What makes the Scottish Highlands so special? The people are simultaneously salt-of-the-earth and soulful. The landscape is profoundly humbling and uplifting. The Scottish Highlands has a history that is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking. The culture of the region is steeped in tradition as well as innovation.
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.
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 heart-breaking; a culture that is steeped in tradition as well as innovation; and a spirit that is fiercely independent yet steadfast.
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’)
If breathtaking beauty, dramatic history, rich culture and cool people are your cup of tea, then check out this Scottish Highlands itinerary.
From a cultural perspective, historically the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands is language. Scottish Gaelic was and is spoken in the Highlands. At the beginning of 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!
People Are Culture 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 perspectives, 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.
Driving in the Scottish Highlands
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!
Where to stay in Scotland
Edinburgh Radisson Blu in the heart of the Royal Mile in historic Old Town. Or try out Queen's Guest House, a Georgian townhouse 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.
Make your home base while in Ullapool is Ceilidh Place, a small hotel where you can have a terrific meal, enjoy live music, and peruse its eclectic bookshop and art gallery.
I did not stay overnight in Inverary, but there are many nice choices, including the well-reviewed Furnace Bed and Breakfast.
Start Your Scottish Highlands Tour in Newtonmore
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.
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. This time machine spans more than eighty acres it covers four centuries of life in the Highlands. It is 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’.
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.
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.
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 and their own genealogy, which includes buried treasure, a fugitive prince, and mutiny.
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.
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."
"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," he continued. "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."
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.
"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 challenges 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."
Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre
In fact, Inverness' strategic location inspired epic clashes 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 are brilliantly conveyed in a dramatic 360-degree video presentation at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor’s Centre.
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. It is located 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.
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.
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.
The Caledonian Canal is only 22 miles long but it is connected to four Lochs. It stretches across the Highlands from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean making this passage 60 miles in total.
"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 have been over 1000 recorded sightings, so they can't all be made up. Loch Ness is a vast area and very deep so there are 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.
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.
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.
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!
Next, I headed due to north another half mile to Balnakeil Beach, 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 the 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!
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!
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!
Onward to Ullapool, one hour and forty minutes to the south of Durness. My home base while in Ullapool 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.
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 the 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 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.
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".
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.
Map of the Scottish Highlands
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Final Thoughts on the Scottish Highlands
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Publisher and editor of Local Culture Guide. This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.