8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Hebrides and Isle of Skye
The largest of Scotland's inner isles, Skye is hugely popular amongst nature loving tourists. It was known to the Vikings as "Sküyo", or "Cloud Island", due to its heavy mists. Connected to the mainland by bridge, this stunningly beautiful part of the Hebrides is a wild and romantic mix of mountain scenery and green valleys, caves and attractive glens, magnificent waterfalls and sandy beaches - all crammed into an island just 50 mi long and 4 to 15 mi wide. In addition to its deep inlets and quaint villages, the island is home to the remains of primeval oak forests as well as an abundance of wildlife including otters, seals, and some 200 species of birds.
Skye's just one of more than 500 islands off Scotland's northwest coast that make up the Hebrides (only 80 of them are inhabited). The islands are broken up into those lying close to the mainland - the Inner Hebrides with Skye, Mull, Islay, Jura, Rhum, Eigg, Coll and Colonsay the biggest and best known - and the outer arc, known as the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles with Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra as the main islands.
1 Editor's Pick Armadale: Castle and Clan Donald Centre
Armadale at the south end of Skye is a great starting point from which to begin a sightseeing tour of the island, as ferries arrive here from the mainland port of Mallaig. Armadale Castle, built between 1815 and 1819, is today part of the excellent Clan Donald Centre set amidst a massive 20,000-acre estate on the Sleat peninsula. Highlights include the magnificently restored historic gardens, as well as superb walking trails through the woodlands around the castle ruins. An interesting attraction, the Museum of the Isles illustrates the tales of the "Lords of the Isles" who dominated the area during the 15th century.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-5:30pm (Apr-Oct)
Admission: Adults, £8; Children, £6.50; Families, £25
2 Skye's Cuillin Hills
The Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye attract hundreds of climbing enthusiasts from all over Britain with routes to suit all abilities. The highest of the 20 peaks that reach above 3,000 ft is Sgurr Alasdair (3,251 ft) - suitable only for experienced climbers due to its steep scree slopes. The best-known mountain in the Cuillin Hills is Sgurr nan Gillean, well known for its hotel and pony trekking excursions, as well as hiking trips. Glenbrittle is another base for mountaineers and courses in climbing are organized. Also nearby is the Skye Museum of Island Life offering an insight into the arduous life of the island's peasant farmers at the beginning of the 20th century.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-5pm (Easter-Oct)
Admission: Adults, £2.50; Children, £0.50
Address: The Skye Museum of Island Life, Kilmuir By Portree, Isle of Skye
3 Dunvegan Castle
Dunvegan lies by the loch of the same name and is noted for its castle, one of the last inhabited seats of the MacLeods. The original building dates from the 13th century and was converted into a comfortable Victorian-style residence in the 19th century. Legends about fairies and crusaders surround the Fairy Flag, a 4th century piece of silk that originated in Rhodes and became a talisman for the MacLeods in battle. Of special interest are family portraits including work by Ramsay and Raeburn, letters from Sir Walter Scott and Dr Samuel Johnson, as well as a collection of old bagpipes. Boat cruises and fishing trips are also available. About 3 mi from Dunvegan on the Duirinish Peninsula is the straw-roofed Black House of Colbost, part of the Colbost Croft Museum portraying the harsh lives of the peasant farmers in bygone times.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5:30pm (Apr-Oct); Groups via appointment only (Oct-Mar)
Admission: Adults, £10; Children (5-15), £7; Families, £28
Address: Dunvegan House, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye
4 Isle of Mull
The Isle of Mull is the third largest of the Hebridean islands, and as a holiday destination offers impressive scenery, hiking trails and sport and leisure facilities including golf, horse riding and watersports. The south and east of the island are mountainous with peaks of 3,000 ft, while the hills in the north are lower with vegetation and wildlife similar to Skye. Highlights of an island visit include Tobermory, the main town with its colorful houses overlooking the fishing harbor. Also worth visiting is Victorian Torosay Castle with its beautiful terraced garden decorated with Italian marble statues, rhododendron and eucalyptus trees. Another castle of note is 13th century Duart Castle with its spectacular views over Duart Bay. Finally, be sure to visit Carsaig Arches on the southern coast of Mull. At low tide, a 3 mi footpath leads to huge arches and tunnels forged out of the black basalt by the waves.
5 Staffa and Fingal's Cave
The tiny island of Staffa (6 mi northeast of Iona) belongs to the National Trust for Scotland and can only be reached from Mull or Iona when weather permits. The vast Fingal's Cave is the highlight of an excursion to Staffa. Discovered in 1772, this geological marvel extends for 227 ft and resembles a cathedral with bizarre basalt pillars and vast ribbed columns in magnificent colors. Its Celtic name is "An Uaimh Binn" meaning "musical cave", a reference to the droning echo of the waves that crash against the dark cavern walls - a dramatic scene that has inspired poets, painters and composers, including William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, William Blake, Herder and Brahms. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy visited Staffa in August 1829 and went on to write his Hebrides Overture, and three years later William Turner was moved to express the clash of the elements on canvas. A variety of boat tour options are available to Staffa and its caves from locations such as Mull and Iona.
6 St Kilda Islands - Outer Western Isles
The storm-battered St Kilda Islands lie 110 mi to the west of the Scottish mainland. The last inhabitants of this inhospitable archipelago left their homes and barren soil on the main island of Hirta in 1930, leaving the island to seabirds including huge colonies of fulmars, gannets and puffins. Unique to the islands are the St Kilda mouse and the St Kilda wren, as well as some 14,000 wild Soay sheep. The breathtaking cliffs near Conachair are, at 1,397 ft, the tallest cliffs in Britain. In 1986 UNESCO adopted St Kilda as Scotland's first World Heritage Site, and every year the National Trust for Scotland organizes research and working visits for enthusiastic birdwatchers.
7 Calanais Standing Stones - Isle of Lewis
Probably the finest stone circle in Scotland, the Calanais Standing Stones can be found 12 mi west of Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis. They have been dated at between 3000 and 1500 BC (late Bronze Age or early Iron Age). The monument consists of 47 stones arranged in a circle, and also in lines radiating from the center, thereby creating a Celtic cross. In the center stands a 15 ft high megalith weighing about 5 tons and surrounded by a ring of 13 stones. The stone circle is thought to have the same function as Stonehenge in England and Carnac in Brittany: as a focal point for sun worship and to calculate the time of year. At the equinoxes, for example, the sun goes down directly behind the westward line. A burial chamber has been discovered near the central stone. A visitor centre including a tearoom and shop has been built near the site.
Hours: Site open year-round (visitor centre hours vary depending upon season)
8 The Island of Iona's Early Christian Heritage
Getting to the picturesque island of Iona involves a boat trip from Fionnphort at the southwest tip of Mull, or from Oban. The island is famous for the monastery, built here by St Columba in 563 AD only to be destroyed on more than one occasion by Vikings. The island's other famous early Christian relic is St Mary's Cathedral, a red granite building started in the 12th century and frequently enlarged. Its 70 ft square tower rises up at the intersection of the nave and transept and is supported by four Norman arches. Opposite the west portal of the cathedral stands imposing St Martin's Cross, a 14 ft tall 10th century Celtic memorial to St Martin of Tours and adorned with figures of animals. Also of note is St Oran's Cemetery, accessible by walking along the aptly named "Street of the Dead". The cemetery, Scotland's oldest Christian graveyard, is where more than 60 Scottish kings were buried - including Macbeth and his victim Duncan. Other historical highlights are MacLean's Cross, a richly decorated 15th century stone cross, and St Oran Chapel.