The wildly beautiful coast of Scotland is scattered with hundreds of islands and islets shaped by the relentless pounding of the sea and the ever-changing weather. Sublimely secluded, all are unique, forming a world apart that is little-known and accessible to the very few – yours to explore from the comfort of our delightfully small ship, Hebridean Princess. Experience their magic and mystery; revel in their rich diversity from the Firth of Clyde to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and over the Pentland Firth to the Northern Isles with their distinctive Nordic feel. Come and discover these precious island gems.
Influenced by the mild North Atlantic Drift, Arran is a wildlife haven rising to high peaks, including four Corbetts. At the foot of the highest, Goatfell, nestles 16th century red-sandstone Brodick Castle, close to Brodick town. Fifteen miles (24 km) to the north, the 14th century ruined castle of Lochranza was once a royal hunting lodge.
Named after a 6th century saint and world famous for its unique beach airport, Traigh Mòr, Barra is a beautiful, tranquil island with a fascinating history. Golden beaches backed by sandy, wild flower-dotted machair surround a more rugged interior. The main centre is the once prosperous herring port of Castlebay, where the MacNeils’ medieval fortress, Kisimul Castle, perches on a rock outcrop off shore.
Rising to 409 feet (124.7 m) on its only hill, Rueval, this low-lying and windswept isle is barely 6 square miles (15.5 km2) in area, carpeted by machair in the west and peaty moorland in the east. Long serving as a stepping-stone between the Uists, Benbecula was Bonnie Charlie’s hiding place before his legendary escape to Skye, disguised as Flora MacDonald’s maid.
Crossed by the Highland Boundary Fault, Bute is an isle of distinctly contrasting landscapes from the bare, rounded and craggy uplands of the north to the lower, undulating and fertile south. Golden beaches fringe the west coast, many with views over the Sound towards Arran. The Victorian resort of Rothesay is the only town.
Joined to Sanday by a causeway, secluded Canna lies less than 5 miles (8 km) off Rum. Dubbed the ‘Garden of the Hebrides’, this elongated, green and grassy isle is capped by magnetic Compass Hill at 458 feet (140 m) in the north. Canna was one of the earliest Christian settlements, associated with St Columba, who was later adopted as its patron saint.
The rocky, wild and virtually treeless island of Coll was first settled in the Stone Age. Dotted with ruined cottages, this bird haven is picturesquely clad in flower dotted machair, fringed by silver-white beaches, and offers refreshing bike rides and walks.
Another bird-haven, home to some 200 bird species including the elusive corncrake, and 400 species of flora, Colonsay is a landscape of many contrasts from machair to woods, moors to green fields and rocky to sandy cliff-backed shores. Its finest beach is dramatic Kiloran Bay and inland lie the exotic woodland gardens of Colonsay House.
The contrasting Cumbraes afford fine views to the mainland, Arran and Bute. Green and undulating Great Cumbrae is home to the only town at Millport, elegantly lining Millport Bay. Here the tiny but beautiful Cathedral of the Isles, regarded as Britain’s smallest cathedral, seats only 100 worshippers. Rough and rocky Little Cumbrae, held by the Hunters and later by the Montgomeries, was maintained as a royal hunting forest. Its surviving ruins include the castle demolished by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1650 and a small chapel dedicated to St Beya.
Bought out by its islanders in 1997, Eigg has been settled since prehistoric times and was once the seat of the Lord of the Isles. Its rich past is marked by Iron Age forts, a 6th century church, Viking burial mounds and a graveyard that is a moving testament to the 395 MacDonalds massacred in a cave by the MacLeods in 1577. Rising sheer above the plateau of this wildlife reserve, columnar pitchstone An Sgurr adds magic and mystery.
The reputation of the tiny, hilly yet wel lpopulated isle of Eriskay extends far beyond its shores. Home to a rare pony breed, once used in the mines, it was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie first stepped onto Scottish soil in 1745. Eriskay is also famed as the site of the sinking of the SS Politician offshore in 1941, which inspired Compton MacKenzie’s novel and the 1949 film, ‘Whisky Galore’.
Northern Isles Fair Isle’s landscape of high red-sandstone cliffs descends to a low coastline in the south. Archaeological sites bear witness to its occupation since the Bronze Age. An important watch-point for migrating birds, Fair Isle has been the site of a permanent observatory since 1948. The island is also synonymous with its unique geometric knitting, of possible Spanish or Scandinavian origin.
Three miles (4.8 km) west of Kintyre, green and fertile Gigha, ‘God’s’ or ‘Good Island’, is now owned by its community. In addition to dairy farming, goats are reared to produce a distinctive, fruit-shaped cheese – one of the isle’s main exports. Ardminish is the only village and site of Achamore House set in 50 acre (20 ha) gardens planted by Sir James Horlick.
Historically and geographically apart from Lewis, Harris is a small region of many contrasts, offering wonderful walks and the beauty of Luskentyre beach on its sandy western shores. Rodel boasts the finest Pre-Reformation church in the Western Isles and the Harris tweeds produced here are world-famous. Although tenacious Gaelic strongholds today, Harris and neighbouring Lewis were the last of the Hebrides to adopt the language.
Two miles (3.2 km) long and less than one mile (1.6 km) wide, this tiny island rises to 1,050 feet (314 m) on Mullach Mòr. First known as ‘Inis Shroin’, ‘Island of the Water Spirit’ in Old Gaelic, its name suggests its role as a sacred place before the arrival of St Molaise in the 6th century. Sites of interest include a spring said to have healing properties, the saint’s runeinscribed hermit cave and traces of a13th century monastery.
The exiled Irish prince and missionary St Columba reached Iona in 563 to found his community, landing at pebbled St Columba’s Bay in the south, as the legend goes. Originally dating from the 12th century, the restored abbey remains a much-revered place of pilgrimage. An enjoyable walk across the windswept machair leads to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, with its Spouting Cave, facing the open Atlantic and America.
Erstwhile seat of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, mild Islay is renowned for the peaty single malts of its eight operating distilleries. Islay abounds in birdlife at the RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, hub of a barnacle geese colony and historic treasures from the 18th century round church at Bowmore to the late 9th century High Cross of Kildalton.
Crowned by the landmark Paps, Jura is a place of wild beauty offering a haven to a wide range of wildlife, including some 6,500 red deer. Glaciated raised beaches are a marked feature of its western shores, with the treacherous Corryvreckan Whirlpool to the north. Jura has one tiny village of 200 residents, Craighouse, where the small Jura Distillery has produced a unique single malt since 1810.
Tiny Kerrera tranquilly guards the entrance to Oban from its two sheltered harbours at Ardentrive Bay and Horse Shoe Bay. Historically a stepping-stone for cattle drovers between Mull and the mainland, this fertile and hilly isle is crowned by the Renaissance MacDougall stronghold of Gylen Castle.
Lewis is the largest and most northerly of the Hebrides, forming one island with Harris. Most of its wild landscape, rising to 1,800 feet (549 m) in the south, is cloaked in peat bog - hence its Gaelic name ‘Leodhas’, meaning ‘marshy’. The Callanish Standing Stones and well preserved Carloway Broch 5 miles (8 km) to the north stand testament to its occupation since prehistoric times. The port of Stornoway is the only town.
Isles Home to the burgh of Kirkwall, the Orcadian capital, and more recent Stromness, dating from the 16th century, Mainland is the most densely populated of the Orcadian isles. Its fertile soil attracted settlers from prehistoric times, as witnessed by the UNESCO World Heritage Neolithic Heart of Orkney, and later Pictish remains. As with the whole of the archipelago, the influence of the Norsemen was strong.
Home to Shetland’s only burgh of Lerwick, Mainland is the third-largest of the Scottish Islands. The long peninsula of South Mainland, south of Lerwick, consists mainly of mixed farmland and moorland with many important archaeological sites, including Sumburgh and Scalloway. Blessed with varied scenery ranging from the charming to the wildly dramatic, the island is a paradise for birds and wildlife from otters to orcas.
At the south tip of the Hebrides, these three uninhabited Bishop’s Isles, swathed in white sandy beaches and flowerscattered machair, are awe-inspiring from the sea. Around Berneray 600 feet (183 m) cliffs, nested by thousands of seabirds, tower up dramatically from the sea. In the north, the Lewisian gneiss ‘Hermit Island’ of Pabbay, settled by an early Christian community, as its Old Norse name implies, is an ideal spot on which to land.
The flat and fertile Isle of Muck scattered with wild flowers and rimmed by silver shell-sand beaches, is a peaceful haven for puffin, kittiwake, fulmar, shearwater, seaeagle and the porpoises that swim off its shores. Port Mòr is the only village, where the tearoom and craft shop serves delicious home baking.
Fringed by an indented 300 miles (480 km) coastline, Mull is an island of sweeping moors broken occasionally by picturesque clearings. Colourful Georgian-fronted Tobermory is the capital and Craignure the main port, south-east of which lie Scottish Baronial Torosay Castle and ancient Duart Castle, seat of the MacLeans.
Oronsay is a small, privately owned tidal island located south of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides with an area of just over 2 square miles, connected to Colonsay by a tidal causeway, An Traigh (The Strand). Having no facilities of its own, it is entirely dependent upon its tidal access to and from Colonsay. The island is best known for Oronsay Priory, a 14th century Augustinian ruin, probably on the same site as the original, founded in 563 by St Oran. Along with southern Colonsay, the island became a Special Protection Area in December 2007 in order to preserve their resident population of Choughs and breeding Corncrakes.
Located between Skye and the mainland, Raasay, ‘Isle of the Roe Deer’, is relatively low-lying in the north and mountainous in the south, rising to 1,453 feet (443 m) on central Dun Caan. Visited by Boswell and Johnson in 1773, the island is most famous as the birthplace of Scottish Renaissance poet Sorley MacLean. The main village is Inverarish.
Capped by Askival (2,664 ft/ 812 m) in the rocky Cuillin, the wildlife haven of Rum is a National Nature Reserve and research centre. Owned by Scottish Natural Heritage since 1957, it was bought by the Lancashire industrialist John Bullough in 1879. At the turn of the 20th century, his playboy son, Sir George built the folly of Kinloch Castle, which remains a time capsule of those headier Edwardian days.
The last 36 Gaelic-speaking residents of St Kilda evacuated the main island of Hirta at their own request in 1930, thereby ending some 5,000 years of continuous settlement. Behind them they left a deserted village that survives today as an outdoor museum, roamed by Soay sheep. Renowned for its awe-inspiring bird cliffs and stacs, St Kilda’s remote and exposed Atlantic location makes visits weather dependent. The archipelago is now a double UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sanda, ‘Sandaigh’ in Gaelic, is a small, privately-owned island off the southern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula. An important bird migration and breeding point, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), housing the first bird observatory on the west coast of Scotland. Although the island is treeless today, north-western Wood Hill indicates that this was not always so.
One of the most northerly and third largest of the Orkney isles, fertile Sanday, named after its sandy shores, has been settled for some 5,000 years, as its prehistoric brochs and cairns attest. North Loch is home to a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the habitat of rare orchids, and the island’s birdlife is prolific. The main settlements are Lady Village and Kettletoft.
Located in the east of the Firth of Lorn, Seil is linked to the mainland by Thomas Telford’s ‘Bridge Over the Atlantic’ or Clachan Bridge, built in 1792-3. As one of the four Slate Islands, dubbed ‘the islands that roofed the world’, its quarries were worked for centuries, particularly around Ellanbeich or Easdale, where the 5 acre (2 ha) An Cala Garden lies on a slope to the east of the village.
Mentioned in Norse sagas, Shapinsay lies to the north east of Kirkwall in Elwick Bay, where the village of Balfour now stands and from where King Håkon IV of Norway assembled his fleet before setting sail for his eventual defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Standing stones provide evidence of mans inhabitation since Neolithic times and the Iron Age Broch at Burroughston. Cubbie Roo, the best known Orcadian giant, has a presence on Shapinsay. Today there is an RSPB and a Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve on the island as well as colonies of both Common and Grey seals.
Privately owned by the Nicolson family since 1937, the Shiant Isles are geologically outliers of Skye, ringed by basalt rocks, reminiscent of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway, that teem with thousands of seabirds. Mythically haunted by kelpies, the isles are a renowned wildlife haven for common seals, basking sharks, puffin, herring gull, oyster catcher, eider, shag and many more.
The largest of the Inner Hebrides, Skye was connected to mainland Scotland by the Skye Bridge in 1996. Created volcanically some 60 million years ago in the unique Black Cuillin, its awe-inspiring landscapes extending to the more rounded Red Cuillin and MacLeod’s Tables, are a paradise for walkers and climbers. Bizarre rock formations punctuate The Quiraing, with the Old Man of Storr, Trotternish to the north-east and Vaternish to the northwest. Enclosed by an indented 356 miles (570 km) long coastline, nowhere on Skye is more than 5 miles (8 km) from the sea.
Staffa, named ‘Stave’ or ‘Pillar Island’ by the Vikings, lying 6 miles (10 km) west of Mull, was formed volcanically at the same time as the Giant’s Causeway, cooling into mainly hexagonal black basalt columns. Cliffs rising to 131 feet (40 m) are riddled with caves, the most famous of which is Fingal’s Cave at Staffa’s southern tip, discovered by Sir Joseph Banks on 13th August 1772 en route to Iceland and named after legendary Irish hero, Finn MacCool.
One of the Orcadian isles, Stronsay was dubbed ‘Star Island’ in Old Norse after its irregular, multi-pointed coastline. This fertile and flat isle of rich farmland with excellent grazing for cattle supports an array of rare plant species, including the blue-flowered oyster-plant. The Vat of Kirbister in the east, near Odin Bay, is a spectacular feature of a varied coastline, with a number of pristine beaches. The present population of 380 is mainly based in the northern village of Whitehall.
Tanera Mòr is the largest of the Summer Isles, a cluster of scenic islets located off the coast of Ullapool. Atop a lush, grassy hill, the flat summit of Meall Mòr commands panoramic views over the surrounding area. The unique private post office issues its own stamps, and opens out of hours especially for our visits.
Enjoying long hours of sunshine, mild, fertile Tiree is the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides. This wild flower and birdlife haven, with shell-sand blown machair and surf-washed beaches, is much favoured by artists for its natural beauty and colour. Duns and brochs bear witness to its ancient history, while the white Thatched House Museum in Sandaig reveals its more recent crofting past.
A paradise for walkers, the tranquil Uists abound in geological and historical contrasts. The low-lying bird-haven of North Uist, scattered with green-blue lochans, is Norse and Protestant by tradition, and a world apart from the Catholic and Gaelic stronghold of South Uist. The second-largest of the Outer Isles, South Uist’s softer, undulating landscape is carpeted in flower-decked machair and fringed by dunes.
Situated off Mull, the tiny isle of Ulva is a traffic-free haven covering barely 2 square miles (5 km2) and home to only 16 permanent residents. One of the most ancient settlements in the Western Isles and erstwhile seat of Clan MacQuarrie, the island is now privately owned by the Howard family. Ulva’s past is well documented at Sheila’s Cottage Museum on the west coast.
The most southerly of the inhabited Outer Isles, Vatersay is sliced in two by a narrow bar of sand and machair. With dramatic beaches, spectacular wildlife and a history dating from the Bronze Age, this beautiful isle has much to offer. The population of just over 70 residents is centred mainly around Vatersay town in the south.
‘Queen of the North Isles’, Westray is one of Orkney’s most prosperous islands, engaged in farming and fishing. Its wide array of archaeological sites range from prehistoric settlements to medieval kirks. Wildlife and flora flourish, with seals and the extraordinary bird cliffs at Noup Head, nested by Arctic tern, gannet, guillemot, corncrake, razorbill, fulmar, teal, shoveller, tufted duck and puffin.
Lying off the east coast of Shetland’s Mainland, a little east of Voe, Whalsay, from the old Norse for ‘Whale Island’ is the 6th largest of the Shetland islands. Better known to Scottish fishermen as ‘The Bonnie Isle’, fishing is the foremost local industry with the main fishing fleet based at Symbister, the principal settlement. A museum has been created in the restored Symbister Pierhouse, also called the Hanseatic Booth, to exhibit details of fishing from centuries past, when German merchants from the Hanseatic League traded for the cured fish which were caught from open boats. The impressive Georgian mansion, Symbister House, overlooking Symbister harbour was built by the Bruce family in the early 1800s. The last resident laird died in 1944 since when the house has been the home of Whalsay School.
Inhabited since Neolithic times, the North Isle of Yell is the second-largest of the Shetland isles. Its coast is rocky in the west and low-lying and sandy in the east, with a central region of thick peat, the habitat of wild orchids. Noted for its otters, Yell is also home to a diverse bird population, including great and Arctic Skua at Lumbister RSPB Reserve in the north-west. Burravoe in the south-west is the main settlement.