The Highlands

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.”

– Robert Burns

The Scottish Highlands are a place of legend, of peerless beauty, wild weather and deep history. Hundreds of castles, both intact and ruined, dot the landscape of Scotland’s north. There is no purer wilderness anywhere in the British Isles. Taking nothing away from the wonderful cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, for me, the Highlands are the one place that Scotland could not be Scotland without.

Loch Ness and Great Glen, Creative Commons photo by Dave Conner.

Loch Ness and Great Glen, Creative Commons photo by Dave Conner.

What are the Highlands?

Creative Commons image by Nilfanion.

Creative Commons image by Nilfanion.

Defining the Highlands can be a trickier question than it might seem. Geologically, anything in Scotland north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault is considered Highland. But in terms of Scottish politics, only about 2/3 of that area keeps the name, the rest being split between six different council areas. The name Highlands comes from the Gaelic word A’ GhĂ idhealtachd, which means “Land of the Gaels”, and so at one point the main thing that separated Highland from Lowland was the speaking of Gaelic, and that would set a different border, one that includes the Isle of Arran and the other Western Islands of Scotland.

For the purposes of this site, we’ll use the strictest definition, the political one. Even so, the region includes almost 12,000 square miles of territory, making it the largest in Scotland. All that land is populated by only about 250,000 people, giving the Highlands one of the lowest population densities of any area its size in Europe.

Getting to the Highlands

The city of Inverness is capital of the Highlands, home to more than one in four residents. The only year-round international flight into Inverness comes from Amsterdam, but there are flights from Bergen in Norway and Geneva in the summertime. Most visitors to the Highlands come to Inverness by way of a direct flight from London or by car or rail from the other Scottish cities. Inverness is considered somewhat remote by Londoners, but it lies in the relatively accessible south of the Highlands, with most of the region north of the city.

The city of Stirling is considered the gateway to the Highlands, lying just south of its border. The drive from Stirling to Inverness is a gorgeous way into the region, if you have the time.

Things to do in the Highlands

It’s hard to talk about the Highlands as a whole, because the region is so large. But throughout, there is great hiking and fishing, wildlife watching, cultural and historical attractions, and magnificent scenery. Some of Scotland’s greatest castles are found here. And wild as it is, it’s hardly an unbroken wilderness. There are many towns spread out over the region, from Fort Augustus in the south to Thurso, Durness and Wick in the far north. Each has its own character and charm.

Most of these towns also have their own whisky distilleries, and the Highlands is the largest and most diverse of the five recognized whisky regions of Scotland. Contained partially within the political boundary of the Highlands is one of the others, Speyside, and the center of the Scotch whisky world, Dufftown.

Creative Commons photo by Barney Moss.

Creative Commons photo by Barney Moss.

Getting around the Highlands

The Highlands are the one region of Scotland where I would always recommend travelers rent a car. So much of the beauty and majesty of this area is outside of the cities or even the towns, and though there is bus service in some areas, you’ll really want the ability to stop and look at your leisure. Always plan for trips here to take longer than the map or GPS suggests, because you’ll drive slow and stop often.