Where to go in Scotland
Make the most of your time
Like so many countries, tourists come en masse to its capital, Edinburgh and rightly so, with its majestic castle, vibrant culture and, if you are a student, gay, backpacker or all three, a party all night vibe about it. It can get wild out there on Princes Street. For the natural wild highlights, you just need to travel for an hour or two out of its cities. Breakfast in Edinburgh and you can watch dolphins dance and golden eagles fly before lunch. And from Glasgow, you can head from its Natural History Museum to the living natural wonders of the highlands within a few hours. Yes, its Botanic Gardens are gorgeous, but there are islands boasting unique ecosystems just a quick train and ferry ride away. Another world away, in fact. Because that is what these, our Scotland highlights, feel like.
Cairngorms National Park
With Aviemore at its core, it is already known as a skiing centre. However, with mountain biking, canoeing, climbing, white water rafting and gorge walking also on offer, as well as some eco chic yoga, the Cairngorms have a cool thing going down. Literally. Just check out the CairnGorm Mountain Centreís funicular train that takes you up, and then allows you to cycle all the way back down.
Created by those genius Victorians so that ships could traverse the country instead of tackling its treacherous tip. This aquatic artery which cuts straight through the glens from Corpach in the west to Inverness in the east, is now a trail of outdoorsiness. Cruise it, canoe it, cycle it or hike it or do a bit of all four. It is also part of the long distance Great Glen Way.
Itís the capital and it is cool. A world famous festival, classy cuisine, an omnipresent and ominous castle, elegant architecture and an equally elegant gay scene. Itís also so near the beach, it could almost be Barcelona. Wrapped in tweed and tartan. And a lot of it, because of the ever so slightly different climate. You couldnít order a hot toddy in a Barcelona bar though.
Sitting at the head of Loch Linnhe, a sea loch, and at the foot of Ben Nevis, this is the hub for hikers, bikers and all round outsiders. It is also the terminus of the historic Caledonian Sleeper Train, which transports you overnight from London to luscious lochs and wild moors.
Isle of Eigg
Wildlife lovers have known about Eigg for years, but when the small, local community bought out their whole landscape in order to protect its future, it hit headlines. And, judging by the fact that they have the first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid in the world, the future will continue to be green and gorgeous.
Isle of Iona
A small island off an island. Off the Highlands. We like that. Iona is a spiritual place for many. Known also as the Isle of Colm Cille, after the Irish priest who first founded a monastery here in the 6th century. Go for the Abbey alone, built on the site of the original and run as a residential centre with daily worship. If worshipping a god isnít your thing, you will leave worshipping nature at least.
Isle of Mull
From the candy coloured sea front terrace in Tobermorey, to the prolific arts centre, Comar, this is a vibrant island. However, for natural as well as cultural exhilaration, nothing beats watching whales in the wild, with puffins, golden and white tailed eagles thrown into the magical mix of Mull. The more adventurous can take wildlife cruises to St Kilda, Canna, Mingulay and the Monach Islands from here.
John Muir Way
Named after the pioneering Scot who created the worldwide national park movement, this new 215 kms long trail goes from coast to coast. From Helensburgh in the west to Dunbar (John Muirís birthplace) in the east, walkers and cyclists have a whole new Muirean perspective on Scotland. Which is all about celebrating wild places.
When a community comes together to create a Foundation to protect and preserve its precious natural resources, you know it is a special place to visit. Although it is attached to land, it is not on the main road system, so you can only get there by boat. Or serious hikers indulge in what feels like a 26 kms pilgrimage.
Lewis and Harris
Although often considered separate, this is one island, the northern half being Lewis and the southern half Harris. It is part of the Outer Hebrides, with Harris totally mountainous and Lewis contrastingly flat. Lewis also has the main town of Stornoway, and Harris the world famous eponymous tweed. Both have stunning beaches and wildlife. Island addicts beware. You are in danger of never wanting to leave.
Loch Lomond & The Trossachs NP
One of Scotlandís two national parks, the name is deceptive because there are actually 22 large lochs, numerous smaller lochs and over fifty burns, or rivers, flowing through the Park too. All enveloped and sheltered by hills and mountains. With facilities to canoe, sail, fish and swim this is a place to go wild in the water, and enjoy water in the wild.
This valley of the River Spey is whisky galore. With more than half of Scotlandís malt whiskies in this region, take on the Spey Whisky Trail. It is wildlife galore too with a plethora of habitats in one small region, from the Monadhliath Mountains in the west to the Moray Firth coastal plain in the east. An expert guide is highly recommended for wildlife spotting. That and a hipflask.
Just the name is poetic. As is its location on the shores of Lough Broom, a sea inlet on the north west coast, with a hinterland of munros and mountains. A small fishing village, it has a strong community tourism vibe making it a family favourite. And with festivals such as the super cool Loopallu in September, Ullapool turns ultracool.
Driving times by train, ferry or car
- London to Inverness - 13 hours by sleeper train
- Oban to Craignure on Isle of Mull Ė 50 minutes by ferry
- Fortwilliam to Inverness Ė 2 hours by car along the quiet B852 south side of Loch Ness route
- Edinburgh to Aviemore Ė 2 hours 45 mins by train