Treasured Islands

As a firm believer in the power of lists it was a delight to come across ‘The Scottish Islands’ when I started to think about our next island adventure after Tiree and Coll. Hamish Haswell-Smith spends the first few pages defining the characteristics of what he has decided to declare an ‘island’, and no doubt received substantial correspondence on the matter until his death in 2019. Islands with fixed links (e.g. bridges) are not included, neither are land masses of less than 40 hectares. Even with these restraints he has listed 168 islands, complete with historical, geological, population and visitor information. Even more generously, Haswell-Smith has included the details and descriptions even where the island is not an ‘island’, helping ‘The Scottish Islands’ weigh in at 532 pages.

In a homage to Haswell-Smith’s epic list making, and decisive rule creation, here is ours, which I’ll update and perhaps rearrange as we adventure further. I’ve included only those that mini-cyclist and I have visited together, and divided the list into islands visited by bicycle and those visited without. I’ve also listed the islands that aren’t defined as ‘islands’ by Haswell-Smith, although these aren’t included in the island count. Our plan, assuming mini-cyclist wishes to continue cycle touring with his mother, is that we visit all of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands by the time he leaves school.. and perhaps all 168 over my lifetime.

  1. Arran (2022)

Easily accessible from central Scotland by train and ferry, Arran is a popular destination for cyclists, many beasting the Five Ferries route or hurtling around in one day. Our more leisurely trip in 2022 was blessed with sunshine and low wind, and provided an excellent lesson in the use of reliable milk containers. A circumnavigation over two nights gave us some time for exploring, but another few days are needed to visit some of the island’s attractions. We’ll undoubtedly be visiting Arran again, not least because we need to land on Holy Isle, off the coast of Lamlash on the east of the island.

2. Bute (2020, 2021, 2022)

Beautiful Bute provided the perfect pandemic escape in the autumn of 2020, before the doors to adventure closed down again. We’ve been back each year since to explore further and enjoy the (now) familiar away from home. Another island easily accessible by train and ferry, Bute provides good cycling conditions where you are never too far from a cup of tea and slice of cake. Make sure you go to the lovely Mount Stuart, an absolute architectural jewel (with a cycle rack right outside the front door) in beautiful grounds.

3. Great Cumbrae (2019, 2021)

We took three child-free friends on our first tour of Great Cumbrae, giving me some time to think about the difference between solo parent cycling and touring with other adults on hand. Great Cumbrae is the perfect place for a first foray into island exploration by bicycle from the central belt: low levels of traffic, easy to access by public transport and close enough to home to leave at breakfast and be on the ferry by lunchtime. Its only lack is a campsite, although we enjoyed our luxurious stay at the Cathedral of the Isles and our more spartan nights at the Field Studies Council

4. Kerrera (2019)

We barely touched our tyres down in Kerrera, but we didn’t say anything in our rules about length of stay! But as Kerrera is just a short hop over the water from Oban, where so many island adventures start, I suspect we’ll eventually get to the famous Kerrera Tea Garden

5. Tiree (2019)

Our cycle tour to Coll and Tiree was mini-cyclists first outing with his own panniers, which made a significant difference to his ownership of our journey and the provisions we carried. Mini-cyclist found a pack of children to roam with at the campsite, paddled in the freezing sea and we heard corncrakes in the night. It’s a truly magical place and our only regret was not staying for longer.

6. Coll (2019)

Coll is just a short ferry ride from Tiree, and considerably more undulating than advertised. We saw few people once we were out of Arinagour, making it feel wonderfully wild and remote. Highly recommend watching the world go by outside the Island cafe.

7. Mainland – Orkney (2018, 2022)

Orkney’s 28 islands on the Haswell-Smith list means we should get to know the Orkney mainland well over the next decade. It was our first island adventure, when mini-cyclist was just 6, and (partly) proved my theory that cycling on islands would be easy and safe for all concerned. In 2018 we stayed in Kirkwall, left the bikes behind to visit several of the UNESCO sites and took day trips to two of the other islands. We enjoyed our stays at the large and popular Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall, which is perfectly placed for the midnight arrival from the Aberdeen ferry, but we lost our hearts to Stromness in 2022 due to the welcome at the small Point of Ness campsite and superb Stromness museum.

8. Westray – Orkney (2022)

We had puffins on our mind in 2022 and a colleague recommended Castle O’Burrian in Westray as the place in Orkney to get up close and personal to these charming birds. Unfortunately they love cliff edges and I don’t, so most of our interactions with them included my hysterics as mini-cyclist sidled closer towards the edge and further away from me. Don’t let my overanxious health and safety assessment put you off this lovely island – we really enjoyed staying at the comfortable Chalmerquoy campsite, pottering around the Westray Heritage centre to see the Westray wife, and mini-cyclist loved talking to the proprietor at Richans Retreat, a cosy cafe by the ferry terminal.

9. Papa Westray – Orkney (2022)

Papa Westray is flourishing, with its small but determined community improving facilities and creating an enticing location for tourists. We camped at the comfortable hostel, enjoyed replenishing our provisions at the local shop and explored the beaches, cliffs and archaeology. Our visit was made special by the friendly hostel occupants, one group inviting us to share their scrumped rhubarb and ice cream and another keeping us company in the ferry terminal after a timetable misunderstanding..

10. Shapinsay – Orkney (2018)

One of our day trips in 2018, heading out to Shapinsay from Kirkwall, to enjoy the lush green fields and another ferry ride

11. Sanday – Orkney (2018)

We didn’t do Sanday justice in 2018 with our day trip, so I’m sure we’ll be back to explore further and walk the many glorious beaches

12. Mainland – Shetland (2022)

I had been apprehensive about our decision to cycle in Shetland, but armed with a hand drawn route map and enthusiasm from one of my knowledgeable colleagues we arrived in Lerwick in July 2022 and started peddling towards our first stop in Skeld. Over the next few days we fell hard for Shetland, which is just as well as it has 30 islands in its archipelago. Exposed, windy and hillier than you might think, the cycling wasn’t easy and the weather wasn’t good. You have to earn your views, as well as your dinner, but it was worth every pedal stroke to see its beauty and feel at the edge of the world. We found an overwhelming welcome and warmth from everyone we met, from courteous drivers to campsite companions, and we’re looking forward to coming back.

13. Bressay – Shetland (2022)

Bressay is a seven minute ferry ride across from Lerwick, and we really enjoyed our too short visit. Cake at the lovely Speldiburn cafe was top of mini-cyclists highlights and we rode out to the lighthouse in hope that the orca would finally show themselves (they didn’t). If we’re feeling flush next time we’re in Shetland, the wildlife boat tours from nearby Noss look like they might increase our chances of spotting the distinctive dorsal fins.

14. Papa Stour – Shetland (2022)

We have never been so wet and cold as we were in Papa Stour, as the rain poured in a way that made waterproofs redundant. In better weather we would have explored further, but we were quite satisfied to visit the beautiful community owned Papa Stour Kirk and wander along the deserted beach. What we cherished from this island was the kindness of the ferry crew, who went out of their way to make it a positive and memorable adventure for mini-cyclist.

Non-cycling island visits

15. Isle Of May (2019, 2022)

A birders paradise, particular in June when the puffins are on land and thinking about making more puffins. Disappointed to realise we’d missed all the puffins by several weeks on our first trip in 2019, we took the Seabird Centre boat again from North Berwick in 2022 and returned elated.

Islands not included in Haswell-Smith island count

Skye (2017)

As the home of a beloved friend, I’ve made many trips to Skye over the years but only one with mini-cyclist so far, and in weather conditions that defied use of a camera so here’s some I made earlier

Inchcailloch Island (2022)

This shakedown adventure, camping on Inchcailloch in Loch Lomond, helped us prepare for Shetland and was an unforgettable experience. Weather wasn’t good and we weren’t sure our tent would survive the winds, it did show us that you can be cold and wet and still have a great time.