Heather and gorse moors. Highland cows. Mirror-like lochs. Rugged mountains and swooping glens. Castles and historic houses. Warm welcomes. It’s all part of exploring the Scottish Highlands. Covering the very north west of Scotland, the Highlands is one of the most sparsely populated places in Europe. The Highlands welcomes just over half a million visitors a year. Those half a million are very lucky people indeed, and I’ve been privileged to be among them many times. Here’s my favourite Scottish Highlands itinerary.
- 1 Getting To The Scottish Highlands
- 2 When’s The Best Time To Visit?
- 3 What To Pack For Your Scottish Highlands Itinerary
- 4 Day 1: Inverness – Gateway To The Highlands
- 5 Day 2: A Circuit of Loch Ness
- 6 Day 3: To The Isle of Skye
- 7 Day 4: On The Isle of Skye
- 8 Day 5: Fort William And Glencoe
- 9 Enjoyed Our Scottish Highlands Itinerary?
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Getting To The Scottish Highlands
The pleasure of time spent in the Scottish Highlands requires a little effort. You can fly into either Glasgow or Edinburgh airport and from there hire a car or take the train north to Inverness. The rail journey from Glasgow takes on average 3-4 hours, with the journey from Edinburgh being around 3.5 hours. Depending on road conditions, the same journey by car will take just over 3 hours. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the scenic journey north.
You can fly direct to Inverness from Belfast and Birmingham, Manchester, Luton and Bristol, plus London Heathrow and London Gatwick. Not all flights operate on a daily schedule.
If you are traveling from London by train, the trip to Glasgow takes 4.5 hours and to Edinburgh 4.25 hours. But if you are thinking of a different adventure, why not take the overnight train: the Caledonian Sleeper. It leaves London Euston Station at 2115 and will transport you gently to Fort William or Inverness ready for your Scottish Highlands itinerary. If you are starting from the West Midlands or North West, you can pick up the train at Crewe just before midnight. Trains arrive in Inverness at 0842, allowing time for breakfast before arrival.
The rolling stock used for the Caledonian Sleeper is being upgraded, with the new sleeper rooms appearing from July 2019.
Read more: our experience on the overnight sleeper to the Scottish Highlands
When’s The Best Time To Visit?
Most people visiting the Scottish Highlands do so in July and August. This is certainly an excellent time to enjoy the beauty of the Highlands. We have visited at many different times of the year. Our last February visit saw some unconventionally warm weather, with us wandering the hills and glens in nothing more than a thin top.
What makes the scenery of the Highlands so dramatic is also the reason why its weather can be challenging at times. Four seasons in one day is not just a joke in Scotland; it can be very real. Also the weather can be completely different within a very short distance.
Here’s an idea of what to expect in the Highlands at different times of year:
- Spring – temperatures 7-13 degrees Centigrade
- Summer – 15-17 degrees
- Autumn – 8-14 degrees
- Winter – 5-7 degrees, with snow falling on 15-20 days and on 100 days in the peaks and mountains of the Highlands
Roads are regularly gritted in winter. If you are in the Highlands at this time, it’s good to check Transport Scotland for up to date details on road conditions. If you are really lucky, your trip might include an opportunity to see the Northern Lights.
Most visitors spend around 5 days on their Scottish Highlands Itinerary, and that’s the length of stay we’ve chosen to cover here.
What To Pack For Your Scottish Highlands Itinerary
You can see from the examples above that the temperate climate of the Highlands can be very changeable. For this reason, the old advice about layering remains true. As many of the attractions here are outdoors, it’s also best to pack practical gear rather than your finery, although there are opportunities to dine out.
I’d suggest that if possible you bring a change of coat and an alternative to your boots. This will allow your outdoor gear to dry out if you should meet with liquid sunshine. Or snow, for that matter. Don’t forget your warm and windproof layers, and some comfortable sweaters for the cooler months. Equally, you’ll need thin tops for the summer months.
One useful addition to the summer months is carefully chosen insect repellent. It’s not just humans that love the Highlands in summer.
Day 1: Inverness – Gateway To The Highlands
If you arrive by overnight sleeper, you can choose to start your trip in Fort William or Inverness. We’ve chosen the latter, as Inverness itself is mighty beautiful. Drop your bags at your accommodation, and then pick up a hire car. Depending on how many of you are traveling together, I’d recommend the smallest car that is comfortable. It’s great to be able to fit into small spaces on the roads of the Highlands.
Our first stop today is Culloden, six miles from Inverness. This is the site of the Battle of Culloden on Drumossie Moor, now often known as Culloden Moor. Under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, the Visitor Centre is located near the site of the battle. The Battle of Culloden was the final encounter of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The Jacobite forces were defeated within an hour by the Duke of Cumberland’s army, sustaining more than 1500 deaths.
You can visit the battlefield itself, and see the terrain that made the battle formation known as the Highland Charge so vulnerable in this setting. It’s worth pondering too on the issues that followed the Jacobite Rebellion: civil penalties that tried to weaken the power of the Scottish clans and thereafter Gaelic culture.
For me, the Culloden Visitor Centre left a lasting impression. It’s an immersive experience, with film, spoken word and an intensely atmospheric experience especially in the sounds of battle. It can take quite some time to absorb all this place has to tell you about Scottish history. There’s a rather nice cafe on site if you need sustenance after your visit, full of local produce including cheese, charcuterie and even whisky.
The River Ness
Inverness is the northernmost city in the United Kingdom. Its name is derived from the Gaelic meaning the mouth of the River Ness. The Ness itself falls a scant six miles from Loch Ness via Inverness to the Beauly Firth. While Loch Ness is famous for its notoriously hard to spot monster, the first claimed sighting was actually in the River Ness. In 565AD, Saint Columba is said to have banished a water monster back into the river after it tried to attack a swimmer. There are plenty of hotels along the river with spectacular views.
Exploring Inverness City
Inverness is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, and a quarter of the population of the Highlands lives in or around it. It’s a good place to stock up on any supplies needed before heading out to the more remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. A study conducted in 2015 saw Inverness named as the happiest place in Scotland, and on everything I’ve experienced here, I can’t argue with the good vibes of the city.
Up on the hill above the river, you’ll find Inverness Castle. It houses Inverness Sheriff Court, and is not currently open to the public. The castle features on the Scottish £50 note. Outside the castle, you’ll find the statue of Flora MacDonald, who helped Charles Edward Stuart escape Government troops after the Battle of Culloden. If you are visiting in September, look out for the Northern Meeting, a gathering of bagpipe players. The Highland Games are also on the city’s calendar, along with summer music festival the Tartan Heart. The Tartan Heart lineup includes The Proclaimers, whose namecheck of Scottish places warms the heart every time.
I’d recommend staying in Inverness for nights 1 and 2 of your itinerary. There’s a wide selection of accommodation available to suit your preferences and pocket.
Day 2: A Circuit of Loch Ness
Don’t be put off by the relative size of Loch Ness to other nearby lochs on the map. It’s a perfectly achieveable day trip. I’d recommend that you start out in the morning on the more traveled side using the A82, and return by the quieter B862 and B852 in the afternoon. Let’s first get our heads around the wonder that is Loch Ness:
- it’s the second largest loch by surface area after Loch Lomond
- its depth makes it the largest by volume in the British Isles
- it contains more freshwater than the lakes in England and Wales combined
- it’s around 23 miles long, linking the the River Oich and the Caledonian Canal to the south, and the River Ness and more of the Caledonian Canal to the north
- Nessie the Loch Ness Monster is notoriously difficult to spot, possibly because of the large amount of peat dissolved in the water
The first part of the journey on the A82 takes runs alongside the Great Glen Way, making it possible to stop off for a short hike if desired. Next up is Drumnadrochit, meaning the Ridge of the Bridge. Here you’ll find the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, giving you an insight into this famous body of water. Between Easter and October you can enjoy a cruise of Loch Ness from here, with departures taking place hourly. There’s also Nessieland, dedicated to belief in the elusive monster (be aware the link launches with music). Maybe afterwards you’ll be able to come up with your own explanation for the sightings of the Loch Ness Monster; I’ve seen explanations ranging from eels and catfish to optical effects and seismic gas.
Shortly after Dromnadrochit, you’ll spot Urguhart Castle at the water’s edge. The substantial ruins here date from the 13th to 16th centuries. The castle’s original defences were a ditch and a drawbridge, although it was raided several times by the MacDonalds. Urguhart is now a scheduled ancient monument, and the third most visited castle in Scotland after Edinburgh and Stirling. It’s a fascinating site to explore with plenty of beautiful views over the castle and Loch Ness.
Invermoriston and Fort Augustus
Invermoriston gives you an opportunity to visit one of Thomas Telford’s splendid bridges. You can gather the level of respect for his work when you note that one of England’s new towns was named after him. This bridge crosses the splendid River Moriston falls. You’ll find a shop and a hotel here. Climb the hill above the village, Sron Na Muic (the nose of the pig) for a view over the Great Glen.
Fort Augustus sits at the far end of Loch Ness and its link to the Caledonian Canal via a series of locks. Just over 600 people live in this small village. Nearby Glen Urquhart has a wealth of woodland walks, taking you through conifer and broadleaf planting.
The Wilder Route Back To Inverness
The south side of Loch Ness is quieter than the north. Here you’ll find opportunities to enjoy great views amidst some stunning natural scenery. Take the B862 road, and you’ll spot small Loch Knockie nestling alongside much larger Loch Ness. Tiny Whitebridge is a village that stretches over 5 miles, but is home to only 100 people.
Our next stop is at the Falls of Foyers – the Smoking Falls – where the River Foyers feeds Loch Ness, dropping 165 feet. The village of Foyers is home to Boleskine House, once owned by novelist Aleister Crowley and later by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. There’s an Iron Age fort at Inverfarigaig, constructed around 700BC.
At Dores, it’s time to stretch your legs. We loved the walk here starting at the Dores Inn. You get Loch Ness’s pebbled beach, a woodland path along the shore to Aldourie. From Torr Point, you’re completing the circle to the Dores Inn. It’s a 4 mile walk, and will take 1-2 hours, depending on how often you’re transfixed by views or trying to spot the red squirrels that live in the area. And yes, you do get waves on a loch.
Got a little time to spare on your way back to Inverness? It’s worth a detour to the Knocknagael Boar Stone. This early piece of Pictish art is on the road between Essich and Inverness.
Day 3: To The Isle of Skye
“Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye”
The Skye Boat Song
It’s worth getting up early on day 3 of our Scottish Highlands itinerary to make the most of this beautiful trip to the Isle of Skye. For the first part of the journey, we’ll be retracing our steps on the A82 as far as Invermorrison. Believe me; it’s worth it. The journey to the Isle of Skye will take approximately three hours of driving, but we’ll be breaking that up with stops to experience simply some of the most stunning places your eyes will ever have the pleasure of viewing.
From Invermoriston we’ll be taking the A887 Skye Road alongside the River Moriston through a wooded glen towards Kyle of Lochalsh. At Dundreggan, there’s a reservoir and a dam. About two hundred yards after the dam, there’s a place to pull over for pictures just after the cottages. Passing through Glen Moriston, there’s even some single track road with a bridge and a red telephone box. Next is the Cluanie Dam, and the entrance to Glen Shiel.
To the right of the road, you’ll spot the five mountains known as the Five Sisters of Kintail. To your left is the perfectly named The Saddle. There have already been plenty of jaw dropping moments, but you can add another to the list when the road suddenly opens to a view of the sea loch, Loch Duich, at Shiel Bridge. Continue on the Skye Road to Inverinate and the causeway. Then head onwards to Dornie.
Eilean Donan Castle
At Dornie you’ll find one of Scotland’s most photographed sites. The castle of Eilean Donan is positioned perfectly at the meeting point of three tidal sea lochs: Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. You really couldn’t imagine a more perfect setting. The presence of all that water makes for some spectacular changes too; I’ve seen Eilean Donan in atmospheric mist, in brilliant sunshine and glowing on a winter’s night. You should know that it’s not all that it seems. There has been a fortification here for centuries as a stronghold of the MacKenzies and the MacRaes, but the current building is a twentieth century reconstruction. Access to the castle is via a narrow bridge. As you’d expect from its beauty, the castle can be very busy in the summer months.
Kyle of Lochalsh And The Skye Bridge
If you’ve ever read Iain Banks’ Complicity, Kyle of Lochalsh will raise a wry eyebrow as it’s mentioned often. It’s the gateway to the Skye Bridge. The views here are simply incredible as you head over the bridge and onward to Portree to spend this and the next night.
Day 4: On The Isle of Skye
“Skye is sixty miles long, but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state” W H Murray
Our explorations today start in Sligachan, which serves as the gateway to the Black Cuillin mountains. It is said that the Lord Of The Isles attacked Skye in 1395, but William MacDonald met the MacLeods here and drove them away. They found that their galleys had been set adrift on the Loch Eynort, and the invaders were killed.
From Sligachan, there are incredible views of the Black Cuillin. Made of igneous rocks, these mountains are much loved by climbers. There are steep cliffs, a ridge and scree slopes, and twelve of the Black Cuillin are listed as munros. Most of the peaks – with the exception of the Inaccessible Pinnacle – can be reached by scrambling rather than climbing. The Black Cuillin curve around the shores of Loch Coruisk. Skurr Alasdair is the highest point. There is a legend that the Cuillins are haunted by the ghost of an outlaw called MacRaing; you can read more about this in our collection of Britain’s scariest places. The nearby Red Cuillin, smaller, rounder and with more vegetation, are made of granite. The beauty of the Cuillins has led to this being named one of 40 National Scenic Areas in Scotland.
You’ll find a guide to walks in the Cuillins here.
Uig and Its Connections To The Islands
If you are ready for a voyage, then the village of Uig acts as a gateway to the Islands via the Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferries. Ferries from Uig to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris take approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. Depending on your day of travel and the season in which you are visiting, you could have around 6 hours to enjoy Harris via the ferry before your return. Alternatively you could take a boat trip to the Isle of Rum from either Skye or Mallaig.
Portree (the King’s port) is the largest town on Skye. It has a harbour with a pier designed by Thomas Telford. The Aros Centre exists to share Skye’s Gaelic heritage, and around one third of Portree’s population are Gaelic speakers. You’ll find plenty of useful facilities in Portree: banks, restaurants, shops, a supermarket, and even a cinema, should you find yourself in overload and need some down time. Hear a whoosh? The professional Quidditch team Pride of Portree features in the Harry Potter novels.
You can read about your accommodation choices in Portree here. We’ve covered some of your choices of the best beaches in Scotland, including some from the Highlands and Islands if you want to explore more of the coast.
The Fairy Pools
Located in Glen Brittle, the Fairy Pools are a shimmer of waterfalls and a bounty of wildfowl, with birds as diverse as pippets, curlews and herons gathering there. Add in some red deer, rabbits and the ever-present sheep, and this is a nature-lover’s paradise. Walk 20 minutes from the Glen Brittle carpark, and you can – if you are brave – use the pools as an opportunity for wild swimming. But be aware that they are fed by mountain streams and mighty chilly.
Staffin: The Old Man Of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quiraing
From Portree, take the A855 for Staffin. The pinnacle of the Old Man of Storr is one of the most recognised features here, Just north of Loch Lethan, you can take the path up to The Sanctuary at the foot of The Storr. There are a number of hiking routes here if you have time and stamina.
Kilt Rock is incredibly well named, being full of vertical pleats. There are waterfalls here and views across to Wester Ross. Travel on further and you’ll reach the Quiraing. There are walks into the mountains here, for which you will undoubtedly need your proper walking gear.
Day 5: Fort William And Glencoe
It’s always difficult to draw yourself away from the glorious Isle of Skye, but more scenic treats await in Fort William and Glencoe. Retracing your steps on the A87 road past the Five Sisters, today we’re heading south through Glen Garry to Fort William.
The town of Fort William in Lochaber is the second largest settlement in the Scottish Highlands. When I tell you that this means just over 10,000 residents, you’ll have some idea just how small some of the settlements here can be. Fort William is served by the Caledonian Sleeper, so you could choose to end your Highlands experience with a sleeper train back to London.
Situated on the meeting point of Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil, Fort William is well placed for activities on the water. You can take a trip to spot seals on the aptly named Seal Island from Crannog Pier. You’ll find the Ben Nevis distillery on Inverness Road, along with Inverlochy Castle.
Throughout the summer months, you can catch the Jacobite Steam Train running daily on the West Highland Railway. It’ll make adventures at Hogwarts seem rather tame when you pass over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Walking and Hiking In Glen Coe and On Ben Nevis
The area south of Fort William is a delight. Ben Nevis itself tucks into the Grampians. It fits so well, that you don’t realise you are seeing the highest peak in the British Isles. Around 100,000 ascents of Ben Nevis are made each year, the majority of which use the Pony Track from Glen Nevis, Be warned that the weather on the mountain can be changeable, and at times reach arctic conditions. If you decide to admire the peak at closer quarters, go prepared. There are many guided ascents available from Fort William in the summer months. There are excellent view of Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis and also from boat trips on Loch Linnhe.
Glen Coe is another of the spots that take my breath away. And I’m not alone. Scottish Natural Heritage comments on the “soaring dramatic splendour of Glen Coe”. It’s another of Scotland’s National Scenic Areas. The glen here is regarded as the home of Scottish mountaineering. Such a beautiful place also holds sadness. The Massacre of Glen Coe, also part of the Jacobite uprisings, took place here with the loss of thirty eight lives for allegedly being too slow to pledge allegiance to King William II and Queen Mary.
Glen Coe is a great spot to end this Scottish Highlands itinerary. It’s full of scenic beauty, history, atmosphere and a stillness that typifies much of the Highlands. From here you can work your way home via the Caledonian Sleeper to London, or to Inverness, Edinburgh or Glasgow for connecting flights.
Enjoyed Our Scottish Highlands Itinerary?
If you want to see more of Scotland, you’ll find a Scottish itinerary among those set out in our 10 Day UK Itineraries. We’ve tackled Scottish food in our Great Eats of Britain. If you love the stillness and solitude of the Highlands, you might also like to explore the Welsh Marches on the borders of England and Wales.
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