Landscapes of wild and enigmatic beauty, imbued with a sense of myth and ancient history. Dense forests and forbidding mountains, lonely lochs and rivers at almost every turn – and craggy coastlines revealing stunning beaches to rival any in the Caribbean. An unparalleled playground for outdoorsy types, opportunities for adventures are endless. The Scottish Highlands and islands may be officially part of Britain, but they are a world apart.
If you’re looking for inspiring ideas of things to do in this outstanding area of Scotland, check our guide to the 13 best things to do in the Scottish Highlands and islands. And for even more ideas and practical information buy our Rough Guides Scottish Highlands and Islands.
1. Find solitude on the Knoydart Peninsula
If you truly want to get away from it all – two words: Knoydart Peninsula. This wild and beautiful area of the Highlands, just northwest of Fort William, has no roads and just one dinky hamlet. The only way to get there is by boat from Mallaig or on foot. Walking, most likely from Kinloch Hourn, or Loch Arkaig, will most likely take you two to three days, sleeping overnight in bothies, or wild camping. But with scenery this stunning – rugged monros, lochs and tufted moorland, and views out to neighbouring islands – what’s the rush? If you do need a dangling carrot, the village of Inverie is home to a welcoming pub. The Old Forge has fantastic loch views and holds regular live music sessions. It also happens to be the most remote pub in Britain.
Accommodation is mostly in Inverie, with a hostel, B&B, and self-catering options. And Doune Knoydart Hotel, six miles from the village, provides the perfect Highlands hideaway. Owners can pick you up by boat from Mallaig.
2. Spot wildlife
From seals to whales, dolphins, beavers and birds of prey – when it comes to wildlife, the Scottish Highlands has it covered. It’s exciting to catch sight of a beaver, particularly as these furry water-loving creatures were hunted out of Scotland 400 years ago. But 2009 saw a project to reintroduce them into the wild around Knapdale Forest, in Argyll. Head to Dubh Loch for the most likely sightings and marvel at their construction of a 60-ft-long dam.
You can see bottlenose dolphins and porpoises in Moray Firth, particularly in spring or summer, whales and puffins off the Isle of Mull, and basking seals on Mousa, in the Shetlands. And there's no match for the sight of 12,000 storm petrels flying in to the ancient broch, on the island at dusk. Eager bird spotters should also head for the Cairngorms for the chance to see ospreys, as they migrate from West Africa to Loch Garten, and possibly even golden eagles and peregrine falcons – if you’re really lucky. There’s also a herd of reindeer roaming the hills by Loch Morlich, and the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre offers guided trails into the mountains, with the opportunity to stroke and feed the animals.
3. Attend a Highland Games
Mention the Highland Games and you’ll probably imagine a tartan-wearing, muscled-up Scot, heaving a tree trunk into the air. And yes, tossing the caber is one of the biggest, and probably most spectacular, events featured during a Highland Games. But as well as sporting events, there’s a whole lot more to the games, such as dancing competitions involving the Highland Fling, and bagpipe-playing competitions. There’s also money to be made from winning, which adds a competitive edge to proceedings and a sense of drama to the day. The games take place between May and mid-September and the best-known events are held at Braemar – which usually sees a royal in attendance, Oban and Cowal. But smaller events can be the most fun and are well-worth a detour when visiting the Scottish Highlands.
4. Hike around Glen Coe
It’s no mere hype: this is Scotland’s most magnificent glen. It’s a stunning landscape of glacial valleys, flanked by steep-sided rocky munros in various shades of vibrant greens and earthy ochre – the summits often shrouded in moody cloud cover. It’s worth the drive just to gaze at the magnificent scenery, such as the peaks of Buachaille Etive Mhór, the Aonach Eagach ridge and the Three Sisters. However, to really get a sense of the wilderness at Glen Coe, get your hiking boots on and explore on foot. There are some seriously challenging routes for the more ambitious and experienced hiker, as well as less arduous expeditions. A good introduction to the glen is the half-day hike over the Devil’s Staircase, while one of the loveliest walks is the Buachaille Etive Beag circuit, which is somewhat easier on the thighs, as it doesn’t involve scaling a munro.
The wonderful hike and glorious views of the Allt Coire Gabhail hike belies the grim history attached to it, that of the terrible Glen Coe Massacre in 1692, the culmination of a feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbell clans. And the hike explores the so-called “Lost Valley”, where the MacDonald clan hid their cattle during this violent period.
5. Wild camping
Why choose to pitch up away from relative campsite comforts and the sense of security offered by fellow campers sleeping just metres away under canvas? Well, for one thing – because you can. Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland allows wild camping in open country, the proviso being, “leave no trace”. There’s no queueing for the loo in the morning, or listening to the sounds of other people snoring – apart from those you choose to zip inside your tent with.
Secondly, there’s something life-affirming about spending the night slap bang in the middle of the wilderness, with nature and its drama on all sides. Whether you camp next to a stunning white-sand beach, or lonely loch, nestle yourself in a glen, or settle at the foot of a moody mountain, wild camping is one of the best things to do when you visit the Highlands.
6. Drive the North Coast 500
The creation of the North Coast 500 may have been a canny marketing ploy, but “Scotland’s answer to Route 66” is up there in the hit parade of Europe’s best road trips. The 500 miles takes in the full roster of the Highlands’ draw-dropping landscapes, as it loops around the remote north and northwest areas – from Applecross, on the west coast, north to Durness, across the top to John O’Groats, and south along the eastern side. You’ll get incredible coastal views over rugged clifftops, with islands dotted out to sea, glorious beaches, wild moorland, lochs and brooding mountains, and crumbling castles.
Rather than making it your mission to get around the route, take life in the slow lane. Picturesque Plockton, crofting village Achiltibuie, and the lovely fishing town of Cromarty are short detours off the route and well worth a wander.
7. Visit atmospheric castles
Castles in Scotland ooze centuries worth of history – involving betrayal, conspiracy, fierce fighting and murder. There are atmospheric, crumbling ruins, such as picturesque, 15th-century Kilchurn Castle, at the tip of Loch Awe, in Argyll. And there are grand, wonderfully preserved, architectural piles, such as Dunrobin Castle in the north, and Blair Castle in Perthshire. Dunrobin was modelled on a Loire Chateau and bags the title of biggest pad in the Highlands. Turreted Blair Castle, meanwhile, dates from 1269, and is a gloriously sumptuous affair – all antlers, shields, muskets and bundles of antiques, as well as items belonging to Queen Victoria – and set within lovely grounds.
Last, but not least, is relative newcomer and delightfully over-the-top Kinloch Castle, on the Isle of Rùm. Built by millionaire Sir George Bullough in 1900, the red sandstone pile is a display of Edwardian extravagance and eccentricity. In its heyday there was a conservatory for growing exotic fruit, a greenhouse with hummingbirds, even some alligators until they were shot when on the loose. Guests were serenaded before dinner with tunes belted out from an orchestrion, an electrical barrel organ, which is on display. There are tiger rugs and stags’ heads, and a Steinway piano, which still bears the marks of a lady dancing on it in her high heels.
8. Dig your toes into white-sand beaches
Gazing at any of those white-sand beaches and you could think you’re in Barbados. Ok, it’s definitely not as hot and, sure, the water temperature can be decidedly bracing. But the Highlands is blessed with stunning coastlines and oodles of gorgeous beaches. Stick a sweater on and you won’t know the difference.
Argyll has stunning sands at Kiloran Bay on Colonsay, and on Islay, Coll and Tiree. Beaches at Gruinard Bay in Wester Ross in the northwest Highlands are excellent, and routes north of Lochinver offer a string of them, such as the white sands and turquoise waters in the tiny bay at Achmelvich.
Further north is the jewel that is Sandalwood Bay, its sugar-white beach, backed by large dunes, taking top billing. To get there, however, it’s an eight-mile round trip of a walk from Blairmore. But, boy, it’s worth it.
The Western Isles also has its share of beautiful beaches. Harris has the pick of the bunch, the best being the stunning swathe of golden sand at Luskentyre. And gorgeous, deserted beaches punctuate the coastlines of Barra, and neighbouring Vatersay. Make sure at least one of these is on your itinerary when you visit the Scottish Highlands.
9. Learn about Scotland’s ancient heritage
From Iron Age forts, burial grounds and mysterious standing stones, to remains of Neolithic settlements, the ancient archaeological sites scattered across Scotland provide a window on past civilisations going back thousands of years.
A fair few have fetched up on Orkney, on the West Mainland, the best known being the Neolithic village Skara Brae. The amazingly well preserved, turf-covered group of houses were only discovered in 1850, after a storm blew away the dunes, which had been keeping them secret since 3000 BC. It’s fascinating to see the domestic interior – living room, fireplace, beds and cupboards, all fashioned from stone. West Mainland is also the site of one of Europe’s most impressive Neolithic burial chambers. Like Skara Brae, Maeshowe is well preserved – and even contains some racy Viking graffiti.
Other intriguing remains include the monolithic prehistoric standing stones at Callanish, on Lewis in the Western Isles, and the incredible archeological site of Jarlshof on Shetland’s South Mainland, which contains remains from the Iron Age, Bronze Age, Pictish and Viking.
10. Potter around Tobermory
Tobermory is the most attractive fishing town on Scotland’s west coast. Sitting at the northern tip of the Isle of Mull, it’s a paintbox of colour, the cluster of houses along the waterfront painted in bright shades of red, blue and yellow. You can easily while away an hour or two along the harbour, but during your visit, make time for the small, but wonderful, Mull Aquarium. It’s the only catch-and-release aquarium in Europe, which means that the jellyfish, octopus, sea scorpions, and whatever else they have at the time in the tanks, are released back to the sea within four weeks of capture. If it’s a rainy day (odds are), pop in to the Mull Museum to peruse the fascinating collection of exhibits, such as objects salvaged from a ship that sank during the Spanish Armada, in 1588.
Wildlife seekers should take a wildlife-watching tour. Sea Life Surveys offers trips to see whales, dolphins, basking sharks and seals.
If you’re stopping overnight on Mull, Highland Cottage is a superb B&B high above the harbour, which also dishes out first-rate evening meals.
11. Take a tour of Islay Distilleries
Islay doesn’t do whiskey by halves (which is fortunate, as a half-pint might put you under the table). With eight distilleries, the nation’s favourite tipple is serious business on this Hebridean island. And going on a guided tour is on many a tourist’s itinerary when they visit Scotland, not least because you’re likely to get a wee, or rather, generous, dram at the end of it. It’s also a great way to while away an hour or two during a burst of inclement weather, which, let’s face it, is likely to happen at some point on your trip.
Each whiskey has its own distinct characteristic, as does the distillery in which it was produced. For example, the saltiest and peatiest malt on the island is produced at Ardbeg, and the small, characterful distillery offers one of the best tours. The most central distillery is Bowmore, which does its own malting and kilning, while Bruichladdich is the most progressive and prides itself on its natural processes. And, should whiskey not float your boat, they also produce Botanist gin.
12. Outdoor activities in the Cairngorms
Britain’s biggest national park lures lovers of the outdoors. Sitting within the Cairngorms Massif, the largest mountain range in the UK, Cairngorms National Park is a vast, wild, and beautiful place, of craggy, vertiginous monros, dark lochs, and ancient forests – all teeming with wildlife. There are limitless opportunities for fantastic outdoor activities, walking being the most obvious. But there’s also mountain biking, pony trekking, kayaking, whitewater rafting and fly-fishing on offer. And, although it’s no match for its European counterparts when it comes to ski resorts, the slopes at Aviemore offer a fun day’s skiing and snowboarding when the gods are smiling and conditions are right.
The area around Aviemore, such as the Rothiemurchus Estate, is also great for mountain biking, as are the trails within the Glenlivet Estate, whether you’re a beginner or up for a more challenging spin. If you want someone to lead the way, Full On Adventure specialises in guided biking tours. And G2 offers lessons and trips in watersport activities, as well as rock climbing and canyoning – and telemarking and back-country skiing in the winter.
13. Attend a Shetland festival
From foot stomping folk music, to fire-wielding Vikings – the Shetland Islands hosts a bunch of fun and lively events during the year. The Up Helly-Aa fire festival in Lerwick ignites in January, with a procession of around 900 torch-bearing men decked out in Viking costumes, or other extraordinary (and somewhat random) outfits, such as giant insects – and culminates in the burning of a Viking longship. Get an invitation from a local, or buy a ticket for the Town Hall celebrations.
The highlight on the calendar, though, is the Shetland Folk Festival in May. It's a rollicking four-days (and into the small hours) of eclectic folk music, with local and international bands taking to stages big and small across the archipelago.