Scotland sports such a strong selection of tourist attractions – from castles and cabers to kilts and whisky – it’s easy to forget that there is much more to this land. Venture away from the cities and you’ll find that Scotland holds over ten percent of Europe’s coastline and almost 300 mountains over 3000ft-tall. Ready to explore? Here are seven Scottish places that you you’ve probably not heard of, but must visit.
1. The Isle of Harris, the Western Isles
Sitting in the far northwest of Scotland’s collections of more than 700 islands, the epic bleached-white sands on the coast of Harris have been compared to the Caribbean’s finest beaches. There are ample stretches of perfect puffy white sand to choose from: our favourites are Luskentyre, Seilebost and the wide sweep of Scarista. You will often have these beaches all to yourself, and even if someone dares to break your solitude, you can just wander along to the next one.
2. The Quiraing, Isle of Skye
It may look like the gnarled New Zealand countryside which doubled so superbly as the setting for the Lord of the Rings films, but this Tolkienesque landscape is actually on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. Sheer rock faces, twisted stacks, piercing pinnacles and unlikely erratic boulders combine to conjure up an otherworldly scene that looks truly spectacular on a sunny day. It’s even more dramatic when Skye’s notorious mists creep in.
3. St Kilda, the Western Isles
St Kilda is an archipelago so impressive that it became the first place in the world to be recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage list for both its natural heritage (it’s home to the unique Soay sheep and the St Kilda field mouse) and its human history (its inhabitants lived a unique communal life until it was abandoned in 1930).
It’s an often (very) bumpy boat ride out across forty miles of ocean from the Western Isles to get there, but the sheer cliffs and otherworldly rock formations are worth the effort.
4. Foula, the Shetland Islands
Few Scots have even heard of the UK’s most remote inhabited isle, which is mind-bendingly different. Take a boat twenty miles away from the Shetland mainland and you can watch as the hardy Foula locals (there are less than forty of them) help haul your ferry out so that it isn’t dashed into the rocks by the storms that frequently thrash through.
Venture out across this rugged island’s hilly wilderness and in summer you can see bonxies (huge skuas) and Arctic Terns swooping above your heads. Or, enjoy a picnic by the sea as you watch orcas hunt for seals on the rocky shores that even the Romans never made it out to. They dubbed Foula their Ultima Thule, or the end of the known world, when they spied it in the distance.
5. Cairngorms National Park, the Highlands
Despite being the UK’s largest national park – home to what is also the largest mountain plateau in the UK – Cairngorms National Park is one of the least-visited. This vast, inhospitable wilderness often looks more like the Arctic than Scotland, with snow drifts swirling in hurricane force winds during winter, and ice and snow lingering in places right through summer.
It feels a world apart too, as you ramble across a lunar landscape where the UK’s only wild reindeer herd roam and the wrecks of crashed WWII aircraft and debris from two more modern F-16s lie frozen in time. The plateau is a paradise for well prepared walkers in summer, and skiers and snowboarders take over in winter.
6. Loch Torridon, the Highlands
Fancy a visit to the Norwegian fjords? Well, save yourself some cash and head to Wester Ross, which offers the fjord-like delights of little known Loch Torridon. This mighty sea loch spreads its tentacles from the small village of Torridon, flanked by the natural amphitheatre of the Torridon Mountains, which tower over 1000m-high.
The cobalt blue waters, lack of development and bountiful marine life – look out for seals, dolphins and, as you get closer to the open sea, whales – beguile and evoke a Nordic vibe. You can stay at the SYHA hostel, the relaxed Torridon Inn or the seriously posh mock baronial Torridon Hotel, which makes the most of its epic fjord views.
7. Thurso, the Highlands
Let’s talk surfing. We all know about Australia’s Bondi and the brilliant waves in Bali – but what about Thurso? It’s usually a case of on with the drysuit rather than wetsuit here, but the coastline around the Highland town of Thurso packs a serious punch in the world of surfing.
Unsuspecting walkers are often surprised to find the surreal spectacle of a dozen surfers lying out in the Pentland Firth, looking to catch some of the serious waves you get in these tumultuous waters, as the Orkney Isles blink back in the distance. The conditions are so good that a volley of surf championships have been held here, including two world championships for kayak surfing.