Guide to the best Scottish Islands

Castles, coves and caber tossing - Matt Evans explains how to explore the best of the Scottish islands of Skye, Iona or Mull


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. We’ve put together a handy guide to some of the must-visit and most popular Scottish isles.




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.



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.



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.

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.


Black guillemot, Cepphus grylle, single bird on rock. Orkney, June 2014

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.

Click for a selection of great walks on the islands and throughout the rest of Scotland.

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.


Village of Tarbert on the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Though surprisingly small, with a population of only 500, it is the main port of entry to the Harris area of the Outer Hebrides and sits on the narrow neck of land separating North and South Harris. Its ferry terminus is often busy during the summer months receiving the ferry from Uig on Skye with its many cars and passengers. The word Tarbert comes from the Norse draw-boat, which is how the Vikings hauled their boats across the narrow neck of land from one sea to the other, thus avoiding a long detour around South Harris. AdobeRGB colorspace.

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.