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Scottish Highlands

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Did You Know … ?

  • The English banned the kilt, tartans and bagpipes in the 18th century.
  • Macbeth was the last Highlander king of Scotland.
  • The Highlands are less populated today than they were in the 18th century.
  • Loch Ness holds more freshwater than all lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales combined.
  • More than 500 pipers were killed during World War I.

Speaking of bagpipes and tartans

The Scottish Lowlands have Edinburgh and Robbie Burns, but the Highlands are more firmly associated in visitors’ imaginations with iconic Scottish images like bagpipes, clans, haggis, kilts, tartans and whisky.

The fabled Highlands comprise roughly half of Scotland and lie northwest of a line drawn from Dumbarton in the west to Stonehaven in the east. Some islands, including the Hebrides, are considered part of the Highlands, whereas flat coastal areas are not.

The Highland culture appeals to all visitors, and there is considerable support nowadays for its preservation. In addition, although everyone speaks English, Gaelic survives in these mountains as the everyday speech for some locals.

Gaelic may be heard at a local ceilidh, a gathering — typically informal — for storytelling, dancing and music. Bagpipes may also be heard at festivals and folk music venues.

For whisky fans, many distilleries offer tours and tastings. As to the haggis, restaurants serve it, but animal innards cooked in a sheep’s stomach do not have universal appeal. There’s another way to get acquainted with this food item — at a haggis hurling event at one of the several summer Highland Games. The Games feature other quintessentially Scottish events like tossing the caber (essentially, a tree trunk) and throwing the hammer. Highland dancers and pipers, decked out in kilts, also perform.

A trip into the Highlands is not merely about traditions. This rugged, mountainous area is known for its natural beauty, and the Scots are friendly hosts. The region also is one of the least populated in Europe, making it a haven for wildlife and an appealing destination for active travelers who love cycling, pony trekking, walking and other outdoor pursuits.

Also, meals may range from pub eats to fine dining on local game, salmon or other fish in top restaurants.

Finally, lest we forget, the Loch Ness Monster — whether real or not — is a Highland phenomenon. Also, just knowing that this was home to the folk hero and outlaw, Rob Roy, and the maligned King Macbeth is good for a few goose bumps, too.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Attend one of the several annual Scottish Highland Games in the Highlands.
  • Go rock, ice or snow climbing, depending on the season, in the Cairngorm Mountains.
  • Go to Argyll for the best surfing in Britain. Or, try pony trekking in the Argyll Forest Park.
  • Compete in a Scottish hill race. The toughest takes you to the top of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain (4,407 feet).
  • For the ultimate Highland tour, drive the north coast of Scotland, between Dunnet Head, the northernmost point on mainland Scotland, and Durness. The itinerary includes Cape Wrath, the northwesternmost point on mainland Scotland. Also, you can look for puffins at Faraid Head.
  • Walk — with good hiking boots — in the mountains of Torridon, in the northern Highlands. Depending on your skills or confidence, climb onto or walk around the Liathach massif, or stick to lower ground near Loch Clair and enjoy views of Liathach.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Take in great scenery with a ride on the West Highland Railway. If you really like rail, travel the U.K.’s highest funicular, the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, to the Ptarmigan station near the top of Cairngorm Mountain.
  • Take one of the more unusual, and ambitious, bird-watching excursions. Drive beyond Scourie in the far northwest to board a boat to the nearby Handa island, a reserve of huge bird colonies, including puffins, occupying impossibly narrow ledges on near-vertical cliffs.
  • Check with the closest tourist information center to see if you can catch an appearance of local performers or visiting bands in a village pub.
  • If you are interested in Scotland’s military history, which was much about fighting the English, tour Fort George, a pentagon-shaped piece of 18th century architecture built by the English to ensure the Highlands would never again rise in rebellion.
  • More than that, visit Culloden, site of the last major battle fought on British soil. Rebels fought to restore the Stuarts to the British throne but lost, in 1746.
  • Drive through Glen Coe for the fine hill scenery, and carry your camera. There are plenty of other scenic drives in the Highlands, too.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Sample the seafood and smokeries (meaning the smoked foods) for which the region is well known.
  • Spend some time at Loch Ness to see if you can spot the “monster,” but you won’t want to devote too much time to this.
  • Visit one or more of the area gardens. Crarae Garden is considered the best of the lot.
  • Tour Cawdor Castle, which in legend, not in fact, is associated with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Watch for the entertaining room notes. Get a look at the gardens, too.
  • Treat yourself to a walking tour of Inverness. This will include the castle, which though less than 200 years old, has a grand and evocative appearance.
  • Play golf at Dornoch, called the St. Andrews of the north.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult VisitScotland at