Stunning to Visit – Whatever the Weather
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.
Getting To and From the Scottish Highlands
There are two main roads that connect the Highlands with the Southern part of Scotland.
The A9 comes up from Perth and continues North of Inverness. This road is in the process of being upgraded to a dual carriageway but this will take years to complete. It’s a scenic road to drive, although the average speed cameras along it’s route often means spending more time checking you aren’t speeding.
One of the things that can catch you out if you are unfamiliar with the A9 is the lack of services on the road itself. When it was built the villages that it bypassed didn’t want to lose the passing trade from the road so the compromise was there would be no services built on the road itself.
Many people do as we do which is stop off at Perth before heading North. There is a BP service station just off the roundabout at the North side of Perth, which has toilets as well as coffee and hot and cold snacks. There is a little car park around the back of the filling station.
A new addition is a drive through Starbucks which is located on the same road as the BP station. Just continue past the filling station on your right to find this oasis of coffee.
On the A9 itself there are several good places to stop. If going Northbound there is a nice restaurant, gift shop and deli at Bankfoot. They serve meals rather than snacks. There is plenty of parking and lots of tempting treats in the shop. Bankfoot is around 9 miles North of Perth.
Just under 25 miles North of Perth is Ballinluig. You have to come off the A9 and cross back over the road to get to the services, Ballinluig Motor Grill, which are just beside the filling station. This stop is really like a roadside diner. They specialise in simple dishes served quickly. It’s a popular locals spot and of course they have toilets as well.
One of my favourite places to get a coffee when passing on the A9 is the Ralia Cafe. This is easily reached whether travelling North or South. There is plenty of parking and there are toilets on the ground floor with the cafe upstairs. There is a tiny seating area upstairs if you are stopping.
Generally it takes around 2.5-3 hours from Perth to Inverness depending on the traffic.
The A82 is a longer route as it connects Glasgow with Inverness, coming up through Glencoe and winding up through the Great Glen.
A great circular route would be to travel up on one of the roads and back on the other.
The A82 is a very busy road and the scenery changes are dramatic. It’s not long after leaving Glasgow before you are winding along beside the bonny banks of Loch Lomond.
Then the road climbs up and through the bleak but lovely Rannoch Moor before heading into Glencoe, which looks beautiful whatever the weather, although many people visit because of it’s historical importance too.
After Glencoe comes Fort William, a busy town focussed on outdoor activities. There are all sorts of activities nearby not least the chance to visit Ben Nevis and ski in the area too.
The Great Glen runs from Fort William to Inverness. It’s a geological fault line and if you are looking at the map you can easily see it. Just follow the line of lochs that run between Fort William and Inverness, Loch Long, Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and of course Loch Ness.
The Great Glen is lush and green, partly because of all the rain the area gets. The varying and contrasting climate is one of the reasons that Commandos were sent to train in the area.
If you are heading North from Spean Bridge you cannot miss, and should of course stop, at the glorious Commando memorial. It’s in a fantastic position with a beautiful view across the Nevis range. I always find this memorial very moving, particularly because of the family tributes to Commandos of all ages left nearby.
Continuing North you will eventually come to Fort Augustus, a pretty little down at the Southern most point of Loch Ness. It’s worth stopping and having a wander beside the canal.
Then you will follow Loch Ness nearly to Inverness itself. The views are great travelling up from the South and midway on the loch you will see the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the right. This is open for visitors of course, with a new visitor centre set into the hill.
If you want to learn more about Nessie then the best place to head is Drumnadrochit, which is just after Urquhart Castle. There are visitor centres here where you can learn about the loch, monster hunting and much more and of course buy some monster gifts!
There is a great sleeper train service that connects London to Inverness and vice versa. This service has recently been taken over with the trains upgraded and refitted. There are now options to have ensuite rooms and double rooms as well.
The sleeper train leaves London Euston at around 9pm and arrives in Inverness at around 8.30am the following morning. It can be expensive but if you book ahead prices are a little more reasonable.
The train actually connects three places in Scotland with London. At Edinburgh the North bound sleeper train splits into three parts, one going to Fort William in the West, one going North to Inverness and one going East to Aberdeen.
On the return leg the various parts all meet up in Edinburgh and are connected together to make one of the longest passenger trains in Europe.
I love the Highland Chieftain service and if I am going down South it’s the train I always try and use. It has a fantastic first class service which can often be very good value when compared to standard service. The standard service has a trolley service for snacks, or a buffet car that you can visit and WIFI is only free for around 30 minutes.
In first class there are larger seats, and all the food and drink is included.
The train leaves London at around midday and arrives in Inverness just after 8pm. It actually gets to Edinburgh relatively quickly, but then takes nearly 4 hours to reach Inverness. This is because it is a single track railway line for most of the length, meaning the train has to pass other trains heading South. However, the scenery is quite distracting.
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.
I won’t write much about this route because there is a whole website dedicated to it. The only things I would say is make sure you have plenty of time to do it and allow for plenty of stops along the way, there really is a lot to see.
North of Inverness
The A9 continues North of Inverness and runs up to Thurso. It is lovely drive as well passing through coastal towns such as Gairloch, Brora and Helmsdale. There is a little loop you can take at the top by heading for Dunnet Head (actually the most Northerly point in the the UK) and then along to John O’Groats before returning back down to Inverness. It’s 247 miles and will take around 6 hours in driving time.
North West of Inverness
There is a nice circular drive heading North West of Inverness. It takes the A835 from Dingwall out to Ullapool and then circles back through Lairg. This route includes travelling on single track roads with passing places which are a fun experience. Ullapool is a lovely spot on the West Coast with nice cafes, some nice little shops and is a pleasant stop on route.
Returning via Lairg there is the option to stop and see the salmon at Shin Falls and Lairg has a very lovely coffee shop at the edge of the loch, The Pier Cafe as well. The route is 150 miles with a driving time of 3.5 hours.
West of Inverness
There are a variety of options for drives out to the West. There is a lovely circular route that heads out from Dingwall on the A835 and then loops back past Gairloch. This circular route can be done in 1 or 2 days with lochs, waterfalls and wildlife along the route. The route, apart from one tiny stretch, is one regular roads so it’s a particularly easy drive. For a detailed trip report of this route, including a hotel review check out my Gairloch post here.
This is a lovely part of the Highlands to visit and there is particularly lovely waterfall to visit, Plodda Falls, with the option to take a longer or shorter walk through some beautiful woodlands too. You can combine this with a circular drive which includes driving back along the top half of Loch Ness as well. It can easily be done in a day and the scenery is really lovely and varied throughout. Check out my Plodda Falls article for all the information.
All Around Loch Ness
If you are coming to see Loch Ness you may as well come to see all of it. While the Western side of Loch Ness is very frequently visited, the Eastern side is much quieter and there are some great views of the Loch from this side as well.
There is a great circular route which goes all the way around Loch Ness. If starting from Inverness you could head down the A82, visit Urquhart Castle if you wanted before heading to Fort Augustus. This village beside the loch is a pretty place to stop for some lunch or a snack and there is a nice little cafe in the visitor centre right beside the canal. There are a series of locks on the canal which make for a pleasant walk too.
At Fort Augustus you take the left hand road and follow the bottom of the loch, continuing to follow this road North back towards Inverness. It’s single track with passing places and it doesn’t always follow Loch Ness closely.
Foyers is worthy of a little stop, especially if you like waterfalls as the Falls of Foyers is there and it’s worth stopping for.
At Dores take a moment to visit the little beach, it’s the only one on Loch Ness and it’s a lovely view across the Loch.
The route is 67 miles and driving time is 2 hours.
South of Inverness
There is a lovely route which heads down to Aviemore and you can then cut across from Newtonmore, through Laggan before coming out at Spean Bridge on the A82. Heading North brings you up the Great Glen and you follow the length of Loch Ness back to Inverness.
This route has lots of lovely stops along the way. There is a great little coffee stop, Ralia Cafe, which has toilets, in Newtonmore before heading across towards Laggan. You may recognise the scenery from Monarch of the Glen which was filmed here.
Laggan dam is quite spectacular. Then it is across to Spean Bridge, where you can visit the woollen mill for toilets, shopping and a cafe if you choose too. Head North towards Inverness on the A82 but do stop at the Commando memorial just outside Spean Bridge.
Then it is back up to Fort Augustus, again another nice option for a stop, before heading back to Inverness.
The route is 140 miles with a drive time of 3 1/4 hours.
Scenic Train Journeys
It can be quite difficult to enjoy the scenery if you are driving so why not take the train instead? There are some wonderful journeys to enjoy.
There are plenty of trains from Inverness to Aviemore during the day. The great thing about going to Aviemore is that it is also the station for the lovely Strathspey Railway, with a variety of options and trains to choose from.
Aviemore has plenty of cafes and shops to explore so you can enjoy a great day out without having to drive at all.
The train takes around 30 minutes to reach Aviemore.
There is a train line that connects Inverness with Aberdeen. Whilst going to Aberdeen is a longer journey, there are some pleasant stops along the way that make for a nice day trip. Nairn is a small seaside town with a traditional high street and Elgin in a larger town with nice pedestrianised centre, again with plenty to explore.
The train stations are not in the town centres themselves so a visit does require a bit of walking.
This train journey has been voted one of the top 10 train journeys in the world. The scenery is very varied throughout the route, with open glens, wooded areas and then beautiful coastal views towards the end.
Kyle of Lochalsh is a tiny village on the West Coast, where the Skye bridge hops over to the Isle of Skye. It’s got quite an interesting military and naval history, alongwith some world famous toilets and a few cafes as well.
Train times mean you can have enough time in Kyle just to stretch your legs and have a quick bite before you return or you spend a couple of hours there. The train takes 2.5 hours each way.
Fort William to Mallaig
There is another scenic train journey from Fort William to Mallaig. This is a shorter route but no less spectacular.
For a really lovely alternative try the Jacobite steam train which runs the same route and offers a choice of dining options on board as well.
Whichever train you choose a very popular part of this route is crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct, often referred to as the Harry Potter viaduct.
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. 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 have 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.
What To Eat
This is something that is only found in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s a specific type of early evening meal which generally consists of a main course such as a fish or a meat dish. The main dish is served with bread and butter (sometimes toast) and lashings of tea, although they may be persuaded to serve coffee if you prefer. After the main course comes the highlight – cakes, with a selection for you to enjoy as you drink more tea.
Of course everyone coming to Scotland should try Haggis and there are so many ways to eat it! For little bite sized options haggis is often available as a starter. There is the traditional serving of haggis, neeps and tatties, often served with a little whisky sauce. For a heartier portion you may wish to try deep fried haggis available at the fish and chip shop and of course there are plenty of quirkier options like haggis pizza.
Invented near the coast this beautiful chowder is the perfect combination of fish, potatoes and vegetables. Creamy often with a slightly smoky flavour due to the fish, it can be quite thick and is generally served as a hearty portion. It’s a fantastically filling soup, perfect after a day exploring and especially lovely with crunchy bread.
Deep Fried Treats
The Scots love to deep fry things and it seems they will deep fry pretty much anything, from chocolate to ice cream and pizza. Most fish and chip shops will have something a little quirky on their menu but none can beat the pizza crunch. A whole pizza is dipped in batter and then deep fried, just like the chips. Whilst not recommended on a regular basis it certainly is something a little different to try!
What To Drink
Scotland is one of the few places in the world where the top selling fizzy drink is not some sort of cola. Instead, the top selling fizzy drink is an orange confection called IrnBru. It’s very hard to describe the flavour because it doesn’t taste like anything and the flavour doesn’t come from a fruit or one particular ingredient. However, the drink is beloved in Scotland and can be found in shops and bars across the country. It’s a bright orange colour which is said to come from the steel girders used to make it!
Don’t Forget to Try
A Highland malt whisky – ranging from smoky to peaty flavours as you move across the country and with distilleries throughout the Highlands that are generally open to visitors.
Tablet – an incredibly sweet little treat found all over the Highlands, sometimes served with coffee. These little squares of sweetness pack a powerful sugar punch.
Porridge – a hearty breakfast dish, sometimes made with cream and sometimes with a dash of whisky. It’s a great start to the day and the Highlands is home to the world porridge making championships where cooks compete for the coveted Golden Spurtle award.
Looking to stay in Inverness? Check out my guide to Hotels in Inverness
Read my blog articles about the Highlands of Scotland below.
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