Get someone to name a Scottish island and you can bet your last drink will be Skye whom they mention first. But popularity has its drawbacks and the island fills up with its Cuillins every summer.
Better to wait until autumn, when the vast Cuillins hills receive their first layer of snow and the landscape takes on a reddish hue.
Put on the hiking boots for a walk or two on the Trotternish Peninsula, through the Quiraing, where an ancient landslide has formed an otherworldly landscape, and up to the rocky Old Man of Storr summit.
Prepare for a feast, too: Skye offers some of Scotland’s best seafood, served in cozy Michelin-starred Loch Bay and the famous Three Chimneys.
The Skye Bridge connects the mainland. Buses run from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and from Glasgow to Uig
A bird watcher’s dream, Mull has the highest density of nesting golden eagles in Europe, as well as a thriving population of white-tailed eagles.
Head for the hills for the best chance of spotting them, as well as for stunning views across the Hebrides, to the Cuillin Hills of Skye to the north. There are also stunning beaches, the thundering Eas Fos waterfall and the islands prettiest town, Tobermory. Don’t miss an evening at the Mishnish Pub – there are few better places than by the fireside here to listen to live Gaelic music.
Caledonian MacBrayne ferries connect Oban to Craignure.
The first blow in the air causes a thirst for whiskey that only Scotland can quench, and Islay is the best island to sink a drink or three. Home to nine distilleries, the island is known for its peaty whiskeys, including Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – a trio of renowned distilleries that line the south coast just outside of Port Ellen.
It is possible to walk between them, as well as standing stones, white sandy beaches and the ancient fortress of Finlaggan, once the seat of the Lord of the Islands.
Ferries operate from Kennacraig on Kintyre to Port Askaig and Port Ellen.
Arran is one of the easiest islands to get to (a two hour drive from Glasgow) and the best for young families. Here you’ll find the Auchrannie Resort, with its gentle three-level play and large swimming pools, as well as Brodick Castle, which has family-friendly hiking trails, an adventure play park, and red squirrels galore. . Thanks to the Highland Boundary, which cuts through the island like a belt, here you’ll get a mix of Highland and Lowland scenery, with Goatfell to climb to the north and Silver Sands to frolic in the south.
Ferries depart from Ardrossan near Glasgow, as well as Tarbert and Campbeltown
A true escape, Coll is one of the most remote plots of land in the Hebrides and there isn’t much to do here other than enjoy the scenery. And what a landscape it is, all the rolling hills leading to creamy white sands undisturbed by footprints. At night the real show begins, the pitch black canopy above this starry sky island lights up with stars and some fall nights the Northern Lights. With so little light pollution (the nearest lamppost is 32 miles away), you’ll see more of it in the night sky here than almost anywhere else in the UK.
The ferries depart from Oban and Tiree.
Lewis and Harris
Not two islands but one large and extremely varied, Lewis and Harris is the largest of the Outer Hebrides and home to a host of unique attractions. Start with the atmospheric bogs of the north, visit the Dun Carloway Broch and Callanish Stone Circle, before indulging in the epic white sands of Uig, which wind as far as the eye can see on the rugged west coast of the island. Further south, Harris offers some of Scotland’s most Caribbean beaches (Luskentyre, Borve) as well as dramatic hills, sheltered lochs and a modern distillery. Ferries connect Ullapool to Stornaway.
In the far south of the Outer Hebrides, Barra offers the option of heading to a remote Atlantic island for a short break, landing at its beach airport directly from Glasgow. You will disembark on the sands of Traigh Mhor (“big beach” in Gaelic) and have to base yourself in Castlebay where – surprise – a castle stands in the bay. It’s easy to have a beach to yourself here, and there are some lovely low-lying coastal walks to enjoy – not to mention the inventive entry from the local Indian restaurant, the Scallop Pakora.
Ferries operate from Oban to Castlebay.
There is no better place in the UK to stand in prehistoric footprints than the main island of Orkney. Here you can rest your palms on standing stones at Brodgar’s Ring, bow your head to enter the chambered cairn of Maeshowe, and cross the threshold of Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old settlement. There’s also Viking heritage to explore and some of the best wreck dives in the world, right down to the scuttled German Deep Sea Fleet at Scapa Flow.
Loganair flights to Kirkwall are operated from four Scottish cities. Car ferries are operated by NorthLink Ferries and Pentland Ferries.
To visit for a few days of stroll, observation of porpoises and skimming. It is one of the Slate Islands, the center of the Scottish slate industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the disused quarries make excellent skimming ponds – so the island organizes the stone skimming world championships each September (next date scheduled for September 25, 2022).
A foot ferry operates from Ellenabeich.
The northernmost island of the northernmost archipelago, Unst is the UK’s northernmost inhabited island, and any visit here is full of selfies taken at the ‘northernmost’ this and that (post office, Chateau).
Go seabird watching in Hermaness National Nature Reserve and you are likely to see northern gannets, gulls and murres, while autumn is often the time to spot the Northern Lights. Don’t miss the Saxa Vord Distillery, home to Shetland Reel gin (naturally, it’s the northernmost in Britain).
NorthLink ferries serve Lerwick with a bus or ferry connection, travel.shetland.org
‘Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes’ by Helen Ochyra is published by Book Guild, £ 9.99