Scotland makes up the northernmost third of the island of Great Britain, but it is separated from the rest of it in more ways than just politically. There is a geological dividing line that runs roughly from the Solway Firth in southern Scotland and along the breadth of this island.
Above and below this line, the geological formations that are responsible for the landscape are completely different. In fact, millions of years ago, when all the world’s landmass was one supercontinent known as Pangea, the part which eventually became Scotland was totally disconnected and in a completely different place than the landmass that eventually made up the rest of the UK.
Why this geological history lesson in a travel article about the Scottish islands? Well, this accounts for the astonishing landscape north of the border that just isn’t seen below it. A cursory look at the map and the topography of these areas shows just how different the landscape in Scotland can be.
Furthermore, closer in nature to the Scandinavian coast than the island of Great Britain, Scotland’s coasts are split into a truly fragmentary array of the islands, which range from miniscule uninhabited rocks to large islands with thriving island communities and a real culture of their own. If you are the type of person that loves stunning (and we mean stunning) scenery, the ocean close by, and who doesn’t mind a spot of bad weather every now and again, then the Scottish islands should be high on your list.
But it is more than just scenery. The Scottish islands have, as just mentioned, a distinct culture and much to see and do. Obviously depending on which island you are heading to, wherever there are people, you’ll find cosy pubs, quaint villages (albeit with a sense of the weather-beaten to them), and a distinct local cuisine, the most famous example of which being the whisky. The islands are host to three of the distinct whisky regions of Scotland: Islay, Campbell Town, and The Islands. For whisky lovers, this is pretty much Mecca.
So, if your interest has been piqued and you are thinking about a trip to the Scottish Islands, then you will be making an excellent choice. However, you have some choosing to do yet! Scotland has over nine-hundred islands, split into four main groups: Shetland, Orkney, the Inner Hebrides, and the Outer Hebrides.
But don’t get too overwhelmed; the majority of these nine hundred are small and uninhabited, and you would have a challenging time getting there anyway! This is not to say you should completely ignore the little rocks (a few of these are pretty popular destinations to visit for the more adventurous) but it is better to consider the main groups and the main islands within each. And of course, you can consult our list below for a bit of help choosing.
Tips for Travelling in the Scottish Islands
But before getting onto our list, it is wise to consider just how you travel about this relatively remote part of the UK. For some of the main islands, you can have your car with you and take it on a ferry, usually over short stretches of water, towards your intended island. Nevertheless, you should bear in mind that driving here is usually over small roads and without much of the traffic infrastructure you would expect elsewhere in the country. Expect to see less warning and visitor signs in the more remote locations, but also expect to find fairly good infrastructure in some of the larger inhabited islands. Nonetheless, do also keep in mind that there are some islands where you will not be able to take your car.
Top Scottish Islands to Visit
So, you are all set to begin your Scottish island adventure. Here are some of our picks:
We’ll start with an island that is familiar to millions across the world as the home of some of the best single malt whiskies in the world. Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and is the place to go for a distillery tour or a whisky-tasting session. The small settlements on Islay also have a warmth and charm that is totally unique. And you are unlikely to be disappointed by the landscape either!
Skye (East and West)
Located in the northern Inner Hebrides, Skye can be large and forbidding, but it is actually a very popular destination and will reward visitors with some of the most beautiful coastal scenery anywhere in the world. Bear in mind though that it is a fair trek to get round it all, and you will need to rely on transport to get around. This is why it’s often split into western and eastern Skye.
The Isle of Arran (not to be confused with the famous Irish islands of the same, though differently spelled, name) is one of the easiest to get to, being situated very close to the coast of west-central Scotland (which means it’s easily reachable from Glasgow). Arran boats delightful stretches of sandy beaches, a local mountain (Lamlash) that is an easy and beautiful climb, and some of the best cheeses you will try anywhere.
If you would like to see some great wildlife, then Lunga is the place to go. Its star attraction is the puffins, which are abundant and, quite frankly, utterly adorable. The landscape is stunning but pretty accessible too, and you will get around quite successfully as you explore all the island has to offer. The pubs and small settlements on the island are also incredibly cosy and you can sample excellent whisky and local fare in the pubs (though there are not many of them).
The most remote island on our list, the small archipelago of St Kilda was, until it was evacuated in the 1930s, the most remote inhabited place in the UK. It is located forty miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, further away than even the Outer Hebrides or Ireland. It is now a magical, and slightly eerie place, where you will find great Atlantic wildlife and the remains of the old, evacuated settlements.
Ultimately, we have scarcely scratched the surface here regarding all that the Scottish islands have to offer. Collectively, they probably represent Scotland’s greatest tourist attraction for those that appreciate nature, scenery, the sea, and a nice little drama.