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Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands - page 2

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Cawdor Castle and Gardens
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Immortalized at the fictional home of the Thane of Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cawdor Castle is one of Scotland’s most famous castles. Despite its literary notoriety, Cawdor Castle and Gardens actually have little in common with their fictional counterpart. The castle wasn’t built until the 14th-century - years after both the real and fictional King Macbeth existed. Today, the castle is still home to the descendants of the Clan Campbell of Cawdor and the grade-A listed building remains remarkably preserved, surrounded by immaculate gardens, the Cawdor Big Wood and a 9-hole golf course. Highlights for visitors include the sumptuous Drawing Room, with its fascinating family portraits; the Dining Room, with its grand stone fireplace; the 17th-century-style Tapestry Bedroom; and the Old Kitchen, as well as the fabled Thorn Tree around which the historic castle was built.

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Old High Church (Old High St. Stephen’s)
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Dating back to 1897, Old High Church (or Old High St. Stephen’s) is the oldest church and congregation in the Scottish Highlands capital of Inverness. The church is noteworthy for its Arts and Crafts/Gothic-style architecture, Ballantine stained glass, 1902 organ, and adjacent cemetery overlooking the Ness river.

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Butt of Lewis Lighthouse
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Standing proud against the fearsome storms that ravage the north coast of Lewis is the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Designed by Scottish lighthouse engineer David Stevenson in the 1860s, the watchtower wasn’t automated until 1998, making it one of the last in the British Isles to lose its lighthouse keeper.

While you can no longer go inside, there are information plaques outside, and it’s interesting just to see the lighthouse in all its exposed red-brick glory instead of the usual white.

A birdwatcher’s paradise, look out for buzzards, gulls and the occasional puffin soaring around the cliffs. Also, take a close look at the crags being buffeted by the North Sea, some of the oldest exposed rock in Europe, created up to 300 million years ago back in the Cambrian period. While you’re here, follow the coast southwest past the lighthouse. You’ll soon see a natural sea cave, known as the Eye of the Butt.

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St. Magnus Cathedral
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Towering over the narrow streets of Kirkwall in all its red sandstone glory, St. Magnus Cathedral is a testament to the Vikings’ ability to create real beauty amid all that pillaging and plundering.

Commissioned by viking Earl Rögnvald in 1137 to honor his saintly uncle, Magnus Erlendsson, it took over 300 years for St. Magnus Cathedral to become the beauty we see today, all Romanesque flourishes and heavy Norman influences.

The only medieval cathedral in Scotland, look out for the hidden dungeon known as Marwick’s Hole, where hundreds of people were imprisoned over the years before being hanged for witchcraft. Today, though, the northern cathedral is much more benign. Come for a Sunday service to listen to the organ being played beautifully, and try to visit the upper tower for 360-degree views of Kirkwall and the sea beyond.

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Trotternish Ridge
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Trotternish Ridge is a large wilderness area on the Isle of Skye in northern Scotland. It is a 20 mile walking trail and has some of the most spectacular scenery in Scotland. Though most of the summits aren't very high, it is a challenging walk with many ascents and descents. There isn't a distinct path in most places, but firm grassy areas will keep you on track. Due to the length of the walk, many people break up the hike into two days and camp on the ridge.

Walking Trotternish Ridge is a constant up and down as you make your way through the many peaks. The highest point of the ridge is Storr at 2,359 feet high. It is one of the most photographed parts of the region, though the entire ridge walk provides stunning views. The ridge is best hiked in good weather since poor conditions can make it difficult to see the edge of the cliffs.

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Eden Court Theatre and Cinema
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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 Cinema and now houses the dressing rooms, offices and a small cinema.

After extensive renovations and refurbishments, Eden Court is now the largest combined arts center in Scotland and has two big auditoriums. The bigger one, Empire Theatre, can seat over 800 people and the other, One Touch, follows suit with about 270 spaces. The two new cinemas, apart from regular showings, also host the annual Inverness Film Festival, where visitors can enjoy niche films and Scottish premieres.

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Inverness Botanic Gardens (Floral Hall)
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Opened by Prince Edward in 1993, the Inverness Botanic Gardens—previously known as Floral Hall—are a tranquil escape from the bustle of the city center. In addition to outdoor gardens with seasonal floral displays, fish ponds, and the Scottish Highlands’ largest succulent display, the grounds house a café, visitor center, and two greenhouses.

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River Ness (Abhainn Nis)
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Sure, the River Ness (Abhainn Nis) 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.

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Rogie Falls
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Ever wanted to see wild Atlantic salmon at their most spectacular, leaping up a waterfall? On the road from Inverness to Ullapool, just head to Rogie Falls in the Scottish Highlands for its parade of leaping salmon through August and September. To catch the salmon at their best, try to come in the early morning or evening when they’re at their most active.

A great spot to visit throughout the year, in spring you’ll be treated to a woodland carpet of Scottish bluebells and brilliant birdsong as you take the footpath to Rogie Falls.

From the carpark, there are several well-marked trails you can follow. The "red path" is a short walkway to the waterfall. Once you get to the cascade, keep a lookout for otters playing on the far right bank. The "green path" is a little longer and will take you on a forest walk to “View Rock,” where between two big rocks you’ll get your picture-perfect views of the Scottish Highlands and its forest, hills and loch. This trail is about a two-hour round trip from Rogie Falls car park.

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Dun Carloway (Dùn Chàrlabhaigh)
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No bricks, no mortar, no buttress -- just stone placed on top of stone on an exposed Lewis hilltop nearly 2,000 years ago, Dun Carloway (Dùn Chàrlabhaigh) roundhouse has stood tall against the Isle of Lewis’s raging Atlantic storms since the Iron Age. Looking out to Loch Roag, this is one of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, and parts of the Dun Carloway still come close to its original height at nine meters tall.

It’s not clear why these brochs (Scottish drystone roundhouses) were ever built, but it’s thought that they could have been the homes of the high-status local leaders. Even though the building of brochs fell out of fashion in 150 AD, this multi-story roundhouse has continued to be used through the ages.

Dun Carloway was even the scene of one particularly dramatic fight back in the 1500s, when a party of Morrisons stole cattle from the Macaulay clan and hid out in the broch. What did the Macaulays do? Smoke their enemies out with burning heather, of course.

Next to Dun Carloway is the Doune Broch visitor center, where you can learn all about Iron Age life on the Isle of Lewis and get a sense of how life here must have been all those years ago.

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More Things to Do in The Scottish Highlands

Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition

Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition

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Using projections and special effects, this immersive exhibition focuses on the ecology of Loch Ness and the mysterious monster that supposedly swims its waters. Curious visitors find out about the lake habitat and the likelihood of a monster surviving here, as well as learning about previous monster hunts, research missions, and hoaxes.

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Bealach na Bà Pass

Bealach na Bà Pass

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Hairpin bends aren’t just for the Alps. At Bealach na Bà Pass in the remote Scottish Highlands, you can drive along the greatest road ascent in Britain. Full of twists and turns through the remote Highland landscape, the historic road runs from the pretty coastal village of Applecross right through the mountains up to 2,054 feet, making it the third-highest road in Scotland.

The drive can be a little scary at times, but just take it slow and be courteous enough to use the passing places. Local etiquette on Scotland’s single-track roads is to give the person who "gives way" a cheery wave or raise of the hand to say thanks.

When you get to the top of Bealach na Bà, enjoy the views across the sea out to the isles of Skye, Rum and the Outer Hebrides. From the top car park, there are some great peaks to explore if you’re an experienced hiker, and as you’re already over 2,000 feet up, half the work has already been done for you.

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Merkinch Local Nature Reserve

Merkinch Local Nature Reserve

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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. If you're lucky, you can even see bottlenose dolphins coming up for air, common seals and the more active European otters. They all live in and around tidal pools and both salt and freshwater marshes, some of which are partially connected to the sea.

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Whin Park

Whin Park

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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.

For those looking for a nice walk, the park's loop trail circles the boating pond and should take about 30 minutes to complete. The pond itself is fit with rowing boats that can be rented out if you fancy paddling around a bit. And of course, there are few better places in Inverness to take an afternoon picnic than Whin Park.

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Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point

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Ever wanted to see bottlenose dolphins feed and play in the wild? Chanonry Point is just the spot. A narrow peninsula in Scotland’s Moray Firth, dolphins can be spotted here throughout the year. In summer though, you’ll often see dolphins come right up to the shore as they chase the salmon that come and go in the rivers Ness and Beauly.

The best spot for dolphin spotting at Chanonry Point is on the pebble beach behind the lighthouse, or at the path near the car park entrance. Try to come around incoming tide, which is an hour or two after low tide. Why? This is when the dolphins love to fish and play in the strong currents. While you’re here, keep a look out for porpoises and grey seals too. And between May and October, you may even see Minke whales.

You can also take boat trips out on the water from Cromarty and Avoch, just along the coast. In nearby North Kessock, between June and September, the Dolphin and Seal Centre is another great place to look out for dolphins.

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Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

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Created by glacial meltwater, the tree-lined Corrieshalloch Gorge is punctuated by a series of waterfalls. From an observation deck and swaying suspension bridge, you can look down upon the rushing River Droma, which courses through the ravine and drops over the 150-foot (46-meter) Falls of Measach.

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Castle Fraser

Castle Fraser

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The 15th-century Castle Fraser in northern Scotland was once the seat of the Fraser clan. The castle's origins date back to the 1400s, and major upgrades and expansions took place between 1575 and 1636. Some of the original elements of the castle still remain, along with some renovations and additions from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the most significant sections of the original castle is the Great Hall. The castle also has a library filled with family books and a grand Worked Room with 18th-century embroideries. Throughout the castle, visitors can admire family portraits, antique furniture, carpets, and mementos.

From Castle Fraser's round tower, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the estate and the surrounding gardens. There are two marked trails through the mix of woodland and farmland as well as a pond and walled gardens with flowers, fruits and vegetables.

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Brodie Castle

Brodie Castle

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The longtime home of Clan Brodie, this turreted 16th-century castle—now run by the National Trust for Scotland—is set amid more than 170 acres (70 hectares) of parkland. The restored interior offers a glimpse into Brodie family life in the castle, and features precious artworks, antique furniture, and a 6,000-book library.

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Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

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Established in 1951, Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in the Scottish Highlands is Great Britain's oldest national nature reserve. It covers an area of more than 18 square miles ranging from lochs to mountains. The nature reserve is home to many rare plants and protected animals, including red deer, golden eagles, and pine martens. Several hiking trails of varying difficulty are available for exploring the area. Three paths that start near the visitor center are open all year. For those looking for longer hikes, there is a woodland trail that goes through the ancient pine forest, and a mountain trail that climbs into the mountainous terrain and offers a more strenuous excursion.

Beinn Eighe itself is a huge cluster of rugged mountains, ridges, and scree-covered slopes between Loch Maree and Glen Torridon. This area offers opportunities for more challenging trekking for more experienced hikers.

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Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage & Museum

Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage & Museum

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Hugh Miller was a well-known geologist and writer who lived from 1802 to 1856 in northern Scotland. The thatched fisherman's cottage he was born in was built in the late 1600s by his great grandfather. The cottage and the Georgian house on the property both stand as a museum honoring Hugh Miller's life, formally the Hugh Miller's Birthplace Cottage & Museum. Hugh Miller's cottage is furnished and shows what it might have looked like when he lived there. The house contains an exhibition and video about his life and work. There is also a reading room which gives visitors the chance to browse through Miller's works. Artwork, tapestries, and sculptures are also on display.

Behind the cottage and museum is the Yard Garden of Wonders, which is a peaceful garden with native Scottish plants, fossils and other artifacts. It was designed to reflect Miller's love of nature. There is also a traditional cobbled courtyard that was a 19th-century work space.

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Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn Castle

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On a tiny peninsula at the northern tip of Loch Awe surrounded by glens, Kilchurn Castle is one of the most photographed spots in Scotland. The castle of 1,000 calendar covers, Kilchurn has had many lives: it served as the powerhouse of the Campbell clan from the year 1440 and was even later used as barracks able to house up to 200 troops during the Jacobite Risings. In the 1750s, however, a huge fire caused by lightning ran right through the castle, and its ruins have been abandoned ever since.

Kilchurn is for anyone who has ever dreamed of having a ruined Scottish castle all to themselves, with no tourist trinket shops around. There isn’t even an attendant at the door of this picturesque ruin, but despite being unmanned, there are plenty of information boards throughout the castle. Climb to the top of its four-story tower for views of the loch and surrounding hills, and remember to say hi to the sheep on your way out!

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Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar

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Among the tall green grass and purple heather between Loch Harray and Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones thrust from the earth like rusting giants’ swords.

At 340 feet (104 meters) in diameter, 27 of the original 60 stones survive, making this the third-biggest stone circle in Britain. Thought to have been built around 2000-2500 BC, this was one of the last of such monuments to be built in neolithic Orkney. Excavations of the site have revealed lots of pottery and animal bones, so it seems like cooking and eating around the still visible hearth was the order of the day here 5,000 years ago.

Famous for its perfectly circular shape, the beauty of the Ring of Brodgar is that, unlike Stonehenge, you can get right up to the stones. As you wander, look out for Viking graffiti on some of the stones: 12th-century runic carvings from the Norse invaders can be seen on quite a few. Just a few hundred meters away, you can also visit the neolithic Barnhouse settlement, discovered in 1984.

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Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel

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When 550 Italian soldiers were captured in the scorching North African desert back in 1942, it must have caused them quite a shock to be sent in winter to the Scottish isle of Orkne. The POWs were sent here in order to build the “Churchill Barriers,” a series of causeways that would protect the British Grand Fleet in the Scapa Flow harbor. By 1943, the homesick workers requested a chapel where they could worship. What did they get? Two Nissen huts, which they were told to join end-to-end and labor over outside work hours.

What happened next is a beautiful symbol of peace, faith and the power of human ingenuity even in wartime. Local Orkney artists provided brushes and poster paints to decorate the huts; bully beef tins were converted into makeshift candle holders; wood scavenged from shipwrecks was used to create furniture; a car exhaust was covered in concrete to create a Baptismal font. Slowly but surely, those two steel sheds became the Roman Catholic chapel of the Italians’ dreams.

The main man behind the chapel’s decoration was POW Domenico Chiocchetti, who painted a false frontage so that it really looked like the Roman Catholic churches of home. He was so dedicated to the project that when everyone was sent home in 1944, he stayed on to finish the project.

In 1960, Chiocchetti returned to Orkney from his home in Moena, Italy, to assist with a restoration projection of the chapel. When he left three weeks later, he wrote a letter to the people of Orkney: "The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.”

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Maeshowe Chambered Cairn

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn

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Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is a chambered tomb in northern Scotland that is more than 5,000 years old. It is considered to be the finest Neolithic building in northwest Europe due to its design, stonework construction, and use of massive individual stones. At first Maeshowe appears to be just a large grassy mound, but visitors can enter from a single door. A 33 foot long stone passageway leads into a small stone chamber in the center. The chamber is only about 15 feet across. Three side rooms made of single slabs of stone are attached to the main chamber. The entire structure was designed so that light would shine down the passageway at sunset every day from three weeks before to three weeks after the shortest day of the year.

At least 3,000 years after Maeshowe was closed up, Norsemen broke into the chamber. They left behind light-hearted runic graffiti all over the walls. It is the largest collection of runic inscriptions outside Scandinavia and serves as a reminder that Orkney was under Norwegian rule until 1468.

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