Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
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.
As huge as Loch Ness is, its vast size is not the reason for its global fame, nor is it the magnificent surrounding scenery. The real reason visitors flock to this Scottish body of water is to spot the elusive Loch Ness Monster. Rumors about Nessie have flown since an Irish monk first caught sight of something unusual swimming around the lake’s inky waters back in the seventh century. Today. travelers still cruise around the loch in hopes of catching sight of the mysterious aquatic monster.
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.
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.
Among the tall green grass and purple heather between Loch Harray and Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones thrust from the earth like rusting giants’ swords.
At 340 feet (104 meters) in diameter, 27 of the original 60 stones survive, making this the third-biggest stone circle in Britain. Thought to have been built around 2000-2500 BC, this was one of the last of such monuments to be built in neolithic Orkney. Excavations of the site have revealed lots of pottery and animal bones, so it seems like cooking and eating around the still visible hearth was the order of the day here 5,000 years ago.
Famous for its perfectly circular shape, the beauty of the Ring of Brodgar is that, unlike Stonehenge, you can get right up to the stones. As you wander, look out for Viking graffiti on some of the stones: 12th-century runic carvings from the Norse invaders can be seen on quite a few. Just a few hundred meters away, you can also visit the neolithic Barnhouse settlement, discovered in 1984.
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.”
When 550 Italian soldiers were captured in the scorching North African desert back in 1942, it must have caused them quite a shock to be sent in winter to the Scottish isle of Orkne. The POWs were sent here in order to build the “Churchill Barriers,” a series of causeways that would protect the British Grand Fleet in the Scapa Flow harbor. By 1943, the homesick workers requested a chapel where they could worship. What did they get? Two Nissen huts, which they were told to join end-to-end and labor over outside work hours.
What happened next is a beautiful symbol of peace, faith and the power of human ingenuity even in wartime. Local Orkney artists provided brushes and poster paints to decorate the huts; bully beef tins were converted into makeshift candle holders; wood scavenged from shipwrecks was used to create furniture; a car exhaust was covered in concrete to create a Baptismal font. Slowly but surely, those two steel sheds became the Roman Catholic chapel of the Italians’ dreams.
The main man behind the chapel’s decoration was POW Domenico Chiocchetti, who painted a false frontage so that it really looked like the Roman Catholic churches of home. He was so dedicated to the project that when everyone was sent home in 1944, he stayed on to finish the project.
In 1960, Chiocchetti returned to Orkney from his home in Moena, Italy, to assist with a restoration projection of the chapel. When he left three weeks later, he wrote a letter to the people of Orkney: "The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.”
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.
Separated from the northern tip of mainland Scotland by the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth strait, the Orkney Islands are an archaeological wonderland. Comprised of about 20 inhabited islands and many more uninhabited ones, Orkney is littered with prehistoric ruins and Viking remnants. The islands’ interiors, a patchwork of heather-clad moors and fertile grasslands, are encircled by superb sandy beaches and sheer coastal cliffs.
Complete with turrets and battlements, this Gothic Revival-style castle is revered for its storybook good looks. Inveraray Castle has been the seat of the Clan Campbell since the 15th century and has more recently served as a filming location for Downton Abbey. The castle houses collections of weapons and art, and is surrounded by manicured gardens.
More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Orkney Islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean, Scapa Flow is one of the great natural harbors of the world. Used since Viking times, Scapa Flow saw its fair share of bloodshed in WWI and WWII, when the harbor served as the naval base for the British Grand Fleet.
You can learn more about the naval history of these sheltered waters at the Scapa Flow Information Centre and Museum on the isle of Hoy. In this converted naval pumphouse, you’ll learn more about the Royal Oak disaster, when a German U-boat torpedoed HMS Royal Oak in 1939, killing over 800 men. You can also see wartime photo collections and read the personal stories and sailors’ letters home, making for a touching visit.
Dotted around the island are many bunkers and emplacements as well as Lyness cemetery, which is covered in thousands of graves, many simply reading “Unknown Soldier.”
While looking out at the quiet waters, try to imagine this spot as the scene of the “Grand Scuttle.” This was on June 21, 1919, when more than 50 German warships were sunk at the orders of their own Rear Admiral so that the boats wouldn’t be captured by the British in the post-WWI peacetime negotiations.
On a tiny peninsula at the northern tip of Loch Awe surrounded by glens, Kilchurn Castle is one of the most photographed spots in Scotland. The castle of 1,000 calendar covers, Kilchurn has had many lives: it served as the powerhouse of the Campbell clan from the year 1440 and was even later used as barracks able to house up to 200 troops during the Jacobite Risings. In the 1750s, however, a huge fire caused by lightning ran right through the castle, and its ruins have been abandoned ever since.
Kilchurn is for anyone who has ever dreamed of having a ruined Scottish castle all to themselves, with no tourist trinket shops around. There isn’t even an attendant at the door of this picturesque ruin, but despite being unmanned, there are plenty of information boards throughout the castle. Climb to the top of its four-story tower for views of the loch and surrounding hills, and remember to say hi to the sheep on your way out!
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).
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is a chambered tomb in northern Scotland that is more than 5,000 years old. It is considered to be the finest Neolithic building in northwest Europe due to its design, stonework construction, and use of massive individual stones. At first Maeshowe appears to be just a large grassy mound, but visitors can enter from a single door. A 33 foot long stone passageway leads into a small stone chamber in the center. The chamber is only about 15 feet across. Three side rooms made of single slabs of stone are attached to the main chamber. The entire structure was designed so that light would shine down the passageway at sunset every day from three weeks before to three weeks after the shortest day of the year.
At least 3,000 years after Maeshowe was closed up, Norsemen broke into the chamber. They left behind light-hearted runic graffiti all over the walls. It is the largest collection of runic inscriptions outside Scandinavia and serves as a reminder that Orkney was under Norwegian rule until 1468.
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.
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