Five windswept Scottish islands for a winter escape, from Arran to Orkney

Imagine sipping on a fine single malt beside a crackling fire, with the option to slip outdoors beneath a clear canvas of blinking stars above.

Yes, it’s cold and some attractions will be closed, but the Scottish islands in winter are a starkly cinematic delight. And from exploring Orkney’s Neolithic ruins to distillery hopping in Islay, there’s still plenty to do at this time of year. Plus, you can expect cheaper hotel room rates and fewer crowds compared with warmer seasons.

Speaking of distilleries, January is also the perfect time to visit if you’re looking to raise a glass to the “Bard of Ayrshire” himself, Robert Burns, on the 25th.

Here’s a look at five Scottish island escapes for winter.

Arran

One man standing on a rock looking out towards rugged highland landscape in the Isle of Arran, Scotland.
Arran is often dubbed ‘Scotland in miniature’ (Photo: Getty)

It is sometimes called “Scotland in Miniature” thanks to the ragged mountains in the island’s north that gently flatten into rolling fields further south, but there’s far more to Arran than snappy nicknames.

The seventh-largest Scottish island is a perfect playground for active types, with the looped five-mile Glen Rosa walk offering fine views of Goat Fell Mountain as it passes through quiet forests and along widescreen hillside trails (make sure to stop at the Arran Cheese Shop afterwards, too).

With bikes of all types available from Arran Cycle Hire, the 57-mile Arran Circular coastal road is the island’s ultimate cycling challenge, though there are plenty of inland road and off-road routes to tackle too.

A whisky for Burns Night

The handsome pagodas of Arran’s distillery sit beneath a craggy mountain scene at Lochranza. It is here the Arran 10 Year Old is made. With sweet apple and vanilla notes, it’s one of the best-value single malts available today.

How to get there

The CalMac ferry crossing from Ardrossan (45 minutes’ drive west of Glasgow) to Brodick is the only way to Arran and takes around 55 minutes.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Lamlash Bay Hotel start from around £105 per night.

Islay

A bright red fishing boat stands gleaming on the beach of the island of Islay on a bright and sunny day. Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland.
Plan a beach stroll in the Isle of Islay (Photo: Victoria Phipps/Getty)

While home to some wonderful (and underrated) scenery – especially on the wind-blasted Oa peninsula – Islay is a whisky hotspot, particularly for those who prefer a smoky, peat-heavy taste.

From Bunnahabhain’s secluded bay location to the languid barley fields of Kilchoman, nine distilleries (and counting) are available for visits, tastings and tours on this relatively small island.

Peatzeria in Bowmore is an appealing pitstop that serves up quirky takes on classic pizza with views across Loch Indaal, while no trip to Islay is complete without making the Three Distilleries Walk. Beginning at Port Ellen, it takes in the three waterside distilleries on Islay’s winding southern hem – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.

A whisky for Burns Night

Islay has some of Scotch whisky’s best-known brands, but don’t forget to try Kilchoman, an independent farm distillery. Sanaig is a softly peated dram aged in bourbon and sherry casks.

How to get there

The CalMac ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Port Askaig or Port Ellen is the most practical option, as it’s a good idea to have a car to travel around Islay. Loganair also flies twice per day between Islay and Glasgow.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Bowmore House Bed & Breakfast start from around £125 per night.

Skye

Man hiking in Scotland, Isle of Skye at the Old Man of Storr - Hiker looking at the beautiful panorama with the famous rocks of the Isle of Skye on a autumn or winter day - Filter applied, travel and adventure concepts
Go hiking in the dramatic landscape of Skye (Photo: Getty)

No matter the season, Skye is a dramatic landscape. And, with far fewer crowds hogging the roads in winter, there’s greater freedom for exploration

The Old Man of Storr is a 15-minute drive north from Skye’s largest town, Portree. Part of the jagged Trottenish Ridge, the sight’s 180-ft-high rock pinnacles are an ethereal sight overlooking the Sound of Rasaay.

Other sublime scenes on Skye include the rugged Black Cuillins mountains, the crystalline Fairy Pools and the magnificent Quiraing hill. Finish a day on the road with Skye’s freshest seafood from the Oyster Shed.

A whisky for Burns Night

Talisker is one of only two distilleries on Skye (along with the newer Torabhaig) and its Storm range brings nice light notes of smoke and spice to a chilly January night. It’s widely available too, from supermarkets to speciality stores.

How to get there

The Skye Bridge provides a direct link to the mainland, making driving to Skye simple. There’s also a short 30-minute CalMac ferry that runs from Mallaig to Armadale.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Cuillin Hills Hotel start from around £125 per night.

Orkney

Group of tourists visiting Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement located in the Mainland Orkney. In this prehistoric village, one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe, people can see the way of life of 5,000 years ago, before Stonehenge was built.
Skara Brae (Photo: Flavio Vallenari – 2015/Getty)

Separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth, Orkney is an archipelago off Scotland’s northernmost tip with some of Britain’s deepest history.

From the crooked Stones of Stenness to Skara Brae’s ancient houses, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a collection of monuments recognised by Unesco. A 15-minute drive from capital Kirkwall, they’re a window into a distant world that – especially in Skara Brae’s case – are surprisingly well preserved.

There fine views and rustic food on Orkney, too, especially at The Foveran. Look up after dinner on a clear winter evening and you may catch a glowing streak of the Northern Lights.

A whisky for Burns Night

Highland Park is one of the world’s most remote whisky distilleries and its 12 Year Old is a classic dram with citrus and spice notes.

How to get there

Loganair operates flights to Kirkwall Airport from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. NorthLink Ferries sails between Aberdeen and Kirkwall, with shorter crossings leaving from Scrabster and Stromness.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Orkney Hotel start from around £134 per night.

Mull

Calgary beach, Mull island, Argyll and Bute, Scotland
Calgary beach, Mull (Photo: Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Getty)

The Inner Hebrides’ second-largest island is home to some of Scotland’s more elusive wildlife, and the quieter winter months are an opportunity for spotting Mull’s unique fauna.

As part of its Mull Winter Wildlife Tours, Nature Scotland offers guided, six-to-seven-hour island trips, soaking up some wonderfully stark scenery and offering the chance to see species including white-tailed eagle, golden eagle, otter, hen harrier, red deer and seals. You might also join a stargazing evening.

Warm up afterwards with a meal at the Isle of Mull Hotel’s Òran na Mara Bistro (don’t miss the tiramisu with Tobermory whisky).

A whisky for Burns Night

Tobermory on the island’s far north is the Mull’s only distillery and its finest product is the multi-award-winning Ledaig range. Unusually smoky for a non-Islay whisky, the Ledaig 10 is often found for under £50 making it one of the best budget single malts around.

How to get there

There are three ferry routes, with the most popular being the 45-minute crossing from Oban to Craignure.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Isle of Mull Hotel start from around £120 per night.