With more than 790 offshore islands (around 95 are inhabited), Scotland offers ample opportunity for island hopping. From spectacular rugged landscapes and a wealth of exceptional wildlife to truly unique experiences, here’s why these rugged isles and enclaves should be on your must-visit list this autumn and winter.
Scotland’s islands are home to dramatic coastlines, scenic white beaches, rugged mountainscapes, heather-clad moorland and tranquil inland lochs. Now picture these enhanced by the russet reds and golden yellows of autumn or mountains dusted with snow in winter. Did you know that the far north islands of Orkney and the Shetlands are also the best places to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, in the UK? Outstanding displays of light dance across the sky and, thanks to long periods of darkness and clear nights, the best times of year to experience these phenomena are autumn and winter.
One word – whisky
The region of Argyll & The Isles off the west coast of Scotland is home to 23 inhabited islands, and on the Isle of Islay alone there are nine whisky distilleries to visit, including the most recent, the Ardnahoe Distillery, which opened in 2018. The oldest of the pack, Bowmore, can trace its roots back to 1779! Book onto a tour of one of these distilleries (be sure to check late season opening times), to experience the peaty, smoky flavour of the whisky that the island is famed for. The Laphroaig distillery, for example, offers a ‘Water to Whisky Experience’ until September, an extensive five-hour tour that includes everything from a distillery tour, a peat experience, a visit to the distillery’s water source and a taste from a selection of casks before bottling your favourite.
Autumn and winter are fantastic times to catch quirky festivals and top cultural events. Scottish Opera, for example, takes four singers and a pianist on the road to the Isle of Lewis in the autumn, bringing operatic highlights to all corners of Scotland. And probably one of the most unusual festivals is Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, which reflects the island’s Viking influence. On the last Tuesday of every January, this large-scale fire festival celebrates Shetland’s history. A dragon ship, which takes months to build, is set on fire, followed by processions and much merrymaking.
Scotland has castles galore – and the cooler months are a great time to explore. On the Isle of Skye, visit the magnificent Highland estate and home of the Clan Donald at the Armadale Castle, Gardens and Museum. Open until the end of November, it's the perfect opportunity to enjoy its beautiful gardens during the changing seasons. If castle accommodation is your style, head to the Isle of Lewis, After exploring the Victorian-era Lews Castle, which remains open in the autumn and winter in the afternoons, you can check in to one of its luxury self-catering apartments. The castle, in the island’s main town of Stornoway, also has its very own whisky bar.
Witness winter solstice
Orkney’s coastline is one of beautiful sandy beaches and is strewn with majestic cliffs and sea stacks, including the famous imposing natural structure of the Old Man of Hoy. But you’ll also find a very spiritual island, holding celebrations for the Winter Solstice. Join in these celebrations at the island’s Neolithic monument, the Standing Stones of Stenness, on 22 December in 2019.
Encounter even more Neolithic wonders
Explore the ancient wonder of the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, which date back five millennia. And one of the must-sees on a trip to Orkney is Skara Brae, the 5,000-year-old village that is regarded as the best-preserved Neolithic site in western Europe. It forms part of the Heart of Orkney Neolithic sites, along with Maeshowe, a chambered tomb, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. Visit the ancient capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, where you can explore the magnificent Viking Cathedral and the town’s many mysterious passageways.
Jura is one of the most gloriously wild places to visit in Scotland. Don’t forget your camera or phone as this is the place to spot wild deer; there are more than 5,000 of them on this narrow island, which is inhabited by only 200 people. Fondly known as ‘Eagle Island’, the Isle of Mull is one of the best places in Scotland to spot both golden eagles and white-tailed sea eagles, while Islay is famous for winter-migrating birds.
Whatever the season, a fantastic way to experience an island is by safari. On the Isle of Arran, Mogabout Arran Safari offers a coastal and forest adventure, exploring the mountainous and woodland areas of the island in a 4x4, taking you to some spectacular natural vantage points before learning about the history and folklore of the island.
You’ll avoid the crowds
There’s no doubt that avoiding peak high season on the islands means better availability and lower costs; and it’s a great opportunity to mix with the locals! And remember, as the Scots say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!
There are daily flights to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen, and three ferry points of entry too travelling from the mainland.
There are several daily flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Shetland, as well as ferries between Aberdeen and the main town of Lerwick every day, year-round.
Fly to Orkney from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Shetland.
Ferries travel from the western mainland (around a three-hour drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow) out to the Argyll & The Isles on a frequent basis.
There are two ferry services serving the Isle of Arran, from Ardrossan on the mainland to Brodick on the island. Ardrossan is a 45-minute drive from Glasgow.