By Kirsty MacLeod
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When you imagine yourself visiting the Scottish Highlands, what do you imagine yourself doing? Stopping by a coastal roadside to admire the sunlight bouncing off the sea while a deer prances past? Enjoying a dram made by a local distillery in a small pub while the villagers share folklore? Visiting an ancient historical site and feeling that indescribable sensation of connection to your ancestors who died nobly in the Jacobite rebellion, while a sole piper plays ‘Highland Cathedral’ on a faraway hill?
Instead, try this: standing in a queue for half an hour while the dozens of people in front of you purchase an unreasonable amount of cheaply-produced tartan magnets; checking your car door for scratches after a very dodgy encounter with a coach on a single-track road; discovering that much of the clan system was a little more gruesome than you had realised…
It sounds cynical, I know. But this is the reality of peak tourist season in the quaint, idyllic Scottish Highlands. Luckily, however, it’s not too bad. In fact, a healthy dose of ultra-Scottishness can be nice sometimes. By all means, visit all of the touristy sites and bask in the sound of the pipes (everything in moderation, right?) – there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you want to maximise your experience, avoid just walking into the tourist traps.
Wherever you go in the world, it’s always good to receive a little guidance from a local to make sure you don’t miss out on something spectacular. Make time for a little bit of the touristy stuff, sure, but also make sure you don’t bypass some of the extraordinary experiences which could be hiding right in front of you. I’ve narrowed it down to three tips: follow these and make sure your trip to the beautiful Scottish Highlands is the best it can possibly be.
Number one: There are other islands, not just Skye.
There are so many amazing places to visit on mainland Scotland, but many of our most breath-taking places and viewpoints are found just across the water. Clocking in at just under 800 offshore islands, there is so much to see. Many visitors head straight to the Isle of Skye, whose impressive mountain ranges marry with rolling greenery to create a truly stunning, postcard-perfect experience.
However, in the last few years, everyone seems to have caught onto this, and in the height of summer, Skye is a bit of a nightmare. Skye roads were not made for the countless coaches that try to navigate the tight bends, and the quiet magic of the Fairy Pools is made slightly less-so by the clicking and flashing of iPhone cameras many times a second.
Of course, visit Skye, but why not also consider some of our other hundreds of islands? Head a little further west and visit the Outer Hebrides: home to countless white-sand beaches, as well as plenty of historic sites rich in culture and history.
Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
Or venture south to Tiree, with its equally-gorgeous scenery and vibrant traditional music scene. An entire week could be spent just island-hopping along the west coast (or even up to Orkney and Shetland), so do take the time to visit the islands. While we cannot guarantee a smooth ferry crossing, we can guarantee an authentic Scottish experience and scenery which almost seems too good to be true.
Number two: Take your time.
Having worked in a popular Highland tourist attraction – Cawdor Castle, home to MacBeth – for the last five summers, I have seen far too many folks bundled off a cruise ship, onto a bus, herded around an old castle for an hour, before heading back to the ship and whisked off to another country.
I realise that’s the nature of cruise ships, but there are also people who seem to have a bizarre notion that the Highlands are something which can be seen in a day. Okay, they’re small, but they’re not that small. Spend at least several days – a week is advisable – taking in the scenery, having the luxury of wandering aimlessly through villages on the West Coast and immersing yourself in the community culture we have cultivated through thousands of years of tradition.
Cawdor Castle, home of Shakespeare’s Macbeth
As mentioned previously, there is so much to see, so do allow yourself the privilege of time to see as much of it as possible. And while on the subject of time, please spend less of it on your phone. Of course, no one is denying you the opportunity for a #wanderlust Instagram post which will rack up hundreds of likes, but if you’re too worried about the light/dark balance or the saturation percentage of a turquoise loch with a purple mountain backdrop, you are wasting your time and diminishing your experience.
Feel the air, breathe it in, enjoy the stillness. Moments are precious, too precious to waste. Embrace your surroundings fully without interruption, and I promise you that your holiday will become far more enjoyable.
Loch A’an, Cairngorms
Number three: Embrace new experiences.
Embracing new experiences is integral to enjoying your trip to the Scottish Highlands. Prepare for rain and a lot of it. Bring midge repellent for non-breezy days. Pack a good pair of walking boots and be aware that some of the best things you will see are not accessible by car. Jump off a waterfall (and exercise proper caution). Swim in the sea.
Accept the invitation to dance at a ceilidh, and don’t be surprised at the bruises on your arm the next morning. When it comes to food and drink, continue to engage your adventurous side. Ironic, I know, because Brits are the first to order chips at a restaurant in Spain, but that’s not the point. I’ve had visitors from just a few hours down the road in the Central Belt to those coming from Central Europe that turn their noses up at our menus and, in all honesty, it makes me a little sad. It’s all part of Scottish life, and while you’re here, you have to try and understand that life. One bite will not hurt you.
Make sure you try some freshly-caught seafood, washed down after with a locally-distilled whisky (calling it Scotch is only an embarrassment to yourself). We have 47 distilleries across the Highlands and Islands. Each one is unique, and many offer fascinating tours. We also produce plenty of beer and gin, and if that doesn’t appeal, a glass of tap water here is probably the nicest you’ll ever drink. While you’re here, be completely here, and don’t be afraid to do something which freaks you out a bit.
Glenlivet Distillery, Moray
There is so much more I could say and advise on your visit to the Scottish Highlands, but hopefully this will be just enough to see you on your way. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to live here, and I want to share their beauty and magic with everyone I possibly can.
So take my advice, book your ticket, and come and see what all the fuss is about. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up waving at each other from a passing place along a single-track road? Yep, make sure you do that too!