Dramatic cliffs and majestic hills, windswept beaches and picturesque villages, ancient monuments and wildlife galore… the isles of Scotland have it all in abundance.
The varied and dramatic landscapes offer an unparalleled setting for active holidays – think hill walking, cycling, sea kayaking, pony trekking, fishing and golf – while peace and a relaxed pace of life can also be found in the wide open spaces and the welcoming communities of the Scottish islands.
Ready to explore the unique sights and attractions that the isles of Scotland offer? These are the islands destinations that deserve a top place on your travel itinerary:
Isle of Skye
The spellbinding Isle of Skye is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides and home to some of the most breathtaking natural wonders found on the Scottish islands. The iconic Old Man of Storr and the dramatic cliffs of the Quiraing count among the unmissable sights of the island, but there’s so much more to discover on Skye. Be sure to set aside some time to explore the other magical corners of the island: look out for the dinosaur footprints at Staffin, the Fairy Glen at Uig, the stunning Neist Point Lighthouse and the coral beach of Claigan.
Isle of Mull
The second largest island of the Inner Hebrides, Isle of Mull is a popular destination for amateur geologists, dedicated wildlife watchers and adventurous travellers alike. The most remarkable natural structures on the island include the MacKinnon’s Cave (subject of numerous folktales), the impressive sea arches at Carsaig and the MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree. From Calgary Bay to Laggan Bay, Isle of Mull also spoils beach lovers with golden sands and crystal clear waters, while the island’s only Munro, Ben More, provides a rewarding challenge for hill walking aficionados. A boat trip to the splendid Fingal’s Cave on the tiny nearby island of Staffa is also highly recommended.
Isle of Iona
Despite its compact size, the picturesque Iona island played a significant role in shaping British history: this was the site where St Columba founded the Iona Abbey in 563, bringing Christianity to northern Britain. Today, Iona remains a peaceful haven that attracts both spiritual seekers and curious visitors. The Iona Abbey, the Iona Nunnery and St Oran’s Chapel and Cemetery offer a glimpse to the island’s past as the “Cradle of Christianity”, while the Bay at the Back of the Ocean provides an uncommonly scenic backdrop for a game of golf.
Isle of Islay
Islay island is also known as the “Queen of the Hebrides” and was once home to the Lords of the Isles, who ruled the west of Scotland from Finlaggan. Today, Islay is undoubtedly most famous for its popular single malt whiskies produced in the eight active distilleries located on the island. Islay also boasts a long and varied coastline dotted with attractive villages and over 60 tranquil beaches, including the Big Strand, a stunning 6 km stretch of sandy beach at Laggan Bay.
Isle of Jura
Isle of Jura may not be the most easily accessed of the Scottish islands, but it rewards its visitors generously with stunning wilderness and rugged beauty. Comparable in size to its southern neighbour Islay, Jura has only one single track road, one pub and one distillery, and the 5,000 resident deer far outnumber the 200 or so islanders. Otters populate the coast and golden eagles can be seen soaring in the sky, while the three peaks of the Paps of Jura beckon hill walkers.
Orkney is a group of 70 islands, many of which remain uninhabited. The numerous ancient monuments, tombs and stone circles on the archipelago date back thousands of years. The prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones and the ancient chambered tomb at Mashowe number among the archaeological treasures protected by the UNESCO World Heritage status. Orkney also boasts many beautiful nature reserves populated with puffins and seals as well as majestic natural landscapes, including the iconic 137 m sea stack called the Old Man of Hoy.
Shetland, an archipelago of over 100 islands formed from ancient hills, lies geographically closer to Norway than the mainland Scotland. Shetland has maintained strong ties to Scandinavia to this day, and the Norse influence is evident across the islands from the place names to the annual celebration of Up Helly Aa, a fire festival that culminates in the burning of a replica Viking longship at Lerwick. With the incredibly long coastline of 2,702 km, countless sea caves and some of the highest cliffs in Britain, Shetland is also a uniquely picturesque setting for many outdoor activities and makes for a perfect island hopping destination.
St Kilda is a group of five remote islands that lie 66 km northwest of the Outer Hebrides. Though the site was abandoned by its aging population in 1930, much of the local folklore has been preserved in the St Kilda Museum. The highest cliffs in the UK, reefs teeming with sea life and an estimated one million birds that flock to the islands every summer make this remote archipelago a dramatic destination to explore.
The tiny Fair Isle – named Fridarey or “island of peace” by the Norse settlers of old – lies roughly halfway between Orkney and Shetland islands. This most remote of the inhabited islands of Britain has made its mark in the world by developing the famous Fair Isle knitting style. The hilly moorland and imposing cliffs host a large and noisy population of sea birds, while seals are also a common sight. A lucky visitor may also spot dolphins, orcas and whales.