Scottish islands guide: best to visit and how to get there

The Scottish Isles are havens for wildlife and the perfect places to go when you want to get awau from it all. Our guide looks at a selection of Scotland's most beautiful islands including Skye, Mull, Harris and Lewis, with advice on how to get there and the best things to do.

Isle of Skye, Scotland

Our guide to a selection of Scotland’s most beautiful islands including Skye, Mull, Harris and Lewis.

How many Scottish islands are there?

Getting lost in the Glens not enough for you? If you’ve tramped the length and breath of Scotland and are craving something new, fear not: there are 790 offshore islands to explore off the coast, and each has its own distinct character and unique attractions, from secluded coves and rambling castles to whale spotting and whisky tasting.

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Iona

Iona, Scotland
Iona, looking towards the Isle of Mull, Scotland ©Getty

A small island located just 2km off the Ross of Mull, Iona is home to a population of just 125 hardy residents. Only those who live on the island may drive on Iona, so you’ll need to take a bus from Fionnphort and from there take a short passenger-ferry ride to the island. Both the Argyll and St. Columba Hotels are well-placed, with the sound of Iona visible from both.

History buffs will want to visit St. Oran’s Cemetary for the graves of Scottish Kings such as Macbeth, but Iona’s sparse population means that the wildlife is the real attraction here. Seals and otters frolic on the shoreline and Peregrine falcons are a common sight. The best time to visit is in July and August, for a chance to spot migrating whales. Minke whales are a common sight in late summer, and orcas, pilot whales and the occasional humpback have all been spotted nearby. The uninhabited island of Staffa and the prehistoric Fingal’s Cave are a short boat-ride away.

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Skye

Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye
Loch na Cuilce and Loch Coruisk with Black Cuillins in background, Isle of Skye ©Getty
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The largest and most northerly island of the Inner Hebrides, Skye is larger than many of its brothers at 639 square miles, and has a bustling island life to match. Skye is tethered to the mainland by Skye Bridge on the A87, but ferries run from Mallaig for those who want to cross by water. There’s plenty of choice for gourmets, too – the Three Chimneys in Colbost and Kinloch Lodge in Sleat both offer Michelin-star treats.

Frequent boat trips offer sea angling experiences and wildlife tours for spotting sea eagles and dolphins, while golden eagles are sometimes visible on the mainland. The more adventurous visitor can try their hand at climbing the Cuillin ridge, a climb stretching 12km from end to end with sumptuous views, visit the rocky pinnacles of Northern peninsula Trotternish, or aim slightly lower with guided gorge walking – the perfect way to experience all Skye’s nooks and crannies.

Mull

Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, Scotland
Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, Scotland ©Getty

The second largest of the Inner Hebrides, Mull encompasses a variety of peninsulas because of its craggy coastline. Easily accessible from the mainland, there are three ports to get to Mull by ferry: Oban, Lochaline and Kilchoan.

Ben More and its neighbour Stob Binnen are instantly recognisable towering points that will test all but the most experienced walkers. Various cycling routes will take you the length and breath of Mull, and there’s plenty of history to take in as you go – the island is home to six ancient castles.

Colony of seabirds on the Farne Islands

If all this has tired you out, watch someone else do the work at July’s Tobermory Highland Games. Caber-tossing, hammer-throwing and the classic tug-of-war are all on show at this traditional event – it’s exhausting just thinking about it. Get some rest in one of the bed & breakfasts dotted around the island or a hotel in Tobermory itself, and treat yourself to some whisky & marmalade ice cream while you’re there.

Fair Isle

Fair Isle, Scotland
Coastal landscape at Fair Isle, Scotland ©Getty

Halfway between Orkney and Shetland nestles Fair Isle, owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The 200m high cliffs on the west coast of the island are a formidable sight. Smaller even than Iona with a population of just 70 locals, visitors will either have to travel by the tiny Islander plane or get to Shetland and take the quaintly-named Good Shepard IV boat from the Grutness to Fair Isle.

A birdwatching paradise, the cliffs of Fair Isle are home to fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots and puffins. Stay at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and one of the resident Rangers will help you make the most of your visit. Birdwatchers can also visit the George Waterson Memorial Centre, dedicated to the observatory’s founder. For fans of fine craftmanship, traditional spinning, knitting (the island is the home of the famous Fair Isle jumper, after all) and other arts and crafts are all practiced by locals.

Lewis and Harris

Harris Beach, Scotland
View of Harris Island on the Sound of Taransay, Western Isles, Scotland ©Getty

Despite the name, Lewis and Harris is actually Scotland’s largest single island; the northern part of the island is named Lewis while Harris forms the south. Last year Lewis and Harris were voted Europe’s best island destination by Tripadvisor, and it’s not hard to see why: the island offers a unique history and gloriously empty beaches which look more Caribbean than Scotch. The Outer Hebrides are linked to the mainland by ferries sailing the routes from Ullapool to Stornoway, Uig to Tarbert, Uig to Lochmaddy and Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale. An airport on the Isle of Harris allows for access by plane.

Those interested in Celtic history will want to ramble around the Neolithic Callanish standing stones and the Iron Age village on the Isle of Great Bernera, connected to Lewis via bridge. Visit in July for the Hebridean Celtic Festival for traditional and modern music, and head to Lews Castle, an impressive pile overlooking Stornoway harbor. If all this history is proving too much, explore the scenic beaches,try sport fishing or head to the Uig hills, home to magnificent red deer and golden eagles. Grab a hotel in Stornoway on the isle of Lewis, or plump for more extravagant accommodation at the Amhuinnsuidhe Castle in Harris.

Handa

Handa Island, Scotland
Looking from Handa Island towards mainland Scotland ©Jake Graham

In spring, the teetering cliff tops of Handa Island in Scotland’s remote north-west are a sanctuary for avian wildlife. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars and Arctic terns nest alongside the puffins and, by summer, the island reverberates with the sound of 100,000 breeding seabirds, one of north-west Europe’s largest colonies.

In the warmer months, a small passenger ferry (07780967800) runs daily from Tarbet on the mainland across the Sound of Handa to the ivory-white beaches of Port an Eilean and Traigh an Teampaill on the island’s eastern shores.

On a calm day, the gunmetal dorsal fins of minke whales, basking sharks and common dolphins may be seen cleaving the deep-blue waters of the strait, while closer to shore, grey seals – hides mottled like storm clouds – exult among blankets of shining emerald seaweed.

Not far from the landing site, the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s visitor centre – a modest stone building, crammed with animal bones, old ID books and binoculars for hire – is the perfect starting point for a circular walk around the island.

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