Scotland is a vast country, with a lot to discover, and travelers should be sure to include a few of its many islands in their itineraries. The country has more than 900 different islands, some inhabited and some not, and most can be found off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. Whether you're looking for a cultural experience or to find some of the best beaches around, Scotland has an island for every traveler. From Isle of Skye to St. Kilda, here are the 15 best islands in Scotland.
Isle of Skye
Arguably Scotland's most famous island, the Isle of Skye is vast, with lots to see and do. The island is accessible by car from Inverness or Glasgow, and features numerous campsites, holiday cottages and small hotels. Don't miss Dunvegan Castle & Gardens, Eilean Donan Castle and the infamous Fairy Pools. There's lots of hiking throughout the island, including the trek to the Old Man of Storr, and the small towns, like Portree, are worth exploring.
Isle of Mull
Isle of Mull, located off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides, is a large island known for its wildlife, outdoor activities and cute small towns. It's accessible by ferry via Oban, Lochaline, and Kilchoan, and can be quite busy during the summer months. Be sure to visit Duart Castle, explore the colorful town of Tobermory and embark on a wildlife tour to spot eagles, seals, and red deer. Book with Mull Magic Wildlife Walks and Tours for a themed outdoor excursion.
Isle of Islay
Islay, part of the Inner Hebrides, is home to several whiskey distilleries, including Lagavulin and Laphroaig, making it an ideal destination for those looking to enjoy a dram of Scotland's finest. Beyond the distilleries, Islay boasts an annual jazz festival, several golf courses, and opportunities for fishing, cycling, and hiking. The best time to visit is between April and July, and the island is accessible by ferry or plane with flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The islands of Jura and Colonsay are nearby, so it's easy to do some island hopping.
Isle of Arran
Travel to the Firth of Clyde to discover the Isle of Arran, a vast island with both mountain peaks and scenic beaches. It's great for those who love the outdoors, but it's equally fun for foodies and culture aficionados, who will enjoy Brodick Castle, the Arran Distillery, and the delicious Island Cheese Company. It's worth staying overnight as the island has several high-end, historic hotels, and it's also a great spot for a few rounds of golf overlooking the firth.
Isle of Jura
Adjacent to the Isle of Islay, the Isle of Jura has only a small population of inhabitants. Visitors come to discover the wildlife, sweeping mountains, and extensive walking and hiking trails. Most come via the Isle of Islay, and you can opt to stay overnight in a holiday cottage or bed-and-breakfast, most of which operate year-round. Be sure to try the whiskey at the Isle of Jura Distillery, and hop on a boat tour to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, one of the largest permanent whirlpools in the world.
Iona, a small island in the Inner Hebrides, is known as "the cradle of Christianity" thanks to its history with missionaries. Today you can see the remains of Iona Abbey, founded in 563, and the ancient prayer site of Sìthean Mòr. Visitors to Iona also come in search of its golf, fishing, and hiking, as well as the boat trips available from Iona Pier. It can be a trek to get to Iona, which is accessible via the Isle of Mull by ferry boat. Once on Mull, visitor cars are not allowed, so look into renting bikes once you arrive.
Found in the Outer Hebrides, Barra has particularly inviting beaches. Even the island's small airport is located on a beach, with flights landing on Traigh Mhor between the tides. Visitors can also jump on a ferry from Oban to Castlebay, the island main town. Be sure to include a trip to Kisimul Castle, the so-called "Castle in the Sea," and a visit to the galleries of Dualchas Heritage Centre on your itinerary. Some of the island's popular beaches include Seal Bay, Halaman Bay, and Tangasdale, but you can't go wrong with any of them. Try your hand at sea kayaking and paddle boarding with Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures, a great way to experience Scotland's outer coast.
Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris
Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris are technically two parts of the same island, easily discovered via ferry from the mainland of Scotland. The island is quite rugged, with lots of hiking trails and wind-swept beaches, however there's also a lot of history to experience around the area. The Calanais Standing Stones, which date back over 5,000 years, should not be missed, and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village showcases a traditional village (that visitors can actually stay in). There are many beaches to pick from, but travelers should be sure to stroll along Garry Beach in the village of Tolsta, which marks the start of the 10-mile Tolsta Heritage Trail.
Isle of Tiree
Explore the small island of Tiree, found in the Inner Hebrides, where visitors come for the fishing, camping, and long stretches of quiet beach. It's accessible by ferry or plane, and you will find lots of wide open spaces on the island, which has many historic ruins worth seeing. There are numerous hotels and bed-and-breakfasts scattered around the area, but consider taking advantage of the temperate weather by pitching a tent at Balinoe Campsite (which is best booked in advance). Tiree is also a great place for star gazing thanks to its small population and lack of buildings. Balevullin is a "Dark Sky Discovery Site," but you can get amazing glimpses of the night sky all over the island.
Isle of Eigg
The Isle of Eigg, one of the smallest Inner Hebrides, might be compact, but it is home to a lot of beautiful sights. Whether you're looking for unoccupied beaches or scenic walks, there's a lot to discover around Eigg's coastline. Take a hike to the peak of An Sgurr, or visit Singing Sands, a quartz beach that "sings" as you walk across it. There are places to stay on the island, though many visitors come just for a day. Arrive by ferry from Mallaig or Arisaig and note that you can't bring a car to the island (like many islands in Scotland), so plan to walk or rent a bike once you're on Eigg.
Take a short ride on the ferry from Largs to Great Cumbrae, a small island in the Firth of Clyde. The island makes for a great day trip from Glasgow or the surrounding area, or visitors can opt to spend a few days exploring the town of Millport and the scenic coastline. Be sure to check out the Museum of the Cumbraes, the Robertson Museum & Aquarium, and the Sportscotland National Centre for Watersports, where you can try all kinds of watersports, including kayaking and windsurfing. Golfers will also want to book a round or two at the Millport Golf Course, which has views of Ailsa Craig, Bute and the Cowal Peninsula.
St. Kilda is a remote archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, with the largest island being Hirta. It's best known as the home of the U.K.’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins, which is reason enough to visit. The only way to visit St. Kilda is via boat, and there are not a lot of amenities available, so visitors should arrive prepared and wear study shoes and rain gear in case of bad weather. There is a small campground on Hirta, but most travelers come for the day from the outer islands or the Isle of Skye. Be sure to follow all the instructions posted to help preserve the wildlife and natural beauty of St. Kilda.
Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, features 5,000-year-old Neolithic sites and historic remnants of the Vikings. Don't miss the Ring of Brodgar, the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre, and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Orkney also has great hikes, numerous opportunities for wildlife sightings, and places to rent bikes. Getting to the island is easier than it may seem, too. Flights are available from cities all over Scotland, and visitors can also arrive via ferry boat (which allow cars).
Isle of Colonsay
Located north of the Isle of Islay, the Isle of Colonsay has a tiny population and miles of beaches. Ferries bring visitors to the island from Oban daily, but you can also fly from Connel or Islay on specific days. On the island, explore the Colonsay House Gardens, play a round at the Colonsay Golf Course or walk along the sand at Kilroan Bay, one of the area's prime beaches. Colonsay is also home to several annual festivals, including the Colonsay Food & Drink Festival and the Colonsay Book Festival.
Shetland is made up of hundreds of islands (only 15 are inhabited) and can be found to the far north of Scotland. Visitors come to the islands by overnight ferry, plane, or cruise ship, and then explore the various areas via inter-island ferries, as well as car and bike rentals. There's a lot to see and do, so you should narrow down your itinerary to focus on a few highlights, which could include historic sites, hiking, and boat tours. You can, of course, see the famous Shetland ponies, who can be found freely roaming the islands.