Travel Insiders: Culturally Enriching Scottish Highlands Tour

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Hebrides & Scottish Highlands Tour: Nine Must-See Locales from Newtonmore to Inverarary

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If my experience is any indication, a Scottish Highlands tour will reinvigorate your sense of awe and wonder. The attractions of the Scottish Highlands & Hebrides are far too many to list in one article. That said, I’ll share locales I visited that offered insight into why this wee country is where the word 'Wow" was invented! (Or at least first recorded for posterity by the National Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, in his 1790 poem Tam o' Shanter!)

So, kick back, get comfy and enjoy a circuit of nine stunning locales, narrated by the poetic voices of people ranging from clan chiefs, artisans, and weavers to curators, crofters, and genealogists. This Scottish Highlands tour takes you north from Newtonmore to Inverness, circling up & across to Durness in the northwest corner of the country, then down to Ullapool, over to the Outer Hebrides and the island of Harris, then going further south to the Inner Hebrides and Isles of Skye, Mull and Iona, ending the Scottish Highlands tour in Inveraray.

A disclosure: the Hebrides & Scottish Highlands is my favorite destination on earth! Perhaps it is destined to become yours, if your criteria includes a landscape that both profoundly humbles and uplifts; a people who are simultaneously salt-of-the-earth and soulful; a history that is equal-parts inspiring and heart-breaking; a culture that is steeped in tradition as well as innovation; and a spirit that is fiercely independent yet steadfast.

Table of Contents

Just what exactly constitutes the Scottish Highlands, you ask? From a scientific perspective, the Scottish Highlands are defined as being north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, a geological fracture that was caused by a shift in tectonic plates. (James Hutton of 18th century Edinburgh is considered the “Father of Modern Geology’)

From a cultural perspective, historically the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands is language. Scottish Gaelic was and is spoken in the Highlands; beginning in the late Middle Ages, the Lowlands adopted the Scots language, an ancient version of English that is Germanic in origin.

Read: Riddle me this: How many indigenous languages are spoken in Scotland?

Another distinguishing feature of the Scottish Highlands is its clan social structure—while Lowland clans exist, the clan kinship group has long been associated with the Highlands. Clans are not literally all flesh-and-blood relatives but people bound together by territory and allegiances. Further along in this story, you’ll hear from members of Clan Macpherson and Clan Campbell on what being a member of a clan is all about!

Best Cultural Destinations raison d’etre is to not just provide an itinerary but to always offer insights into the unique differences of a place and its people—and our shared humanity. My style of reporting on a destination is to ask locals to share their perspective, observations and anecdotes about their home vs offering solely my own interpretation. Luckily for all of us, a wonderful cross-section of Scotland’s cultural standard-bearers were only too willing to share their love for and knowledge of this spectacular part of the world.

A word on the driving: Scotland follows the British convention of driving on the left-hand side of the road, which can be a little nerve-wracking for people used to the opposite. That said, in most places in the Scottish Highlands, you’ll often have the road to yourself, and when not, people are vastly more civilized than what I am used to in Boston! (That may not be saying much!) Single track roads are common in the Highlands but happily pulling off spots are frequent and fellow drivers most courteous and cheerful about giving way. You’ll be at ease with it in no time!

Want a closer look? Click on any image to enlarge it!

Highland Folk Museum & Clan Macpherson Museum

A scenic two-hour drive north of Edinburgh, Newtonmore lays claim to be within a stone’s throw of the exact geographical center of Scotland and on the fringes of Cairngorms National Park, the largest national park in the U.K. While in the area, I hung my hat at The Rumblie, an eco friendly property run by Fiona & Simon Dodds in nearby Laggan.

The Dodds’ focus on sustainability includes fantastically fresh ingredients used in the meals they prepare, like smoked trout that comes from 15 miles down the road, and award-winning cheeses from family-owned Connage Highland Dairy an hour away in Ardersier.

Newtonmore is a village of about 1,600 residents and has two attractions which set the stage for a tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, each offering fascinating historical & cultural context.

Highland Folk Museum is Britain’s first open air museum and over the span of a mile, it covers four centuries of life in the Highlands, with more than thirty buildings bringing to life the daily existence of Highlanders from the 1700s up to the 1950s. In early 2019, the site was voted by readers of The Guardian as the ‘Best Living History Museum in the United Kingdom’.

The Museum has had a colorful existence all its own, as Curatorial Manager Matthew Withey explained.

"The Highland Folk Museum was founded in 1935 on the lonely Hebridean island of Iona – burial ground of the old Scots kings, including both Macbeth and Duncan," Matthew said. "It was the brainchild of Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983), historian, ethnographer, collector and all-round force of nature. Isabel stood six feet tall in her stockings, and cast a very long shadow. In 1948 the University of Edinburgh bestowed an honorary doctorate for her work at the Highland Folk Museum, and in 1959 the Queen made her a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)."

The museum today is situated in the little village of Newtonmore, nestled in the wild and rugged central Highlands of Scotland. According to Matthew, it attracts nearly 80,000 visitors a year and is known around the world (though not always consciously!) as the setting for Claire and Jamie’s early trysts in the TV version of Diana Gabaldon’s great bodice-ripper of a series Outlander.

"More importantly, the museum retains its original purpose as a place “…to shelter homely ancient Highland things from destruction”, Matthew said. “The collections were assembled mostly by Isabel Grant herself and include vast arrays of objects: furniture, tools, farming implements, horse tackle, cooking and dining utensils and vessels, pottery, glass, musical instruments, sporting equipment, weapons, clothing and textiles, jewelry, books, photographs and archive papers with accounts of superstitions, stories and songs, and home-crafted items of every shape and description, including basketry, Barvas ware and treen. The site also hosts a wide range of historic and replica buildings, including domestic and commercial structures, croft houses and a working farm.

"Phew! That’s some collection!"
While I was at the Highland Folk Museum, a contingent of historical re-enacters from the U.S. were in character on the premise and the effect was uncanny. Seeing people in period dress engaged in every-day activity against the backdrop of the countryside and historic buildings really gave me a sense having been transported back in time. Matthew told me the Museum has informal relations with a number of re-enactment troupes in the U.S. and Canada, many of which are comprised of people with a Scottish heritage. The number of Americans of Scottish descent is approximately 20-25 million. Many of those identify as members of a Scottish clan.
Want a closer look at the sights? Click on each photo to enlarge it!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Clans are kinship groups, and the history of each Scottish Highlands clan, like any family, is uniquely personal, reflecting the values, allegiances and ideologies of its leader. The Clan Macpherson Museum offers a window into the origins of the clan system as well as an introduction to their own genealogy and epic saga that includes buried treasure, a fugitive prince, and mutiny—and a reputation as “as one of the most civilized clans in the Highlands".

I first became interested in Scotland because of its clan heritage and the sense of belonging that it represents. Museum Trustee and former Chairman Bruce Macpherson offered his personal take on the Museum’s role as a focal point for all who claim a heritage as a Macpherson—and, indeed, anyone interested in learning more about clan culture and our very human need for connection.

"The Macpherson Museum, which enjoys the Scottish Tourist Board’s second highest rating, is situated at the southern end of the village," Bruce said.  "It acts as the global hub of the energetic Clan Macpherson Association, one of the world’s most dynamic and successful clan societies with members scattered across the world.  They are to be found, not just in the English speaking lands where one might expect members of the Scottish diaspora to lurk - Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand.  But countries further afield too, including Spain, Japan, Malawi and Borneo."

"Every year, members of the clan gather for a great family reunion beneath the crags of Creag Dhubh, the mountain that overlooks Newtonmore and gives root to the Macpherson Clan’s battle-cry,” he explained. “At their helm is Sir William Macpherson of Cluny and Blairgowrie, 27th Chief, who regards himself as ‘head of the family’, albeit one of extraordinary intrigue, reputation and endeavor."

Bruce shared that in 1996, on the occasion of the 50th annual Gathering, a unique feature of the weekend’s merriment was the unveiling of a cairn to commemorate Cluny’s predecessor who led the Jacobites during the 1745 Rising, some 250 years before.  No memorial to his exploits was in existence.

"The cairn comprises rocks and stones provided by Macphersons from places of importance or significance to them and their families from every continent,” Bruce said.  “They were sent by the sackful, the donor of each one and the story behind each individual stone captured in a ‘Book of Gold’ that can be seen in the Museum."

"That summer’s Gathering was reckoned to be one of the largest gatherings of any single clan since the 1745 Risings and to the highlands the Macphersons flocked in their hundreds, bringing tales of how and why their predecessors had left Scotland and where they had ended up," Bruce recalled. "There were the Spanish Macphersons, whose forefather had left the highlands to find the source of fine wines; the Borneo Macphersons who had emigrated to Russia but then had to flee the imperial courts for Borneo at the time of the Revolution.  Macphersons, like fine wines, travel well. None of those present had forgotten ‘the rock from which they were hewn’.  All bear the name Macpherson with pride."


Photos: Donna "Dee MacPherson" Rucks

"The Clan Macpherson is very much a living entity, as is its Museum," Bruce observed. "This year will see the unveiling of a new exhibit celebrating the contribution members of the clan have made to the life of Canada; a more recent exhibition captured the service of Macphersons in the Great War, including reference to Dr Cluny Macpherson, inventor of the gas-mask.  Many will delight in such ‘modern’ exhibits, as they will in the stories of patriotism, loyalty and resolve evoked by artifacts reflecting the clan’s involvement in the 1745 Jacobite Risings and other important episodes of Scottish history.  The Museum is home of the legendary Black Chanter, said to have fallen from heaven to aid the clan in deadly combat, and also the remains of James Macpherson’s fiddle, broken at the gallows before this highland ‘Robin Hood’ met his death by the rope in nearby Banff."

The Museum is open from April to October and the Gathering is always timed to coincide with Newtonmore’s Highland Games around the first weekend in August.

"It is always a memorable experience and brings together a Highland Ball, the rigors of athletic contest played out during the Games - including a race up Creag Dhubh, a Clan March led by Cluny, bagpipes galore, song, the pipe and verse,” Bruce said. “The Macphersons, as one might expect from such a colorful and internationalist clan, have even been known to dance flamenco at their Saturday night Ceilidh.  For the bravehearted, why not come and join them one year?"

That sounds like an invitation that can’t be resisted—Macpherson or not!

Inverness: Launching Pad to Loch Ness & More

Inverness is considered the gateway to the moors and mountains of the Scottish Highlands. The commercial hub of the hinterlands, Inverness is a compact city of contrasts. Under a jagged skyline pierced by the spires of six churches and a castle, the languid River Ness separates the bustle of the High Street and the peaceful, tidy neighborhoods of Dalneigh and Merkinch, where statuesque Victorian homes mingle with the utilitarian housing of council estates.

Ross Martin who has written a book on The Old High Church. Picture: Gary Anthony. Image No. 024257
Ross Martin

One of those six churches is The Old High Church and Ross Martin, who recently retired after 45 years as Senior Elder, shared some tidbits about its esteemed history.

"The Old high today stands on a site which has had religious connections ever since St Columba preached to King Brude here in 565 AD.,” Ross told me. “The early Celtic church,  a simple wooden structure, developed in stature and size over the centuries, and as a Catholic church included many altars and chapels. The first reference to the church is in a deed granted by King William the Lion in 1171, which refers to the Church of St Mary in Inverness. By 1371 the church was described as noble, strong and distinguished, though in need of roof repairs, hardly surprising as it was thatched until at least 1558."

"Although the present main building dates from 1772 the lowest part of the west tower is generally recognized as dating from the 14th or 15th century, making it the oldest structure in Inverness,” Ross noted. “Not that there are many challengers for this description, as though Inverness was prosperous in the Middle Ages, most of the better buildings were wooden, and as a result of a vendetta between the Clan Donald and the Town, the Macdonalds are reputed to have torched Inverness on no less than seven occasions."

"The Tower was for centuries was the highest building in the town. Stone-built, it was a place of refuge for the community in times of trouble,” he said. “If you look at the tower from across the river, you will see a door opening above the main tower door. Presumably, in emergencies, the main door was securely barred and access was gained to the higher door by a retractable ladder. The stonework at the upper door provides evidence of the use of a removable bar to strengthen the door."

Ross explained that the tower houses two bells, one dated 1658 allegedly removed from Fortrose Cathedral at the time of the Reformation, and the curfew has been rung daily since 1703, apart from the Second World War, when bells were only to be rung in the event of an airborne invasion.

"The origin of the curfew is interesting," Ross observed. "In the Seventeenth Century, it had become increasingly dangerous for the citizens to venture out after dark without a lantern, as no street lighting existed. On the other hand, uncovered lights were prohibited because of the risk of fire among so many timber buildings. Add to this the fact that there were few clocks or timepieces in the home, and the establishment of a curfew in 1703 was well overdue. On the ringing of the evening curfew, one male from each household was to report for duty, if required, on the Watch, which patrolled the streets and the town gates.”

"The Town Council and Kirk Session were obviously carried away by the success of the curfew, as in 1720 they decided that the bells would also be rung at 5 a.m. in summer and 6 a.m. in winter, and at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. throughout the year. For these nocturnal duties, and no doubt for suffering the fury of those they wakened, in addition to the pittance they earned, the bellringers were awarded a pound of candles monthly! The final 150 years of bellringing duties involved only four different successive ringers, three from the same family. Since 2002 the bells are rung automatically."

Inverness' strategic location inspired epic clashes between over the ages; the most brutal occurred at Culloden, 4.5 miles outside Inverness, and forever changed the cultural landscape of the Highlands. This 1746 battle, the last to be held on British soil, pitted the Jacobites and the Hanoverians—two branches of the same royal family—against each other. In less than an hour, the Hanoverians slaughtered about 1,500 Jacobites—largely members of Highland clans. The history and its underlying politics are complex, but the emotion and very vivid humanity of this tragic episode in Scottish history is brilliantly conveyed in a dramatic 360-degree video presentation at the Cullodon Battlefield Visitor’s Centre.

Read: Paying homage to Scotland’s history: Culloden, Clava Cairns & Grey Cairns of Camster

As a result of the area’s violent history, the city's architecture dates mostly only to the 19th century. But Inverness’ Celtic roots are alive and well, with Gaelic speakers numbering five times that of the national average. Street signs are lettered in Gaelic as well as English and you hear the ancient language spoken in the shops and the playgrounds.

Watch some of the fastest fingers in the Western world wield a sewing needle at the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center, which chronicles tartan from its origins as a wrap-around blanket, explaining how kilts went from being illegal after the battle at Culloden to becoming the uniform of the Black Watch.

The Scottish Kiltmaker Vistors Center is located within Highland House of Fraser’s retail and manufacturing premises on Huntly Street along the banks of the River Ness. Its owner William Fraser has been in the kilt-making trade for more than fifty years.

"Originally known as Brecan, tartan was woven in the early stages in croft houses and weaving sheds throughout Scotland on single width looms, producing cloth 28” wide,” he said.  “This cloth was used as payment for trading, such as for wine and brandy barrels from France, which was used to mature whisky.  Tartan got its name from the French word “tiertaine” meaning special kind of course material of a square design.  The kilt as we know it today has evolved from early kilts made from 8 yards of tartan, known as Feilidh Beag (short kilt) and Feilidh Mhor (great kilt).

"Following the Battle of Culloden in 1747, there was a time when it was illegal to wear tartan.,” he explained. “This was the Abolition and Proscription of Highland Dress.  It was only after the Act of Repeal in 1782 that this ban was lifted.  Tartan had traditionally been dyed using natural vegetation but following the repeal, aniline man-made dyes were introduced, enabling a much greater variety of colors in tartan.  Classes of tartan include Chief, Clan, Dress, Mourning and Hunting – worn by specific people or for specific occasions.  Nowadays, tartan has never been more popular at home and abroad.  Most weddings, functions and gatherings see the kilt very much in evidence and is worn with much pride.

"The legendary Loch Ness is 25 minutes from Inverness and from aboard one of Jacobite Cruise’s four vessels, you can not only Nessie hunt but explore the evocative Urquhart Castle, a Scottish Highlands castle that was a strategic stronghold fought over for four centuries by area clans, eventually reduced to ruins in the 17th century.

The Scots take enormous pride in the history of Scottish invention and discovery (which includes the bicycle and animal cloning!), and the Caledonian Canal is testimony to that heritage of innovation. Jacobite Cruises has a tour called “Reflection” which starts at Tomnahurich bridge on the outskirts of Inverness and travels two miles on the canal.

Jacobite Cruises Skipper Mike Lynch gave me his view from the bridge on the canal’s significance.

"It’s a very important part of Highland history as it was made by famous architect Thomas Telford and is the main waterway between The moray Firth and Fort William,” he said.

"Not many people realize that the Caledonian canal is only 22 miles long—but it is connected to four Lochs, stretching across the Highlands from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean making this passage 60 miles in total," Mike explained.

Jacobite skipper Mike Lynch on deck

Skipper Mike is a man who loves his job and why not?
"It is a privilege and an honor to work out on Loch Ness day after day,” he said. “Many people from all over the world travel thousands of miles each year to visit a place which I call my office. Each day on the Loch is different from a weather perspective and offers new challenges as a Skipper."
And has Mike seen Nessie, you ask?
"I was driving along the A82 a few years ago, very early in the morning about 5 a.m. and I happened to glance across to the Loch and I saw a strange object in the water,” he recalled. “When I glanced back a few seconds later, sadly it had disappeared."

"Maybe this was Nessie?" he wondered. “It certainly grabbed my attention and got me thinking. I would like to believe that the legend is real. There has been over 1000 recorded sightings, so they can't all be made up. Loch Ness is a vast area and very deep so there is a lot of places down there which have not been explored, maybe Nessie is living beneath us on the Loch in a cave?"

Mike explained his interpretation of the significance of the company’s name.

"Jacobite is synonymous with the Jacobite uprising of 1745 to regain control of the British throne, which to me symbolizes great courage and determination," he said.

"Inverness' ancient past is proving a solid springboard to a bright future--it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe.

Want a closer look at the sights? Click on each photo to enlarge it!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Durness

Two and a half hours northwest of Inverness is Durness, a remote but absolutely spectacular swath of the Scottish Highlands that stretches from Loch Eriboll to Cape Wrath. My stay in the hamlet of Balnakeil is one of my fondest-ever travel memories. I found the land- and seascape of this coastal community on the two-mile wide Balnakeil Bay to be profoundly moving.

I arrived at dusk, greeted from a distance by a rainbow that seemed to end in Balnakeil. My home for the night was the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast -- its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger.” Martin Mackay is the proprietor of the B & B, as well as a full-time crofter. The property is a modernized croft house that dates to the 1890s. A croft is a small agricultural unit, most of which are situated in the north of Scotland.

Glengolly is a working croft where Martin raises North Country Cheviot sheep. The dawn-til-dusk labor is made easier with the help of an energetic army of Border Collies. The next morning, after a hearty "full Scottish breakfast," I had the chance to see Martin and his team in action.

Across the road from the plain white home, the horizon line came alive as a herd of sheep appeared at the crest of the small green hill. Martin barked a command and a trio of border collies sprang into action, each a blur as he raced toward the sheep. Over the next half hour, I was enthralled with an elaborately choreographed production.

Read: Learn more about Mackay Country, crofting and raising border collies!

A mile outside Durness is Balnakeil Craft Village, housed in low-slung concrete buildings that were built in the 1950s as a shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.. I found a collection of workshops that cover handmade soaps, paintings, pottery, basketry, woodwork, screen printing, leatherwork, wool work and enamel work.

I found my way to the studio of Ishbel MacDonald and was captivated by her art and apt description of the landscape.

"Sutherland is a vast empty land, treeless and made of ancient stone and peat," Ishbel observed. "The rocks here are some of the oldest in the world. The lack of trees and sometimes even grass, mean that the bones of the landscape are left bare. The cliffs at the beach show how the rock has been folded and forced from the horizontal to the vertical over millennia. At Balnakeil Beach, the Durness limestone shows the traces of the very earliest sea life."

"Layer upon layer of history makes up this place," she said. "Dotted around Durness are Iron Age chambered cairns and the remains of Neolithic hut circles. There are the ramparts of an early medieval fort perched on the cliffs facing the north Atlantic. The Norsemen who came over the sea from Iceland and Norway to raid eventually settled and there are the remains of a Norse longhouse within sight of my living room window."

It wasn’t hard to see why people chose to stay in this "Glen of the Stranger".

"Want a closer look at the sights? Click on each photo to enlarge it!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Ullapool

Onward to Ullapool, one hour and forty minutes to the south of Durness. My home base while in Ullapool is West House, owned by Richard & Colleen Lindsay, and just a block up from Loch Broom. Just across the street is Ceilidh Place, a small hotel where you can have a terrific meal, enjoy live music, and peruse its eclectic book shop and art gallery.

A visit to the Ullapool Museum offers insight into the beginnings and history of this small, delightful village perched on Loch Broom. Museum Administrator Siobhan Beatson shared some of the key milestones in the area’s settlement, including explanation of the impact to Ullapool of the Clearances, a complex period in Scottish history that lasted for almost a century, from 1760 - 1850, and altered the very social and economic structure of the region.

Museum Administrator Siobhan Beatson Ullapool

"The name Ullapool itself is said to be from a Viking settlement known as "Ulla's Farm/Steading,”’ Siobhan said. “For over 700 years Ullapool has had a small collection of small holdings and crofts covering about 500 hectares. The primary income of local people of Lochbroom was crofting, which would require sheep rearing, possibly some cattle, a bit of fishing and crops. They were self-sufficient communities."
"In 1788 the British Fisheries Society bought Ullapool to develop the fishing on a commercial basis,” Siobhan said. “The village itself was laid out on a grid plan devised by David Aitken later with input from the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who is well known for his incredible canals, roads and bridges including the magnificent Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.2

"Unfortunately for Ullapool the herring were not as reliable as the British Fisheries Society had assumed, and after about 50 years of productivity the village started to struggle,” she continued. “The herring started to become unpredictable and some years would not come at all, which led to Ullapool and surrounding areas becoming increasingly destitute. Crofters who relied on the herring to supplement their income fell into heavy debt with their landlords and many were evicted."

"This only became worse in the early 19th Century when landlords decided that sheep were a more cost effective and worthy trade than having tenants on their land,” Siobhan explained.  “While Ullapool itself was not forcibly cleared during the Highland Clearances, our neighbours to the north in Coigach and Assynt, and Leckmelm—a small hamlet 3 miles East of Ullapool—were all heavily affected. However 'voluntary clearing' was in play all over Lochbroom, where landlords made the conditions so bad that many tenants left with little choice but on their own accord."

"This carried on until the Clearances when the crofting population took a big hit, and most either emigrated to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand or they moved south to the bigger cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh for more job opportunities,” she explained. “However this has taken a turn in the last 20 years and more people are now moving back to the rural Highlands and adopting crofting traditions again. Some scholars call it a 'reverse clearance'".

Indeed, Ullapool has a lot to offer returnees and visitors—it has a thriving arts & culture scene with three popular festivals: Ullapool Book Festival in May, the Loopallu Festival in September, and the Ullapool Guitar Festival in October.

An amazing sight to behold is the enormous Cal Mac ferry arriving into Ullapool’s snug port. Ullapool is a gateway to the Outer Hebrides, where we’ll head next!

Read: Stories of serendipity and chance encounters in Ullapool, a beautiful corner of the Scottish Highlands!

Want a closer look at the sights? Click on each photo to enlarge it!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Harris

From Ullapool, take a gorgeous 2 hour 45 minute Cal Mac ferry to Stornoway, the main town of the Outer Hebrides and the capital of Lewis and Harris, the largest of Scotland’s islands. Despite sharing the same island, each is really treated as a separate entity, with Lewis to the north and Harris to the south. Lewis is lovely and well worth a stay—I’ll share more about my few days here in another post!

My perch in Harris was Pairc an t-Srath Guest House, about an hour’s drive from Stornoway. Owned by Lena & Richard, the property sits high above golden beaches and the sound of Taransay—on a clear day you can see as far as St Kilda. The guest house has an excellent dining room featuring yummy local ingredients like Isle of Uist Salar Salmon and Hebridean hand-dived scallops—be sure to book a meal here during your stay!

Get a grounding in the history of the Outer Hebrides with a visit to Seallam! the Visitor Centre in Taobh Tuath in Harris. For visitors interested in exploring family roots in the Outer Hebrides, genealogical research company Co Leis Thu? (Who do you belong to?)  is based at the Visitor Centre. Founded by genealogist & author Bill Lawson, the tracing service is now administered by Northton Heritage Trust, for which Bill consults.

"The Outer Hebrides, windswept islands on the Atlantic edge of Europe, can be incredibly beautiful, and the Isle of Harris is the most beautiful of them all!” Bill said. “Alright I am biased, but the office manager here at Seallam Visitor Centre agrees with me! Pure white shell-sand beaches, impressive mountains and sheltered creeks and sea lochs provide holiday destinations for all almost all tastes for the outdoors."

"But there is much more to Harris than just the views, however spectacular,” he observed. “It is rich in history, from archeaological sites dating back to the Bronze Age, to, in the medieval church of St Clements in Rodel, one of the most impressive examples of church architecture of its age in the west of Scotland. You will hear the ancient Gaelic language still spoken in shops and homes, and children can opt for Gaelic-medium education in the schools."

"You are conscious of history all around you here, from the ruins left from the days of the Clearances, when many families were evicted to create sheep farms, to the cultivation beds on the hillsides, where people grew crops and reared their livestock,” he continued. “The machairs (sand-meadows) of the west coast are fertile, but the rest of the island is rugged, often likened to a moonscape! You would wonder how people ever managed to make a living from such land – and of course, the answer is that they did not, but relied on the sea for most of their food."

"With a nation of sea-men, on the edge of Atlantic, it is little wonder that great numbers emigrated from the Hebrides, especially to Canada and Australia, as well as the cities of the Scottish mainland, and much of our work at Seallam! Visitor Centre lies in tracing the island origins of these emigrant families,” he said. “In the summer there is a never-ending trail of visitors to the Centre looking to trace their roots, and even in the winter, internet queries keep us busy. It must seem odd to strangers to find such an international centre at the farthest edge of Europe!"

Donald MacLeod of Scalpay Harris Tweed is a local resident keeping alive the traditions of his ancestors.

"Harris Tweed is a fabric that has stood the test of time," he said. "Growing up as a young boy in Scalpay, Harris, I was surrounded by the sound of the Hattersley loom. For many families it was the main income, doing a job they loved. Nowadays there are very few weavers on the island but I am excited to be producing Harris Tweed in the same village I grew up in and sharing these traditions with my young family. I appreciate the older generation passing down their knowledge to me and helping me further my skills in producing this beautiful material."


Donald MacLeod of Scalpay Harris Tweed weaves a Harris sunset into his work.

"As a fisherman and weaver, I draw inspiration from colors that I see on both the land and the sea,” he explained. “We can go from the deep shade of turquoise that encapsulates the sea to the fiery orange of a morning sunrise coming up over the island. Harris Tweed is truly a wonderful material to work with, from the start of the process in the shearing and wool gathering to the cloth getting stamped with the Orb for authenticity by the Harris Tweed Authority."

The Harris Tweed Authority is the governing body over the cloth.  There are three main mills, which do certain processes in the completion of the tweed but all of the weaving is still done in the home which is why this is classed as a cottage industry.  Many weavers are commissioned by the mills to weave particular patterns to supply retail stores.

There are then a number of private weavers who design their own patterns and make their own tweed, which must be taken to the Harris Tweed Authority for quality control and to be stamped with the historic orb. This symbol guarantees the highest quality tweed, dyed, spun and handwoven by islanders of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in their homes to the laws outlined in the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament.

Among the private companies selling are Harris Tweed and Knitwear Ltd., which operates a retail shop at the mouth of the harbor in Tarbert on Harris.

Read: Learn the story behind another long-held tradition on Scotland's Outer Hebrides--heating with a good peat fire!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Isle of Skye

From Tarbert in Harris, you can take a one hour & forty minute ferry to Uig in the Isle of Skye, the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago.

Shirley Spear in her element

Prominent Skye resident Shirley Spear provided a more scientific — but poetic–description of the terrain. In 1984, Shirley and her husband Eddie opened the now-iconic The Three Chimneys Restaurant with rooms on Skye, leveraging its remote location as a point of distinction. In 2016, Shirley was awarded an OBE for Services to Food and Drink in Scotland, recognizing a lifetime's work in Skye and throughout the country. After 34 years, the Spears recently sold the establishment to Scots-born international hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, who is committed to carrying on the Three Chimney’s award-winning presentation of Scottish food, culture and traditional dishes.

The depth of Shirley’s connection to the Isle of Skye is evident in how she describes the landscape.

"The Isle of Skye is a surprisingly large island," Shirley explained. "Shaped like a giant bird soaring from the northwest coast of Scotland, it is protected from the wide open seas of the Atlantic Ocean by the Outer Hebrides and The Minch. Skye has many miles of deeply indented, rocky coastline. The Sounds of Sleat and Raasay and several deep sea lochs, such as Loch Dunvegan, surround sheer cliffs, jagged mountains, and volcanic rock stacks."

"Heather-clad hills and grassy moors, steep glens, hidden lochans, tumbling waterfalls, rivers and sparkling mountain burns – all of these things make up the beauty of Skye,” she continued. “Woodland walks, wayside wild flowers, birds of all kinds, wildlife on land and sea – these beautiful sights and sounds complete the magic that captures many hearts and soothes the souls of visitors from all over Scotland and far around the world."

"The island is a geologist’s paradise, a treasure box of rocks and minerals from many ages and some of the best examples in the British Isles of specific geological events,” she said. “There are examples of some of the oldest rocks on the planet dating back many, many millions of years. The dramatic landscape that we enjoy now was shaped and formed by a myriad number of significant geological "shake-ups," the results of which can be clearly distinguished within this one tiny, but remarkable, part of the world."

Read: Learn the lore & legends behind some of the Isle of Skye's most distinctive landmarks: Kilt Rock, MacLeod’s Table & Neist Point

Want a closer look at the sights? Click on each photo to enlarge it!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Isles of Mull & Iona

From Armadale in southern Skye, take a 45-minute Cal Mac ferry to Mallaig, and then make the two-hour drive to Oban. Have a bite to eat and then board another Cal Mac for another 45-minute journey to the Isle of Mull.

Mull’s main town of Tobermory is a bustling little port ablaze in color. The harbor is lined with old houses painted in rainbow shades. Restaurants, inns and shops nestle on the waterfront; among them is the Tobermory Hotel. This 200-year old property, once a row of fishermen's cottages, offers plain but comfortable rooms, many with spectacular views of the harbor.

The Mull Museum just down the street is crammed with information about the history of Mull and its people—which the archaeological evidence says dates to pre-history.

"I am sure that the first Mesolithic inhabitants arrived merely because it was an ideal place for hunter-gatherers, with lots of easily obtained seafood along the shorelines,” said Philip Siddall, the Museum’s curator. “The Neolithic inhabitants, who may well have been their descendants, found there were areas of good fertile soil for their crops, and good pasturage for their animals. The number of Iron Age duns and forts suggests that there had become a bit of competition for these areas by the first century B.C."

"The area was colonized in the mid-5th century by the Scotti, a Gaelic-speaking tribe from Antrim in Northern Island; their name eventually coming down to give us the present name of Scotland," he explained. “Later Norse came to settle and farm, with Mull forming part of a Norse kingdom stretching from the Isle of Man to Orkney. The Norse place names still account for about 12% of the Mull total, a smaller percentage than the Outer Hebrides, so Mull was probably never densely settled."

On a rainy day, I hung out at An Tobar Cafe, a cozy place reached by a five-minute walk from Main Street up a steep hill. The spot affords incredible views Tobermory Bay—I went back another evening for some great shots of the sunset. The venue is located in a Victorian-era school building; the fare is vegetarian with wonderful soups and home-baked goods. An Tobar is part of Comar is a multi-arts organization that presents about 100 events a year across the disciplines of live music, visual arts, theatre, crafts, dance, films, literature and comedy.

Near Mull’s southwestern tip, a wild stretch of land called the “Burg” sweeps to the coast of Loch Scridain, one of many sea lochs, or fjords, on the island. In the tiny settlement of Fionnphort, you can hop on another ferry for the ten-minute ride to Iona, where its Abbey was a center of Gaelic monastic life for three centuries and today is still a place of pilgrimage and spiritual retreats .

"St. Columba picked on Iona for the foundation of his monastery in  563,  as it was the first island he came to from where Ireland was not visible,” Philip told me. “He had left Ireland after being involved in a rather bloody battle, and wanted redemption by converting as many souls as he had been responsible for killing."

Despite the violence inspiring Iona’s its settlement, its atmosphere is the anti-thesis of conflict.

"Iona has an aura of peace, a wee jewel in the Western Ocean,” observed Iain Morrison, skipper of Turus Mara, a family business that runs wildlife boat trips from Mull. “The un-visited and untouched parts of Iona, the colorful beaches in the south and west, the relentless swells are all there to be enjoyed. Although a few hundred thousand visitors step ashore on Iona each year, hardly any venture into these wilder and more exposed areas.  There is a spiritualism about the island which I sense despite not having a single religious cell in my entire body."

Read: Meet local Mull Skipper Iain Morrison, who will guide you through the islands of the Inner Hebrides and encounters with Orcas, Sea Eagles and adorable Puffins!

"The Bronze Age kerb cairn which sits at the back of my studio reminds me of the pre-Christian presence on Iona and of the deep layers of human occupation on the island,” said artist Mhairi Killin whose gallery Asodana can be found a ten-minute walk from the ferry slip, at the St. Columba Steadings, a lovingly renovated collection of farm buildings opposite the St. Columba Hotel. Mhairi’s mother’s family worked as weavers, silversmiths and crofters on Iona.

"The island has inspired artisans for centuries; from the Book of Kells in the 8th century to the 20th century painters, the Scottish Colourists,” Mhairi explained. “For such a small place Iona holds many voices; songs, stories and poems created by Islanders and visitors, words from emigrants and pilgrims’ prayers. People often describe a sense of “otherness” whilst here, experiencing a place outside of time."

Read: A tale of how the aura of the Isles of Iona & Mull brought my spirit back to life!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Inveraray

After heading back to Oban from Mull, you are now on the last leg of your jaunt around the Scottish Highlands & Islands, ending your journey in grand style at Inveraray Castle, ancestral home of Clan Campbell.

Inveraray is about an hour from Oban, on the western shore of Loch Fyne, one of the longest of Scotland’s sea lochs. The cuisine of an area is directly related to its ecosystem, linking culture to place and the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar is one of Scotland’s genuine gastronomic icons.

The restaurant is part of a bigger seafood enterprise and Managing Director Cameron Brown offered a bit of the company’s history and tutorial on the factors that make Loch Fyne oysters such a savored delicacy.

"Loch Fyne have been growing oysters for more than thirty years, initially selling them from a small shack on the main West Highland road before developing into UK and international markets. After two to three years of care and attention on our sandy shores, the oysters reach marketable size. Once harvested, every oyster is transferred to our depuration facility beside the loch. Here, each oyster is size graded and purified in filtered natural seawater."

"The taste of an individual oyster very much reflects the landscape in which it is grown and the variety of environments from open sea sites to bays and long sea lochs with lower salt levels,” he explained. “The flavor can range from salty on the exposed Atlantic coast to almost sweet where there are high volumes of fresh water run off due to rainfall.  When ready, they are hand selected, packed and dispatched live to our customers. Before being released for sale every single batch is rigorously health screened so that you can be sure they are good to eat.  This includes tapping them together by hand: fresh oysters make a distinctive sound when tapped together which tells our experts that they are fresh and ready to go."

According to Head Chef Callum Hall, tradition and a focus on local ingredients are the hallmarks of Loch Fyne Oysters’ popularity.

"Highland food is all about fresh, delicious produce which is grown and farmed by craftspeople who have passed down generations of knowledge,” he said.  “Our menus at Loch Fyne Oysters change with the seasons. Mussels are at their best from September through to May - but that all depends on the weather.  Our oysters are great all year round, although our most loyal customers say that they are so fresh, they can tell when it has been raining in Loch Fyne because they can taste the difference.  Our salmon is reared all around the West Coast of Scotland and is smoked by hand over wood chips from retired whisky barrels. For me, the menu at Loch Fyne is all about letting the fresh flavors of the seafood shine through, and complimenting them with simple recipes using locally sourced ingredients."


Photos: Loch Fyne Oysters

When visiting Inveraray Castle, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Chief of Clan Campbell, His Grace the Duke of Argyll.

I asked him what about the Highlands called to him.

"It’s the magic of it and the way it makes me feel,” he replied. “People who visit Scotland and the west will understand what I am trying to say. It can be the rugged beauty of it, the proportions of mountains, water and sky. The fresh air and the lack of development give a very unspoilt aspect to it all. To me, it’s like no other place on earth and I have been to a great many of them."

Read: Curious what life is like as a clan chief? Meet His Grace Torquhil Ian Campbell, Chief of Scotland’s Clan Campbell!


All photos by Meg Pier.

Book Your Trip To The Hebrides & Scottish Highlands: Logistics & Lodging Tips

Getting There

Fly into Edinburgh Airport, serviced internationally and domestically. Fly direct from cities in the U.S. like New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, from Toronto, Canada and most major cities in Europe. If arriving late or departing early, The Hampton by Hilton is well rated airport favorite.

Transportation:

You'll need a rental car for your Scottish Highlands tour. Check out the best options on Rentalcars.com for your Scotland trip.

For the island-hopping portion of your jaunt around the Hebrides, you'll enjoy the spectacular views from aboard one of Caledonian MacBray's ferries. The company's service is punctual, comfortable and incredibly scenic. You can find timetables and tickets prices here.

Lodging:

Edinburgh

Edinburgh Radisson Blu in the heart of the Royal Mile in historic Old Town. Or try out Queen's Guest House, Georgian town house located on Queen Street in Edinburgh New Town, this property overlooks Queens Gardens.

Newtonmore

Hang your hat at The Rumblie, an eco friendly property run by Fiona & Simon Dodds in nearby Laggan.

Inverness

In Inverness check out Ballifeary Bed and Breakfast, a Victorian villa in a quiet neighborhood near the River Ness and an easy walk to downtown Inverness.

Durness

Make your comfy home for the night the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast -- its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger.

Ullapool

My home base while in Ullapool is West House, owned by Richard & Colleen Lindsay, and just a block up from Loch Broom. Just across the street is Ceilidh Place, a small hotel where you can have a terrific meal, enjoy live music, and peruse its eclectic book shop and art gallery.

Harris

My perch in Harris was Pairc an t-Srath Guest House, about an hour’s drive from Stornoway. Owned by Lena & Richard, the property sits high above golden beaches and the sound of Taransay.

Skye

In Skye, try out Three Chimneys & House Over-By. This destination restaurant with rooms is situated in a remote location on the shores of Loch Dunvegan, and not far from breathtaking Neist Point. Pricey but a well-worth-it splurge!

Portree is the largest village on Skye and the capital--and yet is only about 200 years old, built as a fishing village at the beginning of the 19th century by Lord MacDonald. The Boswville Hotel is right on the snug harbor.

Mull & Iona

The Tobermory Hotel is a 200-year old property on Mull’s main street and bustling little port ablaze in color. Once a row of fishermen's cottages, offers plain but comfortable rooms, many with spectacular views of the harbor.

Inverary

In Inverary, I did not stay overnight, but there are many nice choices, including the well reviewed Newton Hall Guest House or Furnace Bed and Breakfast.

Tours

We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides.

Recommended Tours in the Scottish Highlands

 

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I recommend  World Nomads Travel Insurance.
 
I hope you have enjoyed this jaunt around the Scottish Highlands & Islands! BCD has much more content on this magnificent destination, which can be found here. Enjoy!

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above may be affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, BCD earns a commission if you make a purchase. Your support is much appreciated and helps to keep the site going.

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