(Image: Moyan Brenn; exploring the remote islands of Scotland)
Shrouded in mist. Drenched with rain. Remote. Forbidding. Intoxicating. Even beautiful. There are limitless ways to describe the myriad islands off the coast of Scotland, all more superlative than the last. With 97 inhabited islands, no other country in the United Kingdom has so many offshore territories. From Skye, to Islay, to the Orkney Islands and the Outer Hebrides, island life is an essential part of the modern Scottish identity.
With so many to choose from, compiling a definitive list of Scotland’s greatest islands would be nigh on impossible. So we’re not even going to try. Instead, here is a celebration of 10 of these spectacular islands, from the famous, to the famously obscure.
Isle of Skye (Inner Hebrides)
From the moment you set foot on Skye, its rugged shores, jagged mountains and perfect light will be burned into your memory for all eternity. The largest island in the Inner Hebrides, Skye is like a whole universe unto itself. Great, rolling highlands tumble across a bare, bewitching landscape. Lakes of the clearest aquamarine sit beneath leaden grey skies occasionally pierced by shafts of sunlight. Stood at the top of Sgùrr Alasdair – the highest point on the island – you can feel as if you’re looking down onto a living myth.
Beautiful as Skye is, it’s also sparsely inhabited. Only 10,000 people choose to call this elemental island home, less than half its peak 19th century population. Yet this emptiness works in Skye’s favour. Here you can stand, on one of the most famous islands in the world, and still feel like you’re miles from anywhere.
Isle of Arran (Firth of Clyde)
(Image: John McSporran)
Seen from the shoreline, Arran looks almost surreal. It’s too big. Too mythic. Great, razor-edged mountains rise up from its interior, scratching at the sky. It’s shores are cloaked in a snaking mist that seems to shimmer and twitch. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a mirage, brought on by reading too many fantasy novels.
But this place isn’t a simple hallucination. It’s spectacularly real.
The 7th largest Scottish island (at 432 square kilometres, it’s almost the size of Andorra), Arran gets a fraction of the attention afforded to places like Skye and Mull. Yet it has a rugged beauty that its more-storied cousins lack. Seen, as above, drenched in sunlight, it represents a sight that could turn the most flinty-hearted anti-romantic into a poet.
Rum (Small Isles)
At the edges of the Inner Hebrides lies a handful of tiny islands, jutting out into the chilly Atlantic. Known as the Small Isles, these Scottish islands are widely-considered some of the most beautiful places in the whole United Kingdom. And the most beautiful of all may be Rum. The largest of the Small Isles, it looms over the horizon; a collection of vast, lonely hills that fairly thrum with mysterious power.
Barely inhabited, Rum has a year-round population of just 22 souls – all of them employees of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and their families – who brave harsh weather, disconnection from the world, and a kind of remoteness it’s hard to conceive of from mainland Britain. The rewards, though, are spectacular. Scenery aside, Rum is home to an abundance of wildlife, including red deer, wild ponies, and white-tailed sea eagles.
Fair Isle (Shetland)
Anyone who watched BBC Scotland’s documentary Fair Isle: Living on the Edge, will know that this is the sort of place that can only be talked about in awestruck whispers. Halfway between the Orkney Islands and Mainland Shetland, Fair Isle is a spectacular dot lost in the middle of a vast, unfriendly ocean. A mere 55 people eke out a living here, working crofts and holding down multiple jobs just to keep the remote Scottish island ticking over. The landscape is as hypnotic as the weather is brutal. This is not an island for the faint of heart.
Despite all this, Fair Isle still receives a decent number of tourists each year. So many migrating birds stop off on the island as they follow their routes that it has become one of the top bird watching destinations in the whole of Britain, not to mention the island’s iconic knitwear.
A slice of bucolic charm, floating free of the Orkney Mainland, Westray is somewhere between sleepy and paradisaical. A flat, gentle landscape of farmland that suddenly rears up into spectacular, sea-dashed cliff-edges, the island is home to 600 people, mostly clustered in the charming little village of Pierowall. Inhabited by various groups since the Neolithic period, Pierowall still retains traces of its former masters; including a strange little pagan Norse cemetery.
Little visited, the main draw of Westray is really the overwhelming sense of solitude. Here, at the far north of the Orkneys, you can feel like you’re standing on the very edge of Britain. Look out to sea, and there’s nothing but the distant Shetlands, and then the open ocean, an inhospitable mass of sea, reaching toward the Arctic Circle.
South Uist (Outer Hebrides)
If you’re a Scots Gaelic speaker, this is it. South Uist (along with nearby Benbecula) is one of the last holdouts of the native language in the whole of Britain. While only 1.1 per cent of the Scottish population as a whole can speak Gaelic, here that number rises to 60 per cent. Along with the ancient language, many old traditions have been preserved. For the casual visitor, setting foot on South Uist is akin to stepping back in time.
Culture aside, the remote Scottish island is also stunningly beautiful. Crystal clear waters lap dreamily at the shores, bringing to mind Caribbean beaches rather than distant UK shores. The island’s terrain is mostly gentle, flat, and green, broken only by low houses and the spectacular statue of Our Lady of the Isles. Interestingly, South Uist is also where the MOD tested Britain’s first guided nuclear weapon, the US-built MGM-5 Corporal missile. Parts of the island remain strictly off-limits even today.
Islay (Inner Hebrides)
We couldn’t write an article like this without including the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’. Islay is the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s remote islands. A peaceful, beautiful world where no fewer than eight whiskey distilleries operate, watched over by the brooding mountains of nearby Jura. This is the sort of place where you can amble along winding lanes, through delicate long grasses, and end the day by sipping firewater beneath a late-setting summer sun.
The southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides, Islay is home to just 3,228 souls, the vast majority of whom live in either the capital, Port Ellen, or the town of Bowmore. The rest are scattered across Islay’s lush pastures and beautiful countryside; the lucky inhabitants of a remote island that is as stunning as it is famous.
The Cumbraes (Firth of Clyde)
(Image: Ronnie Macdonald)
Yes, Great Cumbrae is undoubtedly one of the biggest tourist hotspots in Scotland. It’s almost a clichéd choice to put it in a list like this. But there’s a reason for that. Great Cumbrae and its little sister Wee Cumbrae didn’t get to become visitor destinations by being dull and lifeless. Together, the two small islands contain some of the most-enchanting vistas in the whole of Britain.
Drifting out in the Firth of Clyde, in the shadow of distant mountains, the Cumbraes are a model of tranquillity. In summer, they are green, bustling places, surrounded by twinkling water. In winter, they become a pair of romantic, desolate wastelands, rising from the morning mist, their roads and byways picturesquely buried under a thin veil of snow. Although only Great Cumbrae is inhabited, the whole vista is breathtaking enough to make you envy anyone who could call either of these Scottish islands home.
(Image: ThoWi/Eigenes Werk; Muness Castle)
When you go to the northernmost point of Unst, and stand on the edge of the cliffs, high above the churning sea, you can say with absolute certainty that no-one in the United Kingdom is further north than you are. Unst is the last stop. The final point before you leave the inhabited realms of the British Isles and go careering off into the vast emptiness of the northern Atlantic. Only two islands lie beyond this point: the lighthouse-bearing Muckle Flugga, and the tiny outcrop of Out Stack. Neither are inhabited. To all intents and purposes, Unst is the end of the world.
With such a claim to fame, it wouldn’t matter whether Unst was beautiful or boring, spectacular or bland. All the same, it’s pleasing to know it falls into the former categories. Practically devoid of vegetation, sprawling over 120 square kilometres of rising hills and crinkled shoreline, Unst is a place both bleak and beautiful. A fitting end to the vast, wild and near-mythic country of Scotland.
Mull (Inner Hebrides)
And then there was Mull. The ying to Islay’s yang, Mull is the other great draw of the Inner Hebrides, a place that fuses Skye’s spectacular scenery and tourist-friendly credentials with Islay’s peace and bucolic countryside. Running the gamut from awe-inspiring to cosy and homely, the landscape of this remote Scottish island is as varied as it is storied. People flock from all over the world to see this perfect sample of the Inner Hebrides. Few, if any, leave disappointed.
Given all this, it can come as a shock to actually visit Mull and realise just how big it is. Despite being home to only a hair over 2,600 people, Mull is the 4th largest island surrounding Great Britain (not including Ireland). It is bigger than both Bahrain and Singapore, and double the size of Barbados. Even on the busiest days you can easily get lost here, and find a little slice of rugged paradise to call your own.