The Scottish Highlands roughly encompasses the entire northwest of Scotland. Apart from Inverness, with roughly 50,000 inhabitants, the Highlands are sparsely populated. Its many mountains, lakes, and forests dominate the landscape. It makes for a great road trip, just be sure to fill up at every gas station you pass, as you’ll never know how far it is to the next.
The small town of Pitlochry is the starting point of Cairngorms National Park, the largest National Park in the United Kingdom. Heading north from Pitlochry, you will leave much of civilization behind in exchange for the dramatic scenery of the mountains, lakes, and forests of the Highlands.
A few miles out of Pitlochry you can find Queen’s View: a viewpoint over Loch Tummel and the mountains of Tay Forest Park. During our visit, we were just in time to avoid the clouds and rain, which were rolling in from the mountains.
From Pitlochry, there is only one highway heading north. Otherwise, you have to resort to small winding roads with narrow passing sections. It is fun for a while, as the scenery is unbeatable, but be sure not to get car sick from all the turns.
Leaving Pitlochry behind, you will enter Cairngorms National Park. There are two ways north: the highway on the west, and small mountain roads on the east. The center of the park is made up by rough snow-capped mountains. We decided to take the highway, as we wanted to avoid driving in the dark on small mountain roads. Whatever route you take, the views will be equally dramatic.
Two hours after entering the park, we decided to leave the highway, and take a detour to Loch an Eilein, a small but picturesque lake inside the National Park. It being off-season, parking was free, and the walk to the lake took about ten minutes. In the backdrop of the lake, you can see the mountains of the center of Cairngorms.
We took the scenic road further up to Carrbridge. Not knowing what to expect, we suddenly passed a very picturesque bridge. Suddenly, the towns’ name all made sense. The old bridge, built in 1717, is the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands. It was the first bridge to cross the River Dulnain, and used by pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles back in the day.
The Highlands are also home to some unique animals, like the black sheep, and yak. We stumbled upon a restaurant having one for petting. Meet Archie, the yak who apparently doesn’t mind being photographed.
As it was turning late, we decided to head to our accommodation in the heart of Cairngorms National Park. On the way, we passed two bridges very similar to the one we saw in Carrbridge. We learned there used to be three, but one was washed away by floods. Nowadays, the Packhorse Bridge is a museum.
We felt that our trip to the Highlands wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the adjacent Speyside, which has the highest concentration of fine whiskey distilleries in Scotland. Although there are many notable distilleries in Speyside, we chose to visit the Macallan distillery.
The Macallan distillery makes, arguably, one of the finest single malt Scotch whiskey in the world. Although the Speyside produces a lot of light and grassy whiskeys, the Macallan is more smooth and rich due to their use of sherry oak casks. There are four important factors that determine the quality of the whiskey: the barley, the water quality, the shape of the copper pot stills, and the casks.
The general pot still process consists of four different stages:
Afterwards, the whiskey is matured for at least three years, blended (addition of color, soft water, filtration), and packaged. After this detailed introduction of how to make whiskey, we were able to taste some great Macallan.
After the tour, we went for a short walk around the facility. We found the Macallan House, which today is part of their logo. During our visit, Macallan was in the process of building its new visitor center, which looks massive compared to the intimate tour we got.
From the distillery, we drove the two hours towards Inverness. Just south of Inverness, you can find mythical Loch Ness, home to the Loch Ness Monster. Unfortunately, we were unable to spot it on this sunny day, but we’re sure it’s hiding somewhere, as the lake is quite big. It would take a mere two hours to drive the 100 kilometers around it.
We stopped halfway the lake at Urquhart Castle, a medieval fortress dating back to the 13th century. Over the centuries, the castle was sieged a dozen times, by the Scottish King and a variety of Scottish clans. To no surprise, the castle gained a lot of damage and, by 1600, it was abandoned. It wasn’t until 300 years later that the state decided to restore the castle, and open it up to the public.
The entrance fee to the castle is an acceptable £8.50, and it allows you to freely roam through its remaining walls, rooms, and tower. The views over Loch Ness are definitely worth it too, especially from its highest tower, the Grant Tower.
From the Urquhart Castle, we drove to the next castle: our hotel. Many hotels, restaurants, and ordinary buildings have castle-like towers, and it really gives off that Scottish feeling. The inside of the hotel was dated, but beautiful, and we can now say we slept in a castle!
Our hotel was located only minutes away from Inverness, the largest and only city in the Highlands. As many Scottish cities do, Inverness has a castle near the river dominating the city skyline. This particular castle dates back to the 11th century, and now serves as the local court.
Even though it was a Thursday-night, the city was very quiet, and many shops already closed for the day. It is clear that the Highlands are all about quietness and relaxation, not shopping and partying. We managed to find a restaurant that was open, and after a typical Scottish meal and dessert we went back to our castle for a good nights’ sleep.
We, Mark & Herta, are currently backpacking through Europe, and eventually planning to settle in London. Beyond that? The possibilities are endless.Read Mark & Herta’s full story.