the best Scottish Islands to visit

Scottish Islands

The best Scottish islands…

Fancy visiting the Scottish islands for your next Scotland holiday? Whether connected by bridge, causeway or by ferry, arriving on one of Scotland’s islands is and otherworldly dip into a remote ‘edge of the world’ culture. There are nearly 800 Scottish Islands to discover. Here is how to make a start.

From popular destinations such as the Isle of Skye to the beautiful Isle of Barra, the Inner Hebrides to the islands of the Firth of Clyde, Ayrshire and Argyll, to Orkney and Shetland, Scotland’s islands come complete with Munros to climb, coastal walks, massive seascapes,stunning beaches to explore and that warm island welcome.

The Isle of Skye – go off the beaten track

The Isle of Skye is top of most people’s lists of Scottish islands to visit – and it is no wonder. With the natural wonders such as the Black Cuillin, the Fairy Pools, the majestic Quiraing and Old Man of Storr, remote Neist Point Lighthouse and the waterfall pouring over the cliff (or Kilt Rock) to visit, the Isle of Skye’s outdoor attractions are legendary. However, they are also overrun! It is no wonder that the Isle of Skye is Scotland’s most popular island.

Skye should always be on your list of islands to visit in Scotland, but think about visiting in autumn or winter when the crowds are much smaller. Please don’t build rock towers at the Fairy Glen or park in passing places or on the road side if you can’t find a parking spot. There is also a whole lot of Skye left for you to discover if you get (a wee bit) off the beaten track… here are my favourite things to do on the Isle of Skye.

  • Walk around the Elgol Peninsula – the Isle of Skye’s dramatic Cuillin mountain range is best viewed in all its magnificence from a walk to Camasunary Beach on the Elgol (or to give it its proper name) Strathaird Peninsula. Follow the dramatic single track road from Torrin alongside Loch Slapin and then walk to the top of the spectacular Am Mam pass. The view from the top of the pass of the Black Cuillin in my opinion is one of Scotland’s best views.
  • Munro bag in the Black Cuillin – climbing the twelve 3000 ft+ peaks of the Black Cuillin ridge is on most Munro Baggers bucket list and summiting the Inaccessible Pinnacle is probably the most daunting climb in Scotland. Whilst there is no easy Munro in the Cuillin, with the right hill walking gear and in good weather, Bruach na Frithe and Bla Bheinn are two of the easiest summits to reach. Don’t attempt the Cuilin in winter without winter climbing experience.
  • Take a boat trip to Loch Coruisk – if you don’t fancy climbing the Cuillin then you can take a boat trip from Elgol right into the heart of the mountains. Take a walk around Loch Coriusk for the most incredible views of the mountains, before catching the afternoon ride back – magical.

Read more: a mini guide to the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Mull – wild camping & bagging Ben More

Whether you reach it by ferry from the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula or from the busy harbour town of Oban, the Isle of Mull is one of the most popular Scottish islands to visit. Famed for its beaches, wild walks, wildlife and wilder nights in Tobermory (will you remember the stories?) here is how to work off that hangover!

  • Climb Ben More, Mull’s Munro – the only Munro (a Scottish mountain over 3000ft) on an island after from the Cuillin on Skye, Ben More rises 966m above Loch Na Keal – the ‘loch of the cliffs’ and has views across to the Isle of Ulva and Ben Cruachan. An extinct volcano, with fascinating & slippery geology, it will take you around 5 hours to reach the top – or just walk halfway for an amazing view!
  • Head to Calgary Bay for wild camping – Up on the north coast of the island, and around 35 minutes drive from Tobermory down a single track road is the beautiful Calgary Bay. The beach is stunning – framed by dramatic land formations – the beach is surrounded by a huge sweep of machair which takes you down to perfect white sand. There is a wee camping area right on the edge of the sand – wild & remote perfection.
  • Sail to Inch Kenneth – whilst the most popular boat trips off the Isle of Mull might be to cross to the beautiful Isle of Iona or to Ulva, instead sail to Inch Kenneth – once home to another monastery, and the burial place of many of the early Scottish Kings, and the island was also once home to the (in)famous Mitford Family.

Read more: 24 hours on the Isle of Mull

Orkney – for standing stones and huge sea-scapes

From the simply incredible Heart of Neolithic Orkney to tales of invading Vikings and World War 2 battles, spiritual awakening in gin, whisky and St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, to walks along a coast constantly being changed by time, with a history stretching back 5000 years, you won’t be short of things to do when you visit Orkney.  Explore the Orkney Mainland for the perfect wild & windy weekend break on a Scottish Island.

  • Walk the west coast of Mainland – Stromness to Birsay is linked by a 20-mile coastal path passing by Skara Brae and the Bay of Skaill. At Yesnaby, a series of stunning red sandstone sea cliffs drop 100m into the Atlantic Ocean. In spring and summer puffins can be spotted here – but watch out, the cliffs are crumbly and it is dangerous to stray too close to the edge.
  • Visit The Gloup and Mull Head – Park at the Mull Head car park and walk out onto the headland – first visiting ‘The Gloup’ – a huge collapsed red sandstone sea cave with a waterfall pouring over the edge – before heading out along the cliff path the Brough of Deerness, home to hundreds of seabirds including Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills in summer.
  • Visit the Ring of Brodgar and the stones of Stenness – Step amongst Orkney’s standing stones and you will feel like a true dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants. Ask yourself, how did the builders of the Ring of Brodgar measure a true circle 2500 years before Archimedes? Take a walk amongst the rings and try to work out why they were built for yourself.

Read more: How to visit Orkney

The Isle of Islay – go beyond the distilleries

Islay might be more famous for its eight whisky distilleries than its wildlife, but this Scottish island is a binocular wielders paradise. The best way to discover Islay is to head out to its remote peninsulas and brave the often wild weather – don’t worry, you will always have a whisky distillery nearby to warm you up! Make sure you step into an Islay pub (try the public bar at the Bowmore Hotel) and you will be welcomed with typical loud, noisy and nosy Scottish west coast charm. You probably won’t understand a word of what anyone is saying, don’t worry, I am not sure the locals do either!

  • Walk the cliffs of the OA – drive out on to the remote Mull of OA from Port Ellen where you can walk to the American Monument along the OA cliffs. Look for sea eagles soaring overhead and wild goats ambling across the path. Back at Port Ellen, walk to the lighthouse and Singing Sands, keeping an eye out for dolphins in the bay!
  • Spot seals on the Rhinns of Islay -stretching the length of Loch Indaal to the famously pretty villages of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss, take the coastal path with views of the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the island of Orsay and watch out for nosy grey seals popping out of the water in the bay.
  • Otter spot at Bunnahabhain – Port Askaig on Islay’s stunning east coast serves the ferry to the mainland and has two distilleries – Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila sitting on the Sound of Islay From Bunnahabhain walk out towards Rhuvval lighthouse which sits on the Island’s most northern point and watch the storms roll in across the sea from the Isle of Mull. Keep an eye open for the Bunnahabhain Otters, made famous by BBC’s WinterWatch.   

Read more: why you will fall in love with the Isle of Islay

The Isle of Arran – Scotland in miniature

With rugged highland mountains in the north, windswept beaches and ruined castles, and, of course, its own Arran whisky, the Isle of Arran truly is ‘Scotland in Miniature’. Despite the whole island being only 55 miles around, there is a lot to see…

  • Sail across to the holy isle – Located in Lamlash Bay is Holy Isle, once the home of a 6th-century monk called St Molaise and now owned by the Samyé Ling Buddhist Community who run a centre for world peace and health on the island. Day visitors are welcome to visit the island between April and October. A small ferry runs from Lamlash 3 times a day.
  • Climb up to the Giant’s Graves – Above Whiting Bay lay the remains of two Neolithic tombs oddly called the Giant’s graves. I guess you should resist doing an Outlander here, you need to visit the Machrie Moor stone circles for this! Climb the steep winding path for fantastic views of Arran and the Holy Isle and then descend via the forest to see the spectacular Glenashdale Falls.
  • Explore the King’s Caves – Whether or not they once sheltered Robert the Bruce, the King’s Cave on Arran’s west coast still make for an impressive site. There are impressive views of the Kintyre Peninsula and Drumadoon Point. The walk takes between 1-2 hours and starts at a signposted car park near Machrie.

Read more: a weekend on the Isle of Arran

The Outer Hebrides – go on a remote adventure

The Outer Hebrides are one of the best places in Scotland for an outdoor adventure – and with 15 islands making up the chain you could visit time and time again and still find more something to do. Base yourself in Harris, North Uist and Barra – or hire a campervan and have an outdoor adventure you will never forget!

  • Climb in the Harris Hills – the Outer Hebs are a paradise for walkers, and the biggest of the Harris Hills is the mighty Clisham, a Corbett at 799 m (2,621 ft). Prefer things a little more sedate? Walk the Coffin Road from Bays to the incredible Seilebost beach, and then beach hop your way along Harris’s west coast.
  • Get adventurous – mountain bike the 12-mile Urgha and Maraig circuit (the Postman’s Trail) which includes 840m of descent, or jump off the cliffs of Hushinish Beach. On Barra you can kayak around Kisimul Castle, snorkel with seals or horse ride on a white sand beach – incredible
  • Wildlife watchwith sea eagles, dolphins, seals and big and bossy bonxies to spot, take a boat trip out with Fish ‘n’ Trips from Keose harbour on Lewis. With a maximum of five people per boat, this is a great way to get up close and personal with Lewis and Harris’s wildlife.
  • Take the Hebridean Way– up for a huge challenge? Then walk or cycle the 155m route Hebridean Way travelling through 10 of the Outer Hebrides islands – Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis. Phew.
  • Go for a swim off a white sand beach – The beaches off the Outer Hebrides are perfect for swimming, with soft sands, and shallow depths – and thankfully the temperature in summer is just a wee bit chilly – perfect. My favourite beaches for a fantasy swim are the huge sweep of sand of Luskentyre, Seilebost, Horgabost, Borve and Scarista Beach – all the beaches have beautiful white sands and turquoise seas.

Watch our wee Outer Hebrides film!

Do you dare to jump into a Scottish island outdoor adventure? Let me know your favourite Scottish islands!

Love, from Scotland x

More Scottish island Guides

More Outdoorsy Guides to Scotland

Love the outdoors? With nearly 800 Scottish islands to discover, why not head to the Hebrides for your next outdoor break?

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