Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Scotland has an incredible wealth of history, friendly people and some delicious food & drink. Exploring around the mainland is great but did you know it's easy to visit many of the 900 Scottish Islands too? With many that are easy to reach and seem like a world away. Here's what you need to know about island hopping in Scotland and some of the beautiful islands you might like to visit.
Scottish Island Getaways - A Scotland Travel Blog
Island Hopping In Scotland
Getting To The Islands
Caledonian MacBrayne/Calmac Ferries are the best way to see the islands. With many ports easy to reach with public transport or by car.
Onboard there is a range of services throughout the fleet, though these can be minimal depending on which route you are taking.
The new summer timetable for Calmac Ferries has been recently launched. The best way to avoid disappointment is to book your tickets in advance especially if you are taking a car onboard. Did you know you can also pre-book an island-hopping ticket?
Isle of Harris & Lewis
The Isle of Harris and Lewis situated on the northwest coast of Scotland is said to have been a part of the Norse kingdom of Suoreyjar. Now you can see the many monuments and relics such as the finest example of standing stones “Callanish” dating back to 2900 BC.
Harris is well known for its white sandy beaches with turquoise blue waters that you just want to jump into! However, there are quite a few other places that are well worth a visit too!
Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Dun Carloway Broch, or take a stroll along Uig Sands beach and see where the Lewis Chessmen were discovered!
We hired a campervan and drove up from Edinburgh to Uig, Skye then took the Calmac ferry to Tarbert.
If you enjoy Gin, don't miss a visit to the home of Harris Gin. Discover more on a Journey With Gin.
Isle of Tiree
The inner Hebridian Island of Tiree is easier to visit than maybe first thought. Take the direct train from Glasgow to Oban, then the ferry the next day to the beautiful island of Tiree. The island's history dates back to Neolithic times, then from the 6th-century signs of Pictish language and culture have been found. In later years signs of the Viking and Norse settlers then finally under Scots rule and the Clans. Great for walking, water sports, and wildlife. Also don't miss the Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum and Treshnish Isle Exhibition.
A great place to be based on the Isle of Tiree is The Millhouse Hostel, located by the Old Mill not just shrouded in history but many a possibility for wildlife spotting. Keep a lookout for the otters that play in the wheel pool pond.
Isle of Coll
The other inner Hebridian Island is the Isle of Coll. Stay on the same ferry from Oban and go directly there.
The Inner Hebridean Islands are a haven for bird watchers and nature lovers. With Coll being home to Corncrake’s and I was surprised to see a large number of Geese! I believe the three to watch out for are the pink-footed, Grey, and Canadian Goose. During the summer months, you can take a guided walk with the local RSBP on Coll.
Did you know that the Isle of Coll has also been awarded the “dark skies” status? One of the best places in the U.K for stargazing.
The Coll Bunkhouse is a great place to stay with a cafe, WiFi, and good amenities. Why not stay at Coll's only hotel - Coll Hotel. The family hotel run by three generations of the Oliphant family since the 1960s has great sea views!
Isle of Gigha
The most southerly of the Hebridean islands is the community-owned - Isle of Gigha. Only seven miles long by a mile and a half wide and only 3 hours from Glasgow. It is a walkers paradise with the Achamore Gardens, beaches, and historic sites to visit.
Mull, Staffa & Iona
Staying in Oban on the west coast of Scotland? Did you know you can take the Three Isles tour with West Coast Tours? This is a fab tour if you have little time but would like to see some of the smaller islands.
You are taken by bus from Oban across on the ferry to Mull, the crossing doesn't take long but it can be an early start. Mull is famous for its cheddar, colourful houses in Tobermory (you may have also read the story of The Tobermory Cat?) there is also a distillery, incredible local boat trips to view basking sharks, and White Tailed Sea Eagles.
From Mull, it is a small boat trip to the Isle of Staffa, one of only two locations in the UK made of Basalt, volcanic rock! Don't miss going all the way into Fingal's Cave. It is an incredible experience. Also if you are a singer, great for acoustics. On top of the small isle, look out for puffins.
The third and final stop on the tour is Iona, famous for the iconic and historic Iona Abbey, one of the oldest Christian religious centres in Western Europe. The Benedictine Abbey is standing on the site of a monastery that was founded by St Columba around AD 563. Said to be the birthplace of Christianity. The entrance to the Abbey is not included in the tour but it is possible to purchase a ticket to Iona Abbey and Nunnery via Historic Environment Scotland.
If you are planning on visiting more Historic Environment Scotland sites, it may save you money by buying the Historic Environment Scotland membership.
The Isle of Barra is located in the Outer Hebrides, famous for its beach airport runway. It truly is spectacular and a wonderful experience flying into and landing on the beach! The direct short flight to Barra is available from Glasgow Airport. We flew in and departed by ferry stopping off in Oban. The return ferry is a long one (4 hours) but there is plenty of facilities on-board and the scenery en-route is beautiful.
I can highly recommend a stay at the Castlebay Hotel. It is a brilliant location to enjoy a trip to medieval Kisimul Castle, known as castle in the sea. The restaurant serves fresh scallops and is very accommodating with a continental breakfast if departing on the early ferry.
We took the shuttle bus from the main road by the airport to Castlebay, it arrives in time with the flight schedule.
The Calmac Ferry departs a short walk away from the Castlebay Hotel.
The Isle of Arran is also known as Scotland in miniature, with its beautiful scenery. You can easily reach Arran via public transport from Glasgow to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan (train takes 45 minutes).
On arrival in Brodick, Arran you can take a taxi, the local bus, or perhaps walk to your accommodation. If you have decided to take the car, it gives you so much more flexibility and easier if staying on the other side of the island at Lochranza.
The island's must-see and do's include Isle of Arran cheese (one of my favourites is the Arran herb cheese), Arran Aromatics, and Lochranza Distillery (don't miss the Arran Gold or should I say liquid gold, as It is so good! The cream whisky liqueur goes down way too well). If you enjoy walking you might like to climb up Goat Fell. Watch out for deers and other local wildlife. It really is beautiful!
I stayed at the Auchrannie Resort. It is a little bit of heaven with a spa, great dining experience, and lovely location.
There are a variety of accommodation options suitable for all budgets including Lochranza Youth Hostel (surrounded by beautiful views), guest houses, and boutique hotels, such as The Douglas Hotel (located across from the ferry terminal).
Orkney seems much further away and less accessible than many of the islands but did you know you can take a one-day bus trip from John o'Groats? It's an incredible day visiting many of the highlights including Scapa Flow, Skara Brae, and the Italian Chapel (we stayed at the Seaview Hotel for two nights in John O'groats. Ideal location as you can walk from the hotel to the pier). Of course, there are so many other things to see, do and experience. Here are 27 amazing things to do in Orkney.
With Scotland being the host of the climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland last year, it's great to hear that many organisations are making strides in climate change. Historic Environment Scotland we're involved in over 45 different activities throughout COP26, including seven Blue Zone events – ranging from Heritage and Resilience for Coastal Communities to Resource Efficiency in the Built Environment.
Recently launching the Climate Change Explorer app, which focuses on five iconic Edinburgh landmarks and how the climate change crisis is affecting them, in addition, a 3D model of Skara Brae provides a unique virtual visitor experience to this World Heritage Site.
You can also take the overnight Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. There is a wide range of accommodation available to suit all budgets in Kirkwall and over Orkney. Did you know you can also experience one of the world's shortest scheduled flights from Kirkwall to Papa Westray via Westray?
After an overnight stay or longer in Kirkwall head to the airport by car, taxi, or airport bus for one of the world's shortest scheduled flights (under 2 minutes via Westray)!
Papa Westray is the smallest of the Orkney Islands known as Papay by the locals. It is 4 miles long and 1 mile across. I stayed at the Papa Westray Hostel in a private double room (can be easily reached from the airport - by foot 20 Minutes). The self-catering kitchen has all the amenities you need including a fridge, microwave, toaster, and kettle. Allow time to relax in the conservatory with its beautiful sea views. It was a joy to walk the length and breadth of the island discovering its hidden gems. One is the archaeological site - Knap of Howar which dates to 3500 BC (said to be older than the pyramids!). You might also be able to arrange a boat trip to Holm of Papay with the resident ranger and a guided walk across North Hill with the RSPB. There is a small shop on the island for essentials and the locals have a coffee morning once a week (home-baked cakes are delicious).
One of the big annual highlights of the year in Lerwick, Shetland is Up Helly Aa. A large festival celebrating Shetland's Viking heritage (festival dates back to the 1870s). It is incredible to witness the many local men (said to be over 1,000) dressed as Vikings! Each in teams/Viking squads all with different emblemed shields and flags. Then the finale, as the Jarl, leads the procession to the replica Viking Longship, where the fire torches are thrown into the galley. It's never too early to book your accommodation on the island for this incredible spectacle, as many book years in advance! Next year's dates have already been announced - 23rd January 2023.
Getting to Lerwick can be done by either air or sea. There are frequent flights from Edinburgh Airport to Lerwick with Loganair, which take less than an hour. If you would prefer to go by sea, the Northlink Ferry offers an overnight service that departs from Aberdeen to Lerwick.
I took the train to Aberdeen from Edinburgh, then walked the short distance across to the ferry terminal. There are a variety of ticket options from walk-on, reclining seats to private cabins. I opted for a private ensuite cabin, though on the return leg there was none available. (Long story short, the weather got really bad, the ferry was cancelled and the next one was almost full, so a reclining chair was ok).
It was a really memorable trip from the Viking squads to community centre dances and weather/ferry adventures. One I wouldn't change. Are you up for an adventure?
Isle Be Back
I love the Scottish Islands, a world away from the mainland with opportunities to experience, see new things, get away from it all, and create wonderful memories. It has been a while since my last visit but Isle be back:)
I hope you have enjoyed reading and are inspired to visit one or more of the beautiful Scottish islands. Until next time, happy travels:)