MINGULAY

IT is inaccessible for most of the year and there are only one or two boatmen willing to make the voyage but, if you are lucky enough with the weather, grab the opportunity to visit the most westerly isle in the Outer Hebrides.

Much is talked about St Kilda and the final evacuation of its people in 1930; less so the more remote Mingulay, which is 12 miles south of Barra. The last, hardy, Gaelic-speaking people made a final voyage across the water in 1912 to forge new lives on Barra, Vatersay and the mainland.

The lack of a sheltered landing meant that the island could be unreachable for weeks at a time. Those who make the trip now – even on a calm day it's a bumpy journey and a rocky scramble at the end – will be richly rewarded.

Mingulay boasts the third-highest sea cliffs in the British Isles, 105 different species of bird including puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills, as well as a seal population that can fill the entire bay at times.

Wander around the fragile stone ruins of the village, the schoolhouse and the chapel house, which conservationists are trying to prevent being completely buried by sand and vegetation.

If you are prepared to brave Scotland's biggest midges and are the adventurous type (you could be stranded there for some time), take plenty of supplies and plan to wild camp in the summer. The island is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Jonathan Grant, who was employed as the island's ranger, has said of its allure: "It's a special place, a place you can't see in a couple of hours. There's nothing better than sitting on the hill above the village on a summer's evening. You can capture an essence of things that happened in the past."

CAROLINE WILSON

ST KILDA

The last inhabitants of St Kilda were evacuated from the islands in 1930. Here’s Herald writer Sean Guthrie on his trip to Hirta: “There’s barely a sound. Soay sheep graze, St Kilda wrens hop along the ground looking for worms and the emptiness threatens to swallow you.

“We enter abandoned house after abandoned house; we visit the graveyard, filled with the bones of countless children who fell to tetanus; we stare uncomprehending at the cleits on the uncouth slopes of Conachair. How, you wonder, did people cope with the unrelenting hostility of this island?”

SEAN GUTHRIE

HeraldScotland:

ARRAN

IT takes just 55 minutes to reach Brodick from Ardrossan and on Saturday mornings the ferry buzzes as families, backpackers and cyclists down their Caledonian MacBrayne breakfasts in preparation for a day or two's beachcombing, hillwalking or pedalling round the island.

Arran's accessibility may not appeal to those seeking remoteness but for me its popularity is part of its charm. The starting point for most walks and attractions can be reached by public transport and I love sitting on the bus guessing the other passengers' destinations.

Once out among the hills, glens and fabulous coastal paths, you can find yourself wondering where all those people have gone. For while Goatfell's peak can feel like Sauchiehall Street on a sunny summer day, most of the time, the island's 167 rugged square miles are as quiet as they are beautiful.

Quiet, that is, if you discount the constant wheep of oyster-catchers, the autumnal roar of rutting stags and the occasional, tantalising gurgle that just might signal the presence of an otter, seal or even a basking shark.

READ MORE: Tiree accordion teacher Gordon Connell on his island legacy

Wildlife is abundant, and so is the presence of human history. And while impressive stone circles at Machrie Moor and Auchagallon are easily reached, you needn't wander far off the main drag to see more subtle reminders of the past.

In the north, the outlines of former shielings proliferate across the lower slopes, where you may also stumble upon an oval-shaped mound that just might be a chambered cairn.

And everywhere there are huddles of grey stone – some clearly recognisable as the villages that were cleared during the early 1800s; others still containing rusting metal vats in which fishermen once barked their nets.

Clearly, island life has often been tough and there must be plenty of challenges for the 4,600 people who live and work there today.

Not least, there are the eager-faced hordes pouring off the Saturday morning ferry to be catered for – but thankfully, the hospitality in Arran's vibrant pubs, cafes and restaurants is unrivalled.

SUSAN FLOCKHART

BARRA

IT is the only airport in the world where scheduled flights touch down on the beach, there are no check-in queues and homemade cakes are in plentiful supply.

The Traigh Mhor – Gaelic for Big Beach – has been used as a natural airstrip since 1936, when Sir Compton MacKenzie, the author of Whisky Galore!, lived on the island.

However, there are a million other reasons to visit Eilean Bharraigh and Vatersay, the neighbouring island, which is joined by a short causeway and is apparently always high on the itinerary of the Queen's private summer cruise of the highlands and islands.

The island is roughly 11 miles long and six miles wide and a single-track road runs around the coast, where the flattest land and houses are. The other route to the island is the more conventional, but equally scenic, five-hour crossing by CalMac ferry from Oban.

READ MORE: Scottish islands special - 10 great places to eat

Barra boasts a pretty island hub, the village of Castlebay, which sits on a hill overlooking the ruins of Kisimul Castle out in the bay. Wedding celebrations can last for days in Barra, so expect a lively night out in one of the island's hotels, including the Castlebay Hotel, where the Vatersay boys regularly perform.

There is an annual half-marathon called the Barrathon, but if that's too much of a stretch, climb Heaval and take a breather at the halfway mark, where a white marble statue of the Madonna and Child gazes out onto the Atlantic.

Vatersay boasts the island's best beaches, in particular the west beach where 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean stands between it and the United States.

After working up an appetite, book a table at the Italian Indian restaurant Cafe Kisimul, which serves hand-dived scallops transformed into moreish pakora. There are a number of decent hotels, guesthouses and caravans dotted around Barra.

Northbay House, in Brevig, is a beautifully restored former school where you can read the old logbooks, and the breakfasts are generous.

Prices start at £38 per night, based on two sharing. isleofbarra.com/northbayhouse

CAROLINE WILSON

ISLAY

IF you're a fan of malt whisky, you don't just pay a visit to Islay, you make a pilgrimage. The names of the distilleries are famous around the world – and the whiskies they produce are as dramatic as the landscape; as spectacular as a winter storm raging in off the Atlantic.

Ardbeg, with its wood-embers smokiness; Caol Ila, that pale, perfect, powerful spirit; the aromatic Lagavulin; the less well-known but equally superb Kilchoman; or the perky, peat-free Bruichladdich – each dram is the stuff of legend.

There are eight working distilleries, with a string of new ones planned and even closed ones – including the fabled Port Ellen – set to reopen, and every single one has a wonderful personality.

If you've ever been there, you'll know how addictive this little island is; if you haven't and you love the idea of a great malt in even greater surroundings, it's a place you can't not visit.

And the best news? There's so much to choose from – so little chance that you'll get round them all in one go – that you'll just have to jump on the ferry and come back for more. Slainte!

ANDY CLARK

HeraldScotland:

ORKNEY

YOU can't fail to be wowed by Orkney and the Neolithic monuments at its heart: Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Together this former settlement, large chambered tomb and two ceremonial stone circles – built 5,000 years ago – form a Unesco World Heritage Centre.

Other historic sites worth a visit include the Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic chambered tomb located on a cliff edge at Isbister on South Ronaldsay, and the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm which was built from two old Nissen huts by prisoners-of-war in 1943.

On the west of the mainland is Yesnaby with its towering sandstone cliffs and majestic sea stack. It is a wonderful spot to watch the sunset.

Spread your wings and travel further afield: Sanday boasts white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, Papa Westray has the Neolithic farmstead Knap of Howar, while North Ronaldsay is home to a bird observatory and seaweed-eating sheep which graze along its jagged coastline.

Don't leave Orkney without trying the famed "pattie", a heavenly mix of mince, potatoes, onion, pepper and spices rolled together, battered and deep-fried. One of the top purveyors of this culinary treat is the Harbour Fry on Bridge Street in Kirkwall.

Visit northlinkferries.co.uk and loganair.co.uk

SUSAN SWARBRICK

HARRIS

PERHAPS there are more beautiful places than Harris, but I can't think where on earth they would possibly be.

This magical island in the Outer Hebrides really does have it all; tranquil white sandy beaches and clear aquamarine waters, stunning mountains and glens, majestic wildlife, fascinating history and traditions, not to mention friendly locals. Indeed, if you're lucky you might even get to experience all of them at once.

For me, one of the best things about Harris is its year-round magnificence. Each of the four seasons has a particular feel, whether it's the stark, short-lived midwinter sunshine of January, the blossoming of spring in April, the long summer nights or the vibrant colours of autumn.

Luskentyre beach on the island's west coast is the perfect place to experience seasonal changes: mile upon mile of sand and dunes, looking out to the Atlantic on one side and the hills on the other, simply cannot fail to stir the senses. Indeed, a walk here is medicine for the soul at any time of year, regardless of the weather.

The people who live in this extraordinary landscape come from throughout the Western Isles, Scotland, the UK and beyond, attracted by the quality and pace of life it offers, the sense of community and belonging.

READ MORE: Scottish islands special - a guide to the best cycling routes

And the landscape permeates through everything, whether it's in the purples, greens and slate greys of the Harris Tweed woven by local craftspeople, the flavour of the local gin or the lively Gaelic history and culture you get a taste of wherever you go.

It's no wonder the popularity of Harris is on the rise, following gushing write-ups in the big global travel bibles over the last few years.

Indeed, it can be hard to find accommodation from spring through to early autumn. But that doesn't mean this wonderful island ever feels crowded; the big skies, mountain wilderness and moor still go on forever.

Ferries sail to Tarbert on Harris from Uig. You can also sail to Stornoway from Ullapool and drive the rest. Flights to Stornoway leave from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

MARIANNE TAYLOR

GREAT CUMBRAE

KNOWN erroneously to generations of geographically challenged Scots as Millport, Cumbrae has a special place in my heart. As a child in the 1970s, it was as overseas as holidays got and, like countless other Scots, I wobbled around it on a hired bike with my family.

I was keen to see if such simple pleasures translated to the 21st century so jumped on the ferry from Largs with my smartphone-wielding son a few summers back and we set off on our bikes.

We turned left at the ferry and got pedalling, stopping to putter about on the beaches and admire the views, as we worked our way round to White Bay and the Fintry Bay cafe. The roads were as quiet as I remembered, though there was possibly fewer cyclists.

Coasting into Millport for the obligatory knickerbocker glory, I asked my millennial what we thought of our mini-adventure. "Pretty good," he replied. And he was right. It is pretty good.

GARRY SCOTT

HeraldScotland:

SKYE

THERE may have been a slew of news stories about Skye being "overcrowded" but choose the time of year carefully and you'll find this island gem as tranquil and unspoiled as ever.

Sure, July and August can be busy but earlier in the summer and through the autumn is a perfect time to visit. You'll also hopefully miss the worst of the midges too.

The Fairy Pools at Glenbrittle are a favourite among wild swimmers and photographers, while the Trotternish peninsula – home to the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing – has attracted an influx of "set-jetters" thanks to appearances in films such as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The BFG.

Trotternish also has Skye's dinosaur trail. Head to An Corran beach at Staffin where the three-toed impressions left by a family of megalosaurs 165 million years ago can be spotted.

Beneath the ruins of Duntulm Castle further north on the peninsula, a rocky tidal platform juts out into the waves. It was here that what has been dubbed the "dinosaur disco" was discovered by an Edinburgh University team in 2015.

The largest trackway of dinosaur prints to have been found in Scotland, they belong to sauropods – distant relatives of brontosaurus and diplodocus – and date from the Middle Jurassic period.

There is no shortage of wonderful places to eat on Skye, from Michelin-starred cuisine to pub grub, cafes and chippies (see Cate Devine's top picks).

My own favourite is The Oyster Shed at Carbost, where you can enjoy freshly shucked oysters accompanied by views over Loch Harport. The brilliant rustic-style farm shop serves up seafood platters and delights such as a half lobster with chips – all reasonably priced.

SUSAN SWARBRICK

EASDALE

THE smallest permanently occupied island in the Inner Hebrides, Easdale lies 200 metres off neighbouring Seil, which itself is connected to the mainland by the "Bridge over the Atlantic".

Reached via a small 10-person passenger ferry, there are no vehicles on the island – nor roads and street lights for that matter. From the moment you set foot on Easdale, you can see why it has become hugely successful as the venue for the annual World Stone Skimming Championships.

Everywhere you look lie pieces of flat, grey slate. It was once the lifeblood of the island, with seven working quarries supplying slate to rooftops as far away as Australia and Canada.

The industry went into decline, however, following a storm in 1881 that flooded the quarries. Many people were forced to leave and the last slate was cut in the 1950s. These days Easdale is home to 65 residents including entrepreneurs, artists and musicians.

READ MORE: What it feels like ... to live on Fair Isle

Facilities include the Puffer Bar & Restaurant, the Easdale Island Folk Museum and Easdale Island Community Hall which hosts an arts programme featuring theatre, music and exhibitions. There is a B&B and self-catering accommodation.

Away from the main hub lie the sea-filled former quarries, where the water has a vivid cyan hue – a by-product of oils secreted from the slate – giving the appearance of a Caribbean lagoon.

SUSAN SWARBRICK

SHETLAND

FANS of BBC Scotland drama Shetland and the Ann Cleeves novels which inspired the hit television series will be no stranger to the mesmerising charms of this subarctic archipelago, but nothing beats seeing it in the flesh.

Think rugged landscapes punctuated with mossy hills, swathes of purple heather and sparkling lochs strung with mussel ropes that glisten like jet beads.

Highlights include the beautiful tombolo at St Ninian's Isle and nearby Levenwick, which inspired the fictional Ravenswick in Cleeves's novels with its stunning, secluded beach.

At Leebotten look out for the seals that cheekily pop their heads up alongside the Sandsayre Pier. It is from here that the boat leaves for Mousa, the island known for its Iron Age broch and the storm petrels that soar overhead in the summer months.

The Shetland Museum and Archives at Hay's Dock, Lerwick, is a must-visit. And in Shetland's largest town keep an eye out for the small stone cottage down near the harbour which was used in the TV show for exterior shots as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez's home.

Visit northlinkferries.co.uk and loganair.co.uk

SUSAN SWARBRICK

READ MORE: Tiree accordion teacher Gordon Connell on his island legacy

THE HEBRIDES

WHAT is it like to spend six weeks on an abandoned Hebridean island at the height of winter with only a dog for company? Here, fantasy writer Leo Carew shares his experience.

I WENT last January for six weeks. Just me and my dog Mufasa. A little Border terrier. We got dropped off by a fishing boat with enough for a Victorian expedition – bags of flour and salt and a rifle for hunting deer.

The island was completely abandoned apart from a cabin and an old bothy. It's got deer, sea eagles, about 700 sheep. No trees, very windswept. Beautiful white sand beaches, lots of ruins from the community that used to live there before the clearances.

I brought supplies for about two weeks and the idea was that that would get me to where I could live off the land. I hunted venison, took limpets and mussels and kelp for my greens. There's obviously no electricity, no heating, completely off grid. Everything's powered by a wood-burning stove and it was beyond wonderful, actually.

HeraldScotland:

I ended up in this state of complete euphoria. Weatherwise, we had the full house. We had two weeks of unbroken gales. Then we had almost a week of still sunny days, very beautiful, and then the snow well and truly came down. It was absolutely freezing and that lasted a couple of weeks.

It was just as well because I had a gas fridge to preserve the venison and that started leaking and we got into a slight carbon monoxide issue. It was kind of tough and I did get a little bit of poisoning, which wasn't great. But the cold was welcome because it meant I could turn off the fridge and store my food outside.

READ MORE: Scottish islands special - 10 great places to eat

The dog almost got abducted by a sea eagle. When stuff like that happens you do feel very exposed. I had to save it. We were on the beach and the sea eagle started swooping down towards it and, luckily, I managed to persuade it to pull up before it succeeded in grabbing the dog.

That was the first time I'd ever spent on my own. You learn that solitude is not bad for you. It gives you a great deal of confidence. You take that into real life.

The Wolf by Leo Carew, published by Wildfire, priced £16.99

BY SEA ...

TO say that CalMac plays a significant role in the lives of Scotland's islands is an understatement. The state-owned ferry operator runs the entire network of west coast vessels, simultaneously a lifeline that takes locals to and from work on the mainland and, in itself, a key employer.

The 33 ferries sailing to 23 islands also, of course, transport the hundreds of thousands of tourists that the island economies increasingly rely on.

Perhaps inevitably, islanders sometimes find it necessary to take the company to task over routes, cancellations and delays. Indeed, only this week they demanded a meeting with Transport Secretary Humza Yousaf to discuss ongoing disruption caused by a shortfall of vessels, underlining just how vital the services are.

READ MORE: Scottish islands special - a guide to the best cycling routes

These vessels represent more than just public transport, however. The sight of CalMac's iconic red, yellow and black livery powering across the sea is part of the Scottish imagination, evoking memories of idyllic childhood holidays, beautiful landscapes and the remarkable abundance of wildlife the west coast is renowned for.

Watching from the deck of a ferry to Mull as dolphins frolic below, on a warm summer's day, is an unforgettable experience. In recent years some of the fleet has undergone renovation, and CalMac is becoming as well known for its tasty fish suppers as the stoic ferrymen that guide cars and passengers on and off. A national institution indeed.

Visit calmac.co.uk

MARIANNE TAYLOR

AND BY AIR …

FROM landing on the beach at Barra to the world's shortest flight in Orkney, Loganair has plenty of bucket-list lures for anyone exploring the Scottish islands.

For those who live there, however, the airline's services are a lifeline. Destinations from mainland Scotland include Islay, Benbecula, Tiree, Lewis and Shetland.

In Orkney, the Inter-Isles Air Service serves six small airports from Kirkwall: Stronsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Eday, Westray and Papa Westray.

The 1.7-mile hop between Westray and Papa Westray, which takes on average around a minute and a half to complete – or 53 seconds with favourable winds – holds a Guinness World Record as the shortest scheduled passenger flight.

There is also a twice-weekly service launching between Kirkwall and Fair Isle which runs from May until October. Perfect for birdwatchers (see What It Feels Like).

The sands of Traigh Mhor on Barra provide the runway for the world's only scheduled beach landing. The tiny airport, which welcomes more than 14,000 passengers each year, is an ideal gateway for island-hopping up the Outer Hebrides chain.

Visit loganair.co.uk

SUSAN SWARBRICK

What is your favourite island? Email letters@theherald.co.uk to share your stories.