Call of the wild – remote islands to visit in the UK

Do you ever feel the call of the wild?

Are you an islomaniac?

If that’s a yes then you’ve come to the right place.

One of the most haunting songs from my childhood was Bali Ha’i from the musical South Pacific:

If you try, you will find me
Where the sky meets the sea
Here am I your special island
Come to me, come to me

Rodgers and Hammerstein

To reach some of these remote islands you do have to try, really try.
So push the boat out, literally and virtually, and explore with us the abandoned, haunting and wildest islands in the UK where nature runs free.

Wild islands of Great Britain

England, Scotland and Wales together have a total 6,289 islands, 803 of them large enough to show up on maps with a proper coastline.

But only 189 are permanently inhabited.

So that leaves hundreds more; remote, sometimes unreachable and mysterious.

Here are 8 not so inhabited UK islands that you can visit

Oransay, Hebrides

Oronsay Priory and Farm, Hebrides Scotland © Nick Wilson
Oronsay Priory and Farm © Nick Wilson/ (cc by-sa 2.0)

This tiny, privately owned island off the West coast of Scotland is managed by the RSPB.

There are no facilities for visitors and getting there relies on detailed local knowledge of tides and time.

Seals, choughs and corncrakes use the rocks of Oransay to breed. There’s also a ruined priory there, dating back to the 1300s.

You’re welcome to visit Oransay (after COVID restrictions are lifted) but bear in mind it’s both nature reserve and working farm so animals and birds take precedence over humans.

The nearest island where you can stay is Colonsay, and here’s where to get local knowledge of the safest way to reach its shores.

RSPB Oransay

Mousa, Shetland Islands

Mousa Broch Shetland Islands © nz_willowherb
Mousa Broch © nz_willowherb, Flickr (cc by-nc 2.0)

Even further north is Mousa, uninhabited since the nineteenth century.

It’s home to the Broch of Mousa, a fortified round tower dating from the Iron Age.

Mousa is an RSPB-run Special Protection Area for storm-petrel breeding colonies and you’ll also find grey and common seals, black guillemots and Arctic terns on its rocky shores.

And the waters around Mousa are home to a huge population of sandeels which provide food for whales and dolphins.

Accessible only by sea, there is a regular ferry which runs from Sandwick on the Shetland mainland, but only in summer time. As you can imagine the seas in winter are pretty rough.

Holm of Papay, Orkney

Holm of Papay, Scotland © Hayley Green
The wild coast of Holm of Papay © Hayley Green/ (cc-by-sa/2.0)

If Orkney’s your dream destination, read more here but just off Papa Westray, there’s a teeny tiny island known locally as Papay Holm.

During the summer months a local ranger offers guided trips to explore its subterranean Neolithic cairn, which dates back to around 3,000 BCE. It has three distinct chambers, the southernmost one boasting carvings that look like eyebrows.

And there’s plenty of wildlife to spot.

• Find out about the guided boat trips here.

Farne Islands, Northumberland

Artic Tern on Farne Islands © ianpreston, Flickr
Artic Tern on Farne Islands © ianpreston, Flickr (cc by 2.0)

Most people will have heard of Lindisfarne – the Holy Island of myth, legend and early Christianity.

But a few miles further south off the Northumberland coast are the Farne Islands – a group of 15-20 islands visible above the waters, depending on the tides.

Some of the islands join up at low tide, others stand proudly independent, but none more than 19 metres above sea level.

In 651 CE it was home to St Aidan and then St Cuthbert, following the Celtic tradition of monastic hermitages.

St Cuthbert returned to Inner Farne where he died in 687, but not before he introduced a law protecting the eider ducks and other nesting seabirds there. Probably the first ever bird protection laws introduced in the world.

Longstone Lighthouse, Farne Islands UK © Tom Hartley, Flickr
Grey seals and the Longstone Lighthouse © Tom Hartley, Flickr (cc by-nd 2.0)

The islands are also known as the home of Grace Darling, the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper, who helped her father rescue nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire after it ran aground on Harcar Rock in September 1838.

Today the islands have no permanent residents, just National Trust rangers who stay in the old tower on the Inner Farne and the lighthouse cottage on the Brownsman in the outer group.

Visits to Farne Islands are by boat from Seahouses and you can land on Inner Farne, Staple Island, and the Longstone but landing on other islands is banned to protect the wildlife.

Puffins can be seen at certain times of the year and share their burrows with wild rabbits – they simply evict them when its nesting time! And beware of the arctic terns who nest close to the path on Inner Farne, they’ll attack if you get too close!

Cei Ballast, North Wales

Looking across to Cei Ballast © Peter Trimming
Looking across to Cei Ballast © Peter Trimming/ (cc-by-sa/2.0)

This human-made island in the Welsh harbour of Porthmadog, was formed in Victorian times when trading ships dumped the rocks they used as ballast in the bay.

It’s a well-kept secret, just a few yards away from the popular town and the Ffestiniog steam train station.

At low tide you can walk out to it, explore the tidal pools, watch the wildlife and search for pottery shards amongst the abandoned slag heaps.

Ramsey Island (Ynys Dewi), Pembrokeshire

Ramsey Island, Pembrokshire Wales © puffin11k, Flickr
Ramsey Island © puffin11k, Flickr (cc0 1.0)

Much further south, off the Welsh coast, you’ll find another RSPB nature reserve on Ramsey Island.

As with so many of these tiny coastal outposts, Ramsey was owned by the Church until the early 1900’s when it was sold as a private farm.

In Welsh it’s named after St David, patron saint of Wales, whose confessor Saint Justinian once lived there.

The RSPB bought Ramsey in the early 1990s because it’s a breeding site for endangered species like chough and peregrine. A full-time warden tends the island supported by volunteers during the summer months, which is when you can visit to see wildlife, spectacular scenery and natural heritage.

Boat trips to Ramsey Island
Ramsey Nature Reserve

Samson, Isles of Scilly

Looking from Tresco towards Samson Island © Andrew Abbott
Looking from Tresco towards Samson Island © Andrew Abbott, Wikimedia (cc0 1.0)

We’ve shared the delights of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, but Samson, just a tiny strip of water away, is a wildflower island paradise.

The last of the residents moved out in 1855 when the local lord ordered them to leave.
The two remaining families were found to be suffering extreme deprivation due to a diet existing almost exclusively of limpets and potatoes.

A plan to create a deer park on the island came unstuck when the deer escaped their enclosure and tried to swim across to Tresco.

Boat trips to Samson can be taken from May to September, but the island has no quay so visitors disembark via a wooden plank. A local guide is recommended to get the best out of any exploration which will uncover abandoned cottages, the remains of the deer park and prehistoric burial mounds.

Kids will love it as Samson is the inspiration of the Michael Morpurgo story Why The Whales Came and lovers of Arthurian tales will recognise it as the place where Tristan defeats Morholt, uncle of his one true love, Iseult.

Scolt Head Island, North Norfolk

Hut on Scolt Head Island, Norfolk UK © Julian Dowse
Scolt Head Island, Norfolk © Julian Dowse (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Set in calmer seas but still remote and wild, Scolt Head Island off the Norfolk coast is a natural blend of sand dunes, saltmarsh, mud flats and shingle. It’s a birdwatcher’s idea of heaven with hundreds of local and migrant birds. You’ll also spot rabbits, stoats, shrews, mice and voles if you’re very quiet.

A ferry will take you from Burnham Overy Staithe and leave you on the island, but be sure you’ve checked the times on The Boathouse door, as the tide won’t wait.

It is theoretically possible to walk to Scolt Head at low tide but not recommended as the local waters can be treacherous and currents strong.

There is plenty of sand if you want to bring a bucket-and-spade, but remember it is a nature reserve, there are no tourist facilities and the weather can be unpredictable, so come prepared for four seasons in one day!

Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, UK © S Rae, Flickr
Burnham Overy Staithe © S Rae, Flickr (cc by 2.0)

Oh, and if you’ve come by car to the Burnhams, please don’t park near the water’s edge. The tide comes in fast and high – every year tourists have to be rescued!

Is your favourite wild island on our list?

Top image: Sunrise over Mousa © Ronnie Robertson, Flickr (cc by-sa 2.0)
Feature image: Innner Farne Isle at Dawn © Neil Howard, Flickr (cc by-nc 2.0)
Images reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Where to next?
Island Life Tresco
Nelson’s Norfolk
7 best summer beaches UK

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