Exploring the Scottish Highlands and Islands


Eloise Barker

Title photography by Stephan Boehme / EyeEm

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March 2018

Wee toons, big mountains, and four seasons in one day. With their gorgeous glacial curves and heather-purpled hills, the Scottish Highlands are a sight to behold. Walkers come to bag Munros, golfers come for fresh undulating greens and dreamers come ghost hunting. Hire a car, and get a natural high in the highlands with our three great holidays.

Highlights of the North Coast 500

Best for: Hidden beaches, great golf and lost monsters

Inverness

First things first, get there: fly into Inverness with British Airways. This pretty inlet city acts as the gateway to the highlands – and the sea: it has a pod of resident bottlenose dolphins. Inverness is a good place to take stock and prepare for outdoor adventures. Buy supplies here, or simply check your coat’s waterproofing ability. From the city, you can take the famous North Coast 500, a 500-mile driving loop that takes in northern Scotland’s highlights.

Loch Ness

For a minor deviation from the North Coast route, follow the River Ness inland just half an hour to reach Loch Ness, Inverness’s famous neighbour. This quiet, deep gorge has a suspiciously calm surface and a 13th Century history on its bank: the atmospheric Urquhart Castle. If you don’t see the legendary Loch Ness monster, the scenery more than makes up for any disappointment. Walkers can join the Great Glen Way from Inverness. This 79-mile route to Fort William takes in the sight of big Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.

Visit Skye from Inverness

  • Ullapool waterfront. ©northlightimages

    Casting off

    Tiny Ullapool runs ferries to the Outer Hebrides and boats to the Summer Isles.

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Dornoch

Strike up a conversation about golf in an Inverness bar, and you’ll swiftly discover that the Scots invented the sport. Golfers head straight out of Inverness and on to Dornoch, home to the country’s most atmospheric courses. The famous Scottish golf courses are all here, set around gorgeous manor houses and castles. These courses (including Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Tain Golf Club, Golspie Golf Club, Bonar Bridge) are referred to as ‘links’ – the Old Scots term for a course.

John O'Groats

From Dornoch, the North Coast 500 route begins in earnest, taking in the ragged coast of Sutherland. This is area is both beautiful and remote – it was, after all, the last place wolves were found in the British Isles. Driving around here is notoriously tricky. The main road, the A9, takes you along the coast with fiendish dips and bends and leads to John O’Groats, the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland.

Ullapool

The northern edge of mainland Scotland contains some of the area’s best beaches. Drive along the A387 to reach the scenic Achmelvich beach (accessible only by single track road) and Oldshoremore beach (only accessible by hikers). The cute little coastal town of Ullapool serves as a hiking base, and many visitors take a windswept climb up Quinag – a forbidding three-peaked mountain. Inland roads lead to Ribigill and the foothills of Ben Loyal, the lonely ‘Queen of Scottish Mountains’.

Where to stay

Crerar Ben Wyvis Hotel is a Victorian hotel north of Inverness with a cinema for rainy days.

Mansfield Castle, which looks more like a manor, sits near the golf greens in Dornoch. This panelled and primped ‘country house castle’ is haunted by Mrs Fowler, who specifically likes to visit the Tower Suite. This ghost is generally good-natured – so, ask for tips to improve your handicap.

  • The Balmoral castle, Aberdeenshire. ©giuseppe masci / Alamy Stock Photo

    Monarch of the glen

    Pepper pot turrets adorn the tower of Balmoral, which was built by Queen Victoria. She used to enjoy four-hour-long walks in the grounds.

    Flights and car hire
  • Reindeer near Aviemore, Cairngorms. ©PHoyle

    Free rein

    The Cairngorm reindeer herd have roamed free here since the 1950s and there are now 150 of them sharing the hills.

    Flights and car hire
  • Footdee, Aberdeen city. ©Placebo365

    Sounds fishy

    Footdee (pronounced 'Fittie') was a tiny fishing village until it was absorbed by Aberdeen. It’s now a unique area of the city to visit.

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The west coast and the Hebrides

Best for: The road to the islands

Glasgow

After the grizzled charms of Glasgow, hire a car to drive up Scotland’s west coast. It’s just a 40-minute drive from Glasgow to Loch Lomond, and what a drive it is. At the top of Loch Lomond, you can climb to a viewpoint at An Ceann Mor that shows you the whole of the Trossachs National park. From here, head to Loch Fyne Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the best place around for an icy seafood platter.

Glencoe

Glencoe is the seat of the world’s most spectacular scenery. However, the bare, hulking hills that surround Glencoe still carry the weight of history: the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe is remembered in the area by a solemn monument. Glencoe’s natural attractions include Aonach Eagach, the site of a hair-raisingly narrow ridge walk, and The Devil’s Staircase, a ravaged rockface in the valley. The formation attracts daring mountain bikers and hikers. The Pap of Glencoe is another local highlight, found on the 96-mile West Highland Way, which runs from Milngavie to Fort William.

Where to stay

In Glasgow, the DoubleTree Glasgow Central is well-located, has stylish décor and a nice indoor pool.

Loch Fyne Invernay is seafood heaven. This Lochside hotel has a hot tub, steam room and sauna and lovely views onto the water.

Home to staff members in kilts, terraces with private hot tubs – Glencoe House also has a handful of select, spacious suites; some face the famous Pap of Glencoe.

Fort William

Known more for its location than its looks, Fort William is the activity capital of the Highlands. Sitting at the foot of Ben Nevis, it attracts plenty of climbers. Fort William marks one end of the newly-established East Highland Way, which offers a gentler valley walk than the West Highland Way. The trail takes you through ancient forest and marshland. From Fort William, you can take a fantastic drive to Mallaig along the so-called Road to the Isles. Otherwise, embark upon the same route by the Jacobite Train. The train crosses the viaduct at Glenfinnan that featured in the second Harry Potter film. On the way you’ll also pass Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive series of locks that lifts the Caledonian Canal over the highlands.

Skye

You can see the Isle of Skye from the ferry port of Mallaig. It rises like a crown on the horizon, thanks to its circlet of peaks. Take a half-hour ferry from Mallaig to reach it (or drive round the A87, and cross the Skye Bridge). If you’ve got a car, drop in on Morar, where Local Hero was filmed. Here you can visit Camusdarach beach, a big, dune-backed stretch of sand ringed by holiday cottages. Once you make it over the sea to Skye, you’ll find a ruggedly beautiful wilderness. Fairy pools grace the hillside and Kilt Rock waterfall cascades straight into the sea. The island’s best challenging hike takes place along the famous Cuillin Ridge, or you can walk to visit the Old Man of Storr, a jagged rock that juts from the hillside like a snaggle tooth. Afterwards, check out why Skye has a Michelin star, thanks to the seafood at Loch Bay at Stein.

Where to stay

Outside Fort William, Creag Mhor Lodge is a simple, cosy lodge that’s been around for a while. It’s great for walkers in need of respite. At the end of a day on the hills, relax by the fire or at the very well-stocked whisky bar. The lodge is 20 minutes from the ski slopes and 17 km from sporty Fort William.

On Skye, Duisdale House in Orsnay is a posh Victorian property. Now a boutique hotel, hotfoot over to the outdoor hot tub and book yourself in to its restaurant for cuisine that’s won heaps of national awards.

  • The Glenfinnan Viaduct, West Highland Line in Glenfinnan, Inverness-shire. ©evenfh

    Look familiar?

    Harry Potter fans will recognise this magnificent viaduct from the films.

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A road into the Cairngorms

Best for: Adventurous hikers and castle-capturers

Aberdeen

A true Scot knows that Aberdeen is in the Lowlands, not the Highlands; but you can fly in to Aberdeen to pick up a car and drive into the Cairngorms. Before you set off, enjoy the city’s Glenfidditch distillery and piles of castles. (There are 300 located in the county of Aberdeenshire alone.) Less rainy than the western highlands, this northern coastal town sparkles when the sun comes out, thanks to quartz in the stone, a shining sea and silvery beaches. Nearby, the River Dee is one of the best places in Scotland for spring salmon fishing. Watch them leap!

Aviemore

Drive to the little town of Aviemore to explore the Cairngorms, Britain’s largest national park. It’s surprisingly well-connected, and the Caledonian Sleeper Train from London stops right at Aviemore station. During the winter, this area is the closest the British Isles gets to a ski resort. Cairn Gorm Mountain, with ten lifts and one unusual funicular railway, sits just 9 miles outside of town. Here, you’ll find the UK’s only wild herd of reindeer. Once you come off the mountain for the day, hole up in the Old Bridge Inn back in Aviemore for ‘scran’ by the fireplace.

The Cairngorms

Outside of ski season, this magnificent national park offers challenging walking routes. Be warned: you’ll need the right footwear. After all, intrepid trekkers hike here, specifically to train for the Himalayas. Ice Age glaciers carved out the local scenery, including four out of five of the UK’s highest mountains. There are 34 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet) to ‘bag’, including the fearsome Ben McDui. South of the Cairngorms, you’ll find Balmoral – where the Royal Family spend snowy Christmases. You can visit when it’s ‘Royalty-free’ in the summer.

Where to stay

In Aberdeen, Mercure Aberdeen Ardoe House is situated on the Dee, just inland of Aberdeen. It’s an impressive-looking house with jazzy decor, turrets and a funky bar and lounge. There’s a gym and an indoor pool.

Equidistant from Edinburgh and Inverness, Perthshire Palace is an imposing turreted castle with elegant interiors fit for the Laird or Monarch in your life. Set near Perth in the southern Cairngorms, it provides a decadent stay near the national park, with tennis courts and an indoor pool on site.

In Aviemore, stay at the MacDonald Morlich Hotel. This bright and airy hotel makes a change from all the crumbly cottages. In addition to style points, the hotel scores high on convenience, since it is located right next to Aviemore station and Spey Valley Championship Golf Course. There’s also a massive activity centre for kids – great for any rainy days.

Extend your trip

The Shetlands

If you want to get away from it all, or boast about how far your hotel was from the mainland, then the Shetland Isles are for you. Your 12-hour ferry from Aberdeen crosses over 200 miles of open water to reach dry(ish) land. Lerwick – the capital of Shetlands, could be described as bustling – but only if you’re comparing it to the rest of the extraordinarily peaceful and remote islands. The Shetlands are flat, not like mountainous Skye; and diminutive but wilful native Shetland ponies keep the hillside grass cropped short. The food is organic and local, normally served alongside fireside retellings of Viking legends. In the Shetlands, you’re close enough to Norway for invasion.

Where to stay

Stay at Lerwick Hotel. This central hotel might look a bit dated, but landing in Lerwick is like stepping back in time, anyway. Most rooms have sea views and are fully renovated. There’s also an on-site restaurant where you can try the local seafood.

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