Top 10 Things to Do in the Scottish Highlands on a First Visit
As you travel through the indescribably beautiful Scottish Highlands, 'oohs' and 'aahs' roll off the tongue with blissful abandon. Here's a handy checklist of top things to see and do for a first-time visitor to the region.
The Scottish Highlands are Britain’s wild frontier: a land of vast skies, wind-blown landscapes, majestic mountain ranges, and untamed coastline.
Explore mysterious lochs and barely-trodden national parks. Drive through dramatic landscapes cloaked in purple Scottish heather. Follow the intrigue of feuding clans and ruined castles, and taste the world’s best whisky made from crystal-clear water from alpine rivers. It’s all part of the allure of this amazing region, which is underscored by hospitable people and superb food.
Inverness on the northern coast is a great launching point to explore Scotland’s remote north-west and the isolated islands of Orkney and Shetland. Alternatively, hire a car in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and away you go.
Here are ten top things to do in the Scottish Highlands on a first visit.
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Cairngorms National Park is Britain’s largest national park. Five of the UK’s six highest mountains can be found here, and it’s where you’ll discover the British Isles’ greatest tract of ancient forest. Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is the second largest park in the country. Snow-capped mountains fill the northern sections and at the very heart of the park is stunning Loch Lomond — the largest freshwater expanse in Britain. Hike to the surrounding rocky peaks or kayak to the loch’s distant corners.
2. Taste the world’s best whisky
If you’re partial to a distilled drop, swing by Dalwhinnie Distillery — the world’s highest whisky distillery. It’s one of more than 120 distilleries spread across five official Scottish whisky-producing regions. The pure waters of the Highlands reputedly make the best whisky in the world, and the ‘wee dram’ is the country’s most famous export. May is Whisky Month and nothing tastes better than a single malt at a local pub when the wind is howling outside and the sideways rain sends you running for cover. If you’re up for a challenge, seek out Britain’s most remote public house. The Old Forge on Scotland’s wild west coast is an 18-mile walk from the nearest road, but it’s much more fun to arrive by boat.
3. Do a 4×4 wildlife safari
The Highlands is home to a great array of wildlife. Otters, orcas and puffins frequent the Isles of Mull, May and Shetland. Golden eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons and red kites inhabit the open moorlands and mountains, while minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, and seal pups can be found along the wild northwest coastline. In autumn, red deer begin their dramatic battles for food and females in the high country of the Cairngorms. Give yourself the best chance of spotting them by heading out with an expert on a 4×4 safari.
4. Immerse yourself in the beauty of the lochs
Scotland’s lochs are the sparkling jewels in the country’s crown and there are 31,000 of them to discover! The top three are Loch Ness — made famous by Nessie the monster, Loch Lomond — the ‘pleasure’ loch (great for swimming, fishing, and canoeing), and Loch Fyne — famous for its fresh oysters. Loch Rusky is the locals’ favourite. It’s hidden away in the depths of Trossachs National Park, and you’ll find more local fishermen and photographers here than tourists.
5. Go hiking
For such a small country, the choice of hiking options in Scotland is dizzying. Base yourself in the heart of the Highlands — such as in the old town of Braemar, and head out each day to explore on foot. Get lost along quiet rivers and peaceful forest trails such as the Linn of Dee. For the more adventurous, tackle the heights of Ben Lomond, the coastal trails out of Lochinvar, or island-hikes to the Old Man of Hoy on Orkney.
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Castles were the frontline defence in Scotland for centuries. You’ll find them around almost every bend in the road and they still conjure up images of knights battling for clan and country. Some of the must-sees include Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, and Eilean Donan Castle — the brooding monolith just off the Isle of Skye, which has appeared in films such as Highlander and James Bond’s The World is Not Enough. Stirling Castle was the original centre of Scottish rule and home to the country’s royalty. In the 16th century it was considered the artistic centre of Scotland. Explore the cobblestone streets where poet Robert Burns penned much of his work.
7. Feast on fabulous Scottish cuisine
The bustling seaport of Oban on the west coast is renowned as Scotland’s seafood capital. Here you’ll enjoy amazing fish and chips, and the chance to source shellfish and other ocean delicacies straight from the pier. It just gets better from there. Wherever you choose to travel, you’ll encounter mouthwatering local specialities and signature dishes. Think highland lamb, seared venison or duck breast, and of course the full Scottish breakfast — which will keep you going from dawn to dusk. Then there’s the national dish haggis, but perhaps that’s the origin of Scotland the Brave? The deep-fried Mars Bar is another definite culinary challenge.
8. Revel in the great outdoors
We’ve mentioned hiking, but there are so many more options on offer when it comes to enjoying Scotland’s great outdoors. Fort William is considered to be the outdoor capital of the UK and is the closest access point to Ben Nevis (the UK’s tallest mountain). Every June the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is held here. Winter snow-sports, white-water rafting and fishing are also options. Action Glen at Crieff lets you try a wide variety of outdoor activities, including archery, Segway tours of the Perthshire countryside, and quad biking in an off-road quarry.
9. Ride the rails on the Jacobite Steam Train
Let trains transport you across dramatic land and seascapes. The Jacobite Steam Train runs from the foot of Ben Nevis to the fishing port of Mallaig near the Isle of Skye. You’ll cross over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which featured in the Harry Potter films. Sit on the left-hand side of the train for the best views. The Glasgow to Mallaig line is a sublime ride whatever the season. Autumn will lay a blanket of gold across the tracks as deciduous trees perform their annual turn.
10. Mix it with the royals
Just down the road from Braemar is Balmoral Castle — the late Queen’s much-loved summer residence. It’s situated on the Cairnwell Pass (the highest road in the country) between Perth and Aberdeen, and the grounds are open to visitors from April to the end of July. Stay at The Invercauld Arms Hotel — a historic coaching inn built in 1645. With the Grampian Mountains as a backdrop, heather-covered moorland and forests of birch surrounding you, and the sound of bagpipes drifting on the breeze, you’ll truly know you’re in Scotland.
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in the Scottish Highlands on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Susan Hinchey is a freelance travel writer who, even as a teenager growing up in country New South Wales, knew she wanted to see the world. A couple of years out of high school Susan embarked on an eight-week European Contiki tour. Since then she has visited Alaska, Canada, Thailand, Vanuatu, Fiji, Greece, parts of North America, and Britain several times. Susan’s go-to getaway is a camping trip anywhere along the Australian coast. Her favourite travel moments have included sailing the Mediterranean and visiting Denali National Park in Alaska.