6. Stay at a cosy winter retreat - get a good night's rest at Bowmore Cottages. Choose from five cottages, all varying in size from one to four bedrooms. There's a comfy living room, fully-equipped kitchen and even a superior en-suite bathroom. Come winter, the fireplace comes in handy for those cold nights.

Discover more of Islay.

General Guidance & FAQ's When Visiting the Islands

How do I get to the islands during autumn and winter?

ORKNEY

BY PLANE

Fly to Orkney with Loganair. Flights are direct to Kirkwall Airport from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, with flights lasting up to one hour and includes connections from Belfast City, Bristol, Cardiff, Dublin, Exeter, Isle of Man, Manchester, Newcastle, Newquay, Norwich, Southampton and Teeside.

BY FERRY

There are four sailing routes to Orkney where you'll be able to take your car onboard:

  • John O' Groats Ferry - from John O' Groats to Burwick, operating from May until late September (40 minutes).
  • Pentland Ferries - from Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope (1 hour).
  • NorthLink Ferries - from Scrabster to Stromness (90 minutes) or Aberdeen to Kirkwall (6 hours).

If you plan to do a bit of island hopping, Orkney Ferries operate 9 Inter-Island ferries between Orkney's mainland and 13 other beautiful island destinations.

BY TRAIN

ScotRail operate trains to Aberdeen for the ferry to Kirkwall.

There are also services which run from Edinburgh and Glasgow to help you catch a connecting train from Aberdeen and Thurso:

  • Edinburgh to Aberdeen (2 hours 35 minutes)
  • Edinburgh to Thurso (8 hours 20 minutes)
  • Glasgow to Aberdeen (2 hours 30 minutes)
  • Glasgow to Thurso (7 hours 40 minutes)

BY BUS

Citylink run bus services to Aberdeen, Gills Bay and Scrabster so you can catch your ferry to the islands. If you're flying here, jump on the Stagecoach JET (service 4) which will take you from Kirkwall Airport to Kirkwall in just 15 minutes!

ARRAN

BY FERRY

Two car ferry services, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), serve the island:

  • The Ardrossan to Brodick service runs from early spring to late October. The journey time is approximately 1 hour, with vehicle reservations recommended.
  • Claonaig in Kintyre to Lochranza which is situated at the north end of Arran. The journey takes around 30 minutes with no advance booking required. In winter, the ferry from Kintyre leaves from Tarbert (Loch Fyne), not Claonaig.

BY TRAIN

ScotRail operate regular services from Glasgow Central Station to Brodick and takes around 45 minutes. Step off the train at Ardrossan Harbour and you're just a few minutes' walk to the ferry terminal where you can enjoy a leisurely sail across the Firth of Forth to Brodick on Arran. The journey time is approximately 1 hour and it's a great time to soak in the views.

BY BUS

Stagecoach operates services from Glasgow to Ardrossan and operates across the Isle of Arran, connecting Lochranza in the north and Brodick in the south of the island.

BY CAR

The drive from Glasgow to Ardrossan Harbour is approximately 1 hour where you will reach the ferry terminal.

SHETLAND

BY PLANE

Book a direct flight to Sumburgh Airport with Loganair from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, Kirkwall and Manchester. There are also plenty of connections from Birmingham, Belfast City, Bristol, Exeter, Newcastle, Norwich and Teeside.

BY FERRY

Take the overnight ferry from Aberdeen or Kirkwall with NorthLink Ferries. You'll be able to take cars, motorhomes and bikes onboard. There are also pet-friendly cabins available to book if you wish to bring your four-legged friends along.

BY TRAIN

ScotRail operate trains to Aberdeen for the ferry to Lerwick. There are services which run from Edinburgh and Glasgow to help you catch a connecting train from Aberdeen:

  • Edinburgh to Aberdeen (2 hours 35 minutes)
  • Glasgow to Aberdeen (2 hours 30 minutes)

BY CAR

From Edinburgh, drive to Aberdeen and catch the overnight ferry to Lerwick.

BUTE

BY FERRY

There are two main ferry routes to the island serviced by Caledonian MacBrayne, (CalMac):

  • Glasgow to Bute via Colintraive - take the scenic route for your trip to Bute. It might take a wee bit longer, but you'll drive by Loch Lomond, through the Arrochar Alps and to the top of Loch Fyne. You'll arrive at Colintraive ferry terminal for the 5-minute crossing to Rhubodach on Bute before hitting the road again with just a 7-mile drive to Rothesay.
  • Wemyss Bay to Rothesay - take the quick route to Bute. Hop onboard the train to Wemyss Bay from Glasgow Central Station and catch the ferry from Wemyss Bay Terminal on the mainland which arrives at Rothesay on Bute.

BY TRAIN

ScotRail run regular trains from Glasgow Central Station to Rothesay where you will stop off at Wemyss Bay to catch the ferry at Wemyss Bay Terminal. The journey takes approximately 1 hour.

BY BUS

Citylink operate bus services to Wemyss Bay from Glasgow which takes around 1 hour 30 minutes, which includes a change at Greenock.

BY CAR

The quickest route from Wemyss Bay is from Glasgow which takes around an hour to get there.

ISLAY

BY PLANE

Loganair operate direct flights to Islay from Glasgow all-year round, and Hebridean Air Services operate flights to the island from Colonsay and Oban.

BY FERRY

Book a ferry to Islay from Kennacraig with CalMac. Landing at Port Ellen (2 hours 20 minutes) or Port Askaig (1 hour 55 minutes).

BY BUS AND TRAIN

Citylink operate daily bus services from Glasgow Buchanan Street Bus Station which makes the connection with the ferry at Kennacraig. Check bus timetables and services for more information.

BY CAR

From Glasgow, head north on the A82 until you reach Tarbert. The road then follows the path of Loch Fyne. Kennacraig is 65 miles from Tarbert and is located near the top of the Kintyre peninsula. From there, you can catch the ferry to Port Askaig.

Are the islands easy to get around by public transport during autumn and winter?

Despite it being autumn and winter, you'll be surprised by how many public transport services run throughout the year. With bus, inter-flight and ferry services available, off-season makes it the best time of year to visit and make use of the services when it's not too busy. Please note, some services may be disrupted due to bad weather which might affect travel times.

ORKNEY

Loganair operates the Orkney Inter-Island service, with flights from Kirkwall to the North Isles and direct flights to other exciting island destinations all-year round, including Islay, Stornoway and Sumburgh. From early spring to late October, you can also travel to North Ronaldsay, Sanday, Stronsay, Westray and Papa Westray, the world's shortest flight that lasts 90 seconds.

If you prefer to get around the island from A to B by bus, Stagecoach operate two bus services to help you gain the most out of your island experience. The T11 service runs daily from early April until late October and offers a hop-on, hop-off service for just £16 per person. The bus departs each morning at 10 AM where you can take in the incredible sights of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness before returning to Kirkwall.

ARRAN

Arran is served by great local bus routes from Stagecoach to help you get your bearings around the island. There are three main routes to choose from:

  • The 324 bus service via Lochranza to Blackwaterfoot (North End).
  • The 323 bus service via Whiting Bay to Blackwaterfoot (South End).
  • The 322 bus service which heads across the String to Blackwaterfoot.

All three services operate on a return basis and most coincide with ferry times to Brodick. Car hire, taxis and private hire cars are also available on the island.

SHETLAND

Exploring Shetland by public transport is all part of the fun while on holiday. Shetland Islands Council operate frequent inter-island ferry services for foot passengers and for those bringing their own vehicle onboard. Fancy taking to the air? Inter-island flights are also available and operated by Airtask Group to allow you to explore more of Shetland's remote islands. Flights depart from Tingwall airport (just 6 miles outside Lerwick) and fly direct to Fair Isle, Foula and Papa Stour.

Or, if you prefer both feet on the ground take a scenic bus route around the island with five bus routes available:

  • Lerwick, Bressay, Scalloway and Burra
  • South Mainland
  • West Mainland
  • North Mainland
  • North Isles

BUTE

An open-top sightseeing bus tour is the easiest way to see all the island's sites. Book a tour with City Sightseeing Bute and sit back and relax while you take in the stunning scenery and let your bus tour guide lead the way with his top-class commentary.

ISLAY

There are two main bus routes on Islay. The 450 bus runs from Bowmore in the centre of the island to Portnahaven in the south west and the 451 runs between Port Askaig in the north-east down to Port Ellen and Ardberg in the south. Both bus services run from Monday to Saturday.

Do attractions on the islands have seasonal opening hours?

Before you book your trip, we recommend checking what is open, which includes attractions, distilleries, bars, shops and restaurants, as some places might close early over the winter period. Most distilleries are closed on Sundays and Mondays but make sure to check before booking to avoid disappointment.

Are there any festivals taking place during autumn and winter?

Yes, there are plenty of festivals taking place throughout the islands. Here is just a selection of exciting events taking place around the islands for you to mark on your calendar:

ORKNEY


ARRAN

SHETLAND

BUTE

ISLAY

Find more fantastic festivals on Scotland's islands.