Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
While visitors flock to Loch Ness hoping to catch a glimpse of its elusive and eponymous monster, Loch Ness—a lake in the Scottish Highlands—is worth the trip even if you don’t believe the rumors. Vast and surrounded by magnificent Scottish scenery, Loch Ness is a popular boating and sightseeing spot.
Scotland's largest island, the Isle of Skye is a pocket of wilderness jutting off the coast of the West Highlands. The area is a treat for nature lovers, with its dramatic sea cliffs, windswept valleys, and glittering lochs.
One of the most photographed sites in Scotland, the Eilean Donan Castle dates back to the 13th century. Built as a defense against the Vikings and used during the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century, this loch-side castle was restored in the 20th century and is now a popular destination for weddings and tours.
Bordered by steep, waterfall-threaded mountains, dramatic Glencoe (Glen Coe) is the stuff of Scottish postcards. Though it has historical significance—it was the site of the 1692 Glencoe Massacre of the MacDonald Clan—and its very own ski resort, Glencoe Mountain Resort, the valley’s main draw is its spectacular scenery.
The Culloden Battlefield was the site of one of the last battles to take place on British soil. On April 16, 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army of 5,000 Jacobite Highlanders faced off against the Duke of Cumberland and 9,000 Hanoverian government troops. Though the Jacobites fought valiantly, they were ultimately defeated, resulting in the elimination of the Scottish clan system and the suppression of Highland culture. Today, the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre retells the events of that fateful day through interactive exhibits that put travelers in the thick of the action.
Dating to 3,000 BC, this Neolithic village predates the Egyptian pyramids. The Skara Brae settlement—hidden underground until a storm uncovered it in 1850—includes Stone Age dwellings complete with stone beds and furniture. A visitor center hosts exhibits including a reconstruction of one of the ancient houses.
Rising 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) above sea level, Ben Nevis is Scotland’s tallest mountain and a premiere destination for climbers. Once a massive volcano that exploded and collapsed inward, the summit is frequently shrouded in mist. In Gaelic, it is called the “mountain with its head in the clouds” and also “venomous mountain.”
A village on the shores of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a popular destination in the Scottish Highlands. Once a garrison in the 18th century, the scenic village today attracts cyclists, hikers, and travelers in search of the Loch Ness monster. It’s also a gateway to the Great Glen Way, a 73-mile trail that runs from Inverness to Fort William.
Set on the shore of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle (Caisteal na Sròine) attracts many visitors that come here in hopes of glimpsing Nessie, the loch’s fabled aquatic monster. The ruined medieval fortress, which was destroyed in 1762 to prevent it from becoming a Jacobite stronghold, now houses a visitor center that exhibits objects found amid the ruins.
Pleasure boats float along Caledonian Canal, a scenic 60-mile (97-kilometer) waterway that runs through Scotland's Great Glen, connecting Fort William in the southwest to Inverness in the northeast. The canal, which links Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Dochfour, and Loch Ness, is popular with walkers and cyclists, who follow towpath trails.
More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Complete with turrets and battlements, this Gothic Revival-style castle is revered for its storybook good looks. Inveraray Castle has been the seat of the Clan Campbell since the 15th century and has more recently served as a filming location for Downton Abbey. The castle houses collections of weapons and art, and is surrounded by manicured gardens.
Overlooking Loch Roag and the hills of Great Bernera, the Callanish Standing Stones—also known as the Calanais Standing Stones—comprise 13 large stones set around a Celtic cross–shaped monolith, with some 40 smaller stones radiating out from the center. Built between 3,800 and 5,000 years ago, this stone circle was erected at around the same time as the pyramids of Egypt.
Separated from the northern tip of mainland Scotland by the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth strait, the Orkney Islands are an archaeological wonderland. Comprised of about 20 inhabited islands and many more uninhabited ones, Orkney is littered with prehistoric ruins and Viking remnants. The islands’ interiors, a patchwork of heather-clad moors and fertile grasslands, are encircled by superb sandy beaches and sheer coastal cliffs.
Perched atop a hill by the River Ness, this Victorian-era red sandstone castle—built to replace the medieval fortress blown up by the Jacobites in 1746—is one of Inverness’ most prominent historic structures. Access to the castle, now occupied by government offices and law courts, is restricted but the grounds are open to the public.
Among the tall green grass and purple heather between Loch Harray and Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones thrust from the earth like rusting giants’ swords.
At 340 feet (104 meters) in diameter, 27 of the original 60 stones survive, making this the third-biggest stone circle in Britain. Thought to have been built around 2000-2500 BC, this was one of the last of such monuments to be built in neolithic Orkney. Excavations of the site have revealed lots of pottery and animal bones, so it seems like cooking and eating around the still visible hearth was the order of the day here 5,000 years ago.
Famous for its perfectly circular shape, the beauty of the Ring of Brodgar is that, unlike Stonehenge, you can get right up to the stones. As you wander, look out for Viking graffiti on some of the stones: 12th-century runic carvings from the Norse invaders can be seen on quite a few. Just a few hundred meters away, you can also visit the neolithic Barnhouse settlement, discovered in 1984.
Perched on a promontory over the North Sea, Inverness' Fort George is surprisingly little-known outside Scotland, but is in fact the largest military stronghold in the UK. Built to protect the royal troops of King George II, the 18th-century fort is encircled by giant stone ramparts over a half-mile (1 km) in length, and by moat (now dry). Sloping battlements, stone-built Georgian barracks, and a chapel awash with regimental colors lend to the site's rich history. Visitors can step inside the barracks to see recreated scenes from the life of an 18th-century soldier, or visit the nearby dog cemetery, where the regimental mascots are buried. Another highlight of a visit is the Grand Magazine, where hundreds of ancient rifles line the walls.
While at the fort, be sure to take in the spectacular views over the Moray Firth, and don't miss the Highlanders Museum in the former Lieutenant Governors’ House—it's the largest military museum outside Edinburgh and is crammed with historic cannons, weaponry, and ammunition, as well as uniforms and medals. History-buffs can round off a tour of Scottish military history with a stop at nearby Culloden battlefield, which is free to enter with the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass.
Chugging through the misty lochs and sweeping glens of the Scottish Highlands, the Jacobite Steam Train (or Jacobite Express) is one of Britain's greatest train journeys, taking passengers on a nostalgic train ride between Fort William in the West Highlands and Mallaig on Scotland's west coast. The 84-mile (135-km) round-trip route passes Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest mountain, and the Glenfinnan viaduct, seen in theHarry Potter films when the Jacobite Steam Train was featured as the fictional Hogwarts Express.
When 550 Italian soldiers were captured in the scorching North African desert back in 1942, it must have caused them quite a shock to be sent in winter to the Scottish isle of Orkne. The POWs were sent here in order to build the “Churchill Barriers,” a series of causeways that would protect the British Grand Fleet in the Scapa Flow harbor. By 1943, the homesick workers requested a chapel where they could worship. What did they get? Two Nissen huts, which they were told to join end-to-end and labor over outside work hours.
What happened next is a beautiful symbol of peace, faith and the power of human ingenuity even in wartime. Local Orkney artists provided brushes and poster paints to decorate the huts; bully beef tins were converted into makeshift candle holders; wood scavenged from shipwrecks was used to create furniture; a car exhaust was covered in concrete to create a Baptismal font. Slowly but surely, those two steel sheds became the Roman Catholic chapel of the Italians’ dreams.
The main man behind the chapel’s decoration was POW Domenico Chiocchetti, who painted a false frontage so that it really looked like the Roman Catholic churches of home. He was so dedicated to the project that when everyone was sent home in 1944, he stayed on to finish the project.
In 1960, Chiocchetti returned to Orkney from his home in Moena, Italy, to assist with a restoration projection of the chapel. When he left three weeks later, he wrote a letter to the people of Orkney: "The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.”
The Clava Cairns—or the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava—are all that remains of what was once a much larger Bronze Age burial complex. Dating back 4,000 years, the evocative cemetery site retains original features, including passage graves, standing stones, and ring cairns (stone circles).
Ever wanted to see wild Atlantic salmon at their most spectacular, leaping up a waterfall? On the road from Inverness to Ullapool, just head to Rogie Falls in the Scottish Highlands for its parade of leaping salmon through August and September. To catch the salmon at their best, try to come in the early morning or evening when they’re at their most active.
A great spot to visit throughout the year, in spring you’ll be treated to a woodland carpet of Scottish bluebells and brilliant birdsong as you take the footpath to Rogie Falls.
From the carpark, there are several well-marked trails you can follow. The "red path" is a short walkway to the waterfall. Once you get to the cascade, keep a lookout for otters playing on the far right bank. The "green path" is a little longer and will take you on a forest walk to “View Rock,” where between two big rocks you’ll get your picture-perfect views of the Scottish Highlands and its forest, hills and loch. This trail is about a two-hour round trip from Rogie Falls car park.
On a tiny peninsula at the northern tip of Loch Awe surrounded by glens, Kilchurn Castle is one of the most photographed spots in Scotland. The castle of 1,000 calendar covers, Kilchurn has had many lives: it served as the powerhouse of the Campbell clan from the year 1440 and was even later used as barracks able to house up to 200 troops during the Jacobite Risings. In the 1750s, however, a huge fire caused by lightning ran right through the castle, and its ruins have been abandoned ever since.
Kilchurn is for anyone who has ever dreamed of having a ruined Scottish castle all to themselves, with no tourist trinket shops around. There isn’t even an attendant at the door of this picturesque ruin, but despite being unmanned, there are plenty of information boards throughout the castle. Climb to the top of its four-story tower for views of the loch and surrounding hills, and remember to say hi to the sheep on your way out!
Founded in 1838, Glen Ord Distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland. Here, at the only remaining malt whisky distillery on the remote Black Isle, it’s possible to go on a behind-the-scenes tour to see and understand the process of making a single malt from start to finish. You’ll get to check out the barley maltings as well as the fermentation and distillation methods, wandering among the barrels and huge copper stills as you go.
As is tradition, at the end of the hour-long tour you’ll get to enjoy a single malt tasting or two. As you sip, you’ll learn how to compare and identify the flavors in whisky. And be sure to make the most of your swig; you won’t be able to buy and enjoy Glen Ord whisky anywhere else in the country, as outside the distillery’s whisky store, the single malt is only sold in Asia.
A modern gem of a theater, Eden Court houses a range of performing arts performances involving music, theater, opera, ballet and dance as well as film. To accommodate all these large scale performances as well as studios for art classes, a new building to house them all was built in 1976 right next to the River Ness. With its sharp angles and metal and glass encasing, the theater now sports a somewhat retro futuristic look. This provides a sharp contrast to the Gothic mansion right next door, the official residence of the Bishops of Moray. But the small palace from an entirely different century has been successfully incorporated into the modern Eden Court Theatre and Cinema and now houses the dressing rooms, offices and a small cinema.
After extensive renovations and refurbishments, Eden Court is now the largest combined arts center in Scotland and has two big auditoriums. The bigger one, Empire Theatre, can seat over 800 people and the other, One Touch, follows suit with about 270 spaces. The two new cinemas, apart from regular showings, also host the annual Inverness Film Festival, where visitors can enjoy niche films and Scottish premieres.
Immortalized at the fictional home of the Thane of Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cawdor Castle is one of Scotland’s most famous castles. Despite its literary notoriety, Cawdor Castle and Gardens actually have little in common with their fictional counterpart. The castle wasn’t built until the 14th-century - years after both the real and fictional King Macbeth existed. Today, the castle is still home to the descendants of the Clan Campbell of Cawdor and the grade-A listed building remains remarkably preserved, surrounded by immaculate gardens, the Cawdor Big Wood and a 9-hole golf course. Highlights for visitors include the sumptuous Drawing Room, with its fascinating family portraits; the Dining Room, with its grand stone fireplace; the 17th-century-style Tapestry Bedroom; and the Old Kitchen, as well as the fabled Thorn Tree around which the historic castle was built.
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