Winning tip: Rum – it’s the real Skye
It requires effort and planning to get to Rum, and it has few facilities, which means the island has nothing like the crowds of its big brother over the water. I had my finest day’s walking ever traversing the first three peaks in the Rum Cuillin range, and my best travel experience staying in the Guirdil bothy on a beach on the north-western coast. Then there’s Kinloch Castle, the decaying pile built by a Lancashire textile magnate. His grandiose mausoleum is well worth a visit too – by bike across former deer-stalking tracks.
Freshwater isle, Loch Lomond
A 40-minute drive from Glasgow will take you to the ferry for Inchmurrin island, one of Loch Lomond’s gems, which hosts good self-catering accommodation, a great bar and restaurant, beautiful beaches and super-clear water. The neighbouring islands of Inchconnachan and Inchcailloch have colonies of red wallaby – introduced in the 1920s – and white deer respectively. The ferry ride from Luss pier to Inchcailloch is stunning, though you’ll need your own boat or kayak to get to Inchconnachan.
Scotland in miniature: Isle of Arran
This island has everything you need. Scenic coastal paths on the west coast takes you to Kings Cave (a claimed Robert the Bruce hideout); the rugged mountains of the north have walks up the popular Goat Fell; and there is more adventurous scrambling across the A’Chir ridge or the Witch’s Step on Caisteal Abhail. For a more leisurely day, there is the original Arran distillery in Lochranza (a new one has also been opened in Lagg) and an amazing pub with an even wider selection of whisky in the village. The surrounding sea is gorgeous for swimming in – and a friendly seal or otter might come to say hello.
Cooler Caribbean, Barra
If you added a few palm trees, you could be in the Caribbean. But in fact you’re on a beach in Barra, with sparkling white sand and blue-green sea, and on the Hebridean coast the water isn’t even cold. But there is so much more – for example, the short boat ride to Kisimul Castle, seat of the MacNeils, the only medieval castle in the Hebrides, dating back to the era when the sea was the main highway and islands weren’t isolated. There are walks on the hills, standing stones and graveyards to visit, the neighbouring island of Vatersay with its own fascinating history, the bus to Eoligarry to see the planes landing on the beach at low tide. And the sky – always the changing sky, and the sea.
Two hours on Iona
My favourite time of day on Iona is 6.15pm, when the island becomes quiet. The last of the day trippers have left on the ferry to Fionnphort, on Mull. This is the time to go for a swim and absorb the sunlight in an after-swim snooze on a sandy beach or explore rock pools for crabs. Time goes slowly when you follow the final journey of the ancient Scottish kings along Sràid nam Marbh – the Street of the Dead. This cobbled track leads to Reilig Odhráin the cemetery just in time for evensong at the Abbey next door at a 8.15pm.
Where eagles dare, Mingulay
St Kilda aside, I can’t think of a wilder UK island than uninhabited Mingulay at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. The ride to it ( £50 for a six-hour round trip from Barra including three hours ashore with Mingulay Boat Trips) passes some of the UK’s highest sea cliffs and a splendid array of birdlife: guillemots, razor bills, terns and sea eagles. I saw nine of the latter! My first view of the island was its vast beach covered in seals, with puffins darting in and out of their clifftop burrows. In the distance was a derelict schoolhouse, abandoned in 1912 – a reminder that humans are now only visitors to this place.
Seabird central, Northumberland
My number one has to be Northumberland’s rugged Farne Islands, where vast colonies of birds congregate on the rocky cliff faces. On a summer day trip from Seahouses, we saw puffins, shags, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, arctic terns and eider ducks. The boat captain also managed to get us up close to thousands of grey seals basking on the rocks.
Chapel in the sands, Morecambe Bay
Chapel Island in Morecambe Bay is a tiny island you can get to – on guided walks only – to when the tide is at its lowest. You feel a great sense of nature at its best and at its most perilous! But once you arrive bare-footed you look around and get great views of the Lake District mountains in the distance and the surrounding coastline. The Island has no buildings or inhabitants, but for one or two days a year we get to be kings and queens of the place.
Car-free bliss, Herm
If seeing empty roads in the early days of lockdown was something you enjoyed, Herm Island is just the place to visit. Cars and bicycles are banned, but as the island is just a mile and a half long, you won’t miss them. The local gardens are celebrated by the RHS and many varieties of flowers grow here because of the mild climate. The only pub, the Mermaid Tavern manages to feel like it “belongs” to the island’s handful of residents, without feeling unwelcoming to visitors.
Squeaking sands and singing monks, Caldey
Caldey Island is off the coast of Pembrokeshire. A 20-minute boat trip from Tenby (£14) takes you to the golden Priory Bay beach, where the sand grains are perfectly spherical, so they squeak when you walk across them. Limestone cliffs house cormorants and oystercatchers, while seals bob in rocky bays below. Thrift blooms over the headlands, and hedgerows are lined with blackberries and gorse. Caldey Abbey stands tall over the village green, alongside a tiny post office and phone box. And remember to keep an eye on the treetops – there are red squirrels here.