One of the most sparsely populated places in Europe, the Highlands are often considered the soul and song of ancient Scotland. It was the home of traditional Gaelic speakers, and it is the place where magic still feels real. The social unit of the Highlands was, and still is to some extent, the clans. In the 19th century, wearing tartans became a craze and England’s interest in the Highlands grew. That was capped by the purchase of Balmoral by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
You’ll likely visit Inverness, gateway to the Highlands. Then you may take in Loch Ness, fabulous distilleries, the Culloden Battlefield, Ben Nevis, and Fort William. After you experience the highlights, consider traveling to a few places that are somewhat off the radar. Listed below are a few ideas to fuel your imagination.
In Gaelic the name is ‘Àird nam Murchan’ or ‘headland of the great seas’, and it is the most western point of the mainland. The north coast is rocky and bound to the east and west by beaches. The southern border rims the shoreline of Loch Sunart, which is the Highlands longest sea loch. Ardnamurchan is so intensely atmospheric that it is designated as a National Scenic Area. Explore the Singing Sands at Gortenfern and discover Ardtoe’s secluded coves and beaches.
As an extra bonus, you’ll find the Ardnamurchan Distillery halfway along the peninsula in the sweet village of Glenbeg. One of the most remote distilleries in Scotland, they produce a fine small-batch, single malt whisky with water from the Glenmore River and fresh springs above the distillery. The town of Acharacle is famed for its wild hair musicians, while Glenmore has a Natural History Center. Watch for deer munching on its roof.
Torridon is a small village in the northwest part of the Highlands. 80 miles west of Inverness, this is home to deep sea lochs and the most dramatic mountain scenery in Scotland. The finest of these, many believe, is Liathach. It is a gigantic mound of red sandstone that is capped with white quartzite that mountaineers aspire to climb. From below, the views of it silhouetted against firs, water, and sky are breathtaking. After you’ve explored, head to a local café and warm up.
Photo: © nts.org.uk
These gardens were nurtured into being by Osgood Mackenzie, starting in 1862, on his three square miles of land on the Atlantic coast. This heritage garden consumed him, becoming his life’s work. Rare species not only survive here, they thrive. The effect of the Gulf Stream meeting the Scottish Highlands is astonishing. Exotic trees, shrubs, and flowering plants from around the world grow riotously. Inverewe is one of Scotland’s finest botanical gardens. You’ll also find red squirrels, otters, seals, gold eagles, and red deer. If you like, take the wildlife boat trip around the shore of the peninsula. Strangely, there are several California redwoods that reach up to the sky. At Inverewe, expected the unexpected.
The Mustard Seed Restaurant
Photo: © mustardseedrestaurant.co.uk
Winner of the “Best Everyday Dining Traveler’s Choice Award,” The Mustard Seed is one of Inverness’s gems. Its charming atmosphere pairs perfectly with glorious comfort food. Located on the beautiful banks of the River Ness, the restaurant is housed in a converted church. It has a double-high ceiling and a huge open fire. The top floor is ideal for dining outdoors on the terrace with stellar river views. If you’re in the Highlands, you’ll want to spend time in Inverness. Put the Mustard Seed on your must-do list!
Loch Morar rivals Loch Ness, but it has considerably fewer visitors. At 1,000 feet, it is Scotland’s deepest loch, and it is 12 miles long; enjoy fabulous fishing and wildlife spotting. (Like Ness, it too has a legendary monster, Morag.) Nearby are stunning beaches, the White Sands of Morar. Stroll from the loch to the Bay of Tarbet. You can combine your walk with a boat trip for idyllic scenery. Follow the River Morar, Britain’s shortest river at 1,000 yards long, from the beach to the bay, and you can ply the waters on a ferry to Mallaig.
Ullapool is a charming village whose street names are in Gaelic. This is the perfect place to catch a ferry, get on a day-trip boat and head to lost-in-time western islands, or stop at the local museum for tall tales and local artifacts. If you have a car, many believe the drive from Ullapool to Kylesku has the most beautiful scenery in Scotland… which is really saying a lot. There are several historic pubs and restaurants in town that are filled with good chat, delicious meals, and sometimes rocking music!
Called “The Jewel of the Highlands,” Plockton is a picture-perfect Highland village situated on a sheltered bay with coral beaches. Life here is closely tied with the sea, and it has thrived on fishing and crofting. Today, in the summer months, yachts anchor in Plockton—the town is known for its two-week sailing regatta. This is the place for ocean lovers to kayak, sail, row, and watch for seals. Plockton is a National Trust Conservation Village and beloved by artists… peruse one of the galleries and then delight in a scrumptious meal. Plockton is just 15 minutes away from a jumping-off town to the Isle of Skye.
This impressive 13th century cathedral is now a parish church, and you’re invited to visit or attend services. Walk inside, and you’ll understand why Madonna chose it for her wedding, and why 16 Earls of Sutherland chose to spend eternity here. The first service was held at Dornoch in 1239. Outside, gargoyles peer out from beneath the eaves. Inside, there are graceful stained glass windows donated in memory of Andrew Carnegie who was born just four miles away. These three windows represent music, peace, and literacy—all of utmost importance to Carnegie.