Adventurous travelers looking for a different view of Scotland will want to take in the dramatic coastlines and wild beauty of Scotland’s intriguing west coast islands. From Islay, where some of Scotland’s top whiskies are produced, to the dramatic and historical Skye, to the rich archeological riches of Harris—the intriguing beauty and history of these remote islands provide an unparalleled experience of Scotland.
Various ferry services, including water taxies, car ferries and small passenger boats, can get you there. The only thing that will impede you is the amount of time you have to spend traversing the waterways and exploring the islands. If you have a special interest in photography, food or outdoor adventure, consider a guided tour or a sailing tour.
Lodging can be found at hotels, Bed and Breakfasts and guesthouses—many of them four and five star—and self-catering cottages and even some budget-oriented youth hostel.
Islay (pronounced eye-lah)
One of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands, Islay’s perhaps most noteworthy contribution to the world is its exceptional single malt whiskeys. But there is more to Islay than whiskey. It offers a diversity of arts, sports and music events. Some noteworthy ones include the Feis Ile—Islay Festival of Malt and Music, Islay Jazz Festival, and sporting events like the annual half marathon and the annual Ride of the Falling Rain, a 100-mile cycling event.
The largest of the islands of Argyll and the third largest in Scotland with 300 miles of coastline, Mull is known for its beautiful beaches and bays, wildlife (including the rare sea eagle), cultural heritage, and many historical sites. Sites to be on the lookout for include a bronze age stone circle at Loch Buie, various standing stones, iron age fortified duns and crannogs, medieval castles at Duart and Loch Buie, and grand baronial castles at Torosay and Glengorm. Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson set part of his epic book, Kidnapped, on the island.
Located about six miles by sea from Mull, this tiny National Trust of Scotland island is noteworthy for its imposing dark columns of volcanic rock and Fingal’s Cave, a huge sea cave immortalized by Mendelssohn in his Hebrides Overture. A diversity of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, and razorbills, visit each summer.
Isle of Iona
Iona is reached by a 10-minute ferry trip from Mull. Historically notable as the center of Irish monasticism for four centuries, today it’s widely renowned for the spiritual tranquility it exudes and its natural beauty. Iona Abbey is recognized as the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in the Western Isles of Scotland. The island is another gem in the National Trust portfolio.
Voted the 4th Best Island in the World by National Geographic, Skye is 50 miles long and the largest of the Inner Hebrides. In addition to its compelling salty sea air and raw natural beauty—rugged moor land, basalt columns with waterfalls spilling over them, wild rivers and rich sea-lochs—you’ll find dinosaur footprints etched in the rocks at Staffin Bay, and Neolithic chambered cairns and stone circles scattered across the countryside. All conspire to make this a world-class destination for walkers and climbers, and photographers. Of course, there’s also Talisker Distillery for fans of scotch whiskey.
Isle of Lewis
Located in the most northerly northwest corner of the Outer Hebrides, keep an eye out for dolphins, whales, and seabirds during your crossing from Skye to Lewis. From traditional crofting townships, the last lighthouse between Scotland and North America, and the island’s wild moorlands, to the famous standing stones (nearly 50 megaliths dating from around 3000 BC) and the mysterious ancient stone circlet at Callanais, and the fascinating circular stone fort at Carloway, to the remote district of Uig with its fine, sandy beaches and dramatic sea cliffs and rugged hills. This is, perhaps, the wildest of the Western Isles.
Famous for Harris Tweed, a locally produced handwoven cloth, this island shares a border with Lewis and is home to the highest mountains in the Outer Hebrides. On its west coast are some of Britain’s most spectacular beaches, including the stunning white sands of Luskentyre. The isolated and lonely east coast holds some of the oldest rocks in the world, many dating 3 thousand million years old. In the north, the landscape varies between mountainous and scoured lunar-like terrain. But the warm welcoming people are just as good reason to visit both Lewis and Harris.
Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she’s an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She’s also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.