Much of the unique character of western and northern Scotland is down to the expansive vistas of sea and islands – there are more than 700 islands off Scotland’s coast, of which almost 100 are inhabited. Ferry services link these islands to the mainland and each other, and buying a Calmac Island Rover ticket (unlimited travel on Calmac ferries for 15 days; calmac.co.uk) provides a fascinating way to explore. It’s possible to hop all the way from Arran or Bute to the Outer Hebrides, touching the mainland only at Kintyre and Oban. In a country famous for its stunning scenery, the Cuillin Hills take top prize. This range of craggy peaks inspired the 19th-century poets and painters of the Romantic movement and provided the ultimate training ground for British alpinists. Its rocky summits are out of bounds to all except experienced walkers. There are easy trails through the glens and into the corries, where hikers can soak up the views and share the landscape with red deer and golden eagles. Whether you’re looking for grim, desolate stone fortresses looming in the mist; noble royal castles towering over historic towns; or luxurious palaces built in expansive grounds by lairds more concerned with status and show than with military might – the Highlands sport the full range of castles, reflecting the region’s turbulent history. Most castles have a story or 10 to tell of plots, intrigues, imprisonments and treachery and a worryingly high percentage have a phantom rumoured to stalk their parapets. For that perfect picture, none can beat Eilean Donan Castle (eileandonancastle.com; adult/child £5.50/£4.50 or $A8.20/$A6.70; hours: 9.30am-6pm mid-march to mid-nov).
Scotland’s most famous glen combines those two essential qualities of the Highland landscape – dramatic scenery and deep history. The peacefulness and beauty of this valley today belie the fact that it was the scene of a 17th-century massacre that saw the local Macdonalds murdered by soldiers of the Campbell clan. Some of the glen’s finest walks, for example to the Lost Valley, follow the routes used by clansmen and women trying to flee their attackers, routes where many perished in the snow.
Few sights conjure up the mystery and romance of the Highlands and Islands like the prehistoric monuments that punctuate the landscape from Orkney to the Western Isles. The 5000-yearold Callanish stones on the Isle of Lewis – contemporaries of the pyramids of Egypt – are the archetypal stone circle, with beautifully weathered slabs of banded gneiss arranged as if in worship around a central monolith. To experience the stones at dawn, before the crowds arrive, is to step back in time and sense something deep and truly ancient. This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet
(2nd Edition) by Neil Wilson Lonely Planet 2012. RRP: $34.99. lonelyplanet.com