5 Of Our Favourite Scottish Islands For Wild Camping
Image source: Mishimoto
There are a dizzying amount of islands to explore off the coast of Scotland (790 to be precise), all of them scattered with historic ruins, dramatic coastlines and more besides. And with wild camping legal (within restrictions and local by-laws) you can set up camp wherever you like, for free.
The question is: where should you set up camp first?
Lewis and Harris
- Size: 2,179 km2
- Population: 21,031
- Location: 58.2436° N, 6.6672° W
Situated off the northwest of the mainland, Lewis and Harris is often confused for two separate islands despite them being connected to each other. In the south, Harris is mainly hills with Lewis in the north comparatively flat. The island has plenty of history to seek out and offers up a variety of activities and sights to pique most interests.
Things to do
A signposted coastal walk that offers up plenty of chances to spot native birds and sealife. This 6km walk is an excellent choice for those who are after a gentle stroll, with few ascents or descents.
16km long, this circular walk takes in a series of small hills, one main summit and ridge line. There are excellent views throughout, and it is a good test for fitter walkers.
If you're still struggling for inspiration on where to walk - 'Hidden Hebrides' offer guided walks around Lewis and Harris, leading you along some of the best trails.
Stones of Callanish
An ancient Neolithic worship site, Islanders came from all over to observe celestial and lunar cycles. In addition to this site, there are similar stone circles dotted around the island to visit and enjoy.
Iron Age Houses
Four Iron Age houses that were part of a larger village at Bosta beach have been rebuilt, and the footprint of other original structures have been laid out. Artefacts and more information about the village are available at the local museum, or you can travel up the valley and see an impressive reconstruction of the entire village.
Image source: Rob Harrow
St Clement's Church
Located in Harris, St Clement's is a medieval Church that features some of the best examples of carvings, tombs and gravestones of the period. Close by are the ruins of a castle from the same era that offer spectacular panoramas across the sea to the nearby Isle of Skye.
Heavy set with dunes, the beach at Seilebost has idyllic white sands and looks out to Luskentyre.
Enjoy a bit of surfing down at Barvas Beach - there are also several walks in the nearby area stretching out along the coast and fields.
Flora and Fauna
North Harris Eagle Observatory
North Harris is home to one of the largest populations of Golden Eagles in Europe. In the heart of the Eagle's territory, an observation hut provides views out over Glen Meavaig and makes for an excellent spot to while away a few hours.
Early Purple Orchid
Look out for this bold and beautiful orchid, it flowers across Lewis between May and June.
Winter and early spring are traditionally a good time to see these impressive mammals as they venture out of their mountain hideaways searching for food.
Isle of Bute
- Size: 122 km2
- Population: 6,500
- Location: 55.8274° N, 5.0936° W
A world apart yet easily accessible, Bute is only a short distance from Scotland's second city, Glasgow. The small island lies within the Firth of Clyde, and despite only having one town there is plenty of culture, independent stores and eateries to enjoy. Across the island there are a few smaller villages, petrol stations to stock up on supplies and from then on it's unadulterated countryside and coastline.
Things to do
West Island Way
The most famous walk on the island, 'West Island Way' (not to be confused with a Yorkshireman saying 'West Highland Way') runs along the length of the island crossing over fields, hills, beaches, moorland and forests. At just over 26 miles, avid walkers could complete it in a day, but it is better to split it over two and enjoy the views.
Open 7 days a week during summer, the sandstone castle was built in the 1300s to protect against Norwegian Viking raiding parties. Over the coming years, it was home to Robert the Bruce, the Stewart family and Cromwell's troops. You can learn more about the history of the castle in the newly restored gate house/museum.
St Blane's Chapel
Built upon the site of a monastery from the 700s, St Blane's Chapel was constructed in the 1200s to serve the island's mainly Christian community. Today, only the main hall has survived after falling into disrepair in the 16th century. There are also extensive grounds and a graveyard surrounding the church to stroll around.
A quiet beach, the bay is the perfect place relax and look over the water to Arran. If you do get restless, you can always cross over to the east side of the island, a 4 mile walk, and enjoy Kilchattan Bay.
This small and unassuming white sand beach has a lovely tea room near the car park and a bird hide just south of the beach.
Flora and Fauna
In the north of the island, there is a protected forest owned by the residents. Home to deer, and a large array of birds, you can walk or bike along the many paths in the woods or even try your hand at the scavenger trail.
If you're looking for a more traditional floral display, then the gardens at Mount Stuart might be your cup of tea. There are over 300 acres of natural and man-made gardens to wander through including a rock garden designed by Thomas Mawson.
Image source: Simon Leatherdale
With over 200 bird species the island's bird society holds monthly field trips showcasing the rarer species which visitors are welcome to tag along with.
Isle of Mull
- Size: 875 km2
- Population: 2,800
- Location: 56.4392° N, 6.0009° W
Situated next to the Gulf Stream, The Isle of Mull is a temperate and welcoming home for wildlife and has attracted human residents to the island from 600 BC onwards. Since then the island has been governed by lords, clans, seen a Spanish war ship sink off its coast and been a naval base during World War Two. Nowadays there is a calmer feel to the island with most of the island focused on tourism and a few specialist farms and fisherman.
Things to do
Why not bag yourself a Munro during your stay on the Island and climb Ben More. On the west of the island, the 3,000ft peak is a steep and challenging walk with some scrambling involved.
Treshnish Coast and Whiskey Caves
The northwest of the isle has some amazing coastline, and this circular walk guides you along it. There are plenty of chances to spot sea life and birds as you walk and the infamous Whisky Cave is a piece of island history worth searching out.
Built in 1360 the castle was charged with guarding the channel between Mull, the mainland and the surrounding Lochs. On your visit, you can discover the history of the clans, enjoy a stroll through gardens and even nose around the great hall and bedrooms.
MacCulloch's Fossilised Tree
More of a fossil than a ruin, MacCulloch's giant tree is a striking geometric collection of fossilised squares and rectangles. Be aware, this natural wonder is a challenge to get to, including narrow paths, rocky terrain and a descent down a steep ladder.
The white sands of the Bay are framed by low lying hills, a small forest and craggy headland that together form ideal terrain for many different species of birds. In the nearby area, there are also stone forts, modern-day sculptures and abandoned villages to search out.
Hidden away, Langamull Beach is a small and peaceful beach that requires a 1 mile walk to access it - but this helps to keep the crowds away. Once there you can relax on the sand or head back inland and discover the Kildavie primitive sites.
Flora and Fauna
The Gulf Stream's warm waters encourage the growth of plankton, the primary food source of Basking Sharks. This filter feeding fish is one of the largest species of shark yet despite its size it is very passive. You can take one of the many sea tours out along the coast to see them and a wide range of other sea-life including dolphins, porpoises, mink whales, seals and more.
White Tailed Sea Eagle
This rare and beautiful white-tailed Sea Eagle attracts lots of ornithological enthusiasts to the island and is one of over 200 birds that inhabit the island. The island Rangers host afternoons at their newly built hide overlooking the Eagles' main territory or you can book yourself on one of the many guided tours.
Image source:Julian Paren
- Size: 50 km2
- Population: 550
- Location: 59.2458° N, 2.5492° W
This small island's name derives from the miss-pronunciation of sandy; in reference to the numerous beaches that line its shores. The island's coastline and remote location is a big draw for wildlife and attracts pods of orcas, puffins, otters and much more. This abundance of sea life also plays its role in the local economy with small-scale lobster farming and fishing.
Away from the coast, you will find plenty of historic sites to investigate, or you can take part in one of the many activities the local Ranger organises. For a small isle it has surprisingly good transport links and can be accessed via aeroplane at Kirkwall, or you can take a car ferry into Kettletoft.
Things to do
The Sanday Ranger is an important figure on the Island - looking after and promoting history, wildlife and environmental education. She leads lots of events throughout the summer for tourists and locals to enjoy. One example of a recent event she organised was a seal spotting walk – Starting at the Lighthouse, you walk out along the coast and dunes spotingt seals while she talks about the different species before finishing off the day with some fish and chips.
Cata Sand and Tres Ness
Starting out on the coast to the east of Lady Village, the walk takes you across beaches, fields, dunes and Tress Ness Penisula before reaching a chambered cairn. It's a relatively flat walk (around 9 km's) with a little bit of boggy ground your only worry.
Dating back to roughly 2,900BC, the Neolithic burial chamber and surrounding mounds have been rebuilt to their original state. Artefacts from the cairn are on display at the island's Heritage Centre (just outside Lady Village) along with other finds from across the island.
Image source: Chris Downer
War-time Radar Station
The island formed part of the World War Two air defence system, and remnants of the original radar and out buildings can still be seen and explored today.
Bay of Lopness
On the north east tip of the island is the bay and beach of Lopness. It's a large beach with lots of birds to look out for, and the tidal defences make for a pleasant walk. The bay is also home to the wreck of a WW1 B-98 German destroyer that you can walk out to at low tide.
Also in the north of the island, this beach is a serene and quiet location backed by dunes.
Image source: Becky Williamson
Flora and Fauna
Whales and dolphins
The shallow waters surrounding the island and plentiful fish supply make an ideal hunting ground for orcas - these magnificent cetaceans can be spotted off the coast with any decent pair of binoculars.
Terns and Wading birds
The island has a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), Northwaa. This area is mainly shallow water and reeds which are the perfecting breeding ground for the likes of Terns and Wading birds.
Image source:Tom Reading
- Size: 986 km2
- Population: 60.3207° N, 1.2886° W
With deep ties to Norway, the 100 or so islands that make up the Shetlands are a mix of Norse and Celtic culture. The biggest of these is the Mainland. At over 63 miles this is one of the larger islands off the north coast of Scotland with plenty on it to explore.
Famous for Shetland Ponies that helped crofters work the land, lots of other wildlife inhabit the island and its coast. You can spot sea life on one of the many guided tours or go kayaking for the chance of an up close and personal experience. Back on land, there are numerous beaches, forests and historic buildings to search out before enjoying a plate of the local fish fresh from the harbour that morning. Night time doesn't bring an end to excitement on this island - make camp on one of the remote beaches and lay back while Aurora borealis dances in the night's sky.
Things to do
A relatively easy walk at around the 3hr mark, it takes you up, down and around Westerly lying lochs before bringing you back past brochs, a croft house and other small dwellings.
This walk leads you up the north coast of the island. Along the way, you'll encounter ruined brochs, vibrant cliff side flowers and Fulmar drifting in the sea breeze. It's also a chance to appreciate how the sea and the wind have sculpted the volcanic cliffs of the island.
Old Scatness Broch and an Iron Age Village
Old Scatness provides the rare chance to explore a 300BC Broch and an Iron Age village on one site. Over the summer there are guided tours or you can try your hand at some on-site Viking crafts.
The Croft House Museum
This restored croft house is a beautiful example of the dwellings islanders lived in when they farmed the land and harvested the sea. The simple structure really shows you how challenging life must have been over the long Scottish winters.
St Ninian's Ayre
Connecting the mainland to St Ninian Isle is a 500m ayre (sand bank). It presents a unique double bay for you to enjoy and is one of the largest in the UK. The calm waters are excellent for a dip, or you can venture over the St Ninian and walk around the island's ancient chapel.
West Ayre Beach
Built into dramatic cliff tops, West Ayre Beach makes for a great place to start a coastal walk, has a range of on-site facilities and is only a short distance from the quaint village of Hillswick.
Flora and Fauna
Sea Pink flowers
Found on the westerly cliffs of the island, these flowers add a splash of colour to the greens of the grasses and are in full bloom from May to June.
From March onwards, Shetland becomes home to about a fifth of Scotland's Puffin population as they return to the isle for mating season. Sumburgh Head is an excellent place to see one such colony - with about 5,000 birds nesting of the cliffs below the Lighthouse.
Grey and Common Seals reside within the waters surrounding the Shetland Isles with the latter outnumbering the former 2:1. Traditionally seals were hunted by islanders for their energy-rich blubber, oil and skins. Nowadays the island thankfully help to preserve the species and actively maintain the seal habitats. The Grey Seals prefer the sheltered east coast of the mainland and congregate around Lerwick Harbour and Sumburgh Head sunbathing on the rocks. As for Commony seals they can be found at Fitful Head in the South or around the north of the mainland.
For tips on how to make the most of your wild camping trip have a look at our beginner's guide to wild camping.
About the Author:
Pete Fletcher - Outdoor Expert
Pete grew up hiking most of the trails in the Lake District before being introduced to skiing. A decade later and you're most likely to find him snowboarding, skateboarding or making a mean coffee.