It feels like cheating to give just one name to the islands of Scotland. Orkney is more than its Neolithic sites. Islay has more than just great whisky. Still, in the spirit of lists (because who doesn’t love a good listicle when planning their holiday?), we decided to do this roundup of the best Scottish islands and the thing that, above all, stands out. The crème-de-la-crème, the pièce de résistance, if you will.
Now it’s Mull, Iona & Staffa’s turn. Why are we doing these three together? Often that’s how they’re explored, three in one go, but each island has its own unique selling point.
Let’s start with the Isle of Mull, the motherland, if you will. It’s the second-largest island in the Inner Hebrides (after Skye), sitting off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Mull is a whopping 338 square miles and is the fourth-largest island in both Scotland and Great Britain. Despite that, it’s still a relatively quiet place, the home of just around 3,000 people.
But as the weather calms and the sky clears, the population of Mull increases with (you guessed it) travellers from around the globe. In July, Mull hosts their own Highland Games and the island crowds with spectators and competitors alike. Outdoor activity and nature enthusiasts have over 480km of coastline to enjoy, and there’s even the island’s highest peak Ben More, reaching 3,169 ft, if you'd like to bag a Munro.
It’s also a haven for wildlife. Mull is known as Scotland’s Eagle Island, a place where the only kind of traffic jam you’ll get into is one with hairy coos lining the road. If you’re a fan of the TV programme Springwatch, you might be familiar with internet stars Skye and Frisa, two of Mull’s most famous white-tailed eagles.
And with just a hop, skip, and a jump across the coast you’ll find the tiny isle of Iona. It’s a mere 2km wide and 6km long, with a population of around 120 people. Many people will visit Mull and stop over for a few hours to see Iona’s highlights, including its beautiful abbey. Iona is a holy isle and is often known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Keep an eye out for dolphins on your ferry crossing!
Finally, there’s Staffa. Just when you thought they couldn’t get any smaller, Staffa is a mere ½ mile long and ¼ mile wide. This otherworldly mass of land looks like it could be a landing platform for aliens, but what actually happened can be explained by science. Made up of hexagonal columns, Staffa was formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions, when a surge of lava spread into the Atlantic Ocean. Years and years passed, with savage waves crashing against this formation, to form the incredible island you see today.
While we love a scientific explanation, we can’t help but also adore the legend that says Staffa was built by an Irish giant called Fionn mac Cumhaill. And 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.
As you can see, there’s plenty on offer across these three islands. But for those of you with a love of animals, whether you’re a photographer, a biological illustrator, or a bird-watching enthusiast, this is the place for you.
To see puffins...
Head to Staffa. These comical birds are nicknamed the “clowns of the sea” thanks to their black and white feathers, bright beak, and orange legs. While they may not look like a spritely animal, they come to life on the open sea, often diving as far down as 60 metres to catch their supper.
The best time of year to see a puffin in Scotland is between April and August. Thousands of them will start to gather along coastlines and islands to begin the mating season. Not to mention, their beaks change colour throughout the seasons, and it’s during spring when they change to that outrageous orange colour they’re known for.
The best time to visit Staffa to see these beauties is from April through to August. There are plenty of companies that run boat trips out to the island to give travellers a chance to see them nesting on the volcanic rocks. If visiting at low tide, you may also be able to explore Fingal’s Cave, the cavernous opening that goes deep inside the island... like a monster swallowing you whole. But don’t let that put you off.
To see eagles...
Mull boasts a large number of both white-tailed sea eagles and golden eagles. These creatures have a wonderland of a home, their habitats ranging from sea cliffs to white-sandy beaches. It’s not uncommon to see these two breeds flying together, perhaps warding off territorial ravens and hooded crows during mating season. But good luck to them, I say, since white-tailed eagles, for example, have a wingspan of over 2 metres once they hit adulthood.
You can see these beauties all year round. But coming to the island during April and September is best if you’d like to explore the island and learn more about these winged creatures on guided trips.
To see otters...
What is it about otters that make them so darn cute? It could be the fact that they often hold hands while floating on their backs, which keeps them from drifting apart while sleeping. *Cuteness overload*
Could be that baby otters have adorable nicknames such as pups, kits, or kittens. Could be that they have their own poop dance. Yes, we’re serious. When the time comes, they stomp their little hind feet and lift their tails, releasing what some researchers claim to be... violet-smelling scat. You’re welcome for that random piece of information.
Otter sightings can never be guaranteed, since they’re a little camera- shy. However, Mull is your best bet and there are even otter walking tours you could join. You can also head to Iona, as otters are often spotted in the area south of Martyr’s Bay.
To see woodland birds...
Greetings, birdwatchers. We see you. What’s so great about this group of islands is the fauna of the flying-variety are everywhere. Iona is one of the best spots in the UK to glimpse the rare and skulking bird, the corncrake. These shy, secretive birds often hide among irises, and you’ll likely hear their rasping call before you see them.
Over on Mull, all year round you’ll have a good chance of seeing a range of birds including robins, rock pipits, the chaffinch, and the stonechat. During summer, the meadow pipit makes an appearance. You might even spot the somewhat rare ring ouzel. If you’re not quite sure what these birds are, take a look on Google, we can assure you every picture will make you go ‘awww’.
The weather can be a touch unpredictable here in Scotland, and don’t forget that many birds don’t like rain any more than you do. So, if the weather is turning, perhaps going coastal is your best bet, where you might be able to spot seabirds and other animals like otters. But if the day is fine, it’s time to head inland and try your luck.
To see red deer...
Ah, the deer. An icon of Scotland, to be sure. There are supposedly around 6,000 of these gorgeous creatures roaming the open spaces on Mull. While the locals sometimes find them a wee bit of a nuisance, we say it's impossible to deny their cuteness.
These majestic animals are the UK’s largest deer. Many sport large antlers that branch from their heads like the limbs of an ancient tree. If you visit during their autumnal breeding season, keep an ear out for the males bellowing at each other over territory issues.
Not to take a turn to the dark side or anything, but you can also find them in local restaurants. You know... to eat. It’s a staple of the local diet, so why not give it a go?
On that note, we hope you’re as excited about the prospects of Mull, Iona & Staffa as we are. There’s a reason we head there on a small-group tour, like our 4-day Magical Mull, Isle of Iona & West Highlands from Edinburgh or our 3-day Mull & Iona from Glasgow.
As we said before, these islands have more going for them than their eclectic range of wildlife. Get ready for the stunning coastline, dramatic moorlands, moreish food, and probably a hairy coo or two.