Towns and villages
1 Inverness (Inbhir Nis, "Mouth of the River Ness") is the most northerly city in the British Isles, and the administrative capital of the far-flung Highland Region. It's a Victorian town, with hotels and other sights and amenities, and a good base for exploring the area. Just east of town towards the airport is 2 Culloden, scene of the defeat of Bonny Prince Charlie's Jacobites.
Strathspey is the area that most visitors reach first, as the railway and A9 climb out of the Tay Valley over bleak Drumochter pass to descend into Strathspey. Much of it is part of Cairngorms National Park, topped to the east by the line of peaks from 1 The Cairngorm to Ben Macdui. Small settlements along the way are Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore and 3 Kingussie.
4 Aviemore is Speyside's main town, popular for skiing and other winter sports and activities in the Cairngorms. At 5 Carrbridge the routes divide: the railway and main road continue north over the moors to Inverness. The A95 heads east down the Spey Valley to 6 Grantown on Spey, through classic whisky-distilling country into the lowlands of Aberdeenshire.
The Great Glen is the fault line that slices diagonally across the Highlands, with its northern end at Inverness. 2 Loch Ness is the deep brooding water that fills much of it - monster-spotting boat trips run regularly year-round. Halfway along, 7 Drumnadrochit has the compulsory photo-stop of Urquhart Castle. 8 Fort Augustus is at the loch's south end: A87 here branches west to cross the bridge to Skye. The Glen runs on past two other lochs and the village of Spean Bridge to reach the sea again at 9 Fort William, overlooked by Ben Nevis. A few miles south, it's joined by the valley of 10 Glencoe, with its sad history, mountain climbing, ski centre, and lonely boggy expanses of 3 Rannoch Moor.
The southern Great Glen is dominated by (and indeed filled by) the sea: south, the road continues to Oban, ferry port for many islands of the Hebrides. A830 goes west to 11 Glenfinnan, 12 Arisaig, and 13 Mallaig, which has ferries to Skye and the Small Isles. (These too are part of the Highlands, but described under Hebrides.) Most tourists rush there, but miss a place that is mainland yet more remote: take the winding road via 14 Strontian to discover the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.
This part of the Highlands was "Sassenachised" at an early date, with the adoption of lowland farming methods and land tenure, and English replacing Gaelic. The process was well under way before the 1745 rebellion, and although it led to de-population, this was more driven by the "pull" of growing economies like Glasgow and America than the "push" of uncaring landowners. And those that were forced out were evicted in an era before civil rights, photography and pesky reporters, so their stories went largely untold. It would be a different matter a century later when similar processes scourged the northern and western Highlands and the Hebrides, so it's those stories of "The Clearances" that we remember.
But in 1822 the vast bulk of King George IV was somehow levered into a kilt, the loyal clansmen all stood to attention in their newly-invented tartans, and the era of Highland tourism and mythology began. The railways arrived, then better roads and private vehicles, and people with money and leisure. The Great Glen and Strathspey were well placed to benefit, within reach of a weekend break from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Winter sports developed, then better appreciation of the natural environment and wildlife. Today this feels like the area's trump card.
- 1 Inverness Airport (INV IATA). This is the region's only airport. It's east of Inverness (with a bus service), off the main road towards Nairn, Elgin and Aberdeen. It has flights from Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Stornoway on Lewis, Kirkwall in Orkney, and Sumburgh in Shetland.
You can also fly to Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen and hire a car to reach and explore the area.
- Trains from Edinburgh and Glasgow run via Perth to Kingussie, Aviemore, Carrbridge and Inverness.
- Travelling from England will usually involve changing in Edinburgh, but there's one direct train per day from London Kings Cross via York, Newcastle and Edinburgh to Inverness. The "Highland Sleeper" runs overnight (not Sat) from London Euston, with one portion via Aviemore to Inverness and another to Fort William.
- Trains from Glasgow Queen Street run to Fort William, Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Mallaig.
- Trains from Inverness run southwest to Kyle of Lochalsh for Skye, north to Wick and Thurso for Orkney, and east to Aberdeen.
- There's no railway along the Great Glen between Fort William and Inverness, take the bus.
- Inverness is served by Scottish Citylink coaches from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ullapool, Skye and Perth and National Express coaches from London.
- Fort William is served by Scottish Citylink coaches from Glasgow.
Mallaig has CalMac ferries to Armadale on Skye, Lochboisdale on South Uist, and the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna.
You really need a car to explore this spread-out region. Fill up on fuel in the main towns, it's sparse and pricey out in the country.
By boat: The Caledonian Canal links the Beauly Firth at Inverness through Loch Ness to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. The sea loch beyond is usually well sheltered, so small craft can putter down to Glencoe and Oban.
- Castles in these parts are sternly defensive. Urquhart Castle on Loss Ness is the most photogenic.
- Glenfinnan Viaduct, used in umpteen film locations, is on the "Road to the Isles" from Fort William.
- Culloden battlefield, endgame of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.
- Nessie the Monster. Or more likely, don't see.
- Long-distance walks include the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William, 96 miles, and the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness, 73 miles.
- Climb Ben Nevis, see Fort William for routes.
- Take a steam train excursion along the West Highland Line to Glenfinnan, Arisaig and Mallaig.
- Ski at Glencoe, or on Cairngorm above Aviemore.
- Spot dolphins and whales in the Moray Firth. Regular boat trips from Inverness.
All the towns have cheap 'n cheerful places for refuelling hungry hill-walkers and skiers. There isn't really a stand-out top rank restaurant that's worth driving long miles to reach. But look out for places using local produce.
The Spey valley is classic whisky-distilling country; several distilleries are open for tours.
Most hazards here are natural: remember that you're on the same latitude as Newfoundland, and Tomsk in Siberia. It doesn't have to be winter to be rough weather.
- The Hebrides are the obvious choice. You can nowadays drive over a bridge to Skye, or take a ferry from Mallaig. From Skye, ferries run west to the Outer Hebrides. From Oban, ferries run to Mull, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay and Barra.
- Ross and Cromarty is much more thinly populated, and out of range of the weekend trippers. Continue north through wild Sutherland towards John O'Groats.
- Argyll and Bute are where long sea lochs force you to go northeast or southwest. At Kennacraig find ferries for Islay, thence to Jura.
- North East Scotland is mostly lowland, with lots of castles, and the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee. It may feel tame after the Highlands so a suggested route is to come north through Aberdeenshire and Moray towards Inverness, then return south via either Great Glen or Speyside.