Robin McKelvie

Some of my favourite childhood holiday memories involve clambering aboard a CalMac ferry bound for the isles. I’m now a father of two daughters and as a travel writer have been to over 100 countries. Nowhere in the world have I enjoyed better family holidays, though, than right here in Scotland and it’s still those isles that tempt the strongest. I’d like to share seven islands with you that I’ve found first hand offer a great family holiday in this dedicated Year of Coasts and Waters.


The Scotland in Miniature moniker rings true for families. My children love the beaches and the wildlife – we go every year and always head out on an Arran Safari ticking off eagles, seals, red squirrels and red deer, the latter the British Isle’s largest land mammal. Basking sharks are a thrillingly greeted bonus. On rainy days the girls love making candles and soap at Arran Aromatics, the big pool at the Auchrannie and ambling around Brodick Castle ( The spectacular woodland playground at the castle is a big draw. Arran is a great island for walking too and my eldest’s first hill was Goatfell aged eight.

Stay – The Auchrannie is the only proper resort in the islands and boasts a soft play centre and family-friendly restaurants.


This is a must for fans of the BBC TV series Balamory, which famously saw some of Tobermory’s most striking buildings painted in bright pastel hues. You can still buy souvenirs in the waterfront gift shop. Tobermory offers family-friendly cafes and restaurants, plus walks and porpoises in the bay. You can push on to epic beaches like Calgary and explore Castle Duart, a dreamy creation that Disney would be proud off. The An Tobar Café (, from the same people as the Mull Theatre, is part of an arts orientated hub with info on hand on the island’s myriad cultural events – look out for special Year of Coasts and Waters events.

Stay – If you’re on a tight budget or want to introduce the wee ones to camping there is a free short stay wild campsite at Calgary Bay by the sands.


If you are after a brilliant beach-kissed holiday then we can thoroughly recommend the remarkable Inner Hebridean isle of Coll, which is home to more than 20 beaches. The best part is that there is always plenty of space for everyone. I recommend buying a map and then choosing a strip of sand to head to on the northwestern shores. Head south and the wide sweep of Crossapol awaits, backed up by huge sand dunes. A life affirming family day out is spending the morning here, then hiking over the dunes and wildflower clad machair to Feall for a picnic and more swimming. You can make it a circular walk from the RSPB car park ( Coll was an inspiration for the Katie Morag books and TV series, which my girls also loved.

Stay – The revamped Coll Hotel is both family-run and family-friendly, with the Oliphants expert at keeping wee guests and wee diners happy. Glorious local produce too such as Coll lobster.


The long ferry ride from Oban offers the chance to scan the waters for dolphins, porpoises and even whales. Alternatively thrill the weans with the world’s only scheduled beach landing on the Loganair flight from Glasgow. Barra is a sort of Outer Hebrides in miniature with breathtaking beaches, lots of opportunities for walking and cycling, plus world-class seafood. For a family sea kayaking trip I recommend Clearwater Paddling ( Another fun trip is in the capital of Castlebay, where you can take a boat out to the Kisimul Castle in the bay and really fire up young imaginations with tales of knights and pirates.

Stay – The Isle of Barra Beach Hotel sits right on its own sweeping Atlantic beach, which you will usually be the only ones on.


Beaches are the big draw here in the Outer Hebrides on the ‘island’ of Harris, which is actually joined at the hip to Lewis. The west coast beaches lay a fair claim to being the best in Scotland, which by default makes them amongst the finest you will ever set eyes upon. Our family favourites are Scarista and Luskentyre. The girls love foraging for clams at the latter and cooking them up on a beach BBQ. The capital of Tarbert is home to a wee shop specialising in the famous Harris Tweed, with some beautiful and unique teddy bears for the kids. The shiny new Harris Distillery ( is surprisingly family friendly too with an excellent café.

Stay – The Blue Reef Cottages are striking floor to ceiling glass, grass roofed, hideaways set just back from Scarista.

Orkney Mainland

A visit to Orkney gives kids a better hands on history lesson than they can ever get at school. I will never forget taking my then four year old to Skara Brae. I told her it was a village older than the Pyramids and she responded ‘their house is just like ours with a door, a bed, cupboards and seats’. Swathes of sites from burial grounds and vaulting standing stones (and circles) ripple across an island much of which is protected as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site. The First and Second World War history is equally fascinating, with my girls marvelling at the Italian Chapel, gloriously fashioned by Italian prisoners of war using anything they could get their hands on.

Stay – The old school Stromness Hotel in the eponymous village is handily bang in the centre of things with cafes, wee art galleries and the ferry close by.

Small Isles

I’m cheating a little here by tying things up with not one but four Hebridean islands. The Small Isles are natural complements and are easier to get than ever with a CalMac ferry connecting them and Mallaig. Rum is unmissable for its epic Kinloch Castle and its wildlife, while sleepy Canna is a must with the National Trust for Scotland ( running a wee museum and honesty box shop, plus a café where children can try the ultra local rabbit and lobster. Muck is a sleepy end of the world escape, while Eigg is the best all rounder and is community owned so kids can learn about all things clean, green and sustainable.

Stay – I’m going off piste again suggesting you treat yourself to a private escape with Red Moon Cruises, a husband and wife team who offer you and your wee ones an ultra-exclusive Small Isles private adventure.


Since the time of writing further Covid-19 restrictions mean that none of these cruises are running. All plan to re-start when restrictions are lifted.