Even if you’re planning a short visit, it’s still perfectly possible, and quite common, to combine a stay in either Edinburgh or Glasgow with a brief foray into the Highlands. With more time at your disposal, the opportunity to experience the variety of landscapes in Scotland increases, but there’s no escaping the fact that travel in the more remote regions of Scotland takes time, and – in the case of the islands – money. If you’re planning to spend most of your time in the countryside, it’s most rewarding to concentrate on just one or two small areas.
The initial focus for many visitors to Scotland is the capital, Edinburgh, a dramatically handsome and engaging city famous for its magnificent castle and historic Old Town. Come here in August and you’ll find the city transformed by the Edinburgh Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. An hour’s travel to the west is the country’s biggest city, Glasgow, a place quite different in character from Edinburgh. Once a sprawling industrial metropolis, Glasgow nevertheless has an impressive architectural heritage and a lively social and cultural life. Other urban centres are inevitably overshadowed by the big two, although the transformation from industrial grey to cultural colour is injecting life into Dundee, while there’s a defiant separateness to Aberdeen with its silvery granite architecture and prominent port. Other centres are less of a draw in their own right, acting as useful transport or service hubs to emptier landscapes beyond, though some do contain compelling attractions such as the wonderful castle in Stirling or the Burns’ monuments in Ayr.
You don’t have to travel far north of the Glasgow–Edinburgh axis to find the first hints of Highland landscape, a divide marked by the Highland Boundary Fault which cuts across central Scotland. The lochs, hills and wooded glens of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond are the most easily reached and as a consequence busier than other parts. Further north, Perthshire and the Grampian hills of Angus and Deeside show the Scottish countryside at its richest, with colourful woodlands and long glens rising up to distinctive mountain peaks. South of Inverness the mighty Cairngorm massif offers hints of the raw wilderness Scotland can still provide, an aspect of the country which is at its finest in the lonely north and western Highlands. To get to the far north you’ll have to cross the Great Glen, an ancient geological fissure which cuts right across the country from Ben Nevis to Loch Ness, a moody stretch of water rather choked with tourists hoping for a glimpse of its monster. Scotland’s most memorable scenery is to be found on the jagged west coast, stretching from Argyll all the way north to Wester Ross and the looming hills of Assynt. Not all of central and northern Scotland is rugged Highlands, however, with the east coast in particular mixing fertile farmland with pretty stone-built fishing villages and golf courses, most notably at the prosperous university town of St Andrews, the spiritual home of the game. Elsewhere the whisky trail of Speyside and the castles and Pictish stones of the northeast provide plenty of scope for exploration off the beaten track, while in the southern part of the country, the rolling hills and ruined abbeys of the Borders offer a refreshingly unaffected vision of rural Scotland.
The grand splendour of the Highlands would be bare without the islands off the west and north coasts. Assorted in size, flavour and accessibility, the long chain of rocky Hebrides which necklace Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline includes Mull and its nearby pilgrimage centre of Iona; Islay and Jura, famous for their wildlife and whisky; Skye, the most visited of the Hebrides, where the snow-tipped peaks of the Cuillin rise up from deep sea lochs; and the Western Isles, an elongated archipelago that is the country’s last bastion of Gaelic language and culture. Off the north coast, Orkney and Shetland, both with a rich Norse heritage, differ not only from each other, but also quite distinctly from mainland Scotland in dialect and culture – far-flung islands buffeted by wind and sea that offer some of the country’s wildest scenery, finest birdwatching and best archeological sites.