The Scottish highlands are where the true essence of Scotland lies. While cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh have interesting history and architecture, for incomparable natural beauty you need to travel further north. So that’s exactly what I did. The highland region of Scotland is not arbitrarily given; there is actually a natural fault line running roughly southwest to northeast through the country, which separates the highlands from the lowlands. Movements of this fault throughout the millennia are responsible for highlands’ rough and rugged terrain.
My first stop in the highlands was Oban, a port town on the western coast. The town itself is pretty but relatively uninteresting, its real appeal being that it is the gateway to several beautiful Scottish isles, including Mull, Staffa, and Iona. It is easy to visit all three in one day via ferry. The isle of Iona is noteworthy as being the residence of St. Columba, a monk who was banished from Ireland in the 6th century. He founded a monastery known as Iona Abbey, which was responsible for converting much of Scotland to Christianity. The monastery is very well-preserved, and it’s worth an hour or so to wander around its interior. There is also a fascinating museum onsite, which contains some of the earliest Celtic crosses in existence (crosses with a ring around the intersection). It is also thought that the famous Book of Kells (now located in Trinity College in Dublin) was written on Iona.
Nearby to Iona is the isle of Staffa. This tiny island has two very interesting features.The first is that much of the island consists of hexagonal basalt columns, similar to Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. The otherwordly geology was caused by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago and the subsequent cooling and contracting of the lava, which formed the unique shapes. It is fun to climb and clamber around the various columns, and don’t forget to check out the spectacular Fingal’s Cave around the back side of the island.
The second interesting feature is that Staffa is the nesting ground for a colony of puffins, adorable tiny birds with very colorful beaks. The puffins often hang out in the water, but if you wait just a little while, they will fly back on land and you can watch them up close!
After my visit to Oban and its nearby islands, I took a bus up to what is arguably the most beautiful island in all of Scotland, the Isle of Skye. As a quick aside, I should mention that I bypassed Fort William, which is the closest town to Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom), so if you want to conquer this peak (and the weather cooperates) then you should make a stop-off there first. Public transportation options on Skye are fairly lacking, so it’s best to have your own wheels if you plan on spending a few days here. Failing that, Real Scottish Journeys offers an excellent tour, with plenty of opportunities for exploring and hiking on your own.
Skye is absolutely packed full of stunning natural (and some man-made) formations, ranging from mountains to lakes to waterfalls to castles to lighthouses. One of the most popular is the Old Man of Storr, a towering rock pinnacle that you can see from miles around. There is a popular hiking trail that you can take to get right up to the rock, which should take between one and two hours round trip. Another interesting formation is Kilt Rock, a basalt rock formation which looks like a kilt. Nearby to Kilt Rock is a rare instance of a tidefall, a waterfall that runs directly into the ocean.
Other unmissable sights on Skye include Neist Point, a spectacular viewpoint on the westernmost point of the island. There is an old lighthouse at Neist Point which you can check out for free, but the real attraction is the scenery. Neist Point has to be my favorite place on Skye, and possibly one of the most beautiful in all of Scotland. Keep in mind that it’s a good hike up to the viewpoint, but once you’re there, just relax and soak up the views.
Also, be sure to check out the Black Cuillen mountains, a dark, imposing mountain range with jagged features that bear a passing resemblance to the alps. You can get a nice view of them from the Fairy Pools, a series of green and blue waterfall-fed pools that look absolutely inviting for a dip (if you can handle the cold temperatures). Finally, Skye is one of the best places in Scotland for wildlife viewing. So if the weather is right (and make sure to check beforehand to see if it is), you can take a wildlife cruise out on the water to look out for seals, dolphins, otters, seabirds, basking sharks, and even minke whales during the right season (usually between May and September). When I went, I spotted some harbour seals and white-tailed eagles (the 4th largest species of eagle in the world). Unfortunately, the fog rolled in about 2/3 of the way through, which made it difficult to spot much wildlife afterwards.
My final stop in the Scottish highlands was Inverness, the largest city and unofficial “capital” of the highlands. While there is not too much to see within the city itself (although you should take a walk around the outside of gorgeous Inverness Castle), it is a good base for exploring Loch Ness, which is arguably the most (in)famous lake in the world. Aside from being the home of everyone’s favorite monster Nessie, Loch Ness is the largest lake in Great Britain by volume (and the 2nd largest by surface area). Located right along the fault line that separates the North American plate from the European plate, Loch Ness is deep, dark, and narrow, and it’s not hard to see why the legend of Nessie originated here. It’s worth taking a short boat ride out on the lake, and if you’re really into the legend of Nessie, there’s a fairly interesting (if slightly cheesy) exhibit with displays about the “history” of the monster.
After visiting Loch Ness, take a walk (or a short bus ride) down to Urquhart Castle, which sits right on the shores of the lake. Now a sprawling ruin, Urquhart Castle played a prominent role in the Scottish Wars of Independence as well as the Jacobite Rebellions, until it was finally destroyed to prevent further occupation by the Jacobite armies. After that event, the castle was never rebuilt and it was left as a ruin for visitors to explore and enjoy. You can climb up the 5-story Grant Tower for great views of the castle and Loch Ness. Also, take one of the free guided tours (which are offered every half hour or so) if you want to lean more about the castle and its fascinating history.
After reluctantly departing the highlands, I boarded a flight to another country with a much different climate but no less interesting history: the tiny island of Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.