8 Scottish Isles You Need to See Now
There’s so much to do on Scotland’s “mainland” that for many visitors, the islands are a bit of an afterthought. But the truth is this, their beauty is second-to-none, and they deserve a visit. Whether you love rugged scenery, white sand beaches (yes, really), or whisky, there’s an island crafted to fit every travel personality. Here, 8 gorgeous isles you definitely want to factor in on your next trip to Scotland.
Isle of Jura
Lit-lovers, this one’s for you. On Jura, you can stay in the main village of Craighouse at the family-run Jura Hotel or opt for something a little more remote with Barnhill Farmhouse, the spot where George Orwell hunkered down to write 1984. Because—arguably—nothing goes better with a great book than a glass of fine whisky, go for a tour at the eponymous Jura Distillery (also located in the village), which produces single-malt that would be an absolute shame to pass up. Jura is also a great place for wildlife: the island is home to a surprisingly large population of red deer; so large, in fact, that the critters outnumber the 200 locals more than 25 to one. Hiking is popular here, especially around the south’s Paps of Jura—three conical mountains that offer great views across the sea toward the Isle of Skye and Northern Ireland. If scenic walks aren’t your thing, stay in Craigshouse for a late-Saturday ceilidh a breathless but exuberant traditional night of dancing that has people of all ages tearing up the floor of the village hall.
Isle of Islay
The Isle of Islay (pronounced eye-la), across from Jura, is one of the Hebrides’ southernmost islands—and one of Scotland’s five protected whisky distilling locations. The time to go is the last week of May, when weather is the driest and the island hosts its annual music and malt festival, where you can taste peaty, smoky samples from well-known distilleries like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, as well as five others. Islay is a little more populated than Jura, with just over 3,200 people—however, as the “Queen of the Hebrides,” it lives up to its name with an abundance of wildlife, prime opportunities for birdwatchers, and gorgeous sunsets from Saligo Bay. Stay at a cottage at Ardbeg or Bowmore’s distilleries, and be sure to stop in at the island’s crafters where you'll find traditional pottery and textiles.
Isle of Iona
For a pint-sized island with only 130 residents (many of whom still farm as traditional crofters) located in the Inner Hebrides, Iona welcomes a surprisingly high number of visitors each year. Many come for religious reasons: the island has come to be known as the “Cradle of Christianity” after St. Columba’s arrival in 563 from Ireland to spread the gospel in Great Britain’s north (though the settlement would later become a target for Viking attacks). Services are still held in the isle's medieval abbey, and almost 50 kings of Scotland—including Macbeth—are rumored to have been buried nearby. History is very much alive, with discoveries still being unearthed today; what archaeologists think was a saint’s cottage was just uncovered in July 2017. Stay at St. Columba Hotel, which was originally a manse, or bed down at Argyll Hotel, which overlooks the Sound of Iona. Whichever you choose, don’t skip out on tea at the Iona Heritage Tearoom before a walk along the island’s sandy beaches or a round of golf on the isle's only course.
Isle of Skye
Objectively one of the world’s most beautiful islands—and one of Scotland’s top-three tourism destinations—the isle of Skye offers some of the country’s most jaw-dropping scenery, from foggy, craggy hills reigning imposingly over lochs to bright technicolor skies. Photographers will love the light here, which is in constant flux both illuminating and casting shadows over the romantic scenery. Soak up nature in the green, grassy Faerie Glen, make a detour to Claigan's gorgeous coral beach, or head to the rugged sea cliffs and lighthouse at Neist Point. There's also a trail walk through the Quiraing landslip and a stop at Armadale Castle, a 20,000-acre estate that offers a few good walks on the property—including through its beautiful gardens. Once you're tuckered out, head for the Glenview, a B&B heavy on hospitality with the added bonus of a pie café.
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Isle of Tiree
Beachgoers: head west in the Inner Hebrides to get to the Isle of Tiree which offers vast expanses of white sand beaches and has the distinction of being one of the U.K.’s sunniest places. Known as the “Hawaii of the North”—which, all right, might be a bit of a stretch—the island is a destination for surfers and windsurfers, even playing host one of the most prestigious windsurfing events every October. Those not keen on the sport will find apt alternatives like undeniably romantic walks on the beach—especially on the island’s warm summer evenings. A major logistical plus? Tiree has its own airport, so getting in and out is as easy as a one-hour flight to/from Glasgow.
Isle of Mull
If you don't have a ton of time to squeak in an island trip, the Isle of Mull—just off of Scotland’s western “mainland”— is one of the easiest to get to. Tobermory is the picturesque main town; a quaint village with a harbor ringed in colorful buildings, an arts center which takes up residence in a refurbished Victorian primary school, and a volunteer-run museum full of Mull artifacts. Dining options are pretty spot-on, too: local produce is a source of pride, and it's a known fact that you can't go wrong with a breakfast of smoked salmon. Try Am Birlinn for traditional Scottish food and the aptly named Café Fish for fresh seafood. Those yearning for wildlife encounters can join a departing boat tour for a glimpse of minke whales and harbor porpoises, while those who prefer to stay on land shouldn’t miss Calgary Bay’s white sandy stretches. Iona is right off the coast, so if you’ve made it this far, a day trip there would be the perfect complement to your Mull visit.
Isle of Lewis and Harris
Though they’re referred to as two distinct isles, Lewis makes up the northern part of Scotland’s largest island, while Harris comprises the southern half. The region is the country’s “epicenter of Gaelic culture,” and you’ll catch snippets of Gaelic as often as English in Stornoway’s pubs (the largest town in Lewis). For more whisky, head to Abhainn Dearg Distillery, which still produces the “water of life” in the traditional manner, or to Harris Distillery. If you prefer watersports, kite- and windsurfing are popular at Ardroil Sands, while, along with the west coast, you'll spot some of the most stunning beaches in the country. Those looking for history shouldn’t pass over the Callanish Stones, a Stonehenge-like group of 50 raised stones from 3,000 B.C. Keep heading south, to Harris’ side of the island, and you'll land in the village of Tarbert where eponymously-named tweed is crafted. No matter where you go, there’s no better way to see the dynamic landscape, crofter's cottages, and rocky shores (particularly in Lewis, where the landscape is almost lunar) than by bike. Those feeling particularly dedicated can strike out on the Hebridean Way Cycling Route, which traverses 185 miles and crosses 10 Hebridean islands.
Isle of Arran
When it comes to nicknames, Isle of Arran's “Scotland in Miniature” moniker is quite accurate. Given the isle's dynamic landscape—one that's pretty dang representative of the country as a whole—hiking opportunities are plentiful, but there's more to Arran than just that. The island is rich in history—both when it comes to the Scots and the Norwegian Vikings—and yes, there’s a whole lot of whisky, so be sure to drop by the Isle of Arran Distillers for a warming wee nip post-hike. P.S.: if you feel like being truly adventurous, the island is also home to Scotland’s only nude beach—you'll find it in the village of Lagg. When it comes to stays, Glenisle Hotel is a charming seaside guesthouse with a stellar restaurant featuring local produce—something that definitely factored into its shiny new title as the Scottish Hotel Awards’ Best Small Country Hotel in the Scottish Islands 2016.
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