With around 790 offshore islands Scotland is an island lover’s paradise.
In all there are 11,800km of coastline in Scotland, it’s indented coast formed by the melting of ice sheets particularly on its western and northern fringes. If you stretch out the coast into a straight line it would stretch all the way from Scotland to Australia. No part of Scotland is more than 65km from the sea.
Many islands sit within four main groupings: Shetland, the Orkneys, the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides. The largest island is Lewis and Harris (these are actually parts of the same island) and there are a further 162 islands with an area greater than 40 hectares. (Click here for a map of (some of) Scotland’s islands).
In addition to offshore islands there are also a number of freshwater islands, particularly in Loch Lomond (where Inchmurrin is the largest freshwater island in the UK), Loch Maree and Loch Leven.
A total of 110 islands are classified as “inhabited” for official purposes, with 17 having no residents on 2011 census day. Almost 104,000 people live on Scotland’s islands (2% of the total population of 5.3 million) and 50 islands saw an increase in population between 2001 and 2011, contributing to a 4% increase in Scotland’s island population overall. Danna, Eilean da Mheinn, Inchfad, Inner Holm and Soay were each recorded as having just one resident.
Many visitors to Scotland will want to experience the distinctive character and culture of its islands when they’re here – but which one(s) should you visit ? The purpose of this short guide is to highlight some of the islands which should be on anyone’s “must visit” list, whether it be a trip to the World Heritage Site islands of the St Kilda or Orkney, to the mountains and crofting communities on Skye or the wildlife that can be seen in and around Mull, Jura and the Summer Isles.
It would be absurd to single out the “best” islands in any Top 10 list. Instead, I offer this selection as nothing more than an introductory guide to those that I would consider to be unmissable. For those wanting a little more detail I recommend Haswell-Smith’s guide to the Scottish Islands.
Harris sits just to the south of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Its dramatic, rocky East coast is in sharp contrast to the stunning white sandy bays and fertile ‘machair’ soils of the West coast. Whether it’s golfing, kayaking, walking or simply relaxing there’s a great variety on offer in Harris.
Colonsay, together with its neighbouring island Oransay, is one of the smallest of the Hebridean islands, just 10 miles by 2 miles and 15 miles south of Mull. The island is known for its stunning beaches, especially Kiloran Bay, its seabirds and other wildlife, and flora and fauna which benefits from the mild climate ‘warmed’ by the Gulf Stream. Of interest to walkers is the challenge of bagging the “MacPhies”, the 22 small hills over 300 feet in height, involving a 20 mile continuous walk (the record is currenlty 3 hours 56 minutes !).
8. Summer Isles
The Isle of Tanera Mòr lies within the Summer Isles archipelago, just a mile off the Coigach Peninsula in the North-West Highlands. The sheltered waters of the Summer Isles are a paradise for sea kayakers but the island also offers a range of holiday cottages and courses, including painting and writing. Around 5000 people visit the island each year. If you fall in love with Tanera Mòr you can always buy it – the island was put up for sale in May 2013.
The Islands of Orkney – there are around 70 individual islands – are located just 6 miles off the very north east tip of Scotland. These low-lying islands are well known for their beef and fishing industries as well as tourism. There is evidence of people living here from over 6,000 years ago among many archaeological sites, with the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray being the ‘oldest dwelling house in the UK’. On Mainland Orkney the sites of Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae were given World Heritage Status, and these are some of the most visited attractions in Orkney. There are many other sites to visit and explore from Neolithic tombs and dwellings to Pictish brochs and Viking settlements. More recent historical attractions are the sunken remains of the German High Seas Fleet which was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919 and divers travel from all over the world to dive on these wrecks.
Often described as ‘Scotland in Miniature’, Arran is just 20 miles by 10 miles and within easy reach of Glasgow. There’s a great deal to do in Arran, from visiting its villages, castles and prehistoric standing stones as well as enjoying its local food, drink and crafts.
The Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides can be visited either as a day trip or for a longer stay, where a range of accommodation is available. The Rum Cuillin are well known among walkers, while there are many shorter walks too, and the island is a popular destination for sea kayakers. Many of the islands assets have recently been transferred into community ownership.
Skye has been voted ‘4th best island in the world’ by National Geographic Magazine and is famed for its mountains, especially the Black Cuillins, and its crofting heritage. The Cuillins are a mecca for walkers and rock climbers, the 12km long ridge undoubtedly providing the finest range of mountains in the UK. Skye is a popular destination for many visitors, coming to see the spectacular views from the Quiraing, eat at the award-winning Three Chimneys and swim in the amazing Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle.
Lonely Planet has listed ‘going wild on Mull’ in its “Europe – 40 amazing Experiences” e-book which you can download free from: Lonely Planet: Go wild on Mull. It says: “The Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s west coast, offers varied landscapes and habitats, from high mountain and wild moorland to wave-lashed sea cliffs, sandy beaches and seaweed-fringed skerries. And if that wasn’t enough to make you book the next boat over there, the waters around the island also offer the chance to spot some of Scotland’s rarest and most dramatic wildlife, including eagles, otters, dolphins and even whales.” Lonely Planet lists Mull alongside such ‘must-do’ experiences as visiting the Colosseum in Rome and sufing in Lanzarote.
Iona is a tiny island off the southwest coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It is only 1.5 miles by 3 miles with a population of around 120 residents. It is known as being ‘The cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland, one of the main reasons that around 130,000 visitors come to Iona each year. Don’t miss Iona Abbey, founded by St Columba in AD563, St Columba’s Bay and the wonderfully-named Bay at the back of the Ocean, and a short walk up to the island’s highest point, Dun I.
1. St Kilda
St Kilda is the only site with dual World Heritage Status in the UK, for both its natural and cultural significance, and one of only 24 such sites in the world. The archipelago lies 41 miles (66km) west of the Outer Hebrides and often experiences the unforbidding winds and waves rolling in across the North Atlantic. The exceptional cliffs and sea stacks of St Kilda make it the most important seabird breeding station in NW Europe, with the largest colonies of Fulmars and Gannets in the British Isles and the highest sea cliffs (1400 ft, on Conachair). Given the islands’ remoteness it is also home to unique breeds of wildlife (the Soay sheep, the St Kilda fieldmouse and the St Kilda wren) which have evolved over the centuries. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of St Kilda, however, is its human population. A community survived for hundreds of years, adapting to the island’s distinctive character by living on a diet of seabirds, sheep and grain, until in 1930 the remaining 36 islands were forced to evacuate the island owing to disease and food shortages. Getting to St Kilda means a 4 hour journey by boat from either Harris or the new service from Skye.
While it’s not in my list, it turns out that David Cameron is a big fan of Jura and is currently holidaying on the island. Find out why David Cameron likes to seek out the relaxed pace of island life on this BBC interview with David Cameron.