Guided Tours of the beautiful Scottish Islands
Scotland is island-rich, with some of the most awesome scenery in the United Kingdom. There are nearly 800 islands around Scotland, scattered around its western and northern coastline. Each has its own individual character, identity and charm. Yet only 60 of these Scottish islands are populated, and ferries run to only 46. No point on any island is greater than eight kilometres from the sea. Exploring these islands on a Scotland tour, with their sea-lochs, moors and grasslands dotted with sheep and cattle, is to walk through Scottish history. There are crofts abandoned during the Highland Clearances, ancient standing stones and brochs. The diverse geology and climate of the more remote islands influenced local landforms and land use, creating a unique culture and heritage.
This post explores the best places to visit on the Scottish islands, moving clockwise from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Don’t miss these beautiful highlights if you’re considering Scottish island tours! We also include links to help you plan your tour of Scotland and explore some of the Scottish islands’ colourful history.
Scotland Tour; The island of Arran
First of all, travel from Glasgow to Ardrossan, and catch the ferry to Brodick on the island of Arran. Scholars believe Arran was populated at the end of the last Ice Age. The Vikings sold it to the Scots after the Battle of Largs 750 years ago. People describe Arran as Scotland in miniature, because of its rich combination of mountains, low hills, lochs, streams and glens. The island also boasts a number of Neolithic burial tombs and Bronze Age stone circles. It’s said Robert the Bruce got the signal to reinvade Scotland here in 1306, while his followers were harassing the English garrison at Arran’s Brodick Castle. This lovely red sandstone 13th century castle has a round tower and a walled garden, with a fine rhododendron collection and large wooded garden beyond. Today, Arran is well known for outdoor activities and its whisky, cheese, and oatcakes.
Scotland Tour; Kintyre
Next, travel by ferry from Lochranza across Kilbrannan Sound to Claonaig on the long peninsula of Kintyre. You’ll find magnificent scenery as you move northwards along the peninsula towards Oban. You’ll cross the Crinan Canal and travel through Kilmartin Vale. Stop off to visit the fine eight hectare garden at Arduaine, administered by the National Trust. It’s famous for its spectacular displays of rhododendrons and azaleas. You can also visit Dunadd Hill Fort in Kilmartin Glen, home to the Gaelic kings from the fifth to eight centuries.
Due to its busy ferry trade, the port of Oban is often referred to as the “Gateway to the Isles”. From here you can take the ferry across to Craignure on the island of Mull.
Scotland Tour; Island of Mull
Mull is the third largest of the Hebrides islands. Its scenery includes rough moorlands, forests, many sea lochs and the mountainous rocky peak of Ben More (966 metres). Ben More is part of a landscape developed from separate flows of lava over 50 million years ago. Some of these flows cooled into masses of columnar basalt, most of them hexagonal or pentagonal in shape. Weathering created terraces in the higher country and a stunning coastline, especially the cliff scenery in the south where the ‘organ pipe’ columns are found.
The complex struggle between rival clans in their hope for favour, ascendancy, and land control in the name of religion is demonstrated on Mull. As Norse control diminished, by 1266 the Lord of the Isles had gained ascendency. Because of an indiscrete allegiance, King Robert (the Bruce) allocated this powerful position to the Macdonald clan. They held this role until 1543 when the Campbells gained ascendancy. During these times both the MacLeans of Durat and the Mackinnons of Mull, although aligned with the Macdonalds, were able to maintain their status with the Campbells. Today you can visit the 13th century Duart Castle, the ancestral home of the chief of the MacLean clan. The Chief of the MacLean Clan restored this imposing building overlooking the Sound of Mull in 1910.
The pretty fishing village of Tobermory is the main centre on Mull and has colourful buildings lining the harbour. The British Fisheries Society built the town in 1788 and today it is the main centre for Mull. Major General Lachlan Macquarie (1761 – 1824), Australian Governor for 22 years, is a native of Mull, born on the island of Ulva. The National Trust of Australia maintains his mausoleum at nearby Gruline.
Scotland Tour; The Islands of Iona and Staffa
Next, make a pilgrimage to Iona and Staffa, two tiny but historically-significant islands off Mull’s western coast. Staffa has a similar geologic formation to Northern Ireland’s Giants Causeway and the basalt formations on Mull. Fingal’s Cave is one of many caves on the island formed through wave action and other weathering agents. This is one of Scotland’s natural wonders and the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.
Tranquil Iona is the birthplace of Celtic Christianity in Britain. Consequently, it became the traditional burial ground of Scottish Kings, Clan Chieftains and the Lords of the Isles. Iona’s restored abbey stands on the site where the Irish saint, Columba, began his crusade in 563. Christianity spread from here to other islands and to the mainland, but repeated Viking plunders, starting in 795, forced most Christian activity to return to Ireland. The Protestant Bishopric of the Isles annexed the church in 1617, and the Church of Scotland restored the abbey in the early 1900s. Today there is a nunnery, founded about the same time as the monastery, a burial ground and the main abbey surrounded by St Columba’s Shrine, the site of St Columba’s cell, some high crosses and two chapels. Many of these buildings were built in the 13th century.
Crofters once used Iona for summer grazing of sheep, but all the livestock left in 1997. This has led to a regeneration of the island’s vegetation. Puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, common shags and gulls nest on the island, and the surrounding waters provide a suitable environment for numerous seabirds, grey seals, dolphins, basking sharks, minke, and pilot whales.
Next, take the ferry from Fishnish to Lochaline, then drive via Fort William to Mallaig. Then it’s a ferry trip across to Armadale on the lovely Isle of Skye.
Scotland Tour; The Isle of Skye
Skye derives its name from the Viking skuyo meaning “cloud island”. It’s the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, yet thought of as part of the Highlands. Skye is home to common seals, grey seals, sea otters, great black-backed gulls, hooded crows, herring gulls and oystercatchers. It’s also rich in flora, with a number of rare species including a sorrel native to Iceland. Driving through Skye gives you spectacular scenery at most turns in the road. At its southern end on the Sleat Peninsula, you’ll find Armadale Castle and the Clan Donald Centre. A large diverse garden with several unexpected plants species adjoins the castle. John Macdonald, Australia’s first land commissioner, named Armidale in NSW after this location in the 1830s.
Another outstanding feature of Skye is the Cuillin Hills. These are quite bare in places with few trees, but have lots of bare rock, heather, gorse and fern. You’ll also see many abandoned crofts that pay testament to the brutal Highland Clearances which followed the battle of Culloden in 1746. These clearances allowed landholders to cleared crofters off fertile land to make way for their sheep. Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge on Skye after the battle of Culloden. Flora MacDonald assisted his passage, and the Skye Boat Song commemorates this event. A French vessel rescued him, saving him from those chasing him for the £30,000 reward.
The town of Dunvegan, northwest of Portree, grew up around Dunvegan Castle. This is the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod and the castle has been their home for well over 700 years. It has many clan relics on display, including a Fairy Flag with a most interesting history! Nearby, visit the Talisker Whisky Distillery for a wee dram.
After exploring Skye, continue on to the islands of Lewis and Harris. First of all, drive to Uig in the north of Skye, stopping off to see the Old Man of Storr and Quirang. Then catch a ferry across to Tarbert on the island of Harris, to continue your tour of Scotland’s islands on the Outer Hebrides.
Scotland Tour; The Inner and Outer Hebrides
The Hebrides, divided into Inner and Outer groups of islands, is off the northwest coast of Scotland’s mainland. Don’t miss the Outer Hebridean Island of Lewis, known for its wild moorlands, and the more mountainous Harris, home of Harris Tweed. The Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides, is renowned for the dramatic peaks of the Cuillins as well as Flora MacDonald’s famous flight across the sea with Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Isle of Mull is home to the burial place of Lachlan Macquarie – a significant character in Australia’s early history. The nearby tranquil islet of Iona is the birthplace of Celtic Christianity in Britain and traditional burial ground of Scottish kings.
These westernmost islands, the Outer Hebrides, are made of some of the oldest rock on earth, laid down over 3,000 million years old. Gaelic is still spoken here, part of an enduring culture brought by the Irish Celts. The relative isolation of the Outer Hebrides is probably responsible for its maintenance as a spoken language.
For centuries, the peat bogs on the eastern shores provided islanders with fuel. Prior to this, the woodlands covering the islands would have been the main source of energy. The Viking raiders certainly made extensive use of the woodlands for fuel and the lack of woodlands may be due to this. Today, there are only a few natural areas of woodland, as well as those planted in the mid 19th century near Lews Castle. Humans have lived here for 6,000 years, living mainly off the sea.
Scotland Tour; Harris and Lewis
Tarbert, the capital of Harris, is on the narrow peninsula to the south of Lewis. Both are remote and almost treeless, including countless waterways and miles of white sandy beaches. The main centre is Stornoway, in the northeastern side of Lewis. Don’t forget to try the local cheese and smoked fish! From here you can drive across to Arnol on the western coast, and visit the Blackhouse to learn about crofting life.
One of the clues to the early culture of Lewis is the standing stones of Calanaish. In fact, these form a famous archaeological monument of the Outer Hebrides, equivalent to Stonehenge in the south of England. This megalithic complex has 13 stones in a circle with a series of radiating stones. The Neolithic people who built the arrangement probably used it to determine events related to the sun and the moon. Don’t miss Iron Age Carloway Broch (or Dun Carloway). A broch is an ancient round stone building used for housing and protection. Despite its age, Carloway Broch is well preserved. Scholars believe building began in the first century BCE, and it was occupied until 1300. In 1972, archaeologists found evidence of past hearths, together with ash and pottery.
Scotland Tour; The Scottish Highlands
After spending time on Lewis, take the ferry from Stornoway across to mainland Scotland’s dramatic northern coast at Ullapool. Then drive through the Scottish Highlands to Thurso, across the northernmost tip of Britain. This route takes you through varied Highland scenery, from mountainous moorland and dazzlingly white beaches to gently undulating green pastureland, home to Highland cattle.
While travelling this route, stop off at Knockan Crag and visit the Smoo Cave at Durness. The spectacular rock formations at Knockan Crag are internationally famous, being one of the most important sites for understanding the formation of Northern Britain’s landscape. Don’t miss Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain (John o’ Groats is nearby). On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the Orkney Islands to the north, and the length of Scotland’s north coast.
After exploring Thurso, take the short ferry trip from Scrabster across the Pentland Firth to Stromness on the main Island. You’ll sail past the rock stack known as the Old Man of Hoy, and the red sandstone cliffs of St John’s Head.
Scotland Tour; The Orkney and Shetland islands
The northern islands of Orkney and Shetland are closer through language, lifestyle and history to their Nordic neighbours than they are to Lowland Scots. Just over 300 kilometres from the Norwegian coast, the Shetland Islands were under Norse rule until 1469. Shetland has tiny ponies, seals, and colonies of sea birds, as well as historical treasures such as Jarlshof, home to humans for over 3,000 years. In contrast, the Orkney Islands lie within only 10 kilometres of mainland Scotland. They are, however, perhaps even more famous for their dramatic coastal scenery and abundant marine bird life. They also have arguably Europe’s greatest concentration of prehistoric sites.
This part of Scotland played a part in both World Wars. It housed Italian POWs, was one of Churchill’s harbours, and was one of the sites for the secret transport of personnel via the “Shetland Bus”. This ran to and from Norway during WWII.
Wander through the narrow medieval streets of Stromness, an ancient port, and learn about the lives of local identities. These include the poet and writer George Mackay Brown, polar explorer John Rae, and Australian shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser. Captain Cook’s ships, Discovery and Resolution, called in to Stromness in 1780 on their return from the south following Cook’s murder. Whaling ships, bound for the Davis Strait, began to call into the Stromness harbour during the 1770s. These whalers forged links with the whaling industry which continued until the early 1900s.
The prehistoric sites on the Orkneys are diverse. Maes Howe, for example, is a burial chamber dated to 2500 BCE, and Skara Brae is a cluster of even older Stone Age dwellings. Skara Brae was a thriving village long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids. In 1850, wild winter storms ripped the grass from a high dune beside the Bay of Skaill, exposing an immense midden and the ruins of its ancient stone buildings. The Australian archaeologist and philologist, Professor V. Gordon Childe, excavated Skara Brae from 1927 to 1930 when he was the Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.
Other relicts on the Orkneys include the Ring of Brodgar, the third largest such structure in Britain, and the Standing Stones of Stenness. The enormous Stones of Stenness are all that remains of a great stone circle on an ancient ceremonial site. These sites all form parts of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site’.
The main township on the largest of the Orkneys is Kirkwall. Its name comes from the Old Norwegian kirkjuvagr meaning church bay. Here you can visit St Magnus Cathedral, known as the ‘Light in the North’. The Viking Earl Rognvald founded the cathedral in 1137 in honour of his uncle, St Magnus. Other nearby places of interest include Broch of Gurness and the Rennibister Earth-House.
Scotland Tour; The Shetland Islands
You can sail between the Orkney and Shetland islands via overnight ferry. Northlink Ferries have all the attributes of a mini cruise liner, with ensuite cabins, a restaurant, bar and lounges.
The Shetland Islands are about 100 kilometres north of the Orkneys, with a Gulf Stream climate. Both the Shetlands and Orkneys have close links to the Nordic countries through language, lifestyle and history. The Shetlands are just over 300 kilometres from the Norwegian coast and were under Norse rule until 1469. Today, about 14 of the 100 or so islands in the Shetlands are occupied, with a population just over 27,000. At least seven distinct civilisations inhabited the Shetlands. The Vikings are the most famous, and they were more influential here than on the Orkneys.
History began on the Shetlands and Orkneys with hunter-gatherers following the northward retreat of the glaciers and ice sheets. Neolithic people with farming skills followed. They also had a culture interested in building megalithic structures. The Iron Age people were significant between 350 BCE and 200 CE, leaving behind the round stone houses called broch. One study records that there are the remains of 110 such buildings in the Shetlands. If the tides and weather permit, visit Mousa Broch, the finest surviving Iron Age broch tower in Britain. It stands at a height of over 13.3 metres.
The names of some of the Shetlands reflect the influence of Celtic missionaries. The Vikings were the next people to visit, during the eighth and ninth centuries. Many settled here after their initial raids. Their influence remains a significant part of local genetics and the cultural traditions of today’s population. The local lexicon is enriched with Nordic words, and the fire festival, Up Helley Aa, is held in Lerwick as a placatory gesture to the Norse gods.
Margaret, a Scandinavian princess betrothed to James III of Scotland, received the Orkney and Shetland Islands as her dowry in 1468. She went on to have three children – the first of whom became James IV.
While you’re at the spectacular southern tip of Shetland, visit the puffins at Sumburgh Head Bird Sanctuary, adjacent to Shetland’s first lighthouse. Nearby you’ll find the extraordinary settlement site of Jarlshof, a site embracing 4,000 years of human history. Jarlshof contains a remarkable sequence of stone structures. There’s a late Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age village, an Iron-Age broch and wheelhouses, Additionally, you’ll see a Norse longhouse, medieval farmstead, and a 16th century laird’s house.
After enjoying the Shetland Islands, catch the overnight ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen, and then travel on to Edinburgh.
Scottish Islands tours and the best of Scotland
Odyssey has a range of programs touring Scotland, as well as Scottish island tours. Our Islands of Scotland and Shetland specialist tour is a unique 20 day tour exploring the culture and heritage of the Scottish islanders. Click here for the full itinerary!
If you’re keen to discover more about the island’s recent history and industry, try our Britain’s History through its Canals and Railways tour. This tour examines Britain through the lens of the Industrial Revolution. It includes scenic rail journeys and visits to the bridges, viaducts and aqueducts that facilitated enormous economic and social change.
Enjoy walking tours? Try our Walking Rural Britain tour, designed to introduce active walkers to the incredible variety of walks across Britain. On this 22 day fully escorted small group program we enjoy walks in Kent, Cornwall, and on the Wales/England border. We also spend four days in the Lake District, and then head up to the Scottish borders. In Scotland we have a day walking on Arran, where you can see the Stone Age monuments at Machrie Moor.
If you prefer strolling through gardens, our Small Group Tour of British Gardens might be for you. This tour mainly focuses on England, although we spend the first three days in Edinburgh. We spend 18 days visiting 33 locations across Scotland, England and Wales. In Edinburgh, we visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, Dirleton Castle and gardens, Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat.
Read more about trips to Scotland in our blog posts, Visiting Scotland: Standing stones, neolithic history and whisky and Country Spotlight: Tours of Scotland and Best Islands in Scotland.