The Scottish Highlands are the rugged northern and northwestern portion of Scotland. This is the Scotland conjured up by visions of tartan, kilts, Bonnie Prince Charlie and all.
|The Great Glen and Strathspey
This is the heart of the Highlands. 1 Inverness the only city is a good base for visitors.
2 Aviemore in Strathspey is a centre for for skiing and exploring Cairngorms National Park, which crosses the mountains into Aberdeenshire. The lower Spey valley produces much of Scotland's finest whisky.
|Argyll and Bute
A straggling region, dissected by the long cold fingers of sea lochs, so the roads have to wind around and double back.
|Ross and Cromarty
The eastern part is low-lying and fertile, with the scenic peninsula of The Black Isle just over the bridge from Inverness. The west has dramatic scenery, with sharp Alp-like mountains.
|Caithness and Sutherland
A sparsely populated area of moorland, and Norse rather then Scots until late Medieval times.
The geographical division between Highland and Lowland Scotland is sharply diagonal, so Campbeltown in the far west is further south than Berwick-upon-Tweed in England, while northerly Stonehaven is a continuation of the lowland coastal plain. The Romans marched that far northeast before shrugging at the useless prospect and retrenching south to leave the Picts to their bogs, blizzards and coarse oatmeal. The cultural division is even further north, as lowland farming and industry, the English language and Victorian railways penetrated the valleys and turned the corner above Aberdeen to approach Inverness. The Highlands described on this page largely reflect that cultural boundary.
Alba, the proto-state forerunner to Scotland, arose in the lowlands in the 9th century, conquering the Highland kingdom of Moray (ruled by Macbeth), Gaelic-Ulster Dál Riata, and last of all the Viking / Norse realms of the far west and north in the 13th century. Battles continued with a ferocity out of all proportion to the poor rugged land they were fought over, with the final set-to (taking most of an hour) at Culloden in 1746. This shattered not only the Jacobite cause, but also a samurai feudal way of life and death, with sword-fealty to the chieftain obsolete in England since Norman times. The Highlands were militarised in the wake, with a large army base established at Nairn, and other forts were rebuilt.
The Victorians brought many innovations to the Highlands, and the most important was tourism, as black sucking peat-bogs were rebranded as romantic scenery of "dreary melancholy". This infused Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, the Tay and Dee valleys, then beyond across the Highlands. The Gaelic language died out in this region, to persist in the Hebrides. The burgeoning lowland cities created a mass leisure market, free time and transport links. The 20th century capitalised on this with winter sports and wildlife, and the 21st created eco-angst, the reindeer, beaver and wildcats being the beneficiaries, while ghosts of extinct wolves lope hopefully in the shadows.
Get in edit
By plane edit
1 Glasgow Airport (GLA IATA) is best landing point for Argyll and Bute. It has good domestic connections and direct flights across Europe. Glasgow has daily flights to Campbeltown, Wick, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. The airport is west of the city so you drive onto M8 then cross Erskine Bridge northbound, without getting snarled in the centre.
Inverness Airport (INV IATA) is closest, with international flights from Amsterdam, Dublin and Düsseldorf, and UK flights from London LHR, Manchester, Kirkwall (Orkney), Sumburgh (Shetland) and Stornoway (Lewis).
By rail edit
Scotrail trains run every couple of hours from Glasgow and Edinburgh via Perth and Aviemore to Inverness. Change at Inverness for trains west to Kyle of Lochalsh (for Skye), north to Wick and Thurso (for Orkney) and east towards Aberdeen.
Trains also run from Glasgow up the West Highland Line via Arrochar & Tarbet (for Loch Lomond) and Crianlarich, where the train divides for Oban (for Mull, Coll, Tiree and Colonsay), or for Fort William and Mallaig (for Skye and the Small Isles).
Travelling from England usually means changing in Edinburgh or Glasgow, but one train per day is direct from London Kings Cross via Edinburgh to Inverness.
The Caledonian Sleepers run from London Euston via Preston and Carlisle: sleeping berths and saloon seats are available, and reservations are compulsory. The Lowland Sleeper runs to Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Highland Sleeper divides in the small hours for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. It serves intermediate stations such as Perth and Arrochar & Tarbet in the early hours, and the connection for Oban is tedious, so for those you might prefer to change in Glasgow for a daytime train.
By bus edit
Citylink are the main bus line into the Highlands. Their routes from Glasgow and Edinburgh are:
- - via Perth and Aviemore to Inverness.
- - via Crianlarich, Glencoe and Fort William to Portree and Uig on Skye.
- - either via Crianlarich or Inveraray to Oban.
- - via Inveraray and Tarbert to Campbeltown.
Change at Inverness for Citylink buses to Fort William, Skye, Ullapool and Thurso.
By road edit
The principal roads, followed by the buses, are:
- - A9 from Perth and Pitlochry to Aviemore, Inverness, Helmsdale and Thurso.
- - A84 from Stirling and A85 from Perth to Crianlarich and Oban.
- - A82 from Glasgow by Loch Lomond to Crianlarich, Glencoe, Fort William and Loch Ness to Inverness, with A87 branching for Skye.
- - A83 branching off A82 to Inveraray, Tarbert and Campbeltown.
- - A96 from Aberdeen to Inverness, and A835 from Inverness to Ullapool.
There are no motorways this far north, and roads are mostly undivided highways busy with trucks at all hours, and where overtaking can be hazardous.
Bicycles are permitted on all these roads, but except for a few loops of bypassed historic highway you have to use the main carriageway, with fast traffic blurring past sometimes in limited visibility.
Get around edit
Trains and buses on the inter-city routes link the main towns but are of limited help for the villages. For instance at Glencoe, the Glasgow-Fort William bus only traverses the glen four times a day. A local bus plies six times a day from Fort William to Ballachulish, Glencoe village and Kinlochleven but doesn't go up the glen to the ski resort or trailhead for the West Highland Way.
Most visitors bring their own vehicle. Car hire is best arranged from the airports.
Highways are undivided, traffic builds up behind the slow fellow towing a caravan (with left-hand drive and limited visibility if he's from the continent), and overtaking is hazardous. It may be easier in the more remote areas with single track lanes, since the passing places are also used for overtaking. But then the motorcade that's built up behind the slow caravan meets a similar motorcade coming the other way, the passing place only fits three vehicles, and the resultant shunt-back will occupy many a happy hour.
Highland motorists are often willing to pick up hitchhikers who don't look too weird or muddy.
- Castles for the most part are sternly defensive but tumbledown. Great examples are Eilean Donan at Dornie and Urquhart Castle at Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness. Luxury castles (Victorian gin-palaces with twiddly bits to make them look medieval) are Dunrobin Castle at Golspie and Castle of Mey near John o'Groats, plus the Georgian Inveraray. McCaig's Tower above Oban is a Victorian folly.
- Gardens: every west coast promenade is studded with palm trees shivering in the rain to make a point about the balmy Gulf Stream. What grows better is Himalayan species, and you know you're within five miles of a stately mansion when you encounter their escaped rhododendrons, a riot of colour in May. The standout gardens are Inverewe near Gairloch, Arduaine near Oban and Crarae near Inveraray.
- Deserted landscapes: the rural Highland population was once greater, but they left or were driven out. Haunting Glencoe was a 17th-century example, and Auchendrain near Inveraray depicts farmhouse life before the big exodus of the 18th and 19th centuries. On several hillsides you see abandoned villages, and at Helmsdale the reverse: the makeshift village erected by those evicted from their crofts, before they despaired and headed to the lowland cities.
- Prehistoric structures have mostly been obliterated by agriculture, the best are in the Hebrides and Orkneys, but there's a fine collection around Wick. Most common were "Duns" - fortified outcrops, often on the coast. They're scrappy and you mostly come for the sea view.
- Islands involving a ferry ride are described elsewhere as part of the Hebrides, Orkneys or Shetland, but The Summer Isles are an example of an inshore archipelago, reached by boat trip from Achiltibuie. Unique within the UK are the "mainland islands", settlements and drivable lanes that have no road connection to the mainland network. The most populated is Knoydart, reached by ferry from Mallaig or by a very long hike across the moors. Several others such as Applecross were only connected in the late 20th century.
- Long-distance walks include the West Highland Way, 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William, and the Great Glen Way, 73 miles from Fort William to Inverness. The Lairig Ghru is 19 gruelling miles from Speyside to Deeside.
- Mountains, oddly enough, are why this region is called the Highlands. A mountain above 3000 feet / 914.4 m is called a Munro, for the Victorian beard who first catalogued them. There are 282 of these and 226 secondary "tops", and "Munro-bagging" is a popular weekend pastime. A mountain between 2500 and 3000 feet is called a Corbett and there are 222 of these. The principal groups are:
- - Glencoe and Fort William: Ben Nevis the highest in Britain (4413 ft / 1345 m) is ascended from the glen above Fort William. Others include The Mamores, Aonach Eagach and "The three sisters" of Glencoe.
- - Cairngorms, such as Ben Macdhui and Braeriach.
- - Torridonian: around Ullapool in the northwest, with striking sandstone ridges, for instance An Teallach, Slioch, Bein Eigh, Liathach, Beinn Aligin and Bein Bhann aka Applecross.
- - Far north: for instance Ben Hope, Ben Loyal, Foinaven and Ben Stack.
- Take a steam train excursion along the West Highland Line from Fort William to Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Mallaig, or along the Strathspey Railway from Aviemore to Boat of Garten.
- Ski at Glencoe above Braemar, or Cairngorm above Aviemore, or Nevis Range above Fort William.
- Spot dolphins and whales in the Moray Firth: boat trips sail from Inverness.
- In Cairngorms National Park you might spot beaver, reindeer or even a wildcat.
- North Coast 500 is a motoring itinerary of 500-or-so miles from Inverness to the northwest coast, north coast, John o'Groats and return to Inverness.
- Highland Games are held in each town in turn over summer, sometimes combined with agricultural shows.
Even small places have a takeaway chippy or pizzeria, but sit-down eating opportunities are limited away from the towns. Pub grub or the town hotel may be the best bet; their kitchen may take last orders at 8pm or earlier so don't linger.
Vegetarian / vegan and GF choices are much easier to find nowadays.
The towns have traditional pubs, but village stand-alone pubs have withered - try the hotel bar / restaurant.
There are a few breweries and multiple whisky distilleries in the Highlands. Classic whisky country is the Spey Valley.
Small artisan gin distilleries have popped up all over, probably more than the market can sustain, so sample them now while you can.
Accommodation is scanty in relation to the number of visitors: it alternates between being full for summer holidays, and closed for winter. Schools and universities make block bookings at Easter and mid-term break. You might be able to rock up and find a place in shoulder season, but it's always best to book well ahead.
Go next edit
The Scottish islands are the obvious next regions to explore. Each large island is a destination in its own right, and transport routes radiate from the mainland, so don't plan on seeing multiple islands in a single trip.
- The Hebrides lie off the northwest coast, and for a first-time visit pick one of the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides, such as Skye (linked by toll-free road bridge), Mull, Islay or Tiree.
- The Orkney Islands are a low-lying, scenic archipelago ten miles north of the mainland, where the heritage is Norse not Gaelic.
- The Shetland Islands are further north, with treeless haunting scenery, and even stronger Norse heritage.
North East Scotland starts just across the Firth from Edinburgh. Some is industrial but it's dotted with fishing harbours and castles, from the grand to the tumbledown, with charming St Andrews, rejuvenated Dundee, and chief city Aberdeen.
The Central Belt is the lowland urban area to the south: both Edinburgh and Glasgow rank as must-see.