Scottish Islands – An Awesome Guide

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The majestic Scotland of the British Isles has nearly 900 offshore islands. And no trip to Scotland is ever complete without visiting these glorious Scottish Islands. You will be amazed at the beauty and splendor of the islands that stretch across the North Atlantic to nearly as far as Norway.

The Scottish Islands come under one of the four groups:

  1. The Shetland Islands.

  2. The Orkney Islands.

  3. The outer Hebrides.

  4. The inner Hebrides.

It is a herculean task to visit every island in one go and it is a much bigger task to list the best of them all. It all really depends on your schedule and interests.

As you ponder on which is the best Island to go to on your next vacation, this article will help you understand and give you a short introduction to some of the best Scottish islands.

Scottish Islands
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Four Main Scottish Islands

Here is a description of the four main Scottish Islands.

1. The Shetland Islands

The Shetland Islands were formerly known as Zetland. As the northernmost region of the United Kingdom, the Shetland islands lie at the confluence between the Orkney Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.

The secluded islands are a bunch of hundred islands, out of which only 16 islands are inhabited. The spectacular isolated archipelago is a wonderful treat for traveling between coasts and sea cliffs.

The main part of its population is in Mainland Shetland. Most islands in this area are either inhospitable in nature or isolated. Historically, the Shetland islands were mainly dominated by Scandinavia, so you will find that the people display an interesting mix of Norse and Scottish culture and heritage.

An interesting aspect of the Shetland islands is that a large part of the island is low-lying and treeless. Many of its serene shores hide much of its beautiful beaches, coves, and cliffs. The island is well-known for its wildlife as well. From Otters and Seals to Puffins, dolphins and orcas can be seen on the island.

scottish islands
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The following are the islands that come under the Shetland Islands:

Mainland Shetland

Mainland Shetland is primarily visited for its uniqueness and also for the fact that it is a very remote island. Much of its beautiful location can be visited anywhere between 2-3 days.

You can take overnight ferry services from Aberdeen which takes around 14 hours to get to Mainland Shetland. Otherwise, you can use the ferry services from the Orkney Islands with Northlink Ferry which will be for 7 hours.

Visitors to the Mainland Shetland have tons of choices when it comes to the number of things to do or see. From Archaeological sites such as the settlements of Jarihoh and Scatness to lovely landscapes like the cliffs of Eshaness or the beaches, one will find the Shetland Islands are the best Scottish islands for a quick visit or a lazy outing.

Scottish Islands
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Yell

Yell is known for its wildlife and is the second largest island of the Shetland Islands. It also remains to be the third most populous in the archipelago region. Yell has existed since the Neolithic times and is one of the few inhabited Scottish islands.

Modern Economy due to Scottish control has increased crofting, fishing, transport, and tourism in this region. As the ‘Otter Capital of Britain’, Yell is a nature haven for most aquatic creatures. Bird watchers would love the diverse bird life.

Yell is fairly a small Scottish island in Shetland so you will be able to view the entire island in a day. To travel to Yell, one can use the Inter-Island Ferry from Toft in Mainland Shetland to Ulsta.

Have a superb time visiting some of its notable buildings such as the 17th Old Haa Museum of Borough in Burravoe or spend a lovely time watching the otters by the ocean.

Scottish Islands
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Unst

On the northernmost part of Scotland is an island called the Unst. It is also known to be one of the larger islands among the Scottish islands and is being developed as a great walking destination.

This Scottish Island is the third largest island after Mainland and Yell. Unst is mainly grassland with many coastal cliffs. The main village in Unst is Baltasound which was the second largest herring fishing port but now has transformed into a leisure center and airport.

Unst can be seen in a day. To travel to this lovely Scottish Island, visitors can take the inter-city Ferry from Gutcher in Yel and head to Belmont.

Unst is well known for its stunning landscapes especially from the cliffs of Hermaness and for its beautiful beaches of Skaw and Farmland. Shetland Ponies are another star attraction on the island. At Unst, you need to simply go for a walk to encounter nature at its very best.

Scottish Islands
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Fair Isle

Fair Isle is another delightful Scottish Island in Shetland. It forms a part of northern Scotland and lies halfway between mainland Shetland and Orkney.

It also remains one of the few Scottish islands that are famous for the traditional style of knitting. Fair Isle and owned by the National Trust of Scotland since 1954.

Fair Isle is just 5km long and 3 km wide and the entire island can be seen in a day. All you need is a good bike and excellent stamina.

The island is home to a beautiful bird observatory so do take your time to relish and appreciate the different variety of birds.

The Shetland Islands also have much smaller and less visited Scottish Islands as well. Some of them are Papa Stour, Bressay, Isle of Noss, Walsay, Fetlar Muckle Roe, Foula Island, Buray, etc.

You can take a trip around the Shetland Islands by choosing the best Island hopping tour offered by the Scottish island tours. Enjoy the incredible landscapes and experience the Viking heritage of the destination. There are many ways to explore this region as well.

You can choose to be bewildered by the breathtaking coastline or just become mesmerized by the view from the towering clifftop. The spectacular wildlife is just perfect on the Shetland islands. From seabirds and seals to otters and orcas, you will be enamored by the awesomeness of its wildlife.

Scottish Islands
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2. The Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands is situated off the north coast of the British Isles and is known as the archipelago of the Northern Isles of Scotland.

Scottish Islands
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Mainland Orkney is the largest island in Orkney and is the sixth largest among all the Scottish islands.

Facts about Orkney Island

  1. Orkney is part of the 32 council areas of Scotland.

  2. The locally elected council is the Orkney Islands Council

  3. The Scottish island has been an inhabited island for over 8500 years.

  4. Orkney was originally occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes

  5. In 875 BC it was colonized and annexed to the kingdom of Norway

  6. In 1472 AD, the Parliament of Scotland absorbed the island into the Kingdom of Scotland on account of the nonpayment of dowry to James III of Scotland by the family of Margaret of Denmark.

  7. Local people are known as Orcadians and speak a distinct dialect of the Scots language.

The following are the islands that come under Orkney.

Mainland Orkney

Mainland Orkney is a dynamic island that has a rich history of archeological sites. The land is known for its low fertile grounds and abundant wildlife.

The Mainland is also known as Hrossey and Pomona. Most of the Orkney population lives on Mainland Orkney. As one of the densely populated Scottish islands, the Mainland Orkney is regarded as the largest freshwater island.

You need at least two days to see Mainland Orkney. You have several options in order to choose your way to the island. You can either ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall which will be a seven-hour crossing or you can ferry from Scrabster to Stromness which will take you to Mainland Orkney after a two-hour crossing.

St Magnus Cathedral, Palaces in Kirkwall, Skara Brae, the Broch of Gurness, and the Unesco world heritage site of the standing stones of Stenness are some of the monuments to visit in Mainland Orkney.

Scottish Islands
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Hoy

Hoy is yet another one of the most beautiful Scottish islands situated in Orkney. It totally measures about 143 square kilometers. Hoy is the second largest of all Scottish islands after Mainland Orkney.

The island of Hoy links the smaller South Walls through ‘the Ayre’ which is a natural causeway. Both the islands of Hoy and South Walls are treated as one entity by the UK census.

Hoy has such spectacular views of dramatic cliffs and glacial valleys that the entire island is like a beautifully painted canvas.

Hoy can be seen in a day and travel to Hoy is quite accessible by everyone. Ferry services are the perfect way to reach Hoy. There are various ferries available from different islands in Orkneys.

Hoy has many splendid activities such as hiking or birdwatching. The hike on the Old Man of Hoy Sea Stack Trail is a simple 3-hour return hike from Rackwick.

Be mystified at the Dwarfie Stone which is a nearly 5000-year-old rock-cut tomb or you can climb on the Martello Tower to get a grand view of the island.

Scottish Islands
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Northern Orkney

Northern Orkney makes up many smaller islands with distinctive features and rich history. Northern Orkney can be reached by various ferry services from various islands in the Orkneys. The travel time from mainland Orkney is usually one to three hours.

To travel within the island, you can opt to take your own car, hire a car or taxi or take a bus. Northern Orkney’s famous places to see are as follows:

  1. Rousay – Rousay has dramatic cliffs and extensive bird colonies that simply cannot be missed. As the “Egypt of the North”, it has over 150 archaeological sites that are worth the visit.
  2. Westray and Papa Westray- A historical location to check out at Westray and Papa Westray is the Knap of Howar which is a farmstead that predates the Pyramids. Other best places to visit in Westray and Papa Westray are the Noltand Castle, Viking House, and the heritage center. Puffins are found in abundance on the island and it is fantastic to watch them.
  3. Sanday – Sanday is a low-lying island that is filled with stunning beaches, bays, and dunes. A historic location at Sanday is the Quoyness Chambered Tomb and the Start Point Lighthouse.
Scottish Islands
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Hebrides

The Hebrides are a group of islands found off the west coast of Scotland. The inner and outer Hebrides islands have a long history that dates back to the Mesolithic period.

The inhabitants of Hebrides islands are greatly influenced by the Celtic, Norse, and English cultures and it is directly reflected in the diversity found in its islands.

Interesting Facts About Hebrides Islands

  1. The inhabitants of both the inner and outer Hebrides speak a distinctive dialect that has been derived from languages spoken by the Celtic, Norse, and English people.

  2. Scottish Gaelic literature and Gaelic Music originated from the Hebrides islands.

  3. The Economy of the Islands is heavily dependent on crofting, fishing, tourism, and the oil industry,

  4. The islands have far less biodiversity but a large number of seals and seabirds.

  5. The population of the inner and outer Hebrides is around 45000.

  6. The total area of the islands is 7285 square kilometers.

Scottish Islands
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3. The Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides are a group of islands that is found off the west coast of mainland Scotland. The beautiful Scottish islands are geographically coextensive with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, which is one of the 32 unitary council areas of Scotland.

There are very few English speakers here as the main spoken language is Scottish Gaelic. The following are the islands found that come under the Outer Hebrides:

Isle of Lewis and Harris

Isle of Lewis & Harris is a single Scottish Island found in the Outer Hebrides. As the largest island among the Scottish islands, the Isle of Lewis and Harris has an area of 842 square miles. It is well known for its sandy beaches and is the most famous prehistoric site in Scotland.

Scottish Islands
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The large island needs at least 2-3 days to visit. You can get to Lewis and Harris in the following ways:

  1. Ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway

  2. Ferry from Skye or North Uist Islands

  3. Fly in from Glasgow or Benbeculas

The isle of Lewis and Harris has plenty of interesting places to see and enjoy. The Callanish standing stones called the Carloway Borch and the Lewis Castle are some of its historical delights to watch out for. Sandy beaches such as the Luskentyre and Borve are an integral part of Lewis and harris.

Scottish Islands
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North Uist & South Uist

North Uist and South Uist are fantastic breeding places for seals in all of Europe. Birdwatchers find themselves completely at home here and nature lovers would love the stunning scenery of the island.

North Uist and the South Uist are a group of Scottish islands found in the outer Hebrides. The visitors are treated to a perfect ” get away from it all” experience. All of them will have a feeling of warmth and joy from everyone on the island. They would love to the island to relax, rejuvenate and replenish their parched soul.

At Uist, you will find friendly locals who would love to chat with you. They may wave to you whenever you cross them. The Uists are reachable both by ferry or plane from the mainland and neighboring islands. 

The road in Uist is a single track, so you cannot speed a lot. This encourages visitors to take time and have as many stopovers. Barpa Langass a 5000-year-old burial chamber and the Langais stone circle are the historical places to visit in Uist.

Barra and Vatersay

Barra and Vetersay are Scottish islands that are located at the southern end of the island chain of the Outer Hebrides. Both islands offer a unique and contrasting mix of experiences.

You can land on a beach on the island of Barra and it is the only one among the Scottish islands to allow such a luxury.

There is a strong sense of community created by the people of Barra and visitors would be able to taste the fruit of the labors of the locals.

The iconic Kismul Castle at Castlebay and the isolated village at Eoradail on Vatersay are the places to learn about the history of the Outer Hebrides.

Seal Bay at Barra will let you watch the seals to your heart’s desire. A stroll on the Vatersay Machair to watch the wildflowers is simply divine.

For outdoor excitement, surfing is the most recommended sport at Barra and Vatersay. Both islands are great places to explore the true nature of island life. The Outer Hebrides lets you experience a lifestyle that is both unmatched and unique in its own special way.

Scottish Islands
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4. The Inner Hebrides

The Inner Hebrides are a group of Scottish islands found off the west coast of Scotland. From the Outer Hebrides, the islands will be seen in the southeast direction.

The Inner Hebrides form a part of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited islands. The islands of Skye, Mull, and Islay are the largest of Scotland’s islands with the highest populations.

Most of the population on the island is involved in commercial activities such as tourism, fishing, and whisky distilleries. Crofting is another form of economic activity on the islands of the Inner Hebrides. Crofting is a form of small-scale production of food and land tenure.

Here is a short description of some of the most important inhabited Scottish islands in the Inner Hebrides:

Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran is a small island that can be visited within a day. It is a great island if you would like to see Scotland in miniature form.

To get to Arran, you can choose to use the Main ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick and reach it within an hour.

A gorgeous Scottish island that has Stone Circles at Auchagallon, Machrie Moore, and Moss Farm Road and enchanting castles at Lochranza and Brodnick.

Scottish Islands
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Islay

Islay is often known as the Queen of Hebrides. It is a famous location for beaches, hospitality, and whisky distilleries.

Jura

Jura is an island of wilderness and most people visit it for the wildlife. Jura is home to nearly 500 deer as most of the island is covered by the Jura forest.

Visitors love to hike the Paps of Jura and visit the famous Isle of Jura distillery.

Colonsay

The island of Colonsay is one of the small western isles of the Inner Hebrides. With just 135 inhabitants on the island, it is a great island for beautiful beaches and birdwatching.

Many love to travel to Colonsay to discover its stunning beaches and wondrous birdlife.

Scottish Islands
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Mull and Iona

Mull and Iona can be described as an island for the whole family. With breathtaking landscapes, spectacular beaches, and gorgeous castles, Mull and Iona is a great island known for its history and friendly communities.

The Scottish Islands of Mull and Iona are known to be the cradle of Scottish Christianity. The ancient abbey founded in 563 AD is a witness to this fact as it is regarded as the birthplace of Celtic Christianity in Scotland.

Wildlife cruises and wildlife walks are some of the wonderful things to do in Mull and Iona. Boat trips to the chapel, the Abbey, and the Hermit cell are some of the Iona tours available on the island.

Scottish Islands
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Tiree & Coll

Tiree and Coll are generally known to be the westerly island of the Inner Hebrides. The island of Tiree is referred to as a “raised beach”. Coll on the other hand is its neighbor that offers beautiful nature walks and amazing beaches.

Tiree and Coll’s islands are famous for their great walks by their stunning beaches. The Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum and the Sandaig Museum are part of the places to visit on the island of Tiree and Coll.

Isle of Skye

Among all the Scottish Islands in the Inner Hebrides region, the Isle of Skye is the largest. It is located in the northernmost part of the Inner Hebrides and is considered one of the 10 most beautiful places in Scotland.

The Isle of Skye has become one of the topmost Scottish Islands to visit due to its expanding collection of activities and attractions.

Skye has the best scenery and wonderful landscapes that are sure to leave you wanting more. The Isle of Skye is approximately 50 miles long and has a rich history such as Dinosaur Fossil, Clan Warfare, etc. It is a great island for wildlife such as the White-tailed sea eagles. Other sea creatures include Otters, Seals, Whales, and Dolphins.

Scottish Islands
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Other islands in the Isle of Skye are:

  1. Eigg – Known for singing sands and pitchstone ridge.

  2. Rum- The island is a National nature reserve that has a volcanic natural heritage and abundant bird life

  3. Canna and Sanday – known for sheltered harbor and great scenery. It is the most westerly island of the Small Isles of Inner Hebrides.

Scottish Islands
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Takeaway

Scottish Islands are unique, spectacular, and stunning in every possible way. Whether it is the Inner Hebrides with all its majestic culture of fishing, crafting, and whisky distilleries, or the wild, untamed Outer Hebrides, visitors to the islands will be captivated and enthralled in all its beauty.

The rich history of the Orkney and Shetland islands will help you realize that the people on the Island live in a world created by themselves.

So for your next visit to the gorgeous Scottish Islands please do take the time to read this article to know all about the land that is greatly influenced by history and endless legends.

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