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With so many great islands to choose from, it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. But with regular flights and ferries, it’s never been easier to play Scottish explorer and island hop betweeen some of the region's most remote corners. If a boat takes your fancy, Oban’s widely considered to be the Gateway to the Isles, with regular boats to Mull, Iona, Staffa, Barra, Coll, Colonsay and Tiree. Other harbour ports and crossings can be found at various points along the west coast.
Where you choose to venture is largely dependent on your wants. For an easy day trip, Arran is just a short jaunt from Glasgow. Widely considered to be Scotland in miniature, Brodick Castle and Gardens sit in the shadow of the island’s most famous mountain, Goatfell. And the local golf courses, horse riding and sea-kayaking prove just as visitor-friendly as the historical King’s Caves (where Robert the Bruce reputedly met the spider), the Machrie Standing Stones or a fishing boat trip to the Holy Isle.
For whisky lovers, an island hop to Islay is a must. With eight distilleries to its name, it easily produces some of the finest whisky in the world. Our favourites are Bunnahabhain and Ardbeg, but the island’s small enough to explore them all. The neighbouring island of Jura is just a short boat trip away and is also home to a great distillery.
For water babies, Tiree – the most westerly island in the Inner Hebrides – is fantastic for wind and kite surfing, with its gorgeous beaches and above average wind speeds. It also plays host to one of the best small festivals in Scotland, the Tiree Music Festival in July, with some of the country’s best-loved folk and alt musicians on the bill.
On an island not far away, film fans may have witnessed Mull’s ample charms on the silver screen with the island featured in I Know Where I’m Going, Kidnapped, Entrapment and Highlander: Endgame – not to mention BBC kids’ TV show Balamory, which features Mull’s colourful capital, Tobermory. Like so many of the islands, the tourist foot-fall does little to spoil the landscape. Glengorm Castle has glorious panoramic views out to the Atlantic, while the Mishnish pub (complete with homebrewed ale) in Tobermory and Tobermory Distillery should keep those with a thirst suitably satiated. A trip to the neighbouring wee islands of Iona and Staffa are truly memorable, with Staffa’s Fingal’s Cave famously inspiring Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture’ and Turner’s painting ‘Staffa, Fingal’s Cave’. If time allows, a trip to either, or all, of Coll, Eigg, Rum and Canna also come recommended.
For walkers, Skye is a must, with its numerous Munros and breathtaking Cuillin mountain range. There’s much to do here but try and make time for a stroll by the truly ethereal banks of Loch Coruisk, which sits in the shadow of the Black Cuillins. Skye’s geological wonders are plentiful too, and the Old Man of Storr shouldn’t be missed.
Bird lovers should grab a boat from Skye to Lewis and Harris, or for regular sightings of basking sharks, whales, dolphins and seals, get a flight or ferry to the Outer Hebrides and take a trip to the Uists, Barra Isles and Eriskay. From there, take a small boat to St Kilda, the remotest part of the British Isles.
Finally, on the east coast, Shetland – a subarctic archipelago on the northeast tip of Scotland – has much to offer from seabird colonies and sea caves to sandy beaches and minke whales. If you get the chance, wrap up warm and go in late January for Europe’s largest fire festival, Up Helly Aa: it’s unforgettable and offers a snapshot of this tight knit community in all its glory.
Last but by no means least, Orkney, the other of the Northern Isles, is a World Heritage Site – its awesome prehistoric villages, tombs, standing stones and palace ruins offer ample scope for any visit.
Header photo: Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides © VisitScotland & Scottish Viewpoint
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About the author: AnnaMillarAnna Millar
Anna is a Glasgow born and Edinburgh based freelance writer and editor specialising in arts and travel. When she’s not exploring the Highlands and Islands or reviewing Scotland’s festival scene, she’s likely to be found propping up the bar at one of New York’s finest watering holes or exploring Europe’s untapped corners.