12 Scottish Islands That Will Take Your Breath Away

Best Scottish islands to visit

Scotland’s islands are world famous for their array of stunning coastlines, fascinating history and superb wildlife. And with nearly 800 to choose from you could spend a lifetime exploring them. But with such a vast number, where should you start? These beautiful destinations are sure to take your breath away.

1. Isle of Bute

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The Isle of Bute is nestled in the Firth of Clyde and easy to reach from Glasgow. Nature and outdoor lovers will adore the bays at Ettrick and Kilchattan, while fans of cycling will be able to make an enjoyable day of circling the island by road. Walkers also have the West Island Way long distance path to explore. And those who enjoy the delights of a fine stately home should make a beeline for the impressive edifice of Mount Stuart. The island’s principal town of Rothesay is also home to Rothesay Castle, as well as a small cinema, numerous hotels and restaurants… and a Victorian toilet block which boasts so fine an interior it is actually a genuine tourist attraction itself.

Isle of Bute

Website: Isle of Bute

2. Arran

Brodick Castle Main Building East 02
Source: Photo by user Sir Gawain used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Famously referred to as Scotland in miniature, Arran boasts fine rolling hills to the south and impressive mountains, such as Goatfell and its striking ridge-line, in the north. The island is also steeped in history - from the castles at Brodick and Lochranza to the stone circles of Machrie Moor and countless other ancient remains. The island also boasts a rich array of food and drink producers - including its own distillery, brewery and several cheese makers. It also caters to a wide array of outdoor activities - from mountain bike hire and walks to horseback riding and island ‘safaris’. Arran is also encircled by the long-distance route of the Arran Coastal Path.


Website: Arran

Brodick Castle

Address: Brodick Castle, Garden & Country Park, Brodick, Isle of Arran, KA27 8HY

Website: Brodick Castle

3. Skye

Isle of Skye May 2009
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user avery ng used under CC BY-SA 2.0

A filmmaker’s paradise, its striking landscape has such a pull that Hollywood regularly comes calling. Recent productions to visit included the latest adaptation of Macbeth, the Alien prequel Prometheus and this summer’s Transformers blockbuster. It is home to such iconic sights as the Quiraing - which is quite literally a landslide in slow motion - the Old Man of Storr, the Fairy Pools and the Coral Beaches. The mountains of the Black and Red Cuillins also make Skye a paradise for ‘Munro baggers’ - people who climb Scottish peaks - while its rich past and association with the Jacobite rebellions make it a go-to location for history enthusiasts.


Website: Skye

4. Islay and Jura

Scotland’s whisky is world-famous and you’ll find distilleries liberally dotted all over the country. However, the island of Islay is so closely associated with the ‘water of life’ that it - and Speyside on the mainland - are arguably the wee drop’s spiritual 'homes’. The island is home to numerous active distilleries. The neighboring island of Jura boasts the famous twin peaks of the 'Paps’, while the third largest whirlpool in the world sits off its northern coast at the treacherous water of Corrievreckan.

Islay and Jura

Website: Islay and Jura

Ardbeg Distillery

Address: Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7EA, Scotland

Website: Ardbeg Distillery

5. Handa

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A bird lover’s dream, Handa is located off Scotland’s north-western edge and reached via an inflatable rib speedboat ferry from the mainland - making the passage to it almost an adventure in itself. This uninhabited island, which is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is home to giant cliffs and a massive sea stack as well as internationally important populations of migratory breeding birds - some 100,000 make their home here at the peak of the season, including the colorful puffin, great skuas, guillemots and razorbills. Whales, basking sharks, seals, dolphins and sea otters are just some of the other animal life that you might be lucky enough to spot during a visit.


Website: Handa

Handa Ferry

Address: Handa Ferry, Tarbet near Scourie

Contact: +44 7780967800 or [email protected]

Website: Handa Ferry

6. Gigha

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The most southerly of Scotland’s Hebridean Islands, Gigha is a small but beautiful gem of an isle located just off the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula. Home to beautiful sandy beaches, azure blue seas and the beautiful Achamore Gardens, the island may be small, but it will leave a lasting impression. It is also something of a modern success story. Since the residents staged a community buy-out in 2002 it has been owned and run by a trust which has done much to boost the economy. Several businesses have since popped up, including the award-winning Boathouse Café Bar and the population has also been on the rise as more and more people fall in love with the location.


Website: Gigha

Boathouse Cafe Bar

Address: Ardminish Bay, Gigha Island PA41 7AA, UK

Contact: +44 1583505123 or [email protected]

Website: Boathouse Cafe Bar

7. St Kilda

St Kilda
Source: Photo by user Ian Thomas used under CC BY-SA 2.0

This tiny archipelago is located right on the edge of Europe and has the power to grab the imagination that one would expect from such a spot. Home to some of the tallest sea cliffs in Britain and boasting a landscape that has to be seen to be believed - its geography throws up all manner of sights, from cliff overhangs and sea stacks to sea arches. St Kilda, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, is the only location in the United Kingdom to be a double UNESCO World Heritage Site award-winner - honored both for its natural landscape and wildlife, as well as its fascinating history and culture.

Today the islands boast no permanent resident population, having been abandoned in the 1930s due to its sheer isolation, but the remains of their homes still survive in the only settlement - known simply as ‘The Village’. Various boat tours head from Skye and the islands of the Outer Hebrides, offering the perfect chance to explore for yourself.

St Kilda

Website: St Kilda

8. Mull, Staffa and Iona

Source: Photo by user Nicolesabrina used under PUBLIC DOMAIN

Home to the iconic village of Tobermory, which is known around the world for its multi-colored house facades, Mull is also the only Scottish island bar Skye to be home to a Munro. Located off its west coast lie the neighboring isles of Iona and Staffa. The latter boasts a migratory population of puffins as well as spectacular volcanic columns akin to the world-famous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway are linked by a common myth. The Scottish giant Benandonner is said to have fled to Fingal’s Cave on the island following a confrontation with Ireland’s Finn MacCool - ‘ripping up’ the causeway between the two spots as he sped to his bolt-hole. Iona, meanwhile, is famous for its abbey and as one of the early cradles of Christianity in the British Isles during the Dark Ages.

Staffa Tours

Contact: +44 7831885985 or +44 7732912370

Website: Staffa Tours

9. Orkney

Skara Brae in summer 2012 (1)
Source: Photo by user Chmee2 used under CC BY-SA 3.0

You could spend a lifetime exploring the islands of Orkney, located off Scotland’s northern coast. Its many riches include such natural wonders as the sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy, off the island of Hoy, and historical wonders like the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney’s mainland. Orkney is also home to the superbly preserved remains of Skara Brae, a world-famous neolithic village which was built around the time of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and spent millennia buried beneath shifting sand dunes before a storm in 1850 unearthed this beautiful time capsule. Other attractions include the Italian Chapel - built by prisoners of war in World War II - and the huge natural harbour of Scapa Flow, where a number of World War I warships still rest after they were scuttled by their German crews following their nation’s surrender.


Website: Orkney

Skara Brae

Address: Skara Brae, Sandwick, Orkney, KW16 3LR

Website: Skara Brae

10. Shetland

Burning the galley at Uyeasound Up Helly Aa - geograph.org.uk - 1706017
Source: Photo by user Mike Pennington used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The most northerly islands of the United Kingdom, the Shetland archipelago sits so far north it is actually closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. As with many parts of Scotland’s isles, Shetland has a strong connection to the Viking raiders and settlers who once sailed these waters, and many of the residents are direct descendants. This past is celebrated at the Up Helly Aa festival, which takes place in January every year and features a torch-lit procession, the burning of a Viking galley and a number of marches.


Website: Shetland

Up Helly Aa

Website: Up Helly Aa

11. The Outer Hebrides

Callanish Stones 2 (13522977893)
Source: Photo by user Chris Combe used under CC BY 2.0

The Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands that run north to south on the extreme western fringe of Scotland, boast a vast array of prehistoric monuments - including the Callanish Stones (or Calanais in Gaelic). Thought to predate Stonehenge, in the south of England, Callanish’s iconic stone circle and avenues are famous across the globe. Man-made landmarks are by no means the Outer Hebrides’ only attraction. The white sands and azure seas are also renowned. These range from the pristine sand at Berneray to the famous airstrip on the isle of Barra - the only airport in the world which operates scheduled flights from a beach. The rich ecology of the Hebrides’ rare ‘machair’ - a delicate coastal grassland ecosystem - and the islands’ superb surfing spots are among their many other charms.

The Outer Hebrides

Website: The Outer Hebrides

Calanais Stones Visitor Centre

Address: Calanais Visitor Centre, Calanais, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9DY

Contact: +44 1851621422

Website: Calanais Visitor Centre

12. The Small Isles

Source: Photo by user James Gray used under CC BY-SA 3.0

A group of four islands south of Skye, the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck are a diverse bunch. Rum - the largest - is also home to the biggest hills and the striking facade of Kinloch Castle, which was built in 1900 by one of the island’s previous owners. Elsewhere, the Sgurr of Eigg lends Eigg one of the most impressive silhouettes of any island in Scotland. All four islands are served by a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service from Mallaig on the mainland. The company also offers a ‘Non-landing Cruise’ ticket for those looking to sail round the islands on a day trip.

The Small Isles

Website: The Small Isles

Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries

Contact: 0800 0665000 (domestic), +44 1475650397 (international) or email enquiri[email protected]

Website: Caledonian MacBrayne

Make memories to last a lifetime

With Scotland’s islands boasting such a rich variety of landscapes and history, wherever you choose to start your island hopping adventure there’s one thing we can guarantee - it’ll be memorable.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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I'm a writer and photographer based in the heart of the beautiful Scottish Highlands. A professional journalist by trade, I have written for and edited several newspapers, magazines and websites....Read more

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