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Five of the Best Scottish Isles Worth Visiting

Have you ever dreamed about sailing to Scotland's farthest-flung islands? Some of the most amazing spots around the Scottish Isles are often the ones that surprise you the most. From the Isle of Iona's turquoise seas to the Shetland Islands' wild ponies, each destination holds its own unique charm and hidden secrets.
Scotland river landscape

When it comes to exploring Scotland, often it’s hard to choose a place to begin. There is so much to see and do; you could easily spend a year here and not see it all. But once you leave behind the more iconic cities and highlands and head to sea, the true adventure begins.

Exploring Scotland by small expedition ship is the perfect way to dig deeper into a country that has long been defined by the sea. Without the hassle of overland travel and logistics, you can follow in the wake of Vikings and Celts as thousands of years of history emerge. By nature, expedition travel means that our journeys are dictated by many factors, especially weather, which means that each trip and each adventure is unique and different. There are many islands and archipelagos that make up Scotland, and all are worth visiting.

Scottish dancers on board the Ocean Endeavour, Scotland

© Liz Carlson

The Scottish Isles are best explored slowly. That way, you can take your time and soak up everything on offer. Some of the most amazing spots around the Scottish Isles are often the ones that surprise you the most. Whether you’re cruising along the wild edges of seabird cliffs in a Zodiac or walking along the footsteps of ancient monks or just sitting amongst the summer wildflowers, or even jumping into the turquoise seas for a swim, every moment around Scotland will delight and surprise you.

1. Isle of Iona – Scotland or the Mediterranean?

Iona turquoise water

© Liz Carlson

Less than two hundred people call the Isle of Iona home, and we can understand why—we would want to keep this beautiful gem hidden as well. With its white sandy beaches, charming community, and profound history, this little Scottish island packs a punch. In the summertime, on sunny days, the turquoise seas often beckon visitors and locals alike to hop in for a swim to cool off. Not exactly what many picture when envisioning an adventure around the Scottish Isles. With wildflowers everywhere, it couldn’t be more colourful.

Iona Abbey Complex

© Liz Carlson

Iona Abbey complex

Way way waaaaay back in 563 CE, the travelling Irish monk St. Columba landed on these same shores, building up the Celtic church here. A few centuries later, it’s believed the Book of Kells (a famous illuminated manuscript) was originally created here. The town of Iona is charming, full of cute local shops, great food, and plenty of history to soak up. Wander amongst the Abbey complex and get a feel for the profound history that took place here.

2. The Orkney Islands – a hub of Viking history

Skara Brae Orkney

© Liz Carlson

Stone-built house ruins in the Skara Brae Prehistoric Village

Some of the best prehistoric sites in Europe can be found on the Orkney Islands. You only have to spend a few minutes here to begin to understand just how special it is. Locals are proud to be from here, and there is often talk about Orkney’s independence, with it being so different from the rest of Scotland and the United Kingdom with its tremendous Norse history. The main town of Kirkwall is charming and popular with everyone, as well as other Neolithic sites around the islands, like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar.

Hall of Clestrain Orkney

© Liz Carlson

The Hall of Clestrain, childhood home of Arctic explorer John Rae

In the heart of Orkney, if you’re lucky, you might come across John Rae. Once a famous Arctic explorer, his name was erased from history when he helped put together the missing pieces of the fate of the Franklin expedition. The expedition had attempted to navigate the Northwest Passage but failed, and it is rumoured the men resorted to cannibalism before dying. It was not a good look in Victorian times, and Franklin’s wife led the charge of discrediting him amongst his peers.

The truth is that John Rae was one of the greatest Arctic explorers of his time. He was an expert on the culture and customs of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic, adopting their techniques of survival, which was frowned upon by his peers. Times have changed, and his name is being restored. One of the organizations Adventure Canada supports and partners with is the John Rae Society, which is working to restore his legacy, including the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain—his birthplace—on Orkney.

3. The Shetland Islands – more than just ponies

Shetland Island ponies

© Liz Carlson

The Shetland Islands are just about as remote as you can get in the United Kingdom. In fact, they’re so remote, that they relate to their Norwegian history just as much as their Scottish. You can even hear the influence in their accent. With incredible Viking history combined with epic nature and wildlife, the Shetland Islands are often high on the list of most beloved Scottish Isles. And we haven’t even gotten to their ponies yet. They often run wild and free across the islands in Shetland, looked after by generations of locals.

Shetland Islands fulmars

© Liz Carlson

Northern fulmars

With its wild cliffs, thousands of birds, and epic, rolling peatlands, the Shetlands Islands definitely ticked all the boxes of places curious and intrepid travellers love to explore. There are many places around the Shetland Archipelago that draw in visitors, many united by their love of wildlife.

Here seals frolic in the waters and some of the greatest bird colonies in Europe can be found. Razorbills, shags, gannets, fulmars, guillemots, and of course puffins dominate the seabird scene. Keep a sharp eye out for bonxies or great skua, which are known to bonk an unsuspecting visitor on the head if they wander too close to a nest.

4. Over the sea to Skye

Skye seal in water

© Liz Carlson

Who would have guessed that when Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to Skye, the story would inspire a song known worldwide? One of Scotland’s best-known islands has to be the Isle of Skye, tucked away on the west coast. A bucket-list spot for many, the rugged mountains, stunning lochs, and endless wildflowers appeal to all those drawn to nature. What’s not to love?

Skye mountainous landscape

© Liz Carlson

The largest and most famous of the Scottish Isles, Skye lords over the Inner Hebrides, and is home to some of the best walking and nature experiences in Scotland. Any place you call in on Skye is guaranteed to be amazing.

5. Lewis and Harris – where tweed and history collide

Calanais Standing Stones Lewis

© Liz Carlson

Calanais Standing Stones

There are so many iconic Scottish moments for visitors, but one of the most incredible has to be experiencing all of the standing stones and historic sites around the islands. On the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, the Calanais (Callanish) Standing Stones have lorded over the windswept and wild moors for 5,000 years. But perhaps what’s even more incredible is that we still don’t know what purpose these stone circles and monoliths mean. Religious? Astronomy? Petrified giants? A portal to Jamie Fraser in Outlander? Just kidding. Whatever their original purpose, they now exist in the collective imagination as a fascinating place.

Castle Stornaway

© Liz Carlson

Stornaway is the main town on Lewis and Harris, and it is home to many cute shops, great eateries, and plenty of tweed. Home of Harris Tweed, there are also castles and other historic sites dotting across the islands that enchant all visitors.

About the Author

Liz Carlson

Liz Carlson

Expedition Team

Liz runs one of the biggest travel blogs in the world, Young Adventuress. She is American but has been based in the mountains of Wānaka, New Zealand for the past decade. She is a writer and photographer, focusing on solo female travel, wildlife, and our connection to nature.