You don’t need to travel overseas to discover epic scenery, crowd-free beaches and world-class food - the Scottish islands have it all.
Sunshine won’t be guaranteed and there might be midges, but the Scottish islands offer holidaymakers space to breathe after being cooped up for so long. You can find deserted beaches, turquoise seas and archaeological riches, as well as see puffins, seals and birds aplenty.
While all are beautiful in their own right, Which? readers rated each island overall as well as by category. All islands in the top five scored four out of five stars for value for money, but which came out on top overall?
|Beaches||Food and drink||Accommodation||Scenery||Peace and quiet||Customer score|
|Harris Outer Hebrides||*****||***||****||*****||*****||85%|
|Islay Inner Hebrides||****||****||****||****||*****||85%|
|Mull Inner Hebrides||****||***||****||*****||****||85%|
|Arran Firth of Clyde||****||****||****||*****||****||83%|
|Barra Outer Hebrides||*****||***||****||****||*****||83%|
Using the table: Based on a survey of 1,058 Which? members in December 2020. Hotel price averages from kayak.co.uk. Star ratings one to five. Score combination of overall satisfaction/likelihood to recommend. A dash (-) indicates not enough data to provide and average hotel price, or the sample size too small to calculate a rating. Ease of travel getting to and around the island (frequency of ferry crossings, state of roads, public transport etc).
Orkney’s 70 or so islands lie low in the ocean, with their dramatic moorlands, barley fields and freshwater lochs. The sea is all around and few trees interrupt the panoramic vistas.
The archipelago is a wildlife haven: seabirds nest in the cliffs, and minke whales occasionally dip in and out of the waves off its shores.
Rated the best island in our survey, readers praised Orkney’s many prehistoric sites – including the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle; Maeshowe, a chambered cairn; and Skara Brae, a preserved Neolithic village – as having a five-star draw. Visitors also enjoyed ‘friendly’ Stromness and ranked it top for shopping.
Shetland’s 100 or so islands, only 16 of which are inhabited, are where to head to get away from it all. It’s no wonder it scored five stars for peace and quiet. Luckily, flights to Sumburgh Airport mean this archipelago, with its snaking coastline, unspoilt beaches and abundant wildlife, is relatively accessible. Alternatively, take a 12-hour ferry journey from Aberdeen.
Shetland’s lively capital, Lerwick, has a fine, modern museum and plenty of retail opportunities. However, a visit to Shetland is really about the wild landscape, its marine life and the sea, which is never more than three miles away
One of the best things about the pristine, white-sand beaches on the west coast of Harris is that they’re often deserted. The island unsurprisingly scored the full five stars for peace and quiet. Luskentyre Beach with its vast dune system, views of the Harris mountains, turquoise sea and surfer-friendly waves is spectacular.
A drive along Golden Road, through the south east of the island, passes countless lochs, galleries and abandoned crofts. Harris tweed, handwoven from local wool, reflects the colours of the landscape and can be bought in the Harris Tweed shop in Tarbert.
Islay scored four out of five stars in the food and drink category, a lot of which could be down to its whisky offerings. With eight whisky distilleries, including Laguvalin, Islay is a pilgrimage destination for single-malt enthusiasts. Most distilleries offer whisky tours and tastings. The Old Kiln Café at Ardbeg Distillery in Port Allen, serves dishes made from local produce accompanied by a nip of whisky.
There’s more to Islay than its distilleries though. Fishing is a mainstay of the island and seafood, fished from the clear sea, is served in many of its restaurants. Plus, there are small coves and beaches where you can eat fresh fish and chips while seal and puffin spotting.
Climb Mull’s only Munro, Ben More, to experience the breathtaking beauty of this island. Tucked into its coastline are sea cliffs and white-sand bays fringed with wild flower-rich grassland. Look out over the water to spot pink granite skerries (small islands) scattered across the sea. Readers were so impressed by the scenery they awarded it the full five stars.
You can head to the harbourside town of Tobermory with its pretty painted fisherman’s houses, or visit one of the island’s imposing castles. Duart is rich with history of the Maclean clan; Glengorm has self-catering accommodation so you can live like a laird.