Which is the best Scottish island to live on?
Scotland is a great place to live. If you think about it, it's one of the safest places to live in the world - we have no natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, no unstable countries or wars on our borders and one of the lowest murder rates in the world... tucked in the northwest corner of Europe, is there anywhere else safer than Scotland?
The people are warm, welcoming and friendly, there are fantastic job opportunities in the major cities, and the landscapes are some of the finest you will find anywhere in the world.
But what about the islands? Scotland has over 900 islands, not all of them inhabited, are they nice places to live? Let's have a look at a few of the main Scottish islands and see if we can answer that question!
Isle of Skye
One of the largest Scottish islands on the west coast, Skye is perhaps the most famous for its stunning scenery which wouldn't seem out of place in a Lord of the Rings film. On the northwest coast of Scotland, Skye is accessible from the mainland by use of the free road bridge built in 1995.
Portree, the largest village in Skye was voted as the most desirable place to live in Britain and is well served with schools, restaurants and even a cinema.
- Population: 10,000
- Pros: Accessible by road from the mainland, beautiful landscapes, more developed than the other islands. Claigan Coral Beach. A population of only 10,000 over a large area.
- Cons: Very busy with tourists in the summer months with campervans. It's a large island and even Portree will be over an hours drive to get to.
Isle of Mull (Inner Hebrides)
A very popular island for tourists due to its main town of Tobermory, a wee village known for its colourful houses and starring in the BBC TV show, Balamory. The island is well served for education with six primary schools and a single high school. The population has increased slightly in the last 10 years but still, only 3000 people call it home in the 2011 census over a 337 square mile area.
Mull is also known for its magnificent wildlife with it being common to see humpback & sperm whales and dolphins (the rare Risso's Dolphins can be seen here). History is in abundance too with a stone circle at Loch Buie and many fine castles.
Hillwalkers need not look far, Ben More, the only Munro on Mull offers a challenging 914-metre climb with excellent views from the summit.
There is no mainland access to Mull. The ferry is the only option to get to the island, leaving from Oban, Kilchoan and Lochaline. There is an airstrip near Salen, but Ferry would be the most common way to get to Mull.
Employment opportunities: Tourism, whisky distilleries
- Population: 2667
- Pros: Low population, good access to schools, wildlife.
- Cons: Accessible only by ferry, might be busy with tourists in summer months.
The southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides, Islay is the 5th largest Scottish island at around 240 square miles. Islay was one of the islands to receive a 5 pence reduction in fuel costs, ferry costs have also been subsidised with car fares being reduced by 55%.
Ferry is the only way to access the island with Caledonian MacBrayne operating a regular service from Kennacraig to Port Askaig, which takes 2 hours.
The island economy is driven mostly by tourism, but also Whisky distilleries and renewable energy generation also provide jobs for the locals.
The island is a haven for wildlife with birds and deer being the main inhabitants. Offshore many varieties of Cetaceans can be found including dolphins, killer whales, pilot whales and minke whales. Good education options are available with two primary schools and one high school.
Employment opportunities: Farming & fishing, whisky distilleries, tourism, renewable energy.
- Population: 3228
- Pros: Fuel and transport subsidies, wildlife haven, good access to schools.
- Cons: Many of the roads are single track with passing places, access only by ferry, busy tourist season.
Isle of Jura
Directly east of Islay, Jura is an elongated island, known for its whisky production, tourism and landscape. Less than 200 people live on Jura making it one of the more sparsely populated islands of that size. The main settlement is Craighouse on the east coast, the only school, shop, hotel and other amenities on the island. The only road on the island is a single track only.
Despite the low population, there are a lot of popular events on the island, including the Fell Race, Half Marathon, Ardlussa Sports, Jura Regatta and Jura music festival. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool swirls on the north side of the island between Jura and Scarba.
George Orwell, famous for his novels Animal Farm and 1984 lived on Jura in the 1940s. It's quite a remote island, and was ideal for Orwell to clear his mind for writing.
There is a direct ferry from the Scottish mainland to Craighouse from Tayvallich. The west side of the island offers a ferry to hop over to neighbouring Islay.
Employment opportunities: Jura Distillery, Jura Hotel.
- Population: 188
- Pros: Sparsely populated, impressive landscape.
- Cons: Only one primary school, minimal facilities, single-track roads.
Isle of Arran
Arran is in the unique position of being an island between two areas of the mainland and has good access links via ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick and also Lochranza to the Kintyre Peninsula. Transport is excellent with good dual lane roads, one that follows the coast around the entire island, and a road that splits through the centre of the island through impressive hilly countryside.
There is so much to see and do on Arran, from castles, distilleries, to outdoor activities such as walking, cycling, golf and fishing. The Goatfell mountain range offers fantastic hiking opportunities with a mixture of forest and craggy peaks.
Arran has been described as Scotland in miniature as it seems to encompass all of the best aspects of Scotland on a single island.
Employment opportunities: Tourism (hotels, restaurants, golf), salmon farming, Arran distillery.
- Population: 4600
- Pros: Excellent 2 lane roads throughout. Many primary schools and a high school. Limitless activities.
- Cons: One of the busier islands in tourist season. Higher cost of living, petrol/diesel is expensive.
Isle of Iona
West of Mull, Iona is one of the smaller islands at only 1.5 miles by 3 miles. It is a beautiful place and has many historic religious links to the beginnings of Christianity in Scotland with ruined abbey and nunnery dating from 563.
Transport is via ferry from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull.
- Population: 170
- Pros: Nice beaches and coastal views, primary school available.
- Cons: Basic single track gravel roads throughout the island.
The Isle of Tiree, "Gaelic Eilean Triodh" in Gaelic is the most westerly island in the Inner Hebrides. The small islands Gunna and Coll lie in northeast proximity (amazing islands for viewing the night sky). Tiree has a length of about 12 miles and is about 6 miles wide at its widest point, the terrain is predominantly low-lying and wide-open skies and sweeping ocean views from all directions. Tiree is also a great place for stargazing as there are no street lights to cause light pollution. Known as the sunshine island, it has one of the highest "sunshine recorded" days in Scotland.
Ben Hynish at the south reaches 462 metres and Ben Hough at the northwest is 390 metres.
Transport around the area is good, with reasonable quality single-track roads crisscrossing the landscape. Access to the Tiree can be by Ferry from Oban or directly to the central island airport.
Employment opportunities: Most jobs seem to revolve around tourism and public services.
- Population: 653
- Pros: Good access via the airport. Dedicated primary and high school.
- Cons: Long ferry trip (5 hours).
Isle of Lewis & Harris (Outer Hebrides)
The largest Scottish island on this list at 841 square miles. Lewis encompasses the northern two-thirds of the island, and Harris the remaining southern third.
Located in the Western Isles, Lewis and Harris are home to some of the finest beaches in Britain, with Luskentyre, Uig Sands and Scarista Beach to name a few. The golden sands and turquoise waters are something to behold.
Ullapool on the mainland offers one of the main transport links to Lewis and Harris by ferry, terminating at the main town - Stornoway. An air service is also on offer from all of the main cities in Scotland to Benbecula on Harris.
The world-famous Callanish standing stones can be seen on the west side of the island, erected 5000 years ago, they are a major historical treasure and attraction in Lewis.
There are many primary schools, high schools and even options with the university of highlands and islands available on the island.
- Population: 21,000
- Pros: Some of the nicest beaches in Britain. Good education options. Good transport links around the island. A large enough area to not feel overpopulated.
- Cons: Access by sea or air only. Patchy phone signal. Expensive fuel and delivery fees.
Isle of Eigg
A small but stunningly beautiful island in west Scotland. Accessible by ferry from Mallaig, Eigg has a lot to offer mainly the panoramic landscapes and views over to Muck and Rum. Only official residents are allowed cars, tourists will mostly get around by walking or hiring a bike from Eigg Adventures.
Employment opportunities: Tourism, public services, agriculture, renewable energy, construction and the creative industries.
- Population: 87
- Pros: Low population, a primary school, reasonably short ferry trip at 1 hour 47 minutes.
- Cons: Basic roads throughout the area, a single shop
Isle of Raasay
A short hop on the ferry from Sconser on Skye will see you arrive at Raasay. A very picturesque island that is popular with tourists, and holiday homeowners. There are many woodland trails and stunning coastal vistas to explore.
Employment opportunities: Mainly tourism, Isle of Raasay distillery, crofting and fishing.
- Population: 192
- Pros: Only a 25-minute ferry trip, primary school available
- Cons: Basic single track roads, older students must catch a ferry to attend high school in Portree.
Orkney is actually an archipelago of more than 70 islands north of the Scottish mainland. Famous for its neolithic settlements, wildlife and stunning coastal landscapes, Orkney is a truly beautiful place.
One of its most famous sites is Skara Brae, the best-preserved neolithic settlement in western Europe and is protected by UNESCO World Heritage site status.
The infrastructure in Orkney is fantastic, with great roads, schools, shops and pretty much everything you could ask for on the mainland, it was even voted the best place to live in Scotland for 8 years in a row.
There are great ferry links from Scrabster and Aberdeen, but from Aberdeen, it will take a whopping 6 hours through the choppy North Sea. Thankfully a 55-minute flight is also available from Aberdeen.
Employment opportunities: Tourism, renewable power, hydrogen manufacturing.
- Population: 22,055
- Pros: Good infrastructure, many primary schools and two secondary schools, university access via UHI, proper roads, lowest crime rate.
- Cons: General higher cost of living, postage costs, fuel and electricity all cost more.
Shetland is the most northerly part of the British Isles, and another archipelago of islands north of the Orkney Islands.
The Shetland islands are a beautiful place, rich in history with its own neolithic monuments to marvel at and explore. Expansive beaches with stunning sunsets and sunrises are all part of the Shetlander lifestyle. The famous Shetland pony breed that is much smaller than normal ponies originate here. Being so far north, Shetland is also THE best place to view the Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis in Scotland.
Infrastructure is fantastic with great roads and facilities and education needs are well met with more than 20 primary schools, 2 high schools and access to the Shetland branch of the University of Highlands and Islands.
Islanders are granted special allowances on ferry fares and flights so it is not prohibitively expensive to frequently visit the mainland, however, this benefit cannot be extended to friends and family making it costly for them to visit.
Employment opportunities: Fishing, renewable energy and fossil fuels, farming, textiles, tourism.
- Population: 22,990
- Pros: Great infrastructure, schools, safe location, world-class local produce.
- Cons: Higher cost of living, friends and family have to pay more to visit. Summers can be cool. It might be hard to find employment.
Which Scottish islands are looking for residents?
Some islands are actively looking to attract more people, especially the islands with very low populations. These west coast island communities are currently looking for residents interested in the remote lifestyle:
- Isle of Rum - The village of Kinloch is currently building four new eco-homes, each with 2 bedrooms and offering stunning views of the Rum Cuillin mountain. Residents with a special trade or skill to diversify the local economy are encouraged to apply.
- Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist and Barra - These islands in Scotlands far north-west are projected to see a 20% fall in people of working age, and the amount of children is also set to drop the same by 2041.
- The Isle of Kerrera - Although the population has doubled in the last few years (34 to 68), the Isle of Kerrera could still do with a bump in numbers. They have a new community centre, and a lovely ruin of a tower house castle.
- North Ronaldsay - The northernmost part of the Orkney islands with a population of only 72. Depopulation here is a serious concern.
- Canna - This small island in the Inner Hebrides is home to just 15 people, who are actively searching for someone to run their guesthouse on the island. An amazing opportunity for a major lifestyle change for someone out there.
- Ulva - Once home to 600 people, the population of Ulva has dwindled to only 11. A community buy out in 2018 and many of the abandoned houses are undergoing renovations for new residents. Why not join them on their journey to repopulate the island?
Do people live on the Scottish islands?
Yes - Scotland has over 90 inhabited islands, these communities are located throughout Scotland on the far west and north coasts.
Life on the Scottish islands is not all sunshine and rainbows!
Despite the world-class landscapes and peaceful nature of the islands, much like the rest of Scotland, we get a lot of rain, and the winters are long and dark... expect 6 months of cold dark and rain, then potentially 6 months of sunlight and rain! See my guide on Scottish weather here.
The west of Scotland is also known for its midges/midgies, a small flying biting insect that can be a real pest in the summertime between May and September. West Scotland is much wetter than the east and provides ideal breeding conditions for the midge.
Sometimes, they can be more than a minor inconvenience, and leaving the house without adequate protection is not advised, swarms of them can cover any areas of exposed skin and leave you covered in bites. Some people seem to be tastier than others to the midges, if you are one of these unfortunate people, netting would need to be worn to give some respite. Please see my Midges in Scotland survival guide.
The west of Scotland bears the brunt of any storms emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. Given that many of the islands do not have forests to soak up some of the wind, the direct force hitting properties can be fierce. Given the isolation on some islands, help may take time to reach you, just something to bear in mind when living in some of the very remote islands.
Scottish Government are offering bonds as a settling incentive
Scottish officials say they will pay newcomers £50,000 for living on Scotland's distant islands. The Scottish Government's Island Bonds initiative aims at offering 100 grants in order to help migrants in the Highlands. The scheme would also allow young families to be given up to £50,000 ($67,610 / €59,991) to settle on islands at risk of depopulation.
This cash will be used to assist people in buying homes, building homes and renovating old existing buildings. Additionally, they will also help people start new businesses to help them create long term communities on the islands.
See the official website here for more information on the bonds available.
Wow, that was a monster article, I hope this brief overview has been of some help if you are thinking of moving to one of Scotland's islands.
But Chris? You haven't answered the question, which is the best Scottish island to live on?
I feel the most common response would always be Skye - who can't help but fall in love with that landscape, as well as retain some of the mod cons and transport access we have become accustomed to on the mainland... but if I was truly looking to move to a Scottish island, I feel Lewis & Harris would be the one for me. You have to go the whole hog, transport by ferry, that feeling of remoteness and solitude, I mean who wants to see another human being when you go for a walk on the beach!?
A close second place would have to go to the Isle of Arran, the infrastructure, tourist attractions and natural beauty would offer the best of everything for island life.
Further reading: Is Scotland an island?
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Hi, please leave a comment below, or why not start a discussion on the forum?
1st of September 2022 @ 16:05:21
Great article. Could I ask about one thing that you didn't cover? Medical infrastructure. Hospitals, doctors etc. For instance, if you had a medical emergency, bad accident, a stroke or heart attack in Unst, would you stand a chance of survival where there are limited emergency services, hospitals and phone reception?
Alieu Fana Mbye
24th of August 2022 @ 13:45:41
Wonderful article, really help me towards my Scottish Isle knowledge to live there
14th of July 2022 @ 19:48:23
Superb article Great information on all the lsles Love it The only problem is I want to live on all the islands mentioned 🤦♂️