The Scottish Highlands, which can very roughly be described as everything north of the "central belt" that contains Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the exception of a broad lower-lying strip up the eastern side of Scotland, constitute an area like nowhere else in Britain. The other upland regions of the UK, such as the Lake District and Snowdonia, are both small and densely populated compared with the Highlands. You don't have to go very far from a town up here to be in complete wilderness, with not even a dwelling to be found in miles. The air is clear, the views (if the weather co-operates) are stunning, and despite the numbers of tourists from all over Europe (especially the Netherlands, for some reason) flocking here, you can always find peace and tranquillity.
Let's be honest here, though: in spite of the, to be frank, airbrushing that some of the guidebooks and official websites give the area, there *are* some things about the Scottish Highlands that are likely to be annoying to many visitors. For a start, this is not the sort of place to go if you want everything handed to you on a plate, if you don't want to put in any work of your own. You certainly don't have to go shinning up mountains to have a great time in this region, but you do have to be prepared for the fact that this isn't like densely-populated southern England - and a good thing too! Unless you're staying in Inverness or one of the very few sizeable towns such as Fort William or Oban, within walking distance you may have a couple of shops, maybe a café, and not a lot more. And it rains. A lot.
Then there are the Highland midges. Forget anything you may have been told about these vicious little beasties not really being a problem. They are. They're maddening. And if you go when they're at their peak - a time which unfortunately coincides with the school summer holidays - they're everywhere. You can smother yourself in Avon Skin So Soft (which some swear by, but which doesn't seem to work that well for me) or wear one of those "midge hats" that make you look like an Australian beekeeper, you can go to conditions they don't like - wind (easy) or strong sunshine (harder) - or you can avoid going out in the evenings... but in the end, you're likely to get bitten. Accept that itchiness and annoyance is part of the deal; for one thing, the prevalence of midges may be one reason why the Highlands don't have more crowds!
If you're going to be driving, you'll also have to get used to Highland road manners. These illustrate both the best and the worst of the human spirit. On the credit side of the ledger, the mutual respect and co-operation necessary (and generally observed) in order to make the characteristic "single track road with passing places" work does engender a warm feeling deep within. On which note, do remember that out here even many A-roads are single track, so adjust your mental timetables accordingly! On the minus side, the region does have more than its fair share of lunatics who think nothing of overtaking round blind bends at 60 mph and blithely heading on towards you until the last moment. You'll be lucky to get through a week without at least one heart-stopping moment - especially on the A82, a road you'll struggle to avoid as it runs northwards from Glasgow via Loch Lomond, Fort William and Loch Ness to Inverness.
It *is* possible to see the Highlands without your own car, although this does require considerable planning. The rail network is limited, but you can get to the likes of Inverness, Oban (whence you can catch a variety of ferries to the Hebridean islands) and Fort William, from where you can travel on "The Jacobite" steam train along one of the world's great railway journeys to Mallaig (where, again, a choice of ferries awaits). There is a surprisingly good coach (Scottish Citylink, roughly the equivalent of National Express) and local bus service along the main roads, even in places such as the Isle of Mull, though it rapidly falls away to almost nothing away from these main arteries. And in many places (Fort William being a significant centre) you can hire a taxi for a day, complete with knowledgeable local guide. Sadly the Royal Mail Postbus network has been heavily cut back in recent years, so is no longer a useful option in many areas.
You'll note that I mentioned ferries twice in the last paragraph, and given the number of islands along the west coast in particular these form very important links for both residents and visitors. In the west, the majority of ferry services are operated by the publicly-owned Caledonian MacBrayne (usually known as "CalMac") and its distinctive black and white ships with red funnels will be a common sight here. In general fares are pretty reasonable for foot passengers but much more expensive for cars - and remember when budgeting that the listed car fare does *not* include tickets for the driver or passengers! If you have the stamina, an excellent way to travel is by bicycle, since in general bikes are completely free even on the longer trips. In the far north, other companies run to Orkney and Shetland, but those are regions in themselves and not part of the Highlands.
By now you have probably guessed that a holiday in the Highlands is unlikely to be a cheap option, and you would be right. Although it is possible to keep costs to a minimum by staying in hostels and bunkhouses, or even camping wild (which is allowed in Scotland with the landowner's permission) if you're taking a more conventional approach (B&Bs and self-catering options abound) you will need to be prepared for high prices, especially in the islands and the more remote parts of the mainland. This is understandable given the difficulty of supplying goods, but it can still come as a nasty shock. Petrol (and diesel) is no more expensive than down south in the likes of Fort William, but further out you should budget an extra 10-15p per litre. Remember, too, that there can often be a very long way between garages; don't pass one blithely assuming that there'll be another one 20 miles further on!
So, having made the effort, what will you see? Well, not much in the way of big cities, for a start! Inverness, the only city in the Highlands, has a population of well under 100,000, yet is still huge by the region's standards, and as such can sometimes feel like a place apart from the area of which it is the capital. The second largest place is Fort William, which has only around 10,000 residents, closely followed by Oban, and even those are far larger than most settlements. What you will find, however, are stunningly-situated fishing villages such as Tobermory, Ullapool and Portree, isolated villages where crofting still forms the backbone of the local economy, and long stretches where you will see nothing but the occasional hotel, noted on even smallish-scale maps and a landmark for many miles around. Not everywhere is beautiful, but even a workaday place like the port of Mallaig can have its own interest, especially for those of us who live far from the sea.
The great glory of the Highlands scenery, however, is the combination of mountains and water, whether in the form of the intricate network of sea lochs (inlets) all the way up the west coast or provided by the fresh-water lochs that are scattered across the interior. It's very well worth gettin away from the obvious Loch Ness and Loch Lomond and discovering somewhere a bit less obvious, which you may have all to yourself. For example, a few miles south along the A82 from Loch Ness is Loch Lochy, not quite as large but as easily as beautiful in the right conditions and massively less commercialised. Even on Loch Ness, though, you can find tranquil spots if you follow the B-roads along the southern bank - the Dores Inn near the northern end of the loch is recommended! Above most of these lochs rise the hills, which can be disappointing in the flat light of a grey and drizzly day but which reveal their stunning beauty when the sun comes out, especially if the clouds co-operate in providing ever-changing dappled patterns of light and shade on their slopes.
And of course there is the wildlife, another factor which quite justifiably brings in many people. Although it's not quite a case of rolling up to the side of the nearest mountain and immediately seeing a golden eagle soaring over the ridge, you certainly have a good chance of spotting something: I've seen several in two visits without having to sit in a hide, and with no equipment more specialised than my eyes and a cheap pair of binoculars. The magnificent sea eagle is harder, and has still eluded me, but go to the right parts of Mull or Skye and you may be rewarded. Ospreys are spreading: I've even seen one over Loch Linnhe from Fort William town centre. Hen harriers are fairly common, too, and herons seemed to be everywhere when I was there this summer. Seabirds, of course, are all over the place, and the sight of a gannet plummeting at speed into the water is unforgettable.
It's not only birds, of course. One of the biggest draws along the coast is whale-watching, and though I've never seen one myself I can only envy those who have. In other places you may see dolphins and porpoises, but the easiest marine mammals to see are seals (both Common and Grey varieties) which obligingly lounge around obviously on rocks in various places. If you don't want to expend too much effort and don't mind sharing your experience with others, take the boat trip on "Souter's Lass" from Fort William pier, which includes a pass of Black Rock which is usually packed with both seal species. Much more elusive are the likes of otters and pine martens, though you may get lucky if you're far enough from the crowds. You will, though, have to be very fortunate indeed to see the sadly now extremely rare wildcat.
As well as nature, history will be all around you in these parts. A lot of it is rather bitter, too: the failed Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, but especially that history dealing with the Highland Clearances of the, wherein thousands of tenants were forcibly evicted from their land in the 18th and 19th centuries, some made to travel to enforced new lives in the Americas. You will see ruins scattered across the Highlands, and the population in much of the area is still well below what it was 200 years ago. Understandably, the Clearances can be a touchy subject even today, and it is best to tread carefully if discussing them. In much of the far west, especially on Lewis, there is also still a very strong Presbyterianism, and although things are slowly changing you may still cause offence by doing much on a Sunday.
I could easily go on for twice as long again without repeating myself, and in truth I have barely scratched the surface of what it is like to be a visitor to the Highlands. I haven't mentioned the astounding sunsets, the beautiful accents (nothing like the stereotypical Glaswegian!), the Norse heritage, the fascinating small museums, the exhilarating walking, the shinty, the winter sports, the castles and much else besides, but there is only so much that can be fitted into one review. All I can really say is that it requires a very special area to make those midges worthwhile, but that this particular area clears that hurdle without even trying. The Highlands will get into your blood, and once there will never drain away. Despite the midges and the rain, I must award five stars.
Ive noticed that nobody has written a review on this subject yet, so I thought Id wax lyrical about al the good things the Highlands have to offer. I was born and bred in the Highlands, and Im feeling a little bit homesick today! Its a shame that most people seem to want to jet off abroad on holiday, when there are so many beautiful places to visit here in Britain. If you do plan to visit the Highlands, then here are some of the places that you should check out.
The Capital of the Highlands, it was made a city a few years ago. I spent a summer living and working here once, and it is a fantastic place. There are plenty of hotels there; you will be spoilt for choice. There are also lots of youth hostels, and the guesthouses and B&Bs along the canal are very nice too. If history is your thing, then Culloden is about ten miles out of Inverness. This is the location of the last battle on British soil, which took place during the Jacobite era. If you fancy monster spotting, then Loch Ness is less that half an hours drive from Inverness. The night life in Inverness is pretty good, there are plenty ceilidhs going on in the summertime. Dont expect to get a table in a restaurant after nine oclock though. Highland chefs like to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
You can get flights to Inverness from London, and there is also a direct sleeper train. If you can make your way to Glasgow, then Inverness is either a 3 hour train journey or drive away.
FORT WILLIAM MALLAIG (ROAD TO THE ISLES)
The journey between Fort William and Mallaig is truly spectacular. It is just over an hours drive, but you should expect to stop off many times along the way. You can also get the train. This trip is apparently the third most popular train journey in the world so there you have it!
Fort William is the home of Ben Nevis, Britains largest mountain, and the two most famous Highland cows in the world, Ben and er .Nevis. If you are the outdoors type, then you will have a ball here. Please dont attempt to climb Ben Nevis unless you are an experienced mountain climber. Every year without fail, countless numbers of tourists have to be rescued because they get stuck, or get scared half way up. There is a footpath to walk up, which is much safer! Be warned though, the weather can and does change frequently so be prepared!
During the winter skiing is extremely popular at the local Nevis Range Fort William is not called the outdoor capital of the UK for nothing! Snowboarding has really taken off in recent years too. If you just fancy a trip up the gondolas, this will cost around £8. The view when you get to the top is breathtaking. Mountain biking is also very popular in this area.
The high street in Fort William is relatively small, with many small and friendly pubs. Like Inverness, it has plenty of Hotels, etc. Be warned dont expect to have a nice meal in Fort William, the restaurants leave a lot to be desired. Save your money and have a can of Beans or something.
When you have been driving for around twenty minutes you will arrive at Glenfinnan. If you are travelling by train, then this is where you will find the most spectacular view of the journey. Those of you who have seen the Harry Potter films will remember the sequence where the Hogwarts Express travels over the viaduct. This was filmed in Glenfinnan. The Glenfinnan monument which stands at the foot of Loch Sheil is a popular attraction. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie gathered his troops during the Jacobite rebellion. Glenfinnan House Hotel is a friendly place to stay. It is a good place to have a drink in the winter, because you can warm your toes by the coal fire.
Now you have come to the end of the road. Mallaig is a small fishing village, so watch out for the seagull s**t. Im not kidding; Ive seen lots of perplexed tourists mopping the muck from their heads and shoulders. If you like seafood, then you will most definitely want to stop here for a bite to eat. There are a couple of really good restaurants, but the Fishmarket is probably the best. You can get the Cal Mac ferry from Mallaig if you want to travel on to Skye. You can take your car with you, but it is fairly expensive.
The summer is definitely the best time of year to visit the Highlands. A lot of hotels and restaurants between Fort William and Mallaig close over the winter, because they cannot afford to stay open. A shame for the locals who struggle to find work from Oct March. Inverness is just nicer in the summer, but Fort William is still busy enough because of the skiing. If you go between June and August you might be lucky enough to attend a Highland Games event. Ive tossed a few cabers in my time.
There are no words that I can use that will do the scenery justice, so check out the pictures on these websites.
Oh, how I miss the sheep and the fresh air ..