Most of the best islands in Scotland are just a ferry ride out from the mainland and offer an exciting day out with stunning scenery and discoveries. We’ve narrowed the selection down from the 900 offshore islands, each with their own unique set of appeals.

    From Scottish Islands with significant populations, rich cultures and history harking back to the warring Scottish clans, to tiny uninhabited isles that offer sheer natural beauty, this list should help you choose which Scottish Island is right for you for your next island-hopping, whisky-tasting, hiking, golfing, or photo-hunting adventure.

    1

    Isle of Skye

    One big, sparsely populated and eye-catching island

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    Rugged, fantasy-like landscapes are the order of the day on the Isle of Skye, the Inner Hebrides archipelago’s biggest island despite having a population of just 10,000. Skye sits off the northwest coast of Scotland but is linked to it by a bridge over Loch Alsh to Eilean Bàn. Mountains dominate the Isle of Skye’s inland area, but there are also plenty of lochs and dramatic coastline scenery.

    Boat trips from the village of Elgol are a great way to spot wildlife on Loch Coriusk or smaller nearby islands like Raasay and Rona. Back on firm ground, the town and de facto capital of Portree has several boutiques for souvenir shopping. 

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    Location: Portree, IV51 9EL, UK

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    2

    Isle of Mull

    A Scottish island for whale and dolphin-spotting

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    The Isle of Mull is one of the most popular Scottish Islands for spotting a variety of cetaceans on their summer migration from Africa to the Nordic seas. Among the common sightings are humpbacks, northern bottlenose whales, sperm whales and pods of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

    Magnificent wildlife aside, the island offers a quaint escape in the Inner Hebrides with its breathtaking seascapes, landscapes, and culture. Among these are the stunning Calgary Bay, the large loch of Frisa and Tobermory, with its pretty back garden of Aros Park and a charming quayside that’s lined with colourful houses.

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    3

    Islay Island

    The southernmost of the Hebrides

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    Islay Island offers a true Scottish Island experience, as it’s best known for its numerous single malt distilleries and stunning landscapes you can hike through. Even walking about the island’s main towns is pleasant – you can enjoy whisky tours in Bowmore or simply take in the charming views of Leodamais Bay from Port Ellen.

    Discover smaller villages such as Ballygrant and the parish of Portnahaven on the southwestern point of the island, or venture out to the northeast of Islay to Loch Finlaggan with its ancient castle ruins, medieval graves and a derelict cottage on 2 tiny islands.

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    4

    Isle of Arran

    Experience the beauty of the largest island in the Firth of Clyde

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    Ferry out to the Isle of Arran from southwestern Scotland’s town of Ardrossan for an excursion with medieval landmarks, excellent fairways, and fabulous mountain and forest trails. Arran’s diverse set of attractions make it a great island-hop, be it for the adventurous hiker, avid golfer, or families with kids looking for discoveries.

    Among the great sites to discover on Arran’s upland area are quaint villages and the grand baronial Brodick Castle. Down on the beautiful coast, you can try your hand at sailing or canoeing. You can even take to the skies with a paraglider and see the colours and contours of the largest island in the Firth of Clyde.

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    5

    Isle of Iona

    A small island that’s big on scenery and Gaelic history

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    The Isle of Iona, though compact in size, offers island-hoppers a day trip from adjacent Isle of Mull that’s filled with beautiful coastal and hillside scenery alongside rich Gaelic history. Its iconic landmark is the restored centuries-old Iona Abbey and Nunnery – among the oldest Christian religious centres in Western Europe.

    The adventurous at heart can take on lush trails that wind through Iona’s coastal hills, rewarding them with elevated views. St. Columba’s Bay, on the southern end of Iona, is a great hike along hills covered in wildflowers and flocked by seabirds. You can get to Iona on a very short ferry ride across the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull.

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    6

    Staffa

    Go on a boat trip to this striking, uninhabited Scottish island

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    Staffa is a tiny isle that's on boat tour itineraries from the Scottish Islands of Mull or Iona because of its striking natural features. Some of its most prominent sights include a series of basalt columns and the large Fingal’s sea cave near its southern tip, which you can explore at low tide.

    Staffa is uninhabited, save for a notable colony of puffins and seabirds. Your boat ride to the island may also encounter the spectacle of dolphin pods or even fin whales swimming by. Staffa is often included in 3-isle tours that include stops on Mull and Iona.

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    7

    Tiree Island

    Quaint Scottish island village way of life and excellent surf

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    The low-lying Tiree Island is where you can get a good sample of Scotland’s island village life through its fishing and farming communities. This westernmost island in the Inner Hebrides has lush farmlands where locals engage in crofting (traditional small-scale food production).

    Other interesting sights to see include the 1st-century-AD Dùn Mòr, an Iron Age drystone structure or broch, the beautiful Balephuil Bay, and the 138-ft-tall Skerryvore Lighthouse, which dates back to 1838. Windy and sunny, Tiree is also a windsurfers’ haven and hosts the world’s longest-running windsurfing competition, the Tiree Wave Classic.

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    8

    Isle of Lewis

    Hike and discover ancient stone landmarks

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    The Isle of Lewis, the largest and northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides, has a rich Gaelic history and culture. A short ferry ride from the Scottish mainland, the island offers scenic walks where you can come across ancient stone circles and standing stones. A must-see is the magnificent, Stonehenge-like megalithic ruins of Calanais.

    Lewis also has some quite quirky sights to discover, such as the Bridge to Nowhere – a bridge that was part of an abandoned road project alongside a little beach on the island’s northeastern area, which is also a great camping ground. Another is the Whale Bone Arch – the rather morbid sight of the lower jawbones of a blue whale erected to form an arch, with a harpoon dangling from it, in someone's front garden.

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    9

    Isle of Jura

    Wild, untamed beauty and an Orwellian connection

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    The Isle of Jura, less than an hour's ferry ride from the Scottish mainland, is one of the most rugged among the Scottish Islands. The island is hilly, barren, and sparsely populated. Its appeal lies in its scenic mountains where wild deer roam freely, plus its namesake island-produced whisky.

    One of Jura’s standout features is the Corryvreckan Whirlpool that continuously swirls in the waters between Jura and Scarba. Formed by a giant towering rock pinnacle under the surface, it’s one of the largest and most treacherous permanent whirlpools on Earth. The island was also the home of famous author George Orwell while he wrote his dystopian classic, 1984.

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    10

    Isle of Eigg

    A tiny, beautiful Scottish island you could walk across

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    The Isle of Eigg is one of the 4 Small Islands in the Inner Hebrides, offering lush landscapes, stunning coastal beauty, an intriguing history all in a tiny package. Owned and cared for by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, it’s among the best-preserved islands in the UK. The island is tiny enough to explore on a hike.

    Behind the sedate seascapes lies a murderous past dating back to clan wars. The narrow entrance of Massacre Cave, on the southernmost edge of the island, bears silent witness to one of Scotland’s bloodiest mass murders – when Eigg’s entire Clan MacDonald population was asphyxiated and burned alive by Skye’s Clan MacLeod. Grim past aside, Eigg offers brilliant sunsets and picture-postcard views of its sister Small Isles, Muck and Rum.

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    11

    Isle of Raasay

    Walking trails and a taste of whisky

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    Those who catch the 25-minute ferry ride from Sconser to the small island of Raasay will find woodland trails, coastal paths and abandoned railway lines to explore for a true back-to-nature escape. Keep a lookout for wildlife including sea eagles and the Raasay vole while exploring the island’s starkly beautiful rocky terrain.

    Hikers who reach the top of Dun Caan, Raasay’s highest peak, are rewarded with panoramic views of the sea and the Cuillin mountain range on Skye. For some local refreshment, stop for a wee dram at the Isle of Raasay Distillery, a whisky maker that offers tours and tastings.

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    photo by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch) (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    12

    Mainland, Orkney

    A must-visit island in the Orkney archipelago

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    Orkney has 70 islands within the Scottish Northern Isles, but putting Mainland on your itinerary is enough for enjoying the archipelago's ancient landmarks, beautiful landscapes, and vibrant wildlife.

    West Mainland is where you’ll come across most of the notable Neolithic monuments, ranging from the ancient buildings of the Barnhouse Settlement to the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar. The prehistoric village of Skara Brae is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s also known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. For a natural wonder, head for the Gloup, a deep cave at Mull Head on the island’s southeastern tip. The cave’s roof partially collapsed, exposing the sea below.

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    Ari Gunadi | Compulsive Traveller

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