Guide to the Scottish Highlands
What makes the Scottish Highlands so special? The people are simultaneously salt-of-the-earth and soulful. The landscape is profoundly humbling and uplifting. The Scottish Highlands has a history that is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking. The culture of the region is steeped in tradition as well as innovation.
If breathtaking beauty, dramatic history, rich culture and cool people are your cup of tea, then check out this Scottish Highlands itinerary. Our guide takes you from Newtonmore to Inverness, circling up and across to Durness in the northwest corner of the country, then down to Ullapool. Our tour ends in style at Inveraray Castle.
From a cultural perspective, historically the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands is language. Scottish Gaelic was and is spoken in the Highlands. At the beginning of the late Middle Ages, the Lowlands adopted the Scots language, an ancient version of English that is Germanic in origin.
Another distinguishing feature of the Scottish Highlands is its clan social structure. Clan kinship group has long been associated with the Highlands. Clans are not literally all flesh-and-blood relatives but people bound together by territory and allegiances.
Where to stay in Scotland
Edinburgh Radisson Blu in the heart of the Royal Mile in historic Old Town. Or try out Queen's Guest House, a Georgian townhouse located on Queen Street in Edinburgh New Town, this property overlooks Queens Gardens.
In Inverness check out Ballifeary Bed and Breakfast, a Victorian villa in a quiet neighborhood near the River Ness and an easy walk to downtown Inverness.
Make your comfy home for the night the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast. Its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger.
My home base while in Ullapool is West House, owned by Richard & Colleen Lindsay, and just a block up from Loch Broom. Just across the street is Ceilidh Place, a small hotel where you can have a terrific meal, enjoy live music, and peruse its eclectic book shop and art gallery.
Start Your Scottish Highlands Tour in Newtonmore
A scenic two-hour drive north of Edinburgh, Newtonmore lays claim to be within a stone’s throw of the exact geographical center of Scotland. Newtonmore is on the fringes of Cairngorms National Park, the largest national park in the U.K.
Newtonmore is a village of about 1,600 residents and has two main attractions.
Highland Folk Museum
Highland Folk Museum is Britain’s first open-air museum and over the span of a mile. This time machine spans more than eighty acres it covers four centuries of life in the Highlands. It is divided into several distinct sections: a reconstruction of a croft; a 1930s farm; a village; pine woods; and thirty buildings bringing to life the daily existence of Highlanders from the 1700s up to the 1950s. In early 2019, the site was voted by readers of The Guardian as the ‘Best Living History Museum in the United Kingdom’.
The Museum’s exhibits showcase dimensions of Highland life from farming, cooking, music, sports, weapons, clothing, superstitions, stories and songs. The site also hosts a wide range of historic and replica buildings, including croft houses and a working farm.
Opening Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 10.30 am to 4.00 pm
Admission fees: Free
Clan Macpherson Museum
Clans are kinship groups, and the history of each Scottish Highlands clan, like any family, is uniquely personal, reflecting the values, allegiances and ideologies of its leader. The Clan Macpherson Museum offers a window into the origins of the clan system and their own genealogy, which includes buried treasure, a fugitive prince, and mutiny.
The Museum is open from April to October and the Gathering is always timed to coincide with Newtonmore’s Highland Games around the first weekend in August.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 am to 5.00 pm, Sun 12-5 pm
Admission fees: Free
Inverness is considered the gateway to the moors and mountains of the Scottish Highlands. The commercial hub of the hinterlands, Inverness is a compact city of contrasts. Under a jagged skyline pierced by the spires of six churches and a castle, the languid River Ness separates the bustle of the High Street and the peaceful, tidy neighborhoods of Dalneigh and Merkinch, where statuesque Victorian homes mingle with the utilitarian housing of council estates.
One of Inverness' six churches is The Old High Church, which stands on a site which has had religious connections ever since St Columba preached to King Brude here in 565 AD. The first reference to the church is in a deed granted by King William the Lion in 1171, which refers to the Church of St Mary in Inverness. By 1371 the church was described as 'noble, strong and distinguished, though in need of roof repairs,' hardly surprising as it was thatched until at least 1558.
The lowest part of the west tower dates from the 14th or 15th century, making it the oldest structure in Inverness. The Tower was for centuries the highest building in the town and a place of refuge for the community in times of trouble. Such times include a period during which the Macdonalds are reputed to have torched Inverness on no less than seven occasions, as part of a vendetta between the Clan Donald and the Town.
Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre
In fact, Inverness' strategic location inspired epic clashes between over the ages. The most brutal occurred at Culloden, 4.5 miles outside Inverness, and forever changed the cultural landscape of the Highlands.
This 1746 battle, the last to be held on British soil, pitted the Jacobites and the Hanoverians, two branches of the same royal family against each other. In less than an hour, the Hanoverians slaughtered about 1,500 Jacobites—largely members of Highland clans. The history and its underlying politics are complex, but the emotion and very vivid humanity of this tragic episode in Scottish history are brilliantly conveyed in a dramatic 360-degree video presentation at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor’s Centre.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 am to 5.00 pm, Sun 12-5 pm
Admission fees: Adults £11.00, Family £27.00
Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors Center
Watch some of the fastest fingers in the Western world wield a sewing needle at the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center. Here I learned that the origin of tartan was a wrap-around blanket. Hugely popular today, kilts were declared illegal for a time after the battle at Culloden.
The Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors Center is located within Highland House of Fraser’s retail and manufacturing premises. It is located on Huntly Street along the banks of the River Ness. Its owner William Fraser has been in the kilt-making trade for more than fifty years.
Tartan was woven in the early stages in croft houses and weaving sheds throughout Scotland. The cloth was used as payment for trading items such as for wine and brandy barrels with France. Tartan got its name from the French word “tiertaine” meaning special kind of course material of a square design.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat, 9 am-5.30 pm, Closed Sundays
Admission fees: Free
Take a Cruise on Legendary Loch Ness
The legendary Loch Ness is 25 minutes from Inverness. On a Jacobite Cruise, you can hunt for Nessie and explore the evocative Urquhart Castle. This Scottish Highlands icon was a strategic stronghold fought over for four centuries by area clans, eventually reduced to ruins in the 17th century.
The Scots take enormous pride in the history of Scottish invention and discovery and the Caledonian Canal is testimony to that heritage of innovation. Jacobite Cruises has a tour called “Reflection” which starts at Tomnahurich bridge on the outskirts of Inverness and travels two miles on the canal.
The Caledonian canal is only 22 miles long but it is connected to four Lochs. It stretches across the Highlands from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean making this passage 60 miles in total.
Two and a half hours northwest of Inverness is Durness. This remote parish is an absolutely spectacular swath of the Scottish Highlands that stretches from Loch Eriboll to Cape Wrath. My stay in the hamlet of Balnakeil is one of my fondest-ever travel memories. I found the land and seascape of this coastal community on the two-mile-wide Balnakeil Bay to be profoundly moving.
I arrived at dusk, greeted from a distance by a rainbow that seemed to end in Balnakeil. My home for the night was the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast. Its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger". Martin Mackay is the proprietor of the B & B, as well as a full-time crofter. The property is a modernized croft house that dates to the 1890s. A croft is a small agricultural unit, most of which are situated in the north of Scotland.
Glengolly is a working croft where Martin raises North Country Cheviot sheep. The dawn-til-dusk labor is made easier with the help of an energetic army of Border Collies. The next morning, after a hearty "full Scottish breakfast", I had the chance to see Martin and his team in action.
Across the road from the plain white home, the horizon line came alive as a herd of sheep appeared at the crest of the small green hill. Martin barked a command and a trio of border collies sprang into action, each a blur as he raced toward the sheep. Over the next half hour, I was enthralled with an elaborately choreographed production.
A half-mile west from Glengolly is Balnakeil Craft Village, housed in low-slung concrete buildings that were built during the Cold War in the 1950s as shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. I found a collection of talented artists galleries and workshops producing crafts such as handmade soaps, pottery, basketry, and leatherwork. Taking an hour’s walk in the vicinity made clear why they find the environment so inspiring!
Next, I headed due to north another half mile to Balnakeil Bay, literally about as far north and west as you can get in Scotland. The Bay is two miles wide, and it’s turquoise waters are surrounded by huge dunes sculpted by wind coming off the Atlantic. The pristine beach conjures up the Caribbean, but the water temperature reminds you that you are on the same latitude as Norway!
On the southern end of the bay is Balnakeil House, a mansion referred to as Tigh Mor, or “Big House”. The site is said to have been the summer residence of the medieval Bishops of Caithness in the 12th century. By the 16th century, it had become the headquarters of the Clan Mackay. The Mackay who built the house was educated in Denmark, and the architecture of the impressive manor is believed to have characteristics of Danish farm estates. The house lay vacant for 30 years and was renovated in 2012. It’s now a holiday home that sleeps 17 if you’re in the market for a luxurious retreat with spectacular views!
Perched above the bay across from Balnakeil House are the romantic ruins of Balnakeil Church, built-in 1617 on the site of an 8th-century Celtic monastery. Donald MacLeod is among the legendary local figures buried in the atmospheric graveyard here. MacLeod worked for the chiefs of Clan MacKay and is said to have killed at least 18 people and disposed of the bodies at nearby Smoo caves. A more popular figure memorialized in the cemetery is the revered Scots Gaelic poet Rabbie Burns. His literary legacy includes Auld Lang Syne and countless other beloved Scots works.
John Lennon is a more contemporary bard that also has connections to Balnakeil. Lore says that his song “In My Life” is based on many visits he made to visit his aunt Elizabeth Parkes in Balnakeil as a youngster. You can find her gravestone in the churchyard.
It isn’t hard to see why this "Glen of the Stranger" has made such a strong impression on so many!
Onward to Ullapool, one hour and forty minutes to the south of Durness. My home base while in Ullapool is West House and just a block up from Loch Broom. Just across the street is Ceilidh Place, a small hotel where you can have a terrific meal, enjoy live music, and peruse its eclectic bookshop and art gallery.
A visit to the Ullapool Museum offers insight into the beginnings and history of this small, delightful village perched on Loch Broom.
The name Ullapool itself is said to be from a Viking settlement known as "Ulla's Farm/Steading". For over 700 years Ullapool has had a small collection of smallholdings and crofts covering about 500 hectares. The primary income of local people of Lochbroom was crofting, which traditionally includes sheep rearing, possibly some cattle, a bit of fishing and crops.
In 1788 the British Fisheries Society bought Ullapool to develop the fishing on a commercial basis. The village itself was laid out on a grid plan with input from the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who is well known for his incredible canals, roads and bridges.
The crofting population took a big hit, and most either emigrated to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand or they moved south to the bigger cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh for more job opportunities. However, in the last 20 years, more people are now moving back to the rural Highlands and adopting crofting traditions again. Some scholars call it a "reverse clearance".
Indeed, Ullapool has a lot to offer returnees and visitors, it has a thriving arts and culture scene with two popular festivals: Ullapool Book Festival in May and the Ullapool Guitar Festival in October.
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