Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Immortalized at the fictional home of the Thane of Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cawdor Castle is one of Scotland’s most famous castles. Despite its literary notoriety, Cawdor Castle and Gardens actually have little in common with their fictional counterpart. The castle wasn’t built until the 14th-century - years after both the real and fictional King Macbeth existed. Today, the castle is still home to the descendants of the Clan Campbell of Cawdor and the grade-A listed building remains remarkably preserved, surrounded by immaculate gardens, the Cawdor Big Wood and a 9-hole golf course. Highlights for visitors include the sumptuous Drawing Room, with its fascinating family portraits; the Dining Room, with its grand stone fireplace; the 17th-century-style Tapestry Bedroom; and the Old Kitchen, as well as the fabled Thorn Tree around which the historic castle was built.
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 Fairy Glen (or Faerie Glen) on the Isle of Skye in northern Scotland is a bizarre miniature landscape with grassy, cone-shaped hills, ponds, and moss-covered trees. It is a beautiful natural area to walk through, especially during the summer. Legends dating back to prehistoric times tell tales about the existence of fairies that live in this area. The fairies were once believed to have evil overtones and live in beehive houses deep in the heather in the area called the Fairy Glen.
Some residents of the area still believe in the existence of fairies. However, not everyone agrees on what they wear and how they live. Green seems to be the most widely accepted color of clothing for the fairies, although some accounts from medieval times describe them as wearing gold and silver clothing made of gossamer and silk. The queen of the fairies is described as wearing white linen and pearls in her hair. Visitors are advised not to go to spy on the fairies, and that those who doubt will be ignored.
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.
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.
Founded in 1838, Glen Ord Distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland. Here, at the only remaining malt whisky distillery on the remote Black Isle, it’s possible to go on a behind-the-scenes tour to see and understand the process of making a single malt from start to finish. You’ll get to check out the barley maltings as well as the fermentation and distillation methods, wandering among the barrels and huge copper stills as you go.
As is tradition, at the end of the hour-long tour you’ll get to enjoy a single malt tasting or two. As you sip, you’ll learn how to compare and identify the flavors in whisky. And be sure to make the most of your swig; you won’t be able to buy and enjoy Glen Ord whisky anywhere else in the country, as outside the distillery’s whisky store, the single malt is only sold in Asia.
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).
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Perched on a promontory over the North Sea, Inverness' Fort George is surprisingly little-known outside Scotland, but is in fact the largest military stronghold in the UK. Built to protect the royal troops of King George II, the 18th-century fort is encircled by giant stone ramparts over a half-mile (1 km) in length, and by moat (now dry). Sloping battlements, stone-built Georgian barracks, and a chapel awash with regimental colors lend to the site's rich history. Visitors can step inside the barracks to see recreated scenes from the life of an 18th-century soldier, or visit the nearby dog cemetery, where the regimental mascots are buried. Another highlight of a visit is the Grand Magazine, where hundreds of ancient rifles line the walls.
While at the fort, be sure to take in the spectacular views over the Moray Firth, and don't miss the Highlanders Museum in the former Lieutenant Governors’ House—it's the largest military museum outside Edinburgh and is crammed with historic cannons, weaponry, and ammunition, as well as uniforms and medals. History-buffs can round off a tour of Scottish military history with a stop at nearby Culloden battlefield, which is free to enter with the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass.
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.
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.
As every Scot knows, Bannockburn was where King Robert the Bruce led Scottish forces to victory over a much larger English force led by Edward II in 1314. Moviegoers may remember the decisive battle from the end of the filmBraveheart.
This event, so critical to the development of Scottish national identity, is now marked by an imposing equestrian statue of Robert, from where you can survey the surrounding countryside. There is also a more modern monument at the spot where soldiers camped on the eve of the battle. The Bannockburn Heritage Centre explains the historical importance of this conflict amidst the long, fraught relations between Scotland and the “Sassenachs” to the south.
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.”
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.
Towering over the narrow streets of Kirkwall in all its red sandstone glory, St. Magnus Cathedral is a testament to the Vikings’ ability to create real beauty amid all that pillaging and plundering.
Commissioned by viking Earl Rögnvald in 1137 to honor his saintly uncle, Magnus Erlendsson, it took over 300 years for St. Magnus Cathedral to become the beauty we see today, all Romanesque flourishes and heavy Norman influences.
The only medieval cathedral in Scotland, look out for the hidden dungeon known as Marwick’s Hole, where hundreds of people were imprisoned over the years before being hanged for witchcraft. Today, though, the northern cathedral is much more benign. Come for a Sunday service to listen to the organ being played beautifully, and try to visit the upper tower for 360-degree views of Kirkwall and the sea beyond.
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.
Old Norse for “Stone Headland,” the towering Standing Stones of Stenness are truly giant, some shooting up to 19 feet tall. Recent research suggests that the stones, only four of which remain, could date back to 3300 BC, making them quite possible the oldest standing stones in the British Isles.
Pronounced “Stane-is” in the lilting Orcadian dialect, the standing stones are less than a mile from the younger Ring of Brodgar, both of which are part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site.
On a narrow strip of land between the lochs of Harray and Stenness, the Stone Age function of Stenness is still unknown, but it is thought that the stone circle may have been used in ceremonies to celebrate the relationship between the living and past communities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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