Best Scottish islands to visit: 12 beautiful places to see

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For many people, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands is what they have in mind when planning a visit. Remote landscapes, gorgeous wee villages surrounded by Highland Coos and beautiful beaches that are unspoilt by tourists. The real thing isn’t that far from that idyllic notion so if you’re planning to explore you’re in for a treat.

With so many to choose from, it took me a while to narrow it down but here’s a list of my 12 best Scottish Islands to visit – some are lumped together so there’s a few more than just 12! I hope you’ll forgive me.

Useful links for Island hopping around Scotland:

  • Calmac – main ferry operator in Scotland
  • Northlink Ferries – Orkney and Shetland
    Rabbies (runs small tours all over Scotland – perfect if you want someone to organise it all for you)

Best Scottish Islands to visit on your Scotland trip

The list has come about from my own experience visiting most of these islands over the years and from friends and family’s recommendations too. I’ve probably missed a lot of really interesting and exciting islands too – feel free to add any of your recommendations in the comments!

colourful town of Tobermory on Mull

Mull

The Isle of Mull is the first on our list. I was always drawn to it because it was used in a children’s tv programme that my kids used to watch – Balamory. The real life town is actually Tobermory and it has amazingly colourful buildings that line the harbour – so picturesque. It’s a great starting off point to explore the rest of the island too.

You’ll find loads of wildlife on Mull from otters to sea eagles so it’s perfect for those who want to try and glimpse some nature. There’s also some boat trips to find whales and dolphins and you can even explore other islands from Mull too like Staffa (see below) and Lunga (this one is great to see puffins!)

How to get there:

The main place to get the ferry to to Mull is from Oban which has good transport links from Glasgow. There’s also ferries from Lochaline to Fishnish and from Kilchoan to Tobermory which are more remote but perfect if you’re exploring by car. Ferries are run by Calmac.

bridge and hills on Isle of Skye

Skye

The Isle of Skye is one of the most visited islands in Scotland and as such can be extremely busy. But saying that it’s also immensely beautiful, has lots of things to do around the place and is one island that you can reach without getting on a boat! Perfect if you’re worrying about seasickness.

Skye has everything: towering mountain ranges that beg you to hike and explore, stunning coastal scenery, gorgeous small villages and whisky distilleries to visit too!

Every where you turn there’s a picture postcard view whether you get out into the wilderness trying to find the fairy glen or whether you stay in the main town of Portree.

How to get there:

Skye is connected by road, using the Skye Bridge, and you’ll also go past the wonderful Eilean Donan castle (you know, the one from Highlander) before reaching Skye so if you can go this way it’s definitely recommended. Some stunning scenery and driving awaits you if you do.

You can also get a Calmac ferry from Mallaig to the south of the island at Armadale.

Lewis & Harris

Callanish Standing Stones on Isle of Lewis
Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis

As part of the Outer Hebrides, which consists of a whole host of smaller islands, Lewis and Harris make up the largest of the islands there. They are actually part of the same land mass but each area is distinct and they are treated as if they are separate sometimes. Lewis forms the north and Harris the south of the island.

You’ll find stunning beaches here with sands so white and waters so clear that you might wonder where on earth you’ve landed! It’s normally the cold weather that makes you realise it’s not the Caribbean!

On Lewis you’ll also be able to visit a stunning ancient site called Callanish – some standing stones set in spectacular surroundings. Its one of the inspirations for the stone circle used in Outlander.

How to get there:

Calmac runs ferries from Ullapool to Stornaway. You can also get flights to Stornaway too if you’re tight on time.

If you’re also visiting Skye you can get the Calmac ferry over to Tarbert from Uig.

Castle on Arran
Lochranza Castle on Arran

Arran

The most southerly of the islands on this page, the Isle of Arran is an easy trip from the mainland and from Glasgow if you don’t have tonnes of time.

There’s lots to do on the island from hiking and cycling to tasting the alcohol made there – not just whisky but beer too! There’s also Brodick castle on the island for something a little different to look around.

How to get there:

Arran is reached by Calmac ferry from Ardrossan on the west coast. Ardrossan is 40 mins by train from Glasgow.

You can also get to Arran from Kintyre (yes, from the Mull of Kintyre song!) on the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry.

Skara Brae ancient village in Ornkey Scotland
Skara Brae on Orkney

Orkney

Orkney consists of a number of islands that make it up and it lies just to the north of mainland Scotland. It’s an easy reach for those driving the NC500 or heading to John o’Groats.

Orkney is very different to the west coast islands, flatter and windswept.

You’ll find lots that show the viking past of the area as well as much more older sites too. Orkney is a wonder for those who love history! Don’t miss Skara Brae and plenty of prehistoric stone circles. Fans of WW2 history should check out Scapa Flow as well where you can even dive around some of the skip wrecks.

How to get there:

Ferries run from John o’Groats and to Burwick, from Gill’s Bay to St Margaret’s Hope (Pentland Ferries) and from Scrabster to Stromness. Most of the crossings are short and you can do day trips there too.

Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna

I often write about the Small Isles since friends of ours lived there for a few years and we were fortunate to visit a few times. The Small Isles consist of 4 islands – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. All are very different from each other and all well worth a visit.

Rum is the one I know best and is perfect for those looking for remote wilderness, hardly any people and plenty of hiking. It’s the biggest and has a distinct outline of peaks. Eigg has more of a community and it’s actually a community owned island which is novel in these parts. You can tell Eigg because it looks flat on top. Muck and Canna are much smaller but have tea rooms, shops and some interesting walks.

How to get there:

Ferries run by Calmac sail from Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. You can also sometimes get day trips from Arisaig, just south of Mallag run by a private company.

You can normally do day trips to the islands but as the timetable varies through the week some days only work for certain islands. Always check – you may get stranded there!

Town of Lerwick on Shetland

Shetland

The most northern of the British Isles and with a distinct accent from the locals that might make you wonder if this is Scotland or Scandinavia, Shetland is another world away from the mainland.

It’s a mecca for those interested in wildlife and most tourists you see here will be walking round with binoculars or long lenses on their cameras to get the ultimate shot.

If you’re thinking about a winter visit why not try and head to Up Helly Aa – a viking fire festival held each year in Lerwick.

How to get there:

The best way to get there is either by plane or by ferry departing from Aberdeen.

Islay

If you like whisky then you’ll probably have Islay (pronounced eye-lah) on your list of places to visit. There are a lot of distilleries (eight in total!) on the island catering to those who like a more peaty version of the drink.

If whisky isn’t for you then you’ll also enjoy nature spotting – bird and sea life is amazing here.

How to get there:

Islay (and Jura mentioned below) are a little more tricky to get to than some other islands but you’ll likely enjoy the amazing journey on the way. You can get a Calmac ferry from Port Askaig or Port Ellen from Kennacraig on Kintyre.

Jura Island landscape

Jura

Just next to Islay is Jura and the pair are often visited together. Jura is a much quieter island although there’s yet another distillery to tick off your list if you wanted!

It’s a great island for walking and to enjoy the wildlife – there’s a huge population of deer here that outnumbers the locals! The Paps of Jura offer a stunning landscape – 3 peaks rising from the island.

How to get there:

If you’re driving then the only way you can get to Jura is from Islay (see above)- there’s a small car ferry between the two.

beach on a summer day on North Uist

Uist

We’re back in the Outer Hebrides but this time we’re at the southern group of islands there which are collectively known as the Uists.

If you want to really get away from it all this is the place to come. It welcomes nature lovers all year round with lots of birds to spot, the beautiful machair landscape (wildflowers – a unique habitat to this area). Add to that some spectacular beaches as well and you can see why it’s a special place.

How to get there:

A Calmac ferry runs from Oban to Lochboisdale on South Uist. You can also get there from Harris and from the Island of Barra just the south.

View of Fingal's Cave on the isle of Staffa
Fingal’s Cave on Staffa

Iona & Staffa

Iona is a small island off Mull and is famous for its Abbey which apparently is where Macbeth was buried as well as many of Scotland’s old kings.

Iona is small, only 1 mile wide, cars aren’t allowed generally but you’d probably not need them there!

It’s also a great place to get a boat trip to the iconic Staffa and Fingal’s Cave – a wonderful Scottish Landmark – with amazing basalt columns. You might be lucky and see puffins, dolphins and more on the boat trip!

How to get there:

You need to get to Mull first to get to Iona. There’s a passenger ferry there (Calmac) from Fionnphort on the West coast of Mull. To get to Staffa there are boat trips from Mull and also from Iona.

Book your Scotland Vacation:

Check flights: Skyscanner
Book Car Rental: DiscoverCars
Book hotels: Booking.com
Book Vacation Rentals: VRBO.com

And don’t forget to pick up a guide book!

Photo of author

Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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