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Scotland's Islands - a journey along the Highlands & Islands

The Scottish islands stretch along the north and west coasts. How many there are, what peculiarities they have and where to go on vacation, we'll find out in this article.

Follow me on a little journey. A journey along the coast of Scotland, starting in the north and going down to the south-west. We visit the many small and large islands that make up Scotland. Islands, each with its own character. Islands with their own culture. Islands that have played a role in history. And islands that can enrich our future trips to Scotland - because they offer fantastic and special nature and sights that do not exist on the "mainland".

Some of these islands are famous. Skye, Islay or the Orkneys are known to almost every tourist in Scotland. But the "Highlands & Islands" offer more. For example, islands that no one lives on anymore and that can only be visited with a day's expedition. Or barren rocks in the middle of the sea that were formerly used as a prison.

The islands reflect the entire spectrum of Scottish cultural influences: from the Vikings in the northern islands to the Gael in the southwest. And also in terms of landscape, hardly any island resembles the other. Rugged mountains in the Inner Hebrides, fertile tracts of land in the Orkneys and wonderful sandy beaches in the Outer Hebrides.

How many islands does Scotland have?

A total of 790 islands belong to Scotland, if you really count all the small islands. However, only about 130 Scottish islands are inhabited by humans.

Don't worry: we will limit ourselves to the most important of them.

Oh, our tour doesn’t take place in reality, of course, it’s a journey of thought. From north to south we drive the islands on the map. On the way we will visit some well-known islands, but also many less known ones like the Shiant Isles or Rona. I give a brief overview of important sights and stories about the island, name the size, location and the number of residents. At the end of our trip I have hopefully conveyed the diversity of the Scottish islands, highlighted their different characters and perhaps whetted the appetite for a visit.

So: let's go all the way north.

Northern Isles: From Shetland to the Faire Isle to Orkney

In the north of Scotland, above Sutherland and the Pentland Firth, a chain of islands stretches towards Norway: These are the Northern Isles - divided into the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Together they demarcate the North Sea in the east from the Atlantic in the west.

Two things make the Northern Isles - or as it was called in Old Norse: Norðreyjar - special: First, its many imposing buildings from prehistoric times, and second, the legacy of the Vikings and Norwegians.

In general, some of the residents feel closer to the countries in the north than Scotland or even the West Highlands. After all, Shetland and Orkney did not go to Scotland until 1471, before that they belonged to Norway. Gaelic is therefore not spoken at all on the northern islands and has no tradition there, rather Old Norse. But that has now completely given way to English.

Where the Vikings still celebrate: Shetlands

The Shetlands are already at the height of Norway's city of Bergen, which means long nights in winter and long days in summer. The Shetlands are divided into three larger islands: Yell up in the north, including Unst and finally Mainland, the main island on which the capital Lerwick is also located. The 2011 census comes to a total of 23,200 inhabitants on Shetland, of which 6,958 live in Lerwick alone.

If you don't want to cover the long way by NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen (all night) or from the Orkneys (around eight hours), you can take the plane. Flybe offers direct connections to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness - but also to Bergen in Norway.

Two of Shetland's top attractions are the Jarlshof and Mousa Broch. With a height of over 13 meters, the latter is the best-preserved brochure of all. It is located southwest of Lerwick and can only be reached by a small ferry.

The Jarlshof is located on Sumburgh, the southern tip of Mainland. Between the gentle green hills there are around 4,000 years of settlement history: from houses from the Neolithic Age to longhouses of the Vikings to a court of a nobleman in the 16th century.

Once a year, always on the last Tuesday of January, the capital Lerwick belongs entirely to the Vikings again. They march through the streets in helmets and armor, and at the end of the day they burn a Viking boat. This is the festival “Up Helly Aa”. As much as it is reminiscent of the old Norsemen, the Up Helly Aa tradition dates back to the 19th century, not the ninth. Still an event worth seeing - some refer to it as the “Viking Carnival”.

Between Sumburgh Head in the south of Shetland Mainland and Orkney's northernmost island, North Ronaldsay, lies the Fair Isle. It is famous for the knitted sweaters made here and for the diversity of birds. There is also a bird observatory here with overnight accommodation.

The island is only about three miles long, half as wide and is owned by the National Trust of Scotland, a non-profit organization for the preservation of nature and historical sites. Visitors can reach the Fair Isle three times a week on the Good Shepherd IV ferry from Sumburgh for around £ 30 including a car. A trip takes just under three hours. Alternatively, there is a Lerwick plane four times a week - price around £ 80 round-trip.

If we take the ferry from Lerwick and continue south for around 6 hours, we finally get to the Orkneys.

Neolithic legacy: Orkneys

This archipelago is shaped by its prehistoric past like hardly anything else. Even today there are always new discoveries and archaeologists are working diligently to excavate settlements and Stone Age buildings.

The Maes Howe burial mound, the Ring of Brodgar stone circle and the Skara Brae settlement together form the "Heart of neolithic Orkney", the heart of Neolithic Orkney. Together they are part of the UNESCO World Heritage. These monuments, of which there are many more to see on the archipelago, are extremely worth visiting. In addition, there are also dilapidated palaces, a cathedral and the impressive nature to marvel at.

The Orkney archipelago is relatively large, with 62 islands, and like Shetland, the largest is simply called Mainland. On it are the capital Kirkwall with 7,045 inhabitants (2011 census) and the much smaller Stromness with 1,758 people. Other interesting islands are Hoy with the famous Old Man of Hoy, as well as North Ronaldsay, which is famous for its seaweed-eating sheep - the meat is said to be particularly tasty.

The Orkneys can be reached with the Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen and Scrabster near Thurso or the Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay. Flybe also maintains some flight routes from Kirkwall to the major cities of Scotland or to Bergen in Norway and to Sumburgh in the Shetlands.

»Detailed information and sights about the Orkneys

But if we now leave the northern islands, we drive along Scotland's north coast, where there is initially nothing except the tiny islets of Sule Skerry and Sule Stack, which offer just enough space for birds - and in the case of Sule Skerry, a lighthouse.

If we now follow these small islands to the west on the map, we will come across the most remote foothills of the Outer Hebrides ...

Outer Hebrides: the chain of islands in the Atlantic

The Western Isles or Outer Hebrides stretch along the west coast of Scotland like a gigantic protective shield against the rough Atlantic. Since the Gaelic heritage of Scotland is still alive here, her official name is actually “Na h-Eileanan Siar” on official maps (O&S Maps) and the administration is officially called “Comhairle nan Eilean Siar” - that is, council or body of the western Islands.

The northernmost foothills of the Outer Hebrides are even at the level of the Orkneys, but nobody lives there anymore. Nevertheless, these islands are steeped in history.

Remote satellites: North Rona and Sula Sgeir

Located about 70 kilometers northeast of Lewis North Rona. The island is two kilometers long and one and a half kilometers wide. But that was enough that a vital community once flourished there. There was a village with a chapel and blackhouses that numbered around 30 souls. But rats had destroyed the harvest in 1680 and so all residents died of starvation. After that, individual shepherds lived here and let their animals graze. However, they had to leave the island after North Rona changed hands in 1844. After that, mostly only sheep were kept here, an attempt by two shepherds to regain a foothold there in 1884 ended with their death in 1885. Since then nobody has lived there for a long time - apart from a lot of seals and birds.

Today on North Rona there is an automated lighthouse and the remains of an old chapel that could date from the 8th century. Since it is very difficult to land here with a boat, there are so far only possible excursions to North Rona as part of a longer excursion over several days at Northernlight.

16 kilometers to the west of North Rona is the uninhabited one Sula Sgeir. As with the more eastern Sule Skerry (see above), the names "Sgeir" and "Skerry" seem to refer to the archipelago island from Old Norse, while "Sula" and "Sule" refer to the northern gannet.

And gannets, that's exactly what the Sula Sgeir has to offer the world. There are around 5,000 pairs of northern gannets on the rock, which is 830 meters long and 300 meters wide. Although Sula Sgeir forms a nature reserve together with North Rona, the so-called "Guga Hunter" are allowed to kill around 2,000 gannets a year and bring them to the mainland, where the "Guga" is a delicacy. Only selected people are allowed to go to the Guga hunt, because it is an honor and also very dangerous. On the rock, the animals are hunted, killed, torched and lowered onto wooden slides to the landing stage.

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Peter May took up the tradition of guga hunting in his novel Blackhouse and made it even better known.

The big island: Isle of Lewis

Let us accompany the Guga-Hunter on their way back from Sula Sgeir - the ship goes straight to the south and meets its home port of Port Nis (English: Ness) a little below the Butt of Lewis. This is where the Isle of Lewis, the largest island in the Outer Hebrides. Actually Lewis is not an island of its own, but is related to Harris in the south, but because these two parts are separated by rather high mountains, two areas have formed with different names.

Lewis capital, Stornoway is the largest settlement in the Western Isles: The 2011 census counted 5,714 people there. Stornoway has an airport with flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the neighboring island of Benbecula. The enlarged car ferry that connects Lewis with the city of Ullapool on the mainland also lands at a new pier in the harbor.

The landscape is dominated by the peat bogs in the north, while the south-west is becoming increasingly mountainous. The coast is mostly rocky, but in Uig and the surrounding area, for example, beautiful sandy beaches have formed - and not only there.

Mysterious lighthouse deaths: Flannan Isles

Let's take a short excursion from Uig, 33 kilometers as the crow flies, to the west into the Atlantic. There is another small archipelago here that Flannan Isles. Eight small islands. The largest of these is called Eilean Mòr and has - now - an automated lighthouse. The archipelago has been uninhabited since 1971, but before that there were still lighthouse keepers here.

It is precisely around these people that the islands' great secret is based. Because three guards disappeared from the island in unexplained circumstances. Even today it is a mystery how and where the men got lost. It is believed that they were simply washed away by the sea.

In the middle of the Minch: Shiant Isles

Now let's jump to the other side of the Isle of Lewis. About eight kilometers east of the strait between the mainland and the Isle of Lewis there are other notable islands that belong to the Outer Hebrides: the Shiant Isles, in Gaelic “Na h-Eileanan Seunta” - the enchanted islands. The three islands are privately owned and are no longer inhabited today. Sea birds and basalt cliffs actually make them worthwhile destinations for tourists too.

However, currently only the provider Seaharris offers charter trips from 500 pounds to the Shiant Isles.

Lewis little brother: Isle of Harris

Back to Lewis and Harris. The separation of the two runs at Loch Sìophort (Seaforth) in the east and Loch Reasort in the west.

The north of Harris then initially swings upwards: The mountain An Cliseam, for example, reaches up to 799 meters, on whose flank the pass road runs towards the main town of Tarbert. Tarbert is also the Isle of Harris ferry terminal to the east. The destination is Uig on the Isle of Skye.

After the town of Tarbert, Harris breaks up into a stony east with many small bays and a sandy west with dream beaches that could have come from the South Seas - however, the temperatures in the Atlantic are much less friendly here than, for example, in Fijis. Both sides are extremely worth seeing - the main road runs to the west, but you can also explore the east via the Golden Road.

The main road, however, ends in Leverburgh on the southern tip of Harris. Not only does the ferry to Berneray and the Uists leave from Leverburgh, the expeditions to a very special group of islands also start here ...

Atlantic outposts: St Kilda and Rockall

The archipelago is around 90 kilometers away from Harris St Kilda. The main island of Hirta or Gaelic Hiort (pronounced “deer”) forms a picturesque bay, which then rises to a high mountain and drops steeply on some sides. Here are the remains of a village that was only abandoned on its own initiative in the 1930s. Now only a few researchers and soldiers live here, together with goats and various birds. Then there are the neighboring islands of Boreray (Gaelic Boraraigh) and Soay (Gaelic Soaigh). On Boreray and the two pinnacles next to it, there are huge colonies of different species of seabirds. Hirta is therefore also a world natural and world cultural heritage.

A trip to St Kilda only takes a day by speedboat for most people and costs around £ 200 each. But this experience will certainly not be forgotten. Absolutely worthwhile for adventurers. Another tip: watch out for the skuas there.

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But St Kilda is not the westernmost island. From there it continues about 310 kilometers, then you finally come to the westernmost outpost of Scotland: Rockall. An island that lives up to its name, because it is actually nothing more than a solid rock. The vegetation consists of algae, large animals can only be found here in the form of sea birds. Although no one can live here, Great Britain insists on ownership of the island. Sure: Because this also results in a claim to the surrounding water in a 200-mile radius, including fishing and oil drilling rights. Iceland, Ireland and Denmark quarrel with Great Britain for ownership. But the United Kingdom had already had a crew stationed there and had an official badge affixed.

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Rockall still has visitors: From amateur radio operators to Greenpeace, there have always been people on the island. Most recently, the adventurer Nick Hancock had himself brought to the island in a survival capsule and stayed there for 60 days - a new record!

But from this inhospitable place back to the beautiful islands of the Outer Hebrides: The Uists.

Sandy beaches and a special soil: Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay

The ferry from Leverburgh on Harris takes about an hour through the maze of small rocks in Caolas na Hearadh, the Sound of Harris. She strikes a hook to the southwest, where she is on the island Berneray (Beàrnaraigh) and there spits the cars and passengers back on land.

All of the following islands from Berneray to Eriskay are connected by stone dams on which the main road runs. The landscape is characterized by moorland, repeatedly eaten away by large and small freshwater holes and by sea gullies in the east.While the east is rather rocky, long sandy beaches wind along the entire west coast and on them the rare Machair, a special soil of these islands that allows wildflowers to bloom right by the sea.