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The best free things to do in the Highlands
The Scottish Highlands is the largest area of Scotland and encompasses an area of more than 30,000 square kilometres – yet has a population of fewer than 250,000 people. Primarily mountainous, visiting the Highlands offers a unique experience that’s unmatched anywhere else in Europe.
The remote wilderness of some of the UK’s most beautiful national parks makes this region of Scotland the perfect place to get outside and enjoy the fresh air, whether it’s going for a walk through the stunning landscapes or climbing one of Britain’s tallest mountains.
Inverness Botanic Gardens
- Address: Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SS
- Website: Inverness Botanic Gardens
- Telephone: 01463 713553
The Inverness Botanic Gardens are a lovely wee hidden gem that offer an oasis of calm within a short walking distance of the city centre, and they absolutely deserve a place in this list of the best free things to do in Scotland.
There’s a lot of variety to enjoy at the gardens and visitors can explore a mixture of formal gardens, wildflower meadows, cactus houses, ponds, and a tropical house in this volunteer-run charity attraction that’s become ever-more popular in Inverness since opening in 1993.
For a small city, Inverness has got a surprising amount of things to do, but I personally think the Botanic Gardens are the icing on the cake. It’s just so peaceful and the gardens are absolutely awash with colour thanks to plants that have been sourced from all corners of the globe (yes I know globes don’t have corners, but you get my point…).
The glasshouses are worth visiting in their own right as they feature loads of tropical plants that would otherwise never survive without the hot and humid conditions that these mini-ecosystems provide, and it’s quite an experience to walk out of the cold Scottish air and into the balmy heat of a rainforest.
Once you step inside you’ll find a cascading waterfall in the glasshouse with a pool full of beautiful (and inquisitive) Koi Carp, which makes the whole experience very relaxing, if slightly surreal.
Some of the plants in the rainforest will be immediately recognisable to anyone with an interest in flora and fauna but there are many more that you probably haven’t seen before, like the exotic orchids that appear to thrive in the glasshouses and the beautiful bird of paradise plants with their impossibly pretty yellow and orange flowers.
It really puts my meagre collection of daffodils to shame.
Next door to the rainforest is a cactus house which showcases some of the hundreds of different species of cacti that can survive in extremes of temperature, and they’ve been planted in a landscape composed of an impressive 75 tonnes of rock. It’s quite a bit cooler in there than the rainforest so you’ll be able to acclimatize before heading outside to the outdoor gardens.
The lawns, trees, shrubs, and borders of this part of the Botanics are linked by meandering pathways that take you past rockeries, wooden carvings and cottage gardens while a ramshackle gate at the back of the formal gardens leads you into a ‘secret garden’ which is managed by a group of adults with special needs.
This was my favourite place in the entire site and the guys working there have done a fantastic job of converting what was once a run-down piece of wasteland into a little urban paradise, and even better, many of the plants are available to buy in the sales area with the proceeds going back into keeping Inverness Botanic Gardens free for public entry.
Glenfinnan and The Glenfinnan Monument
- Address: Glenfinnan, Highlands, PH37 4LT
- Website: Glenfinnan
- Telephone: NA
The little village of Glenfinnan in the Lochaber area of the Highlands is famous for having three major tourist attractions on its doorstep, with the first being the Glenfinnan viaduct which offers one of the most spectacular photo opportunities in Scotland.
The viaduct has been well-known as a tourist atttraction for many years as it offers jaw-dropping views of The Jacobite steam train which transports tourists from Fort William to Mallaig.
The sight of this vintage train puffing its way across the viaduct draws in thousands of visitors each year and their numbers have exploded since it was featured in the Harry Potter movies as the Hogwarts Express.
The second attraction is the view at the foot of Loch Shiel with the Sgurr Ghiubhsachain mountain rising on one side and Rois-Bheinn rising on the other.
To my mind, this is the nicest viewpoint in the whole of Scotland and I can’t recommend a visit highly enough, especially if you manage to get there early when the crowds of tourists haven’t yet arrived and there’s an ethereal mist rolling down from the mountain-side. It’s spine-tingly stuff.
The third attraction is the Glenfinnan Monument which sits at the north-east head of Loch Shiel where it has commanded spectacular views of the Highland landscape since its construction in 1815.
This 18-metre high structure was built to commemorate one of the defining moments of the Jacobite uprising of 1745 when Prince Charles Edward Stuart raised his standard in front of the massed ranks of 1,500 supporting clansmen and declared his intent to take the thrones of England and Scotland in the name of his father, James Stuart.
This marked the start of the Jacobite uprising that would ultimately end at the ill-fated Battle of Culloden less than a year later.
The monument was commissioned by a member of Clan Macdonald of Glenaladale to commemorate the raising of the standard by the ‘young pretender‘ prince, and in 1835 the statue of the anonymous Highlander was placed at the top of the tower.
The tower has been a respected Highland landmark ever since which is why today the monument is in the care of The National Trust for Scotland who has maintained it since 1938.
The Trust has since built a car park and pathway to the monument so that access can be easily made by people of all abilities, while a popular visitor centre has been constructed to educate tourists about the ill-fated uprising and the history that led up to this important moment in Scotland’s history. The centre also includes educational exhibitions and displays about the area as well as a cafe and gift shop.
Although there’s a fee to get into the visitor centre it’s very reasonable (£9 for a family as of 2019) and you can take a guided tour to the top of the monument, but if you just want to look at the landscape you can explore the scenery along the lochside from several vantage points.
It’s an iconic site and one that has to be visited if you’re in this part of the Highlands.
- Address: Loch Morlich, near Glenmore village, PH22 1QU
- Website: Forestry Commission Scotland
- Telephone: NA
Located deep in the heart of Scotland’s beautiful Strathspey area is Loch Morlich, a natural freshwater loch that’s considered to be one of the finest in the Highlands.
It’s not difficult to understand why this particular loch is so highly regarded either. There’s so much do here that I can safely say it’s impossible not to have a great time, and yet Loch Morlich is almost criminally unknown about by many of Scotland’s visitors.
First off there’s the location of the loch which lies at the bottom of the Cairngorm mountain range just a few miles from Aviemore, and second there’s the lovely Glenmore Forest which surrounds it on all sides.
So not only have you got mountain sports and hill walking trails within easy reach but you’ve also got excellent walking and cycling trails running through the nearby forest.
It’s the view that first hits you though, and you’ll probably have trouble taking it all in as you walk out of the adjoining car park and set foot onto a glorious expanse of a natural sandy beach with the waves of the crystal clear loch gently lapping at the shoreline.
If you close your eyes you could momentarily be forgiven for thinking that you’re on some remote exotic beach in another country, but opening your eyes again only confirms that you’re still in Scotland, with the immense snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorms rising high into the clouds on one side and the deep-green Scottish pines of Glenmore Forest sweeping away into the distance in every other direction.
If you’re a tourist in search of the best outdoor experiences that Scotland has to offer you could do a lot worse than take a trip to Loch Morlich.
Glenmore Forest Park is an ancient fir and pine forest that covers the landscape almost to the horizon in every direction. This forest has been designated as a National Nature Reserve and there’s a vast number of wildflowers and birds to see as you make your way through it on one of the many paths that have been laid throughout the area.
For me, this area offers some of the best walks in Scotland, but if you’re not feeling quite so energetic you can simply sit on the sand and soak up the suns rays (in summer at least), or paddle out into the loch for a bit of seaside fun (interesting fact – Loch Morlich is officially the UK’s highest beach).
The visitor centre across the road has plenty of snacks and ice creams but there’s also a picnic area on the site if you want to bring your own packed lunch. The only thing you’re not allowed to do is camp in the recreational areas, which is fair enough I think.
All-in-all you really owe it to yourself to visit this amazing beach resort which has to be one of the very best free things to do in Scotland.
Bonus money-saving tips for the best free things to do in Scotland
We all need a little extra help when it comes to saving money when visiting Scotland’s free tourist attractions so I’ve included a few useful tips that will hopefully keep a few of your hard-earned pennies in your pocket. If you have any other suggestions you’d like to see included please leave me a comment using the contact page.
Travelling by car?
- If you’re travelling to an attraction by car you can always save a few quid by searching online for the cheapest local petrol stations. Check out PetrolPrices.com for a regularly updated list of garage and supermarket fuel prices.
- Have you considered carpooling instead of taking your own car? Carpooling is a great way to make shared use of car journeys and it’s easier on the environment too. Win-win! The BlaBlaCar website is one of the best and will tell you all you need to know about the scheme.
- If you’re using a hire car pick it up and drop it off at the same location because most hire car companies add on an additional fee if you use different branches. Sneaky…
- Again, if you’re intending to use a hire car don’t order one from an online broker as they add commission onto the overall cost. Go direct to the hire car company instead and stick to the big guns in the rental business like SIXT, Hertz or Avis, and others who are members of the BVRLA.
Travelling by train?
- The Spirit of Scotland travel pass offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either four or eight days. As of January 2019, four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days costs £111, while eight days unlimited travel over fifteen consecutive days costs £143. Note that these prices can vary depending on available special offers so check the website in advance before you buy the pass.
- The Highland Rover travel pass gives you four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days across the Highlands for £89 (as of Jan 2019). Although it’s only valid for standard class you can travel at any time and you’ll get 20% off Northlink ferry services to Orkney and Shetland.
- The Central Scotland Rover travel pass lets you take unlimited journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area for just £49 (as of Jan 2019). The pass lasts for three days and is valid for standard class journeys on ScotRail trains, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the new Borders railway line.
- Travel during off-peak instead of the much more expensive peak times. Peak times with most rail operators are; 6am to 10am, and 4pm to 8pm Monday to Friday.
- If you’re visiting Glasgow use the subway system which is both efficient and reasonably priced. The SPT Roundabout ticket gives one-day unlimited travel by rail and subway to over 110 stations in the Greater Glasgow area. You can purchase these tickets through ScotRail or SPT Travel Centres.
- Hostels are by far the cheapest option for cheap accommodation in the UK and the days of sticky carpets and cold, dingy rooms are long gone. Most even offer single rooms with an en-suite bathroom these days. In Edinburgh take a look at the Edinburgh Backpackers Hostel, and in Glasgow I recommend the Glasgow Youth Hostel.
- Airbnb is a fantastic option for the budget-conscious traveller and there are some real bargains to be had. Consider using the service in preference to an over-priced hotel.
- Another alternative for cheap overnight accommodation is to find a Groupon deal. The only thing to bear in mind though is you’ll likely have to book well in advance so it’s not ideal for an impromptu overnight stay.
- Even cheaper than hostels and Airbnb is pitching a tent in Scotland’s beautiful countryside. It’s legal to pitch your tent wherever you like in Scotland but make sure you abide by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (but please don’t forget to take all your litter home with you).
- We’ve got bothies – so use them! A bothy is a little dwelling seemingly abandoned in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason which has been erected for anyone to take refuge in. Although they’re not exactly up to hotel standards they’re completely free to use so check out The Mountain Bothies Association for more information.
Want to save money on food and drink?
- If you’re anywhere near a town or city you can often find great deals on eating out on the itison website. Just remember that you’ll have to book in advance but if you’re planning a trip out it’s a great way to have a slap-up meal for much less than the normal price.
- If you’re intending to stay overnight near an attraction then try to book self-catering accommodation and cook your own food. It’s a much cheaper option than extortionate hotel restaurants.
- If you’re anything like me you can’t go more than five minutes without a caffeine fix, so do your wallet and the environment a favour by using your own re-useable coffee cup. Most coffee shops offer a discount for using them these days.
- Similar to the tip above, take your own water bottle and fill up with tap water. Scotland’s tap water is very high quality and is much cheaper than buying a bottle of Evian.
- Fancy a wee dram? Most pubs and restaurants have a malt of the month that’s got a nice discount compared to the other whiskies on sale.
Well, that wraps it up for this article and I sincerely hope it’s given you a few useful tips to help you shave a few pounds off your normal tourist attraction spend. It’s always nice to save a little extra cash here and there so if you think this article is useful please share it on your social media network so that others might benefit from it as well.
Good luck travelling across Scotland and have a great time, wherever you decide to go.
Planning a trip to Scotland?
- Want a memento of your visit? Discover a range of quality Scottish gifts in my Etsy shop. Sale now on!
- Find hotels in Scotland and book your rental car.
- Explore the country with Rabbies small group coach tours and get cheap advance tickets for attractions.
- Learn about Scotland with a range of Amazon books and prepare for hikes with
Ordnance Survey maps.
- Before you explore the great outdoors get your rain gear in place and don’t forget to buy Smidge anti-midge repellent!