While the north of Scotland may be famous for its highlands, it is also known for its islands. Scotland has a total of 790 different islands, while just 93 of them are inhabited. Seperated from the mainland, each of them have developed their own unique cultural identity.
What are the best islands to visit?
Though each of the islands are equally as beautiful as the other, they also offer their unique characteristics. Whether it’s Islay’s thriving whiskey trade, or the remoteness of the Shetlands in the far north, there is something for everybody who is visiting Scotland.
All of them are known for their beautiful landscapes and coastline - which varies between white sandy beaches to sheer cliffs, which wildlife makes their home - and all have their own stories. The preserved prehistoric villages in Orkney and the Iron Age brochs scattered throughout the Scottish islands, these isles are an absolute must-visit for history buffs, while Orkney and Islay have established and notable whiskey distilleries known throughout the globe.
Getting to the Scottish Islands
The Islands range in difficulty to reach. There are only two ways you can reach them - by plane or ferry. Most of them can be easily reached by taking a flight with Scotland’s airline Loganair from any of the major Scottish airports. However, though it’s a quick and direct way of travelling, plane tickets can be pricey depending on where and when you’re flying from. If you’re planning to take a car from Scotland’s mainland, you’ll have to look at getting a ferry.
Northlinks offer a ferry service from Aberdeen to the Shetlands, though this takes 12 hours overnight. If you’re looking to get to the Orkney Isles, you can take a ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, but also Scrabster (near Thurso) to Stromess. To get to the Outer Hebrides, leave from Ullapool where it’ll take you to Lewis. The other islands are easy enough to navigate from there. Some of these also operate seasonally, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your trip. Apart from Skye, which has a bridge connecting it to the Scottish mainland, the inner Hebrides can be reached from either the port of Oban or Kennacraig. Taking a car with you may not be necessary, though, as a lot of the islands offer rental services. A bicycle will be a great way to tour during the summer, but a vehicle may be the best choice to protect you from the changing elements.
While the Scottish highlands are worth visiting in their own right, so too are different island regions which are spread across the west to the northeastern coast. Orkney, the Outer and Inner Hebrides, and the Shetlands which have developed their own lifestyle and cultures due to their separation.
Due to its proximity to the highands and being connected by a bridge to the mainland, many tourists who have visited Scotland will be familiar with the isle of Skye, and granted, I highly recommend you go there at least once in your lifetime. But that doesn’t mean the other islands are not worthwhile destinations either.
As with the Scottish mainland, the weather on the islands can be unpredictable. Summer is probably the best time to visit to enjoy their beaches and go for a swim. During the height of summer, Lerwick in the Shetlands has four more hours of sunlight than London due to its location while still staying relatively cool. Try and avoid travelling there during the autumn and winter, as it can be windy and very stormy.
Our first set of islands is the Orkney archipelago to the northeast. Made up of 70 islands, just 20 of these are inhabited, the largest of which is confusingly enough called Mainland. You can take a ferry from Thurso, or book a Loganair flight from Edinburgh, Inverness or Glasgow Airport. There’s a little something for everybody, from the seal colonies that call these islands their home, the Highland Park distillery for the whiskey tourists, to the history dating back to the Neolithic era. This is also where you can find the world’s shortest flight - the commute between Westray and Papa Westray is a journey that lasts just 90 seconds. If you want a fun way to visit the highlights of Orkney, there is the option for a trike tour for two to travel in style.
Best Things to Do in Orkney
Ring of Brogdar and Skara Brae
Some of the most notable sites to visit on these isles are the Neolithic sites of Orkney. Orkney has been inhabited since the days of prehistory, and though they are long gone, the former inhabitants have left well-preserved reminders of their life. These are such a significant part of Scotland’s culture and history that they are an official UNESCO site. While it may not be as famous as Stonehenge, the stones at the Ring of Brodgar are actually older than those or even the pyramids!
Among this island’s ancient relics is also the prehistoric village of Skara Brae; one of the best-preserved prehistoric villages in Western Europe. While the Scottish weather may be a nuisance at best, it actually helped archaeologists in the winter of 1850 when a storm uncovered the site beneath the dunes. Admission prices start are anywhere between £9 to £11 for adults, and £5.40 to £6.60 for children, but family tickets are also available. If you want a tour around these sites and the rest of Orkney, you can book a day trip from Scotland’s mainland if the trike doesn’t do it for you.
The Italian Chapel
There are many reminders of the Second World War in the world, even somewhere as far north as Orkney. The Italian Chapel on the island of Lamb Holm was reconverted from two Nissen huts (a half circle of corrugated iron) into a church. The artist in charge of the project was Domenico Chiocchetti, but what makes this unique was that the labour force was made up of Italian POWs that were living on a couple of the islands, specifically those from Lamb Holm and Burray.
Nowadays, it is a well-loved attraction visited by both locals and foreigners. There is a connection with Chiocchetti’s hometown of Moena. His daughter Letizia even is an honorary member of the preservation committee. Along with the admission price, for an additional £1 donation, you can get a booklet which explains more about this chapel’s history.
In the town of Kirkwall on the mainland Island, you can find the Orkney Museum, which is a great introduction to the history of the Isles, ranging from the stone age to the present day. Their exhibition is on a changing temporary basis, so there is always something new between visits.
Situated in what used to be the Tankerness House, it opened as a museum in 1968. Before then, it used to be a family home, and some of the rooms still have that homey feel to it, like the drawing room and the Baikie Library. The adjacent gardens are also worth looking at while you’re visiting. Entry is free of charge into the museum.
Highland Park Distillery
To the south of Kirkwall, you’ll find where one of my favourite whiskeys is made, the Highland Park Distillery. It is the second northernmost whisky distillery in Scotland, the first being the less well-known Kimbaland Distillery on the Northern Isle of Sanday.
Established in 1798, this award-winning distillery is an absolute must visit. They are open seven days a week, but only between Apirl and October.
While Highland Park may be a bit more of a well-known brand, Kimbland Distillery is certainly also worth a visit. Beginning operations in 2020, not only is it the northernmost whisky distiller in the country, it prides itself in creating the world’s first carbon-negative whiskey.
The way in which they create whiskey is fascinating. Here, endangered animals and plants are ethically used in the distilling process, from the added nitrogen in the ground from the pig manure to using rare Orkney black oats. Their wares are still in the works, though, with only pre-release casks available. As well as making whiskey, Kimbaland help promote the local community by promoting work from local artists
The Churchill Barriers
The Churchill Barriers are another grim reminder of the far reach of the last World War. In October of 1939, a submarine sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak. 834 Lives were lost in this event, encouraging Winston Churchill to build barriers that would help protect the rest of the home fleet. As with the workforce who built the Italian chapel, the POWs built these due to a shortage of manpower. They started construction in May 1940, and wouldn’t be finished for another four years.
Nowadays, though, they act as causeways between the island communities of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. They make for a road trip between the islands, where you can see some of the wrecks of blockships. Some of these can be even seen by snorkelling or diving.
St Magnus Cathedral
In Kirkwall lies the most northerly cathedral in Britain and the oldest in Scotland, the St Magnus Cathedral. Also known as the Light in the North, it was founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald, the nephew of St Magnus, in 1137. Though it has been rebuilt over the years, there are parts of the original church which are still standing.
Constructed from local sandstone in the Romanesque style of the period, it is the most complete medieval cathedral in Scotland, surviving historical events like the Reformation and natural disasters, like a lightning strike that damaged the church in 1671. The St Magnus Cathedral is a magnificent monument that is a must-see.
Places to Stay
Budget - Self-catering Maydene
This privately owned, renovated apartment in Nether Button on the mainland of Orkney may be a bit of a drive away from Kirkwall airport and town, but it offers private parking and a quiet location.
Mid Range - Lindisfarne Bed and Breakfast
This bed and breakfast can be found near the town of Stromess, just a short drive away from Kirkwall airport. The cafes, shops and pubs are just over a mile away, so you will get some peace in this rural location.
Luxury - The Kirkwall Hotel
Located by the harbour of Kirkwall, this luxury accommodation offers a restaurant and bar, as well as a comfortable place to relax while sampling Orkney ales and whiskeys.
2. The Outer Hebrides
A collection island off the west coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides - sometimes known as the western isles - has something for travellers, whether they be thrill or chill seekers. The Islands are split into six regions - Lewis, Harris, St. Kilda, North and South Ulst, and Barra. For the more adventurous, there are regular boat trips and watersports, like snorkelling or kayaking. For those who prefer to take things at a more steady pace, there are opportunities for wildlife watching, and the white sandy beaches are perfect for a romantic walk or meditative time alone. You can get here by getting a ferry from Ullapool or flying to an airport like Stornaway.
Best Things to Do in The Outer Hebrides
The Hebridian way
For the hikers and cyclers who want to explore the Outer Hebrides, you can do so by travelling across the Hebridian Way. At almost 200 miles, this route takes you from the bottom of Barra to the very top of Lewis, spanning across ten islands, six causeways and two ferries. There are separate routes for walking and cycling, 185 miles and 156 miles long, respectively, going through hilly terrain and passing along views of the Atlantic Sea.
Whether you’re new to hiking or an experienced cycle tourer, the Outer Hebrides visitor website has tips to make your trip more comfortable and safer. If you want to know more, click here.
Isle of Harris Distillery
The Outer Hebrides have their fair share of whiskey distilleries. One of them is the Isle of Harris Distilierry, aptly found on Harris. Opened in 2015, the founder Anderson Bakewell wanted to capture the spirit of the island, hoping to bring attention to the island because of the island’s declining population and the culture along with it.
As well as making great booze, the Isle of Harris distillery seeks to breathe new life into this ancient island. Along with much of the population, the distillery encourages interactions with new faces, whether that be visitors to the island or those connecting online.
Overlooking the harbour of Stornaway on the isle of Lewis, Lews castle has a multi-purpose function, serving as luxury accommodation and one of the many museums in the Outer Hebrides. Originally built as a country in the mid-19th century, the building was used to accommodate a wide range of people, from the students of the Lewis Castle College to a crew of the Royal Navy air fleet during the second world war.
Though some of the apartments have been opened to be used by the general public, its museum highlights the history and culture of those who live in the Outer Hebrides. Entry is free, but donations are encouraged.
Like Skara Brae in the Orkney Isles, the Outer Hebrides also have some well-preserved archaeological sites. Dating back almost 2000 years, Carolway Broch is a structure from the iron age that served almost as an early form of a castle, being the home of tribal leaders while also serving as a defensive structure.
While a notable place, it is not the only place of Iron Age history that is preserved on the Isles. Some can be found along Bosta Beach on the Isle of Lewis. If you wish to learn more, as well as educate yourself on what secrets these isles hold, consider going on a guided tour throughout the region.
Places to Stay
Budget - Heb Way Bed and Breakfast
This bed and breakfast towards the north of the Isle of Lewis may be just over our budget recommendation, but the private parking and attentive hosts who offer advice on what to do on the islands make this price tag worth it.
Mid-range - Brea Lea House
Another bed and breakfast, you can find this one in South Uist. Along with free private parking and an electric vehicle charging point, they also offer a bicycle rental service if you want to explore the island.
Luxury - Hollyburn
Hollyburn is a holiday home in Cruilivig. Though a bit of a drive away from Stornaway Airport, this accommodation features five beds, perfect for a family getaway.
3. Inner Hebrides
Southeast of the Outer Hebrides is another archipelago, the Inner Hebrides. Made up of two island chains, these isles are known for their natural beauty, as well as for their trade, being part of what is known as ‘the whiskey coast.’ 35 of the islands in the inner Hebrides have people living on them, while there are 44 which are untouched and where wildlife roams free. Even some of the inhabited islands in the inner Hebrides have more animals than humans!
Best Things to Do in the Inner Hebrides
The largest and most famous of the Inner Hebrides, you don’t need a plane or ferry to reach the isle of Skye, as it’s connected to the Scottish mainland via a bridge. This is one of the most beautiful locations in the whole Scotland, and is a must-visit location if you’re in Scotland.
From sampling the rare releases of whiskey at the Talisker distillery to climbing up the challenging Cuillin Mountains, visiting the iconic Eilean Donan castle or even taking a dip in the fairy pools, Skye is a locale that is best appreciated in the summer.
Considered to be one of Scotland’s last wildernesses, the Isle of Jura has a permanent population of 200 people, vastly outnumbered by the native population of 5000 deer. If you’re a nature lover, you’re bound to bump into one of these animals. The deer, I mean.
If you want to take a car, you can take a small ferry from Port Askaig. Though if you are driving as a group, you’ll want to get a designated driver when you visit the Isle of Jura Distillery. This island is also a hiker’s dream, as you can pretty much walk in any direction on Jura and find something to marvel at.
The southernmost of the Islands of the Inner Hebrides, Islay is as well known as its cousin Jura for its whiskey. While Jura has one distillery, Islay has not one, not two, but nine working distilleries.
As a popular location on ‘the whiskey coast,’ this is a must-visit location for anyone who wants to experience the full scope of Scotland’s whiskey trade. You can book a four-day tour of these locations here. Islay also has wild seascapes, as well as a great place for birdwatching.
The most underrated of inner Hebridean islands, the Isle of Mull is wildly beautiful, from looming mountains to the mysterious woodlands and lochs. Mull has regularly appeared on TV. First, you can visit the colourful town of Tobermory, which was the exterior location for the Scottish Children’s show, Balamory, though this will be more nostalgic for Scots.
It also has appeared on BBC programmes Springwatch, which highlights the wildlife of the UK, and Coast, a series that details the coastline of Great Britain.
Places to Stay
Budget - Skye Backpackers
This hostel on the isle of Skye offers dormitories at a decent price to recuperate from exploring.
Mid-range - Kirk Cottage
Though it may be a fair distance from the nearest airport, this cosy little cottage in the iconic Tobermory on the Isle of Mull makes for an idyllic location to stay.
Luxury - Aurora Rural Retreats
This remote chalet on the Isle of Skye features seaside and mountain views, making it a perfect place as a hub for your adventures in the summer or to cosy up with your partner in the winter.
4. Shetland Islands
The last set of islands we will be exploring in this guide is the Shetland Islands. While you can reach these islands through Loganair, you can also take a Northlink ferry from Aberdeen and take a 12-hour journey to Lerwick. These islands sit above Orkney, making them the northernmost region in the whole of the UK. Though they may be distant, there is still enough going on here to make it worth visiting, like the Up Helly Aa festival, where the islanders celebrate their Viking heritage.
Best Things to Do in the Shetland Islands
Jarlshof is the name of an archaeological site that can be found in Sumburgh, a town on the south end of the main island. Though it contains remains dating all the way up to the 17th century, what makes it so noteworthy is the preserved prehistoric and Nordic settlements.
One of the most important archaeological sites throughout the whole of Scotland, Jarlshof covers 4000 years of recorded human history. Due to its location, though, it may suddenly close due to weather conditions, so be sure to check the Visit Scotland website to keep up to date.
Located at the southern tip of the Island, the steep cliffs of Sumburgh Head serve as a remote nature receive. With the nearby lighthouse and visitor centre, it is an excellent place to go birdwatching for species like puffins, as the sands above are ideal for their burrows, while the cliffs below make perfect nesting grounds for other birds.
That’s not all, though. Out to sea, you might also be lucky enough to spot some orcas or dolphins. It’s not far either, only two miles from Sumburgh airport and regular bus service between the reserve and the town of Lerwick
Shetland Museum and Archives
Opened in 2007, the current Shetland Museum and Archives is in Lerwick, on the main island of the Shetlands. This is the prime location visit to learn about the history of these northern islands, detailing the history and cultural practises of this unique location.
While entry is free, donations are encouraged to keep the museum running.
Places to Stay
Budget - Iselsburgh House Hotel
Located in the capital town of Lerwick, the Islesburgh House Hotel offers cheap accommodation for those venturing to the Shetlands.
Mid-Range - Sea View B & B
On the Island of Yell, this Bed and breakfast offers free private parking, as well as arranging a car rental service on your behalf.
Luxury - Busta House Hotel
Though there aren’t accommodations that fit our criteria for being luxury on the Shetland Island, the best are the sea view rooms at this hotel outside the town of Busta.