The Great Glen (Scottish Gaelic: An Gleann Mòr) and Strathspey (Scottish Gaelic: Srath Spè) are in the central Scottish Highlands. These two valleys are natural transport routes converging on Inverness, which became the region's chief town.
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.
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 the Spey valley. 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.
The Great Glen is the fault line that slices diagonally across the Highlands, with its north end at Inverness.
The road south along the Glen continues to Oban, ferry port for several islands of the Hebrides.
The Road to the Isles is A830 west from Fort William to 12 Glenfinnan, 13 Arisaig, and 14 Mallaig, for ferries to Skye and the Small Isles. These too are part of the Highlands, but described as Inner Hebrides.
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) is the region's only airport. It's east of Inverness, 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 the Shetland Islands.
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 daytime train from London Kings Cross via York, Newcastle and Edinburgh to Inverness.
- The "Highland Sleeper" runs overnight Su-F 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 has Citylink and Megabus coaches from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Ullapool and Skye. From London change in Edinburgh.
- Fort William has 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 is the most photogenic.
- Glenfinnan Viaduct, used in umpteen film and TV locations, is on the "Road to the Isles" from Fort William.
- Culloden battlefield saw the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.
- Fort George at Nairn and its troops broke the clan chiefs' power in the years after the '45.
- Nessie the Monster in Loch Ness. 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.
- Steam trains in summer ply the Strathspey Railway from Aviemore, and the West Highland Line from Fort William to Glenfinnan and Mallaig.
- Ski at Glencoe above Braemar or on Cairngorm above Aviemore.
- Spot dolphins and whales in the Moray Firth. Boat trips sail from Inverness.
All the towns have cheap 'n cheerful places for refuelling hungry hill-walkers and skiers. There isn't a stand-out top-rank restaurant 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 lie to the west. Drive over a bridge to Skye, or take a ferry from Mallaig. From Skye, ferries sail to the Outer Hebrides. From Oban, ferries sail to Mull, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Barra and Lismore.
- Ross and Cromarty is much more thinly populated, and out of range of the weekend trippers. Continue north through wild Sutherland and Caithness towards John O'Groats.
- North Coast 500 is a motoring itinerary from Inverness across Ross and Cromarty and Sutherland.
- Argyll and Bute are where long sea lochs force you to go northeast or southwest, then back again. From Kennacraig ferries sail to 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 the Great Glen or Speyside.