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Last updated on April 6th, 2021
The Highlands are just one half of Scotland (the other being the Lowlands) and both areas are divided by the Highland Boundary Fault. The Scottish Highlands are famous for their breathtaking scenery where lochs, mountains and forests offer activities for visitors of all ages and interests. Discover exactly what makes the Scottish Highlands such a special place in this complete guide.
The best places to visit in the Scottish Highlands
The Highlands are what I like to think of as ‘the real Scotland’ because they have (mostly) escaped the clutches of tourism and it’s still possible to roam for miles and miles without seeing another person – even in the height of summer.
In most places, the people of the Highlands still enjoy a traditional way of life with locals offering a warm welcome wherever you go outside the tourist hotspots, and it’s this friendly culture that ensures visitors return year after year.
But it’s the landscapes that are the biggest draw for the 10 million annual day trips to the Scottish Highlands.
Head to Glencoe to admire the craggy peaks of Bidean Nam Bian and you’ll instantly fall in love with the country, just like you will when you head north and visit the spectacular landscape of Ben Nevis in the Nevis Range or Ben Hope in the far north.
Or how about the most famous body of water in the world, Loch Ness, where you might be lucky enough to spot the elusive monster while standing on the ruins of one of the most atmospheric castles in Scotland at Urquhart Castle.
Then again, maybe you prefer to lose yourself in the wilds with a camera in hand looking to spot red deer, golden eagles and wildcats before heading to the coast to keep a lookout for whales, seals and dolphins.
The only downside is that you might struggle to decide where to go first which is why I’ve put together this guide which details the top tourist attractions as well as the best towns and villages in this ever-popular region of Scotland.
Scottish Highlands map – the best places to visit
- The Nevis Range
- Loch Ness
- Loch Morlich
- Fort William Train Station (Jacobite train start)
- Highland Wildlife Park
- Fort George
- Eilean Donan Castle
- A = Dunrobin Castle
- B = The Cairngorms
Address: Aviemore, PH22 1RB
Contact details: Cairngorm Mountain Centre telephone 01479 861261
My complete guide: A Guide to Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway
Please note, as of January 2021 the funicular railway is out of service but is due to re-open later in the year.
The Cairngorms National Park is the largest in the UK, covering 1,748 square miles across the regions of Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Angus and Perth & Kinross.
While this vast wilderness is full of lush forests and tranquil lochs, it’s the Cairn Gorm mountain plateau that draws the majority of visitors who are keen to explore the spectacular ridge.
This famous mountain is actually the seventh-highest mountain in Britain – reaching 4,084 feet – and it’s just as well known for its adrenaline-fuelled snow sports activities as it is for its walking routes that run across the entire Cairngorm range.
One of the best ways to experience the incredible views that Cairn Gorm has to offer is to take the funicular railway from the visitor centre at the base of Coire Cas on the north-western slope to the Ptarmigan Top Station over three thousand feet above.
From there you’ll get views right across the Cairngorms with Loch Morlich sitting at the bottom, and it’s worth the train ride just for the experience of sitting in the café terrace and soaking up the view.
While you can’t exit the top station unless you’re taking part in snow sports activities you can at least enjoy the restaurant and shops while you’re there.
If you want to hike up the mountain there are paths that lead to Coire an t-Sneachda (one of Britain’s most accessible high mountain corries), though it can be a tricky walk in winter so I recommend you grab a map from the Cairngorm Mountain Visitor Centre before departing.
Address: Dunrobin, Golspie, Sutherland, KW10 6SF
Contact details: Telephone 01408 633177
My complete guide: A Guide to Dunrobin Castle
Who needs to look at French Chateau’s when you’ve got the world’s most beautiful castle right here in bonny Scotland?
Dunrobin Castle has a history that stretches back over 700 years from its humble beginnings as a simple square keep for the 13th-century Earl of Sutherland, and it has been extended considerably since that time with a series of modifications that have turned it into a fairytale palace that wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney cartoon.
Dunrobin is one of the northern-most country houses in Scotland. You’ll find other estates even further north (check out The Castle of Mey in Sutherland), but you’ll struggle to find one as attractive as Dunrobin.
There are two parts to this castle that make it particularly tourist-worthy. First, there’s the castle itself which you can walk around on a self-guided tour, and second, there are the manicured gardens that overlook the Moray Firth.
These gardens were designed to look like the grounds of the Palace of Versailles and you’ll find it hard to believe you’re still in Scotland if you visit on a sunny summer day.
Head inside the castle and you’ll be equally impressed, with each room beautifully laid out with paintings, tapestries and fine carvings, but the highlight of a tour is looking at the Victorian museum in the old summer house.
The museum is regarded as one of the finest private collections in Britain and it’s filled to the rafters with archaeological relics and animal displays, with many of the specimens brought back by the Dukes of Sutherland during their family safari’s a hundred years ago.
The final highlight of a visit to Dunrobin is watching the falconry displays held on the lawn that feature some of the birds of prey you’re likely to see in the Highlands, including golden eagles and peregrine falcons. It’s a great show and the perfect way to round off a visit to this amazing stately home.
Eilean Donan Castle
Address: Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX
Contact details: Telephone: 01599 555202
My complete guide: A Guide to Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan Castle is one of those Scottish attractions that seem to pop up in photos all over the internet whenever you Google ‘places to visit in the Highlands’, and it’s probably the most iconic fortress in the country after Edinburgh Castle.
That’s something you’ll only really understand once you visit it though, because the view of Eilean Donan overlooking the lochs of Duich, Long and Alsh sum up the best of Scotland’s Highland tourist attractions in one scene.
A visit offers fascinating history thanks to the iconic castle, gorgeous landscapes with the surrounding Kintail National Scenic Area, and food and mementoes galore at the on-site restaurant and souvenir shop.
Basically, if you’re visiting Scotland for the first time you pretty much have to put a trip to Eilean Donan Castle right at the top of your itinerary.
What you see today isn’t the original building, but is, in fact, a recreation built around a hundred years ago by the MacRae family to serve as the clan family home.
But even though it’s a bit disappointing to find out this castle is actually quite modern it does at least have a lot of interesting history behind it.
For instance, the walls were built using stones recovered from a previous fort that had been destroyed by the British army after a battle with Spanish and Jacobite soldiers in the 1700s.
The Macrae’s couldn’t have chosen a nicer site to build their ancestral home and you can’t fail to be impressed by the details inside, with each room featuring collections of clan memorabilia, elaborately decorated furniture, and impressive racks of historic weaponry.
Rest assured if you’ve got children with you they’re going to love exploring Eilean Donan Castle.
Address: Ardersier, Inverness, IV2 7TD
Contact details: Telephone 01667 460 232
My complete guide: A Guide to Fort George
If you ever visit the Highland capital city of Inverness there are two nearby attractions that you should definitely take the time to see.
The first is Loch Ness which lies to the south of the city, and the second is Fort George, the 18th-century military fortification that lies to the north.
This fort is a stark reminder of the threat felt by the British government from the Jacobite rebellion as it was built to deter any further uprisings after the battle of Culloden.
The fort is absolutely enormous and it’s amazing to think that the garrison buildings and mile-long perimeter wall are over 250 years old. But perhaps what’s even more amazing is the fact that it’s so well designed that it’s still in use by the British army today.
There’s a lot to see at this attraction with regimental museums, recreated 18th-century barracks, a regimental chapel and defensive platforms armed to the teeth with cannons on the lookout for invading armies coming from the Moray Firth.
These platforms are a fantastic place for sightseers, not just because of the military memorabilia but also because they offer stunning views of the firth that are pretty much unrivalled anywhere else along the coast.
It’s a great wildlife spotting site as well thanks to the dolphins that swim past on their way to Chanonry Point and Ardesier, so if it’s a clear day and you visit the fort make sure you take your binoculars and camera with you as you’re bound to see the dolphins playing in the water.
After a walk around the perimeter of Fort George it’s time to head inside the buildings where you can discover the history of the Jacobite uprising with displays and exhibitions in the grand magazine and the Highlander’s Museum.
Both museums are exceptionally well presented – as you’d expect from Historic Environment Scotland – but the magazine is particularly interesting as it’s home to what is arguably the finest collection of historic weaponry in Scotland.
Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland.
Glencoe and Bidean Nam Bian
Address: Glencoe, Argyll, PH49 4HX
Contact details: Telephone 01855 811307
Scotland is home to a diverse range of beautiful landscapes, from the hauntingly desolate wilderness of Rannoch Moor to the peaceful forests of Perthshire’s ‘big tree country’, but one place that tops all others for stunning scenery is Glencoe.
This glen is often cited as being located in Scotland’s most scenic area and I think the fact that it draws in so many visitors each year is proof that the grandeur of its surrounding mountains is more than worthy of a visit.
The glen runs east to west and has several steep-sided mountains lining it, making a journey here a necessity if you love hiking or you’re a seasoned climber.
If you ever drive through Scotland on the A82 (one of the best road trips in the country) you’ll see Glencoe from Rannoch Moor where the mighty peak of Buchaille Etive Mor can be seen rising into the clouds with the ridges the ‘three sisters’ of Beinn Fhada, Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh lying to the south.
Behind these ridges you’ll find the highest point in Argyll where the vast Bidean Nam Bian mountain dominates the surrounding landscape.
While the 2 1/2 mile route into the mountains is quite a scramble up steep scree-covered slopes the views from the trail are nothing short of jaw-dropping and you’ll cross tumbling waterfalls and deep ravines along the way.
But if that sounds like a bit too much hard work you can always stay near the car park and walk around Loch Achtriochtan instead.
This ground level area has several designated paths that head into Glencoe and it’s possible to go for a great walk between the mountains without having to hike up steep slopes.
Address: Glenfinnan, PH37 4LT
Contact details: Telephone: 01397 722250
My complete guide: A Guide to the Glenfinnan Monument
Glenfinnan is a hamlet in the Lochaber region of Scotland that’s best known for two major tourist attractions – the Glenfinnan monument and the Glenfinnan viaduct.
It was there on the banks of Loch Shiel in 1745 where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard in front of the massed ranks of Highland clans and declared his intention to take the throne of the British Isles in the name of his father James Stuart.
The uprising ended in failure in 1746 at the battle of Culloden when the Jacobite army was massacred by government forces, and to commemorate this defining event in Scotland’s history a memorial was erected in Glenfinnan at the site where the prince first rallied his troops.
The monument is quite a sight at the foot of the loch and the surrounding hills provide a dramatic backdrop, but for the best experience you should head to the nearby National Trust for Scotland centre and take a guided tour to the viewing platform at the top.
The centre has a small museum inside along with a gift shop and snack bar and it’s a great way to discover the story behind the ‘Bonny Prince’ and the reasons why the Highland clans rallied behind him.
The other big attraction at Glenfinnan, in the opposite direction to the monument, is the Glenfinnan viaduct which sweeps around the shore of Loch Shiel in a wide arc.
The viaduct was built in the late 1890s and its 21 arches reach a height of over one hundred feet, but what makes it such a special place is the steam train that thunders over it on its way to the coastal town of Mallaig.
The Jacobite train has been featured in several movies but became world-famous when it played the part of the Hogwarts Express that took Harry Potter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
If you ever get the chance you really should get a ticket to cross the viaduct on the steam train as the views from the original 1960s carriages are incredible.
The Highland Wildlife Park
Address: Kincraig, Kingussie PH21 1NL
Contact details: Telephone 01397 722250
My complete guide: A Guide to The Highland Wildlife Park
But you might be surprised to know they also work with animals from closer to home and at the Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms you’ll get to see enclosures designed to replicate the habitats of arctic tundra and mountains, just like you get in the remote areas of the Highlands.
But it’s not just red deer and Scottish wildcats at this park. Head inside the main area and you’ll also see Siberian tigers, Arctic foxes, lynx, wolverines, snow monkeys, and the stars of the show – polar bears.
While the walk-around area is what most people consider the main section of the park there’s an equally large area that you can drive through on a Highland safari.
Thankfully they don’t let the polar bears roam free so the biggest threat you’ll face is getting a hard stare from one of the roaming bison.
Just like in Edinburgh Zoo, the Highland Wildlife Park has an educational side to it and you’ll frequently find keeper demonstrations and interactive talks throughout the day, plus there are lots of information panels at the enclosures so you can learn about each species as you make your way around.
If you’re a photographer you might want to take part in one of the photographic days where you get to explore the park with your camera while accompanied by a keeper, or maybe you’d like to join the feeding sessions and watch the keepers hand out food to the animals.
It’s an amazing thing to watch – especially the polar bears as they wrap their maws around the great chunks of meat tossed over the fence.
If you get a bit peckish yourself you’ll be pleased to know there are lots of places to eat in the park along with the standard coffee shops and vending kiosks, and there’s also a decent shop if you fancy taking home your very own (stuffed) bear.
The Jacobite Steam Train
Address: Tom-na-Faire Station Square, Fort William, Highland, PH33 6TQ
Contact details: Telephone 0844 850 4685
My complete guide: A Guide to The Jacobite steam train
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty years you’ll have heard of Harry Potter and more than likely seen at least one of the movies.
If you have then you’ll have watched the scene where he’s transported across the Glenfinnan viaduct (mentioned above), but there’s much more to the journey than the sights at Glenfinnan.
The train ride starts at Fort William and continues through some of Scotland’s finest landscapes where you’ll pass lochs, mountains, glens, rivers and coastline along with some of the country’s most memorable sights including Ben Nevis, Loch Morar and of course, Glenfinnan.
The steam locomotive was built in the late 1940s but it can trace its design back to the 1920s, while the carriages date from the 1960s, so a trip onboard this train really is like taking a step back in time.
You’re free to take your own drinks on board or you can purchase wine and a snack-pack from the catering carriage, and there surely can’t be a better way to see Scotland than sitting in one of the yesteryear carriages with a glass of bubbly in hand.
You’re not stuck indoors for the whole journey though as there’s a stop at Glenfinnan station where you can get out and take a look around the West Highland Railway Museum before continuing your journey to Mallaig.
Once at the final destination you can disembark for around an hour before boarding for the return trip – which gives you just enough time to catch one of the boat tours that sail around Mallaig harbour.
This is a superb location to watch seals and the occasional whale, and you’ll more than likely see Britain’s biggest bird of prey – the sea eagle – too.
Address: Loch Morlich, near Glenmore village, PH22 1QU
Contact details: Telephone 01479 861220
My complete guide: A Guide to Loch Morlich
This natural body of fresh water sits at the bottom of the Cairngorm mountain range a few miles from the outdoor hub of Aviemore where it is surrounded on all sides by Glenmore forest.
The loch is just a short detour off the B970 if you’re visiting Aviemore which makes getting there really easy, so if you’re ever in that neck of the woods (no pun intended) I recommend you take a look.
Loch Morlich is one of the highest bodies of water in the UK and it has a definite alpine feel to it, especially if you stand on the shore and look up at the snow-capped mountain peaks rising up from the outskirts of the pine forest.
It also has a wide sweeping arc of golden sand on its northern shore which is perfect for summer picnics, and if you’re a watersports fan you can enjoy windsurfing, kayaking, paddleboarding and sailing thanks to the watersports centre that hires out a range of equipment.
If you’re not feeling active you can sit back and enjoy lounging around on the UK’s highest beach, or simply go for a walk through the extensive National Nature Reserve in Glenmore forest.
There’s a visitor centre and café just down the road if all that exercise starts bellies rumbling and it’s just a 20-minute drive into the centre of Aviemore with its pubs, bars and restaurants if you’re staying in the area in the evening.
Address: Fort Augustus, Highland
Contact details: email firstname.lastname@example.org
My complete guide: A Guide to Loch Ness
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Loch Ness, the deepest loch in Scotland that contains more freshwater than all the lakes of England and Wales combined?
A visit to this attraction in the Highlands has to be on everyone’s itinerary if they’re intending to see the best bits of Scotland, not because of the monster legend, but because it’s an incredibly pretty place.
There are three popular points for exploring Loch Ness.
The first is Fort Augustus at its southern end where you can board one of the many cruise boats that sail up and down it daily.
The second is at Castle Urquart in the middle of the loch’s western shore where you can soak up the atmosphere of the ruins of one of Scotland’s most iconic castles.
The third location is in the Highland capital of Inverness where you can explore the loch from its northern-most corner where it joins onto the River Ness.
Either of these locations will give you a great experience and I heartily recommend all of them, though if I was pushed I’d suggest spending a little more time in Inverness as it’s such a nice city and has lots of attractions that can easily be combined with a search for the elusive monster.
However, many tourists don’t venture that far and instead prefer to base themselves in Fort Augustus as it’s an ideal stop-off point for anyone with a boat that intends to sail the 60-mile Caledonian Canal.
I can’t really blame them as the waterway in this part of the country is absolutely beautiful between the Beauly Firth on the northeast coast and Loch Linnhe on the west.
And of course, who knows, if you sail across Loch Ness you might even catch a glimpse of an enormous fin dipping in and out of the pitch-black peat-stained waters.
The Nevis Range
Address: Nevis Range, Torlundy, Fort William, Inverness-shire, PH33 6SQ
Contact details: Telephone 01397 705 825
My complete guide: A Guide to the Nevis Range Gondola
Ben Nevis is widely regarded as Scotland’s top winter sports venue alongside Cairn Gorm, but there’s much more to this mountain than skiing and snowboarding.
The summertime sees almost as many visitors to Ben Nevis as winter does, thanks in part to the gondola ride that offers an easy way to get to the top for hikers, and walking trails that extend across the Nevis range in all directions.
The gondola is a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right and you’ll get some amazing views of the Great Glen along the 1.5-mile journey between the bottom and top stations, so don’t forget to pack your camera before you climb aboard.
While you’re free to take a walk on the Sgurr Finnisg-aig and Meall Beag trails once at the top, if you’re a keen mountain biker you’ll no doubt be itching to hurtle back down the mountainside on what is frequently called one of the best downhill biking runs in the UK.
If two wheels aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you head to the Nevis Range Experience Centre where you’ll be able to take part in high-rope and tree-climbing experiences, paragliding, organized hikes and guided photography walks.
Alternatively, you can just sit back and enjoy the view before cruising back down to the bottom station at your own leisurely pace.
The best towns and villages in the Scottish Highlands
The Highlands are full of quaint little hamlets that are guaranteed to offer visitors a unique experience, whether it’s at one of the coastal fishing villages on the west coast or an inland town perched at the foot of a mountainside.
Villages in the Highlands
Applecross sits on a wild peninsula in Strathcarron that makes it feel like it’s at the edge of the world. This is a remote location that would be worth the visit if it were just for the views across the bay to the isles of Raasay and Skye, but this village also has a winding approach road that many consider the most scenic driving experience in Britain.
The Bealach na Ba pass is one of the highest roads in the country, reaching 2,053 feet at its highest point and it follows the incredibly twisty-turny topography of the area in a series of hair-whitening alpine-style hairpin bends.
Driving along this road to Applecross is an experience you’re not likely to forget.
Braemar is best known as the home of the annual Highland Gathering that’s held in September. This festival and sporting competition celebrates everything Scottish with pipe bands, events like tossing the caber and Highland dancing, and it’s so good even the Royal Family attend each year.
For the rest of the year the small village is used as a hub for visitors keen to explore the surrounding Cairngorms National Park which is a haven for hikers and cyclists thanks to over 65 miles of paths and cycle routes between its 24 Munros (a mountain over 3,000 feet).
Glencoe is another popular destination for hikers and it’s a great starting point for treks into the surrounding Glencoe mountains.
This village is the main settlement in the Lochaber region of the Highlands and you’ll find plenty of accommodation in the village and surrounding countryside so it’s a great base to go rock and ice climbing in winter and fishing in summer – with the beautiful River Coe and Loch Leven being two of the highlights in the area.
Towns in the Highlands
Mallaig is the final destination on the Jacobite steam train from Fort William and it’s usually busy throughout the year with travellers who have a couple of hours to kill in the old fishing port before they depart for the return journey home.
There’s a working harbour where you can watch boats sailing in and out and it’s also the setting-off point for boat tours that sail around the coastline to Loch Nevis on wildlife-watching cruises.
Fort William is the starting point for the Jacobite steam train, and though the train is one of the highlights of the town most visitors go there to enjoy the outdoor pursuits that are available on its doorstep.
The town is known as the outdoor capital of the UK and the surrounding area is packed with things to do, from hiking up Ben Nevis to walking through the wilderness to see the outrageously pretty Steall Falls.
The town is a great place to visit in its own right as it sits on the shores of Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil which both offer excellent loch-side walks, and the town centre is home to plenty of pubs and restaurants – perfect for enjoying a relaxing drink after a busy day in the Scottish wilderness.
Fort Augustus is located on the southern-most tip of Loch Ness and it’s the main hub for exploring the great body of water after Inverness which sits at the northern end of the loch.
The town also lies on the Caledonian Canal which joins Loch Ness so it’s quite a busy place with constant steams of boats passing through, and it manages to maintain its quaint character even though it gets packed with tourists throughout the year.
Highlights of the town are the giant lock that separates Loch Ness from the canal, Loch Ness itself which has boat trips sailing up and down it from Fort Augustus, and Castle Urquhart which is a half-hour drive away and is considered one of the most photogenic castles in Scotland.
Oban is known as the ‘gateway to the isles’ as it is the main departure point for ferries sailing to the western islands. The town is still used as a fishing port and it’s renowned for the fresh catches that are sold in its restaurants daily, but it also has a few tourist attarctions of its own including McCaig’s Tower and the Oban Distillery.
Where are the Scottish Highlands?
When you visit Scotland you’ve basically got three options for finding places to visit.
First, you can do what most people do and head for the big cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the latter playing host to the majority of the best tourist-friendly experiences that the country has to offer.
Second, you can go to the west coast islands and immerse yourself in their vast remote stretches of windswept beaches and mountainscapes, and third, you can go explore what I believe is the most beautiful part of the UK – the Scottish Highlands.
The Highlands are traditionally considered to be one half of Scotland, with the other being the Lowlands, and both areas are divided by a boundary that follows the Highland Boundary Fault.
This fault line starts close to the area of Helensburgh – 40-ish miles north of Glasgow – and extends all the way to Stonehaven in the northeast with much of the landscape west of the fault being pushed up in an enormous rift.
In fact, this fault line is the main reason why there are so many mountains in western Scotland and you’ll notice there’s a definite change in the landscape if you ever drive across the width of the country from either coastline.
While the Lowlands are relatively flat, the Highlands are much more dramatic – think windswept moors surrounded by vast mountain ranges and you’ve pretty much got it – and they’re very sparsely populated, having one of the lowest densities of people outside of the great plains of Russia.
It’s not quite true to say that the Highlands follow the fault line in its entirety though as the boundary turns north before it reaches the east coast and then arcs back towards the city of Inverness (the capital of the Scottish Highlands) in the area of the Moray Firth.
Everything north and west of this point (including the Orkney and Shetland Isles and the Western Isles) are also in the Highlands so I think you’ll appreciate it’s a pretty big area, and one that needs a lot of prior planning if you’re thinking of coming here to explore it.
You’ll get a better idea of what I’m talking about with this illustration:
How to visit the Scottish Highlands
Getting anywhere in the Highlands takes much longer than it does when you’re in the main cities, purely because it’s such an enormous region and everything is spread so far apart.
That being said, you’ve got a few options when it comes to actually getting to the Highlands so don’t let yourself be put off by its remoteness.
Flights to the Highlands
If you’re an international visitor you’ll arrive in Scotland at one of our main international airports depending on where you’re coming from – most likely Aberdeen airport (Address: Dyce, Aberdeen, AB21 7DU), Glasgow airport (Address: Paisley, PA3 2SW) or Edinburgh airport (Address: Edinburgh EH12 9DN).
Once at these hubs you’ve got the option of continuing your journey inland by train or car or you can head out to the islands if you plan to catch another flight from Aberdeen or Glasgow, with the former serving Orkney and Shetland and the latter connecting to the Western Isles.
The infrastructure between these airport hubs is good and you can take a train from Edinburgh and be at Glasgow in less than an hour, so flying into the capital city and ending up at remote islands like Barra and Tiree is remarkably easy.
You will find out everything you need to know about travelling to Scotland by air in my Complete Guide to Scotland’s Airports.
Using the train in the Highlands
Britain has a bit of a love/hate relationship with its train network, mainly because the services are generally overpriced and subject to frequent delays, but they can be an easy way to get to the Highlands if you do a bit of planning before you set off.
The West Highland Line is particularly recommended because it’s extraordinarily pretty along much of its route – whether you’re travelling from Glasgow to Oban (where you can then catch a Calmac ferry to the western islands) or Glasgow to Fort William (where you can step on board the Jacobite steam train which runs to the northwest fishing town of Mallaig).
If you’re intending to use the train you really should experience this route to Mallaig as it’s absolutely beautiful and has, in fact, been described as one of the greatest train journeys in the world. You’ll find out more about it in my Guide to the Jacobite Steam Train.
While these routes are very scenic they can also be a huge pain in the wallet so I recommend getting a rail travel pass while you’re here to save a bit of money.
The Spirit of Scotland travel pass offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either 4 or 8 days and you’ll find stations in most towns in the Highlands.
Alternatively, the Highland Rover travel pass gives you four days of unlimited travel over eight consecutive days and it also gives you 20% off ferry services to Orkney and Shetland – which can be useful if you’re planning to head to the far north during your holiday.
Using a car in the Highlands
By far the most convenient form of transport in the Highlands is the car, but if you’re travelling here from overseas it can also be the most expensive.
Hire car costs can be extortionate once you add on fuel (we have some of the highest fuel prices in Europe) and insurance (likewise), but there are ways you can keep your costs as low as possible.
Unless you’re travelling in a big group I’d suggest getting as small a car as is practical, and you’ll find something like a Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa will whisk families around Scotland’s narrow roads economically, safely, and comfortably.
My top tips for getting a hire car in Scotland are to think seriously before splashing out on collision waiver damage (it’s often a rip-off), go direct to a rental company like SIXT or Hertz instead of using a rental car broker, and don’t get conned into taking out a load of vaguely-worded insurance you probably won’t need.
Once you’re out on the open road you’ll find the scenery is gob-smacking and being able to pull over onto the roadside whenever you like is definitely a bonus, but there are some downsides to driving in Scotland.
First and foremost I strongly advise you to not drive in the Highlands in winter if you’re an inexperienced driver as weather conditions can change at the drop of a hat and a road that started off clear in the morning can be buried under a thick blanket of snow in the afternoon.
That, coupled with the fact that many roads are winding and single track can make for treacherous driving conditions.
On the other hand, visiting Scotland in summer when it’s green and lush gives you the ingredients for a perfect road trip, especially if you head to the far north and experience one of the greatest road journeys in the world on the North Coast 500.
I think it’s safe to say there are more than enough places to visit in the Scottish Highlands that you could easily spend a two-week holiday there and never get bored, and it makes a great alternative to spending a summer break in the busy cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
If you want to discover more great attractions check out my guide map to see where else I recommend in the Scottish Highlands.
If a visit to the Highland’s is combined with a love of the TV series Outlander you might find this article handy: Where Are The Best Outlander Tours in Scotland? If you’d rather avoid the places where everyone else goes read my article about The Best Non-Touristy Places to Go in Scotland. Fallen in love with the Highlands? Then you’ll enjoy my Guide to the Most Romantic Places in Scotland.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Highlands are traditionally considered to be one half of Scotland, with the other being the Lowlands, and both areas are divided by a boundary that follows the Highland Fault. This fault line starts close to the area of Helensburgh – approximately 40 miles north of Glasgow – and extends all the way to Stonehaven in the northeast.
Glencoe and Bidean Nam Bian. Ben Nevis in the Nevis Range. Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. The Cairngorms National Park. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Eilean Donan Castle. The Glenfinnan Monument. Duncansby Head.
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to Oban where you can catch a Calmac ferry to the western islands or you can take the train from Glasgow to Fort William where you can step on board the Jacobite steam train which runs to the northwest fishing town of Mallaig.
Applecross sits on a peninsula in Strathcarron and is noteable for the Bealach na Ba pass which is one of the highest roads in the UK, reaching 2,053 feet at its highest point.
Braemar is best known as the home of the annual Braemar Gathering and Highland Games held in September.
Glencoe is a popular destination for hikers that’s a great starting point for treks into the surrounding Glencoe mountains.
Fort William is the starting point for the Jacobite steam train. The town is known as the outdoor capital of the UK.
Fort Augustus is located on the southern-most tip of Loch Ness and is the main hub for exploring the loch after Inverness which sits at the opposite end to the north.
More outdoors and nature articles
- Red Squirrels in Scotland – The Ultimate GuideRed squirrels may be declining in other parts of the UK but here in Scotland we have healthy – and even growing – populations that are estimated to exceed 120,000 animals. Discover exactly where red squirrels like to live, what you should feed them and the threats they face in this ultimate guide.
- A Guide To The Best Forests in ScotlandDiscover the best forest and woodland walks in Scotland with this in-depth guide that covers their locations, facilities, paths and wildlife. Plus, learn why walking is good for you, what you should wear, and which animals you need to keep an eye open for.
- Where To See Highland Cows in ScotlandHighland Cows are a Scottish breed of rustic cattle known for their thick, shaggy coats that enable them to survive in the harshest of temperatures. In this article you’ll learn all about the ‘Heilan Coo’ and discover the best places in Scotland to see them.
- Where To See Puffins in ScotlandEverybody loves puffins. There’s something about their oversized heads and brightly-coloured stripy beaks and that makes them impossibly endearing. In this article I’ll show you the best places to see these fascinating seabirds.
- Outlander Filming Locations in Edinburgh – The Complete GuideUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five you’ve probably heard of Outlander – the time-travelling TV series that begins in 20th-century Scotland before taking a detour 200 years into the past.