As well as their world-class scenery, the islands of Shetland, Orkney, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides boast fascinating historic sites, a wealth of flora and fauna and some exhilirating outdoor activities. Here are Scotland’s most stunning paradise islands to put on your bucket list.
Lewis and Harris
Discover Gaelic culture, history and spectacular landscapes on the main island of the Outer Hebrides. Making up two parts of the same island, Lewis and Harris are known for their mountains, rugged coastlines, and pristine beaches with white sand and turquoise seas that wouldn’t look out of place in Thailand. Make sure to check out the world-famous Calanais Standing Stones on Lewis which date back 5,000 years. You can also cruise across to the volcanic island of St Kilda, which has the highest seacliffs in the UK and is home to the country’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins.
The most westerly isle of the Inner Hebrides, Tiree is windswept and devoid of trees but its dazzling beaches with aquamarine sea and pearly white sand could rival those anywhere in the world. With a population of 650, the island is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hawaii of the North’ by windsurfers who flock there for its consistent wind, waves and highest level of sunshine in the British isles.
One of the most beautiful of the Hebridean islands, Gigha has silver beaches, clear turquoise waters and beautiful sunsets. There are lots of archaeological and historic sites to explore and if you prefer greenery to beaches, the Achamore Gardens are colourful at any time of year due to the drier, warmer climate of the island compared to the rest of the west coast of Scotland.
Shetland was named in Lonely Planet’s top ten European destinations for summer 2019 and one of its highlights is a striking tombolo linking mainland Shetland with St Ninian’s Isle. The large natural sand causeway of St Ninian’s Isle beach has sparkling azure water on either side and is easily accessible from Bigton. You can also visit the archaeological site on St Ninian’s Isle.
A haven for families, wildlife enthusiasts and walkers, the Orkney island of Stronsay is just 12km long and its unusual shape means it’s home to miles of beautiful white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs and countryside. With a population of just 370, the island is still very much unspoiled and you can arrive there via seaplane from Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. The highlight of the island is an excellent view of three interlocking bays - St Catherine’s Bay, the Bay of Holland and Mill Bay.
At just 1.5 by 3 miles, Iona is a tiny island off the coast of Mull with a population of around 120. It’s known as ‘the cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland and attracts around 130,000 visitors each year to enjoy its peace and charm. White sand beaches and crystal clear waters make the island appear Mediterranean on sunny days.
Wild and untamed, this island was a favourite of author George Orwell who wrote his famous works 1984 here. It’s home to the Paps of Jura, three distinctive mountains which give fantastic views over Loch Tarbert, the northern half of Jura, the Garvellachs and Mull on a clear day. The island also has spectacular beaches - some of which are secret. Check out the white sands and rolling Atlantic waves on Machir Bay.
One of the most geologically diverse landmasses in the world, Raasay has rolling hills, native forests and secluded beaches, with the stunning panorama of The Cuillins mountains as a backdrop. Inver Beach is a beautiful spot, and is rumoured to have been a favourite picnic area for the Queen because it is so secluded. It’s said that the Royal Yacht Britannia moored just offshore so the royal party could be shuttled to the beach.
A list of Scotland’s paradise islands wouldn’t be complete without Skye, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes and scenery despite concerns about overcrowding. Perfect for walkers and hikers, the island is home to The Cuillin range, with 12 munros (peaks above 3,000ft). In the shadow of the mountains you can find Skye’s spectacular Fairy Pools, with crystal clear waters you can swim in on a nice day. At 50 miles long, Skye is the largest island of the Inner Hebrides and you can reach it either by ferry or bridge.
Known as the Queen of the Hebrides, Islay boasts dramatic seascapes and produces some of the world’s best whiskies. With nine working distilleries, which use the peat from the mosslands to produce smoky, peaty drams, the island is a whisky-lover’s paradise. The locals provide a warm welcome and excellent birdlife and seafood make the island a beautiful holiday destination even if you’re not a huge whisky fan.
With just 135 inhabitants, 10-mile-long Colonsay offers a haven of tranquillity with stunning scenery, diverse flora and fauna and world-famous archaeological sites. If you get the chance, head to the island during one of its many festivals that celebrate its music, culture and literature, such as the Ceòl Cholasa, an annual music festival held on the third weekend of September.
The most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, Barra is known for its beautiful beaches, hills and moors. You can enjoy sea kayaking around the island’s sheltered bays or take a short boat trip to visit Kisimul Castle, the ‘Castle in the Sea’ which sits on a rock islet. Arriving on the island by plane is an experience in itself, with the beach at Cockle Strand providing a runway between tides - it disappears under the sea at high tide.
Literally shaped like a diamond, the Isle of Rum has been designated as a National Nature Reserve and is a paradise for wildlife watchers, with eagles, shearwaters, red deer and Rum ponies just some of the species to be seen. With stunning beaches, plenty of walking to suit all levels - including over the Rum Cuillins - and the fascinating Kinloch Castle, it’s a little slice of paradise in Scotland.