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Informational, Places to visit, Things To Do
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18 October 2021
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Kim Pierce

The Ultimate Guide to the Scottish Highlands

What is considered the Highlands in Scotland?

Covering a huge 10,000 sq miles in Northern Scotland, the Highlands is not only the biggest region but also the most legendary with the tales of the Loch Ness monster and the home of the Highland Games.

Where are Scotland’s Highlands?

The Highlands refers to the north-west area of Scotland, stretching from Fort William, up to the coast by Skye. The Highland Boundary Fault which separates the Highlands from the Lowlands runs across Scotlands from Arran and Helensburgh on the west coast to Stonehaven in the east.

Loch Fleet in the Scottish Highlands – Image by @SteveAllenPhoto via Twenty20

Fun facts

  • There are 3 languages spoken here, Scots, Gaelic and English.
  • Loch Ness holds more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.
  • The Highlands holds the UK’s highest mountains which can reach up to 1300 m!
  • Population of approximately 234,000 people living in the Highlands.

What are the Scottish Highlands famous for?

Highlands Games – Usually a one day event, the Highland Games showcases traditional Scottish sports, music, dancing and more. Sports include caber toss which involves flipping a log weighing up to 11 stone, tug o’ war and the hammer throw and you’ll also see solo and group Highland Dancing competitions which draw in competitors from around the world.

Loch Ness Monster – By far Scotlands most famous legends, the Loch Ness monster or Nessie as she is otherwise referred to is believed to live in the great Loch Ness, one of the largest and deepest areas of water in the UK with a depth of over 800 ft. With over 1,000 eye witness accounts and lots of unexplained happening in the lake, there are many who believe she exists.

Eilean Donan Castle – Staring in films such as James Bond – The Wold is Not Enough, Highlander ad Entrapment this beautiful 13th century castle surrounded by three lochs within an incredible scenic location is one of the iconic images of Scotland which can be recognised around the world.

The Jacobite Train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct – Voted ‘Travellers’ Choice’ by Tripadvior in 2020 and described as the greatest railway journey in the world, this 84 mile round trip runs from Fort William to Mallaig. Many people will also recognise it as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movie’s.

The Jacobite Train Crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct – Image by Jack Anstey Via Unsplash

What are the areas of the Highlands?

Wester Ross, Skye & Lochalsh – Known for its stunning scenery of rugged coastline and huge population of red deer, this area forms the western half of the county of Ross and Cromarty. On the banks of Loch Broom, just 59 miles from Inverness is Ullapool which is the largest town in Wester Ross and a great place to stop on your way around the North Coast 500. With a culture which dates back to the Neolithic ages and is one of the last populated places in Europe.

Towns include: Ullapool, Aultbea, Poolewe, Gairloch, Torridon, Shieldaig, Applecross, Strathcarron and Achnasheen

Northern Highlands – Covering the north coast of Scotland, this area has soaring sea stacks, beautiful coastal sea birds and beautiful headlands jutting into the wild seas. in Caithness there’s the famous John O’Groats signpost, the start or finish to many cycle, run and walk challenges to Lands End in the South-West tip of Britain. Sutherland makes up the majority of the famous North Coast 500 touring route with award winning golf courses, beautiful castles and quaint harbours to visit along the way.

Argyll & The Isles – Found on the west coast of the Highlands, with 23 uninhabited islands which all offer their own unique character and beautiful beaches as well as the stunning mainland vistas, this is the perfect area of the Highlands to escape to for the nature lover who wants to be absorb into nature. Argyll & The Isles are some of the best places to see Scotlands iconic wildlife with red deer, otters, seals, puffins and golden eagles to be seen.

Cairngorms National Park and Moray – The UK’s largest National Park, the Cairngorms National Park is home to wild high mountains, heather moorlands and peatlands, one-quarter of Scotlands native forests, farms and wetlands. It’s a haven for the outdoor nature lover with it’s numerous bike and walking trails, scenic spots and outdoor activities.

On the flip side, Moray Speyside is home to more than half of the Scotland whiskey distilleries! So once you’re done in the great outdoors, treat yourself to brands such as Baxters and Johnstons of Elgin.

Inverness, The Black Isle and Easter Ross – This area, also referred to as the Central Highlands incorporates Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands, close to Loch Ness as well as the starting and finishing points to the North Coast 500. Visit Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, explore Culloden Battlefield and learn all about the Highlands history at the 5* Highlanders Museum with over 50,000 artefacts.

The Black Isle and Easter Ross is made up of 2 large peninsulas, the majority of which is farmland areas. Head to Chanonry Point for one of the best dolphin watching spots in Scotland or visit the Rogie Falls where you can take a walk, brave the suspension bridge and picnic with the family.

Fort William & Lochaber – Referred to as “The Outdoor Capital of the UK”, the area also has the tallest and most famous mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis. Drive the ‘Road to the Isles’ to be taken into a world of waterfalls, lochs and beaches or take a trip into the make believe and visit the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter movies.

Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, Inverness – Image by @Robincanfield via Twenty20

Top 5 things to do in the Scottish Highlands

1) Loch Ness – Just outside of Inverness, the world renowned Loch Ness holds more water then all of the lakes in Wales and England together! Although most people come with hopes of spotting the Loch Ness monster, there is plenty else to do including boat tours, the Loch Ness 360 Trail, the South Loch Ness Trail, tours and historic sites such as Urquhart Castle to explore.

2) Culloden Battlefield – Visit one of the Highlands most important historical battle sites where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to an end and a brutal battle was fought against the Duke of Cumberlands government troops. Visit the museum, stand on the battlefields and if you have Scottish descendants, you may even be able to find out which clan your family are from.

3) North West Highlands Geopark – A UNESCO Global Geopark and recognised as one fo the most outstanding landscapes on the planet, the North West Highlands Geopark is full of unique landscapes, some of the oldest rocks in Western Europe as well as some of the oldest fossils in the world and remote, wild lands to explore for the outdoor adventurer.

4) Snowroad Scenic Route – 90 miles of stunning roads which take you through valleys, glens and into the heartlands of the Cairngorms National Park, an absolute must to tick off your road tripping to do list! The route begins in Blairgowrie, in the County of Perth and Kinross and ends in Grantown-on-Spey in Morayshire.

5) The Tomintoul & Glenlivet Cairngorms Dark Sky Park – Awarded the status of ‘International Dark Sky Park’ with its extremely low levels of light pollution, the Cairngorms is one of the best star gazing points in the world whether your a beginner or professional astronomer. It’s also the most northerly ‘Sky Parks’ in the world.

Dark Sky Park – Image by @Danrsbaker via Twenty20

Popular destinations in the Highlands

Inverness – The self proclaimed capital of the Highlands Inverness is the pick up and drop off location for the Highland Overland trucks but is worth a night or two’s stay to explore this vibrant city. With Loch Ness, Inverness Castle, St Andrews Cathedral and highlights of the culture within the restaurants, pubs and music scene, you’ll get the feel of the highlands all in one spot.

Fort William – Found in Lochaber in the West Highlands and a popular spot for the outdoor adventurer, with its sandy beaches, wild landscapes as well as Britains highest mountain, Ben Nevis. For the snow lovers, 2 out of 5 of Scotland’s Ski resorts are found here and in the summer Lochaber is a meta for mountain bikers and cyclists.

Isle of Skye – Connected to Scotlands northwest by a bridge, the island at 50 miles is the largest of the Inner Hebrides and is full of historic discoveries and events, stunning scenery and wildlife watching with its white tailed sea eagles, otters, seals, whales, dolphins and red deer.

Cairngorms National Park – The UK’s larges National Park with everything from wildlife watching to distilleries and family fun activities as well as voted “One of the Top 20 Places to Visit in the World” by National Geographic Traveller magazine. Visitors have endless forest paths, mountains, rivers, lochs and waterfalls to explore in the day and then by night you can sit back and watch the magic as you become blanketed by a sky of stars as you look up at one of the most northerly Dark Sky Parks in the world and the darkest in the UK.

Unique Experiences in the Highlands

  • Scottish Traditional Music – A bagpiper is one of the most iconic sites of Scotland and music is interwoven in the Scottish culture. You may well come across pipers on the streets, you’ll find bagpipers at the Highland games and during festivities throughout the year. You can’t leave the Highlands without having heard a folk song played on a fiddle, pipe, accordion or clarsach.
  • Highland games – There are a few Highland Games events throughout the summer each year, held in beautiful locations around the Highlands and each has its unique characteristics and traditions. Enjoy local music, dancing and sporting spectacles such as the caber toss, tug o’war and the hammer throw.
  • Shinty – At first this Scottish game looks similar to hockey, however quickly, as the balls gets tossed up into the air you’ll see it’s differences. With 12 players per team, the idea is to hit the ball along the ground or through the air with either side of the curved stick until you score a goal in the net. Believed to have started in the 17th century between Scottish Highland clans.
Bagpipe Parade – Image by @breezyjohnson via Twenty20

Some of our favourite walks in the Highlands of Scotland

  • Dornoch Point, North Highlands – 4 mile coastal hike along beaches and dunes which takes around 2 hours, with great opportunities to spot sea birds and seals.
  • Singing Sands, Near Kentra, Ardnamurchan, Lochaber – A 6 mile walk along coastal tracks and then through forestry plantations, this easy walk takes around 3 hours depending on your ability.
  • Wildcat Trail, Newtonmore , Badenoch, Cairngorms National Park – This walk takes you along 6.5 miles trail along the banks of River Spey, River Calder and the All Laraidh waterfall before crossing moorland and woodlands.
  • Dun Scaith Castle, Tokavaig, Isle of Skye – A short 40 minute walk to enjoy the dramatic views of Dun Scaith Castle.
  • Dunnet Bay, Caithness, North Highlands – Enjoy 3 miles of sand backed dunes, a great walk for the avid bird watcher.
  • Knockfarrel from Strathpeffer, near Inverness – An easy to follow 2 hours walk following the flanks of the hills overlooking Strathpeffer before climbing the ridge to a vitrified fort with beautiful views.
  • Culbin Forrest, Moray Speyside – Explore Culbin Forest and the views across Moray Firth with this 3.75 mile hike which is suitable for all terrain baby buggies so the whole family can enjoy.
Walking Quiraing on the Isle of Skye – Image by @J.G.Marshal via Twenty20

Roadtrips in the Scottish Highlands

  • The North Coast 500 – 516 miles of mostly coastal route, taking you around the northern end of Scotland and most uninhabited areas of Scotland, where you can get away from life’s everyday distractions and immerse yourself in the wild highlands.
  • North East 250 – A 250 mile circular route takes you through Aberdeenshire and Moray Speyside with the perfect mix of coastal and inland roads, with all the highlights that Scotland has to offer including whiskey distilleries and outdoor adventures in the Cairngorms National Park.
  • Snow Roads Scenic Route – Just a 90 mile roadtrip taking you from the market town of Blairgowrie to the town of Grantown-on-Spey, through some of the most stunning landscapes in the Cairngorms and in Scotland.
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