White sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise water. Colourful harbours in quirky seaside towns. Sheep and Highland cows grazing by the sea. Welcome to the Scottish Isles! No Scotland trip is complete with a few days of island hopping – but how do you choose the right island for you? Read on for the best Scottish Islands to visit on your next holiday, how to get there and what to do!

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The Scottish islands have a lot to offer – for whisky lovers, long-distance hikers, Munro baggers, history buffs, bird watchers. There is a Scottish isle for everyone and each one has its own special character!

With over 790 islands off the Scottish coast, it can be overwhelming to choose the perfect one for your island getaway. Admittedly, only about 94 of these are permanently inhabited which limits the number of islands you could potentially add to your itinerary – but 94 is still a huge number of isles at your disposal.

The Isle of Skye, Orkney, Lewis and Harris – some islands hardly need an introduction. They are staples in many Scotland itineraries and frequently find themselves on the top list of places to visit in Scotland. Others are total hidden gems – or have you ever heard about the bird paradise on Handa Island, the Dark Sky Park on the Isle of Coll or the 30-mile West Island Way on the Isle of Bute?

On Watch Me See, I always encourage you to make informed decisions about your own Scotland itineraries. I want to inspire you to look beyond the top 10 lists and find places to visit that are 100% you. Every island has something different to offer, so why should everyone just visit the same ones?

This post is a good starting point to read up about different Scottish islands you can visit. It contains a brief summary of all the islands I have visited myself plus a few other ones on my bucket list. It will give you an idea of the different isles and help you choose the best Scottish island for your itinerary. Read on for:

  • an overview of Scottish islands,
  • the best Scottish islands to visit,
  • how many days to spend on the islands,
  • reasons to visit, things to do and where to stay on each island, and
  • how to start island hopping in Scotland.

If you are here for inspiration for a Scotland staycation, also read my guide to adding oomph to your staycation!

Need help finding cheap airfare to Scotland? Check out my tips for booking flights to Scotland!

Dreaming of Scotland? Listen to my immersive travel podcast Wild for Scotland!

Scottish Islands Overview

Most Scottish islands are part of the Hebrides and the Northern Isles, but there are many more islands dotted all around the mainland of Scotland. Here are some of the island clusters that are good to know:

Islands of the Firth of Clyde | The Firth of Clyde is the sea that leads from the Irish Sea towards the River Clyde, between the coast of Dumfries & Galloway and Ayrshire in the east and the Mull of Kintyre in the west. Because of their proximity to Glasgow a few miles down the River Clyde, the islands in the Firth of Clyde are popular getaways from the city – either for a day trip for long weekends. Arran, Bute and Great Cumbrae are among these islands, but you could also consider the Kintyre peninsula here, as it’s so remote only connected to the mainland by a 2-mile stretch of land.

The Inner Hebrides | The Hebrides lie off the west coast of Scotland, a scattered archipelago split into Inner and Outer Hebrides. The Inner Hebrides are located closer to the mainland and include islands such as Skye, Mull, Islay, Jura, Tiree, Coll, Colonsay and many smaller islands in between.

The Outer Hebrides | The Outer Hebrides are also known as the Western Isles. They are the outermost islands of the United Kingdom, the final outpost in the Atlantic on the way to North America. They are miles away – not just geographically but also culturally. Here, the Gaelic language is still alive and thriving, especially on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. Other islands in this archipelago include Barra, Eriskay, South and North Uist, Benbecula and Berneray.

Orkney | The Orkney Islands are located north of the Scottish mainland – close enough, that you can see its southern isles from the north coast around John O’Groats. There are about 70 islands in Orkney which contain some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe – worthy of the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Orkney and Shetland make up the Northern Isles. 

Shetland | Shetland lies about 50 miles north of Orkney between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. The archipelago is made up of over 100 islands, but only around 15 are inhabited. On Shetland, the local culture is influenced by its Scottish and Norse heritage – the islands were colonised by Norwegian settlers after the 8th century, but annexed by Scotland during the 15th century. 

A woman standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean

How to Choose the best Scottish Islands for your Itinerary

When you start planning your trip to Scotland, one of your first decisions will be about the duration of your trip – do you have 5 days, a week or more? You then start putting together your itinerary by collating a list of must-sees around the country – do you want to see cities, spend time in the mountains or focus on the coasts? These decisions have a direct impact on what island(s) might be right for your Scotland holiday.

If you only have a few days and want to see many places on the mainland, big islands like Skye or faraway places like the Outer Hebrides might be out of reach. If most of your must-sees are located in the far north, islands in the far south may not fit seamlessly into your itinerary. Finding the right island is about making tough but smart choices in order to get the most out of your time in Scotland. 

The other day, I helped a client decide how to spend the last two days of her Scotland road trip. She said that she wanted to see something that was different to the places that were on her itinerary until then. I loved that way of thinking! You only have a limited amount of time to spend in Scotland, so choose every location on your itinerary with intention. 

So before deciding on a Scottish island for your itinerary, ask yourself the following questions:

How much time do you have? The larger the island, the more time you will need to see its top sights, attractions and things to do. And the more time you will spend on the road driving between these places. Also, consider how long it takes to reach islands that are hard to get to or require long ferry rides. Skye and Mull have more things to do than you could possibly fit into a day trip. Barra is a 5-hour ferry ride from the mainland, the Shetland ferry takes overnight from Aberdeen – you would only visit if you had plenty of time to spend at your destination.

I included a suggested minimum number of days for each island below (Spend section).

What do you want to do? Do you want to climb a mountain, build sandcastles on a white sandy beach, visit unique distilleries or just drive through some epic scenery – or maybe all of it? The Scottish islands are all different and while some might tick several of your boxes, others are famous for specific experiences. Think about what you are looking for when island hopping in Scotland and which experiences you want to add to your overall trip.

The Do & See section for each island below points out what the isle is best for. 

What is your mode of transport? While many Scottish islands are easy to reach by public transport, buses on the islands can be rare or infrequent. Some islands have no bus system at all. Organised tours and private drivers can be an option as well as walking or cycling. Overall though, a hire car will give you the greatest flexibility – apart from islands that are not serviced by car ferries.

Check out my practical guide to renting a car in Scotland.

Your mode of transport and willingness to look for alternatives can play a significant role when choosing your isles. Note the Transport section on each island below.

Don’t miss my practical guide to island hopping in Scotland!

The best Scottish Islands to Visit

Islands of the Firth of Clyde

Isle of Arran

Arran is also known as “Scotland in Miniature”. It has everything Scotland has to offer on one island – beautiful sandy beaches, lush green valleys under towering mountains, whisky distilleries, standing stones, castles and quirky coastal towns.

You can easily visit Arran on a day trip from Glasgow and hike Goatfell or spend a few days on the island to explore it more in-depth. The Arran Coastal Way is a circular path around the island and fits well into a week-long holiday. From Arran, you can also visit the Holy Isle which is home to the Centre for World Peace and Health.

Arran can be the perfect island to include in your Scotland itinerary if you only have a few days or can only fit one island. It is quick and easy to get to, straightforward to navigate and has tons of experiences to offer!

Spend 1 to 3 days or more.
Do & See: Hiking, Castles, Beaches, Whisky Distillery, Standing Stones
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tour, Walking/Cycling
Stay at Lochranza Youth Hostel [£], Glenartney B&B [££], Ormidale Hotel [££], Auchrannie Resort [£££] in Brodick.
Plan your trip: Do a 3-Day Tour to Arran with Rabbie’s, or visit to Climb Goatfell on a Day Trip from Glasgow

Isle of Bute

Once a super popular seaside getaway for families of the Glasgow area, the Isle of Bute has fallen off people’s radar a little lately. Yet, there is a lot to do, so let’s bring it back, shall we? 

Bute is extremely easy to reach by public transport with a Rail & Sail ticket from Glasgow Central station. Once the ferry docks in Rothesay, you can navigate the island by bus or by walking the West Island Way – a 30-mile long-distance trail looping around the south and the north of the island.

The walk takes around 2-3 days to complete, but you can fill a third or fourth day on the island with visiting the 19th-century mansion Mount Stuart or exploring the beaches and bays on Bute’s west coast.

Spend 1 to 3 days or more.
Do & See: Hiking, Heritage Sites, Beaches
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tour, Walking/Cycling
Stay at Ardyne Guest House [££], Ivybank Villa [£££] in Rothesay or wild camp at Glencallum Bay.
Plan your trip: Hiking the West Island Way on the Isle of Bute

The Inner Hebrides

Isle of Mull & Isles of Iona, Staffa, Ulva and Treshnish Isles

The Isle of Mull is a powerhouse of an island. It is easy to reach and even easier to include in most Scotland itineraries due to its ferry connection with the coastal town of Oban, which many people visit for its seafood and coastal scenery. 

Mull is a paradise for outdoor lovers – Ben More is the only island Munro outside of Skye, there are numerous beaches and coastal walks, the island is suitable for cycling and sometimes you can even see Golden Eagles soar high above in the sky. There is also a distillery in Tobermory – a town that will win you over with its colourful waterfront – and the ruins of Castle Duart south of Craignure. 

But it does not stop there. Mull is surrounded by a plethora of smaller islands which are all within easy reach from Mull. A small boat brings you across to the privately owned Isle of Ulva which is great for walking. Further west, you can visit the Isle of Iona which was once the spiritual centre of Scotland – you can visit the ruins of the medieval Benedictine Abbey and Augustinian Nunnery here. Further offshore, but well worth the adventure lie the Isle of Staffa with its iconic Fingal’s Cave and the Treshnish Isles which are a paradise for wildlife watching. 

If you add a few days in Oban, you can even visit more islands on day trips, such as the Isles of Kerrera, Lismore and Seil. 

Spend 3 nights or more.
Do & See: Hiking, Boat Trips, Coastal Towns, Nature, Beaches
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tour, Cycling
Stay at Craignure Bunkhouse [£], Western Isles Hotel [££], Glengorm Castle Hotel [£££].
Plan your trip: 10 Things to do on the Isle of Mull, A Boat Tour to Iona, Staffa & Lunga

You might also like: 20 Beautiful Towns to Visit in Scotland

Isles of Islay & Jura

The Isles of Islay and Jura are neighbours, yet very different. The only way to get to Jura is via Islay though, so if you plan to visit one, you might as well see the other too! 

Islay is famous all over the world for its peated whiskies and you can visit a proud number of 9 (!) distilleries here! From the big three of the Whisky Coast (Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig) to the distilleries in northern Islay, all are open to the public and offer guided tours. Between drams, you can go for walks, spot wildlife along the coasts and visit historic sites such as Finlaggan.

Jura is Islay’s hilly neighbour to the north. A small ferry runs between the two across the Sound of Islay. While the local Isle of Jura whisky distillery is open for tours, the majority of visitors come to enjoy endless walking and hiking on the island. The Paps of Jura dominate the scenery rising to over 2,500 ft. It is a walker’s paradise!

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Whisky Distilleries, Beaches, Hiking
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tour, Cycling
Stay at Glenegedale House B&B near Port Ellen or Allandale B&B in Bowmore
Plan your trip: Attend the Islay Whisky Festival, do a 4-Day Tour to Islay with Rabbie’s, or book Unique Experiences on Islay, Jura & Colonsay
My friend Kay from The Chaotic Scot has put together a handy guide for the Isle of Jura.

You might also like: 14 Romantic Getaways in Scotland

Isle of Colonsay

The Isle of Colonsay is an absolute gem. Located halfway between Mull and Islay, it can be reached by ferry from Oban or Port Askaig on Islay. Since neither connection is daily, it is an island to visit if you want to experience the true meaning of island life – secluded, off the beaten track and close-knit. The local community is super welcoming and the island has plenty to offer. 

Colonsay is an island for outdoor lovers and beach babes. Aside from the famous Kiloran Bay, there are many other stunning sandy beaches, such as Balnahard Bay. The island is covered in McPhies – “mountains” over 300 ft – which can be bagged in much the same manner as Munros. The island community meets once a week to clean a different area of the island, thus keeping it pristine and beautiful. 

An absolute highlight of any trip to Colonsay is a day trip to Oronsay which can be reached on foot or by bike, but only at low tide when the water is low enough to cross over.

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Beaches, Nature, Island Community, Food
Transport: Rental Car, Cycling
Stay at Colonsay Hotel [££], Gin Lover’s Retreat [££]
Plan your trip: Unique Experiences on Islay, Jura & Colonsay

Isle of Coll

The Isle of Coll is an off the beaten track paradise in the Inner Hebrides. Located north of Tiree and about halfway between Oban and the Outer Hebrides, it takes a while to get here, but it is worth every minute you spend on the ferry (2.5 hours).

At first glance, it looks like there is not much to do on Coll – there is only one village, one restaurant, no notable castles or museums (although you can visit the 14th-century Old Breachacha Castle), or any famous walking trails. However, in a way that is exactly the appeal – Coll is the kind of place where you can visit to shut off, find some peace and finally relax!

Of course, dig deeper and you will find plenty to do. Join a boat tour to the Cairns of Coll, eat the best seafood (or vegan food) at the Coll Hotel, learn about the local wildlife at the Community Centre or do a stargazing workshop – the Isle of Coll is a Dark Sky Park after all! The night skies are almost impossible to beat. You could spend a day or a week and not get bored by the sweet island life!

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Beaches, Nature, Boat Trips, Food
Transport: Rental Car, Cycling
Stay at The Coll Bunkhouse [£], Tigh Na Mara Guesthouse [££], The Coll Hotel [£££]
Plan your trip: 5 Things to do on the Isle of Coll

Isle of Tiree

Not many islands are simultaneously off the beaten track, far away from the mainland bustle AND easy to do on a day trip from Glasgow. The Isle of Tiree manages to be all of these!

A Day Trip to Tiree | Take a morning flight from Glasgow to Tiree and be there within an hour – your hire bike is already waiting for you. Spend the day cycling around the flat, but beautiful island, explore the beaches and pick up hand-made ceramics. Then head back to the airport, drop off your bike and head back to Glasgow. It’s as easy as that. 

Of course, Tiree is worth a longer stay too and you can bring your own (rental) car across by ferry from Oban. The island is known for its large amount of sunshine hours, its flat and bike-friendly roads and its wind which makes for perfect (wind-) surfing conditions. I found myself a remote beach, pitched my tent next to a herd of coos and woke up to the most beautiful sunrise over “my” bay.

Hitching a ride with a private boat operator like IsleGO, you can be picked up from Tiree and continue island hopping to Coll.

Spend 1 day or more.
Do & See: Cycling, (Wind-)Surfing, Beaches
Transport: Airplane, Cycling, Public Transport, Rental Car
Stay at Mannal House

Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye needs no introduction. It is the most popular island off the Scottish west coast and attracts more visitors than all other Scottish Isles. It is the largest island so close to the mainland and can easily be reached via the Skye Bridge or the ferry between Armadale and Mallaig on the mainland. 

It offers a lot of different experiences – from the iconic landscapes of the Quiraing, the Fairy Glen and the Fairy Pools, which are things of Instagram dreams, to the challenging peaks of the Cuillin mountains, castles in Dunvegan and Armadale, coastal walks and beaches, tidal island walks and quirky harbour towns. You name it.

However, Skye is not always the best choice for everyone. It can get busy during the summer, so it is harder to get off the beaten track, and accommodation prices are soaring. If you only have a few days in Scotland, Skye is a long drive away and with only one or even two days, you have to make tough choices of which sites to fit into your itinerary. A trip to Skye should be planned with intention.

Spend at least 3 days on the island.
Do & See: Scenic Road Trips, Castles, Hiking, Outdoor Activities
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tour, Public Transport
Stay at Portree Youth Hostel [£], Creagorry Skye B&B [££], Hotel Eilean Iarmain [££], Cuillin Hills Hotel [£££]
Plan your trip: 30+ Things to do on the Isle of Skye, The Ultimate Isle of Skye Itinerary for 1 to 4 Days

The Small Isles: Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna

The Small Isles are a group of four islands just south of Skye. They can be reached by ferry from Mallaig on the mainland, however, note that visitors are not permitted to bring their own vehicles across to any of these islands. 

Naturally, the Small Isles are a hiker’s paradise. The gives it away – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna are small islands and thus fairly easy to navigate on foot or by bike. Each island has a handful of accommodation options including campsites and mountain bothies. 

If you are looking for an adventure in the wilderness, I cannot recommend the Isle of Rum enough. There is plenty to do to fill a weekend – hiking, bouldering, sandy beaches, watching the local deer herds, visiting Kinloch Castle and joining the local community at the village centre. 

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Hiking, Nature, Bothying, Wildlife Watching
Transport: Ferry from Mallaig, Walking & Cycling on the islands.
Stay at Kinloch Village Campsite [£], Rum Bunkhouse [£], Ivy Cottage Guest House [££] on the Isle of Rum.
Plan your trip: A Weekend Travel Guide to the Isle of Rum, A travel guide for the Isle of Canna

The Outer Hebrides

Barra & Vatersay

The Isles of Barra and Vatersay are the southernmost islands in the Outer Hebrides. Barra is a 5-hour ferry ride from Oban, so it requires quite a commitment to reach it. However, there are also direct flights to the island, making use of a beach as the runway at low-tide – it is the only scheduled flight in the world that lands on a beach!

Barra and Vatersay are great for hiking and other outdoor activities such as snorkelling, boat trips, kayaking and cycling. Cycling is indeed a great way to get around these two islands and reach some of the hidden beaches and bays around them. Vatersay and Barra are connected by a causeway which makes travel between them super easy.

Many visitors set out from Vatersay to complete the Hebridean Way on foot or by bike, a long-distance adventure that crosses 10 islands from the south to the north of the Outer Hebrides. 

The islands are off the beaten track, but offer a variety of accommodation and are thus a great starting point for island hopping around the Outer Hebrides or for some time away from the bustle of the mainland.

Spend 3 days or more (unless as part of the Hebridean Way).
Do & See: Beaches, Hiking, Sea Kayaking, Walking/Cycling the Hebridean Way
Transport: Rental Car, Cycling, Guided Tour
Stay at Dunard Hostel [£], Croft 183 [£], Castlebay Hotel [££], Isle of Barra Beach Hotel [£££], all on Barra.
Plan your trip: Visit Barra & Vatersay on the Hebridean Way

Uist: Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray

The central cluster of islands in the Outer Hebrides is made up of Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Grimsay. Berneray and a large number of smaller islands off their shores.

The major islands are connected by causeways and there are ferries between Eriskay and Barra in the south and Berneray and Harris in the north. In addition, Lochboisdale on South Uist and Lochmaddy on North Uist are connected by ferry to the mainland and the Isle of Skye respectively. All this makes it super easy to plan an island hopping itinerary including Uist – you just need enough time!

The islands of Uist are incredibly diverse and offer various different landscapes to explore – from the Machair flower meadows on the west coast to the mountains of northern South Uist, the moorlands and archipelagos on the east coasts of Benbecula and North Uist. Beach lovers and hill-walkers can enjoy endless holidays on these islands, but history buffs will also enjoy the wealth of historic sites ranging from stone circles to Jacobite sites connected to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Beaches, Standing Stones, History
Transport: Rental Car, Walking/Cycling on the Hebridean Way
Stay at Howmore Gatliff Hostel [£] on South Uist; Moorcroft Holidays [£], Dark Island Hotel [££] on Benbecula; Langass Lodge [£££] on North Uist; John’s Bunkhouse [£] on Bernerary.
Plan your trip: A travel guide for the islands of Uist

Isles of Lewis & Harris

Despite sharing one landmass, Lewis and Harris are considered to be two islands and they could not look more different.

Harris, at the southern end, is dominated by tall mountains towering over its famous white sandy beaches on the west coast and isolated rocky landscapes on the east coast. The beaches are a major draw for most visitors – Luskentyre, Horbabost, Seilebost, Borve and Husinish are hard to beat when it comes to beauty and they are dotted with campsites. Many day trips to St Kilda leave from Harris (more below) and the Golden Road makes for an epic circular road trip starting in the small town of Tarbet. There are buses on Harris, but the easiest way to get around and reach the far-flung corners of the island is by rental car.

Lewis on the other end is much flatter than Harris and has an equal amount of cultural and natural sites that draw in visitors. The Callanish Standing Stones barely need an introduction, but on Lewis you can also visit a blackhouse village museum, lighthouses, historic brochs, peat fields and paradise beaches. Smaller islands such as Great Bernera are linked to Lewis via causeways, so you can tick off even more isles in one trip. The capital of the Outer Hebrides – the quirky town of Stornoway – is a great home base with plenty of shops and restaurants and opportunities to join guided island tours or boat trips to neighbouring archipelagos for wildlife watching.

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Standing Stones, Beaches, History, Hiking, Boat Trips, Gin Distillery
Transport: Rental Car, Public Transport, Walking/Cycling on the Hebridean Way
Stay at Vigadale House [££] on Harris; Heb Hostel [£], Stornoway B&B [££] on Lewis.
Plan your trip: 10 Things to do on the Isle of Lewis

St Kilda

St Kilda is a double UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected for its unique cultural history and precious seabird colonies. It is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is used as a military base by the British Ministry of Defense – but the two co-exist in harmony. 

The island is an absolute bucket list destination for anyone who is interested in UNESCO World Heritage sites and remote islands in the middle of nowhere. St Kilda lies 50 miles off the shores of the Outer Hebrides and it takes about 3 hours on a speed boat to reach it from Leverburgh on Harris. Tours are correspondingly expensive (over £200 per person), but if you love bird-watching and dramatic sea stacks and cliffs, it is worth every penny.

Spend 1 day.
Do & See: Birdwatching, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Transport: Organised Boat Trip
Stay at Am Bothan Bunkhouse [£] on Harris near the pier.
Plan your trip: How to do a Day Trip to St Kilda

Northern Isles


The Orkney Islands lie just off the coast of northern Scotland, only 10 miles from the Scottish mainland at its closest point. The archipelago is made up of around 70 islands, but only about 20 are inhabited. The largest island in Orkney is simply known as the Mainland and is a great home base for an island-hopping adventure around Orkney. 

You could easily combine a road trip on the North Coast 500 with a few days on Orkney. If you time the ferries right, you can even see a lot with just one night on Orkney – however, I recommend taking it slow and spending at least a couple of days to take in the different experiences Orkney has to offer.

Orkney has a large number of Neolithic sites and Viking heritage which influences the local culture. Together, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, the chambered cairn of Maeshowe and the Neolithic village of Skara Brae form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there is more, from idyllic coastal walks to dramatic sea cliffs, an arts & craft trail, whisky distilleries and significant wartime history, Orkney will not disappoint you.

Other popular islands in the archipelago include Hoy and Westray which can be reached by ferry. From Westray you can board the world’s shortest scheduled flight to Papa Westray – it takes only 90 seconds.

Spend 2 days or more.
Do & See: Viking History, Standing Stones, Cliffs & Wildlife
Transport: Rental Car, Guided Tours
Stay at Kirkwall Youth Hostel [£], The Orkney Hotel [££], The Shore Hotel [££] in Kirkwall.
Plan your trip: My Orkney Travel Guide, tips for the Orkney Folk Festival  


Shetland is Scotland’s outpost in the North Atlantic. Located some 50 miles north of Orkney and 170 miles south of the Faroe Islands, this archipelago is as far out there as you can go in Scotland. You can fly to Shetland and hire a car there, or bring everything you need across on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen. 

The Shetland Islands share a rich medieval history with Scandinavia, thanks in particular due to the Norwegian Viking kings who colonised the islands. This heritage can be seen and felt at sites and museums all over Shetland and culminated in the annual Up Helly Aa traditions, with the biggest and most famous celebration at the Lerwick fire festival.

The islands are sparsely populated and offer a plethora of stunning beaches (check St Ninian’s), coastal scenery (road trip around the Northmavine peninsula) and wildlife encounters (visit the Hermaness National Nature Reserve on the Isle of Unst). You can also go sea kayaking, horse-back riding or meet artists along Shetland’s craft trail.

Spend 3 days or more.
Do & See: History, Beaches, Wildlife Watching
Transport: Rental Car.
Stay at Islesburgh Youth Hostel [£], The Lerwick Hotel [££] in Lerwick, Sumburgh Hotel [££] on Mainland, or stay at the Bressay, Sumburgh or Eshaness Lighthouses [£££].
Plan your trip” Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival: Up Helly Aa, Tips for Visiting Shetland During Winter, Artists on the Shetland Craft Trail

Other Scottish Islands

Handa Island

Handa Island is a small island off the Scottish north-west coast that should easily fit into your North Coast 500 itinerary. Located only a few hundred metres from the mainland, it takes some effort to get to – there is only one small boat operating as a passenger ferry to Handa from Tarbet, which lies at the end of a winding single track road. The crossing takes only 15 minutes and once you land on the white sandy beach, you might be greeted with the words ‘Welcome to Paradise’.

Handa is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and in the summer it is home to thousands of seabirds – from a small colony of puffins to huge numbers of razorbills, gannets and guillemots who raise their chicks on the dramatic sea cliffs of the island. There are also skuas nesting in the grassland and a plethora of bunnies and insects to discover. 

Once on the island, you can follow the circular trail around the main sites of interest, watch wildlife or have a picnic at a remote beach overlooking the mountains of the mainland. Handa is the perfect place for a half-day or day trip off the beaten path.

Spend 1/2 to 1 day.
Do & See: Birdwatching, Walking, Beaches, Nature
Transport: Car to Handa Ferry, walking on Handa.
Stay at Scourie Hotel [££] – a 15-minute drive from Handa Ferry; Kylesku B&B [££] – a 30-minute drive; Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel [£] – a 1-hour drive. 
Plan your trip: A Day Trip to Handa Island on the NC500

Isle of May

The Isle of May is one of the best places to see puffins in Scotland and is home to a colony of over 120,000 individuals! From mid-April to mid-August you are guaranteed to see these beautiful birds on the island – and the best thing? You can visit on a day trip from Edinburgh!

Boats to the Isle of May leave from North Berwick – a 30-minute train journey from Edinburgh – as well as from Anstruther in Fife, which takes a little more effort to get to, but is a perfect home base to explore the East Neuk of Fife, including the fishing villages of Crail and Pittenweem as well as St Andrews.

You can choose from different boat itineraries, but most include a landing on the Isle of May where a network of trails brings you up close with the local wildlife.

Spend 1/2 to 1 day.
Do: Birdwatching – Puffins!, Walking, Nature
Transport: Organised Boat Trip
Stay in Murray Library Hostel [£], The Waterfront Hotel [££],  The Bank Hotel [£££] in Anstruther; Nether Abbey Hotel [££] in North Berwick. You can also join a boat from North Berwick when you stay in Edinburgh.
Plan your trip” A Day Trip to see Puffins on the Isle of May on Funky Ellas Travel

You might also like: The Best Places for Wildlife Watching in Scotland

Island Hopping in Scotland

Island hopping is the art of combining multiple islands in one trip. Some Scottish islands, such as the Outer Hebrides, the Small Isles or the southern Hebrides lend themselves to multi-island itineraries, while others such as the Isle of Coll or Shetland are harder to combine with other islands. 

I am working on a separate post about the logistics of planning island hopping in Scotland, but in brief, make sure you choose islands that are located in proximity of one another, prepare to be flexible in terms of transport – it can be easier and much cheaper without a car – and most importantly bring enough time to give each island the attention it deserves.

Check out my island hopping itineraries for the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides (incl. Skye) to plan a trip to several Scottish isles.

As you can see, the Scottish islands have a lot to offer and different islands cater to different travellers with a vast variety of expectations and interests. There are so many isles to choose from, it would be a shame if you just blindly followed the crowds, instead of choosing the best Scottish islands to visit for your perfect holiday. 

I hope that this list gave you an overview of what each Scottish island has to offer and which islands can fulfil what you are looking for. 

If you need help in deciding on your itinerary or struggle to find a way to fit more islands into your itinerary, consider booking me as your itinerary planner – my Scotland Travel Consultation services offer a variety of ways that can help you plan a trip to Scotland that is 100% you!

Now tell me, do you have a favourite Scottish island?

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9 thoughts on “The Best Scottish Islands to Visit on your Scotland Trip

  1. Beth says:

    I’m considering planning a trip to Scotland next April (if the pandemic situation allows). I’ve been to Scotland twice before, but haven’t been to any of the islands. I’m probably looking at 5 days at most to travel within Scotland- and would be fine spending pretty much all of that on an island/a couple of islands (I’ve seen quite a bit of the mainland already). Are there any islands that you’d recommend in mid-April over the others?

    • Kathi says:

      Depending on when you travel exactly (early or late April), I would probably choose an island with a shorter ferry crossing early in the month (when the weather can still be quite wintery and disrupt ferry services), or one where you can see puffins if you travel later in the month (they arrive towards the end of April). Other than that, the west coast is your oyster 🙂

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  4. Leona Gear says:

    Your Orkney and Shetland sections are too short. Shetland is made up of over 100 islands, 14 inhabited. Orkney also has many islands, you covered uninhabited St Kilda in it’s own section but left out Foula (used as Hirta in the film the Edge of the World) and Fair Isle. Orkney has the Churchill barriers but not to every island, Papa Westrey is beautiful.

    Otherwise I like that a list like this exists.

    • Kathi says:

      Hi Leona,
      Thanks for your comment. As much as I would love to cover every single Scottish island, with 790 islands, it would be impossible to write a blog post that includes them all. I prefer to write about places I have visited myself, hence the selection on this list. The places I have visited for longer or more than once are naturally easier to write more about.

      I have linked to my Shetland post with more details about my trip there (here the link again: https://watchmesee.com/blog/quick-guide-to-shetland/) – we spent time on the mainland and Unst on that trip with a focus on Up Helly Aa and meeting local artists. Unfortunately, I have never had the chance yet to visit Orkney, but I knew I wanted to include it in this list – hence the link to Susanne’s blog. She lives up there and her blog is a great resource for anyone who wants to visit Orkney.
      I hope to add to this post as I manage to visit more islands in Scotland – until then, I write about the places I know.

  5. Shawna says:

    Hi…….great insight for visitors like myself. I’ve planned a full daily itinerary for my self drive trip 3 week to Scotland. I’ve included many of the places you mention while driving spending 3 days in Skye, doing the full NC500 and hoping over to Orkney for 4 days. While there another jump to Hoy for the day, then continue back to Mainland Scotland and finish our trip.

    I didn’t see anything about Hoy. We included it as somewhere I read it too was wonderful to visit and see the Puffins. Do you have any insight on that, or do you recommend going to Isle of May instead? WE planned to take the car ferry over from Orkney and back, spending all day there circling the island.

    Thanks for the informative article!


    • Kathi says:

      Hi Shawna, I’ve never actually been to Orkney or Hoy myself, so I couldn’t comment on the puffin situation there.

      You’ve not mentioned the time of the year you are coming, so please be aware that puffins are usually only on land from mid-April to early August, give or take a little depending on the weather. The Isle of May is a great ace to see them, so are John O Groats and Handa Island on the NC 500.

      For any Orkney advice, Susanne from Adventures Around Scotland is your person as she lives there: https://www.adventuresaroundscotland.com/

      One piece of advice I always give is to slow down – especially on the NC500. There is so much to see, it would be a shame to rush through it – I’d spend at least a week on the route plus time for Orkney and Skye.

      Have a great trip!

  6. amber miles says:

    Wonderful post and tips! I’m going to visit Scotland this year and I wanted to visit some islands, thank you for the information.

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