Encompassing a broad swath of Scotland stretching from Inverness north to Thurso, Scotland’s spectacular Highlands are separated from the rest of the country by the “Great Glen”: Glen More. This ancient fault line was used to create the remarkable Caledonian Canalextending from the west coast to the east, from Loch Linnhe to the Moray Firth. While much of this mountainous region is uninhabited (and therefore excellent for hiking and biking adventures) it does boast many lovely small towns and villages. One of the prettiest is the tiny coastal town of Dornoch, noted for its cathedral and castle ruins. At the top end is John o’Groats, home to Scotland’s most photographed signpost. It includes distances to Lands End in Cornwall at the southernmost tip of England (874 mi), as well as “Your Town
1. The City of Inverness
A great place to begin exploring Inverness is in the grounds of lovely Inverness Castle. After sightseeing, head to the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery with its displays about the city’s rich cultural heritage as well as the history of the Highlands. The late 19th century Neo-Gothic St Andrew’s Cathedral stands opposite Castle Hill on the banks of the River Ness and is well worth a visit.
Another notable attraction is Abertarff House, Inverness’s oldest building dating from 1592. The Titanic Inverness Maritime Museum is a fun attraction as a small interactive maritime museum with nautical-themed displays including the world’s largest model of the ill-fated Titanic (1:10 scale).
2. Culloden Battlefield and Visitors Centre
t was in Culloden on April 16, 1746, that the last great battle was fought on Scottish soil and the fate of the Stuarts – and Scotland – was determined. The new Visitor Centre is a must with its first-hand accounts of the battle, a 360-degree film realistically portraying the day’s events, and spectacular rooftop views of the battlefield. Also of interest are the gravestones of the Scottish clans, as well as the 20 ft high Memorial Cairn erected in 1881 to commemorate the battle.
Other landmarks include Old Leanach Cottage and the Cumberland Stone commemorating the spot where the Duke of Cumberland issued orders to his troops. The battlefield is strewn with memorials bearing witness to the dead, including the Keppoch Stone indicating the location where Alastair MacDonell, head of the Keppoch clan, fell. Another recalls the Irish Wild Geese (mercenaries in the service of the French crown who fought on the side of the Highlanders), and the “English Stone” commemorates those who fought alongside Cumberland.
3. Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, just 10 mi northeast of Culloden, is famous as the place where Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth murdered Duncan. Although not historically accurate (Duncan was in fact murdered by Macbeth at the Battle of Elgin), it’s a wonderful place to visit with its large collection of Shakespearean literature and fine period furniture. A hawthorn tree dating from 1370 acted as a sign to the first Thane to build a castle here, and today the lovely grounds of this fairytale garden with its colorful flowerbeds are well worth a visit, as are the nature trails and 9-hole golf course. A quaint cottage on the grounds is available for rent for those looking to really soak up the ambiance of this historic castle and estate.
Also of interest is nearby Fort George, a huge artillery fortress built after the Battle of Culloden to keep the defeated Highlanders in check. Besides extensive military installations, the fort also houses the regimental museum of the Queen’s Own Highlanders.
4. The Lantern of the North: Elgin and its Historic Cathedral
Located just 38 mi east of Inverness on the road to Aberdeen, Elgin has a number of historic attractions worthy of a visit. After centuries of plundering, what’s left of Elgin Cathedral’s tower hints at the former splendor of the 314 ft long “Lantern of the North” as the church was known. Other features still visible include the west facade, the 13th century choir, the great east rose window, and the octagonal chapterhouse. Elgin is also home to Scotland’s oldest church, Birnie Church, which dates from 1140.
Other tourist sites of interest are Spynie Palace with its massive David’s Tower built in 1470; Duffus Castle, a fine example of a Norman motte and bailey castle; and Brodie Castle and Country Park, seat of the Brodie family since 1160 and home to fine French furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, Chinese porcelain, and a notable collection of paintings including works by French Impressionists and English and Dutch artists. Your tour around the extensive grounds should include a visit to the 6 ft high Pictish Rodney Stone, carved with Celtic animal symbols and inscriptions.
5. Loch Maree: Mother Nature at Her Best
Loch Maree is a deep Pleistocene valley that serves as a habitat for otters and black-throated divers, and is a big draw for hikers due to its nature trails. The more demanding mountain trail, a 4 mi circular tour, offers an unforgettable view over Loch Maree and the majestic mountains that make this part of the Highlands so popular. Other nearby highlights include Victoria Falls, a waterfall near Shatterdale named after Queen Victoria (she visited the loch in 1877).
The attractive village of Gairloch is another scenic stop on the Highlands’ tourist route and lies in a sheltered sandy bay. Along with its 9-hole golf course, there’s also the Gairloch Heritage Museum with its displays detailing the cultural and economic development of the area from the Stone Age to the present day.