A Cheat Sheet To Our Favourite Scottish Isles, From Arran To Iona

If you’re looking to escape the mainland this summer, Scotland’s beguiling islands beckon, offering untouched landscapes, vibrant culture, ancient history and modern-day wonders. Here are eight to have on your radar

Looking for an island adventure that promises sandy beaches as good as those in the Caribbean, pizzas to rival the pies found in Naples, world-class seafood, wildlife, culture and character-packed boutique stays? You don't have to look very far. Scotland, with its necklace of dramatically beautiful islands tethered off its rugged coast, makes for a trip that can be as active - clifftop biking trails and hikes to ancient standing stones - or as dialled-down - cosy guesthouses and deserted, heather-flanked sandy coves - as you like. From a surfer-approved Hebridean hideout to a whisky-fuelled Highland hangout, these are the eight Scottish islands we think you're going to want to know about.

The best Scottish islands to visit this summer

Isle of Tiree, Scotland
Photo credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins


Welcome to the "Hawaii of the North" - no, seriously. This laid-back Inner Hebridian isle might not offer the warmth of its Pacific twin, but with gin-clear waters and 74km of scallop-coloured sands, Tiree gives the subtropics a run for their money. Regularly buffeted by North Atlantic swells, the island has impressive beach breaks throughout the year, but in summer, long daylight hours stretch beach days late into the evening. We're booking a room at the intimate Reef Inn for a relaxed island guesthouse stay, and spending evenings at the Reef's restaurant to scoff Tiree's best pizzas and grilled local seafood, and enjoy a can (or three) of local craft beer.

Standing Stones, Mainland Orkney, Scotland

Mainland Orkney

Orkney's largest island is a must-visit for modern witches. Myths and mystery swirl across this storied isle, fuelled by the numerous Neolithic remains that pockmark its bracken-cloaked moors and granite-stacked coastal cliffs. Legend has it that the main island was created when a tooth of the slain Stoor Worm, a monstrous sea serpent, fell into the sea. If it's your first time on Mainland, we'd recommend heading west. Here, fields are dotted with prehistoric sites such as the 5,000-year-old village of Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Stenness. The island capital, Kirkwall, is a warren of sandstone and siltstone cottages, shadowed by the majestic bulk of St Magnus Cathedral. Make your base The Storehouse, a former herring and pork curing plant transformed into a boutique inn with a tiptop restaurant attached. We'd wager magic is involved in its hand-dived Orkney scallops and tomato consommé dish - it's that good.

The Boathouse Café, Gigha, Scotland
Photo credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins


Wandering down the white-sand beaches of Gigha in summer, you'd be forgiven for thinking the shallow, turquoise waters and curving coves looked more Isles of Scilly than Scotland. But the community-owned Gigha is very much of the tartan. Sat at the southern end of the long fray of Hebridean Islands on the country's west coast, it's just a 20-minute ferry ride from the Kintyre peninsula, but feels further. Start explorations in Ardminish, the island's sole village, where you'll be able to rent a bike (and grab an early lunch of prawn baps and smoked Gigha halibut bagels at The Nook). Then, set off to explore the blousy summer excesses of Achamore Gardens and the lichen-licked ruins of the 13th-century Kilchatten Chapel. In the afternoon, the northern coast's heather-framed beaches beckon. Later, stroll back to the cosy Beach View Cottage on the western coastline to freshen up, before venturing across to The Boathouse, a waterside restaurant that serves crab straight from the creel.

Isle of Arran, Scotland
Photo credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins


Despite its diminutive size, Arran is the largest island in the Firth of Clyde - and Scotland's seventh biggest. Less than three hours from Glasgow (including the ferry ride), the North Ayrshire isle resembles the Highlands in miniature, complete with moss-covered lowlands, rocky crags and heather-blanketed hills. Bring your hiking boots; some of the most breathtaking trails include walks to the ancient standing stones on Machrie Moor, and clambering up the granite steeple of Cir Mhor, a majestic mountain in Scotland's smallest mountain range. Dinners on Arran inevitably involve seafood. Our pick? Mara Fish Bar & Deli, a fancy takeaway spot in Corrie on the island's north-east coast, that boxes up fresh catches from island waters in inventive ways. Once you've had your fill of chimichurri-doused lobster, hand-dived scallops, and langoustines bathed in Café de Paris butter, make tracks down the coast to roost for the night: the inviting Altbeg promises an evening nightcap by an open fire.

Jura, Scotlant
Photo credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins


Jura is a raw, rugged isle licked by fierce, untameable seas, home to more deer than humans, and capped with soaring, bald-headed mountains and desolate tawny wilderness. Life is hard here - and making whisky, even harder. Yet, this Inner Hebridean isle is famous for its golden nectar. On a visit, book in for a tour of the whitewashed local distillery (the only one on the island) to learn about mash, maturation and the distinctive ingredients that go into every dram of Jura (the distillers claim the water from the island mountain range, the Paps of Jura, gives the single malt its unique flavour notes). Then, pull on your hiking boots to explore the island's remote edges, à la George Orwell, who once lived in these isolated hills. Whisky lovers will want to make the pilgrimage to Islay, a five-minute ferry ride from Jura, to sample peaty whiskies at its eight renowned distilleries. We're more inclined to head to our lodgings for the night, Mrs Leonard's Cottage, where a wood-fired hot tub awaits.

Iona, Scotland


At only 5km long and 2km wide, the windswept isle of Iona, off the west coast of Mull, in the Scottish Highlands, might be tiny, but word of its beauty has spread, drawing some 130,000 travellers to its screensaver-worthy shores annually. Subject since 1978 to a "Prohibition of Vehicles" order, the island promises city escapees a profoundly tranquil experience, with no car engines to compete with the sound of seagulls and waves lapping against blonde sand. An important Christian site, thanks to this being the first place that St Columba set foot in Scotland, Iona is also something of a craft mecca. Explore examples of the fishing and crofting community's historic output at Iona Heritage Centre, then browse the contemporary equivalent at the 1965-opened Iona Craft Shop, which stocks a thoughtfully curated range of artisanal products including a miniature fishing boat in a bottle, chunky socks in vibrant yarns and handmade jewellery by local silversmith Eleanor MacDougall. Bed down on a family-run working croft at Iona Pods, whose 10 timber-frame glamping units contain luxurious beds and all mod cons, with WiFi throughout the site.

Handa, Scotland


Pack a picnic and get back to nature on one of Scotland's most under-the-radar islands, the stunning nature reserve of Handa, off the Sutherland coast, in the country's remote north-west. In summer, a small passenger ferry runs daily from Tarbet on the mainland to the sugar-white beaches of Port an Eilean and Traigh an Teampaill on Handa's eastern shores. The island's soaring cliffs are home to 100,000 breeding seabirds, including guillemots, kittiwakes, Arctic terns and puffins, making this one of north-west Europe's largest colonies. Stroll from the ferry landing point to the Scottish Wildlife Trust's visitor centre - keeping eyes peeled for passing minke whales, basking sharks and dolphins - to explore a collection spanning animal bones to historic island literature - and where binoculars can be hired. Fallen in love with the island and want to stay longer? Opportunities exist to volunteer on the reserve, from a week at a time to a series of assistant ranger placements, lasting from 8-21 weeks.

Isle of Barra Hotel, Barra, Scotland
Photo credit: VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins


Travel to the shimmering sands of this Outer Hebridean island by air and your arrival will be dictated by the tides, Barra Airport being home to the only commercial beach landing in the world. But whether you opt for a high-octane entrance or choose to catch the ferry from Oban, you'll find a palpable sense of community on this small island, along with tales of a wild seafaring history at Kisimul Castle and spectacular coastal bike trails (rental available from Barra Bike Hire, in Castlebay). Sandy footprints are always forgiven at the 39-key Isle of Barra Beach Hotel. Shower and then make a beeline for the hotel's modern restaurant, whose vast floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Halaman Bay - best seen ablaze, at sunset - and where a seasonally led menu showcases superlative island beef, lamb and seafood.

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