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United Kingdom > General information > Visiting the Scottish islands

Visiting the Scottish islands

Firth of Clyde: Arran

Adventurers might like to try gorge walking on the Isle of Arran. Explore hidden waterfalls, plunge pools and natural slides, or climb up the rugged peaks and coastal crags. For that extra challenge, climb Arran’s highest peak, Goatfell, which stands at 2,866ft/874m. Looking for a gentler stroll? Head to Brodick Castle, Gardens and Country Park - the only island-based country park in Britain.

The Inner Hebrides
 (West coast)

There is a real sense you’re getting away from it all on the islands of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Contrasting landscapes from countryside to mountains to beaches can be found across the islands.  

 Skye  

Enjoy a flavour of the Highlands on the largest of them, the Isle of Skye. It boasts lochs, moors and 20 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft/914.4m) so there’s plenty of scope for walking and climbing.  

With a seafront lined with pretty pastelcoloured cottages, Portree, the island’s capital, is a quintessential Scottish coastal village – enjoy fish and chips on the beach then hire a bike to admire some of Skye’s famed natural beauty while stretching your sea legs.  

Taking a seaplane is one of the most exhilarating ways to see a lot in a short amount of time; the hour-long flight takes in Skye’s rugged scenery from above, as well as The Skye Bridge, the small isles and the Outer Hebrides (lochlomondseaplanes.com).   

Skye has incredible walking terrain, and within easy reach of Portree is one of the most iconic treks: The Old Man of Storr. The ‘old man’ is a large pinnacle that can be seen for miles around; the walk up and back down takes about 1 hour 15 minutes.   

If you have time for a longer walk, take a taxi or tour bus north to The Quiraing, a stunning mountain range that recently appeared on the silver screen in Macbeth , or head in the other direction to The Fairy Pools for a magical waterfall walk that’s a favourite with photographers. Both are approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Portree.   

The oldest continually inhabited castle in Scotland, Dunvegan Castle, is idyllically located, full of history and home to spectacular gardens (dunvegancastle.com). From April to September, you can board one of the castle’s traditionally built clinker boats for a 25minute boat trip on Loch Dunvegan to see the resident seal colony. Dunvegan is about 35 minutes’ drive from Portree. If you have time before returning, take a short detour to Waternish and the headquarters of Skyeskyns, who create Highland hand-combed fleece rugs, throws and all manner of cosy clothing and footwear.  

Key sights on the island include Loch Coruisk, which lies under the mountain Black Cuillin, the sea cliff of Kilt Rock and rock pinnacles such as the Old Man of Storr.   

Mull  

The Isle of Mull is a haven for visitors with a penchant for gorgeous beaches. 

Most ferries dock at Craignure, and from there it’s less than ten minutes by road to the ancient clan castle, Duart (duartcastle.com). Visit its 13th-century keep, the magnificent Great Hall and the exhibition dedicated to the history of the chiefs of the clan through the ages. Hungry? Try the tasty tearoom’s cakes, which are made with ingredients grown in the castle’s own gardens.  

Just over 30 minutes by road from Craignure is Tobermory, the island’s ‘capital’, and the docking point for some cruises. A cheerful town with brightly painted houses, Tobermory provides plenty of diversion with quirky cafés and local arts and crafts shops, as well as a fantastic distillery that’s one of the oldest in Scotland; enjoy a tour and a taste while you’re in town (tobermorydistillery.com).   

Pop into the Mishnish, Tobermory’s favourite hangout for locals and visitors alike. Enjoy a pint of local ale or a wee dram of whisky in snug corner, or a find spot by the roaring fire.  The colourful town of Tobermory awaits you when you dock into the Isle of Mull  

Mull is a magnet to all manner of interesting wildlife. Nicknamed ‘Eagle Island’ by some – it’s the best place in Britain to see White Tailed Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles. Take your binoculars to identify them or, better yet, take one of the many wildlife-watching tours and you may spot whales, dolphins, seals, red deer and the Eurasian otter (isle-ofmull.net/trips-and-tours).   

From Craignure, it’s an hour’s scenic drive to Fionnphort and the striking peninsula the Ross of Mull. The landscape here is sheer drama, with black basalt cliffs contrasting with white sandy beaches. From Fionnphort, take the short ferry to the Isle of Iona, the ‘cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland; in AD 563, Columba and his followers arrived from Ireland to spread the gospel in Scotland and the north of England. Iona’s Iron Age fort, nunnery, abbey and marble quarry give hints about the island’s fascinating history, while the views out from tranquil St Columba’s Bay are a photographer’s dream.  

The nearby island of Staffa is home to the dramatic vertical basaltic columns and Fingal’s Cave, the inspiration behind works of art such as Turner’s painting of Staffa, Fingal’s Cave and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.  

See also nice pictures from Scotland and the Scottish islands.

Firth of Lorn
: Oban
 

Oban is a coastal resort town in the Firth of Lorn. Give your legs a workout as soon as you arrive into Oban, with a steep climb uphill to McCaig’s Tower, Oban’s answer to the Colosseum. The landmark, which was built in 1897, provides the ideal vantage point from which to capture an image of your ship in the port beneath you.  McCaig’s Tower is roughly 25 minutes on foot from Oban ferry Terminal. 

Back down the hill, military buffs will be enthralled by the War and Peace Museum (free to enter), which also tells the story of the construction of McCaig’s Tower (obanmuseum.org.uk). Next, stroll or take a five-minute taxi journey to Dunollie Castle, a small and captivating ruin that was once the stronghold of the Clan MacDougall (dunollie.org). The woodland walks and views out to Kerrera, North Lorn and to the islands beyond provide perfect onshore relaxation.   

Back towards North Pier, head into the Oban Chocolate Company to watch master chocolatiers in action and pick up a gorgeous artisan bar or selection of their curious invention, ‘fizzy drink chocs’ (obanchocolate.co.uk).  

For something stronger, tour Oban Distillery (approximately 15 minutes from Oban ferry Terminal) and have a taste of the 14-year-old single malt, which you’re given with a piece of crystallised ginger – a surprisingly delicious combination!  More into food than drink? You can’t go wrong in the ‘seafood capital of Scotland’ – try the Oban Seafood Hut, which avoids fancy tablecloths and fussy waiters in favour of hearty platters of sumptuous scallops, salmon, oysters and more served right on the pier (obanseafoodhut.co.uk).   

A half-hour drive out of town takes you to Arduaine Garden, an extraordinary 20-acre expanse of flowers from all over the temperate world, spectacularly located overlooking the Sound of Jura (nts.org.uk/Property/Arduaine-Garden). If you prefer sea life to plant life, head in the other direction from Oban to the Scottish Sealife Sanctuary and admire adorable seals, which the sanctuary rescues and rehabilitates, as well as otters, red squirrels and other local wildlife (visitsealife.com/oban). 


 

The Outer Hebrides  (West coast)

Wildlife enthusiasts will be enthralled with the sheer scale of species and habitats that are dotted through the Outer Hebrides. Take a cruise around the Uists, the Barra Isles, and Eriskay, and spot whales, seals, dolphins and basking sharks in their natural habitat, while seabird colonies and gigantic sea cliffs will greet visitors on the remote volcanic archipelago of St Kilda. A National Nature Reserve, these islands are a UNESCO Dual World Heritage site with the secluded islands of the Rona and Sula Sgier National Nature Reserve.  

Getting there: fly from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness to the Outer Hebrides or take passenger ferries from ports on islands in the Inner Hebrides. 

Lewis  

Stornoway, where cruise ships dock, is the largest settlement on the Outer Hebrides and is brimming with charm, culture and history. Visit the futuristic looking An Lanntair Arts Centre where you’re guaranteed to find an interesting exhibition or workshop to participate in (lanntair.com). Fabric is part of this area’s identity – Harris is connected to Lewis – and you’ll find plenty of Harris Tweed shops and outlets to take away stylish souvenirs.  

The Callanish Standing Stones are a must-visit, less than 30 minutes’ drive from Stornoway. The group of almost 50 megaliths dates back to around 3000BC and experts guess they once served as a type of astronomical observatory. Whatever their purpose, the site incites a feeling of curiosity from afar, so wonder up close.    

Extend your trip from the Standing Stones of Callanish, travelling approximately an hour along the north-west coast of Lewis up to Ness, a tiny parish that sticks out into the Atlantic. Stop along the way to admire pretty fishing villages and discover local artists’ studios and galleries – there’s a dense concentration of creative characters in this part of Scotland.  

The Morven Gallery is worth stopping off at for the coffee alone; however do also make sure to admire its displays of wild Hebridean landscapes and seascapes (morvengallery.com). Listen out for the Gaelic language in Ness, as it’s the mother tongue of a large majority of locals. Further north still is the Butt of Lewis, which was mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the windiest place in Britain. It is home to seabirds aplenty, and you can spot whales, dolphins and porpoises from here before returning to Stornoway.  

North Coast 

Shetland Islands  

Getting there: there are daily flights to Shetland’s Samburgh airport from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, or you can take passenger ferries from Aberdeen.  Most cruises to Shetland berth at Holmsgarth (less than a mile from the town centre) or may anchor in the harbour, in which case passengers transfer to a launch for the five-minute trip to Victoria Pier, in the heart of the old town of Lerwick.

Sandy beaches, rocky inlets, heather-clad hills and sea caves – the landscapes of the Shetland Islands are as varied as it gets! Shetland’s northerly location means some of Britain’s rarest plants grow there. The Isle of Feltar alone, known as ‘the garden of Shetland’, is home to 300 species of flowering plant (shetland.org).   

Lerwick, Britain’s most northerly town is home to the fascinating Shetland Museum, which tells the story of 5,000 years of the islands’ culture and people (shetlandmuseum.org.uk). Next door, find Mareel, a stunning modern hotspot for all things cultural, and enjoy the architecture, tea, cake and views (mareel.org).  

The Shetland Textile Museum, housed in the charming Böd of Gremista (a restored fishing station) has more than 500 pieces of Shetland lace, Fair Isle  and more, that date from 1880 to 2015, with daily knitting, spinning and weaving demonstrations; it’s a half-hour walk or short taxi ride from Lerwick. Stretch your legs before returning aboard ship, with a picturesque stroll from the Shetland Museum down to the Lodberries – intriguing houses and a hotel built into the sea.  

If you want to escape to another world entirely, take a ten-minute ferry ride from bustling Lerwick to Bressay and wander around seabird cliffs, tranquil bays and fascinating archaeological sites (shetland.org/plan/areas/bressay).    

Who doesn’t want to see Shetland ponies munching grass before a backdrop of heathery hills? Get your camera ready when you visit the West Mainland, where ponies can usually be seen grazing by the roadside. It’s about 45 minutes’ drive through stunning scenery from Lerwick to the village of Walls, popular with yachting and canoeing enthusiasts. The beaches on the west side are breath-taking, ideal for a bracing coastal walk.   

Take a tour south of Lerwick, down a 25-mile long peninsula to the island of Mousa, home to the world’s best-preserved ‘broch’ – a circular, double-walled Iron Age stone tower (shetland.org/plan/areas/south-mainland). The broch’s original purpose is disputed, but these days it’s a favourite nursery for Storm Petrel birds. You may also spot seals and other seabirds there, and Harbour Porpoises while on the ferry crossing. Continue south to see Iron Age village Old Scatness and the Jarlshof prehistoric and Norse settlement (historic-scotland.gov.uk).   

Orkney Islands  

Eighteen hours of daylight during summer – the islands’ position high up in the northern hemisphere means the sun doesn’t set until 22.30 – ensures plenty of opportunity to explore the 600 miles of coastline, sandy beaches and dramatic sea stacks (the giant 450ft/137m Old Man of Hoy is one of the most impressive) (visitorkney.com).   

Getting there: fly to the Orkneys from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, or you can take passenger ferries from Aberdeen. 

Discover the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, where a mind-blowing 10,000 years of civilization can be explored. From the capital of Kirkwall where most cruises ships call in, you can reach the Ring of Brodgar by road in less than 20 minutes. Once there, get up close and even touch the spellbinding Neolithic stones that form a circle more than 100 metres wide.  

Next, head to Skara Brae, Europe’s best preserved prehistoric village, roughly ten minutes further north. You can see the nine surviving Neolithic houses and step 5,000 years back in time as you explore a replica house.  

Back in Kirkwall, explore the town’s majestic red sandstone centrepiece St Magnus Cathedral; ‘the Light of the North’ boasts some of Britain’s best medieval architecture (stmagnus.org). Visit the nearby Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces – the former dates back to the 1600s, while the latter is a contemporary of the cathedral, and was where great King Hakon, last Norwegian king to rule over the Hebrides, died (historicscotland.gov.uk/propertyoverview.htm?PropID=PL_032).   

With more time to spend, take an unforgettable 45-minute tour of Maeshowe, close to the Ring of Brodgar; the Stone-Age tomb was built around 5,000 years ago and is north-west Europe’s finest chambered tomb (historicscotland.gov.uk/index/places/propertyresults/propertyoverview.htm?PropID=PL_205&Pro pName=Maeshowe%20Chambered%20Cairn). In the 12th century, it was broken into by Vikings – look out for the dragon one of them graffitied onto the wall.   

Just on the outskirts of Kirkwall you’ll find the Highland Park Distillery, the furthest north distiller of whisky in Scotland, and one of the best loved (highlandpark.co.uk). Tours range from one hour to a whole day and all include the vital tasting session. Further south, the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm is a beautiful Roman Catholic Chapel that was constructed by Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War using scavenged materials that were, nevertheless, ornately decorated. Learn the touching story of its creation and enjoy the tranquility of its location.

Read also: -- Travel guide to Scotland mainland.
                  -- Britain's islands.

Source: Visit Britain 2016.


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Find here a travel guide to the main tourist attractions of the Scottish Islands: Skye, Mull, Lewis, Shetland, and Orkney.