The Highlands of Scotland feel a world away from the rest of the UK. The pure natural beauty is undeniable and the few people who call this corner of the world home, make visitors feel very welcome. Indeed, the welcoming of a stranger is a crucial part of the Highlander’s psyche. There’s so much to see and do that one visit in a lifetime is hardly enough – but if you do make only the one trip, here are the reasons why you definitely shouldn’t change your mind.
Planning a winter escape to the Scottish Highlands? Join our thrilling four-day trip to Glencoe to discover wild landscapes with our Local Insider leading the way.
The natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands is undebatable. From the heather-strewn hills to the craggy peaks and crashing waves of the North Sea, you don’t have to wander far to understand why. No matter the time of the year or temperature, the scenery in the Scottish Highlands is consistently epic.
Those who call the Highlands home continue ancient traditions of hospitality, bringing warmth and welcome that makes guests feel like old friends. Sharing is a natural part of living in the Highlands, whether it is sharing in the scenery around you, the traditional food, laughter, dance, song or whisky – these are all things which keep visitors coming back, keen to feel welcome once more.
The Highlands can be wreathed in mist and low clouds one moment and startlingly clear the next – only to have sharp showers arrive later in the day. Locals often tell you all the seasons come in one day in Scotland and it’s surprisingly fascinating to gaze up at the sky to see how the weather turns. The clouds speak a language of their own here – and if you study them long enough, you’ll quickly start to comprehend what’s coming next: rain, wind, snow or sunshine.
The nation’s spirit, whisky, really is an important part of the culture in the Highlands. The water here is pure and makes the softest of drinks, while the care, attention to detail and sheer craftsmanship of those who produce single malts are legendary. A dram by a fire on a cool autumnal evening, or shared with new friends mid-ceilidh, is something never to be forgotten.
Despite the name, the Highlands could just as easily have been called the coastlands. Due to the ancient glaciers, powerful rivers and relentless seas, the shores here are fractured, long and ever-changing. There are parts where the beaches are gentle and others where the cliffs drop away to a churning ocean below. With thousands of miles of coastline, it’s easy to find your own secluded spot, perhaps shared with otters, seals, orca or dolphins offshore.
In recent years, the capital of the Highlands, Inverness, has undergone something of a renaissance. Gone are the tired and clichéd eateries, replaced by restaurants and cafés which use local and sustainable ingredients, transformed by chefs into wonderful meals. Likewise with the visitor attractions. With brilliant accommodation options – no matter your budget – Inverness is the perfect base from which to explore the Highlands of Scotland.
There isn’t a more suitable name for the Highlands. The looming hills and crags are ever-present, whether you’re following a single-track road weaving between rugged peaks or staying the night in a glen. Be it broad or narrow, the mountains are always near. The Munros are over 3,000ft (914m tall, but they often appear much larger as the land rises swiftly from sea level.
The most famous Loch in the world – allegedly home to the most legendary monster – Loch Ness is only a short distance from Inverness. There are several excellent ways to experience the loch, ranging from walking or cycling along the length of the Great Glen Way or taking a boat trip out to the ruins of Urquhart castle – itself very much worth a visit. The Loch Ness Centre and exhibition answers any questions you may have and, who knows, maybe it will be you who captures proof of Nessie.
A ceilidh is quite possibly the most fun – yet equally exhausting – form of dancing you’ll ever take part in. This folk tradition involves lots of people dancing together, often in set routines which – if you’re a newcomer – can be very tricky to get the hang of. However, whether you like to dance or now, sooner or later the jaunty fiddle or the beat of the drum will pull you to the dance floor to dance a reel, waltz or jig. You might make a few new friends – and you’ll certainly need to keep watch of the experts – but this is a wonderful way to acquaint yourself with Scottish culture.
The Highlands has had a fascinating past, often violent and bloody – as George R.R. Martin learnt, weaving elements of Scottish history into his Song of Ice and Fire – sometimes tragic and haunting, but a past that is deep and interesting on many levels. This was the Roman frontier, the legions tried to come north but failed. The Vikings realised settling was better than pillaging and so many Highlanders today claim Viking descent. In more recent times, the Highland Clearances emptied vast areas of the land, many thousands sailing for Canada, America and other places – mostly against their will.
Traditional ways of life – including gatherings for games – were banned for many years in Scotland in order to try and erode the Highland way of life following the failed 1745 Jacobite uprising. The games themselves were modernised, altered, but ultimately saved by the Victorians. These days, the games are definitely a must-visit. Even though today they have been exported across the globe, the Highland Games need to be experienced in their native glens, where cabers are tossed and burly kilted entrants (heavies) show off their raw strength – with the swirl of the bagpipes echoing across the site.
With all that unspoiled natural beauty, it’s no great surprise that the Highlands of Scotland are home to a diverse array of wildlife. Sign up for a guided tour for the chance to spot golden eagles, pine marten, otter, seals, dolphins, whales, wildcat and – the so-called monarch of the glen – the red deer stag. Many of these birds and animals can be difficult to spot, so it’s always best to let a local lead the way.