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Island hopping across Britain

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

by Stephen Andrews (単語・表現リスト by Shigeri Nishide)

You may have thought that Britain is just one big island. It is of course, but, scattered around its coast, there are lots of separate islands (a bit like Japan). In fact, there are a total of 6,289 islands in various places around Britain, many off the coast of Scotland. Some of them are far too small for people to live on, but 189 are big enough to be inhabited.

So let’s take a short hop around some of the most famous ones: the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, the Scilly Isles, Isle of Wight and the Isle of Man. The islands of Jersey and Guernsey (called the Channel Islands) are also counted as part of Britain, although, surprisingly, they are much closer to France than they are the UK.

London islands

There are even a few islands close to London! Eel Pie Island sits in the River Thames at Twickenham in the London Borough of Richmond. It’s accessible by boat or from the left (north) bank by footbridge. In the 1960s, the island had a club that was a major venue for jazz and blues where bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who played.

Travelling east into Essex, you’ll find Canvey Island, a small island in the Thames Estuary, separated by creeks (small rivers) from the Thames. It’s the location of petro-chemical containers, so it’s not the most picturesque place to visit. But there are great views across the Thames and it’s an ideal spot for watching London-bound ships come and go. Canvey also has a rock and roll history, as the home of the famous band, Dr. Feelgood.

Almost opposite Canvey Island, again in the Thames Estuary, but on the southern Kent coast, sits the Isle of Sheppey. Called Kent's ‘Treasure Island’, Sheppey offers sandy beaches, beautiful marshes and bird reserves. The world Sheppey means ‘sheep’ in Old English, though there aren’t many left these days. The island’s notable for being amongst the first places in England to be raided by the Vikings in the year 835, although, like the sheep, they’ve now disappeared, too!

The Hebrides

The beautiful Hebrides islands are off the North West coast of Scotland. They’re divided into two groups, the Outer Hebrides and Inner Hebrides.

Outer Hebrides

The largest island of the Outer Hebrides is Lewis & Harris (world famous for Harris Tweed) and the smaller ones are called North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Many of these smaller islands are uninhabited, and most of the population lives on Lewis & Harris.

There was considerable depopulation of the islands in the 20th century, because of the lack of jobs. Now, about 26,000 people live there. The islands are one of the few areas in Scotland where Scottish Gaelic is still spoken as the everyday language.

The Outer Hebrides have been inhabited for at least 4,000 years, and there are lots of prehistoric remains to be seen, including the megalithic stone circle at Callanish (see the picture) on Lewis, equal in importance to Stonehenge in England.

Inner Hebrides

In contrast to the Outer Hebrides, the Inner Hebrides lie closer to the west coast of Scotland. They stretch 240km from Skye in the north to Islay in the south and are separated from the Outer Hebrides by the Little Minch, an Atlantic sea channel. The largest islands of the Inner Hebrides are Skye, Mull, Jura and Islay, and the smallest, are Soay, Scalpay, Raasay, and Rona. Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce these names. I’m Scottish and even I have trouble getting them right!

The islands have an economy based on crofting (small-scale farming) bulb growing, cattle raising, fishing, tourism, and, if you’re a whisky fan, you may know that Islay is world-famous for malt whiskeys like Laphroaig and Ardberg Drum.

Orkney & Shetland

These are the other main group of Scottish islands, located to the north east of Scotland, and although part of the UK, they are practically separate countries in their own right.

Orkney is closest to the UK mainland, about 80km away, and takes about 90 minutes to reach by ferry. Shetland, though, is the most northern island in Britain and takes about 12 hours to reach by ferry. In fact, the island is only about 300km from Norway.

No surprise then that both islands used to be ruled by Norwegian Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries! Interestingly, studies have shown that 25% of people in Orkney today come from Norwegian ancestors.


Orkney is the tenth largest island in Britain and is made up of over 70 other smaller islands.

The biggest is called the Mainland where you’ll find Kirkwall, the largest town. Hoy & Graemsey, the second biggest island, is famous for the Old Man of Hoy (see the picture), a 137-metre high finger of sandstone that rises from the sea.

The local people are known as Orcadians; they speak a distinctive dialect of the Scots language, which uses many Old Norse (Scandinavian) words. Currently, about 20,000 people live on the island.


Shetland lies about 80km to the north of Orkney. It’s the most northerly part of Britain and is made up of 15 inhabited islands. The largest, known as the Mainland, is the third-largest Scottish Island and the fifth largest island in the UK. The capital of the Shetlands is Lerwick and, like Orkney, roughly about 20,000 people live here.

Oil and gas were discovered in Shetland in 1978, but its traditional industries are fishing and farming. The island is famous for Shetland ponies (see the picture), a small breed found nowhere else, and Shetland sheep whose wool is used to make Fair Isle jumpers.

You might also have heard of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa fire festival held annually in the middle of winter. The festival is just over 100 years old and was originally held to break up the long nights of winter. The festival includes a procession of men dressed as Vikings and the burning of a replica longship. Not to be missed if you fancy a trip to the far north in winter!

The Scilly Isles

Believe it or not, the UK has its own (almost) tropical islands, boasting white sand beaches and blue waters! The Scilly Isles are located just off ‘Land’s End’ or the ‘toe’ of Cornwall, in the South West of England.

The islands are one of the sunniest areas in the UK with roughly seven hours of sunshine per day in May. The islands have a humid subtropical climate, making them the warmest place in the British Isles.

The Scillies are isolated and small with a population of just 2,200 on five inhabited islands, so it’s pretty sedate. Apparently, it’s so safe that it’s said no one bothers to locks their doors at night!

Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is the second largest island in Britain (after the Outer Hebrides) located off the South coast, in the English Channel roughly 8km miles off the coast of Hampshire. You can get there by ferry in about 45 minutes.

The island has been a holiday destination since Victorian times and is known for its mild climate, coastal scenery, and fertile, green landscape. In fact, it has been called ‘England in Miniature’ and designated an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The island is famous for the Isle of Wight music festival that took place in 1970. About 600,000 people attended, more than the Woodstock Festival in the U.S. The line-up was amazing and included bands like Chicago, the Doors, the Moody Blues, The Who, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Free.

You might not know any of them, but I’m quite old and, take it from me, they were all really good!

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man lies almost exactly between Britain and Ireland.

It is 52km long and, at its widest point, 22km wide, with an area of around 572 square kilometres, making it one of the UK’s biggest islands.

The Isle of Man is unique because it has its own parliament to look after its affairs. Although the main language is English, people originally spoke their own form of Gaelic, though, sadly, this is now dying out.

The island has a population of 85,000. One of the reasons that people like living there is that, unlike the UK, it has no capital gains tax, wealth tax, stamp duty, or inheritance tax, and the top rate of income tax is only 20%. I’m definitely thinking of moving there!

The island is well known for the Isle of Man TT annual cross-country motorcycle race. It’s also home to the unique ‘Manx cat’, famous for its short tail. The length of this tail can range from a few inches, known as a ‘stumpy’, to being completely non-existent, or ‘rumpy’.

The Channel Islands

The Channel Islands are a group of islands just 22 km from the French coast and 137km south of the English coast. Jersey is the biggest of the Channel Islands, which also include Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm.

Because of their proximity to France, during the Second World War the islands were occupied by Germany. These days, though, thanks to their southerly location and warm summer weather, the only people invading the islands are tourists!

About 160,000 people live on the islands, mostly of French and British origin. This means that the islands have a unique blend of both cultures, including their own language, called Jèrriais, which has elements of both English and French.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip around some of Britain’s best-known islands. From sandy seaweed-strewn beaches to remote Scottish hillsides, the 6,000 or so isles scattered off the British coastline are both remote and just within reach. I hope you’ll be able to visit some of them sometime...



picturesque: いい風景の

marsh: いつもwetでsoftな平たんな地面で草がはえているかもしれないが、木などはないエリア

reserve:  野生の動植物が保護されているエリア(イギリス英語)

raid:  襲撃する

depopulation: 人口が減ること、過疎化

Gaelic: ゲール語

Megalithic: Stonehengeのような、大昔に誰かが大きな背の高い石を並べた(建てた?)もの

in –‘s own right: 他の人などに頼らず、自身の力、能力、権利などで –日本語にしにくいので、例文を作りました。

Michael Douglas is a great actor in his own right. 親の七光ではなく。

Michael Douglas is rich and famous, but his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is rich and famous in her own right.

ancestor: 先祖、祖先

sedate: 静かな、穏やかな、落ち着いた

Woodstock Festival: 洋楽ファンなら知っているはず(?)のウッドストックは、1969年夏に開かれた伝説的な野外音楽フェスティバル。

take it from me: 私は知っている事、経験があることなので、私の言うことを信じてね、というような意味。





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