Our pocket guide to the Scottish Highlands

Carmen McCormack Profile Image

Carmen McCormack

Guest Expert

5 min read

The wild landscapes and majestic scenery of the Scottish Highlands offer travellers a feeling of remote, soul-stirring solitude. Home to the great Ben Nevis, this mountainous region is bound by towering Munros, but if scaling mountains isn’t your thing then stride through fields of heather and lonely glens, beside shining lochs and fast-flowing burns. Or hire a bike and hit the trails. The region is awash with sublime seafood, particularly on the west coast, from low-key shacks to fine dining and farm shops; while craft gin and whisky distilleries flourish. History awaits at every turn in both the landscape and architecture. And wildlife thrives here in the Highlands: spot roaming herds of deer, the not-so-elusive red squirrel, any number of birds of prey, shy pine martens, and ocean-going creatures gliding in loch and sea.

Featured in this article

Ben Nevis, Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, Quiraing, Glen Coe, Glenfinnan viaduct

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Munro bagging  Highland scenery is dominated by spectacular rocky mountains, or as they’re called here: Munros. Named after Sir Hugh T Munro, a Munro is a Scottish mountain coming in at over 3,000 feet. In 1891 Munro catalogued all 282 of them, and today walking enthusiasts love to challenge themselves to climb as many peaks as they can. Fun fact: around 6,000 Munroists have climbed every peak! The Highlands is home to the great Ben Nevis, at 4,411 feet it’s Scotland's (and the UK’s) highest mountain, but not the most challenging; that title goes to the 12 mist-enshrouded peaks of the Black Cuillin on Skye. So, whatever your level of enthusiasm for hill-walking, there’ll be a Munro out there for you. Explore five epic mountain hikes in the Scottish Highlands >  

Loch Ness & Loch Lomond

Long, deep and narrow, Loch Ness spans over 20 miles between Inverness and Fort Augustus. Despite its icy waters being trawled many times, the elusive Nessie is yet to be spotted, but that doesn’t stop travellers arriving in their droves. Top tip: the southeastern shore is usually quieter and more scenic. Straddling the Highland border, Loch Lomond is the UK’s largest lake, dotted by woods and meadows to the south, then as you pass into the Highland region, the loch narrows into a deep trench carved out by Ice Age glaciers with mountains rising on each side. You’ve easy access to The Trossachs National Park from here too. 


Quairang circular walk, Isle of Skye

If you’re holed up on Skye then don your boots for this spectacular four mile loop. The weird and wonderful rock formations of the Quiraing escarpment were created by post-glacial landslips. Starting and ending at the car park in Flodigarry, the first section has glorious views ahead to the Quiraing and back along the Trotternish peninsula. Look out for a lonely wind-blasted tree – a photographer’s favourite. Initially you’ll see other walkers but the crowds soon thin as the next section requires a bit of a gully scramble as you climb towards the Prison – an imposing three summited rock formation. Look down for glimpses of an island-sprinkled sea as you wander in awe around the rocks. You have the option to leave the path and make for the Table – a flat, grassy buttress which makes a great picnic spot.


The North Coast 500 

Recommended by Fettes Farmhouse

Buckle up for a starkly beautiful road trip around the north coast of Scotland. This looping route starts in Inverness then ribbons along the west coast from the stunning Applecross peninsula, before heading northwards towards Torridon and Ullapool, and up to John O’Groats in the far north-eastern tip, before dropping back down to Inverness. At over 500 scenic miles, you have the option to hop on and off if you don’t fancy committing to the whole thing. Highlights along the way include: fairytale French-chateau-style Dunrobin Castle, the ruined Ardvreck Castle, lonely mountains in remote Wester Ross, dolphins frolicking in the Moray Firth, Sutherland’s sweeping white sand beaches, and a bowl of creamy cullen skink from Delilah’s restaurant in the pretty fishing village of Lochinver.

Read how to travel responsibly on Scotland’s wildest road trip >


Loch Bay, Isle of Skye

Recommended by The Lookout

Anchored to the Scottish mainland since the construction of the Skye Bridge in 1995, the island’s stunning scenery is truly intoxicating. One of the largest of Scotland’s islands, it’s a mesmerising 50-mile-long checkerboard of towering mountains, glistening lochs, rugged moors and imposing cliffs. If you find yourself in the Waternish Peninsula, book a table at this snug, intimate and informal Michelin-star restaurant, set in an old crofter’s cottage with lovely views to distant hills. Husband and wife duo, Michael and Laurence Smith, are the talented chef and urbane front of house. Smith is classically trained and it shows in his perfectly executed dishes, as he adds a French flourish to Scottish menus packed with seafood from the surrounding ocean.


Shieldaig Lodge Hotel

Recommended by Arrowdale

At the lapping edge of Loch Gairloch, set amongst the stunning scenery of Wester Ross is Shieldaig Lodge Hotel, a gorgeously revamped Victorian hunting lodge. Enjoy picnics on the lawn in summer and warm toes in front of open fires in a snug lounge on chilly days. People travel here for the food, menus are packed with the very best and freshest local produce, much from their own 26,000 acre estate. Start with home-cured gravadlax, followed by Highland ribeye, or loch-fresh langoustine and hand-dived scallops. There’s a sublime tasting menu if you fancy a real treat – five courses paired with wine. Finish up with a wee dram in the atmospheric bar.


The Seafood Shack in Ullapool

On the shores of Loch Broom, Ullapool, gateway to the Northern Highlands, is a picturesque fishing port, and the largest town in Wester Ross. It’s an appealing place with a row of whitewashed, loch-facing cottages dotting the harbour and rolling hills rising up behind. On the shoreside, in season, you’ll find The Seafood Shack, winner of the BBC Food & Farming Award 2017. It’s run by local lasses Kirsty and Fenella, who both worked in catering before setting up on their own to celebrate the incredible catches that land on the harbour daily. The menu depends on what’s arrived that morning but expect such delights as creel-caught langoustine, plump mussels in white wine sauce and creamy cullen skink. Oh, and they’ve recently published a cookbook: The Seafood Shack, Food & Tales from Ullapool. 

Read where to eat and drink in the Scottish Highlands >


Glen Coe

The Glen’s rare beauty, carved out centuries ago by icy glaciers and volcanic explosions, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Dominated by towering mountains – glorious in all seasons – and cut through by the River Coe, the walking and hiking is spectacular. History and story-telling are deeply entwined with the land here. Walk through the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail) where stolen cattle were concealed by the MacDonald clan, gaze at the soaring cliffs of the Three Sisters, home to Celtic hero Ossian’s Cave, and discover the gory details of the Massacre of Glencoe at the eco-friendly visitor centre. There are eight Munros in the area, and the dramatic scenery makes it a popular film location for big budget movies like Skyfall and Harry Potter – superfans can find the exact spot where Hagrid’s Hut was filmed. 


Glenfinnan viaduct

Recommended by Knoydart Hide 

The Jacobite steam train that sweeps over the glorious 21-arch viaduct in Glenfinnan on the route between Fort William and Mallaig is an exhilarating ride. Harry Potter fans flock here in their droves to ride the ‘Hogwarts Express’ but every inch of scenery during the two hour journey is breathtaking as you swoop past Lochs Eilt, Ailort and Nan Uamh – all bleakly beautiful – before arriving at Morar’s sandy shores. You’ll catch a glimpse of Skye on the final stretch into Mallaig, hop on the port ferry here, it’s just a short boat journey to the island. If you fancy doing your entire trip by train, then take the Caledonian sleeper from Euston and wake in Fort William the next morning. We’d advise setting your alarm in order to witness the lonely beauty of Rannoch Moor as the train sweeps across early in the morning.


Highland Castles

Eilean Donan Castle recommended by Avernish Lodge

Scotland is famed for its many hundreds of castles, most built to keep marauders out during skirmishes over land, and you never have to travel far to find one. On a trip to the Highlands you might spot Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness or Old Inverlochy in Fort William – both majestic ruins. One of our favourites is Eilean Donan in the western Highlands. Originally built during the thirteenth century, what you see today dates from the early 1900s. It’s situated on a small tidal island at the meeting place of three sea lochs and circled by the forested mountains of Kintailin. Every Sawday’s owner on Skye recommends a visit to Dunvegan Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, it’s been the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan for over 800 years. Carved into sheer rock on the loch shore, take the tour to discover family heirlooms dating back to the middle ages.

Read five must-visit castles in the Scottish Highlands >


Whisky distilleries

Dalwhinnie Distillery recommended by Strathspey Lodge

Scotland has a proud and ancient whisky heritage and its varied geography gives each region’s brew its own complex character and flavour. The Highland’s coastal whiskies have a tang of brininess to them,ile the moorlands have a distinct peatiness. The Dalwhinnie Distillery, in the heart of the mountainous Cairngorms, is the highest distillery in Scotland. Surrounded by clear spring waters and peaty bogs, its famous single malt is renowned for its gentle flavour with notes of heather and honey. Talisker, on the shores of Loch Harport with dramatic views of the Cuillins, is the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye, and has produced its award-winning single malt since 1830. It has a famously rich and powerful peat-smoke flavour. We’d also recommend Balblair in Edderton and Glenmorangie in Tain if you’re on the east coast close to Dornoch Firth.


Aviemore shops

Outdoor shops recommended by Strathspey Lodge

Aviemore is the gateway to the Cairngorms. Fondly known as the ‘outdoors capital’, it’s chockfull of outdoorsy shops (plenty of independents alongside the big brands) to set you up for hikes in ancient forests, up towering mountains and beside glittering lochs. It’s the place to hire bikes, both electric and old-school, as well as look for gifts and crafts. A bit of a foodie hub too, you’ll find the usual fudge and sweets as well as two distilleries: Cairngorm Brewery craft beers and Kinrara Distillery’s small batch gins. Do not leave the area without a visit to Rothiemurchus Farm Shop, where you can pick up award-winning wild venison from the estate, silvery rainbow trout, estate-buzzed honey, organic veg and artisan cheeses. There’s a cafe on site, and, if you don’t fancy cooking, grab a homemade meal to pop in the oven, a bottle of wine and you’re good to go. 


Lotte Glob Ceramics 

Lotte Glob is a Danish ceramicist who’s lived and worked on the far north west coast, near Durness, for over 50 years. She’s travelled extensively and worked in potteries in Ireland, Scotland and France, whilst curating regular exhibitions of her work, which can be found in public and private collections worldwide. Her work includes dishes, bowls, tiles, wall panels, fountains, floating stones and sculptures; and she works across various mediums: paper, copperplate etching, drawings and paintings. Visit her inspirational 14-acre Sculpture Croft on the shores of Loch Eriboll to see live art in the making. If she’s not in her studio, she’ll be out sculpture crofting.


Fettes Farmhouse

A traditional sandstone farmhouse on the Black Isle with a wonderful position and grand views overlooking the Beauly Firth. Outdoors you’ll find a large garden with lawns for tumbling on, views to the distant water, barbecue and outdoor table and chairs. Lounge in the wood fired hot tub the best spot for stargazing. Discover the ruined castle on the estate and spot red squirrels, pine martens and the ospreys who nest here every year.

Owner Katie: We are five minutes off the North Coast 500 route and the bustling town of Beauly. Visit the famous Campbells of Beauly Tweed House as well as Petra Palumbo’s homeware store.


The Lookout

This eco-friendly, architect-designed, light-filled haven overlooks a beautiful stretch of coast from Dunvegan Head to Loch Bay; wonderful walks start from your doorstep. There’s a wood burner to keep you cosy on days when the weather is wild outside, tranquil sea views and contemporary interiors. Bring back your catch of the day and cook in the well-equipped little kitchen. Watch spectacular sunsets, and glorious dark skies, from the terrace.

Owners Lorna and Murray: The Lookout is a short walk from the oldest inn on Skye, The Stein Inn. Here you can sample fresh local mussels and scallops and Scottish whiskies. 


Avernish Lodge

A new-build in local stone with vast windows gazing out at the meeting place of three beautiful lochs. The sitting room is designed to bring the outside in, with six large windows and a special viewing chair. It’s an uncluttered space with clever lighting, underfloor heating and a roaring wood burner giving warmth. Bedrooms are large with doors to the outside so you can enjoy morning tea transfixed by big skies and watery vistas. Head out onto the water, swim if you’re brave, paddle board, kayak, or simply look out for wildlife.

Owners Lynsey and James: For fresh, locally caught seafood visit The Fisherman’s Kitchen in Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye Bridge Seafood in Kyleakin. 


Our featured places to stay

Fettes Farmhouse

Muir of Ord, Highland

  • From £400 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 5 rooms for 10

The Lookout Skye

Waternish, Isle of Skye

  • From £136 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 1 room for 2

Avernish Lodge

By Kyle of Lochalsh, Highland

  • From £178 p/n
  • Self-catering
  • 2 rooms for 4

Browse all our special places to stay in Scotland >

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Carmen McCormack

Guest Expert

Carmen is a freelance writer specialising in travel. She once lived in a bus in north Wales, skipped off to study in Barcelona, and now calls Bristol home. When she’s not tapping away on her laptop, she can be found reading (a lot), lake swimming (a little), and pottering on the allotment with husband and two kiddos. She’s currently dreaming about cold cerveza and torta in Mexico.

View more articles by this author

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