The complete guide to the ... Scottish Islands

The Scottish islands have never been so popular, thanks largely to the BBC's Castaway 2000, which is being filmed on Taransay in the Outer Hebrides. But while the temporary inhabitants of Taransay famously do not get on with each other, the islands themselves - all 800 of them - have plenty to offer the visitor

What do you think the BBC's castaways are doing on the tiny Hebridean island of Taransay today? Given what we've seen so far, most of us would say they are trying to diffuse the latest of the personality clashes that are turning this social experiment into compelling TV.

What do you think the BBC's castaways are doing on the tiny Hebridean island of Taransay today? Given what we've seen so far, most of us would say they are trying to diffuse the latest of the personality clashes that are turning this social experiment into compelling TV.

Then again, they might have woken up on the 128th day of their year on Taransay to see the sun rising over neighbouring Harris, strolled quietly down to the turquoise sea with their hands cupped around a mug of tea, breathed deeply and wondered at the beauty of their island home.

It's this kind of image that brings many visitors to the Scottish islands, lured by a longing to escape everyday life and experience the remote, wilder side of Britain and themselves. And despite all their problems, the castaways are fuelling a phenomenon in Scottish tourism. Just as climbers come to Scotland to "bag" the peaks over 3,000 feet known as Munros, so people are arriving for a week or two of "island bagging".

Taransay seems a little crowded. How many other islands are there?

Astonishingly, there are almost 800 islands (and large rocks) off the western and northern seaboards of Scotland. They stretch from Arran, a day-trip down the Clyde from Glasgow city centre, 400 miles north to Unst in the Shetland Islands, closer to the Norwegian city of Bergen than to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

To help make some sense of the numbers, the islands divide themselves into four main groups. Shetland, a distinct cluster of a 100 or so islands way off to the north-west of the mainland (although often found sheltering in a small box off Aberdeen on maps). Orkney, comprising some 70 islands scattered just across the Pentland Firth from John O'Groat's. The Inner Hebrides, dotted along the coast from the north west Highlands down to Islay, 25 miles from the coast of Northern Ireland. And the Outer Hebrides, also called the Western Isles, arcing in a 130-mile chain of 200 or more islands to the north-west of their more sheltered siblings. There are also Arran and Bute in the Firth of Clyde, and the remote islands of St Kilda, 40 miles west of the Western Isles.

Where should I start?

Only 130 islands have permanent inhabitants and thus some form of transport service to get you there - although others are accessible on day-trips or by special arrangement. Many share similar characteristics: communities built around crofting and fishing, and lives lived at a slower pace by people with a real appreciation of nature, the outdoors and the intimacy of island life.

Yet they can also be quite distinct from one another. The Isle of Skye, for instance, is the most visited of the islands. This is due in part to the new road bridge making it so accessible from the mainland, though the island's breathtaking beauty is the chief reason it has been such a popular destination for a century or more. Over the years, some visitors have stayed on, and the island now supports a mixed community of locals and largely English incomers. Its landscape is also diverse, from the jagged ridges of the Cuillin mountains, extraordinary geological deformations of the Totternish Peninsula, to the verdant Sleat Peninsula in the south.

The Outer Hebrides, on the other hand, can seem a bleak place at first. Low-lying and treeless, with the exception of mountainous Harris, it's a land of course moorland, peat bogs and lochs. Yet they have a more remote and elemental beauty and boast some of the whitest, emptiest stretches of sand you could wish to find. In the main, the Western Isles are much less touristy than the Inner Hebrides and with fewer incomers, the islands' 29,000 population have retained a strong sense of tradition, with Gaelic widely spoken.

Historical ties are also strong on Shetland, where a distinctly Norse character pervades. Rugged and rocky, they certainly feel like the most distant group of islands. Such isolation is part of the appeal of Shetland, which tends to attract a different type of visitor. Many are drawn to the islands' huge marine bird population, the thousands of seals, passing whales and some of the best opportunities to watch otters in the wild.

Greener and flatter than Shetland, the Orkney Islands are also known for their abundant wildlife. The other key attraction is the islands' rich seam of archaeological sites. More than 1,000 prehistoric sites have been identified, including Europe's earliest standing house on the tiny island of Papa Westray, which dates from around 3700BC. Others come for Orkney's 20th-century relics, diving on the wrecks of ships sunk during the First World War in the clear waters of Scapa Flow.

What about the weather?

You can never be quite sure what the weather will do in this part of the world as the islands' climate is largely dependent on what drifts in from the Atlantic. Changeable perhaps best sums it up. That aside, the islands are warmed by the Gulf Stream and so enjoy warmer temperatures than countries of a similar latitude. What you can be sure of, however, are long summer days, especially in Shetland where daylight in mid-summer lasts for almost 19 hours.

What is there to do?

Activities on the islands are geared to outdoor life and the simple pleasures offered by abundant natural beauty and miles of coastline. The walking opportunities, whether scaling peaks or just ambling along the coast, are fantastic. You could head out along the cliffs to look for puffins and seals, comb a deserted beach for what has drifted in on the Gulf Stream or hike out to a remote loch to fish for wild brown trout.

Boat trips are a great way to explore many of the islands and often take you up close to some of the wildlife. Sailing cruises and sea kayaking are also popular. Hebridean Exploration (01851 870716, steffisar@aol.com) runs kayak/ camping tours in the Western Isles.

How do I get there?

Getting out to the islands is all part of the fun. A comprehensive network of flights and ferry routes run to, from and between the islands, although journeys can vary greatly depending on which island you are headed for. Mull, for example, is just a 30-minute ferry ride from the west coast port of Oban. Lerwick in Shetland, on the other hand, is 14 hours away if you take the ferry from Aberdeen. Flying also offers a few quirks. Buzz in to Barra, at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, and you'll touch down on the beach at Cockle Strand. You can also take the shortest scheduled flight in the world, a two-minute hop between the islands of Westray and its northerly neighbour Papa Westray.

Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650000, www.calmac.co.uk) operates to the Hebrides from a number of ports along the west coast. Sample fares: Oban to Islay round trip £13.70 for foot passengers, £63 with a car. Ullapool to Stornaway £25.40 for foot passengers, £118 with a car. The Island Hopscotch ticket can prove an economic option as it offer the freedom to hop from island to island on one of 20 routes.

P&O Scottish Ferries (01224 572615, www.poscottishferries.co.uk) sails to Orkney and Shetland from Aberdeen and Scrabster. Return fares for the 14-hour overnight trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick start at £132 including a berth. Taking your car will add £188. Return tickets from Scrabster to Orkney are £32 for adult foot passengers, cars cost an additional £81.

Glasgow is the hub for air travel to the islands. Loganair (operating for British Airways 0845 77 333 77, britishairways.com) flies from here to Barra, Benbecula and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, to Islay and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides and to Kirkwall Airport on Orkney and Sumburgh Airport on Shetland. There are also inter-island services in Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. The latter can also be reached from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness airports. Sample prices: Glasgow to Stornoway return from £102, Edinburgh to Kirkwall from £137.

British Regional Airlines (operating for British Airways) also flies from Aberdeen to Shetland and Orkney. Return prices from £125 to Shetland and £103 to Orkney.

If you prefer others to make your arrangements, Vikki Osborne Short Breaks and Holidays (01983 524221, www.vikkiosborne.co.uk) offers packages to Shetland and Orkney. Sample price: £341 for six nights including three-star hotel accommodation, rail and ferry travel. Hebridean Adventure Holidays (01851 7066000, www.calahotels.com) runs short breaks to the Western Isles. Sample price: £319 for three nights' half board and return flight from London. Both the main ferry companies also offer complete island holidays.

What's the best way to feel like a castaway?

If you fancy yourself as a part-time castaway, make tracks for the excellent hostels, camping bods and bothies scattered throughout the islands. If you have never stayed in a hostel, the islands are an excellent place to try. The very nature of a holiday up here tends to attract similarly-minded visitors, especially on the more remote islands. The accommodation may be a little rudimentary, but they offer a taste of communal living, a great opportunity to make new friends and are often in spectacular locations.

The Scottish Youth Hostel Association (01786 891400, www.syha.org.uk) run most of the hostels, although there are also a good number that are independently owned (01478 640254, www.hostel-scotland.co.uk).

What if I really want get away from it all?

Short of selling up and moving home, the best place to look if you are serious about sampling the castaway lifestyle are the islands of St Kilda. The main island, Hirta, a tiny speck 40 miles out into the Atlantic off the Outer Hebrides, was once home to a community who survived in isolation for centuries living largely on the thousands of seabirds who colonise the island's spectacular 1,000-foot cliffs. Uninhabited since the Thirties when the last St Kildans were evacuated, the island is now a world heritage site. It is truly a special place with certainly the most intriguing history of all the Scottish islands.

St Kilda is now owned by the Scottish National Trust (www.nts.org.uk) which organises six two-week trips a year out to the islands. Although they are called work parties, arranged for either building, conservation and maintenance, or archaeology, emphasis is on experiencing life on this unique island, with visitors living communally in the restored 19th-century cottages in the old village. Space is limited to 12 people per trip, split between the sexes with one person designated leader. This year's trips are full, but the NTS is taking applications for 2001. The price for this privilege: £430 for the archaeological trip, £480 for the maintenance and conservation trip. Both include sea passage from Oban, accommodation and all food.

What if I prefer my home comforts?

There's a huge selection of B&B and guest-house accommodation across the islands. It's rated using a star system by the Scottish Tourist Board and can be viewed on the STB's website (visitscotland.com).

Top-end accommodation on the islands is limited. There is a 5-star hotel with health centre and golf course on the 300-acre privately owned Isle of Eriska, between the port of Oban and the island of Lismore (from £220 per night B&B, 01631 720371). Five stars are also awarded to Ardvourlie Castle guesthouse, a Victorian hunting lodge on the shores of loch Seaforth, north Harris, (from £55 per night B&B 01859 502307). Other notable higher-end accommodation includes: the Cleaton House Hotel on Westray, Orkney (01857 677508); the House Over-By (01470 511258) and Kinloch Lodge (01471 833214) on Skye; the Kilmichael Country House Hotel (01770 302219) on Arran; Port Charlotte Hotel (01496 850360), Islay; the Busta House Hotel in Brae, Shetland (01806 522506).

If you are looking for something unusual, there are a number of restored thatched blackhouses and crofter's cottages for rent. For example, £80 per night gets you a three-bedroom blackhouse overlooking the Atlantic at Garenin near Carloway on Lewis (01851 643488).

Where should I go when I start longing for civilisation?

Stornoway on Lewis, Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland are the Scottish islands' largest towns. All three are very much the hub of activity on their respective islands. Groups and visitors will find most of their needs here: a good range of accommodation; car rental companies; pubs and restaurants; banks; tourist offices; local and inter-island transport connections, nightlife.

Of the three, it is the lively port of Lerwick that stands out, not for architectural merit, but because of the locals. Unlike the Outer Hebrides, for instance, which in recent years has seen a steady decline in population, Shetlanders tend to stay on their islands. This is especially true of the younger generation with many graduates returning after completing university on the mainland. This has much to do with the Shetlanders' sense of detachment from mainland Scotland, and most locals agree that Shetland is a great place to raise a family. The schools are excellent, it's safe, the facilities good. It's an attitude that has made for a balanced community and a lively night out on the town at weekends. Head for Captain Flints down at the old harbour where some of the islands' excellent local bands play on Thursday nights, and visit The Lounge on Saturday afternoons where there's usually an impromptu gathering of local folk musicians.

How do I get around once I'm there?

While the islands tend to attract more outdoorsy types who enjoy hiking and biking, four wheels are a sensible option on the bigger islands. Skye, Lewis and Harris, Orkney, and especially Shetland, are deceptively large and while there are bus services, it can be limiting to plan your days around the scant timetables. If you are not bringing your own car over on the ferry, hire cars are easily available at airports and the main ferry ports, expect to pay around £25 a day.

The quiet roads and windy lanes make cycling a lovely way to get around. Unfortunately, cyclists have to pay to take their bike on the ferries - £2 on Caledonian MacBrayne and up to £10.40 on P&O routes. Bikes are also available for rent in the main towns. If there is a down side to cycling it isn't so much the hilly sections or the tendency for showers to blow in off the coast at anytime, but the wind which, if you set off the wrong way, will take all the fun out of pedalling.

Hitching feels safe, for men at least, and can be an option if you have time. And on Skye, Lismore, Lewis, Barra, Arran and Tiree it is possible to travel with the postman on Postbus routes.

What about the food?

The islands have some great local produce. Orkney beef and Shetland lamb are both renowned and, naturally, the seafood is abundant, with locally caught haddock, halibut, lobster, salmon and wild trout regularly featuring on menus.

But despite having the fresh ingredients, it's not unfair to say that cuisine in the islands is largely of a simple and pragmatic nature. If you are staying in B&Bs and mid-range hotels, expect hearty breakfasts to fuel your day and good ordinary fare when you return for an evening meal.

There are, of course, some exceptions. Two well-known fine dining establishments making the most of the local ingredients are the Three Chimneys Restaurant on Skye (01470 511258) and the Isle of Eriska Hotel restaurant ( 01631 720371). Listings and details for other recommended restaurants can be found at www.taste-of-scotland.com.

Self-catering can be a good option. There is, you'll agree, something quite alluring about the idea of stocking up on groceries and hiding yourself away in a remote cottage by the sea with some friends.

You may also come across one or two local oddities. There's a unique breed of sheep on North Ronaldsay whose dark flesh is distinctly flavoured by the seaweed on which they feed. And if you are on Lewis in the autumn you may be lucky enough to try one of the 2,000 gugas (plump young gannets) that are harvested annually from the uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, 40 miles north off the Butt of Lewis. Traditionally served with boiled potatoes and a glass of milk, gugas are like nothing you have ever tasted, perhaps best described by George Morrison, the Tolsta humorist as "better meat than any fish, and better fish than any meat".

Where can I get more information?

The Scottish Tourist Board's website (visitscotland.com) is excellent and has many other useful links to the islands. The most up-to-date guidebook is the Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands and Islands published in February this year.

To learn more about St Kilda, Tom Steel's book Life and Death of St Kilda is a fascinating read.

Jon Winter travelled as a guest of British Regional Airlines

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