12 Day Itinerary of Scottish Highlands & Islands: Nine Must-See Locales from Newtonmore to Inveraray
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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!)
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.
BCD's itinerary takes you from the gateway to the Scottish Highlands to the outer edges of the Hebrides in the wild Atlantic.
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.
What Defines the Scottish Highlands?
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.
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!
Sightings of Scottish wildcats may be rare on your self-guided BCD Scottish Highlands tour, but you can count on an abundance of Highland cattle, known locally as 'Heilan Coo'!
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!
Scottish Highlands Day One: 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
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 island of Iona. It's creation was the brainchild of Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983), an historian, ethnographer, collector and all-round force of nature. According to Matthew, Isabel stood six feet tall in her stockings, and cast a very long shadow. In recognition of her work, in 1948 the University of Edinburgh bestowed an honorary doctorate, 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.
He noted that most importantly, the Museum retains its original purpose as a place “…to shelter homely ancient Highland things from destruction”.
Matthew pointed out that 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.
Clan Macpherson Museum
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."
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 brave-hearted, why not come and join them one year?"
That sounds like an invitation that can’t be resisted—Macpherson or not!
Scottish Highlands Days Two & Three: Inverness & Loch Ness
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.
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. Ross told me that he 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 said the early Celtic church was a simple wooden structure, and developed in stature and size over the centuries. As a Catholic church, it 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.
Ross said that 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. He noted that while Inverness was prosperous in the Middle Ages, most of the better buildings were wooden, and did not endure. This is largely because the Macdonalds are reputed to have torched Inverness on no less than seven occasions, as part of a vendetta between the Clan Donald and the Town.
The Tower was for centuries the highest building in the town, according to Ross. Built of stone, it was a place of refuge for the community in times of trouble. Looking at the tower from across the river, you can see a door opening above the main tower door. Ross said that in emergencies, the main door was securely barred and access was gained to the higher door by a retractable ladder.
Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center
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.
William said that tartan, originally known as Brecan, was woven in the early stages in croft houses and weaving sheds throughout Scotland on single width looms, producing cloth 28” wide. This cloth was used as payment for trading, such as for wine and brandy barrels from France, which was used to mature whisky. The term tartan comes 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, William 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.
William said that 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. William noted that 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.
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.
Take a Jacobite Cruise on Loch Ness!
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.
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.
Scottish Highlands Days Four and Five: 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.
Balnakeil Craft Village
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".
Scottish Highlands Day Six: 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.
Siobhan explained that the name Ullapool itself is said to be from a Viking settlement known as "Ulla's Farm/Steading. 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.
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, according to Siobhan. 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 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!
Scottish Highlands Day Seven: 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!
Seallam! Visitor Centre
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.
Bill declared Harris the most beautiful island in the Outer Hebrides, citing its pure white shell-sand beaches, impressive mountains and sheltered creeks and sea lochs.
"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 is a crofter, fisherman, and Harris Tweed weaver who with his wife Catherine and two children lives on Scalpay, an island of 2.5 square miles in size just 1,000 feet away from Harris, across the narrows of Caolas Scalpaigh.
"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."
"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.
Scottish Highlands Days Eight and Nine: Isle of Skye
From Tarbert in Harris, you can take a one hour and forty minute ferry to Uig in the Isle of Skye, the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago.
Uig is located on Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula, a Gaelic-speaking area in the northwest of the island that is designated by governmental conservation agency Scottish Natural Heritage as a national scenic area. There are currently 40 national scenic areas (NSAs) in Scotland, covering 13% of the land area of Scotland. These locales are considered to represent the type of scenic beauty "popularly associated with Scotland and for which it is renowned.”
Indeed, there is no question that the Scottish people have a strong sense of pride in their cultural landscape. I found that the thread that binds the fabric of life for the people I met is the land itself.
A profound appreciation for that affinity washed over me as I stood atop 180-foot heights above Kilt Rock. Watching the spring-fed waterfall tumble over the precipice to the sparkling waters of the Atlantic below, I became enveloped in its spray, a part of the landscape. In the whipping wind on the very edge of the Trotternish Peninsula, I felt exhilarated and giddy, as though I was soaring above the brink of Time itself.
My guide Rob brought me back down to earth, pointing out the striations in the cliff face stretching out below us. He told me that Kilt Rock was named for the impression of pleats created by the vertical columns of basalt over horizontal strips of grey and white oolite. Rob explained that the tight formation of pillars lined up in a precise row inspired the tartan pattern worn by clan members from Skye.
Nearby is the Staffin Dinosaur Museum, founded by Dugald Ross in 1976 when he was only a teenager. The small building which houses the museum collection used to be a Gaelic school; one of many that the church established in the early 1800's.
“The reason Skye has so many fossil localities is due to the layers of lava that protected them from Ice Age glaciers,” Dugald explained. “Although most of the lava is still overlying the fossil strata, there are sporadic areas on the shoreline where the lava has been eroded by the sea and the fossils are exposed.”
“Tectonic plate movement was also crucial as the undulating Mid Jurassic strata stayed relatively near the surface whereas they are inaccessible in most parts of the world,” Dugald said. “Most of Skye is covered by lava flows which emerged through cracks between the tectonic plates. These lava filled cracks can be seen scattered across the island and are commonly referred to as intrusion dykes.”
From Staffin, head a half hour down the road to Portree, the capital of Skye. Its name is said to come from Port Ruighe, meaning “slope harbor” and indeed the town is flanked by layers of hills and cliffs. Ben Tianavaig resides on the south and Suidh Fhinn or Fingal’s Seat to the west, both about 1000 feet in height, and Ben Chrachaig, much smaller in stature at 470 feet, to the north.
Ben means “peak” in Gaelic and the fanciful name Fingal’s Seat comes from an epic poem by 18th century Scots poet James MacPherson, and the legend of Finn McCool, a mythological Irish hunter-warrior who is said to have traveled the Irish Sea between Scotland and Ireland via stepping stones.
You can have a nice bite of lunch on Quay Street in Portree and enjoy meandering around its picturesque snug harbor, lined with pastel-colored buildings. This quaint main thoroughfare runs parallel to the town’s pier, which was designed in 1818-1820 by the renowned and prolific Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. A builder of roads, bridges, canals, harbors and tunnels across his native Scotland, Telford’s ingenuity and productivity earned him the nickname “Colossus of Roads”, a pun on the name of the statue on the Greek island considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”.
Heading west from Portree, I came face-to-face with an imposing geological wonder when Rob and I rounded the next bend in the road.
Ahead of us, two massive flat-topped hills presided over the landscape, which Rob told me were known as MacLeod’s Tables.
“According to legend, the Chief of Clan MacLeod was invited to a banquet by King James V in Edinburgh–a routine evening that did not impress the chief greatly,” Rob said. “He decided to show the King what a real banquet was like and invited him to a sumptuous feast held on the lower of the two flat-topped mountains, known as Healabhal Mhor."
"Clansmen stood round the edge of the plateau holding torches–what a sight it must have been!" Rob regaled. "History does not tell us whether James V wore thermal underwear or not – because he surely would have needed it!”
Next we headed to what is one of Skye's most westerly points. Following a narrow winding road down a steep hill to its very end, we reached a grassy plateau. Off to the left, majestic crags rose proudly from surprisingly still, serene waters glinting in the bright sunlight. The cliffs here are among the highest in Europe and home to sea eagles. Ahead, a large hill loomed, its heft obscuring what lay beyond it. There was no way I could possibly have been ready for the spectacular display that greeted me once I had chugged up the slope.
Sprawling out grandly in front of me was a massive headland that gradually narrowed to a swath of land capped with an immense triangular mound, at the tip of which perched the Neist Point Lighthouse. A steep and seeming-endless set of stairs zigged and zagged down the emerald expanse and amongst grazing sheep, streams of scree and an ancient stone wall.
The lighthouse, first lit in 1909, was designed by David Alan Stevenson, cousin of famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish author of beloved books such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came from a long line of lighthouse engineers.
Next we headed due south, to Armadale Castle, perched on the Sound of Sleat. Once the seat of the Clan Macdonald, it is now a romantic ruin that is owned and managed by a Scottish charitable trust.
In 1971 these lands came up for sale following the death of Alexander Godfrey Macdonald, 7th Lord Macdonald and High Chief of Clan Donald. The Clan Donald Lands Trust was founded by clan members worldwide to preserve the location for everyone to enjoy.
The mild micro-climate created by the Gulf Stream makes Armadale's Gardens a serene sanctuary where both indigenous and exotic plants flourish. The 20,000 acre estate encompasses manicured formal gardens, and a trail that leads though a woodland garden home to trees more than 100 years old that shelter carpets of bluebells, orchids and wildflowers in spring and summer. Beyond is a path through pastures to a stunning vista at the top of Cnoc Armadail, offering a view of the majestic Cuillin ridge.
If you are someone who has a love of landscapes and stories, you’ll find the two intertwined beautifully on the Isle of Skye!
Scottish Highlands Days Ten and Eleven: Isles of Mull and 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.
Isle of Iona
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."
"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."
Scottish Highlands Day Twelve: Inveraray
After heading from Mull back to Oban on the ferry, you are now on the last leg of your jaunt around the Scottish Highlands & Islands. Final stop: Inveraray! About an hour's drive west and then south via the A85 and A819 will bring you to this village on the western shores of Loch Fyne.
Loch Fyne is 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.
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar 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."
After a sumptuous meal at Loch Fyne Oysters, end your tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands in grand style with a visit to Inveraray Castle. To many, Scotland conjures up images of moody fortress-like ruins perched on the shores of a dark loch. Yet the ancestral home of Clan Campbell is relatively "modern", and built in the 18th century. It's considered one of the first buildings constructed in the Gothic Revival architectural style, a movement that began in England in the 1740s and emphasizes the picturesque and romantic, with signature design elements like pointed arches and turrets. Indeed, as you make your way up the driveway to approach Inveraray Castle, you will be spellbound by the fairytale ambiance.
The drama and elegance of Inveraray Castle were featured in a two hour special episode of Downton Abbey. Tours are self guided and take about an hour, offering the opportunity to imagine life as a member of royalty; the Chief of Clan Campbell holds the unique distinction of being both the leader of a Highland clan and a duke, the highest hereditary designation of British nobility outside the royal family.
That alignment meant Clan Campbell had clashes with other clans and Inveraray Castle's Armoury Hall showcases an extensive collection of military might, including 16th century pole-arm, which is a close combat weapon and 18th century muskets and axes. Be sure to look for the sporran belonging to Rob Roy MacGregor, a legendary Scottish cattle rustler and folk hero. A sporran is part of traditional Highland dress, a pouch worn around the waist in front of a kilt.
Two Inveraray Castle rooms that offer insight into a life as a Duke are the Saloon and the State Dining Room. In stately home parlance, a saloon is not the western poker den and brothel most Americans envision. In British high society, a saloon, often the largest and grandest room of the house, where large gatherings like balls can be held, and named after the 18th-century French salon, an intellectual gathering to discuss literature, art and other lofty subjects. Inverary's Saloon is home to a display of paintings of the Campbell family which go back to its days prior to allegiance to the British monarchy.
In the extravagantly decorated State Dining Room, the walls feature elaborate allegorical imagery painted by two French artists in 1784. Gilded chairs surround the gleaming table, set with Argyll family silver and gold nef--an extravagant table ornament and container used in the Middle Ages, made of precious metals in the shape of a ship.
Don't be surprised if the hair on the back of your neck stands up on entering the MacArthur Room, a bedroom on the first floor (what Americans would call the second floor). The chamber is named for a massive and highly carved bed that belonged to the MacArthurs of Loch Awe; the bed has a murky connection with a young Irish harpist who was murdered in 1644. It's said that when a family member is about to die, harp music is heard coming from the room. Also on this floor is the Victorian Room, named after the 9th Duke, the Marquess of Lorne, who became a member of the royal court after marrying HRH Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.
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."
I couldn't agree more!
Scottish Highlands Tour - Logistics & Lodging Tips
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make your comfy home for the night the Glengolly Bed & Breakfast -- its name is from the Gaelic Gleanna Gallaidh or "Glen of the Stranger.
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.
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 and 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.
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Recommended Excursions for Your Scottish Highlands Tour
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance for Your Scottish Highlands Tour
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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!
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Recommended Excursions for Your Scottish Highlands Tour
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.