BY Ailsa Sheldon

This year, more of us than ever will be staying in Scotland for our summer holidays – and lucky us because there’s so much to discover. Fragile island communities have been out of bounds to visitors during Covid, and rightly so, but as restrictions relax our holiday planning can cautiously commence.

A windy CalMac ferry always signifies the beginning of good times to come, but for those who might be planning an island holiday for the first time, or looking to explore somewhere new this year, there’s no shortage of inspiration.

There are, of course, a few things to keep in mind. First off, always book your ferries in advance to guarantee sailing times. Remember, too, that shops and petrol stations can be few and far between with limited opening hours, so don’t get caught out. Many islands use cash more than on the mainland so don’t just rely on bank cards.

Be prepared for unpredictable weather so don’t forget your waterproofs, midge repellent and sun cream for those “four seasons in a day”. It’s also good to keep some flexibility in your plans – go to a ceilidh or a Highland Games if the chance arises, and take local recommendations. The spontaneity is all part of the fun.

If you love beaches – visit Tiree

In Gaelic, Tiree is called Tìr bàrr fo thuin, meaning “the land beneath the waves”. It’s an island so clearly shaped by the sea and the wind with beautiful long, white beaches that extends into the sand dunes, while sand blown inland creates the lush sandy machair where wildflowers bloom. As one of the sunniest and windiest places in Scotland, midges are less of a summer scourge here, and the perfect spot for an active beach holiday.  isleoftiree.com

Tiree also hosts the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing competition every October – the longest-running professional windsurfing event in the world. It’s not just for professionals though – Tiree is the ideal place to try a wide range of water sports whatever your age or skill level. Learn to surf at Blackhouse Watersports, where friendly instructors will get you kitted out and ready to “paddle and pop up” as you catch waves on beautiful Balevullin beach.  blackhouse-watersports.co.uk/surf-tiree

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The intrepid can try kite-surfing here too. Wild Diamond watersports is based by Loch Bhassapol where you can learn to windsurf and stand up paddleboard (SUP) in the shallow freshwater loch – ideal for beginners. Wild Diamond also teach windsurfing courses and hire kayaks, dispatching instructors and equipment to any suitable beach on the island.  wilddiamond.co.uk/activities/kayaking

For a day on land, take a coastal walk around the dramatic western headland Ceann a’ Mhara. Make time to visit An Iodhlann, Tiree’s Historical Centre in Scarinish to learn about the fascinating history of the island and its people.  aniodhlann.org.uk/exhibitions

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For a closer look at iconic Skerryvore Lighthouse or a trip to look for whales, basking sharks and dolphins, book a trip with Tiree Sea Tours.  tireeseatours.co.uk

For family activity holidays – visit Arran

If you’re unsure whether an island holiday will keep the family entertained – let Arran convince you. With beaches, hills, great food and plenty of outdoor activities, there’s something for everyone. Arran is an easy jaunt from central Scotland and accessible by public transport too as trains from Glasgow meet the boat at Ardrossan for the short sail to the cheery harbour town of Brodick.

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There’s a wide range of accommodation for every family – from luxury four-star Auchrannie Resort to welcoming B&Bs, small hotels and campsites. If you want to be right on the beach, Seal Shore Campsite in Kildonan, pictured left, is ideal. There are plenty of holiday cottages too but they tend to be booked up well in advance with families returning year after year.

Pony trekking is available in North Sannox and at Cairnhouse Stables in Blackwaterfoot where experienced guides can take you to the hills or along the beach. A visit to the ancient Machrie Moor stone circles is a must (and is an achievable walk even for small legs). Older children should manage the hike up Goat Fell if the weather’s good.

Any golfers in the family have seven courses to choose from or you can buy a pass to visit them all from  golfonarran.com. The 12-hole course in Shiskine is one of the most scenic in the country and not to be missed – non-golfers can paddle on beautiful Blackwaterfoot beach while you play.  shiskinegolf.com

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 Or why not head to Kildonan to spot sunbathing seals and spend a happy few hours rock-pooling? If you’re lucky you may see otters here too.

With three cheese-producing dairies, a brewery and a distillery on the island, foodies are also well catered for on this family-friendly island. Indeed, artisan food production on Arran has a long heritage.

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If you love history – visit Lewis

Windswept Lewis, constantly battered by crashing waves from the Atlantic, is a beautiful but unforgiving place to live and farm, yet hardy souls have lived here for over 6,000 years, making this the ideal place for a holiday steeped in history. Take the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway across the Minch, and imagine what a treacherous crossing that must have been in the past.

The most famous historical sight on the island is the Neolithic standing stones at Calanais. Hewn from ancient metamorphic Lewisian Gneiss, the standing stones were erected around 5,000 years ago, predating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. At Calanais, four rows of standing stones radiate from a central stone circle forming a cross, with at least 15 smaller stone circles nearby. This reveals the immense significance of Calanais in the past – even if the reason remains a secret of the ancients.

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A more recent construction, but still over 2,000 years old, Dun Carloway is one of the best preserved brochs in Britain. Brochs are Iron Age circular stone constructions most likely built as homes and defences by powerful families. Evidence suggests that Dun Carloway may have been used for a variety of purposes up until AD1000.

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Moving into more recent centuries, learn about crofting life at The Blackhouse at Arnol where a peat fire still burns in the open hearth. Visit Museum nan Eilean at Lews Castle for an interactive tour of the history and culture of Lewis – from prehistory to the modern era. You can also see six of the Lewis Chessmen – which inspired part of the plot in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone – returned to the island after their long exile in the British Museum.

If you love food – visit Mull

For a gastronomic island adventure head to Mull, an island that takes its food seriously and where residents are justifiably proud of their outstanding produce. So, arrive a hearty appetite and get ready to eat your way around the island.  mullandionafood.co.uk

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With about 300 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise seafood is a speciality. Fresh fish is landed daily and can be enjoyed at many cafes and restaurants around the island. Try Cafe Fish or Hebridean Lodge in Tobermory, Am Birlinn in Dervaig or Ninth Wave at Fionnphort (booking recommended for all). For casual eating, the tiny Creel Seafood Bar at Fionnphort pier serves up fish and chips, scallops and warming bowls of Cullen Skink, while The Fisherman’s Pier fish and chip van at Tobermory harbour also comes highly recommended.

It’s easy to source top produce here. Isle of Mull Oysters operates an honesty box system on Croig pier, as does Inverlussa Mussels on the shores of Loch Spelve. The Ethical Shellfish Company sells delicious hand-dived scallops which you can pick up from Salen pier (or have delivered to your home alongside other Mull delicacies).  ethicalshellfishcompany.co.uk Tobermory Fish Company specialises in smoked fish.

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Isle of Mull cheddar is made at Sgriob-ruadh Farm and is one of few raw milk cheeses produced in Scotland. Visit its beautiful Glass Barn Cafe to try it.  sgriobruadh.co.uk/visit
For sweet treats, look out for Island Bakery biscuits and Isle of Mull ice cream.

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Mull is fertile ground for the cultivation of new and innovative products – Isle of Mull Seaweed makes award-winning chutneys from kelp.  isleofmullseaweed.com The Mull and Iona Food Trail is a great resource to find producers and restaurants committed to showcasing local food  mullandionafood.co.uk

If you love wildlife – visit Rum

For a nature lover the Isle of Rum, a National Nature Reserve, is a very special place. Home to seals, Highland ponies, otters, red deer, Highland cows and over 200 different bird species, this a haven for birdwatchers and naturalists. Wildlife flourishes on Rum due to the diverse range of habitats and remote location, as well as careful conservation and care by the island community trust and residents.  nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-nature-reserves/rum-national-nature-reserve

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Rum isn’t the easiest island to visit. Ferries run from Mallaig on a complex seasonal timetable so advance planning is definitely required. Accommodation is limited, with a small guesthouse, a bunkhouse, bothies and a campsite*. Rum has one of the largest colonies of Manx shearwaters in the world with over 60,000 pairs nesting in the mountains. White-tailed eagles flourish here too after a successful species reintroduction in the 1970s. Golden eagles breed on the island.

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From the port at Kinloch there are three short trails, all of which offer ample wildlife spotting potential – the Northside Nature Trail, the Otter Hide Trail and the Coire Dubh Trail. Take your binoculars, take your time, and enjoy.

*see isleofrum.com/placestostay for up-to-date accomodation information as some restrictions will still be in place throughout 2021 to protect this small community