Scotland’s islands ring with dramatic cliffs and majestic hills, windswept beaches and picturesque villages, ancient stories and unique wildlife. The varied landscapes are ideal for walking, pony trekking, fishing, golf, exploring ruins, and peaceful dreaming. The pace is relaxed, the spaces are wide open, and the villages are welcoming. Any Scotland vacation should include an island stay or visit.
Isle of Skye
The spellbinding Isle of Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides and home to breathtaking natural wonders. The Old Man of Storr and the cliffs of the Quiraing are must-sees, but set aside time to explore secret corners of the island. Discover dinosaur prints at Staffin, the Fairy Glen at Uig, the stunning Neist Point Lighthouse, and the coral beach of Claigan.
Isle of Mull
The second largest of the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Mull is well-loved by geologists, wildlife watchers, and adventurous travelers. Remarkable natural features on the island include the fabled MacKinnon’s Cave, impressive sea arches at Carsaig, and MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree. The Isle of Mull has golden beaches with crystalline waters. Climb the island’s only mountain, Ben More, for the view. Finish up with a boat trip to Fingal’s Cave on nearby Staffa.
Isle of Iona
Lovely Iona has played a major role in British history. Saint Columba founded the Iona Abbey in 563, bringing Christianity to northern Britain. Royals have hidden here and been baptized here. Today, Iona is a peaceful haven that attracts spiritual seekers and curious visitors. The Iona Abbey, the Iona Nunnery, and St. Oran’s Chapel and Cemetery are a glimpse into the island’s past, while the Bay at the Back of the Ocean is a scenic backdrop for playing a round of golf.
Isle of Islay
Islay, also known as “Queen of the Hebrides,” was once home to Lords of the Isles, who ruled western Scotland from Finlaggan. Today, Islay is best known for its renowned single malt whiskies produced in eight active distilleries. (There are also extraordinary botanical gins made here.) Islay has a long and varied coastline dotted with lovely villages and 60 tranquil beaches, including the Big Strand, a stunner at Laggan Bay.
Isle of Jura
Jura isn’t easily accessible, which makes it an attractive choice for those looking for untamed wilderness and rugged beauty. It’s comparable in size to its southern neighbor, Islay, but there’s just a single, one-track road. With one pub and one distillery, the 5,000 resident deer far outnumber the 200 islanders. Otters populate the coast, and golden eagles own the sky. 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 date back thousands of years and speak of a people long gone. The prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones, and the chambered tomb at Mashowe are archaeological treasures protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. Nature reserves are home to puffins and seals. Old Man Hoy is a 450-foot sea stack that’s a must-see.
Shetland, an archipelago of over 100 islands, is geographically closer to Norway than mainland Scotland. Shetland maintains strong ties to Scandinavia, and the Norse influence is particularly evident in place names and celebrations such as the annual Up Helly Aa, a fire festival culminating in the burning of a Viking longship at Lerwick. With a 1,650-mile coastline, countless sea caves, and some of the highest cliffs in Britain, Shetland is uniquely picturesque for outdoor activities. It’s also a perfect base for island-hopping.
Named Fridarey, or “island of peace” by ancient Norse settlers, Fair Isle is halfway between the Orkney and Shetland islands. This most remote of the inhabited islands has left its mark by developing the famous Fair Isle knitting style. Hilly moorlands and imposing cliffs are home for a large number of noisy sea birds, and seals are also a common sight. Lucky visitors may spot dolphins, orcas, and whales.
Part of the Inner Hebrides, Tiree is blessed with a mild climate and white sand beaches. The island has charm, a strong crofting heritage, and fertile soil. One of the sunniest places in the UK, summer evenings are often warm and balmy. There are tide pools, terrific windsurfing, and a pretty coastline made for long, peaceful walks. Tiree treasures its history. There are archaeological remains, and the heritage centers at Scarinish and Hynish provide a peek into the past with relics, stories, poems, and maps.
Isle of Arran
Arran has an ever-changing coastline, majestic mountains, sheltered beaches, lush forests, and treasures its culture. (Some say it’s Scotland in miniature.) Food lovers can taste their way around the island with creamy cheeses, local beers, traditional oatcakes, and tempting chocolates and ice cream. Head to the Arran distillery and sample a dram of malt whisky or the smooth liqueur, Arran Gold. Wildlife is plentiful, making it great for exploring. Arran is a perfect, and peaceful, break from a busy world.