Ah, the best Scottish Islands, where do we even begin?
Scotland as a whole is a wild and wonderful place, full of ancient legends, harrowing history, captivating animals, and endless Instagrammable views. It’s a traveller's paradise and, luckily for us, a travel company’s paradise. Every day we can get on the road to explore this wonderful country we count as a day blessed.
Robin Worsnop started Rabbie’s Tours back in 1993, which makes us ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’ this year (points if you got the reference). All Robin had was an old sherpa van and a few people telling him it would never work. Fueled by a desire to explore his own country, and to show it off to those who come to visit, Rabbie’s has now spread their explorations further and we’ve got small-group tours all across the UK and even in Europe.
But Scotland is where it all began. And who can blame us? Scotland truly is one of those places that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into another world. From the Fairy Pools on Skye to the view over Edinburgh from Calton Hill, this country has it all.
We’ve even got an enormous number of Scottish islands to our name. Most people are familiar with the Isle of Skye, its majesty and mysticism, the dramatic peaks and incredible views. But there’re endless others to uncover, and we’re lucky enough to explore quite a few of them on our tours. We love taking people across the water to an island they’d likely never visit otherwise.
In case you’re not familiar with the iconic and best Scottish islands, we thought we’d give you a little rundown of the top isles we visit and why you should seriously consider visiting yourself. Each has its own little quirks and the thing above all its beloved for. Sit back and enjoy as we take you on this journey through the best islands you should visit next time you’re in Scotland.
Complete your trip by ticking the best Scottish islands off your bucket list. From our own experience, the 8 you don’t want to miss out on include:
Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland and has the illustrious title “Queen of the Hebrides”. Its landscape is abundant with wildlife and has a long and fascinating history, however it's something with a little more kick that it’s known for.
Much of Islay’s landscape is made up of peat, a rich and fertile soil, perfect for growing barley, the base ingredient for whisky. Across the island, distillers use dried peat to smoke the barley. Thanks to this process, the whisky has a unique smoky flavour that has become incredibly popular.
Plenty. There’s wildlife at every turn, from golden eagles to otters, deer to grey seals. Simply drive around one of the best Scottish islands and you’ll get views worthy of their own Instagram post. And there’s even some fascinating evidence of prehistoric settlers on the island from around 10,000 BC, which can be seen at the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte.
It’s definitely the kind of place where a car will be required. Much of the island’s beauty can be taken in simply by roaming around in your vehicle, stopping for photos and staring out the window. You can get to Islay by air or by ferry.
Alternatively, you can join us on a Rabbie’s whisky tour. Hop on a tour from the capital of Edinburgh, such as the 4-day Islay & the Whisky Coast tour. You discover the smoky flavours of Islay’s single malt whiskies, explore the historic sights, and spend your time trading notes with fellow whisky lovers.
We’re grouping Mull and Iona as these two Scottish isles are often done together. Iona is a teeny-tiny isle off the coast of Mull. It’s a mere 2km wide and 6km long, with a population of around 120 people. It’s a great day trip from Mull and the highlights include Iona Abbey. Iona is a holy isle and often known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Its stark yet beautiful landscape makes for a dramatic exploration of the Scottish island.
Then there’s the Isle of Mull. Filled with silver-sand beaches and its fair share of lochs, rivers, and waterfalls, Mull is perfect for those with a love of sparkling water. Iona is much the same, its small shores surrounded as they are by turquoise waters. Both Scottish isles have an incredible range of landscapes, from mountains to forests, each worth taking a moment to visit.
We have the perfect long-weekend getaway from Glasgow, our 3-day Iona & Mull tour. Or there’s the 5-day Iona, Mull & the Isle of Skye tour from Edinburgh.
Visiting Mull and Iona isn’t all you’ll get from these adventures. Which leads us to our next best Scottish island to visit this year…
Let’s be honest, there are amazing animals all across Scotland. But there’s something about the allure of Staffa. It’s easy to group as one of the best Scottish islands with Mull and Iona, as most people get a boat from Mull over to Staffa for a few hours.
There really is something absolutely striking and unforgettable about Staffa. This little uninhabited rock is formed from stark basalt rocks shooting into the sky and houses the legendary Fingal’s Cave below. It’s this unique formation that gives you the feeling that this out-of-the-way Scottish island might have once been home to monsters, giants, or witches. Who knows, but there are certainly legends surrounding this place. If you know of the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, the legend goes that these two places are the opposite ends of an ancient bridge built by Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill.
It was also the inspiration to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture if you've ever had the pleasure of hearing it.
Another unique reason for Staffa to be listed as one of the best Scottish islands to visit is its bird life. While we can never guarantee spotting any kind of wild animal, the island is known for its population of puffins. As the lords of the island, they love to nestle in grassy areas atop the high cliffs, showing off mostly during spring and summer.
It makes sense that people journey out on a boat to Staffa, not just for the chance of seeing Lord and Lady Puffins in their natural habitat, but to see (and photograph) the incredible island itself.
This is a Scottish island many people know. When visiting Scotland, seeing the dramatic mountains and landscapes of the misty Isle of Skye is high on many people’s travel bucket lists. For good reason. Not only is Skye stunning, but it’s also easier to access than a lot of the other islands (since its bridge allows it to remain open all year-round). The alluring island has been used in several movies over the years, making its popularity as one of the best Scottish islands to visit grow even further.
For the film buffs out there, you might be interested in visiting the Quiraing. This landslip formation is like something out of a dream. Standing on the edge and gazing out over the landscape, you might recognise this area from movies like:
There’re a few walks in the area you can do, so bring your walking sticks. Just make sure to hold onto your beanies and scarves, it’s a tad windy up there!
One of our favourite places on this top Scottish island is the Old Man of Storr, one of Skye’s most prominent and dramatic icons. This is another one you can walk. Mind you, it’s a pretty steep climb, so make sure your bag is light. This otherworldly rock formation was used in the movies Prometheus and The Wickerman (1973).
Then there’s the magical Fairy Glen. A truly unique little spot, with its moss-covered trees, tiny loch, ancient ruined ‘castle’, and its fairy circle made of stones. Makes for a great photo, as with pretty much anywhere in Skye, but you may also recognise it from a scene in Stardust.
The point is: the Isle of Skye is amazing. Film lovers will get a kick out of seeing some of their favourite movies in the flesh (as it were) and it really is the ideal landscape for photographers. There’re very few places in Scotland that are as dramatic and mystical as the Isle of Skye and it’s no wonder one of our most popular tours is the 3-day Isle of Skye from either Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Right up the top of Scotland, about 32km offshore, you’ll find the Orkney Islands. While there are more than 70 islands that make up Orkney, only about 20 are inhabited. As with pretty much anywhere in Scotland, you’re in for a treat with stunning scenery and coastlines at your fingertips. However, what we think qualifies Orkney as some of the best Scottish islands to visit is how rich in history these isles are.
There are so many to choose from, but Orkney’s most famous archaeological treasures are:
These relics draw people year after year. It's a fairly inaccessible place over winter, but when the wind dies down around April (don’t hold us to that), the sun returns and animals appear. Spring is a great time to see puffins, lambs, seal pups, and all manner of cute animals. Plus, if you’re really lucky and time it right, you may just see the Northern Lights.
Like much of Scotland (in particular the best islands we have named), having a car to visit Orkney is going to be your best bet. Better still, we have several adventures that can take you to Orkney, including our 5-day Orkney & Scotland's Northern Coast tour from Edinburgh and our 3-day Orkney Explorer tour from Inverness, just to name a few.
The best Scottish islands to visit list goes on and now it’s time to explore the Outer Hebrides, a 130-mile-long archipelago of about 220 islands, only 15 of which are inhabited. Lewis and Harris are the two most frequented islands for visitors, but don’t forget about the rest.
Much like Orkney, you’ll get a kick out of the historical sites, nature reserves, and over 50 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Take the Callanish Standing Stones, for example, which were erected over 5,000 years ago, on the Isle of Lewis. Or the Cladh Hallan Roundhouse, a Bronze Age-Iron Age settlement, on the Isle of South Uist.
But gosh we just love those Outer Hebrides beaches. The Isle of Berneray, for instance, is abundant with rocky bays and white sandy beaches. Or there’s North Uist, which is said to be more water than land, covered in sand and machair, low- lying grassy plains. Even on Harris you won’t be disappointed, as much of its landscape is dominated by those picture-perfect sandy beaches and flower-infused machair.
Perhaps you’ll charter a boat out to the Flannan Islands, a landscape rife with incredible views and unsolved mysteries. At the turn of the 20th century, an entire crew of lighthouse keepers vanished from these islands never to be seen again. It’s unlikely to happen again, right? We reckon it’s worth the risk for the views alone. Though, you may have to fight the puffins for the best views.
Tempted to see these best Scottish islands to visit for yourself? Join us on our three day tour to Lewis and Harris from Inverness and dive deeper into Scottish culture to discover the stories and heritage behind these beautiful beaches.
Last on our best Scottish islands list, but certainly not least, we have the lovely Isle of Arran. Its nickname is “Scotland in miniature”, which tells you just what a perfect little island it is to visit.
Arran has all of the above and more, from the Machrie Moor Standing Stones to Arran Coastal Way. It’s the kind of place where you can get a little bit of everything you might want from a Scottish island. Coastlines and beaches, dramatic mountain peaks, mystic forests, culture and local produce. Not to mention it’s relatively easy to get to from both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
One thing we love about Arran is the range of activities available for those who love to keep their holidays active. Whether you love a good hill walk, or enjoy a spot of golf, biking over mountain ridges or paragliding along a stunning coastline, Arran has it.
In particular, those who love to self-drive or rent a campervan will adore the flexibility and opportunity this best Scottish island to visit brings. Alternatively, we can of course take you there on a Rabbie’s tour, like our 3-day Isle of Arran Adventure from Edinburgh.
So, that’s it from us for now. As you can see, you’ll be missing out on a whole lot if you ignore the best islands on your trip to Scotland. Especially if you’re eager to see ancient sites like standing stones, you’ll find most of them on the islands. It really is a unique experience and will make your Scottish trip that much richer. Imagine how jealous everyone back home will be when you post a picture of you standing on a cliff’s edge at the very tip of the northernmost island in Scotland. Quite jealous. Just saying. Be sure to stay up to date with all our latest adventures and new tour departures when you sign up to our newsletter.