Scottish Highlands See And Do
Long centuries spent battling neighboring clans and countries have left Scotland with a decent stock of castles. Urquhart Castle ticks two important boxes: A magnificent setting on the banks of Loch Ness and a reasonable number of walls and towers still standing (Drumnadrochit; 44-1456-450551). The impressive Cawdor Castle was mentioned in Shakespeare's Scottish play, Macbeth. The Dowager Countess Cawdor still lives there in the winter months. Oil paintings of assorted aristocrats, 17th-century tapestries, and the late Duke's droll guide notes make for an entertaining visit, as do the stunning flower gardens, fiendish maze, and wild nature trails (near Nairn; 44-1667-404-401). Ironically, one of the most picturesque of Scotland's castles is a rebuild. Eilean Donan, pictured, lay ruined between 1719 and 1912, when Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap set about restoring it to its former majesty. Accessed by a stone bridge over the swirling waters where three sea lochs meet, Eilean Donan looks impossibly romantic, which explains why it featured heavily in the Christopher Lambert film Highlander (Dornie, by Kyle; 44-1599-555-202).
While they vary greatly in taste, the essential processes of making Scotch whisky don't differ from one distillery to the next. Each malt whisky producer may boast different-shaped stills, their own coopers, or even geese that act as guard dogs, but the heart of the operation will still revolve around milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, and maturing. This means that one, possibly two distillery visits are enough for all but the most dedicated Scotch lover.
Thanks to its flower displays and pagoda-style chimneys, Glenfiddich is one of the more postcard-friendly operations, and its distillery tour and visitor center are surprisingly in-depth. The standard tour and sample is free, but for £20 ($40) there is a more comprehensive tour and tutored tasting of several expressions of the global Glenfiddich brand (Dufftown; 44-1340-820-373).
The colorful Major Grant was the driving force behind the early years of Glen Grant whisky. The distillery that bears his name distinctly lacks the swashbuckling romance of its founder, but is worth visiting for the Victorian gardens alone (Rothes; 44-1340-832-103).
An altogether more romantic experience is on offer within the whitewashed walls of Benromach Distillery, the smallest working distillery in Speyside. It's a tiny player compared to the Glenlivets and Glenfiddichs of the whisky world, but its tour feels more personal and you are more likely to leave thinking of whisky as a handcrafted product (Invererne Rd., Forres; 44-1309-675-968). The same could be said of the smallest distillery in all of Scotland, the privately owned boutique operation at Edradour, which makes in a year what the big boys produce in a week (by Moulin; 44-1796-472-095).
Fans of smoky, peaty whiskey should make the pilgrmage to Islay, where eight different distilleries dot the island. A good pub argument can be started by asking which is best. Ardbeg, pictured, is a strong contender, not just for its briny complexity but also for its craggy coastal location (Port Ellen, Islay; 44-1496-302-244).
While in the Speyside area, whisky aficionados should try the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel. The walls are lined with hundreds of bottles of whisky from £2 ($4) a shot to a 35-year-old Springbank that sells at £155 (more than $300) a measure.
Scotland is famous for its salmon fishing, and the Spey, pictured, and Dee rivers offer the most prestigious, not to mention expensive, beats in the Highlands. But they are not the only salmon rivers available. The last couple of years have seen resurgence in salmon stocks, and more adventurous fishermen might try casting their flies in the numerous smaller and wilder rivers up in Caithness and Sutherland. Coarse, trout, and sea fishing are also popular. Have the hotel you're staying in make arrangements (all of our recommended hotels can do this with enough warning). Barring that, local hotels are generally good sources of information (and sometimes permits), as are tackle shops. Highland estates and other landowners directly rent out beats by the day or week and may be able to provide the services of a ghillie or guide. FishScotland is a private marketing company that can book fishing on most of the rivers in the Highlands and help organize tackle and guides.
Depending on which way you swing, Scotland is either the spiritual home of golf or guilty of its creation. However you feel, it's one of Scotland's defining symbols and widely played at all levels of Scottish society. Although not in the Highlands, the Old Course at St Andrews in the Region of Fife boasts the most celebrated 18 holes in the world and hosts some 40,000 rounds a year, so for golf fans it's a worthwhile stop before continuing to the Highlands. Booking as far as possible in advance is advisable (e-mail email@example.com on the first Wednesday in September for slots in the following year), although half of all the annual bookings are decided by a lottery that visitors can enter the day before they hope to play (Pilmour House, St. Andrews; 44-1334-466666).
The Highlands and Islands may not have the Old Course, but they have dozens of courses with their own character, challenges, and significantly cheaper greens fees. They range from the little-known James Braid–designed Fortrose Golf Club (Ness Rd. East, Fortrose; 44-1381-620529) to championship courses such as the Royal Dornoch (Golf Rd., Dornoch; 44-1862-810219) and the Nairn (Seabank Rd., Nairn; 44-1667-453208).
Mountain biking is hugely popular in Scotland, and the jewel in the Highlands crown is the vast number of trails available around Fort William. Casual cyclists can take it easy and wheel along the Caledonian Canal or follow a forest track. More experienced bikers can ride the gondola to the start of the nerve-shredding Off Beat Downhill track, which drops 1,700 feet in a little over a mile and a half and is open to cyclists May to September (Torlundy, Fort William; 44-1397-705-825). There are also a number of less-famous trails. The black double-diamond route at Laggan Wolftrax is possibly the most technical bike route in Scotland. Be warned: One of the features is known as the Back, Sack and Crack Attack. The Highland Wildcat Trail by Golspie boasts the U.K.'s longest free-ride descent.
One of the more unusual but fun ways to catch some scenery is to take a seafari. Operating out of Skye and Easdale by Oban, Sea.fari runs wave-skimming speedboat trips that aim to take in minke whales, seals, deer, and, if you get lucky, the occasional golden eagle. The Easdale trip visits the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool (Easdale, 44-1852-300-003; Armadale Pier, Sleat, Isle of Skye; 44-1471-833316). Long before its inclusion in the Harry Potter films, the steam train journey from Fort William to Mallaig was already a hit. The Jacobite steam train, pictured, passes Ben Nevis and crosses over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, (44-1524-737751).
A popular challenge for keen hill walkers is to tackle all 284 Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet in height. They are known collectively as Munros, after Sir Hugh T. Munro, who first cataloged them, and the hobby of scaling them is called “Munro-bagging.” Among the classic Scottish mountain climbs is the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe. It requires some scrambling and begins or ends at the evocatively named Devil's Staircase. On Skye, the Cuillin Mountains are the main draw. Back on the mainland, the 4,081-feet-high Cairn Gorm provides the name for an entire mountain range. The energetic can climb all the way up; less hardy souls can take the car and chairlift to within 170 yards of the top. At 4,406 feet, Ben Nevis, pictured, is the highest peak in the U.K., which makes it a popular climb. Most people use the well-kept Pony Track to reach the summit in about four hours, but there are also spectacular climbing routes for more experienced mountaineers. On a clear day, the Isle of Skye is visible from the top.
Not that you need a head for heights to enjoy the Highlands: There are plenty of low-level walks that provide stunning scenery. The circuit of Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus Estate gives maximum reward for minimum effort, while a stroll along Glen Affric reveals swathes of the Caledonian pinewoods that once covered much of the landscape.
Given the water temperature, a wetsuit is a must but, unlikely as it may seem, the Highlands and Islands are popular among windsurfers—mainly because high average wind speeds coming in off the Atlantic put plenty of puff in the sails. Claims that Tiree is subtitled the Hawaii of the North should be regarded with suspicion, but it does play host to an annual Professional Windsurfers Association championship event. Thurso and Lewis also attract surfers. Wild Diamond Watersports can get you kitted out and ready to bust the breakers (Burnside Cottage, Cornaig, Isle of Tiree; 44-1879-220-399).