The Scottish Highlands are defined by unspoilt nature, dramatic rugged mountains, whisky and romantic reminders of Scottish culture. Here are the best things to do and beautiful places to visit in the Scottish Highland.
One of the last great wildernesses of Europe, the Scottish Highlands is a mix of epic landscapes and romantic history. Covering the entire northern half of Scotland, great glens and mighty sea lochs carve through wild hillsides and craggy mountains.
Dotted amongst this rugged terrain are the symbols of Scottish history. Castles and abbeys on grand promontories nod to colourful villages that light up grey days. Descendants of local clansmen while away the hours, adorned in their tartan, sipping a dram of whisky in a cosy pub.
It’s one of the best places in the UK to conjure up a sense of the dramatic and rugged old-world charm that the country does so well.
Here’s our guide to visiting the Scottish Highlands including our favourite things to do, the most scenic locations and suggested tours.
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IN THIS GUIDE
GUIDE TO THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
1 – ISLE OF SKYE
With strange and intriguing scenery, the Isle of Skye is a stunningly beautiful place. At the southern end, a seething mass of razor-sharp black pinnacles separated by narrow ridges forms the Black Cuillins, the most inhospitable mountain range in the country.
To the north, a giant landslip has created an entire peninsula of geological shapes and bizarre landscapes. The highlights are the Old Man of Storr (a 160ft rocky pinnacle), the Quiraing (deeply cut cliffs and waves of rock marching towards the sea) and Kilt Rock (a waterfall flowing over basalt columns).
There’s a whole host of things to do on the Isle of Skye and it’s an unmissable addition to a Scottish Highlands visit.
2 – HIGHLAND CASTLES
The Scottish Highlands are blessed with many wonderful castles, here are a few you shouldn’t miss.
- Dunrobin Castle – Dunrobin Castle is the largest in Scotland with 189 rooms connected by a maze of corridors and capped with fairy tale turrets.
- Eilean Donan Castle – Eilean Donan is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. Located on a small tidal island, the rustic building is surrounded by rugged mountains.
- Castle Tioram – In a remote and wild location, Castle Tioram is a crumbling ruin that can only be reached on a windy single-lane track.
- Kilchurn Castle – Jutting out on a promontory into Loch Awe, Kilchurn Castle stands imperiously against heather-strewn slopes. On a still day, its reflection shimmers in the water.
3 – GLENCOE
The Scottish Highlands are rich in magnificent-looking mountains and deep valleys, but nowhere does it come together more dramatically than Glencoe. The A82 road connects one end to the other in just 20 minutes, but you could spend a whole day taking in the sights and hiking the trails.
The highlights include the Three Sisters Viewpoint in front of Bidean Nam Bam, hiking up to the Hidden Valley, admiring the reflections in Glencoe Lochan and driving down James Bond Skyfall Road.
For a well-deserved pint after a day of exploring, the Clachaig Inn is an olde world hikers’ pub packed with atmosphere and the newly refurbished Kingshouse has massive windows overlooking one of the Scottish Highland’s most photographed mountains – Buachaille Etive Mor.
4 – SCOTTISH HIGHLAND WHISKY
The characteristics of the Scottish Highlands range from rugged mountains to fortress castles, from hearty meals of haggis to tartan-dressed clansmen. But nothing defines the highlands more than whisky (spelt without the ‘e’ in Scotland).
The story of Scottish Whisky (or Scotch) begins in the 15th century when illicit distilleries were an underground operation designed to avoid tax.
Today there are 47 distilleries spread across the Scottish Highlands almost all offering tours and tastings.
- Glenturret // The oldest whisky in Scotland, Glenturret has been crafting single malt whisky since 1763. They have several different tours from £10 pp to £100 pp.
- Dalwhinnie Distillery // The unique highland location of Dalwhinnie, the highest and coldest working distillery in Scotland, produces some of the finest single malts.
- Badachro Distillery // This garage-sized distillery in the owner’s backyard does small-batch, handcrafted whisky and gin using local botanicals and artisanal produce.
- Talisker // The oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker has a brand new tasting room to try their full-bodied single malt.
5 – INVERARY
The whitewashed county town of Inverary rests gracefully on the edge of Loch Fyne.
The high street is a sweep of wonderful Georgian architecture packed with eclectic shops, galleries and cute cafes. Pop in for the latest in woolly fashions, a bottle from Loch Fyne Whiskies, or buttery shortbread from the local bakery.
Hidden amongst the trees and surrounded by formal gardens, Inveraray Castle is the fairy-tale home of the Duke and Duchess of Argyle. Inveraray Jail, one of the best-preserved jail and courtroom complexes in the country, is now a museum complete with costumed characters.
The War Memorial is a great spot to take in the views of Loch Fyne and don’t miss the Loch Fyne Oyster House at the end of the lake.
6 – JACOBITE STEAM TRAIN
One of the great railway journeys in the world, the Jacobite Steam Train runs for 84 miles through some of the most dramatic scenery in the Scottish Highlands. Starting near Ben Nevis it chugs over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, sweeps past the silvery beaches of Morar and ends at the deepest seawater loch in Europe.
Taking 2 hours each way, it’s not just the views that bewitch but the train itself. The carriages range from standard through to first class where traditional reading lamps light up classically upholstered chairs. Trains run twice a day through the summer months and it’s worth booking well in advance.
To catch the iconic shot of the steam train over the bridge, head to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. There’s a viewpoint up a small hill in front of the bridge.
7 – BEN NEVIS
Rising imperiously above the Scottish Highlands to a height of 4,411 feet (1,345 metres), Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK. A desire to get to the pinnacle of the country attracts 100,000 hikers a year.
The easiest way up (but not very easy!) is using the Mountain Track – sometimes called the Tourist Track or Pony Track. Zigzagging up a massive shoulder, it’s a long hard slog.
For a more challenging route, the CMD Arête is a grade 1 scramble (no climbing equipment required) along a narrow ridge on the eastern side of the summit. You’ll need a head for heights but it’s a wonderful hike with views of the north face right in front of you.
If hiking to the summit is not your thing, then there are wonderful views of Ben Nevis from just north of Fort William. Alternatively, take the shorter walk to the Steall Waterfall and watch it slowly appear behind you.
8 – NORTH COAST 500
One of the best things to do in the Scottish Highlands is to drive the North Coast 500 (NC500).
Making a circular loop around the northern end of the Highlands, it is just over 500 miles long, and clever branding has seen drivers and cyclists flock to the route.
It starts and ends in Inverness, and for the most part, twists and turns along windy roads near the coast. Most people take about a week to drive the entire route, but it’s possible to pick off our two favourite sections (the Drumbeg Road in Assynt and the Bealach na Bá near Applecross) in one or two days.
9 – PLOCKTON VILLAGE
Quite possibly the most beautiful village to visit in Scotland, Plockton sits on the edge of a sheltered bay in Loch Carron.
Often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the Highlands’, a string of attractive stone houses line the harbour front. Breath-taking landscapes of coral beaches, tiny islands, and castled hills stretch into the distance.
The harbour is often packed with visiting yachts, locals taking tourists out to sea the seals, and adventurers heading out on kayaks. End the day in one of the atmospheric pubs or try the fresh fish on the seafront.
10 – SCOTTISH HIGHLAND CATTLE
Highland Cattle have become one of the iconic images of the Scottish Highlands.
These shaggy beasts with their long pointy horns and low-hanging fringes are a hardy breed, able to withstand the rough weather that Scotland throws at them.
They are scattered all around the Scottish Highlands and you would be very unlucky not to see them. However, your chances are particularly good near Bealach na Bá on the NC500, in Duirinish near Plockton Village and between Portree and Broadford on the Isle of Skye.
11 – IONA ABBEY
Iona Abbey is one of the oldest Christian religious centres in Western Europe. It began in 563 CE when Saint Columba travelled to Iona from Ireland and founded a monastery to create ‘an image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem’. The Columban religious community survived for centuries until eventually succumbing to Viking raiders.
Around 1200 CE a Benedictine order were invited to Iona to establish a new community and Iona Abbey was constructed. A nunnery and other buildings were added, and monastic life lasted until the Protestant Reformation of 1560.
Wandering along the country lanes and old religious buildings is to be dragged back to another time. It is one of the most moving things to do in the Scottish Highlands.
12 – FINGAL’S CAVE
The wonderfully weird Fingal’s Cave is cut deep into the Isle of Staffa. The entrance is formed by hexagonally jointed basalt columns (like those you can find at Stuðlagil Canyon in Iceland). These great pillars of black rock stand in stark contrast to the wild waters that surge below them.
The only way to get here is by boat, but the journey is half the fun. Dolphins, porpoises, puffins and a wealth of birdlife can be spotted on route. On stiller days you can disembark on the island, walk into the cave and try out the echoing acoustics. On rougher days the boat ride is a wild adventure.
Staffa Tours runs trips regularly from the Isle of Iona or Fionnphort and take about 3 hours. They also organise wildlife trips to see puffins, eagles, basking sharks, seals & whales from Tobermory or Oban.
13 – ASSYNT
High up in the north-western corner of the Scottish Highlands is an area known as Assynt. Rarely visited and quite remote it is blessed with amazing landscapes. ‘Island mountains’ rise out of a crinkly fern-covered carpet of hillocks and lakes.
The coast around Assynt is equally blessed. Powdery white sand beaches provide the vantage point for whale and dolphin watching, along with stunning views over island-strewn lochs marching out to sea.
Two picturesque fishing towns, Ullapool and Lochinver, have good accommodation, excellent seafood restaurants and bags of charm.
It’s a wonderful off-beat destination and one of the most unique places to visit in the UK.
14 – SCOTTISH HIGHLAND BEACHES
It may be wet and cold for much of the year, but when the sun shines and the wind drops, the Scottish Highlands have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Powder soft white sands are lapped by turquoise waters and backed by craggy rocks. Take a stroll along a picturesque stretch of beach, kayak in a protected cove, or if you’re particularly brave, go for a swim.
There are plenty of excellent beaches to visit along the west coast but here are a few of our favourites:
- Sandwood Bay near Kinlochbervie
- Clachtoll & Achmelvich beaches on Assynt
- Luskentyre & Scarista beaches on Isle of Harris
- Camusdarach Beach & the Silver Sands of Morar
- Knockvologan on the Isle of Mull
15 – LOCH NESS & INVERNESS
Reports of the Loch Ness monster (or Nessie) date back to 565 CE and periodic sightings have been recorded ever since. Marmaduke Wetherell, the actor/game hunter, discovered sea serpent-like prints along the shore. The Natural History Museum were asked to investigate, and determined the tracks were made by an umbrella stand or ashtray.
Today there is a good deal more to see than the Loch Ness monster. Take a day trip including Loch Ness & Glencoe or soak up the scenery on a boat tour to Urquhart Castle, an atmospheric ruin set above the lake with grand views of the hills around.
The capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness, is nearby and a worthy stop on any Scottish Highland itinerary.
SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS TOURS
Tours into the Scottish Highlands depart from Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow, making it easy to visit without your own transport. Here are some options –
SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS MAP
The Scottish Highlands is the mountainous region in the northwest of Scotland. Loch Ness is in the centre with Inverness to the north and Glencoe in the south.
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