Scotland’s Best Isles – A Beginner’s Guide
An Introduction to the Scottish Islands
Which Scottish Island?
It’s one of the big questions that I get thrown at me on a regular basis. With close to 800 islands in this seemingly small little land, the choices are endless and more than a little confusing. An ambitious lifetime achievement for someone like me might be to make it to them all before I kick the bucket, but it would literally take me all my days I suspect. Assuming that that is a ludicrous expectation for most folks, let’s start by keeping it realistic. Here’s a look at 5 of the most loved Scottish islands – and why each (yes each, to do just one would be sheer madness) should make it onto your hit list! Which Scottish island is the one for you?
Easily Scotland’s most popular island, Skye is a colossus for our tourism industry and single-handedly brings in the visitors in droves. For many, it’s the quintessential image of Highland Scotland – moody and dramatic landscapes, generally misty and damp weather and endless, desolate vistas. Hence why it’s been such a regular in films old and new as moviemakers look to take advantage of the tangible atmosphere that Skye unquestionably boasts.
From the Cuillin mountains that make up some of the most spectacular and challenging hikes in the country to the wildlife spotting, Skye is simply the stuff of dreams for lovers of the outdoors. The end of the world feeling at Neist Point Lighthouse, the sheer and total awe you’ll experience looking over the Quiraing, ridiculously quaint little Portree, the impossibility of the Old Man of Storr….Aye, make sure your camera memory card is empty.
Why Skye is the best Scottish island…..Landscapes, hillwalking, wildlife.
Downsides…..Congestion, necessity of having a car, cost.
Whether you have only a fleeting interest in history or whether you are fairly certain that you are in fact Indiana Jones, you’ll want to be visiting Orkney. Nowhere can match it when it comes to historical appeal and it will satisfy every bit of your curiosity.
While it’s an awful long way to go for most visitors – unless you are flying in of course – once you are here you will find that Orkney has everything you need. Largely lacking the ‘miles of nothing’ feel of the west coast, there’s a wealthier feel to Mainland Orkney and there’s amenities to make life on the road that little bit more comfortable. Pretty Kirkwall is a logical base and getting around is easy for drivers and cyclists alike.
Skara Brae, Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar will all certainly be on your list but be sure to add in little gems like the Tomb of the Eagles (what a bloody brilliant name for a place) and the Broch of Gurness as part of your history hunt. I have yet to explore Orkney’s Northern Islands but I also massively endorse a day trip visit over to Hoy as well. The latter has some stunning beaches and great walks, including out to the amazing Old Man of Hoy himself.
Why Orkney is the best Scottish island…..History, infrastructure, atmosphere.
Downsides…..Congestion in peak season, access, ferries needed between the islands.
Do y’know it’s got to the stage I can’t even say ‘Harris’ without smiling. I’m smitten and full-on in love with this place. I’ve been fortunate to see some amazing beaches in the likes of California, the Balearics, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. Harris’ best is as good as any – provided you’re ok with staying out the water naturally. Golden sands, turquoise, crystal-clear waters and mountainous backdrops. Simple, natural, overpowering beauty.
But, obvious coastal gorgeousness aside, Harris has something much deeper in the air. You can read about my outdoor adventures in the Outer Hebrides to give you an idea of the many great walks on offer; pop by Tarbert to see the impressive new distillery and watch the centuries-old process of making Harris Tweed up close. Although Harris is increasingly popular, solitude is never far away and, with North Harris in particular, you can hoof it around all day and hardly see another soul.
Air arrivals can reach Harris via Stornoway on Lewis but most folk arrive into Tarbert by ferry from Skye. While you’ll see the odd committed cyclist, having your own car is close to a must in order to get the most from your visit.
Why Harris is the best Scottish Island…..Beaches, lonely hikes, because it’s my favourite (so far).
Downsides….Access, need for a car, amenities.
I almost put Islay on this list but Mull squeezes it out for its broader appeal (not everyone likes peaty whisky and this is kind of important on Islay). Yes, Mull packs a serious punch in the outdoor department and is a very viable alternative to Skye for this stuff. Drivers and cyclists will have a brilliant time exploring the remote areas of North Mull and the Ross of Mull.
Calgary Bay is amongst the best beaches we’ve got and makes a fantastic day trip from pretty Tobermory. Ben More is a great hike for the climbers and exposes the rawness of Mull – despite its huge popularity you can find endless solitude in its vast stretches of extreme wilderness. As with Harris, keep a sharp lookout for eagles and other large birds of prey as well.
In 13th Century Duart Castle, spectacularly visible on the ferry crossing from Oban, Mull also has one of Scotland’s best looking castles. A drafty place to explore up-close it does always get photographers in a frenzy and is amongst my favourites of our island fortresses. With history in mind, a quick jump over to neighbouring Iona will take you to a place that words simply cannot do justice.
Why Mull is the best Scottish Island…..Landscapes, coastlines, access to Iona and Staffa. The Isle of Mull gets big points from me as a wonderful all-rounder.
Downsides…..Are the landscapes as impressive as those on Skye? Are the beaches as good as those on Harris? Will historians love it as much as Orkney? It all depends where your passions lie.
Speaking of all-rounders, Arran is constantly being referred to as ‘Scotland in miniature’. It’s become so synonymous that it annoys me a bit, surely each stunning island needs to be treated on its own merits? Arran is uniquely brilliant but, yes ok, I do acknowledge the connection. It has something for everyone and unites Scotland’s best assets onto one wee floating land mass.
Jagged peaks dominate the skyline inland, sandy beaches are there for the taking, local food and drink options are endless and there’s even the odd castle to explore. Golf course, whisky distilleries, breweries, Highland Cows, Golden Eagles et al. No-one leaves unsatisfied. Throw in the fact that it’s almost the most accessible of all the Scottish islands and it’s no wonder that that it has such a huge fanbase.
Arran also has a very co-ordinated tourism structure. Businesses work together here in a way I’ve not seen on other islands. There’s very much a community spirit and the proximity to the mainland has ensured a strong infrastructure and creature-comforts that you’ll struggle to find elsewhere. A full report of my latest Arran trip is coming soon, subscribe to the blog for updates as soon as they’re in.
Why Arran is the best Scottish island…..Accessibility, co-ordinated tourism and the fact there’s something for everyone.
Downsides….That same old problem of congestion in summer, when prices seem to rocket. For hotel accommodation in particular, book well in advance.
Which Scottish Island? Decisions, Decisons…..
So there you have it. A brief glimpse into which Scottish island may be the one(s) for you. Standard rules apply – come in spring and autumn if you can; immediately adopt ‘island pace’ (chill out man!); eat lots of seafood; don’t expect red carpet treatment for the most part; book well in advance….and prepare yourself for a bucketload of memories.
Disagree with my choices? Have another favourite I’ve not mentioned? Do tell.