The Highlands & Islands
The wild landscapes of Scotland's Highlands and islands offer the ultimate escape – one of the last corners of Europe where you can discover genuine solitude.
Since the 19th century – when the first tourists began to arrive, inspired by the Romantic movement's search for the sublime – the Scottish Highlands have been famed for their wild nature and majestic scenery. Today the region's biggest draw remains its magnificent landscape. At almost every turn is a vista that will stop you in your tracks, from the bluebell woods, gentle hills and warm autumn colours of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to the primeval grandeur of Coigach and Assynt, where pillared peaks rear above desolate expanses of gnarled and ancient gneiss. Keep your camera close at hand.
Scotland's mountains, lochs and seaways offer some of the most rewarding outdoor adventures in Europe. As well as classic challenges such as the West Highland Way and the ascent of Ben Nevis, there are wilderness walks through the roadless wilds of Knoydart and Sutherland, and spectacular summits such as An Teallach, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven. Mountain bikers can enjoy a multitude of off-road routes, from easy trails through ancient pine forests to strenuous coast-to-coast rides, while the turbulent tidal waters around the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland provide the ultimate test of paddling mettle for sea-kayaking enthusiasts.
Legend & Tradition
Legend and tradition run deep in the Highlands. Crumbling forts and monastic cells were once home to Gaelic chieftains and Irish saints; lonely beaches and mountain passes once echoed to the clash of clan battles; and empty glens are still haunted by the ghosts of the Clearances. History is everywhere: in the tumbled stones of abandoned crofts preserved on a hillside like a fossil fragment; in the proud profile of broch and castle silhouetted against a Highland sunset; and in the Gaelic lilt of Hebridean speech and the Nordic twang of Shetland dialect.
A Taste of Scotland
Visitors will soon discover that Scotland's restaurants have shaken off their old reputation for deep-fried food and unsmiling service and can now compete with the best in Europe. A new-found respect for top-quality local produce means that you can feast on fresh seafood mere hours after it was caught, beef and venison that was raised just a few miles away from your table, and vegetables that were grown in your hotel's own organic garden. Top it all off with a dram of single malt whisky – rich, complex and evocative, the true taste of Scotland.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Highlands & Islands.
Predating Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza, extraordinary Skara Brae is one of the world's most evocative prehistoric sites, and northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village. Even the stone furniture – beds, boxes and dressers – has survived the 5000 years since a community lived and breathed here, giving an incredible insight into everyday Stone Age life.Idyllically situated by a sandy bay 8 miles north of Stromness, the Unesco-listed settlement was hidden until 1850, when waves whipped up by a severe storm eroded the sand and grass above the beach, exposing the houses underneath. It can feel as though the inhabitants have just slipped out to go fishing and could return at any moment. What can you see there? There’s an excellent interactive exhibit and short video, arming visitors with facts and theory, which will enhance the impact of the site. You then enter a reconstructed house, giving the excavation (which you head to next) more meaning. Tour the ancient houses before admiring the area's important archaeological artefacts, including jewelry, tools and pottery, in the visitor center. The official guidebook, available from the visitor center, includes a good self-guided tour. Tickets All visitor tickets have a timed entry slot and must be booked online in advance (this includes members of Historic Scotland). In April to October, your ticket also gets you into Skaill House, an important step-gabled Orcadian mansion built for the bishop in 1620. It may feel a bit anticlimactic catapulting straight from the Neolithic to the 1950s decor, but it's an interesting sight in its own right. You can see a smart hidden compartment in the library as well as the bishop's original 17th-century four-poster bed. How to get to Skara Brae It’s possible to walk along the coast from Stromness to Skara Brae (9 miles), or it's an easy taxi (£15) or cycle from Stromness. The 8S bus route runs to Skara Brae from Kirkwall and Stromness a few times weekly. Check Traveline Scotland for timetables.
Constructed about 5000 years ago, Maeshowe is an extraordinary place, a Stone Age tomb built from enormous sandstone blocks, some of which weighed many tonnes and were brought from several miles away. Creeping down the long stone passageway to the central chamber, you feel the indescribable gulf of years that separate us from the architects of this mysterious tomb. Entry is by 45-minute guided tours (prebooking online is strongly advised) that leave by bus from the visitor centre at nearby Stenness.
Hoy’s best-known sight is this 137m-high rock stack jutting from the ocean off the tip of an eroded headland. It's a tough ascent and for experienced climbers only, but the walk to see it is a Hoy highlight, revealing much of the island's most spectacular scenery. You can also spot the Old Man from the Scrabster–Stromness ferry.
One of Scotland’s most evocative historic buildings, the Arnol Blackhouse is not so much a museum as a perfectly preserved fragment of a lost world. Built in 1885, this traditional blackhouse – a combined byre, barn and home – was inhabited until 1964 and has not been changed since the last inhabitant moved out. The museum is about 3 miles west of Barvas.
Photogenically sited at the entrance to Loch Duich, Eilean Donan is one of Scotland’s most evocative castles and must now be represented in millions of photo albums. It’s on an offshore islet, elegantly linked to the mainland by a stone-arched bridge. It’s very much a recreation inside, with an excellent introductory exhibition. Citylink buses from Fort William and Inverness to Portree stop opposite the castle. The last entry is strictly one hour before closing.
This place features a drive-through safari park as well as animal enclosures offering the chance to view rarely seen native wildlife, such as wildcats, capercaillies, pine martens, white-tailed sea eagles and red squirrels, as well as species that once roamed the Scottish hills but have long since disappeared, including wolf, lynx, wild boar, beaver and European bison.
At marvellous Hermaness headland, a 4.5-mile round walk takes you to cliffs where gannets, fulmars and guillemots nest, and numerous puffins frolic. You can also see Scotland's most northerly point, the rocks of Out Stack, and Muckle Flugga, with its lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson's uncle. Duck into the Hermaness Visitor Centre, with its poignant story about one-time resident Albert Ross.
The Callanish Standing Stones, 15 miles west of Stornoway on the A858 road, form one of the most complete stone circles in Britain. It is one of the most atmospheric prehistoric sites anywhere. Sited on a wild and secluded promontory overlooking Loch Roag, 13 large stones of beautifully banded gneiss are arranged, as if in worship, around a 4.5m-tall central monolith.
This museum houses an impressive collection of 5000 years’ worth of culture, people and their interaction with this ancient landscape. Comprehensive but never dull, it covers everything from the archipelago’s geology to its fishing industry, via local mythology – find out about scary nyuggles (ghostly horses), or detect trows (fairies). Pictish carvings and replica jewellery are among the finest pieces. The museum also includes a working lighthouse mechanism, a small gallery, a boat-building workshop and an archive for tracing Shetland ancestry.