If you decide to visit the Scottish islands you will not be disappointed. Stunning landscapes, breathtaking views, highland cows and whisky are only few examples of the beauty of this place. But where should you go? When? How? In this article we will try to answer some of the most recurrent questions!
- Which is the best Scottish island?
- How to get there?
- Do I need a car?
- Is it expensive?
- When should you go there?
- Any “not tourist” recommendation?
Which is the best Scottish island?
This is by far the most popular question! Although we visited some of the most popular islands in Scotland (there are over 900!), we don’t have a precise answer. The real answer is “it depends”.
Isle of Skye
Skye is by far the most tourist island and, in our opinion, still the most beautiful. However, being very popular means also that you may struggle to find last minute accommodations, it is generally more expensive and it can be “crowded” (always crowded for a Scottish standard….some pubs can be full).
Orkney is recommended for history and animal lovers! Here you can explore the the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the majesty of Maeshowe or the beauty of the standing stones and of the Italian chapel. On top of that, Orkney is also a popular destination among bird watchers. Do you want to see the puffins? This is the place to go!
Harris & Lewis
Harris & Lewis (don’t be confused, it is the same island. The south part is called Harris, the north Lewis) is also very nice. Harris is more rough and mountainous while Lewis is mostly flat and rich in peat. Three interesting facts about this island:
- Gaelic is still currently spoken throughout the island;
- Locals are very religious and on Sunday all shops are closed (make sure you do your grocery before, in Stornoway the mini market nearby the petrol station is the only shop open on Sunday);
- The fantastic beaches of Harris and Lewis are popular destinations for surfers. Just make sure you will get a good wet suit, the sea temperature is quite low up there!
Isle of Mull
Finally, we visited Mull but only for a few days. According to some Scottish people, Mull is the most beautiful island in Scotland because it is as beautiful as Skye but with less tourists! We went there is winter, it was nice but also foggy and dark at the early hours but we definitely enjoyed our time there. Three good things about Mull:
- You can visit the fantastic village (and its distillery) of Oban on the way to Mull
- you can climb a Munro (click here to learn more about it) on the island
- From Mull you can visit the fantastic Iona abbey or the stunning rock formations of Staffa!
We think that would be enough to go there.
How to get there?
This is why Skye is probably the most popular island. You don’t need to take a ferry, there is a bridge that connects the main land to the island. For all the other islands you will have to take a ferry across.
To go to Orkney we took a ferry from the tiny port of Giles Bay. You can also take a ferry from Aberdeen but it’s more expensive than driving all the way up. You can do it in one full day, if you depart early in the morning from Edinburgh you will be on the island by mid/late afternoon.
We went to Harris & Lewis passing through Skye and we strongly recommend you to do the same if you have the time! We took a ferry from Uig on Skye to Tarbert on Harris where you can stop for a visit to the fantastic Harris distillery. On the way back we took a ferry from Stornoway to Ullapol. The journey is quite long but you can enjoy the cheap and delicious Scottish breakfast on the ferry (don’t forget to try the Stornoway black pudding, local delicacy).
There are plenty of ferries between Oban and Mull. It’s very easy to get there and it doesn’t take long. If you have the chance, try to spend a couple of days in Oban. It’s a really pretty village with a fantastic distillery. Two good reasons to stop.
For tickets and timetables, have a look at the Calmac ferries website.
Do I need a car?
The simple answer is no but…..it’s strongly strongly recommended! Realistically you can go to the islands with public transport but you would get stuck in one place with little possibility to go around also because many places are not accessible without your own vehicle. If you decide to hire a car and head towards Skye, make sure you pass through Glen Coe and stop at Eilean Donan Castle, two stunning places in Scotland!
If you go to Orkney and you don’t want to use a car, we suggest you to hire a bicycle in Stromness and take the ferry across to the Isle of Hoy. Cycling to the Old man of Hoy is the perfect day trip without a car!
Just to be clear, there is no much traffic on the Scottish islands. Quite often the only traffic you find is caused by sheep sleeping along the road.
Is it expensive?
It’s not cheap. Skye remains the most expensive island, followed by Mull and Orkney. Harris & Lewis is definitely the cheapest one but the ferry ticket to get there is more expensive so, at the end of the day, there is no much difference. On Skye, for example, you can expect to pay at least 25£ a day/each for the accommodation (the cheapest ones), there are plenty of airbnb on the island.
Curious fact: Over the last few decades Skye has become so popular among tourists that a lot of the houses have been bought by wealthy people (Scottish people say “mostly English” but we don’t have any evidence of it) and they are now on rent with AirBnB. That has caused a massive surge of house prices to the point that now locals cannot afford anymore to live on the island. The result of it is that many people have now left the island to live in the mainland.
When should you go there?
Summer is probably the most popular season but it is not necessarily the best, particularly because of the midges. For more information about the weather, have a look at the “Scotland page” on our website. Be aware that even in mid summer it’s going to be cold and, possibly, wet. So be prepared with a good waterproof jacket!
Any “not tourist” recommendation?
On Skye go to the Fairy glen
On Orkney go to Mull Head
On Harris & Lewis go to see the alpacas and other animals at this fantastic farm
On Mull…we don’t really have one. We stayed in an AirBnB nearby Bunessan that was really nice though!
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