There are so many islands in Scotland that it can be tricky to know where to start. Choosing from all the amazing things you can do here can be a bit overwhelming - but luckily we’re here to help you out. We’ve dug deep to find out just how diverse an island hopping trip can be so that you can see at a glimpse what each group of Scottish islands is famous for, as well as discovering some of the other unique experiences you can have there.
The islands of Argyll off the west coast of Scotland are an eclectic bunch – with 25 inhabited islands including the hilly peaks of Jura, long stretches of sandy beach on Tiree and the bustling fishing port of Tobermory on Mull, each island has its own distinct geography. So a great way to get the most from your trip is to island hop – one day you might be seal spotting off the coast of Kerrera, another you could be tasting fine malt whisky at a distillery on the Isle of Islay.
Perfect place to go for:
Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute
1. Uncovering historic architecture
The islands are home to some of Scotland’s most impressive historic ruins, and Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute is a fine example of this. The grand round sandstone wall hints at how fierce a fortress the castle once was, although it wasn’t quite strong enough to stop the Norse kings from conquering it not just in 1200, but 1263 as well!
Bute can be reached by train and ferry under two hours from Glasgow, and you can travel on to other islands from Bute by ferry via mainland Argyll.
2. Scenic walks
Like a challenge? While the three peaks of the Rum Cuillin on the Isle of Rum may be lower than Scotland’s famous Munros, they will still provide you with an invigorating walk, spectacular views and a glowing sense of achievement. Starting from Kinloch Castle, the ridge can be traversed by able hikers in a day, and includes quite a tricky scramble alongside spectacular views over to the islands of Eigg and Skye. If that sounds a bit tough, the island has other dramatic walks that are easier too.
Calanais Standing Stones, Lewis
A wilderness out west on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the Outer Hebrides is the place to go for peaceful reflection, rugged landscapes and a rare glimpse into traditional Scottish island life. Here you can watch wildlife, unwind on wonderfully deserted beaches and breathe in the fresh air – did we mention that it’s great for adventure too? It’s a paradise for kayakers, windsurfers, walkers and cyclists. There are a plethora of historic sites to explore as well, such as Calanais Standing Stones. And the fresh seafood and produce farmed from the land are another tasty addition to look forward to.
Perfect place to go for:
Liniclate Beach, Benbecula
1. Long distance cycling
Just imagine it – you, your bike and the open road on The Hebridean Way, a 185 mile (297km) route that crosses 10 stunning islands in the Outer Hebrides. See the island’s historic sites and beautiful beaches as you cycle from Vatersay to Harris. Following the National Cycle Route 780, the route is soon to complemented by an official walking route – so those who prefer two feet rather than two wheels won’t miss out on this thrilling journey.
2. Bird watching
Balranald on the island of North Uist is an outstanding location for spotting birds, wildlife and beautiful island fauna. Look out for lapwings and corn bunting as you walk amongst the beaches, marshland and sand dunes. Spring sees all manner of migrating birds cross Balranald and in autumn the reserve welcomes barnacle geese from Greenland seekingshelter from the Artic cold.
North Uist can be reached by ferry from Uig on the Ilse of Skye or via the causeway at Berneray in the Outer Hebrides.
The Gaada Stack, Da Ristie, Foula
Scotland’s northernmost island chain, Shetland feels like another world. Celebrated for its rich Norse heritage, historic wonders such as the Jarlshof prehistoric settlement and stunning scenery, the island also has a distinct cultural heritage quite unlike anywhere else.
Seasonal highlights include the seacliffs at Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which come alive in spring and summer with thousands of seabirds, and the natural phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, which can be glimpsed in winter. Then there are the many festivals which punctuate the calendar, from Fiddle Frenzy in August to Shetland Wool Week in October, and of course, the famous Up Helly Aa fire celebrations in January.
Isle of Yell. © Neil McIntyre
Perfect place to go for:
1. Otter spotting
These wee critters are undeniably cute and great to snap at with your camera – if you manage to spot them that is! Happily, on the Island of Yell, the largest or Shetland’s northern isles, your chances of spotting otters are high – it’s considered to be one of the best places in Europe to see them. The European river otter just can’t get enough of the low-lying peaty shoreline of Yell where they can often be seen hunting their next meal. Look out for seals and harbour porpoises off the shores of the island too.
Yell can be reached by car ferry from Toft on the Shetland Mainland to Ulsta in twenty minutes.
2. Fair Isle knitting
Shetland has a rich textile-making heritage – and it’s by no means a thing of the past! Why not head to the very island where the distinctive Fair Isle knitting style got its name, and see if you can pick it up yourself? Or simply watch the crafters as they work on these intricate patterns. Fair Isle is a small island that lies half way between Orkney and Shetland and has a distinct culture all of its own. Drawing both bird watchers and creative types alike, it’s an inspirational place with dramatic cliffs and exceptional flora.
Fair Isle can be reached by ferry from Grutness Pier at the southern tip of Shetland and once a fortnight (summer only) from Lerwick, and is also accessible by plane.
Old Man of Hoy, Isle of Hoy
Orkney is as distinctive as the lilting, song-like accent of the Orcadians, and upon arrival, you may well find yourself easing into the relaxed island pace of life so seamless that you might never want to go home. There are so many historic sites by the roadside that a trip to Orkney could revolve entirely around ancient chambered cairns like Maeshowe, dramatic standing stones such as the Ring of Brodgar, and the remains of traditional brochs and living quarters, like the warren that is Skara Brae.
But if white sandy beaches, imposing rock stacks and endless coastline are more your cup of tea, then the island chain has plenty to offer too.
Perfect place to go for:
Churchill Barrier No 3, Orkney
Over 70 islands make up the Orkney Isles. That means hundreds of miles of coastal waters are just waiting to be explored. Orkney was a naval anchorage during the two World Wars and its waters are home a number of fascinating sunken shipwrecks. At the Churchill Barriers wrecks were deliberately sunk to prevent enemy boats from entering Scapa Flow between Orkney Mainland and South Ronaldsay. The incredibly clear waters allow prime conditions for beginner divers and the island offers numerous diving courses, boat trips and guided dives for all abilities.
2. Discovering war time history
The island of Hoy off the south west of Orkney Mainland might be best known for its ‘old man’- the sea stack that stands at 450 ft (137 m), but did you know that it’s also home to Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum? Open from March to October, this free museum is based in a former oil pumping station at Lyness Naval Base, and charts the important role it served the British fleet throughout its history, playing a major part during two world wars. Follow the Lyness Wartime Trail to see more of the sites that were used during wartime.