Set out north from Edinburgh or Glasgow and youíre there: the Scottish Highlands. The region is both a physical and cultural divide. It's cleaved by the Highland Boundary Fault Ė a fault line that separates landscapes and the Lowland Scots from the hardy, historically Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. Just a couple of hundred years ago, the Scottish Highlands was seen as a lawless land of clans; itís no accident that the bootleg whisky trade began here.
The further north you venture, the friendlier and fewer the people. B&B owners welcome you like family, pressing a hot toddy into your hand as you return from a hike.
Itís not just the history thatís hit turbulence. The Scottish Highlands were formed by a geologically stormy past thatís given birth to some incredibly impressive Ė and incredibly photogenic Ė landscapes. This is the Scotland youíve seen in the movies. The Scotland of heather-purpled valleys, Scots pine forests, and castles and lochs, all finished off with two of the highest mountains in the UK.
What kind of Scottish Highlands vacation you go for depends on your fancy. Tailor made train adventures let you mould the itinerary to your liking. Small group trips escort you from place to place accompanied by an expert guide. The timing also depends on you. Autumn photography tour or winter adventure through frosty mountains? The chance of sunshine or pubs with an open fire? Most Highlands vacations kick off in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness, so whenever you go youíll get to glimpse these superb cities, too.
Our Scotland Vacations
Glens, bens & lochs
Any Scottish Highlands vacation worth its salt will get you out into the countryside. This is the realm of some of the last wilderness left in the UK. Up north, photography tours make a beeline for Wester Ross (no relation to Westeros) to capture the pure drama of the scenery and broiling weather. Beinn Eighe rises up as a pale quartz massif. Thick-knit Scots pine forests paint the valleys, fed by pummelling waterfalls. Sandy, seal-friendly beaches round off the Applecross Peninsula.
Itís telling that headstrong Highlanders stick to the Gaelic words for valleys (gleans), mountains (beinns) and lakes (lochs). This trio makes up the weave of the Scottish Highlands.
Further south, the wilderness starts to bubble with people. Ben Nevis (1,345m) is the highest mountain in the UK and well-trod by walkers prepared to take on a straightforward but steep climb. Loch Ness shoots for the deepest freshwater lake in Britain. Your vacation operator will match you up with the best lake cruise in town – tales of Nessie and scrambles over Urquhart Castle included. Just be prepared for coach crowds in the summer.
Alternatively, slide back into Highlands obscurity in Cairngorms National Park. Although itís home to royal residence Balmoral, Cairngorm Mountain ski hill, and some of Scotlandís most famous distilleries, itís also got miles of mountain, moorland and forest trails you can vanish into. A wildlife vacation with an expert guide will show you how to forage for wild blueberries and mushrooms, spot otters and red squirrels, and unveil valleys where you can hear red deer roars ricochet through the mountains during the autumn rutting season.
Cathedral cities & fishing villages
Youíd be forgiven for thinking Scottish Highlands vacations are all about the countryside. In fact, many trips start or end in northerly Inverness, the self-proclaimed capital of the Highlands. (though Aberdeen might have something to say about that.) Inverness Cathedral and Inverness Museum and Art Gallery put centuries of Highlands history in the frame.
Castles are leftovers from a feudal past when landowners reigned like kings. Eilean Donan Castle, on the northwest coast, is a particularly famous face, starring on almost every tin of Scottish shortbread in existence.
Working harbours Ė and your custom Ė are what keep many of the remote villages going. Oban and Mallaig are end-of-the-trainline towns that double as entryways into Inner Hebrides islands like Skye and Eigg. Get your vacation operator to squeeze in a night at one of these to experience the nocturnal rhythms of working fishing towns that haul in much of Scotlandís prawn catch.
Alternatively, help rescue a dying Highlands trade. Arts and crafts vacations teach you how to shear sheep and forage for fruit and roots, before giving you the chance to join a dying and felting workshop.
If you'd like to chat about Scotland or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
You take the high road; Iíll take the rail roadYou donít have to go to Switzerland for one of the worldís most head-turning rail journeys. The West Highland Line whisks you from Glasgow to Oban or Mallaig via deer-speckled valleys, mountain tunnels and marshes aflutter with birds. The 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct is the highpoint Ė a glorious Victorian gem that swoops alongside Loch Shiel. You just have to choose if youíd rather bite the bullet and join the Harry Potter fans on the Jacobite steam train that doubled as the Hogwarts Express, or go outside the summer season and roll across it on a plain old ScotRail train.
You could also ride the Far North Line, where the train trundles alongside peat bogs and whisky distilleries, thundering rivers and lonely castles, and a whole lot of wide-open wilderness. This is about as wild as the UK gets. Read more in our Scottish railway vacations guide.
Itching to explore off-rail? A Highlands vacation specialist can get you staying overnight in towns en route Ė or they might suggest skipping the trains altogether and hiring a car. That way, you can detour to coves and RSPB bird reserves at your leisure or take a deep breath and tackle the hairpin-harried Bealach na Ba Road through the Applecross Peninsula. Itís like it was designed with photographers in mind.
Or perhaps you want to do away with transport altogether. Self-guided walking vacations take on the West Highlands Way, while guided winter hiking trips teach you how to navigate in whiteout conditions. Cyclists can glide around the empty roads of the Highlands or mountain bike through the Caledonian forest. Or thereís the ultimate UK cycle trail: from Landís End in Cornwall to John Oí Groats in the Highlands. Oof.
More about Scotland
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Our Scotland travel guide reveals a land full of wildlife, and mountainous and marine magnificence.
Find out where to go in Scotland for walking, wildlife and whiskey.
Scotland rail vacations explore lochs, highlands, islands and wild moorlands that drivers miss.
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Don't forget your waterproofs - itís all about the great outdoors in Scotland.