Scotland's Islands

We'll begin on the tranquil Isle of Iona, where Christianity first reached the shores of Scotland. Then we'll visit another of the Inner Hebrides, road-tripping across the Isle of Skye, where we'll explore Iron Age forts, peat fields, a venerable distillery, thatched crofter huts, and the dramatic Trotternish Peninsula. Finally, we'll sail to Orkney — more Nordic than Celtic — with its stony remnants of a thriving Iron Age civilization and evocative reminders of the 20th-century wartime harbor at Scapa Flow.

Travel Details

Three-Island Ferry/Bus Tour

West Coast Tours runs daily excursions to Mull, Iona, and Staffa that include all transportation, as well as some bus-driver commentary. If you want to avoid some crowds, or have more than two hours on Iona, you can take the early ferry and either a public bus or your rental car across Mull (but space is limited on the ferry, and tight ferry timings mean you'll wind up following the tour buses anyway; no visitor cars are allowed on Iona) — and consider Staffa as a separate trip (several companies offer tours out of Oban). Mull and Iona are worthwhile in any weather, but I'd skip Staffa if rain or rough seas are expected.

Iona Abbey

This (mostly rebuilt) church marks the site of Christianity's arrival in Scotland. You'll see Celtic crosses, the original shrine of St. Columba, a big church slathered with medieval carvings, a tranquil cloister, and an excellent museum with surviving fragments of this site's fascinating layers of history.

Skye Museum of Island Life

This fine little stand of seven thatched stone huts, organized into an excellent family-run museum, features ample posted explanations and fascinating displays.

St. Magnus Cathedral

This grand edifice, whose pointy steeple is visible from just about anywhere in Kirkwall, is one of Scotland's most enjoyable churches to visit. It boasts a delightful array of engaging monuments, all well described by the self-guided tour brochure. The highlight is the gravestones that line the walls of the nave, each one carved with reminders of mortality. Take time to read some of the poignant epitaphs ("She lived regarded and dyed regreted").

Skara Brae

Uncovered by an 1850 windstorm, Skara Brae (meaning roughly "village under hills"), located about 20 minutes by car from Maeshowe, has been meticulously excavated and is very well presented.

Maeshowe

The only way to go inside this remarkably intact tomb is on a fascinating 30-minute tour (reservations are required; book in person or online — they don't take bookings over the phone). How they managed to cut and transport gigantic slabs of sandstone, then assemble this dry-stone, corbeled pyramid — all in an age before metal tools — still puzzles present-day engineers.

Scapa Flow

For a quick and fascinating glimpse of Orkney's WWII locations, drive 10 minutes south from Kirkwall to this natural harbor. From the village of St. Mary's, you can cross over all four of the Churchill Barriers, with subtle reminders of war all around.

Italian Chapel

The chapel stands just over the first Churchill Barrier, about 10 minutes south of Kirkwall. The British military is proud of this structure as an embodiment of Britain's wartime ethic of treating POWs with care and respect.)

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're getting to know the locals…and that includes the seagulls. We're exploring the islands of Scotland. Thanks for joining us.

Scotland's islands may be on the distant fringes of Scotland, but those who venture here are richly rewarded. As if fortified by the powerful sea, these fabled isles are protectors of tradition — each offering dramatic landscapes, a rich heritage, and a warm welcome.

While Scotland has countless islands, we'll visit what I consider the most rewarding: Iona, with its tranquility and ancient Christian heritage; Skye, with its remote and rugged landscapes; and Orkney, with its prehistoric wonders and fascinating WWII history.

The United Kingdom includes England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Scotland is ringed on the west by the Hebrides Islands. We'll venture from Oban to Iona and Staffa, then Skye, and then, in the far north, sail to the Orkney Islands.

Oban's been the unofficial capital of Scotland's West Coast since the train arrived in 1880. The hub of the local ferry system, this low-key resort is nicknamed "the Gateway to the Isles."

Oban's harborfront is lined with Victorian facades recalling the early arrival of tourists just over a century ago. Before then, its economy was dominated by fishing. Even today, a tiny fleet stays busy. When the rain clears, sun-starved Scots enjoy their esplanade and the beach.

The townscape is dominated by its busy ferry port. The port has long been a lifeline to the Hebrides Islands. Today, it's a popular springboard for island adventures.

The best day out from Oban is the "three-island tour," and we've caught the early ferry on our way to Mull, Iona, and Staffa. Right away, we're immersed in grand island views. Be on deck to make the most of the experience. After an hour, you approach the isle of Mull. Everything is coordinated, and a bus is standing by, ready to take us across the island. Enjoying the drive, you're struck by the pristine scenery, the sparse population, and how Mull feels hardly touched by civilization.

On the far west of Mull, another ferry makes the short crossing to the isle of Iona.

Iona is tiny, but with a big history. Just one village, three miles long, 150 people, almost no cars. It's famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.

The year was 563. A nobleman, who became St. Columba, fought a battle over in Ireland. He won, but was so sickened by the bloodshed that he left his homeland, vowing never to return. According to legend, this was the first piece of land he came to out of sight from Ireland. He stopped here and built a church, which eventually became this abbey.

Iona became a center of Celtic Christianity. From here, St. Columba's monks spread the gospel throughout Scotland. This remote little island was a center of art and learning back when most of Europe was almost illiterate — mired in relative darkness.

The exquisitely illustrated Book of Kells — this is a copy on display in Dublin — is perhaps the finest piece of art from Europe's early middle ages. Monks wrote it here, on Iona, in the eighth century.

Over the next centuries, Columba's monastic community grew in religious importance. The abbey became the burial place for chiefs and kings. According to legend, dozens of ancient kings — Scottish, Irish, and even Scandinavian — rest here.

After many generations, in about the year 800, Viking raiders were terrorizing coastal communities all across western Europe, including Iona. After one terrible massacre — 68 monks were killed right here on this beach — the survivors packed up their treasures, including the precious Book of Kells, and returned to Ireland.

Today, a thoughtful calm pervades Scotland's holiest of islands. After centuries of pillaging, little remains of the original abbey. But if you're interested in tranquility and a bit of meditative peace, Iona is a fine place for a break from your busy itinerary.

Next, a fast boat takes us to our third island of the day: Staffa — famous for its bird life and striking volcanic rock formations. Our captain gives us a dramatic sneak preview of the fabled Fingal's Cave. He then drops us off for time to explore.

Walking across the uninhabited island, we head for the hidden nests of a colony of Atlantic puffins. We wait patiently and quietly, observing the hardworking adults bringing home a fishy breakfast for their chicks.

Hiking along the base of the cliffs, using Staffa's distinctive six-sided basalt columns as stepping stones, we reach Fingal's Cave. Peering into the geological darkness, so surrounded by nature, I savor the moment. Enjoying the interplay of the sea and the rocks, I think of the generations of Romantics who've stood right here — and been inspired.

After enjoying our three-island day, we're driving farther north. The drive's scenic, the roads are good, and the traffic's light.

Ferries connect these islands with Scottish government-subsidized fares, keeping island-hopping inexpensive. Next up: the rugged Isle of Skye.

Offering some of Scotland's best scenery, the Isle of Skye is understandably popular. Narrow, twisty roads wind around Skye in the shadows of craggy, bald mountains, and the coastline is ruffled with peninsulas and "sea lochs," or saltwater inlets.

Skye, while Scotland's second-biggest island — about a two-hour drive from south to north — has only 13,000 residents. And it's been that way since the Highland Clearances back in the 1800s. That's when wealthy landlords decided sheep were better for their bottom line than people. Landless peasants were driven out, and to this day, the island's population is half what it used to be.

While plenty of tour buses cover Skye, it's a great place to have your own wheels. The island is dotted with scenic roadside attractions.

The Sligachan Bridge offers a classic Skye view, and a good reminder to stop the car and get out. The Cuillin mountains tower high above. And above the bridge looms the cone-shaped Glamaig Hill.

Around here, people really know how to have fun with nature. As a matter of fact, every summer, there's a race, from the bridge to the top of that summit and back. Last year's winner: 44 minutes.

If you know where to look, the island is strewn with the scant remains of past civilizations. Just a short hike from a handy parking lot is Skye's best-preserved Iron Age fort, Dun Beag.

To get the most out of our Isle of Skye road trip, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.

Exploring this prehistoric stone tower connects us with Skye's distant past. Judging from these stones, the tower once stood much taller. I love scrambling through ruined castles — and this one is particularly evocative.

Colin: Well, people have been living on the Isle of Skye for thousands of years and this place, if you imagine it, probably had a timber frame inside, three stories high. They would get in here under times of attack. They could gather in here, the community, men, women, children, and their domesticated animals, and we think this was built around about 2,000 years ago.

Skye's best home base is the town of Portree, nestled deep in its protective harbor. Portree, with its narrow streets and humble shops, restaurants, and hotels, is the island's largest town and tourism center. As Skye gets more and more popular, Portree gets jammed with visitors in the summer.

The harborside, once busy with the its historic kelp-gathering and herring-fishing economy, like the rest of the town, is now dedicated to tourism. Fish and chips is a standby for a cheap lunch. Grab a spot and enjoy the view. But be on guard — those seagulls are hungry, too.

Well…the gulls are well fed. And now it's our turn… time for a pub lunch.

We're here in July, and every restaurant in town is busy with tourists — many escaping the heat of southern Europe for the cool of the north. Places that take pride in their food have raised pub grub to new levels: creative dishes, fresh vegetables, and salads. And, anywhere in Britain, I go for the local beer. Here on the island, it's Skye Gold.

The highlight of our Isle of Skye visit is driving around the scenic Trotternish Peninsula.

The coast is lined with jaw-dropping cliffs plunging into the sea. This one's nicknamed "Kilt Rock" because its volcanic lava columns look like pleats in a Scottish kilt.

A steep climb inland leads to a trailhead at the summit of the Trotternish Ridge.

Rick: Man, we're lucky to have a place to park.
Colin: Right.

Skye is well-discovered these days. But you can still get away from the crowds. Make a point to get out of the car and take a hike.

From here, we enjoy the easy walk across a dramatic escarpment called "the Quiraing." Hikers are richly rewarded, enjoying unforgettable views of the Isle of Skye and the distant mainland.

In addition to the stunning scenery, there's history and heritage in the land. We stopped at a peat bog that tells a story. Until a generation ago, bogs like these — where organic matter is slowly working its way to becoming coal — were harvested to heat homes.

Rick: So this is a peat spade?
Colin: Yeah, so that's just for cutting the peats. And it's a task like chopping firewood. It's a matter of survival, really. Peat was really important for people, historically, on the Isle of Skye. So you would cut the peat from a bog, like this. Then, you'd dry it out, first, put it on the fire, and that lets off a sweet, smoky smell. It's used through the harsh winter, heats the home, provides a fuel source for cooking. It's used widely in the whiskey industry, and I really love the smell of burning peat.

The fine little Skye Museum of Island Life explains how a typical Skye family lived, back in the days when peat was vital to survival.

Rick: So, what is this?
Colin: So, this is a crofting community, and it shows how people used to live in Skye. This was quite typical in the 1800s, and a croft is basically a small-scale farm — so, small-scale subsistence farming. They didn't own the land, but they lived off the land and paid the rent, as well.
Rick: So, this is where the family gathered.
Colin: Yep. This is a typical household setting for 1800s Skye.
Rick: So, the kitchen would've been where the action is.
Colin: Yeah, so they're all around the hearth. You've got the peat burning on the fire and that's burning day and night. People gather around here and they've got things to keep them amused, keep them entertained. They've got a Bible in the Gaelic language because they spoke Gaelic here. They've got musical instruments, and that would give them some entertainment as well. People would get together and have a cèilidh. A cèilidh is a get-together. They have a bit of a gossip, bit of a drink, maybe some whiskey, and then that leads into playing some music, some dancing, and we still use the term cèilidh today.
Rick: So, they'd gather 'round the peat fire. They've got their whiskey. They've got their bagpipe, their fiddle, and their accordion.
Colin: Yeah. What else do you need?
Rick: Neighbors.
Colin: Yeah.

Farm communities like this had to be self-sufficient. A blacksmith made all the tools. And clothing was woven from local wool.

Colin: The people here were self-sufficient to make their own clothes, as well, and they basically could take the wool from their own sheep. They'll spin it into yarn, dye it, and then weave it into tweed on this loom, so the loom was kept very busy.
Rick: I hear the word "tweed" a lot when I'm in Scotland. What is that?
Colin: Yeah. So, tweed is basically a coarse, woolen cloth and very famous, from this part of the world. The most famous, really, comes from the neighboring island of Harris.
Rick: Oh. The Isle of Harris that's just over there?
Colin: Yeah, that's Harris.

The north tip of the Trotternish Peninsula is marked by the crumbling remains of Duntulm Castle. This was the first stronghold on Skye of the influential MacDonald clan. If offers another wind-blown chance to savor how history and nature mix it up here, on the Isle of Skye.

For our final island, it's a four-hour drive across the mainland and up the northeast coast of Scotland.

Before catching our ferry, we make a quick stop at the northernmost tip of the British mainland: John O'Groats. It's a fun stop for tourists to snap their "been there, done that" photo with the landmark signpost. But for us, there's more: Orkney looms just off the coast.

The Orkney Islands, perched an hour's ferry ride north of the mainland, are remote, historic, and — for the right traveler — worth the effort. Orkney's dramatic cliffs and rock formations seem to herald a different world.

The ferry lands in the tiny port of Stromness. Stoney and humble, you immediately feel an island kind of charm.

Orkney's landscape is mostly flat and bald, with few trees and lots of tidy farms. The blustery weather keeps the vegetation low and scrubby. Trees just can't grow in the Orkney winds. With its sparse population, the island has no traffic lights. Most roads are single-lane, and driving here is a joy. Fine, sandy beaches seem always empty — as if lying on them will give you hypothermia.

Orkney, an archipelago of 70 islands, has about 25,000 people. The main island is called, confusingly, "Mainland."

The vast majority of Orcadians live in Kirkwall. Tidy and functional, this town's buildings are more practical than pretty. Its pedestrians-only main drag leads from the cathedral down to the harbor. It's a workaday strip, lined with simple shops and busy with locals who all seem to know each other. At the harbor, fishing boats bob and ferries fan out to nearby islands.

Today's economy is based mostly on North Sea oil and fishing.

The local pipe band brings a ruddy, distinctly Orcadian groove to the town center. It's a toe-tapping energy as everybody gathers together.

St. Magnus Cathedral towers about the town center. With centuries of tombstones and its weathered red sandstone, it's a reminder of a long-ago era that shaped this island's culture.

The church was built in the 12th century, when Orkney was ruled by Norway. In fact, it was part of a Norwegian parish. Norway is just 170 miles across the sea. The Vikings established Orkney as a trading post in the 9th century, and it stayed under Norwegian rule for 600 years. That's why this culture feels more Scandinavian than Celtic. The old Orcadian language, many town names, and the folklore — all Nordic.

Stepping inside, you're struck by the stout and harmonious Romanesque design, with its arcade of round arches leading to what must have been an awe-inspiring high altar in the Middle Ages.

Orkney is small, and its countryside charms are just minutes away by car.

To get the most out of our time here, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Kinlay Francis.

Kinlay: Orkney has two big draws: World War sites and some of the best prehistoric sites in northern Europe. Orkney, at one stage, was the center of civilization, back in the Stone Age.

The island is dotted with monuments recalling the island's distant past. The Stones of Stenness — part of a dozen stones that made a big circle — are a reminder that 5,000 years ago Orkney had a busy civilization, with more people then than there are here today.

At the far-western shore, Skara Brae illustrates how some Neolithic people lived. They hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels.

Kinlay: It was a big community — 150 people living here at one stage. A third of the village remains. Two-thirds were taken away by the North Atlantic. People lived under the ground, in stone-type igloo buildings with turf roofs, and they lived under the ground to keep the weather out, to keep them warm. They were powered by oil lamps, with whale oil and whalebone basins, and a very nice-looking community.

And all of this was accomplished without the use of metal tools. This, after all, was the Stone Age — before people learned to make and use metals.

A few miles away, sitting quietly in what seems like just another field, is a remarkable burial mound.

Maeshowe is the finest chambered tomb north of the Alps. For 5,000 years, people have lowered their heads to enter this sacred space.

Rick: Wow! This is great. Tell me about this place.
Kinlay: This is a burial chamber, and to our right and our left, and behind you, are three tombs. On winter solstice, at sunset, the sun streams through this position here, and illuminates the back chamber.
Rick: Wow!
Kinlay: The stone is sandstone, and it's been hand-carved and corbelled, vaulted into position, to make this beautiful chamber. And how Neolithic man managed to build this structure, no one really knows.

Orkney's arch of scattered islands forms one of the world's largest natural harbors. It's called "Scapa Flow." In the 10th century, Vikings sheltered their warships here, and, a thousand years later, in the 20th century, so did the British. Scapa Flow was a critical base for Britain's Royal Navy.

Back during World War I, to prevent German U-boats from sneaking between the little islands that define this harbor, dozens of old ships were intentionally sunk, to block the gaps.

You can still see many of these "block ships" breaking the surface today. But they didn't really do the job, as Britain learned, tragically, at the start of World War II.

Kinlay: In 1939, a few weeks after the start of the Second World War, a German U-boat slipped through a position just like this, into Scapa Flow, and torpedoed a British battleship at anchor. Over 800 men were lost. As a result of this, the British sent tens of thousands of troops here, to Orkney, to fortify the island with gun batteries and ships and airfields, and it became known locally as "Fortress Orkney."

Britain built barriers to make the harbor safe from more surprise attacks. Winston Churchill visited and decided to connect the islands by building causeways out of concrete blocks. Today, tourists drive along these "Churchill Barriers" as they explore the island.

Orkney's most charming wartime sight is its Italian Chapel.

Italian prisoners of war helped to build the Churchill Barriers. They were given these two prefab Quonset huts and, during their free time, they were allowed to scavenge whatever wartime scraps they could find to decorate them. They built a beautiful little Catholic chapel, that reminded them of their homeland.

Inside, you can see the creative work of those Italian prisoners: light fixtures made from ration tins, candleholders fashioned from brass shell casings, and painted windows with the illusion of radiant stained glass. Above the altar, Mary holds the baby Jesus, who holds an olive branch — a kind of prayer for peace. The chapel was completed in 1944, just two months before the Italians who built it were free to go home.

These Scottish islands each have a distinct personality: Orkney, with its quirky history; Iona, with its spiritual heart; Staffa, with its remote wildlife; and Skye, with its majestic nature.

I hope you've enjoyed our island adventure across the friendly and scenic fringes of bonnie Scotland. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

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