[Simon Thurgood Images] [Simon Thurgood Images]

Out and About - Scottish Islands

Handa Island

[road signs]This spectacular island just off the Sutherland coast is one of the largest seabird colonies in north-west Europe. The place is supposed to come alive each summer as some 100,000 seabirds gather here to breed, including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and small numbers of puffins on the cliffs. But when I visited in 2013 numbers were down by a large amount.

Arctic and great skuas nest on the moor, some very close to the trail. Again numbers were down especially the Artic Skuas, but the ones you did see were very close and worth the trip.

Apart from the seabird colonies and breathtaking cliffs, Handa offers stunning views of the north-west coast of Scotland and its characteristic Torridonian sandstone mountains. The island has rich and varied plant life and also is an excellent location from which to spot cetaceans such as common dolphin which I did see but apparently you can also find,Risso's dolphin, minke whale and basking sharks.

Other points of interest on the island include the archaeological remains of an old village and graveyard, dating back to the last inhabitants of the island in 1847.

Handa is accessible by boat from Tarbet. On arrival to the island visitors will be met by SWT staff/volunteers and given a short introductory talk and a leaflet containing a map. This provides an opportunity to find out about recent sightings on the island and to ask the advice of the rangers. Most visitors spend at least three hours on the island but it can be a wait to get off the island, I spent 40 minutes waiting to get off the beach, luckly it wasn't raining as there is no cover and make sure you take a drink and snack as you could suffer if you don't.

Island of Iona

[1]Iona is a beautiful island on the west coast of Scotland. While I go there to see the wildlife, it is a place of history and beauty. It is the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity. Through 1400 years of history its fortunes have fluctuated, from its heights as one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe, to its lows as a crumbling ruin. However, thanks to the fame of its monastic founder, St Columba, the island has always been revered as a holy place, and, over the centuries, Iona has continually been re-invented and reconstructed as a centre for pilgrimage. Iona's fame began in 563 AD when Columba, with thirteen followers, landed at the south end of the island, at St Columba's Bay, to establish a monastery.

Iona is about 1 mile from the coast of Mull. Visitors can reach Iona by the 10-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on Mull. The most common route is via Oban in Argyll and Bute. Regular ferries connect to Craignure on Mull, from where the scenic road runs 37 miles to Fionnphort.

There are very few cars on the island, as they are tightly regulated and vehicular access is not allowed for non-residents, who have to leave their car in Fionnphort. Bike hire is available at the pier, and on Mull.

Iona is about 1 mile wide and 4 miles long with a resident population of 125. The geology of the island consists mainly of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sedimentary rocks on the eastern side and small outcrops of pink granite on the eastern beaches. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees; most of them are near the parish church.

Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì, (331 feet), an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC - AD 200. Iona's geographical features include the Bay at the Back of the Ocean and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn, said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.

The main settlement, located at St. Ronan's Bay on the eastern side of the island, is called Baile Mòr and is also known locally as "The Village". The primary school, post office, the island's two hotels, the Bishop's House and the ruins of the Nunnery are here. The Abbey and MacLeod Centre is a short walk to the north. Port Bààn (white port) beach on the west side of the island.

Iona and its surrounds have an abundance of thriving wildlife due to a number of important reasons. The air and water quality is very high as there is little if no pollution or development making for the ideal wildlife environment.

Being a west coast island, Iona is a haven for birds, sea birds in particular. The shoreline and beaches provide the chance to spot oyster catchers, sandpipers, redshanks, plovers, curlews and grey lag geese. The endangered corncrake also inhabits the iris beds near the machair. Raptors such as white tailed sea eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, merlin and owls are also seen but less frequently.

Otters are sometimes spotted in the north of Iona, and down at the ferry on the Sound of Iona, dolphins, porpoises and seals can be seen rising above the surface. Even the occasional whale and basking shark have been seen swimming by.

Isle of Mull

[The Isle of Mull]From Oban to Craignure, the Isle of Mull is just a 40 minute ride on the ferry. I found it easy to book and the staff very helpful, go to the Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries website for times and fares, not only to Mull but to the many other Islands around the west coast of Scotland. If you are coming down from the north you can also access the Island from the Lochaline-Fishnish ferry which you don't have to book.

The island itself reminds me of New Zealand with its wild beauty, the mountains, the wildlife and the sheep! It's a birdwatcher's paradise with every kind of bird with a hook bill you could think of! Apart from birds there are plenty of other things to see, Red and Fallow deer, Otters and Seals. Many butterflies such as the Marsh Fritillary and Green Hairstreak and dragonflies such as the Four-spotted Chaser and Azure Damselfly.

Also on the island are the two largest birds in the UK the Golden and White Tailed Eagle. The latter is heavily protected as they have been a target for egg thieves. They are a fantastic sight to see them soaring in the sky. I don't think you realise how big they are until you see them with a crow or buzzard. I went on a boat trip with "Mull Charters". I can't praise them enough, such a fantastic trip and had 3 Eagles come to the back of the boat!!

If you are there just for a day, there are plenty of guided wildlife tours around the island. Although I didn't go on any of the trips, the people on the trips I saw all looked happy enough with their experience.

A great web site is Mullbirds Online run by Alan Spellman, which has lots of great information on and for those going bird watching. Get the bird report for the island which also has lots of great information about the birds and where to see them. While the birds don't read the book and don't turn up on queue the information is pretty accurate!

I met lots of great people on the island such as the only 'Geordie Scotsman' I've ever met - Bryan Rains from Pennyghael stores who also runs Wild About Mull Wildlife Tours who was very helpful. I've stayed several times at the self catering at Achnadrish House which is close to Dervaig in the north of the island for the week and was just great value for money!

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps 373, 374 and 375 will cover the Island

Isle of Skye

[Elgol, Isle of Skye]What a special place! I can't recommend it enough.

The Isle of Skye is quite easy to get too with several options, the Skye bridge and ferries operated by Skyeferrys and Caledonian Macbrayne. Love it or hate it, the Skye Bridge, spanning from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin, is here to stay and for most people it will be your gateway to Skye. Though originally a toll bridge, there is now no toll so access to the Island across the bridge is free.

There is a unique six car turntable ferry that operates across the narrows through the summer months (April to October). The Kylerhea ferry now has its own website at www.skyeferry.co.uk. Caledondian MacBrayne operate ferry services to and from the island on routes from Armadale to Mallaig and from Uig to The Western Isles. In addition, there are CalMac ferries serving Raasay from Sconser and The Small Isles (Canna, Rm, Eigg and Muck) from Mallaig. Go to the Caledonian MacBrayne website for current details of the routes and timings.

Wildlife abounds on the island, with birds from the tiny Goldcrest to magnificent Golden Eagle, mammals from Pygmy Shrew to Red Deer and fish from Saithe to Salmon. If you are lucky you might catch sight of the elusive Otter playing on the shore. The wide range of geology and topography provides habitats for many wild flowers. To get more information go to Skye Birds website.

At 1,656 km² (639 square miles), Skye is the second-largest island in Scotland after Lewis and Harris. It is the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides. The coastline of Skye is a series of peninsulas which are great for sea watching both for birds and sea mammals such as whales and porpoises, bays radiating out from a centre dominated by the Cuillin Hills, which is a great place to see Golden Eagles. (I saw my first here which was a great experience.) The main peninsulas include Trotternish in the north, Waternish, Duirinish, Minginish and Strathaird to the west and Sleat in the south. Surrounding islands include Isay, Longay, Pabay, Raasay, Rona, Scalpay, Soay and Wiay. You should be able to get to these by ferry.

The Black Cuillin, which are mainly composed of basalt and gabbro, include 12 Munros and provide some of the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland. The ascent of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh is one of the longest rock climbs in Britain and the Inaccessible Pinnacle is the only peak in Scotland that requires technical climbing skills to reach the summit. A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge may take 15-20 hours to complete. The Red Hills to the south are sometimes also known as the Red Cuillin. They are mainly composed of granite that has weathered into more rounded hills with many long screes slopes on their flanks. The highest point of these hills is Glamaig, one of only two Corbetts on Skye.

Trotternish is underlain by basalt, which provides relatively rich soils and a variety of unusual rock features. The Kilt Rock is named for the tartan-like patterns in the 105 metre (350 ft) cliffs. The Quirang is a spectacular series of rock pinnacles on the eastern side of the main spine of the peninsula and further south is the rock pillar of the Old Man of Storr.

Beyond Loch Snizort to the west of Trotternish is the Waternish peninsula, which ends in Ardmore Point's double rock arch. Duirinish is separated from Waternish by Loch Dunvegan. It is ringed by sea cliffs which reach 295 metres (967 ft) at Waterstein Head. Lochs Bracadale and Harport lie between Duirinish and Minginish which includes the narrow valleys of Talisker and Glen Brittle and whose beaches are formed from black basaltic sands. Strathaird is a relatively small peninsula close to the Cuillin hills with several small crofting communities. The bedrock of Sleat is Torridonian sandstone which produces poor soils and boggy ground, although its lower elevations and relatively sheltered eastern shores produces a lush growth of hedgerows and crops.

As I've already said there is plenty to see if you have the patience to look and to be honest when you go to Skye why wouldn't you? Corncrake, Red-throated Diver, Rock Dove, Kittiwake, Atlantic Puffin, Goldeneye, Golden Eagle and White-tailed Sea Eagle can be found with a little effort, Mountain Hare and Rabbit are now abundant and predated on by Wild Cat and Pine Marten. The rich fresh water streams contain Brown Trout, Atlantic Salmon and Water Shrew. Offshore the Edible Crab and Oyster are also found, the latter especially in the Sound of Scalpay. There are also nationally important Horse Mussel and Brittlestar beds in the sea lochs. Heather moor containing Ling, Bell Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Myrtle and Fescues is everywhere abundant.

It's worthwhile if you are on the Isle of Skye to visit Portree Harbour where there are boat trips to see the White tailed Sea Eagles which are a regular site around the "Sound of Raasay" these are Brigadoon Boat Trips and MV Stardust Boat Trips.

I recommend you spend time on this wonderful island. There is plenty of accommodation, when I've gone I've camped by the coast. The age-old problem of midges can be irritating, but I just love the place as you probably noticed. :o)

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps 407, 408, 409, 410, 411 and 412 will cover the Island

The Outer Hebrides

[Ferry arriving at Leverburgh on Harris]The Outer Hebrides, comprise an island chain off the west coast of Scotland. The islands form part of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the stormy waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. Formerly the dominant language of the Islands, Scottish Gaelic remains widely spoken even though it has now been largely supplanted by English in some parts.

The main islands form an archipelago with their smaller surrounding islands; these are sometimes known poetically as the Long Isle. The major islands include Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Much of the western coastline of the islands is machair, a fertile low-lying dune pastureland. Much of the islands is protected habitat, and this includes both the islands and the surrounding waters. There are numerous rare species, including the golden eagle, basking shark, whale, dolphin, otter and corncrake.

There is a total of 70 islands which make up the Outer Hebrides. 14 are populated islands and 56 are unpopulated, although some have part-time wardens and a military presence at times such as St Kilda. Small islands and island groups pepper the North Atlantic surrounding the main island group. To the west lie the Monach Islands, Flannan Isles, St Kilda, and Rockall, in increasing order of distance. The status of Rockall as part of the United Kingdom remains a matter of international dispute. About halfway between St Kilda and Rockall is Anton Dohrn Seamount, a large submerged volcano. To the north lie North Rona and Sula Sgeir, two small and remote islands. Not often included as part of the Outer Hebrides, they nevertheless come under the administration of the Western Isles district.

I have been privileged to be on five of these islands and will be talking about these. Getting yourself there is relatively easy with ferries from the mainland and the Isle of Skye, go to the Caledonian MacBrayne website. Flights out of Glasgow can be found on the Scotia Travel website which goes to several destinations on the islands. A good web site for accommodation is Visit Hebrides, which has plenty of information on where to stay. If you want information about climbing, sea kayaking, canoeing and hill walking Adventure Hebrides is a great site. I camped around the islands with my son and found it to be a friendly and hospitable place to be. There is plenty to see and do.

Lewis and Harris

Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides make up the largest island in Scotland. Indeed, this island is easily the largest of the British Isles after Great Britain and Ireland. It has an area of 841 square miles (2,180 km²) - slightly under one per cent of the area of Great Britain. It is 24 miles (39 km) from the nearest point of the mainland, from which it is separated by the Minch.

The northern part of the island is called Lewis, the southern is Harris and both are frequently referred to as if they were separate islands. The boundary between Lewis and Harris is formed by a line with Loch Resort on the west and Loch Seaforth on the east. The island does not actually have a common name in either English or Scots Gaelic. Rarely, the collective name of the Long Island is used.

Most of Harris is mountainous, with more than thirty peaks above 1,000 ft (300 m) high. Lewis is comparatively flat, save in the south-east, where Ben More reaches 1,874 ft (571 m), and in the south-west, where Mealasbhal (1885 ft) is the highest point.

There is plenty to see such as the most northerly point the "Butt of Lewis" and the truly magnificent "Calanais Standing stones" - awesome! As with all the beaches, such as Uig Sands, the sand is white and the beaches wild and windy with the next stop America. The water was clear and warm, which was a bit of a shock.

North Uist

North Uist is the ninth largest Scottish island and the thirteenth largest island surrounding Great Britain. It has an area of 117 square miles (303.05 km²), slightly smaller than South Uist. North Uist is connected by causeways to Benbecula via Grimsay, to Berneray, and to Baleshare. With the exception of the south east, the island is very flat, and covered with a patchwork of peat bogs, low hills and lochans, with more than half the land being covered by water. Some of the lochs contain a mixture of fresh and tidal salt water, giving rise to some complex and unusual habitats.

North Uist has many prehistoric structures, including the Barpa Langass chambered cairn, the Pobull Fhinn stone circle, the Fir Bhreige standing stones, the islet of Eilean Dòmhnuill (which may be the earliest crannog site in Scotland), and the Baile Sear roundhouses, which were exposed by storms in January, 2005.

The island is also known for its birdlife, including corncrakes, arctic terns, gannets, corn buntings and Manx shearwaters. The RSPB has a nature reserve at Balranald which is well worth a visit, but I would say that if you keep your eyes open there is loads to see all over the island.


The island lies between the islands of North Uist and South Uist, to which it is connected by road causeways. Travel to any of the other main Hebridean islands, or to the Scottish mainland, must be done by air or sea. Benbecula's main settlement is Balivanich in the northwest. Other villages include Craigstrome, which lies on the eastern half of Benbecula. In contrast to the cultivated west coast of the island, the eastern half is a mixture of freshwater lochs, moorland, bog and deeply indenting sea lochs. Craigstrome is near Ruabhal, Benbecula's highest hill at 124 metres (407 ft).

There is a military presence in the form of the RAF radar station RRH Benbecula, which monitors the northern Atlantic.

South Uist

One of my overriding memories of South Uist is the long white beach - we walked along it and it felt no one had been here for years. The sand was white and clean except for the flotsam and jetsam of the North Atlantic, if the temperature was warmer you could have been on a Pacific island.

South Uist has a nature reserve and a number of sites of archaeological interest. This includes the archaeological site of Cladh Hallan, which is the only location in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. The island, in common with the rest of the Hebrides, is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Gaelic language in Scotland. In the north west there is a military presence in the form of a missile testing range so keep your head down. :o)

The west is machair (fertile low-lying coastal plain) with a continuous sandy beach whilst the east coast is mountainous with the peaks of Beinn Mhòr 620 m (2,033 ft) and Hecla 606 m (1,988 ft). The main village on the island is Lochboisdale, from which ferries sail to Oban on the mainland and to Castlebay on Barra. The island is also linked to Eriskay and Benbecula by causeways. Smaller settlements include Daliburgh, Howmore and Ludag.

Loch Druidibeg in the north of the island is a National Nature Reserve owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. The reserve covers 1,677 hectares of machair, bog, freshwater lochs, estuary heather moorland and hill. Over 200 species of flowering plants have been recorded on the reserve, some of which are nationally scarce. South Uist is considered the best place in the UK for the aquatic plant Slender Naiad (Najas flexilis) which is a European Protected Species. Nationally important populations of breeding waders are also present, including redshank, dunlin, lapwing and ringed plover. The reserve is also home to greylag geese on the loch and in summer corncrakes on the machair. Otters and hen harriers are also seen.


The Isle of Barra apart from the adjacent island of Vatersay is the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides. The area of Barra is 23 square miles, the main village being Castlebay. Barra is now linked by a man-made causeway to the neighbouring island of Vatersay.

The west of the island has white sandy beaches backed by shell-sand machair and the east has numerous rocky inlets. Barra is abundant with stunning scenery, rare flowers and wildlife, which can be appreciated by coastal or hill walks, drives or cycle rides along the various small roads. Car and bicycle hire are available locally.

Kisimul Castle at Castlebay is located on an island in the bay, so giving the village its name.

Places of interest on the island include a ruined church and museum at Cille Bharra, a number of Iron Age brochs such as those at Dùn Chuidhir and An Dùn Bàn and a whole range of other Iron Age and later structures which have recently been excavated and recorded.

Shetland Islands

[]Shetland is around 170 kilometres (110 mi) north of mainland Scotland, Lerwick, the capital and largest settlement; only 16 of about 100 islands are inhabited. The main island of the group is known as Mainland, and of the next largest, Yell, Unst, and Fetlar lie to the north and Bressay and Whalsay lie to the east. East and West Burra, Muckle Roe, Papa Stour, Trondra and Vaila are smaller islands to the west of Mainland. The other inhabited islands are Foula 28 kilometres (17 mi) west of Walls, Fair Isle 38 kilometres (24 mi) south-west of Sumburgh Head, and the Out Skerries to the east.

The uninhabited islands include Mousa, known for the Broch of Mousa, the finest preserved example in Scotland of these Iron Age round towers, St Ninian's Isle connected to Mainland by the largest active tombolo in the UK, and Out Stack, the northernmost point of the British Isles. The highest point of Shetland is Ronas Hill, which only reaches 450 metres (1,480 ft).

Useful websites:


[]Fetlar is one of the North Isles of Shetland, Fetlar is the fourth largest island of Shetland and can be accessed by Ferry from both Yell and Unst.

The northern part of Fetlar is a RSPB reserve, home to several important breeding species including Arctic skuas and whimbrels. The Lamb Hoga peninsula and nearby Haaf Gruney have some of the largest colonies of storm petrel as well as reports of Leach's Petrels. Of greatest importance though are Red-necked phalaropes, for which the Loch of Funzie is the most important breeding site in the United Kingdom, and for a while during the 1990s was the only breeding site in the country. A pair of snowy owls famously bred here in the 1960s and early 1970s, they lasted until the 1980s but are no longer present.

It is important to know there is no fuel on the island so make sure your car is full before making the journey. There is also very little in the way of food, although there is a local store you won't find sandwiches or a hot take away drink. There is a café but my boots were thick with Peat and not the place to be, found the locals very pleasant though and very helpful.

A really great place to see Artic Skuas and found in strong winds they would settle on the ground so keep your eyes peeled.

Great place to visit.

Useful websites:

Hermaness NNR

[]Hermaness is the northernmost headland of Unst, the northernmost inhabited island of Shetland, Scotland. It consists of sea cliffs and moorland.

The National Nature Reserve designated in 1955 and is currently managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, although the land remains in the ownership of the Edmondston family of Baltasound, who are still major landowners on Unst. It is of note for its breeding Fulmars, Gannets, Shags, Great Skuas, Puffins and Guillemots. The NNR designation also includes the outlying Muckle Flugga and Out Stack.

I walked over the board walk which covers most of the track from car park to the cliffs, I think it would have been horrendous without the board walk otherwise and when you get to the cliffs all I can say is woooow!! I went in late May and the birds especially the Gannets were performing, just gliding on the wind, Magical!!! Would definitely recommend this place!

Either side of the boardwalk there was Great Skuas that had paired up, have been told that when on eggs or young about they will dive bomb you so beware.

Useful websites:

Isle of Mousa

[]Mousa, uninhabited since the nineteenth century is known for the Broch of Mousa, an Iron Age round tower, and is designated as a Special Protection Area for storm-petrel breeding colonies.

On my trip I walked around the island and got my first real close ups of some Artic Skuas and the Shetland Wren although I am still not sure what the difference is? There is Red Throated Divers here as well as large numbers of Seals.

In places it was quite slippery so make sure you have appropriate footwear. I would take some drink/food with you as there is nothing on the island.

Watch out on the ferry over for Dolphins and Seals as well as the seabirds.

Useful websites:

Keen of Hamar

[]On the Isle of Unst there is a truly brilliant little reserve, if you are into Geology and Botany it's the place for you. From a distance it looks like a lunar landscape set amongst green fields, but the Keen of Hamar is a truly unique botanical site. It is the largest expanse of serpentine debris in Europe and is home to rare arctic-alpine plants including one - Edmondston's chickweed -that grows only here and on the nearby slopes of Nikka Vord and nowhere else in the world.

The Serpentine debris, a gravelly soil with a sparse scattering of plants that has probably changed little since the end of the last glaciation, covers roughly half of the 42.4 hectare (ha) Reserve. It is still affected each winter by freezing and thawing which in places sorts the debris into stripes of alternating large and small pebbles. Arctic-alpine plants which are normally found only on high mountain screes and in glacial regions thrive in these unstable conditions. Elsewhere on the Reserve, a thin layer of finer soil covers the debris and rock and provides more stable ground which supports an unusual form of heathland, rich in wild flowers such as Thyme, Dog Violet, Mountain Everlasting, Alpine Meadow-Rue and Early Purple Orchid.

The best time to visit the reserve is Mid-May to early-July for wildflowers.

There is a car-park which holds about 6 cars and the reserve is a short walk and well worth the journey.

More information about the Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve.

Sumburgh Head

[]Sumburgh Head is located at the southern tip of the Shetland Mainland in northern Scotland. The head is a 100 m high rocky spur capped by the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. The cliffs are home to large numbers of seabirds and the area is an RSPB nature reserve.

As well as birds, Sumburgh Head has become a popular viewing point for whales and dolphins.

There is a car park close to the top and good views of the cliffs from the road to the Light house, also look out on the road before at a couple of Quarries for nesting Fulmars.

My only disappointment was lack of refreshments, could have done with a cuppa at the lighthouse!

Useful websites:

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