Scottish Highlands & Isle of Skye – What to Know & What to See

* During this time of social distancing, quarantine, and staying put, hopefully this guide can serve as inspiration and motivation as you plan a future trip. *

While the weather may not always be welcoming, outdoor pursuits are plentiful and the Scotts are friendly folks so a visit to the Highlands of Scotland will not disappoint. The Highlands lie north of Scotland’s two largest cities – Glasgow and Edinburgh – and encompass sparsely populated land enveloped in mountains and lochs. This beautifully enchanting landscape makes for an ideal setting in which to embrace the mist with a pair of hiking boots and the promise of a waiting dram of scotch.

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The captivating Scottish Highlands

Know:

  • For historical and cultural context on Scotland, here are just a couple of suggested books, movies, and literary works to read/watch/ listen:
    • How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman is an informative nonfiction book that covers the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment and its impact on the modern world.
    • The Braveheart movie is a fictional depiction of the Wars of Scottish Independence that were fought between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries that resulted in Scotland retaining its status as an independent state.
    • The 2018 movie Mary Queen of Scots, while fictional, is based on 16th century historical events that led to Mary Stuart’s ascension to and abdication of the throne of the Kingdom of Scotland. It was Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, and Mary’s cousin, that signed off on her execution.
    • While the fictional Outlander series of books are about time travel, there is great detail about the enchanting Highlands terrain and clan system. Additionally, the series covers the conflicts between the Scottish and the British that culminated in the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart being defeated by British forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1745.
    • The James Bond movie Skyfall beautifully showcases the protagonist’s childhood home in the Scotland’s highlands of Glen Coe.
  • There is no shortage of sites in the Scottish Highlands, some of which are hidden in glens, while others tend to attract crowds during peak season. The primary focus of this guide is the Western Highlands and Isle of Skye as this area is saturated with epic scenery and appealing sites, thus allowing you to maximize your touring. With as few as four days and a vehicle to get around (see below for info. on vehicle rental), you can complete a circuit of the Western Highlands, including the Isle of Skye, using Fort William as a home base. With a week to tour the area, plan to also include at least one overnight each on the Isle of Skye and in Inverness.
  • Renting a car and driving yourself through the Scottish Highlands is the ideal way to take in the beautiful landscape, but there are a couple of important pieces of information to have at your disposal beforehand. Tourists can use their foreign driver’s license, but if you’re unaccustomed to navigating on the left side of the road, it’s wise to consider your level of comfort with leftward roundabouts and local traffic laws before getting behind the right-side wheel.
    • While manual vehicles are more common, automatic vehicles are available to rent, but note that you will pay more for your rental.
    • A navigation system (usually comes with the vehicle nowadays) and insurance are both recommended for peace of mind. When we visited, we rented our vehicle in York and, after a relatively tame drive on city roads, went back to rental agency to purchase the insurance.
    • The roads of the Highlands are narrow and quite often single lane with passing points every couple hundred meters. Know that it is the car closest to a passing point that should proceed to this “shoulder”, pull over and yield. If the passing place is on your side of the road, you move over, if it is on their side you wait for the other vehicle to approach you. Check behind you because that may be the nearest passing point and you’ll be expected to reverse. Always conclude the transaction with a friendly wave.
  • Scotland law stipulates the right to roam meaning everyone has the right to responsibly and safely access public or privately owned land and inland water for recreation. This ancient tradition that was codified in the Land Reform Act of 2003 ensures that everybody has the opportunity to experience nature, even on larger privately owned land (subject to some restrictions of course). Pretty great idea for a place as beautiful and uninhabited as Scotland. Just make sure you remember to close gates that you pass through.

Prepare:

  • Scotland is known for its often-formidable weather – fog, rain and wind can roll in quick and then move out just as suddenly. Rain gear is essential at all times of the year but if you want to increase your chances of sunny skies, plan your trip between May and September. That being said, don’t let a foggy day deter you from soaking in the magic of fairy glens and waterfalls.

Along with the warmer weather of late spring and summer come the swarms of midges. These pesky little flying insects are not mosquitos, but the females do bite, leaving an itchy mark behind. It’s their penchant for roaming in packs that makes them most annoying so it’s best to cover skin and keep an eye out for swarms when hiking.

  • Deciding where to stay will be dependent upon your mode of transit, but if touring by car (as this itinerary suggests), the following cities and towns make for good home bases.
    • Fort William is a good home base for a couple nights before heading to Skye. With a vehicle, you will be able to explore the dramatic scenery of the Glen Coe valley and hike in the beautiful area surrounding Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
      • To get to the Isle of Skye from Fort William, you can either take A87 or A830. The A830 route includes a car ferry from Mallaig to Armadale (on Skye) for which you should reserve a spot for your vehicle at least a couple days in advance.
    • Plan to spend at least one night on Isle of Skye to avoid feeling rushed to see all that island has to offer. Portree is the largest city and in staying here you can ensure you are up early to beat the throngs that descend on the most popular sites by midday.
    • On your way out of the Highlands, a night in Inverness in the Eastern Highlands will give you an opportunity to visit Loch Ness and see about the monster for yourself.
    • Glasgow or Edinburgh are ideal for coming and going from Scotland and are connected to each other by a 45-minute train ride.
  • You are likely to encounter a thick Scottish accent in some areas of the country but again people are friendly so if you’re a wee bit confused, kindly ask them to repeat what they said. When navigating the countryside, it’s helpful to know that a loch is a lake or sea inlet, a ben is a mountain, a wee hill is more of a bump in the landscape, and a glen is a valley.
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Overcast skies come and go in Scotland

See:

  • Starting your drive in Glasgow or Edinburgh, you will reach Loch Lommond & The Trossachs National Park. Enjoy the views of the loch or take a short break for a short hike to the Falls of Falloch or along a woodland trail.
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Loch Lomond in the Trossachs National Park
  • The Glen Coe valley is famous for its gorgeous, green peaks, and plentiful waterfalls. There are also a number of hikes accessible from Road A82. The Three Sisters viewpoint hike to Hidden Valley is a 2.5-mile hike (out and back) that you can start from either the Three Sisters Car Park or Hidden Valley Car Park. The trail descends to the valley floor before taking you across a footbridge over the River Coe and then on to the Hidden Valley. Expect the hike to take between 2-3 hours roundtrip. The peaks of Bidean Nam Bian are further up from the Hidden Valley if you want to extend your hike.
  • Fort William is a good city for an overnight stay as it has ample lodging and convenient access to great sites nearby.
    • Steall Falls is Scotland’s second highest waterfall and is even featured in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie when Harry takes on the Hungarian Horntail dragon in the Triwizard Tournament. Don’t let the drive to the parking lot along a very narrow single-track road deter you from this fantastic out-and-back 2.5-mile hike. Starting in the woods in Nevis Gorge, the trail opens up into a meadow where you have your first glimpse of Steall Falls. On a side trail in the meadow you’ll find a wire bridge over a river that can be crossed using the two overhead wires – keep in mind, you’ll have to come back over it.
    • Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles – the summit rises to 1,345 meters above sea level – and attracts many visitors seeking to hike to the top. Before beginning your summit from the valley of Glen Nevis up Ben Nevis, stop at the visitor’s center to get information about the trail and weather forecast as this hike shouldn’t be attempted in poor conditions. Summer is the best time for this 10.5-mile (17 km) hike that will take you 7-10 hours. The route is straightforward but shouldn’t be underestimated.
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The bridge at the trail head of Ben Nevis
    • As you depart from Fort William on your way to the Isle of Skye, you will pass the viewpoint of the Glenfinnan Viaduct which was made famous for its cameo in four of the Harry Potter movies. In the film, the Hogwarts Express travels over the viaduct, but it’s the Jacobite Steam Train that crosses on the West Highland Line not far from Loch Shiel. It’s a 30-minute drive from Fort William to the parking lot and a short hike from there to the multiple viewpoints of the viaduct.
  • The Isle of Skye sits off the western coast of Scotland and is full of breath-taking scenery.

The Trotternish Peninsula has some of the most unique and magnificent sites on the Isle of Skye. You can access these on the aptly named the Trotternish Loop to the north of Portree, the island’s largest and capital city. From Portree, take the A87 road towards Uig to tour the loop in a clockwise direction and discover the sites in the order listed below.

    • The Fairy Glen is a mystical looking area with natural rock formations and grassy cone-shaped hills. Respectful walking and climbing are allowed in the area.
      • To reach Fairy Glen, turn off A87 at Uig and wind your way up the hill along a narrow single lane road. There is limited roadside parking so either arrive early to avoid congestion or park in Uig and walk into the Glen (30 minutes).
    • The Quiraing hike is 4.5 miles out-and-back with views of high cliffs, hidden plateaus and pinnacles of rock. There are endless vistas but be advised that this is NOT a good hike to do in bad weather (rain, fog, wind) as the trail will turn to slick mud. If you decide to forgo the walk, you can still get excellent views just going up a short way on the trail.
      • To reach the Quiraing, just outside of Uig make a right turn off A855 to cut across the Isle on a narrow road that will lead you to the cark park and marked trailhead.
    • Next on the loop is a quick stop for a panorama of the coastline with Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls to the north and Brother’s Point (the next stop) to the south.
      • The pull off for the viewpoint is 6 miles from the Quiraing car park. Follow signs for the A85 road and Staffin and continue south until you reach the parking lot on your left.
    • Look for the tall signpost marking Brother’s Point (Rubha Nam Brathairean) to partake in a lesser known but no less impressive short hike of about 2 miles roundtrip. The path from the road will lead down to rocky beach and then continue up towards the root of the Brother’s Point peninsula where you have the option to follow the trail out onto a steeper ridge. When we did this hike, we met a very friendly local and his dog.
      • The parking lot for the Brother’s Point trailhead is just 2 miles south of Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls, or 13 miles north of Portree, across from the Glenview Hotel.
    • The most famous landmark of the Isle is a large pinnacle of rock known as the Old Man of Storr that juts out above the surrounding landscape. The 2.5-mile roundtrip hike offers more great views over the island and water, but with this being a very popular stop, expect crowds on the trail.
      • The cark park is located 7 miles south of Brother’s Point and 7 miles north of Portree. From the car park, head though the gate and follow the gravel path that curves up the hillside.

There are a few spots on the Isle of Skye that are not on the Trotternish Loop, but still worth a visit if you have the time and desire to travel a bit further.

    • Dunvegan Castle is the seat of Clan MacLeod and the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland; a castle was first built on this site in the 13th Today, visitors can pay admission to tour the castle and walk the gardens when the grounds are open from April through mid-October. This is a 45 min to 1 hr drive from Old Man of Storr.
    • Neist Point is the most westerly point on the Isle of Skye and as such makes for a popular spot to watch the sunset. Either walk to the lighthouse (2 miles) or take in the view not far from the parking lot. This is a 30 min drive from Dunvegan Castle. Know that it can get quite crowded around sunset.
    • For a final castle visit on your way off the Isle, Eilean Donan is just under an hour drive from Portree on A87. The castle, situated on a stunning piece of land where three lochs meet, was restored in the early 20th For paid admission visitors can tour the castle and its exhibits.
  • Having departed from Skye and reached mainland Scotland again, you’re already close to Loch Ness so why not make a stop in Fort Augustus for a view out over the loch made famous for its monster. There are a couple of eateries and bed & breakfast places, but it’s a fairly small town that makes it ideal for a brief stop.
  • The larger city of Inverness is an hour drive further east along the scenic Loch Ness. Along the way there on the road A82, stop at the ruins of the 13th century Urquhart Castle. Inverness, the largest city and cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands is also not far from the site of the 18th century battle of Culloden where the Jacobites made their last stand against the British government.

 

A visitor myself, this is a guide to get you started and help you plan, but I would strongly encourage you to ask locals for their advice, seek out the hidden gems, and get off the grid so you can discover why Scotland’s history continues to fascinate and its scenery ceases to astound.

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