“Scotland has islands?”
This is a question I’ve heard all too often, and it’s one I didn’t know the answer to before I moved to Scotland either. In fact, Scotland doesn’t just have a few islands, it has almost 800! And over 100 of them are inhabited. It turns out, Scottish Islands are some of the best and most beautiful places I’ve ever travelled too, and are a well-deserved addition to any Scotland itinerary.
My love affair with the Scottish islands began on a trip to Shetland, the furthest away of the Scottish island groups. Since then I’ve been making it my mission to visit a few more every year, including on a mini honeymoon to the Isles of Lewis and Harris! Although I’ve written about a few, I really wanted to create a guide to the Scottish islands that was comprehensive enough to give beginner islands-hoppers a head start in choosing what islands are for them, when to visit, and how to get there.
The Scottish islands are made of four major groupings, Shetland, Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and the Inner Hebrides. Between them, they have an amazing array of beautiful scenery, wildlife, and ancient history.
I’ve included the islands of Scotland I’ve managed to visit so far, plus the recommendation of some fellow Scottish and Scotland-loving travel bloggers. As I continue to tick more off, I’ll add further information to the guide.
Use the table of contents to jump to whichever section you’d like to explore!
Table of Contents
Shetland is a group of islands that are actually located closer to Bergen in Norway than Edinburgh in Scotland! Their remoteness makes them a rather unique place to visit, with a mixture of old Norse and Scottish influences. There are even Viking fire festivals held in communities across the island every year!
The larger of the islands are the Mainland, Yell, and Unst, but there are also other inhabited islands like Whalsay, Fetlar, and Bressay.
Getting there: Shetland is serviced by the Northlink Ferries, which operate overnight ferries out of Aberdeen to Lerwick on the mainland, or via Orkney. You can also fly via Logan Air or Flybe from major Scottish cities, from Orkney, Manchester, or Bergen in Norway.
Contributed by Patricia from Mad About Scotland
The main island in Shetland is an absolute marvel. The remoteness of this archipelago between Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway is responsible for many of its charms. Be prepared for the wilderness at Eshaness Cliffs. Fall in love with the history that places like Jarlshof, the Clickimin Broch, and Scalloway Castle Tell. Marvel at the super gorgeous St Ninian’s Isle and THAT tombola beach.
The bubbling Lerwick is another good reason to spend some time in Shetland. It is full of lovely shops and you can follow the steps of inspector Jimmy Pérez (his house is one of the lodberries along the waterfront). To top it all off, Shetland is a good place to taste local produce like mussels, delicious salmon and, of course, Reestit Mutton Soup. Honestly, if you can, go visit Shetland. It may not have trees, but it has loads to see and do.
Yell is the largest of the islands north of the mainland, but also often overlooked as people pass through after catching the ferry from the mainland to get the next ferry to Unst. It has a beautiful coastline for wildlife spotting and miles of moorlands strewn with wildflowers.
Unst is the northernmost inhabited island in the British Isles, and also where my great grandparents lived before they decided to move across the world to New Zealand. For a remote and relatively small island, there are a wealth of things to do in Unst. From the Hermaness Nature Reserve with its dramatic cliffs and bird-watching to the northern-most gin distillery and brewery in Britain, and UnstFest in the summer.
Orkney is located just off the north of Scotland, and on a clear day can be seen from the mainland. The Orkney Islands hold some of the most fascinating historical monuments of all of the Scottish Islands, thanks to the rich history of Pict and Viking settlements.
There are over 70 islands in Orkney alone, with 20 being permanently inhabited. Most people visit the mainland, but there are plenty of other options too. I can’t wait to go back and explore more!
Getting there: Orkney can be reached by several ferries from mainland Scotland, including the North Link ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall or from Scrabster to Stromness. Other options from the top of Scotland are the Gill’s Bay to St Margarets Hope ferry with Pentland Ferries, or the passenger only Jog Ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick. You can travel between all inhabited islands with Orkney Ferries and some flights. The shortest scheduled passenger flight between Westray and Papa Westray is the shortest in the world at only 1 and a half minutes!
Contributed by Helena from Through an Aussies Eyes
The Mainland of the Orkney Islands is the largest of the islands of this northern archipelago in Scotland. Mainland has the two towns of Kirkwall (the capital of these islands) and Stromness that are both alluring with their small coastal island town charms. They are also home to the ferry connections from mainland Scotland. Both the St. Magnus Cathedral (highly recommend the tour that takes you through the top layers of the cathedral and out on to the roof that overlooks the town) and the Earl’s Palace (a ruined 16th-century castle) can be found in the middle of Kirkwall amongst the boutique shops.
Scattered across the island you will find the Neolithic and Pictish sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe (see Viking graffiti inside the tomb), the Tomb of the Eagles and the Ring of Brodgar. For a more modern day history lesson, the World Wars have put Mainland Orkney on the map. See the blockships at Scapa Flow (purposely sank ships to block the enemy out during the World Wars), the Italian Chapel that was built by prisoners of war and the Ness Battery that holds tours over these towers. Mainland Orkney really will please any history buff!
The island of Hoy is a popular day trip from Mainland Orkney, particularly for the opportunity to walk to see the Old Man of Hoy, a 449-foot sea-stack off the north coast of the island.The walk to the Old Man of Hoy starts in Rackwick Bay. In contrast to the green rolling hills of the Mainland, Hoy is more rugged and like the highlands of Scotland. Other sites include the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum where you can learn more about the part that Orkney played in both world wars, the rock-cut tomb called the Dwarfie Stane, and the Martello Tower and Battery.
The Inner Hebrides
The Inner Hebrides are the most accessible of the Scottish islands, with many being reachable within a short ferry ride from the mainland and even doable on a day trip. The Inner Hebrides stretch from the Isle of Skye off the west of Scotland down to the Isle of Arran just west of Glasgow. Like all of Scotland’s islands, they contain beautiful scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and fairytale seaside villages.
The most well-known of the Inner Hebrides would have to be the Isle of Skye. This is the one island that travellers to Scotland do seem to know about, even if they don’t realise it, given it has been connected to the mainland by bridge since 1995. However, so that you can plan a trip to some of the more off-beat Inner Hebrides islands, my fellow travel bloggers have contributed some awesome information about them too!
There are plenty of other Inner Hebrides Islands of course, like Tiree, Jura, Ulva, Lismore… seriously I could go on, but the following are some of the best islands in Scotland to visit.
Getting there: The Inner Hebrides are serviced by Calmac Ferries. Some routes are within a day trip of Edinburgh or Glasgow, and others will require a bit of island hopping or several days to visit.
Isle of Skye
Contributed by Skye from Skye Travels
The Isle of Skye, largest of the Inner Hebrides and the only major island in the British Isles connected to the mainland by a bridge, has some of the most beautiful locations on earth. In fact, you’ll feel like you’ve left the planet entirely and stepped into the land of the faeries.
It shouldn’t be surprising that some of the best spots are called the Fairy Pools, the Fairy Glen, the Fairy Bridge… There’s also a Fairy Flag in Dunvegan Castle (Scotland’s longest inhabited castle) which connects all these locations.
Perhaps the most stunning spots include the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing. Not only have photos from them won international photography competitions; they’ve also been featured in Blockbuster movies like the BFG, Stardust, MacDuff, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, and more.
Neist Point Lighthouse is a must, especially at sunset, and Coral Beach complements the dinosaur fossils at Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls for prehistoric locations.
Expect to spend two days on the island just to get to the locations listed above. Or consider spending a few more days to hike through the Black Cuillin Mountains, explore Iron Age dwellings (brochs) and Viking shipyards, wander through an ancient graveyard on St. Columba’s Isle and try some of the best fish and chips in Scotland at Stein Inn.
Contributed by Laurence from Finding the Universe
Raasay is a beautiful Scottish island which is right next to one of Scotland’s most popular islands – the Isle of Skye. Despite its location though, this island gets far fewer visitors than Skye, which makes it an excellent spot for either a day trip from Skye or for a few days of quiet exploring.
Raasay is relatively easy to get to, with a regular ferry service from Sconser, operated by CalMac ferries. This takes around fifteen minutes, and the ferry takes both foot passengers and vehicles. The island is particularly popular with hikers and wildlife lovers, as well as adventure lovers.
There’s plenty to do on the island. There’s a whisky distillery, a ruined castle, and even a road that took one man ten years to build. Wildlife lovers will appreciate the opportunity to see golden eagles and sea eagles, as well as seals, mountain hare, and otters. If you’re into adventure, head to the main accommodation on the island, Raasay House, which offers everything from coasteering to kayaking and climbing. It’s also home to an excellent restaurant and handily located right next to the ferry port.
Mull & Ulva
Contributed by Kathi from Watch Me See
There are few islands in Scotland that are as diverse as the Isle of Mull. On Mull, you find everything Scotland has to offer – forests, a munro (the only island-munro apart from Skye), gorgeous coastline and sandy beaches, a castle, a whisky distillery in the colourful harbour town of Tobermory and surrounding islands for day trips.
After a mainland tour around Duart Castle, Tobermory, and Calgary beach, head northwest towards the Isle of Ulva. If you thought visiting Mull was leaving society behind, wait until you reach Ulva. At the end of the little road, summon the passenger ferry from across the water, by switching the wooden board to red. You will be picked up by boat and brought across to the privately owned island, which boasts plenty of hiking and nature trails to explore. Before you leave, make sure to stop at the Boathouse cafe for fresh seafood or a sandwich (vegan options available!)
The easiest way to get to Mull is by ferry from Oban, and even though you could potentially visit by public transport, I recommend bringing a car or renting one on the island to get the most out of it. The ferry arrives in Craignure, which is a great area to base yourself in, for example at the Craignure bunkhouse or the neighbouring hotel if your budget is a little higher. Few foreign, but many local tourists on the island means that it is best to book your accommodation and ferry ticket a few months in advance.
Contributed by Kate from Love From Scotland
Islay (pronounced ‘I-la’) or the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, is famous for three things – whisky, wildlife and waving! Sitting off the west coast of the Kintyre Peninsula, Islay offers a beautifully wild and peaceful island experience – with views to the famous Paps of Jura, sea cliffs to walk along, and stunning beaches. Take a walk on the Mull of Oa to the American Monument to spot sea eagles soaring above, wild goats in the fields, as well as dolphins, seals, and otters which also make Islay their home.
Islay is also known as the ‘Whisky Isle’ and is home to eight distilleries (with another two on the way) and the whisky is famous worldwide for its peaty taste – try Laphroaig, Bowmore or Lagavulin on a tasting tour. However, it is the friendliness of the Islay local’s welcome that really makes the island so hard to leave – if you are driving, get practising your waving hello – well it’s either that or the cask strength whisky!
Isle of Arran
Contributed by Nicola from FunkyEllas Travel
The Isle of Arran is one of the best islands to visit in Scotland. It’s so easily accessible from the mainland, with just a thirty-mile drive from Glasgow to Ardrossan and a hop on a ferry. Whereas other islands are famous for their beautiful beaches or their dramatic landscapes, the Isle of Arran has a bit of everything. Its nickname is “Scotland in miniature”, thanks to the Highland boundary fault line that crosses the centre of the island. If the sun is out and you fancy a day at the beach, head south on the coastal road to Kildonan, Whiting Bay or Pirnmill to relax. If hiking is your thing, head to the mountainous north and explore the island’s highest mountain, Goatfell.
It’s easy to drive around with one main coastal road around the entire perimeter of the island and a string road across the centre. The Arran Whisky Distillery is definitely not to be missed and there’s nothing no better way to spend an evening on a Scottish island than with a dram and some Arran cheese.
Isle of Bute
Contributed by Susanne of Adventures Around Scotland
I may be biased about choosing the Isle of Bute as my favourite Scottish island as I have lived here for almost 5 years, but it really does have a lot to offer! It’s the most accessible west coast island and can be reached in less than 2 hours from Glasgow. When I first moved here my knowledge of its history was limited to the main town of Rothesay once being the most popular Victorian seaside resort in Scotland – in fact, the Victorian public toilets have been named one of the best in the world!
What I didn’t know is the fascinating history stretching back over 5000 years. There are ancient burial cairns, Bronze Age standing stones, an impressive Iron Age hill fort at Dunagoil, an important early Christian site at St Blane’s, a unique Scottish castle in Rothesay built to withstand Viking invasions and what is said to be the finest Gothic mansion in the UK at Mount Stuart to name just a few of the historical gems.
For outdoor lovers, there are plenty of walking and cycling opportunities, with the West Island Way long distance walk crossing the island. Popular annual events include ButeFest music festival, an open studio Artist’s Trail and Bute Highland Games.
Food and drink lovers can visit Bute Brew, try some local Sheese (vegan cheese), buy vegetables from the Bute Produce market garden or locally reared meat at the butchers. Of course being an island there are some pretty fabulous beaches, amazing scenery and an abundance of wildlife too!
Contributed by Bret from Green Global Travel
Located in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides approximately one mile off the coast of Mull, Iona is a tiny 3.4-square mile island that’s accessible only via ferry. The island is best known for its famous Abbey, which is still considered among the world’s most sacred sites for devout Christians.
The Abbey was founded in the early Middle Ages by Saint Columba (521-597), the Irish missionary credited with spreading Christianity in what we now know as Scotland (but was then known as the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. The abbey was a dominant religious and political institution for centuries. It was believed at one time that visiting Iona brought Christian pilgrims halfway between the Earth and Heaven.
The Iona Abbey is most famous as the place where part of the Book of Kells (a.k.a. the Book of Columba)– a lushly illustrated manuscript containing four gospels of the New Testament– was created. It’s considered a masterpiece of calligraphy and took over two centuries to create. When the Viking invaders came from Norway to pillage Christian treasures in the 9th century, the sacred book was secretly transported to Ireland to be finished and kept safe. It remains there, at Trinity College in Dublin, to this day.
A tour of the Abbey is fascinating for anyone interested in the history of Scotland. It’s home to sacred relics such as the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in the British Isles. There’s also a replica of the 8th century St John’s Cross, the original fragments of which are on display in the Abbey’s excellent museum.
Its ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain, contains the restored 12th century chapel of St Odhrán (said to be Columba’s uncle). It’s home to the graves of nearly 50 early Scottish Kings, including Cináed mac Ailpín, king of the Picts (a.k.a. Kenneth I of Scotland); Domnall mac Causantín, “king of Alba” (Donald II); Máel Coluim mac Domnaill, king of Scotland (Malcolm I); and Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, king of Scotland (Macbeth).
On a personal note, the Abbey was also the final resting place for several of my Clan Mackinnon ancestors (including John Mackinnon, the last abbot of Iona, whose tomb lies near the altar of the chapel). The museum at Iona holds several artifacts paying tribute to the Mackinnons, including the shaft of an elaborately decorated Celtic cross that was dedicated to John and his father, Lachlan.
Contributed by Somnath from Travel Crusade
Scotland, one of the worlds cleanest countries, is an epitome of Vikings and Britons. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and is engulfed by a lot of islands including the Inner Hebrides.
The islands are a retreat for tourists visiting the country, including Eigg, known as one of the Small Isles just south of Skye. The calm and soothing atmosphere provides a scintillating environment for tourists to reacclimatize oneself and get lost in the mountain wilderness dispersed with the silent valleys and lochs.
There are plenty of things to do in Eigg, including taking a boat tour, hiking up the pitchstone ridge, visiting the white sand beaches and keeping an eye out for wildlife. You can enjoy the different charms that the Scottish Islands offer tourists and travellers from across the world.
Isle of Rum
Contributed by Kate from What Kate And Kris Did
Rum probably isn’t the first Scottish island people think of. It’s small, one of the Small Isles in fact, and not as well-known as it’s big neighbour Skye. It’s not that long ago that it was known as ‘The Forbidden Island’ because it was privately owned. It’s now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage and managed as a nature reserve, with wild red deer, ponies, and goats.
Rum is also a haven for bird watching. Manx shearwaters breed there each year, and white-tailed sea eagles are resident too. There are sea otters and seals to spot near the beaches. The sea around it has various whale and dolphin species passing through. I once saw a basking shark from the ferry and was very jealous the day that other visitors saw orcas. As someone who is interested in wildlife, it was a wonderful place to visit.
Rum is also great for hiking, with the Rum Cullins to climb. The mountains are impressive, and it’s the smallest Scottish island to have a summit about 2,500 ft. The castle is a huge feature of the island, and what you see as you come in on the ferry, and has an interesting guided walk.
There are several places to stay, including a bunkhouse, bed and breakfast and camping cabins. There’s a campsite too, but the midges are awful in summer! You can also wild camp inside the nature reserve, and stay in the mountain bothies.
Since I lived there, the island has developed much more for tourists. You can do guided walks with the rangers, there’s a craft shop, café and bicycle hire.
Contributed by Aga from Worldering Around
The Isle of Staffa is an unusually shaped volcanic island located on the west coast of Scotland. It belongs to the Inner Hebrides and it’s a popular trip destination from the nearby Isle of Mull. The Hexagonal basalt columns creating the cliffs of the island and a cathedral-like shape of Fingal’s cave are full of natural beauty.
In the summer months, you can also spot there the cute tiny birds with orange noses – the puffins. The grassy plateau on the top of the island is their favourite spot, but, as usual with wild animals, it’s a hit or miss. However, there are many other birds around.
The basalt columns shaping the Fingal’s cave give it unusual acoustics, which is sometimes used for the concerts. On a regular day, you can just come inside and admire the shape of the rocks, listening to the waves bashing against the cave walls and birds screaming around.
The boat trip to the Isle of Staffa is an adventure in itself. You can spot different types of birds, seals or other sea creatures on the way. The views are amazing too! The Isle of Staffa is uninhabited, the only residents are the birds. I can highly recommend exploring this geological gem together with Isle of Mull and Iona located nearby.
The Outer Hebrides
The Outer Hebrides are a chain of islands stretching from the Isles of Lewis and Harris (confusingly, one land mass) in the north, to Barra in the south. The main islands in between are North Uist, Benbecula, and South Uist.
I dreamed of visiting the Outer Hebrides after stumbling across pictures of them on Instagram. Seriously. When I finally made the journey I was certainly not disappointed, in fact, my husband and I fell in love with them so much every now and then we entertain the idea of moving there!
Getting there: Like the Inner Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides are serviced by the CalMac Ferries, and you can hop between the two island groups as well. Flights to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis are available from Manchester, Edinburgh, Inverness, Benbecula (Loganair), Glasgow ( Loganair and Flybe) or Aberdeen (Eastern Airways), and to Benbecula from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness or Stornoway (all operated by Loganair), and Barra from Glasgow.
Isle of Lewis
Contributed by Katie from Stories My Suitcase Could Tell
Located 30 miles off the north-west coast of mainland Scotland, the Isle of Lewis is the largest island in the archipelago that makes up the Outer Hebrides. While I love the whole island chain, as a Leodhasach (Scottish Gaelic for ‘a person from Lewis’), I have to say that Lewis is my favourite Scottish island!
Although I may be biased, I do truly love the island, and there’s so much for visitors to experience, from history and culture to beautiful landscapes and tasty croft-to-table food. You can stroll on sandy white beaches in the district of Uig, go surfing at Dal Mor or stand in the shadow of the other-worldly Callanish Standing Stones.
If you’re looking for history, there’s everything from the brand-new museum located in Lews Castle in the main town of Stornoway, to the fascinating local historical society museum in Ness, and of course, the Arnol Blackhouse, which shows first-hand how islanders lived and worked in days gone by.
When it comes to food and drink, you’re spoiled for choice. With homemade food and ingredients fresh from the croft, 40 North Foods is one of my all-time favourite food spots, and you also can’t visit Lewis without trying the world-famous Stornoway Black Pudding from one of the local butchers. For drinks, you can’t go wrong in Stornoway with a dram at McNeill’s pub during one of their open mic nights, or maybe a cheeky cocktail at the castle at sunset.
With beautiful scenery, rich history, delicious food, and a strong Gaelic culture, Lewis is undoubtedly my favourite Scottish island – and if you visit, it might just be yours, too!
Isle of Harris
Contributed by John of From Real People
When it comes to the Scottish Islands, there’s nowhere quite like the stunning Isle of Harris. It’s located in the far north west of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides across the water beyond the Isle of Skye. The beaches of Luskentyre and Seilebost look like more like the Caribbean than Scotland. The experience of walking alone on miles of golden sand is something almost impossible to experience anywhere in the world. All along the west coast of Harris are a series of beaches each more stunning than the other.
One of the best ways to do Harris is to take a road trip around the island from the main town of Tarbert down the main road along the west coast to the villages of Northton, Leverburgh, and finally Rodel at the island’s southern tip. Along the Golden Road, you will be able to stop at one stunning beach after another while taking in the beautiful mountain backdrops. Don’t miss St Clements Church in Rodel that dates back to the 15th Century and is full of Scottish clan history. The road along the east coast is equally stunning with loads of gorgeous coves and bays.
Tarbert is a lovely little village with a nice port and a wonderful local distillery that is at the heart of this vibrant island community. The island of Scalpay is just as beautiful as the main island, the walk to the Eilean Glas lighthouse will reward you with stunning views across to the Isle of Skye. Harris surprises everyone who visits and the amazing scenery draws them back year after year.
Great Bernera is a small island across the “Bridge over the Atlantic” from the Isle of Lewis, but for a small island, there’s plenty to see! On the hills just over the bridge you’ll find standing stones, and in the north is the beautiful Bosta beach, with a replica Iron Age house. If you’re driving around Lewis then it’s worth the detour!
Contributed by Kay from The Chaotic Scot
If there was ever a Scottish experience to fast track to the top of your bucket list, it would be the famous flight from Glasgow to the Isle of Barra; the only commercial beach landing in the world. Approaching the exotic looking shores on a wee propeller plane, before gliding down onto the smooth, shimmering sands will surely leave an imprint on even the most well-travelled adventurers.
Barra is connected by a causeway to the separate Isle of Vatersay, and together they are the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. Bursting with dreamy sights and charming qualities, Barra is proof that good things really do come in small packages. No wonder the island is comically known as Barra-dise and Barra-bados.
As far as place names go, the main town of Castlebay is as literal as they come; it’s a bay with a castle. Continuing this theme is Café Kisimul, which looks out to the aforementioned Kisimul Castle. Much more than simply an eatery, Café Kisimul is an island institution which specialises in Italian and Indian seafood. Scallop pakora followed by a seafood curry is a must!
Work off your meal the next day with a hike up Heavel – Barra’s highest point – or with a cycle to the idyllic beaches of Vatersay. Rest your head in the cosy and welcoming Dunnard Hostel, and indulge in a few drams and live music with the locals in the notoriously fun Castlebay Bar. There’s nowhere quite like the Isle of Barra.
Scotland’s other islands
As well as islands along Scotland’s coastline, there are also islands within bays and freshwater lochs, like Inchcailloch Island in Loch Lomond.
Another unique Scottish island and the easiest to visit if you’re in Edinburgh is Cramond Island.
Contributed by Sophie from Solo Sophie
If you’re looking for the perfect day trip from Edinburgh, that’s just a short and easy bus ride away (bus number 41), then you need to look no further than the picturesque tidal island of Edinburgh. This Scottish isle can only be visited at certain times, as twice a day, Cramond Island is cut off from the sea by the rising water.
Packed with history and tourists, it was nearby that one of the most important Roman statues ever found in Britain, that of the ‘Cramond Lioness’ was discovered. Best seen during the summer months when days are longer and you’ll have a better chance at clear skies, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic. Nearby, on the mainland, a village of the same name, Cramond, has several welcoming eateries including a pub serving local cuisine and a pretty waterside café.
It would take years to thoroughly explore all of the isles, let alone decide on the best Scotland islands. Luckily I’ve moved to Scotland for the foreseeable future and intend to explore as many as possible! In the meantime, this list of the islands of Scotland should give you more than enough reasons to include an island or two in your itinerary, and get planning a trip!
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