By Jim Ferri
Since childhood, I’d been intrigued by the Highlands of Scotland.
With my young imagination fueled by National Geographic and the occasional travel brochure or advert, this wild and rugged land fascinated me.
Now, years later, during a two-week visit to England, I decided to make a quick trip to those Highlands, to savor the place that so fired my young imagination.
Surprisingly, I found a place that closely matched those childhood images, an authentic land of castles and kilts, woodlands, and wildflowers, of rugged mountains and wild coasts, and spectacular glens and lochs.
It was a fascinating few days, limited only by a schedule that didn’t allow me to linger longer and delve deeper into the wildest country in the United Kingdom.
The Drive North to the Scottish Highlands
I traveled to Edinburgh and took the A9 north heading to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands of Scotland.
The motorway took me through a beautifully serene and green countryside, across verdant hillsides cut by rivers and speckled with sheep and big brown cows, where little houses poked up through the greenery. Driving through picturesque Cairngorms National Park I soon myself wishing for more parking areas to stop and take photos of the magnificent landscape all about me.
About 70 miles south of Inverness the road wound its way up a mountain, and the lush forest gave way to a more austere land of small pines and brush, much of it softened by moss-covered rocks and heather. A large roadside sign soon welcomed me to the Highlands.
It was mid-July, and there was a profusion of wildflowers along the road. Just a week earlier in southern England I saw these flowers had already passed their prime but here, in the cooler clime of Scotland, they were just bursting into bloom. All along the way bright, colorful specks jumped up from the dense greenery.
Inverness, Capital of the Highlands
All roads in the Highlands lead to Inverness, and I quickly found myself right in the center of the city.
Inverness is the largest city and capital of the region, but despite its stature it’s still very “town-ish” and you can see quite a bit of it in just a few hours. It’s also quite easy to walk about, although you’re sometimes forced to listen to the cacophony of seagulls on its rooftops.
I walked around town for a while and wound up on High Street, a pedestrian street flush with shops and shoppers. There, near the old Customs House, I paused to listen to a one-man band entertaining passerby’s with American country music.
Further down High I soon came to the bridge that spans the River Ness, that winds its way down from Loch Ness (in fact, the city’s name is derived from the Gaelic “mouth of the River Ness”), and Inverness Castle, now being utilized as a courthouse.
Across from it was the 18th-century Tolbooth Steeple, a landmark of the city, which from afar I had mistaken for a church.
Mid-afternoon I headed for nearby Cawdor Castle, which is linked to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is still a family home.
Cawdor looks the way a castle should look, complete with turrets and a drawbridge at the front door, set on a vast lawn surrounded by woods and a beautiful garden. The original castle was built around a 15th-century tower house and large additions were tacked on in subsequent centuries.
Across from the garden – it alone worth the half-hour drive from the city – is a garden maze in which it would seem easy to lose any eight-year-old. Parents take note.
The estate is quite large, about 55,000 acres in all, and includes huge areas of woodland.
Through The Great Glen of the Highlands
I set out early the next morning for Loch Ness and the Great Glen, one of the most beautiful places in Europe. As I drove along the loch, early morning clouds slowly drifted down from the mountains above, giving everything a soft beauty.
With hardly another car on the road, I became entranced by the still water and beautiful forest, my trance broken only by the occasional deer darting across the road ahead.
It was a magical moment, something those who came later in the day would never experience.
Along the way, the road continued to cling to the serpentine shoreline, at times making for an almost torturous drive.
But it always straightened out, rewarding me with another beautiful view of the calming waters in front of a magnificent backdrop of rugged mountains.
Across the Mountains
Near the end of Loch Ness, I turned northwards across the mountains towards the Isle of Skye. Leaving the calm and serenity of the Glen, I was quickly thrust into a treeless valley high in the mountains.
It was a spectacularly wild area of Scotland and some of its most beautiful. A vast carpet of grass covered the treeless mountainside, and rose-colored heather softened the rocky landscape as rivulets of water tumbled over distant cliffs in a series of needle-like waterfalls.
Occasionally, I’d come across travelers who had set up camp not far from the road, and found myself envying them for having the time to spend in such a beautiful, wild area.
The Isle of Skye
Once out of the mountains and nearing the coast, I was soon skirting the shoreline of small lochs. Not far beyond, after stopping at the restored and much-photographed 13th-century Eilean Donan Castle, I crossed the bridge linking mainland Scotland with the Isle of Skye, my final stop before I had to turn southward for the drive back to England.
Skye is also a wild, austere place, with tall mountains and a rugged coastline. This has ensured its popularity among adventurous travelers and hikers, so much so, in fact, that in high season it’s often difficult to find a room on the island.
Since I could only spend a short time on Skye, I drove up its coast an hour or so to the quiet little town of Portree. It’s the largest on the island, and likely one of the prettiest, with brightly painted buildings snuggling up against one another along the waterfront. But you’re not there very long before you realize how hyperbolic was a local tourism brochure that described the town of having “a superb range of shops.”
You won’t, however, find any hyperbole in the brochures that describe the magnificent scenery and adventure you’ll find all over the Highlands of Scotland.
It’s all there, just as described.
If you go:
Ocean Point One
94 Ocean Drive
Edinburgh EH6 6JH
Tel: 0845 859 1006