Scotland’s Outer Isles

Photo by Chris Combe

Off-shore wonders

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The Outer Isles are Scotland’s three main groups of off-shore islands: Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. All are sparsely inhabited; share a slow-paced traditional life; have pockets of really undisturbed nature and some well-preserved ancient archeological sites.

All the islands are well-worth a trip if you have the time: ferries take several hours by and always demand time spent pouring over ferry timetables to plan a trip. You’ll also have to plan for the presence of far fewer services: restaurants, cafes and shops are in shorter supply, with only modest offerings and limited opening hours.

The Western Isles

The string of off-shore islands in Scotland’s far west, known as the Western Isles, are also referred to as the Outer Hebrides.

Lewis is the largest and boasts the beautiful Callanish stone circle; while Harris, with it’s many white-sand beaches, is arguably the most beautiful. But each island has its merits and is surprisingly different from the next. Touring them, particularly by bike, is deservedly popular.

Ferries Calmac connect Oban, Ullapool and Skye with the Western Isles.


The nearest of these three island groups to the mainland by far, green and fertile Orkney also offers a springboard to Shetland, but has plenty of its own attractions, including the neolithic archeological sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae; the seabird colonies at Hermaness; and the photogenic geology of the Old Man of Hoy. The capital, Kirkwall is also likeable place and location for the mad New Year’s ball game: The Ba’. Its main arts festival is the week-long St Magnus Festival.

FerriesNorthlink Ferries connect Orkney with Aberdeen (4/week; 3hr 30min) and Shetland (4/week; 7hr 45min); and runs a service from the northern tip of the mainland at Scrabster (nr. Thurso; 2-3 daily; 2hr 15min) – a competing service runs from Gill’s Bay (nr. John O’Groats; 1hr).


Shetland is also best known for ancient archeological remains: at Mousa Broch and Jarlshof; but has an intriguing culture of it’s own too, with some real Nordic influences – not least at its annual Up Helly Aa Viking festival. Another big festival to look out for is the Shetland Folk Festival.

FerriesNorthlink Ferries connect the capital Lerwick with Aberdeen (daily; 12hr 30min) and Kirkwall (Orkney; 4/week; 7hr 45min).


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