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Charlotte Ballantyne February 28 2022

With over 790 stunning Scottish islands to choose from, narrowing it down to just 9 is no easy task!

From the breathtaking Outer Hebrides to the far-flung northern isles of Shetland and Orkney, Scotland has islands of every shape, size and style. Whether you’re looking for dramatic, mountainous ridges, pristine white beaches, an abundance of flora and fauna, Neolithic monuments or picturesque fishing villages, you’ll find it all here. There simply aren’t enough adjectives in the dictionary to encapsulate the beauty of them all!

With decades of experience planning award-winning self-drive holidays, the Absolute Escapes team have visited a wide selection of Scotland’s islands – but it would take a lifetime to get around all of them!

To help you decide where to spend your next island holiday, we’ve drawn together our choices of the 9 most beautiful islands in Scotland.

 

Arran

Often referred to as ‘Scotland in Miniature’, the Isle of Arran has every sort of landscape squeezed into just a couple of square miles. Tucked in the Firth of Clyde, it’s often less busy than its bigger, more famous neighbours.

The northern end of the island has the rugged, mountainous landscapes you would expect of the Highlands, with heart-stopping pinnacles and ridges, the highest point being Goatfell. On a clear day, you will get sweeping views in all directions of the Mull of Kintyre, Isle of Bute, and Ayrshire.

The southern half, meanwhile, has the rolling, green hills typical of the Scottish Lowlands, dotted with small farms and coastal villages. Head to Lamlash for a scenic village overlooking the bay and Holy Isle, a small island owned by a Buddist community, which can be visited on a boat trip.

 

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Lewis

The largest and northernmost of the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Lewis is rich in history and has a strong Gaelic culture, set amidst its natural landscapes. The land is largely moorland and peat bog, which may seem rather barren at first, but we think it has a certain unique beauty to it, with islanders out cutting peat in summer, and many bird species making their homes here.

The most famous site on the island is the Callanish Standing Stones, a Neolithic stone circle thousands of years old which cannot fail to inspire a sense of awe and mystery. There are other archaeological sites to explore, and the island is scattered with crofting and fishing villages where Gaelic is still spoken regularly.

While the adjoining Isle of Harris gets plenty of attention for Luskentyre Beach, the west coast of Lewis also boasts some brilliantly tropical-looking beaches, including Valtos and Tolsta – though as tropical as they might look, the water will still be mighty cold even in the height of summer! The dramatic sea stacks at Mangersta are another breathtaking sight not to be missed.

 

Staffa

Many Scottish islands have been sources of inspiration for creatives, and Staffa is no exception. Poet John Keats referred to it as the ‘Cathedral of the Sea’ and composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his ‘Hebrides Overture’ after visiting. Staffa is truly one of Scotland’s hidden gems.

This uninhabited island is located near the Isle of Mull and can be visited as a day trip by boat from there or Oban on the mainland. As you approach, the pillar-like cliffs that line the island’s shores make for an unforgettable sight that has enthralled visitors for centuries. Fingal’s Cave is the highlight, a magical, otherworldly location, with a naturally arched ceiling that makes the ocean waves sing as they crash into the volcanic basalt columns.

After viewing the island from the boat, step onto land and explore the clifftops where you might enjoy a picnic with ocean views and in the company of the island’s only residents – Scotland’s most famous seabirds, the vibrantly colourful puffins!

 

Orkney

Located just off the northern shores of Scotland, Orkney is an archipelago of more than 70 individual islands, which have a long history of Viking occupation. However, most visitors head to ‘Mainland’ the largest of them all.

The natural landscapes here are wild, rugged, beautiful, and teeming with wildlife. It truly is a nature lover’s paradise, with seabirds, otters and lots of marine life to be found including dolphins and killer whales. For Orkney’s most famous natural landmark though, you will have to head across to Hoy, where the Old Man of Hoy stands tall and proud in the ocean.

Orkney is also fascinating for history fans, as it is home to one of Scotland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – which includes Maes Howe, Skara Brae, and the Ring of Brodgar. The ancient history of this island is steeped in the mystery of a time long gone, adding considerably to its beauty.

 

Tiree

Known as the ‘Hawaii of the North’, Tiree benefits from more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the British Isles thanks to its position in line with the Gulf Stream that blows warm air across the Atlantic. In a country as notoriously rainy as Scotland, this wins the island a lot of points in our book!

Tiree does indeed resemble a tropical haven as well, sitting amidst clear, turquoise blue waters and with miles of untouched, sandy beaches which are bordered by the ‘machair’, the coastal grasslands dotted with wildflowers. The island is remarkably flat as well, with rich, fertile soil, ideal for the many small crofting farms scattered across its lush, green fields.

The real beauty of Tiree is also how quiet it is, with a population of just 600 people. It’s relatively unknown compared to many of Scotland’s other islands, but is popular with surfers and windsurfers who flock here for the peace and tranquillity of its uncrowded waves, stirred up by the westerly winds.

 

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Barra

While all of the Western Isles are stunning, we think Barra is one of the best, located at the southern end of the island chain. Castlebay, the island’s largest village, gets its name from Kisimul Castle, a medieval fortress picturesquely situated on a tiny island in the village harbour.

The beach of Traigh Mhor is famous for its pristine white sands; but also for being the only airport in the world where flights land directly on the beach. If you’re looking for a slightly more peaceful location though, there are many other beaches to choose from, including Seal Bay where, as the name suggests, the island’s seal population can be spotted.

You could also hike up Heaval, the island’s highest point, where you will see the white marble Our Lady of the Sea statue, which looks out to fantastic views of the neighbouring islands of Vatersay, Berneray and Mingulay – which also make for excellent day trips from Barra!

 

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Iona

The tiny, unassuming Isle of Iona sits just off the southern shores of Mull and is home to less than 200 people, but is incredibly important as the birthplace of Scottish Christianity.

It was here that St Columba first landed after crossing from Ireland and set up his monastery to begin spreading the word about Christianity across Scotland. As such, the abbey and its impressive Celtic cross are not to be missed.

Aside from its religious significance though, Iona itself is yet another breathtakingly stunning island. With just one village and very few cars, it’s nearly as tranquil as it was when Columba first arrived. The verdant green land has ample walking opportunities, and just one hill in the centre, which offers incredible views of the crystal clear waters surrounding the island. These waters are also home to plenty of marine mammals including seals, otters and whales, with boat trips available for keen wildlife watchers.

 

St Kilda

St Kilda is unique amongst the islands on our list, in that it’s the only one that is entirely a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located far to the west of the Outer Hebrides, it can be reached by taking a boat trip for the day from Skye or Harris, and makes for a special and memorable experience.

The island was home to less than 100 people, living in the most remote corner of the British Isles, until 1930 when they were voluntarily evacuated to live on the mainland instead. Now, it is completely uninhabited, but the deserted village on Hirta remains, and you can see inside the islanders’ former homes and their unique stone storage bothies.

The island is as wild and dramatic as you would expect from such a remote location, with towering cliffs and a huge, mountainous landscape rising out of the ocean. St Kilda is now only inhabited by the wild Soay sheep population, a rare breed originating from the Neolithic era, as well as many seabirds and two endemic species – the St Kilda wren and field mouse.

 

Skye

No list of Scotland’s most beautiful islands would be complete without the Isle of Skye, surely the most famous and spectacular of them all. The largest town, Portree, is a collection of rainbow-coloured houses located by a harbour full of fishing boats, but there are dozens of other coastal villages to choose from around this large island.

Skye probably has the most dramatic landscape of any of the Scottish islands, from the jagged ridges of the Cuillin Mountains to the iconic Old Man of Storr to the breathtaking Quiraing – a walking trail through a series of geological rock formations (technically a landslip that’s still moving!). It’s hardly surprising that this scenery has been used as a filming location or source of inspiration for numerous movies and TV shows, conjuring up images of magic and mythology.

The Fairy Pools are another popular highlight, where Scottish folklore comes to life as you can imagine the spritely creatures dancing through the sparkling waters. Step back in time with a look at the fossilised footprints of the dinosaurs that once roamed these lands, the only place in Scotland where you can see such a sight. And the cliffside waterfall of Mealt Falls that plunges straight down into the sea below is a truly majestic natural wonder.

 

Discover Scotland with Absolute Escapes

Scotland’s islands are most definitely one of the highlights of our country, and hopefully you can see why they have inspired, enthralled and captivated visitors for hundreds of years. Which one will you choose to visit?

Charlotte Ballantyne

P.S. For some more island inspiration, take a look at all of our Magical Island holidays in Scotland. We can also tailor-make your dream holiday, so don’t hesitate to get in touch for a custom itinerary and quote.

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