Guide to the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides

If my experience is any indication, a Scottish Highlands tour will reinvigorate your sense of awe and wonder. 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!)

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 include:

  • 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 heartbreaking;
  • a culture that is steeped in tradition as well as innovation;
  • and a spirit that is fiercely independent yet steadfast.

Scottish Highlands Tour

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. 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.

Hebrides Scottish Highlands
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!) Singletrack roads are common in the Highlands but happily pulling off spots are frequent and fellow drivers are most courteous and cheerful about giving way. You’ll be at ease with it in no time!

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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. Newtonmore is 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.

Scottish Highlands Museum
A must-see on your Scottish Highlands tour is Britain's first open-air museum, the Highland Folk Museum

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,. This time machine spans more than eighty acres it covers four centuries of life in the Highlands, with more than thirty that are divided into several distinct sections: a reconstruction of a croft; a 1930s farm; a village; pine woods; and 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’.

Scottish Highlands Museum
Scottish Highlands Museum - Paul Hermans / CC BY-SA

The Museum’s exhibits showcase dimensions of Highland life from farming, cooking, music, sports, weapons, clothing, superstitions, stories and songs. The site also hosts a wide range of historic and replica buildings, including croft houses and a working farm.

Scottish Highlands Museum

Scottish Highlands 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 and their own genealogy, which includes buried treasure, a fugitive prince, and mutiny.

Clan Macpherson Museum
BCD's Scottish Highlands tour includes a stop at the Clan Macpherson Museum, where you will get a warm welcome and a hugely interesting education on clan culture. Image Credit: Clan MacPherson

Clan Macpherson Museum
Image Credit: Clan MacPherson

Clan Macpherson Museum
Image Credit: Clan MacPherson

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,” said Bruce Macpherson, Museum Trustee and former Chairman. “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 Guide | Inverness

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.

Inverness

Inverness

One of Inverness' six churches is The Old High Church, which stands on a site which has had religious connections ever since St Columba preached to King Brude here in 565 AD.  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.

The lowest part of the west tower dates from the 14th or 15th century, making it the oldest structure in Inverness. The Tower was for centuries the highest building in the town and a place of refuge for the community in times of trouble.  Such times include a period during which 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.

Scottish Highlands Guide | Culloden and Cultural Memory

In fact, 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.

Culloden

Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre
Image Cerdit: Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

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

Scottish Highlands Guide | Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors Center

Watch some of the fastest fingers in the Western world wield a sewing needle at the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center. Here I learned that the origin of tartan was a wrap-around blanket. Hugely popular today, kilts were declared illegal for a time after the battle at Culloden.

The Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors 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.

Tartan was woven in the early stages in croft houses and weaving sheds throughout Scotland. The cloth was used as payment for trading items such as for wine and brandy barrels with France. Tartan got its name from the French word “tiertaine” meaning special kind of course material of a square design.

The Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors Center

The Scottish Kiltmaker Visitors Center

Scottish Highlands Guide | Take a Cruise on Legendary Loch Ness

The legendary Loch Ness is 25 minutes from Inverness. On a Jacobite Cruise, you can hunt for Nessie and explore the evocative Urquhart Castle. This Scottish Highlands icon was a strategic stronghold fought over for four centuries by area clans, eventually reduced to ruins in the 17th century.

Loch Ness Urquhart Castle

Loch Ness Urquhart CastleF

The Scots take enormous pride in the history of Scottish invention and discovery 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.

Loch Ness by Jacobite
Image Credit: Loch Ness by Jacobite

 

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.

 

Scottish Highlands Guide | Durness

Durness

Two and a half hours northwest of Inverness is Durness. This remote parish is an 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.

While it's exceedingly hard to distinguish a "favorite" spot on BCD's self-guided Scottish Highlands tour, Durness comes close!

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.

Durness

Durness
Experiencing gorgeous Balnakeil Bay & border collies sheep-herding are highlights of BCD's Scottish Highlands tour.

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.

A half-mile west from Glengolly is Balnakeil Craft Village, housed in low-slung concrete buildings that were built during the Cold War in the 1950s as shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. I found a collection of talented artists galleries and workshops producing crafts such as handmade soaps, pottery, basketry, and leatherwork. Taking an hour’s walk in the vicinity made clear why they find the environment so inspiring!

Durness

Durness

Durness

Durness

Next, I headed due to north another half mile to Balnakeil Bay, literally about as far north and west as you can get in Scotland. The Bay is two miles wide, and it’s turquoise waters are surrounded by huge dunes sculpted by wind coming off the Atlantic. The pristine beach conjures up the Caribbean, but the water temperature reminds you that you are on the same latitude as Norway!

Durness

On the southern end of the bay is Balnakeil House, a mansion referred to as Tigh Mor, or “Big House”. The site is said to have been the summer residence of the medieval Bishops of Caithness in the 12th century. By the 16th century, it had become the headquarters of the Clan Mackay. The Mackay who built the house was educated in Denmark, and the architecture of the impressive manor is believed to have characteristics of Danish farm estates. The house lay vacant for 30 years and was renovated in 2012. It’s now a holiday home that sleeps 17 if you’re in the market for a luxurious retreat with spectacular views!

Durness

Perched above the bay across from Balnakeil House are the romantic ruins of Balnakeil Church, built-in 1617 on the site of an 8th-century Celtic monastery. Donald MacLeod is among the legendary local figures buried in the atmospheric graveyard here. MacLeod worked for the chiefs of Clan MacKay and is said to have killed at least 18 people and disposed of the bodies at nearby Smoo caves. A more popular figure memorialized in the cemetery is the revered Scots Gaelic poet Rabbie Burns. His literary legacy includes Auld Lang Syne and countless other beloved Scots works.

John Lennon is a more contemporary bard that also has connections to Balnakeil. Lore says that his song “In My Life” is based on many visits he made to visit his aunt Elizabeth Parkes in Balnakeil as a youngster. You can find her gravestone in the churchyard.

It isn’t hard to see why this "Glen of the Stranger" has made such a strong impression on so many!

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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 bookshop 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.

Ullapool

Ullapool
Be sure to make time on your Scottish Highlands tour to simply sit and watch the waters of Loch Broom in Ullapool. Serenity assured!

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 smallholdings and crofts covering about 500 hectares. The primary income of local people of Lochbroom was crofting, which traditionally includes sheep rearing, possibly some cattle, a bit of fishing and crops.

In 1788 the British Fisheries Society bought Ullapool to develop the fishing on a commercial basis. The village itself was laid out on a grid plan with input from the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford who is well known for his incredible canals, roads and bridges.

Unfortunately, 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. This downturn was compounded by the Clearances in the 19th century when landlords decided that sheep were a more cost-effective and worthy trade than having tenants on their land.

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. However, in the last 20 years, more people are now moving back to the rural Highlands and adopting crofting traditions again. Some scholars call it a 'reverse clearance'".

Ullapool

Ullapool

Ullapool

Indeed, Ullapool has a lot to offer returnees and visitors, it has a thriving arts and culture scene with two 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!

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

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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!

Harris

Harris
Lewis and Harris occupy the largest island in Scotland and the spectacular scenery here in the Outer Hebrides are not to be missed on your Scottish Highlands tour.

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.

Harris

Harris

The landscape and sea views of Harris are spectacular--and the island is also rich in history. Archaeological sites here date to the Bronze Age. The medieval church of St Clements in Rodel is one of the most impressive examples of church architecture of its age in the west of Scotland.

Harris Tweed is a world-renowned brand and the Harris Tweed Authority is the governing body over the cloth. There are three main mills 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 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.

Harris Tweed

Harris Tweed

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

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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. Quite possibly one of the most breathtaking landscapes on the planet, Skye's landmarks are steeped in lore.
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.”

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.

Isle of Sky

Isle of Sky Kilt Rock was named for the impression of pleats created by the vertical columns of basalt over horizontal strips of grey and white oolite. 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 used to be a Gaelic school; one of many that the church established in the early 1800s. The species Dugald has collected in the area include Stegosaurus, Megalosaurus, Cetiosaurus, Hadrosaurus, and Ceolophysis. Dugald also offers tours to the nearby beach at An Corran to see footprints left by dinosaurs 165 million years ago!

Staffin Dinosaur Museum
Dougie Ross, founder of Staffin Dinosaur Museum. With Coelophysis footprints, in fossilised mud. Image Credit: Staffin Dinosaur Museum

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.

Portree Skye

 

Today, 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”.

Neist Point Lighthouse is a must-see! Be prepared for a bit of a hike--the iconic site is reached via 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.

Isle of Sky

Isle of Sky

Isle of Sky

Isle of Sky

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

Armadale Castle on the southern coast of Skye was once the seat of the Macdonalds of Sleat. It is now a romantic ruin that is owned and managed by a Scottish charitable trust. Armadale Castle’s sheltered location on the Sound of Sleat and the mild micro-climate created by the Gulf Stream makes the 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 through 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.

Armadale Castle
Image Credit: Armadale Castle

Armadale Castle

Armadale Castle
Image Credit: Armadale Castle

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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 and Iona

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.

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.

Mull and Iona

Mull and Iona

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!

Artist Mhairi Killin’s gallery Asodana can be found a ten-minute walk from the ferry slip. Her shop is located 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.

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

Scottish Highlands Guide | 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, the 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 Oyster Bar
BCD's Scottish Highlands tour includes a stop for a fresh seafood dish from Loch Fyne Oysters' Head Chef Callum Hall (left). Image Credit: Loch Fyne Oysters

Loch Fyne Oyster Bar
Image Credit: Loch Fyne Oysters

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.

Inveraray Castle

Inveraray Castle

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.

Inveraray Castle

Inveraray Castle

Don't be surprised if the hair on the back of your neck stands upon 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.

Inveraray Castle

Inveraray Castle
BCD's self-guided Scottish Highlands tour ends in grand style at Inveraray Castle, the ancestral home of Clan Campbell.

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!

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

Scottish Highlands Tour - 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:

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 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.

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 Excursions for Your Scottish Highlands Tour

 

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance for Your Scottish Highlands Tour

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!

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Recommended Excursions for Your Scottish Highlands Tour

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