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If you want to skip the introduction and get straight to my list of the best places to visit in the Highlands scroll down to the bottom of the article and click the next page buttons for pages 2 and 3.
‘So, where are the 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 (in my humble opinion).
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 (makes sense), and both areas are divided by a boundary that follows a lengthy section of the Highland 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 breadth of the country from either coastline.
While the Lowlands are relatively flat and used for farming, 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 map:
‘Ok, so tell me why I should visit the Highlands’
The Highlands are what I like to think of as ‘the real Scotland’ because it’s one of the few places in the country that has (mostly) escaped the clutches of over-commercialisation, where it’s still possible to roam for miles and miles without seeing bus-loads of camera-wielding tourists.
Of course, you could argue that a city like Edinburgh is the real Scotland too, but the sad fact is that because its tourism industry is so concentrated on separating money from visitor’s wallets many of the capital’s best attractions come across as being a little bit, how can I put it? Fake.
Strip away the tartan and the bagpipes and you could place many of those attractions in any other city anywhere in the world.
The Highlands, on the other hand, offers a glimpse into Scotland’s traditional culture that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, especially once you get into the little villages dotted between the mountains and all along the west coast.
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 of the tourist hotspots, and I truly believe it’s this friendly culture that brings visitors back year after year just as much as the stunning scenery does.
And what scenery…
Head to Glencoe to admire the craggy peaks of Bidean Nam Bian and you’ll instantly fall in love with Scotland, just like you will when you head north and visit the spectacular landscape of Ben Nevis in the Nevis Range.
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 – which I’ve written a guide about – while standing on the banks of one of the most atmospheric castles in Scotland at Urquhart Castle?
Then again, maybe you prefer to lose yourself in the wild places with a camera in hand looking to spot Scotland’s famous red deer, golden eagles and wildcats before heading to the coast to keep a lookout for our whales, seals and dolphins.
The point I’m making here is that the Highlands offer the chance to experience the very best of Scotland at a reasonable cost and you won’t have to join a heaving guided tour to enjoy it. Bonus!
The only downside is that you might struggle to decide where to go first…
‘How do I travel to and get around the Scottish Highlands?’
Before I answer that, I have to tell you that 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.
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 really 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.
If you want to find out everything you need to know about travelling to Scotland by air check out my Complete Guide to Scotland’s Airports.
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 prior 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 on using 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, with the 4-day pass costing £111 and the 8-day pass costing just £32 more (as of 2019). These passes are insanely convenient if you intend to make the train your main form of travel and you’ll find stations in most towns in the Highlands.
Alternatively, the Highland Rover travel pass gives you four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days for £89 (as of Jan 2019), 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.
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.
For starters, 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-associated 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 to take photos 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 roads in the world on the North Coast 500.
‘Which are the best villages and towns in the Scottish Highlands?’
The Highlands are full of quaint little hamlets that are guaranteed to offer visitors a unique experience, whether it’s one of the coastal fishing villages on the west coast or an inland town perched at the foot of a mountainside.
To be honest, there are so many nice places I can think of I can’t possibly fit them all into one article, so I’ve listed a few random ones below to give you a taste of what the Highland towns and villages have to offer.
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 as the most exciting driving experience in the UK.
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 Braemar Gathering and Highland Games 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 this small village is usually used as a hub for visitors keen to explore the surrounding Cairngorms National Park and it’s a real haven for hikers and cyclists thanks to over 65 miles of paths and cycle routes between its 24 Munros (a Munro is a mountain over 3,000 feet).
Glencoe is another popular destination for hikers that’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 has a welcoming atmosphere for tourists, no doubt helped by the amount of money they bring into the local community.
You’ll find plenty of accommodation in the village and surrounding countryside so it’s a great base from which 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.
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.
There’s a working harbour where you can watch boats sailing in and out and it’s also the setting-off point for several 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 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 is the main hub for exploring the great body of water after Inverness which sits at the opposite end to the north.
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, though 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 to be one of the most photogenic castles in Scotland.