As well as its hills, mountains, lochs and glens, Scotland is famous for its picturesque islands. This node will attempt to provide a quick overview of some of the more notable isles off the Scottish coast.

The Scottish islands tend to be classified into four main categories: the Orkneys and Shetlands, and the Outer and Inner Hebrides. I’ll talk about these main groups first, and then turn to some other islands which do not easily fall into these classifications.

Orkney Islands

About 90 islands and islets off the north coast of Scotland.

    Mainland or Pomona - Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, so it seems likely that the name resulted from early Roman explorations of the north of Scotland. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae is on the island. Maes Howe is a fascinating example of a Neolithic tomb, complete with Viking graffiti, and the Ring of Brodgar is a fine circle of standing stones.

    Hoy – Between Hoy and the mainland lies Scapa Flow, formerly a British naval base, where the German fleet was scuttled after World War I. The Old Man of Hoy is a dramatic rock stack, cut out of the cliff face, and popular with rock-climbers.

    Other large islands in the group include Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, Rousa and North and South Ronaldsay.

Shetland Islands

The Shetlands lie off the north coast, beyond the Orkneys. Over 100 islands form this group, 19 of which are inhabited. They were under Norwegian control from the 8th century to 1472, and speak a dialect based on Norse. Links with Norway are strong, therefore, and the islands are known as Zetland there. Lerwick on Mainland is the largest town. Shetland is famous for its miniature ponies.

    Mainland - home to Sullom Voe, Europe’s largest oil port.

    Yell - the second largest island in the group.

    Unst - known for its hand-knitted garments.

    Fair Isle - renowned for its hand-knitted sweaters in distinctive designs.

    Muckle Flugga - the northernmost island of the British Isles.

Outer Hebrides or Western Isles

The outermost group of the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. The Hebrides also came under Norwegian rule from about 890 to 1266, as many of the islands had previously been settled by Scandinavians.

    Lewis and Harris - This is the largest of the islands in the Outer Hebrides; Lewis and Harris are separated by a small bridge. Stornoway is the main town, and there are many lochs and peat moors – the peat is used as fuel. Harris is famous for its tweeds. There are standing stones at Callanish, and ancient Black Houses, small smoky cottages shared by people and animals alike, and heated by a peat fire. Pictish brochs (stone forts) are also in evidence.

    North and South Uist - the main industries here are crofting, and tweed and seaweed production.

    St Kilda - populated until 1930, St Kilda is now a nature reserve.

    Barra the other main island in the group, this island is associated with the MacNeill clan. Like the other islands, it suffered greatly in the Highland clearances.

Inner Hebrides

    Some of the most picturesque Scottish islands fall into this group, and they are very popular with tourists.

    Skye - the largest of the Inner Hebrides; the main port is Portree, where this noder spent his honeymoon. Crofting, tourism and livestock are the main activities here, and the island is forever associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie, who took refuge here after the battle of Culloden.

    Mull - the second largest island of the group, which includes the pretty town of Tobermory. This mountainous island is separated from the mainland by the Sound of Mull. The scenery here, as throughout the highlands and islands, is spectacular.

    Jura - this island has the Corryvreckan whirlpool off its north coast.

    Islay - famous for its malt whisky, this island is home to eagles and rare geese.

    Iona - St Columba founded a monastery here, and it became a centre for early Christianity. Irish, Scottish and Norwegian kings were buried here, and it has a 13th-century abbey.

    Rum or Rhum - home to a nature reserve.

    Tiree - a small island with unusual silver sands on its beaches.

    Staffa - uninhabited island, with many caves, including the famous Fingal’s Cave, which is lined with natural basalt columns. This cave inspired Mendelssohn’s ”Hebrides” overture, also known as ” Fingal’s Cave”.

Other islands in the Inner Hebrides include Raasay, Coll, Colonsay, Muck, and Eigg.

Other Islands

This concludes my brief tour of the main Scottish islands and island groups. I hope you get the chance to visit some of them soon!

The Hutchinson Encyclopedia (Helicon Publishing, 1997 ed.)

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