Just the name – the Scottish Highlands – conjures up thoughts of mountains, lochs, monsters and mists and rightly so.
I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in the Scottish Highlands for 17 years and I have loved every minute of it. Here’s my overview on why the Scottish Highlands is a fantastic place to visit.
Scottish Highlands Location
The Scottish Highlands is at the top of the mainland of Britain. It is the largest Council area in Western Europe with a similar geographical size to Belgium. Suffice to say it is pretty big.
The Southern border of the highlands is close to Newtonmore on the A9. The Eastern border runs to the East of Grantown on Spey and Nairn. The Western border is the West Coast of Scotland and it includes the Isle of Skye and some smaller islands such as Rum, Muck and Eigg. The border runs South of Ballachulish and then along the side of Loch Ericht to come up to Newtonmore.
Scottish Highlands Population
The population of the Scottish Highlands is 236,000 people. Compare that with Belgium which has just over 10 million population and you can see why the Highlands are roomy! Infact they are also one of the least densely populated areas in Western Europe.
The majority of the population lives around the Inverness area with 75,000 people living in Inverness and it’s suburbs. Most of the population tends to be on the East Coast of the area.
Life expectancy in the Highlands is a little higher than elsewhere and the population has been growing over the past 10 years or so.
Life in the Scottish Highlands
The Highlands feels remote, particularly when you travel back from somewhere. Travelling overseas generally means a connection through a London airport or via Amsterdam. This can mean that holidays take a little more planning and cost a little bit more too.
The remoteness gives the Highlands a bit more of a sense of community. Perhaps it is the snow gates on the A9 which get closed on occasion when the weather is really bad that give that feeling of being cut off from the rest of Scotland? Perhaps it is just the distance, given it takes 3.5 hours to get from Inverness to Glasgow or Edinburgh?
Whatever it is there is definitely a sense of community in the Highlands.
Whenever I have brought guests up here on tour they have often commented that people seem to have time to talk to each other, something that they didn’t realise was missing from their day to day lives until they visited.
People do chat here in the Highlands and when I first moved up it drove me nuts. I would pop in somewhere to get something or do something and the people infront would be chatting about the weather for example. I would impatiently chomp to get going. However, now I appreciate those little conversations and I am often the one doing the chatting.
People regularly pull up in cars to chat to each other when passing on the road, moving on slowly if a car approaches, knowing that the person approach won’t sound their horn or get angry, they will just smile because that’s what happens here.
Of course things have changed in the 17 years I have been here. When I first moved up people did first footing at New Year when they bought a piece of coal into your house to welcome in the New Year.
Our house was rarely locked and we often returned home to find family members in the kitchen who had made themselves a cup of tea while waiting for us to get back. Over the years New Year has lost some of it’s traditions, but I am sure if you went to the more remote parts and islands you would find them still continuing.
One of the conversations I frequently have in the Highlands, particularly when meeting someone new, is talking about who we know. Generally we will find some sort of connection between us, which reassures us that the person we are meeting with is OK.
Scottish Highlands Through the Seasons
The scenery here is amazing, at any time of year. It constantly surprises and delights me and I have never tired of seeing it. The colours and variety of scenery is staggering and it is ever changing.
In the Winter there are bright sunny mornings when there has been a frost, and hopefully some snow, although I am in the minority as being a fan of the snow. When there is a frost or snow the Highlands looks magical. Snow drips off massive fir trees, giving you the feeling of walking through a Christmas card. Everywhere looks crisp and bright.
In the Spring, which comes a little later here, due to being further North lambs appear and everything starts bursting into life. Of course this is a magical time anywhere but the light and the big skies here give Spring a special clarity that I haven’t felt elsewhere, other than perhaps the big open skies of Norfolk, my home county.
Summer is when everyone hopes for some warmer weather of course, but not too hot. Here in the Highlands we like it warm and sunny, but if it gets over 25 degrees Celsius then it moves into the ‘too hot’ category and people start complaining.
I can remember when I used to visit family in England I would find it so much warmer and would often not wear a coat, having got used to the cooler temperature of the North of Scotland. There were definitely some funny looks! This still applies when I got overseas too actually.
Autumn is another wonderful season with amazing colour changes throughout the Highlands, and of course not forgetting the heather which generally flowers around August time. Whilst it can often be a time of rain, that means there is more chance of rainbows and plenty of rain means wonderful waterfalls as well.
Scottish Highlands Parks and Reserves
We are lucky that in Scotland 1/3rd of all the land is protected in some way – either national park, bird reserve, nature reserve or something like that.
We are also incredibly lucky that in Scotland we have the right to roam anywhere which means we have free access to the land and can walk and camp without landowners permission, providing we follow the countryside access code. This doesn’t apply to people’s private gardens, but people can walk across estates, freely across the hills etc.
When travelling I forget that this isn’t the norm in other places, and often find myself getting caught out in England where you have to follow paths for example. Anyway, we are lucky to have it in Scotland. There are some places that are introducing restrictions on the number of campers because of the pressure this has caused, Loch Lomond is one of the places where you will need a permit to camp.
However, in the Scottish Highlands there are no such requirements – you just need to be considerate and leave nothing behind and bury any human waste.
The largest national park in the UK is in the Scottish Highlands and it’s a great example of the variation within the Scottish highlands. The Cairngorms National Park spreads across the Cairngorm Mountain range, taking in Aviemore on the Western side and Balmoral on the Eastern side.
The park includes the mountain range which on the Western side has a ski resort, and Aviemore which is packed with activities and hotels – a real tourist destination. It also has wonderful forests where you can walk, ride, grass sledge or go dog sledding with local huskies. There are lovely lochs to explore as well, including the beautiful Loch Morlich which is complete with a lovely sandy beach.
The Eastern side of the park is much barer, with fewer trees. It is here where Golden Eagles are found and of course the Balmoral Estate, the Autumn residence of the Royal family.
The Scottish Highlands is also full of surprises. Fantastic sandy beaches on the East coast, with beautiful coastline dotted with islands on the West coast.
If you are interested in geology then the first Geopark in the UK was the Highlands geopark on the West coast which includes some of the oldest rocks in the world – Lewissian Gneiss. There is a rock trail that you can follow with interpretation boards to help you understand the landscape.
When you mention scenery in the Highlands many people immediately think of Loch Ness. It is one of the most visited places in the region, and of course I understand why.
You can take boat trips on Loch Ness to try and spot Nessie, with sonar showing you what is happening underneath the water as you cruise across the top. There are also Nessie visitor centres too, alongwith plenty of Nessie gifts of course. There is a whole visitor site dedicated to Loch Ness.
However, if you are coming to the Highlands try and get to some of the other lochs. There are many spectacular lochs that are even more beautiful than Loch Ness. They are less visited too which is always a plus.
At 4,406′ high Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the UK. A cable car makes it easily accessible for visitors and there are plenty of activities to enjoy including some spectacular scenic walks.
Ben Nevis is located very close to Fort William which is the outdoor activities capital of the Highlands – there are plenty of things to do whatever the weather.
Wildlife of the Scottish Highlands
Seeing animals in their natural habitat is a treat wherever you are. Whilst the Highlands don’t have as much wildlife as they once did perhaps it is still possible to see a variety of wildlife on a regular basis.
I’m a bit of a bird spotter and take great delight in seeing Red Kites hovering over the A9 heading North of Inverness. These graceful elegant birds are spreading throughout the area and they are wonderful to see. They take their name from their ability to hover like a kite just balancing on the wind while looking for food far below them.
Ospreys are found across the Highlands. I’ve been lucky enough to see them on several occasions while driving around, including carrying a fish in their huge sticky talons. These fascinating birds are found throughout the area with perhaps the most famous nest being located in Loch Garten where they were reintroduced from Norway. This wonderful nest was occupied for a number of years by an amazing Osprey called EJ who bred very successfully. The nest was linked to a webcam, which resulted in some dramatic and heartbreaking scenes when the chicks were left unattended after the male bird disappeared and EJ had to hunt for food.
Only once have I been lucky enough to see a Golden Eagle but what a wonderful sighting it was. It was heading across on the West Coast and we spotted a really huge bird hunting across the glen. It was easy to spot because of the big wingspan and when it landed it was clear just how big it was. What a fantastic hunter and how lucky we are to have these birds resident all year round in the Highlands.
Seals are a regular sight and it’s great to see them hauled out on the rocks. They often bask near the Cromarty Causeway just North of Inverness on an inbetween tide – between high and low tide. It’s a great spot for you to get a photograph.
Dolphins are another regular sight in the area. You can take a boat trip out to see them from various points including Inverness. If you want to see them from land one of the best places is at Chanonry Point. This is where the Moray Firth narrows and the salmon pass through so it’s a good hunting spot for dolphins. The narrowness of the water means that the dolphins are clearly visible with the naked eye.
Scottish Highlands Lifestyle
As I’ve already mentioned life in the Highlands is pretty different – certainly to other places I have lived. It is certainly more laid back – there is a sense of Highland time.
It is also generally more friendly and welcoming.
All of us living in the UK are a bit obsessed by the weather aren’t we? In the Highlands that obsession goes even further. A discussion of the weather is often the opener for a conversation with someone you meet while out and about.
The weather in the Highlands is very changeable and it is also very local, thanks of course to the geography. The weather is different from East coast to the West, with the West generally being windier and wetter.
The weather can also change very quickly with the four seasons changing more often than once a day.
Temperatures tend to be lower in the Highlands with summer temperatures not getting above 25 degrees celsius that often. If they do then people definitely start complaining about the heat!
One of the frustrating things about the Highlands is never being quite sure what to wear. As such layers are always good and if travelling by car an extra layer, hat and boots are always good to take with you.
The great saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just wrong clothing really applies here in the Highlands too.
The other favourite saying about rain is it is whisky in the making!
The size of the Highlands can mean that travelling is more common. There is not the same public transport provision in other places, and people just get used to travelling longer distances for things. I live relatively close to Inverness but it is still a 65 mile round trip if I need to go to B&Q or to the cinema for example.
As a result many people batch tasks and if travelling to Inverness will do several things in one go. People from more remote areas of the Highlands will travel and do larger shops all in one go, stocking up on everything they need while in Inverness.
The demographics of the Highlands means that there are more things located in Inverness than elsewhere, but the population is such that there is not going to be the choice and variety that you would find in larger cities or more densely populated areas.
There isn’t a takeaway or a food shop within walking distance for many people.
The phone service can be non existent in places, and for many people there is patchy phone reception, or no mobile phone reception in houses.
Heating may be gas in Inverness and larger towns but elsewhere it is likely to be oil heating, woodburners or biomass. Fuel poverty is actually a huge issue in the Highlands given the lack of access to cheaper gas heating. The level of fuel poverty rises as you head further North, and let’s not forget the temperature is generally a little cooler in the Highlands too!
Broadband speeds can be incredibly variable with remote places having to use satellite broadband to get a decent signal.
Then of course there are medical facilities. The Highlands is a huge geographic area to cover. As such it has one general hospital, Raigmore, in Inverness which deals with most things. That said as healthcare is specialising more services are now being provided outside of the Highlands.
In rural areas healthcare can be delivered in different ways, using video conferencing to reduce travel, or with visiting specialists or doctors depending on the area covered.
Many people come to the Highlands with the sole purpose of munro bagging. Munros are not some sort of animal that people come to hunt, they are infact any mountain that is over 3,000 feet high.
To climb one is known as bagging a Munro. The name Munro comes from an English gentleman who travelled to Scotland as often as he could, documenting all the peaks over 3,000 feet as he climbed them. There are 282 of them in Scotland with most of them being in the Highlands. Some people bag several in a day.
Getting to the Highlands is easy – check out my guide to the routes and options
Scottish Highlands Blog Articles
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