Scotland on Sunday Travel - Scotland’s treasured islands

There’s nothing quite like setting sail for one of Scotland’s treasured islands. Travel writer Peter Naldrett tells us the top picks from his new book.

It’s worth taking the time and planning to get up close with the beautiful sea stack, The Old Man of Hoy.
It’s worth taking the time and planning to get up close with the beautiful sea stack, The Old Man of Hoy.

After the 18 months we’ve collectively endured, many of us are going to be looking for a special place to escape. Some will head for the hills, others to the coast – but over the last three years I’ve been hopping from island to island and have found many places ideal for a much-needed retreat.

There are over 6,000 islands dotted around Britain, around 135 of these are inhabited, and I’ve picked out 200 of the best to feature in my new book, Treasured Islands.

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More than half of the book focuses on Scottish islands, a testimony to the important of our offshore communities and economies to the country as a whole.

The range of islands found off Scotland’s coast is astounding and there’s sure to be a new place waiting for you to fall in love with, whether you’re into adventure sports, food and drink, scenery or history.

One of the most memorable experiences I had when writing the book came on the island of Berneray, which is accessed via a short causeway from North Uist.

The Outer Hebrides get more than its fair share of storms, with wind and driving rain, but thankfully my visit to this island came on a gloriously sunny day, with curious sea otters peeking out of the water and scampering around in the rocks.

After enjoying a lovely lunch in the local café and parking up at the end of the long, twisty road that heads out to the famous beach, I walked through the dunes and stood in awe of the seemingly endless stretch of sand that frames the island.

Skara Brae on Orkney, the best example of a Neolithic settlement in Western Europe.

You’re likely to have the beach at Berneray to yourself and it’s tempting to stay for hours and soak up the huge, dramatic sky as it crashes down towards the sea and sand, creating a landscape ideal for any painter’s canvas.

Berneray has the appearance of a tropical island, but with a very distinct northern flavour. It’s hypnotic. Further south, on the delightful Isle of Mull, tourists pose for pictures alongside the harbour at Tobermory. The backdrop is the array of colourful homes and shops made famous in the hit children’s BBC television series Balamory.

Although it hasn’t been made for well over a decade, Balamory is still shown on television meaning there’s no shortage of families looking for the homes of Josie Jump and PC Plum. Tobermory is a secret foodie heaven and you’ll be enchanted by the local bakeries, the fish company and the handmade chocolate available here. Stay at Glengorm Castle, just outside the town, and you’ll enjoy the wonder of their Whisky Room, where folk from all over the world come together to chat and sample a range of drams.

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Service comes with a smile. The folk of Mull are well known for their welcoming character, and I discovered this myself on arrival as the car indicated I had only four miles of fuel left with a way to reach the hotel.

Berneray in the Outer Hebrides has hypnotic skies and beaches that you may have to yourself.

Horrified to see the small petrol station had closed ten minutes ago, I was delighted when the people inside reopened the pump so I could continue my journey. It was a stunning welcome to Mull, and allowed me to get settled in before one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.

The full disc of the sun slid below the sea’s shiny horizon on a late summer evening.

History buffs should book their trip to Orkney, where you can experience the atmospheric wonder of standing stones, ancient villages and neolithic burial chambers.

Many of the ruins discovered on the Orkney Mainland are as old as the pyramids but far more understated and minus the crowds.

Brough of Birsay, the remains of a Norse Village, on Orkney.

The highlight is Skara Brae, the best example of a Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. Discovered in 1850 and with waves crashing onto the shore just metres away, it’s an incredible setting.

You can discover how people lived in this harsh environment 5000 years ago – and see how they included fitted furniture as part of their house design.

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A few miles further north you can – if tides allow – cross the pedestrian causeway to Brough of Birsay. This tiny, windswept island has a lighthouse perched at the top of the hill and is a perfect place to look out to sea and along the Orkney Coast.

But it’s at the bottom of the hill where the real interest lies, in the remains of a Norse village.

That ancient civilisations were able to squeeze out a living here is fascinating enough, but that the foundations of their buildings remain is nothing short of incredible.

Again, you’re likely to be one of only a handful of people exploring. If it were located 200 miles further south it would be swamped with tourists and have a pricey visitor centre next to it as well. Make sure you also allow time to visit the famous decorative balls at Orkney Library. The building in Kirkwall has a fabulous, light-hearted social media presence and has followers from all over the world. Pop in to say hello and you’ll be in good company – JK Rowling once visited when they announced they were holding an afternoon discussing some of her books.

The brightly-painted houses of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

From Orkney you can also reach one of the key natural wonders on any of our islands. Take the ferry to Hoy and drive to the far side of the island before beginning an intriguing trek along the coast.

Pass a picturesque waterfall crashing off a cliff into the sea and then stand in amazement before the Old Man of Hoy.

Many see it from the ferry as it sails to and from Scrabster, but it’s worth taking the time and planning to get up close with this beautiful sea stack that has limited days before it tumbles into the water.

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Peter Naldrett is the author of Treasured Islands, published by Bloomsbury and out now (Paperback: £18.99)

Useful links:

Information on island-hopping holidays

Lots of information on things to do, where to stay, where to eat and lots more.

A website welcoming visitors back to Orkney, updates and latest information available.

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