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12 islands at the edge of Scotland

Boreray
Boat below the cliffs of Boreray, St Kilda

Do you ever have the feeling that you really want to get away from it all? Here’s our pick of some of Scotland’s furthest flung island locations…

Foula

The incredibly remote outpost of Foula is particularly chancy to reach – the ferry (passenger only) from the west of Shetland Mainland taking many hours is often cancelled by poor weather – many visitors fly in a tiny nine-seater plane from Tingwall. The sea cliffs here vertically for 370m at Da Kame – second only to St Kilda as the highest in Scotland.

Isle of May

Much easier to visit is the Isle of May, the most easterly of the islands in the Firth of Forth, served by regular boat trips from Anstruther in Fife and from North Berwick during the summer season. The island, ringed by fine cliffs, has a huge population of puffins – ensuring it’s status as a favourite wee island adventure.

Out Skerries

Less famed than Shetland’s other outlying islands of Fair Isle and Foula, the tiny isles of Out Skerries lie far to the east of the rest of Shetland. To the local residents they are simply ‘Da Skerries’. Two of them – Bruray and Housay – are linked by a bridge whilst a third once housed the lighthouse keepers from the tall light on Bound Skerry.

Barra and the Bishop Isles

Barra and Vatersay (which are linked by a causeway) are the most southerly inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. Blessed with stunning beaches and even a fine island castle, you can climb up to Heaval for a stunning view out to the now uninhabited Bishop Isles stretching away to the south – including lovely Mingulay and the most southerly of all, Berneray.

Unst – and Muckle Flugga

Unst, in Shetland, is the most northerly inhabited island in Scotland. It’s northwestern corner is taken up by the Hermaness National Nature Reserve – an amazing place with huge cliffs and staggering colonies of sea birds. Topping it all off is the view out to the most northerly land of all – the rocks and lighthouse of Muckle Flugga.

Papa Westray

Westray forms the remote and beautiful northwestern corner of Orkney, but its smaller neighbour Papa Westray is even more of an escape. It’s the last place you’d expect to find reputedly the oldest house still standing in northern Europe. Yet the Knap of Howar dates around 5,000 years – even older than Skara Brae.

Butt of Lewis

The most northerly of the Outer Hebrides is also the largest and most populated – the Isle of Lewis (really a part of the same landmass as Harris). It ends abruptly at the distinctive lighthouse at the Butt, looking out towards the Arctic. You’d need a very keen eye and incredible visibility to spot the far flung of outposts of North Rona and Sula Sgeir – the latter the scene of a traditional guga (juvenile gannet) hunt carried out by folk from Ness on Lewis.


Ailsa Craig

A familiar sight from the beaches of the Ayrshire coast, the great volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig is surprisingly far out – it’s position halfway between Belfast and Glasgow once earning it the nickname ‘Paddy’s Milestone’. Aisla Craig is many things – a bird reserve and spectacular gannetry, the source of most of the world’s curling stones, the site of a castle and lighthouse, an amazing summit viewpoint – and simply an unforgettable place to visit.

Ceann a’ Mhara, Tiree

Tiree is the furthest flung of the inhabited islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s known for its vast sandy beaches and it’s generally low-lying landscape, but on its far western coast it does have three fine if wee hills. Beinn Ceann a’ Mhara is the most westerly of all, giving views out towards the almost mythical lighthouse of Skerryvore if conditions are good.

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay is the most remote of the Orkney islands, an outpost most visitors aren’t even aware of. It’s home to a rare breed of sheep to which it gives its name; they are confined to the rocky shoreline by a stone wall which encircles the entire island. Munching on seaweed, their dark-coloured and distinctive meat is a real Orkney delicacy. The northern end of the island has the UK’s tallest land-based lighthouse, together with the stone tower of a much earlier one it replaced.

Fair Isle

Situated almost half-way between Orkney and Shetland, Fair Isle is home to one of our remotest communities. It’s famed for its hand-knitted sweaters – the genuine articles still very much available to buy here direct from the knitters. The island is also remarkable for its migrating seabirds – a mecca for keen birdwatchers. The bird observatory which burned down early in 2019 is set to be rebuilt, and will once again be a focus for visitors.

St Kilda

The St Kilda archipelago is often regarded as a the ultimate bucket-list destination for keen Scottish islophiles. It is Britain’s only double World Heritage Site for both its natural and cultural significance; its sea-cliffs are the highest in the UK, its stacks the most impressive, its location the most isolated. It was home to a remarkable community which existed in virtual isolation until the nineteenth century; it began to decline as the islanders were exposed to visitors and began to understand the comparative harshness of their lives here. The last St Kildans were evacuated at their own request in 1930, and today the main island houses an military base.

Our new book Scottish Island Bagging includes all these islands and many more. Packed throughout with photos and memorable experiences, its available from all good bookshops, direct from the publishers Vertebrate Press, or via Amazon.

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