Islands, surrounded as they are by water, and swept by winds, always seem much closer to the elements. So it is that the hundreds of Scottish islands present us with places in which it’s possible to see the full force of nature, to feel, even if there’s the odd other tourist there, our human lives shrink in significance, our powers seem small.

In Peter Irvine’s latest book, Scotland The Best: The Islands, there are many such places caught by photographers in the images he has curated.

The book is not just a guide to where to go – it’s an inspiration and a reminder. Just looking at these images, at the waves thundering around sea stacks, the dizzying cliffs, the dark sea caves, is an escape in itself.

These are places of desire and longing. Even if we never reach them, there’s an awe in knowing they exist.


HeraldScotland: Caisteal Abhail, copyright Richard Cross, from Scotland The Best: The Islands by Peter Irvine

Caisteal Abhail, Arran

A view from above, of Goatfell, the surrounding Corbetts and the rocky peak of Caisteal Abhail. Peter Irvine describes how Richard Cross captured this image by drone, after a climb from Glen Rosa to the summit of Caisteal Abhail, aka the Sleeping Warrior. "The Corbetts here," he notes, "Cìr Mhòr, Goatfell and Caisteal Abhail, together with Beinn Tarsuinn (to the right of the picture), can all be bagged in a twelve-mile ten-hour expedition. You’d want it to be a day like this one." Arran, of course, as Irvine observes, is one of the most accessible of the Scottish islands, but for wild, remoteness like this you have to put in a bit of work.


HeraldScotland: Carsaig Arches, copyright Sven Stroop, from Scotland The Best: The Islands, by Peter Irvine

Carsaig Arches, Mull

One of Mull’s most striking natural phenomena, reached by a four-mile walk from the pier at Carsaig Bay, which is itself five miles off the main A849 in the southwest of the island. The route is tough and includes very rocky ground, strewn with boulders. "Carved by erosion," Irvine writes, the arches are "part of a volcanic landscape at times supernatural... As you reach the first arch at the end of the track, descending from the ridge, it looks like an opening into the sea, or ‘into another planet’. Other arches are like tunnels and there are sculpted pillars of basalt." Best to visit during low tides, when the arches themselves are more accessible, particularly if you plan on walking further than the first arch.


HeraldScotland: Staffa is the island of volcanic basalt columns on the west coast of the Isle of Mull, made famous by Fingal's Cave. Fingal's Cave, copyright Jim Cross, from Scotland the Best: The Islands, By Peter Irvine

Fingal's Cave, Staffa

An hour's boat trip from Mull, on the tiny uninhabited island of Staffa, is a sea cave that has lured countless travellers since it was discovered in 1772. Irvine writes, "Sir Walter Scott wrote that ‘it exceeded in my mind every description I had ever heard of it’ and the 20-year-old boy wonder, Mendelssohn was so moved by it when he arrived (seasick) in 1829 on the newly introduced paddle steamer service round Mull, that he was inspired to wrote his famed Hebrides Overture. The basalt columns, the huge arched entranceway and the cave’s dimensions – 70 m deep, 23 m high – leave a profound impression." Boat trips generally allow an hour or two of exploration, and some adventurous swimmers have even braved a dip there. National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson took this shot with added lighting effects, which bring its dark and dramatic architecture to life.


HeraldScotland: Mangarstadh Seastacks, copyright Michael Stirling-Aird, from Scotland the Best: The Islands, by Peter Irvine

The Mangarstadh Sea Stacks, Lewis

Many come to Uig for the breath-taking white beaches. But this area on the west coast of Lewis, washed by the wild Atlantic, is also an area of such rocky and elemental spectacle that it stirs the soul. "The drama," writes Irvine, "of the Mangarstadh (or Mangersta) Sea Stacks could not be further away from the gentle sandy strand of the same name, though they are only 2 km further on along the B8011...You might marvel at the grandeur of these timeless pinnacles, that they are so unknown, or just at the indomitable endurance of Lewisian gneiss." This photograph was taken by Michael Stirling-Aird, while on holiday. Irvine also advises that visitors be sure, on the way to visit the stacks, or after, to pop into the "superlative seafood restaurant with the view to die for", Uig Sands.


HeraldScotland: Muckle Flugga, copyright Philippe Clement, from Scotland the Best: The Islands by Peter Irvine

Muckle Flugga, Unst

The most northerly lighthouse that is, as Irvine puts it "the furthest human place in these many British Isles", Muckle Flugga, photographed here by Philippe Clement, gets its name from Old Norse, and means "big, steep-sided island" and it sits on a gnarly outcrop of skerries one mile to the north of Unst. It was built by Thomas and David Stevenson in 1855, after a temporary lighthouse constructed the previous year was flooded in wild winter gales. Looking at the lighthouse, Irvine observes, "We might well ask: ‘How on earth did they build that?’ I for one have never been to Muckle Flugga, but I appreciate its symbolic eminence in lighthouse lore and the entrenched ambition of Britannia to Rule the Waves. To get here, you must travel across Unst, where a Space Base will soon send rockets into the unending heavens. How on earth will we do that too?"


HeraldScotland: The heiling, copyright Mhairi Law, from Scotland The Best: The Islands by Peter Irvine

A Sheiling, Lewis

The sheilings of Lewis are iconic signs of a life that lingered longer here. Effectively summer bothies which were used by people who took their cattle out to the moors in order to preserve the pastures close to the villages for use in the winter months, they are the simplest of dwellings. It's their tin roofs that often stand out in the landscape and seem so distinctive. As Irvine puts it, Mhairi Law's "photograph of an isolated house over the hill near Acha Mòr reminds us that the Old Ways are still part of the landscape of Lewis visible around the A858, which cuts through the island’s heartland. They can seem to merge into the stony land. Sheilings are rough and ready, for animals rather than their keepers, though butter and curd cheese might have been made and shelter taken."


HeraldScotland: Sun on the cliffs at Yesnaby, copyright Ingrid Budge, from Scotland the Best: The Islands

Cliffs of Yesnaby, Orkney

"The red cliffs of Yesnaby," writes Irvine, "are to Orkney what the white cliffs are to Dover and England. Somehow they’re emblematic; folk say, with a wistful sigh, you must at least go there before you leave." In this photograph by Ingrid Budge, they glow in the late afternoon sun, the tones of their rock of old red sandstone set on fire. Into this porous stone, the sea has carved blowholes, geos and sea stacks. The cliffs can be reached via the West Coast Walk, south of Skara Brae. Climbers are often lured by the challenge of Yesnaby Castle.


HeraldScotland: Neist Point, copyright Julian Claverley

Neist Point

As far west as you can go on Skye, at the tip of the Duirinish Peninsula is a lighthouse, 43 metres above the water, that lures walkers towards it, just as it warns boats away. The rocky outcrop juts into the Minch, providing drmatic , as Irvine says, "from here there are regular sightings of dolphins, porpoises, whales and basking sharks and, of course, seabirds on the cliffs." Built in 1909 based on a David Stevenson design. "On the 45-minute up and down walk, the lighthouse doesn’t come into view immediately, but when it does it’s a stately edifice, a worthy destination, as the field of stone cairns built by walkers, attests." For the ultimate view, visit at sunset and watch the light dip down in the west.


HeraldScotland: The Machair, South Uist, copyright Dalziel

Machair, South Uist

As Irvine himself points out, the Machair, of course, is not a place, but a marvellous habitat, one of the rarest in Europe. It's formed by the meeting of low-lying coastline, shell fragments, strong winds, just the right amount of rainfall, and the impact of people and their grazing animals. In these coastal fields, wild flowers mixed with crop grasses like oats and rye. It is also, Irvine notes, home to the great yellow bumblebee and the "secretive" corncrake. "If you are lucky enough to hear the corncrake’s distinctive krek call or see the swallows high in a wide blue sky, and the sea shimmering in the distance as you walk through a rippling field of flowers, and there’s nobody around for miles, you know that…life is good." Photograph by Dalziel.



Black Cuillin, Skye

So iconic, it was called simply The Ridge, in the film in which Danny Macaskill tackled it by bike. This is, quite possibly, Britain's most dramatic mountain silhouette, and is formed from, notes Irvine, the "remains of an eroded magma chamber of a giant volcano, its jagged edges sculpted by glacial activity and millennia of weathering". It's also a challenging mountain climb: eight miles long, with eleven Munros and 16 other summits. However, though the Cuillin can seem daunting,writes Irvine, "there are ways of experiencing it without risk or too much effort. Coire Lagan, a five-mile round trip from Glen Brittle, is a beautiful mountain loch surrounded by the highest peaks. Also on the four-mile walk around Loch Coruisk (by boat trip from Elgol), you are in an amphitheatre with one of the world’s most spectacular backdrops." Photograph by Richard Cross

Scotland The Best: The Islands by Peter Irvine is published by Collins