The best of the Scottish islands
Scotland is home to dozens of islands, located off the coast of the mainland. Many offer a popular destination for visitors and Scots alike and island hopping is a fun activity for holidays. Every island boasts a unique atmosphere, character, charm and landscape. There are small islands, tiny islands, large islands and island chains. There are islands off the west and north coasts, and some off the east coast. And while some islands are almost completely flat there are others that are hilly and even mountainous. Brilliantly, the islands are easily reached thanks to a network of ferries from the mainland. Some islands are also served by planes. (Ask Macs Adventure for their recommendation of how to travel to the islands.) It is actually rather difficult to pick a top list of Scottish islands but here are seven – or so – of the best for a walking or cycling holiday.
1 Isle of Arran
The beautiful and contrasting landscape of Arran.
An easy ferry ride from Ardrossan on the west coast, Arran is often described as “Scotland in miniature”. This is because the landscape boasts both Highlands and Lowlands scenery, just like the whole of Scotland, thanks to the Highland fault line that divides the island. The main town of Brodick boasts shops, restaurants and hotels, as well as a brewery and cheesemakers selling famous local cheeses. Like many islands, Arran also has a whisky distillery, based at Lochranza. The island’s highest point is found on the mountain at the centre of the island, called Goatfell, but there are also plenty of other lower-level walking routes and bike ride possibilities. A walk of five to seven days circuits the island on the Arran Coastal Way.
2 Isle of Islay
Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and is known as The Queen of the Hebrides and the whisky Isle. You’ll discover no fewer than eight distilleries on the Island of Islay. Many produce some of Scotland’s most famous single malts such as Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardbeg. There is more to Islay, however, with a beautiful landscape and some stunning beaches, including the Big Strand on Laggan Bay with its six miles of lovely white sand. An island hopping holiday by ferry and bike is a great idea.
3 Isle of Jura
The outline the Paps of Jura.
Next door to Islay and visited on Scottish Island Hopscotch holiday is Jura. Another famous distillery is located here, as well as the mountains known as the Paps. Famously, the author George Orwell chose this island to write the book 1984 in a remote croft house. Red deer outnumber people on this island by a claimed 30 to one. Other wildlife highlights include otters and golden eagles.
4 The Outer Hebrides
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris.
We’re cheating here a little because the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, is in fact a chain of islands. If you have a week to spare you should take the time to enjoy a few of the islands, including Barra, Vatersay, Benbecula, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis. They are all beautiful in their own right but as a chain, they offer a wealth of fabulous and ever-changing scenery as well as wildlife and attractions. In particular, the dazzling white sands and turquoise waters of Scarista beach on Harris is a must-see. Also go in summer for the machair, the fabulous sandy grasslands on the coast that boast many thousands of colourful wildflowers. Take a holiday an enjoy the Outer Hebrides Island Hopscotch. Many people also enjoy a walk or a cycle along the length of the island on the Hebridean Way.
The magnificent Black Cuillin of Skye.
Whether you arrive by car or bike over the bridge, or by ferry, the north-western island of Skye never fails to amaze. A striking landscape of high-rise mountains (the Cuillins), moorlands and coast combine with history, a distillery, towns, villages, restaurants, pubs, cycling and walking routes to offer visitors plenty to do for weeks at a time. Why not take your time to enjoy a Long Walk on the Isle of Skye?
Orkney offers some amazing historical attractions, such as the Stone Age village of Skara Brae.
A group of some 70 islands make up Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. The largest isle is Mainland with the capital town of Kirkwall, which has a lively arts and crafts and folk music scene. The picturesque harbour town of Stromness is also a great place to visit. It was home to the late writer George Mackay Brown, who wrote: “The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.” Orkney is one of the best places in Scotland to mix walking, wildlife and history. Check out the Macs Adventure Orkney Walking and Wildlife trip.
7 Mull and Iona
Oh, we know, we are cheating again with another two Scottish island gems! It's hard to choose between Mull and Iona so we suggest you visit both in one trip. Mull, the second largest of the Inner Hebridean islands and reached by ferry from Oban on the west coast mainland, is a wildlife haven. You might be lucky enough to spot indigenous wildlife such as eagles, whales, dolphins and otters. Mull is also the home of the famously colourful town of Tobermory. The island of Iona, is located just off the south-west coast of Mull, and offers a haven of peace infused and spirituality. It was where St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland. Visit the abbey and take a walk across the island to the sandy coves in Camus Cul an Tabh. Take a look at the Walking and Wildlife Tour of Mull and Iona.