The Best Places to Visit in the Scottish Highlands

Cairn Gorm mountain

Cairngorm National Park

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 August 2019 the funicular railway is out of service.

The Cairngorms National Park is the largest in the UK, covering a not-insubstantial area of 1,748 square miles across the regions of Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Angus and Perth & Kinross.

But while this vast wilderness is full of lush forests and tranquil lochs, it’s the arctic mountain plateau that draws the majority of visitors, keen to explore the spectacular ridge that overlooks the town of Aviemore.

This famous landmark is actually the sixth-highest mountain in Britain – reaching 4,084 feet – and it’s just as well known for its adrenaline-fuelled snowsports facilities as it is for its walking routes that extend across the entire 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 cafe’s terrace and soaking up the view.

While you can’t exit the top station unless you’re taking part in snowsports activities you can at least enjoy the restaurant and shops, though to my mind the commercialisation of this attraction has taken away the best aspect of visiting the mountain, which is to enjoy the remoteness of the place.

I think you’ll have a much more enjoyable time if you simply get your boots on and explore the mountainside on foot from the ski centre at the start of the funicular line.

There are paths that lead to Coire an t-Sneachda (one of Britain’s most accessible high mountain corries) where you’ll get to experience stunning views, though it can be a tricky walk in winter so I recommend you grab a map from the visitor centre before departing.


Dunrobin Castle

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 great country houses in Scotland, but while you’ll find other grand estates even further north (check out The Castle of Mey in Sutherland – the former home of the Queen mother), you’ll struggle to find one as beautiful 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 which are stunning and overlook the Moray Firth.

These gardens were designed to look like the grounds of the Palace of Versailles and to my mind they’ve done a good job of recreating them, and I reckon you’ll find it hard to believe you’re still in Scotland if you visit them on a sunny day.

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Head inside the castle and you’ll be equally impressed, with each room beautifully laid out with paintings, tapestries and fine carvings, but for me, the highlight of the tour was looking at the Victorian museum in the old summer house.

The museum is regarded as being 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 having been brought back by the family during their safari’s over 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, like 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 tourist attractions in one scene.

You’ve got 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 gift 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 (as I previously thought before I visited) 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 actually 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. Fascinating stuff.

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 weaponry.

There are even secret spy-holes to find in the maze of rooms, and that’s before you’ve explored the battlements outside with their cannons pointing out across the loch.

Rest assured if you’ve got kids with you they’re going to love exploring Eilean Donan Castle.

Fort George

Fort George

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’s capital city of Inverness there are two nearby attractions that you should definitely take the time to see.

The first is Loch Ness (detailed later in this article) 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.

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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’s arguably the finest collection of old weaponry in Scotland.

It’s a huge space too, but then I suppose it would be seeing as it held over 3,000 barrels of gunpowder back in the day. Just imagine the explosion if that lot had ever caught fire…

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Glencoe and Bidean Nam Bian

Glencoe

Address: Glencoe, Argyll, PH49 4HX

Contact details: Telephone 01855 811307

My complete guide: A Guide to the Glencoe Visitor Centre, A Guide to Bidean Nam Bian

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 (in my opinion) 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.

If I’m ever asked where the best place to visit in Glencoe is, I always say Bidean Nam Bian as it offers something for everyone, no matter their fitness level.

While the 2 1/2 mile route into the mountains is quite a scramble up steep scree-covered slopes the views from the trail and the summit are nothing short of jaw-dropping, and there’s a lot to see on the ascent as well, as you’ll cross tumbling waterfalls and wooded ravines along the way.

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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 low-lying level area has several designated paths running past it that head into the glen and it’s possible to go for a great walk into the mountains while remaining at the lower levels, which I highly recommend you do if you’re pushed for time or don’t fancy a difficult hike.


Glenfinnan

Glenfinnan Monument

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 memorial is quite a sight at the foot of the loch and the surrounding hills make for 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 of the monument.

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 above the valley, 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 train yourself as the views from the original 1960s carriages are incredible, and have to be some of the most photo-worthy in Scotland.

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