Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Scotland's largest island, the Isle of Skye is a pocket of wilderness jutting off the coast of the West Highlands. The area is a treat for nature lovers, with its dramatic sea cliffs, windswept valleys, and glittering lochs.
While visitors flock to Loch Ness hoping to catch a glimpse of its elusive and eponymous monster, Loch Ness—a lake in the Scottish Highlands—is worth the trip even if you don’t believe the rumors. Vast and surrounded by magnificent Scottish scenery, Loch Ness is a popular boating and sightseeing spot.
A village on the shores of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a popular destination in the Scottish Highlands. Once a garrison in the 18th century, the scenic village today attracts cyclists, hikers, and travelers in search of the Loch Ness monster. It’s also a gateway to the Great Glen Way, a 73-mile trail that runs from Inverness to Fort William.
One of the most photographed sites in Scotland, the Eilean Donan Castle dates back to the 13th century. Built as a defense against the Vikings and used during the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century, this loch-side castle was restored in the 20th century and is now a popular destination for weddings and tours.
Set on the shore of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle (Caisteal na Sròine) attracts many visitors that come here in hopes of glimpsing Nessie, the loch’s fabled aquatic monster. The ruined medieval fortress, which was destroyed in 1762 to prevent it from becoming a Jacobite stronghold, now houses a visitor center that exhibits objects found amid the ruins.
The Culloden Battlefield was the site of one of the last battles to take place on British soil. On April 16, 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army of 5,000 Jacobite Highlanders faced off against the Duke of Cumberland and 9,000 Hanoverian government troops. Though the Jacobites fought valiantly, they were ultimately defeated, resulting in the elimination of the Scottish clan system and the suppression of Highland culture. Today, the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre retells the events of that fateful day through interactive exhibits that put travelers in the thick of the action.
The Clava Cairns—or the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava—are all that remains of what was once a much larger Bronze Age burial complex. Dating back 4,000 years, the evocative cemetery site retains original features, including passage graves, standing stones, and ring cairns (stone circles).
Chugging through the misty lochs and sweeping glens of the Scottish Highlands, the Jacobite Steam Train (or Jacobite Express) is one of Britain's greatest train journeys, taking passengers on a nostalgic train ride between Fort William in the West Highlands and Mallaig on Scotland's west coast. The 84-mile (135-km) round-trip route passes Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest mountain, and the Glenfinnan viaduct, seen in theHarry Potter films when the Jacobite Steam Train was featured as the fictional Hogwarts Express.
Perched atop a hill by the River Ness, this Victorian-era red sandstone castle—built to replace the medieval fortress blown up by the Jacobites in 1746—is one of Inverness’ most prominent historic structures. Access to the castle, now occupied by government offices and law courts, is restricted but the grounds are open to the public.
Dotted with small Scottish towns and with no shortage of scenery, the aptly named “Road to the Isles” is one of Scotland’s most beautiful drives and provides the base for exploring the Small Isles and Skye. Stretching from the base of the UK’s tallest mountain to a port town on the sea, both coastal and mountainous scenery abound. The unspoiled landscapes through the Highlands of Scotland have been the site of many film and television scenes — perhaps most famously in the Harry Potter films.
There are many stops to enjoy along the way, progressing from mountain towns, lochs (or lakes) and glens to isles, inlets, and white sand beaches. Of particular note is Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight lochs with views of the mountain Ben Nevis, and Glenfinnan, home to the historic monument where Bonnie Prince Charlie once raised his Highland army.
More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Rising 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) above sea level, Ben Nevis is Scotland’s tallest mountain and a premiere destination for climbers. Once a massive volcano that exploded and collapsed inward, the summit is frequently shrouded in mist. In Gaelic, it is called the “mountain with its head in the clouds” and also “venomous mountain.”
Bordered by steep, waterfall-threaded mountains, dramatic Glencoe (Glen Coe) is the stuff of Scottish postcards. Though it has historical significance—it was the site of the 1692 Glencoe Massacre of the MacDonald Clan—and its very own ski resort, Glencoe Mountain Resort, the valley’s main draw is its spectacular scenery.
Pleasure boats float along Caledonian Canal, a scenic 60-mile (97-kilometer) waterway that runs through Scotland's Great Glen, connecting Fort William in the southwest to Inverness in the northeast. The canal, which links Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Dochfour, and Loch Ness, is popular with walkers and cyclists, who follow towpath trails.
Dating to 3,000 BC, this Neolithic village predates the Egyptian pyramids. The Skara Brae settlement—hidden underground until a storm uncovered it in 1850—includes Stone Age dwellings complete with stone beds and furniture. A visitor center hosts exhibits including a reconstruction of one of the ancient houses.
With its expanse of heather-speckled moors, peat bogs and mist-veiled lochs, Rannoch Moor offers an enchanting introduction to the wild scenery of the Scottish Highlands. Vast, remote and uninhabitable, the moors stretch over 12,800 hectares (128 sq.km) between Glencoe and Loch Rannoch, and have long been a favorite spot for hikers and photographers looking to escape the beaten track.
The easiest way to take in the dramatic scenery of Rannoch Moor is with a ride on the West Highland Railway, a historic route that runs through a 23-mile stretch of the moors. Alternatively a number of hiking, cycling and 4WD trails offer the chance to discover the rugged moorlands and the surrounding mountains, as well as spot native wildlife like Red and Roe deer, red squirrel, Golden Eagle and even the elusive Scottish Wildcat.
Explore Orkney’s Neolithic heritage at the Standing Stones of Stenness. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Heart of Neolithic Orkney, only four massive megaliths remain of the original 12. With a history that potentially dates back 5,000 years, these might be the oldest stone circles on the British Isles.
With its imposing pink sandstone turrets presiding over the River Ness, Inverness Cathedral (St. Andrew's Cathedral or, less commonly, the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew) is one of the most striking of the city’s many churches. The 19th-century Gothic-style structure is conspicuously spire-free. Though architect Alexander Ross put them in his original design, they had to be scrapped due to lack of funds.
At a remote spot in the Cairngorms National Park, Dalwhinnie is one of the most famous names in Scotland’s lucrative whisky business. Thanks to the purity of local snow-fed water and its proximity to a former drover’s road crossing the Highlands, Dalwhinnie Distillery has been producing whiskies in its signature white-washed facility with its matching pair of pagodas since 1897. The distillery is best known for its smooth, heathery, 15-year-old malt and its traditional production methods, which include barley harvested in Scotland. The “Uisghe Beatha,” or “water of life” is then mixed in copper stills, condensed in traditional wooden worm tubs and aged in oak casks.
Dalwhinnie Distillery is often visited on whisky tours that include visits and tastings at a number of distilleries in central Scotland and the Scottish Highlands. Travelers may tour the facility to see the distillers at work, learn about Dalwhinnie’s whisky traditions, sample classic single malts and opt for gourmet chocolate pairings.
Running from coast to coast through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, there are few better introductions to Scotland’s wild north than the Great Glen Way. One of Scotland’s 26 Great Trails, the long distance hiking route runs for 79 miles (117km) from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east.
The scenic trail takes around 5-6 days to complete and is suitable for all abilities, with the well-marked route following mostly towpaths and flat woodland trails, tracing the route of the Caledonian Canal. Highlights along the way include Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak, which overlooks the start of the trail; the Meall Fuar-mhonaidh hill walk, an optional detour offering spectacular views; and Loch Ness, the fabled home of the Loch Ness Monster. Alternatively, the Great Glen Way can also be tackled by bike, boat or even kayak.
Founded in 1838, Glen Ord is the only remaining single malt whisky distillery on the Scottish Highlands’ Black Isle peninsula. Visitors can go on a behind-the-scenes tour to see and understand the process of making a single malt from start to finish; you’ll check out the barley maltings as well as fermentation and distillation methods.
Cawdor Castle is immortalized in literary history as the fictional home of the Thane of Cawdor in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Highland castle, however, has little in common with its fictional counterpart as it wasn't built until the 14th-century, 300 years after the reign of both the real and fictional King Macbeth.
Overlooking Loch Roag and the hills of Great Bernera, the Callanish Standing Stones—also known as the Calanais Standing Stones—comprise 13 large stones set around a Celtic cross–shaped monolith, with some 40 smaller stones radiating out from the center. Built between 3,800 and 5,000 years ago, this stone circle was erected at around the same time as the pyramids of Egypt.
Made famous in the final scene of the classic film Braveheart, the Battle of Bannockburn was where King Robert the Bruce led the greatly outnumbered Scottish forces to victory over the English in 1314. To this day, the victory is hugely celebrated in Scottish history and the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is one of the most popular tourist destinations in central Scotland.
Standing proud against the fearsome storms that ravage the north coast of Lewis is the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Designed by Scottish lighthouse engineer David Stevenson in the 1860s, the watchtower wasn’t automated until 1998, making it one of the last in the British Isles to lose its lighthouse keeper.
While you can no longer go inside, there are information plaques outside, and it’s interesting just to see the lighthouse in all its exposed red-brick glory instead of the usual white.
A birdwatcher’s paradise, look out for buzzards, gulls and the occasional puffin soaring around the cliffs. Also, take a close look at the crags being buffeted by the North Sea, some of the oldest exposed rock in Europe, created up to 300 million years ago back in the Cambrian period. While you’re here, follow the coast southwest past the lighthouse. You’ll soon see a natural sea cave, known as the Eye of the Butt.
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