Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
The Caledonian Canal is a waterway that runs for 60 miles through Scotland's Great Glen connecting Fort William in the southwest to Inverness in the northeast. The waterway connects several lakes, or lochs, and 22 miles of the Caledonian Canal are manmade to link Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Dochfour, and the famous Loch Ness. It first opened in 1822 as a way for commercial ships to avoid the more dangerous west coast. However, by the time it opened, the boats the canal was designed for were replaced by steam ships that were too big to use the canal.
Today the canal is a popular recreation area. Pleasure boats and scenic cruises sail up and down the canal and through the lochs. Visitors can also go to a viewpoint to see some of the 29 locks that get the boats from one section to the next. There are also opportunities to go fishing and swimming. For visitors who prefer dry land, there are hiking and cycling trails, including the 73 miles of the Great Glen Way.
With an illustrious history dating back to the 11th century, Inverness Castle is best known for its role in the legendary Shakespeare tragedy ‘Macbeth’, featuring in the play as the location of Duncan’s murder. Looming over the city center, the castle is one of Inverness’ most prominent landmarks, set on a hilltop overlooking the River Ness.
The castle’s present day structure dates back to 1836, an imposing Neo-Norman red stone fortress designed by architect William Burn and still surrounded by part of its original bastion wall. Today, the castle houses the Inverness Sheriff Courthouse and County Hall, and although the offices are not open to the public, exploring the castle grounds is a popular activity for both locals and tourists, affording expansive views over the city sights and along the River Ness.
With its imposing Gothic facade presiding over the west bank of the Ness River, St Andrew’s Cathedral is one of the most striking of Inverness’ many churches. Constructed in the 19th-century to a design by local architect Alexander Toss, the cathedral, often simply referred to as Inverness Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness and remains one of the city’s principal places of worship, with regular Sunday services held.
The cathedral’s design, characterized by its eye-catching pink sandstone and dominated by a pair of square Gothic towers flanking the entrance, has polarized public opinion, with many noting its lack of spires – omitted from the original design due to lack of funds - as its downfall. Despite this, the cathedral boasts a number of notable features including an exquisite series of stained glass windows and a magnificent choir fashioned from Austrian oak.
Looking down on the city from St Michael’s Mount on the banks of the River Ness, the historic Old High Church is the oldest church in Inverness and famed as the seat of the first congregation in Inverness, with roots dating back to Celtic times. Legend has it that St Columba of Iona, the Irish monk who introduced Christianity to Inverness, once preached from the hilltop on the very spot where the church stands today.
Despite its Celtic roots, the present church building mostly dates back to the 18th century, although parts of the Bell tower from the 14th century remain, and is notable for its restored Willis Organ and Iona marble chancel. Along with its long history of worship, the church was also used as a prison and execution ground after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Regular Sunday services are held in the Church year round.
Sure, the River Ness might not be as famous as the nearby Loch with its monster, but that doesn't mean it's not worth wandering. In fact, the vast majority of Inverness' top attractions are situated along its shores, including Inverness Castle, Whin Park, Eden Court Theater and St. Andrews Cathedral. And of course, it culminates in Loch Ness. River Ness also houses the Ness Islands, which are extremely popular nature retreats for Inverness locals.
Though famous, the River Ness is no Nile. It stretches only about 12 miles (20 km) from where it begins at Loch Ness to where it empties into Beauly Firth. Little known fact: it's actually in the river, not the giant loch, that the first ever sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was reported.
A modern gem of a theater, Eden Court houses a range of performing arts performances involving music, theater, opera, ballet and dance as well as film. To accommodate all these large scale performances as well as studios for art classes, a new building to house them all was built in 1976 right next to the River Ness. With its sharp angles and metal and glass encasing, the theater now sports a somewhat retro futuristic look. This provides a sharp contrast to the Gothic mansion right next door, the official residence of the Bishops of Moray. But the small palace from an entirely different century has been successfully incorporated into the modern Eden Court Theatre and now houses the dressing rooms, offices and a small cinema.
Merkinch Local Nature Reserve is a bit of a hidden treasure, located only about a mile (2 km) outside of Inverness along the shore of Beauly Firth. As the only nature reserve in the highlands, it is the perfect area to observe the diverse wildlife of this sparsely populated region and enjoy a day outdoors. There is a visitor center, once used as a ferry ticket office, where you can delve into small exhibitions and also pick up maps or hire a guide for a walk around the area. Animal spotters will also find a logbook detailing the latest wildlife sightings and can then set out to spot the highlands' biodiversity themselves.
Looking over the Beauly Firth shoreline, you can watch steel blue barn swallows catching insects, buzzards sitting tall atop tree branches, pheasants with bright gold and brown plumage, shy curlews probing the waters for crabs with their extremely long curved beaks and the big grey herons stalking their prey.
More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands
Coffee breaks don’t come with a more scenic backdrop than Inverness’ Floral Hall, one of the city’s most unique attractions. Opened by Prince Edward in 1993, the Floral Hall includes a series of ornamental gardens, sub-tropical greenhouses, creative water features and ponds filled with tropical fish, set around a popular café. The Cacti House, home to the Highlands’ largest collection of succulents, is a highlight of the gardens, housing an award winning collection, and the dramatic seasonal floral arrangements on display are legendary among local gardeners. The centerpiece of the stone walled gardens is the newly opened Memory Garden, home to the Tree of Tranquility, a poignant sculpture created by the SiMBA charity in support of women who have miscarried or lost a baby – each leaf is personally engraved by the bereaved.
If you are in Inverness and want to spend a day out with the family, you will find a beautiful recreational area for just this purpose in Whin Park. Popular among tourists as well as locals, the site is especially great for kids due to the miniature Ness Islands Railway, a large play area and a boating pond.
The train is usually made of a diesel locomotive with long lines of benches attached behind it. If you are lucky though, a tiny steam engine will be in use to take you on the bell-shaped ride through the thick forested areas of the park. It was originally built in 1983, though the current track was finished a few years later to allow it to cross an old iron bridge in the park that was built in 1837.
The ruins of Urquhart Castle sit on the shores of Loch Ness. Visitors can still climb the Grant Tower, which offers scenic views of the famous loch and Great Gen. It was once one of Scotland's largest castles, and it spent hundreds of years as an important medieval fortress. The castle was frequently invaded and taken over by enemies only to be won back later. It also played a big role during the Scots’ struggle for independence in the 1300s and came under the control of Robert the Bruce after he became King of Scots in 1306. The castle was blown up in 1692 to prevent it from becoming a Jacobite stronghold.
Visitors can learn about Urquhart Castle in the visitor center which includes an exhibition, film show, gift shop and restaurant. Items in the exhibition include a collection of artifacts left by the castle's former residents and historic replicas. Urquhart Castle is also one of the main sites for reported sightings of the legendary Loch Ness Monster.
Originally built in the 13th century as a defense against Vikings, Eilean Donan Castle is one of Scotland’s best-known architectural treasures. It last played a historical role during the 18th century Jacobite uprisings, and was subsequently left in ruins until it was rediscovered and lovingly restored in the early 20th century.
The castle sits proudly on a peninsula in Loch Duich, ringed by rugged hills, and you can immediately see why this is one of the most-photographed sites in Scotland. Walk the shore of the loch to find your own vantage point and then explore the castle itself, where you can visit the banqueting hall, kitchens and bedrooms.
The Isle of Skye is Scotland's largest island, and justly famous on the tourist circuit. However, most visitors stick to the beaten track, and if you've a longing for solitude it won't take you long to find your own corner of this little paradise.
When the sun's out, there's nowhere quite as enchanting as Skye, with its vivid blue lochs and seas glittering in the light and its green crags glowing. However, if it's raining (and the weather can turn in an instant here, so definitely be prepared to get wet), there's still an eerie beauty to the place. And hey, what better excuse than to enjoy it through the window of a cosy pub?
At 4,409 feet (1,344 meters), Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles, a status which makes it a popular destination for climbers. The most frequently used route to the summit is via the Pony Track which begins at Achintee, just outside of Fort William, but even that takes up to nine hours for a round trip and is not recommended for complete beginners. Thankfully the area also offers a huge range of less arduous activities, including fly fishing, golf, mountain bike riding, pony trekking, kayaking and lowland walking. Pick up a guide in Fort William and set out on one of the numerous well-marked paths, many of which will offer majestic views of Ben Nevis. There's also a popular cycling route along the Caledonian Canal.
Just 5 miles from Iverness, the historic Culloden Battlefield is one of Scotland’s most significant battle sites, commemorated by the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre and protected by the Scottish National Trust. It was here, on the Culloden moor, that Bonnie Prince Charlie and an army of 5000 Jacobite Highlanders faced off against the Duke of Cumberland and his 9000 Hanoverian Government troops on April 16 1746. It was one of Britain’s most important battles and the last to be fought on British soil.
Today, the Visitor Centre is dedicated to retelling the events of the battle and the battlefield has been reconstructed in memorial to the Jacobites’ defeat, with burial sites and flags marking out their positions at the battle’s gruesome end.
Glencoe offers some of the finest landscape in Scotland, indeed the whole of the UK, where dramatic mountains sweep down to glens (valleys) until they meet the moody waters of the lochs.
While this is a site of historical significance due to the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, the primary draw is the magnificent natural surrounds. There are numerous well-marked walks in the area and it is also popular with rock-climbers. This is one of Britain’s premier ski areas in winter, but a chairlift operates year round to offer the best views of the area.
One of Iverness’ oldest and most unusual historic sites, the Clava Cairns, or the Stones of Clava are a series of stone chambers thought to date back to the early Bronze Age (c 2000 BC). The unique site, also known as the Balnuaran of Clava, comprises three sizable Cairns of stones, the largest measuring 31 meters in diameter, each featuring an outer curb surrounding an inner chamber of larger stones.
Located close to the Culloden Battlefield, the Clava Cairns lie in a picturesque setting surrounded by woodlands and close to the River Nairn. A series of 15 similar stone piles are also dotted around the Nairn valley. The Cairns, thought to be closely linked to other prehistoric stone circles found in the British Isles, might also have been burial sites, with a number of bones found when the Cairns were first excavated back in 1828.
On the southwestern shore of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a picturesque village of 600 that gets packed with visitors during the summer months. Originally an 18th-century garrison, Fort August lies at the junction of four old military roads.
Surrounded by heather hills and cut in two by the Caledonian Canal, Fort Augustus serves as a spot for day-trippers to relax and watch the boats master the longest lock system on the canal. Running from coast to coast, the Caledonian Canal was designed in 1822 to give merchant skippers a shortcut across the country and to help keep boats out of harm’s way. At the time, pesky French pirates were prone to scouring the open seas! Those interested in the canal can find out more at the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre. Also of interest is the Clansman Centre, which provides insight into 17th-century Highland life.
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