This year we have more summer holidays in Scotland than ever – and we are lucky because there is so much to discover. Fragile island communities were rightly closed to visitors during Covids, but as restrictions ease our vacation planning can begin cautiously.
A windy CalMac ferry always means the start of a good time, but there is no shortage of inspiration for those planning a first-time island vacation or looking to discover something new this year.
Of course, there are a few things to consider. Always book your ferries in advance to guarantee departure times. Also, keep in mind that shops and gas stations with limited opening hours can be rare, so don’t get caught. Many islands use more cash than the mainland, so don’t just rely on bank cards.
Be prepared for unpredictable weather, so don’t forget your waterproof clothing, mosquito repellent and sunscreen for those “four seasons in one day”. It’s also good to have some flexibility with your plans – go to a ceilidh or Highland Games when the opportunity comes, and take local recommendations. The spontaneity is part of the fun.
If you love beaches – visit Tiree
In Gaelic, Tiree TÃ¬r bÃ rr fo thuin is called, which means “the land under the waves”. It’s an island so clearly formed by the sea and the wind, with beautiful long, white beaches stretching into the sand dunes while sand is blown inland to form the lush sandy beach where wildflowers bloom. As one of the sunniest and windiest places in Scotland, mosquitos are less of a scourge in summer and the perfect spot for an active beach vacation. isleoftiree.com
Tiree also hosts the Tiree Wave Classic windsurf competition every October – the longest running professional windsurf event in the world. But not just for professionals – Tiree is the ideal place to try a wide range of water sports, regardless of age and ability. Learn to surf at Blackhouse Watersports, where friendly instructors will equip and be ready to “paddle and surf” as you hit the waves on beautiful Balevullin Beach. blackhouse-watersports.co.uk/surf-tiree
The intrepid can also try kitesurfing here. Wild Diamond Watersports is based on Loch Bhassapol, where you can learn to windsurf and stand up paddleboard (SUP) in the shallow freshwater hole – ideal for beginners. Wild Diamond also offers windsurfing lessons, kayak rentals, and sends instructors and equipment to every suitable beach on the island. wilddiamond.co.uk/activities/kayaking
For a day ashore, take a coastal walk around the dramatic western headland of Ceann a ‘Mhara. Take time to visit An Iodhlann, the historic center of Tiree in Scarinish, to learn about the fascinating history of the island and its people. aniodhlann.org.uk/exhibitions
Book an excursion with Tiree Sea Tours to take a closer look at the famous Skerryvore lighthouse or look for whales, basking sharks and dolphins. Tireeseatours.co.uk
For an active family vacation – visit Arran
If you’re not sure whether an island vacation will keep the family happy – let Arran convince you. With beaches, hills, great food and plenty of outdoor activities, there is something for everyone. Arran is easy to get to from central Scotland and can also be reached by public transport as trains from Glasgow meet the boat at Ardrossan for the short ride to the cheerful port town of Brodick.
There is a wide range of accommodation for every family – from the luxurious four-star Auchrannie resort to inviting B & Bs, small hotels and campsites. If you want to be right on the beach, Seal Shore Campsite is in Kildonan, shown on the left, is ideal. There are plenty of vacation rentals too, but they tend to be booked well in advance with families returning year after year.
Pony riding is available at North Sannox and at Cairnhouse Stables in Blackwaterfoot, where expert guides can take you to the hills or along the beach. A visit to Machrie Moor’s ancient stone circles is a must (and is a doable walk, even for little legs). Older children should cope with the hike on the goat rock when the weather is good.
Each golfer in the family has seven courses to choose from, or you can buy a pass to visit them all golfonarran.com. The 12-hole course in Shiskine is one of the most scenic in the country and cannot be overlooked – non-golfers can paddle while playing on the beautiful Blackwaterfoot Beach. shiskingolf.com
Or why not go to Kildonan to watch seals sunbathe and have a happy few hours rock pooling? If you are lucky you can spot otters here too.
With three cheese factories, a brewery and a distillery on the island, gourmets are also in good hands on the family-friendly island. In fact, artisanal food production has a long tradition on Arran.
If you love history – visit Lewis
Constantly haunted by the thundering waves of the Atlantic, windswept Lewis is a beautiful but unforgiving place to live and farm, but tough souls have lived here for over 6,000 years, making it the ideal place for a historic vacation. Take the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway across the Minch and imagine what a treacherous crossing it must have been in the past.
The most famous historical sights of the island are the Neolithic menhirs at Calanais. Hewn from the ancient metamorphic Lewisian gneiss, the standing stones were erected around 5,000 years ago and were older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. In Calanais, four rows of standing stones radiate from a central stone circle that forms a cross, with at least 15 smaller stone circles nearby. This reveals the immense importance of Calanais in the past – even if the reason remains a mystery from ancient times.
A newer construction but still over 2,000 years old, Dun Carloway is one of the best-preserved brochs in Britain. Brochs are round stone structures from the Iron Age that were most likely built by powerful families as houses and defenses. There is evidence that Dun Carloway was used for various purposes up to the year 1000.
Go back in centuries and learn about farm life at The Blackhouse at Arnol, where a peat fire is still burning in the open fireplace. Visit the museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle for an interactive tour of the history and culture of Lewis – from prehistory to modern times. You can also see how six of the Lewis chess pieces – who inspired part of the plot in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – have returned to the island after their long exile at the British Museum.
If you love food – visit Mull
For a gastronomic island adventure, head to Mull, an island that takes its food seriously and where residents are rightly proud of their excellent produce. So come with a hearty appetite and get ready to eat yourself all over the island. mullandionafood.co.uk
With about 300 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise that seafood is a specialty. Fresh fish is landed daily and can be enjoyed in many cafes and restaurants across the island. Try Cafe Fish or Hebridean Lodge in Tobermory, Am Birlinn in Dervaig or Ninth Wave in Fionnphort (reservations recommended for all). For casual dining, the small Creel Seafood Bar at Fionnphort Pier serves fish and chips, scallops and warming bowls of Cullen Skink, while the Fisherman’s Pier Fish and Chips Van at Tobermory Harbor is also highly recommended.
It’s easy to get top products here. Isle of Mull Oysters operates an honesty box system on Croig Pier, as does Inverlussa mussels on the banks of Loch Spelve. The Ethical Shellfish Company sells delicious hand-dipped scallops that you can collect from Salen Pier (or have them delivered to your home along with other Mull delicacies). ethical shellfishcompany.co.uk The Tobermory Fish Company specializes in smoked fish.
Isle of Mull Cheddar is made on Sgriob-ruadh Farm and is one of the few raw milk cheeses made in Scotland. Visit the lovely Glass Barn Cafe to try it. sgriobruadh.co.uk/visit
For sweet treats, be on the lookout for Island Bakery Cookies and Isle of Mull Ice Cream.
Mull is fertile soil for growing new and innovative produce – Isle of Mull Seaweed makes award-winning seaweed chutneys. isleofmullseaweed.com The Mull and Iona Food Trail is a great resource for finding manufacturers and restaurants dedicated to showcasing local food mullandionafood.co.uk
If you love wildlife – visit rum
For nature lovers, the Isle of Rum, a National Nature Reserve, is a very special place. Home to seals, highland ponies, otters, red deer, highland cows and over 200 different species of birds, it is a bird watcher’s and naturalist’s paradise. The wildlife thrives on Rum due to the diverse habitats and remote location as well as the careful maintenance and care by the island community and residents. nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-naturreservats/rum-national-naturreservat
Rum is not the easiest island to visit. Ferries operate on a complex seasonal schedule from Mallaig, so planning ahead is essential. Accommodation is limited, with a small guest house, a bunkhouse, shelters and a campsite *. Rum has one of the largest colonies of Manx shearwaters in the world, with over 60,000 pairs nesting in the mountains. White-tailed eagles also thrive here after a successful species reintroduction in the 1970s. Golden eagles breed on the island.
There are three short hiking trails from Kinloch Harbor, each with plenty of wildlife viewing potential – the Northside Nature Trail, the Otter Hide Trail, and the Coire Dubh Trail. Take your binoculars, take your time, and enjoy.
*see isleofrum.com/placestostay for updated property information as some restrictions will still apply in 2021 to protect this small community