Scotland’s Highland region, covering the northern two-thirds of the country, holds much of the mainland’s most spectacular scenery. You may be surprised at just how remote much of it still is: the vast peat bogs in the north, for example, are among the most extensive and unspoilt wilderness areas in Europe, while a handful of the west coast’s isolated crofting villages can still be reached only by boat. The only major city, Inverness, is best used as a springboard for more remote areas where you can soak in the Highlands’ classic combination of mountains, glens, lochs and rivers, surrounded on three sides by a magnificently pitted and rugged coastline.
South of Inverness, the Strathspey region, with a string of villages lying along the River Spey, is dominated by the dramatic Cairngorm mountains, an area brimming with attractive scenery and opportunities for outdoor activity. The Monadhliath mountains lie between Strathspey and Loch Ness, the largest and most famous of the necklace of lochs which make up the Great Glen, an ancient geological fault line which cuts southwest across the region from Inverness to the town of Fort William. From Fort William, located beneath Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, it’s possible to branch out to some fine scenery – most conveniently the beautiful expanses of Glen Coe, but also in the direction of the appealing west coast, notably the remote and tranquil Ardnamurchan peninsula, the “Road to the Isles” to Mallaig, and the lochs and glens that lead to Kyle of Lochalsh on the most direct route to Skye. Between Kyle of Lochalsh and Ullapool, the main settlement in the northwest, lies Wester Ross, home to quintessentially west-coast scenes of sparkling sea lochs, rocky headlands and sandy beaches set against some of Scotland’s most dramatic mountains, with Skye and the Western Isles on the horizon.
The little-visited north coast stretching from wind-lashed Cape Wrath, at the very northwest tip of the mainland, east to John O’Groats is even more rugged, with sheer cliffs and sand-filled bays bearing the brunt of frequently fierce Atlantic storms. The main settlement on this coast is Thurso, jumping-off point for the main ferry service to Orkney.
On the fertile east coast, stretching north from Inverness to the old herring port of Wick, green fields and woodland run down to the sweeping sandy beaches of the Black Isle and the Cromarty and Dornoch firths. This region is rich with historical sites, including the Sutherland Monument by Golspie, Dornoch’s fourteenth-century sandstone cathedral, and a number of places linked to the Clearances, a poignantly remembered chapter in the Highland story.Read More
The West Highland Railway
The West Highland Railway
Scotland’s most famous railway line is the brilliantly engineered West Highland Railway, running from Glasgow to Mallaig via Fort William. The line is in two sections: the southern part travels from Glasgow Queen Street station along the Clyde estuary and up Loch Long before switching to the banks of Loch Lomond on its way to Crianlarich, where the train divides with one section heading for Oban. After climbing around Beinn Odhar on a unique horseshoe-shaped loop of viaducts, the line traverses desolate Rannoch Moor, where the track had to be laid on a mattress of tree roots, brushwood and thousands of tons of earth and ashes. The train then swings into Glen Roy, passing through the dramatic Monessie Gorge and entering Fort William from the northeast.
The second leg of the journey, from Fort William to Mallaig, is arguably even more spectacular, and from June to mid-October one of the scheduled services is pulled by the Jacobite Steam Train. Shortly after leaving Fort William the railway crosses the Caledonian Canal beside Neptune’s Staircase by way of a swing bridge at Benavie, before travelling along the shores of Locheil and crossing the magnificent 21-arch viaduct at Glenfinnan, where the steam train, in its “Hogwarts Express” livery, was filmed for the Harry Potter movies. At Glenfinnan station there’s a small museum dedicated to the history of the West Highland line, as well as two old railway carriages that have been converted into a restaurant and a bunkhouse . Not long afterwards the line reaches the coast, where there are unforgettable views of the Small Isles and Skye as it runs past the famous silver sands of Morar and up to Mallaig, where there are connections to the ferry that crosses to Armadale on Skye.
If you’re planning on travelling the West Highland line, and in particular linking it to other train journeys (such as the similarly attractive route between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh), it’s worth considering one of ScotRail’s multiday Highland Rover tickets.