BY KAREN GARDINER, NationalGeographic.com
Argyll and the Isles
Characterized by long sea lochs, rugged mountains, and close to 4,000 miles of coastline, this west coast region may be remote but its charms are as easy to access, by land or sea, as they are on the eyes. Sixty medieval castles dot Argyll and the Isles, perhaps none quite so bewitching as Castle Stalker, which has perched on a tidal islet on Loch Laich since the 15th century . Scattered on the edge of the Atlantic, dozens of islands offer distinctive cultures and diverse attractions. Sample malt whiskies from eight active distilleries on Islay—including Laphroaig and Ardbeg—then hop over to Jura and take a boat trip to the treacherous Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Head over to Mull to spot whales or eagles, then sail over to Staffa to see its large puffin colony and the great basalt columns of Fingal's Cave.
Watch the landscape of Scotland unfold from the window of a train carriage. The West Highland Line, which runs from Glasgow to the ports of Mallaig and Oban, winds through enchanting valleys and past mirror-like lochs and snowcapped mountains . Make a stop at the isolated Corrour Station on Rannoch Moor, one of the most remote in the U.K. For the Fort William to Mallaig section of the route, you can board a vintage stream train, named the Jacobite, to travel over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The route from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh offers a relaxing journey from coast to coast across the Highlands. Luxury charter Belmond Royal Scotsman promises a more indulgent experience on a selection of routes.
Castles and Clans
In the northeastern corner of the country, Aberdeenshire has been of strategic importance throughout Scotland’s turbulent history, as evidenced by the 300 castles in the region. Follow the signposted Aberdeenshire Castle Trail to 19 of the most magnificent. Start at the ruined fortress of Dunnottar Castle, dramatically perched atop a cliff above the North Sea, and see why Franco Zeffirelli chose this location for his 1990 film Hamlet. Farther up the coast, Slains Castle is said to have inspired one-time visitor Bram Stoker to write Dracula . Heading west, take in the 11th-century Delgatie Castle and fairytale-like Craigievar Castle, a fine example of the Scots Baronial architectural style. Cairngorms National Park includes two castles: Braemar Castle, seat of the Farquharson clan, was of significance to both sides in the Jacobite uprisings, while Balmoral—Queen Victoria’s dear paradise in the Highlands—is the summer residence of the British royal family.
The Jacobites will be the subject of a major exhibition at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland this summer, well timed with Scotland's year of history, heritage, and archaeology. The museum’s collection includes the flags raised at the Battle of Culloden. The museum is also home to such historic artifacts as Pictish stones, Celtic brooches, Norse-era chess pieces, and the stuffed remains of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal. Over in Glasgow, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum holds an extensive collection of works by Scotland’s most famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, while the People’s Palace tells the social history of Glasgow through its displays . Scotland has a strong shipbuilding heritage, and one of its proudest vessels is on display in Dundee. The R.R.S. Discovery was launched in 1901 to take Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first journey to the Antarctic.
Set and filmed in Scotland, the TV series Outlander (based on the books by Diana Gabaldon) tells a fictionalized tale of the Jacobite uprisings of the 1700s. Fans of the series—and history—can visit real-life landmarks. In Lochaber, at the head of Loch Shiel, a lone Highlander stands atop the 60-foot Glenfinnan Monument, a poignant reminder of the clansmen lost fighting for the Jacobite cause . It was here where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his royal standard in 1745, marking the beginning of what would be the Jacobites’ final uprising. At the haunting Culloden Battlefield near Inverness, walk the ground where they were brutally and decisively crushed the following year. After Culloden, the prince escaped to the Isle of Skye. His flight was facilitated by folk hero Flora MacDonald, who is honored with her own monument in the village of Kilmuir.
Quirky accommodation options abound, from roughing it for free in a “bothy,” or mountain lodge (be sure to follow the bothy code), to living like royalty in a majestic castle. At Inverlochy Castle in the Highlands, discover why Queen Victoria said she never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot, then partake in some traditionally regal country pursuits nearby. Most of Scotland’s lighthouses are now automated and some have opened up to guests. Built by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson) Shetland’s Sumburgh Lighthouse offers accommodation in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and views of nesting puffins on the surrounding cliffs. Birdwatchers can also stay in bird observatories on Fair Isle, Shetland, and North Ronaldsay, Orkney. The environmentally conscious can choose ecolodges from the Highlands to Dumfries and Galloway and visitors can get a sense of traditional crofting life in a blackhouse village.
With ever changing, often dramatic scenery, there are no dull journeys on Scotland’s 13 national driving routes, from the 68-mile Angus Coastal Route, which runs past beaches and cliffs along the northeast coast, to the 89-mile Borders Historic Route, which takes in sites important to Scotland’s textile industries. The North Coast 500, or “Scotland’s Route 66,” explores 500 miles of Highland coastline, from Glen Ord Distillery on the Black Isle to the peaks of Beinn Eighe. Stop off at the Whaligoe Steps, a man-made staircase of 330 steps, up which fisherwomen once carried the day’s catch from the harbour. At Duncansby Head, Britain’s most northeasterly point, two pointed sea stacks rise from the sea and the Orkney Islands come into view. Head west through Durness toward wild Cape Wrath, with its lonely lighthouse atop Britain’s highest sheer cliffs, before turning back south, past the inviting pink sands of Gruinard Bay.
Orkney and Shetland
Part of the kingdom of Norway from the ninth to 14th centuries, the northern isles of Orkney and Shetland retain an identity distinct to the rest of Scotland. Norse culture grips these islands—they even fly their own Nordic Cross flags—and is evidenced by some exceptional archaeological sites. In Shetland, Jarlshof has ruins from the Bronze, Iron and Pictish eras, as well as the Viking age. The 2,000-year-old Broch of Mousa is one of Europe’s best preserved prehistoric sites while, in the far north, Unst is home to 60 Viking longhouses. The Neolithic stone circle Ring of Brodgar, the 5,000-year-old village Skara Brae, and chambered cairn of Maeshowe—graffitied with runes by 12th-century Viking crusaders—are all within close distance of one another on Orkney’s main island, called the Mainland.
With several long-distance footpaths and the freedom to roam codified in Scots law, Scotland offers superb opportunities to explore on foot or bike, from challenging hikes to less arduous trails and casual meanders. The most popular path is the 93-mile West Highland Way, which stretches from near Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The John Muir Trail travels 134 miles from coast to coast in the south of the country, from Helensburgh in the west to Dunbar, where Muir (father of the U.S. National Park Service) was born, in the east. Running 117 miles along the northeast coast, the Fife Coastal Path takes you through charming fishing villages and past castles and golf courses. Those who enjoy a liquid reward after a hike can walk to the Old Forge, the most remote pub on mainland Britain, accessible only by boat or 17-mile hike through Knoydart.
Celestial wonders light up the night sky deep in the 373-square-mile Galloway Forest Park. Visit independently or join one of the park’s ranger-led dark sky events to marvel at a star-dappled sky, perhaps spotting the Andromeda Galaxy, Milky Way, rings of Saturn, or other sights normally concealed behind city lights. The U.K’s first park to gain dark sky status, Galloway Forest Park is home to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, where visitors can examine the heavens through powerful telescopes. Also in the Dumfries and Galloway region, the town of Moffat has installed special street lighting in order to limit light pollution and gain international recognition as a dark sky town. Scotland even has its own dark sky island: There are no streetlights on the Isle of Coll, in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast, providing idea conditions for stargazing.
Beyond its natural wonders, Scotland also boasts great feats of engineering. This is particularly evidenced by such marvels as the Falkirk Wheel, Bell Rock Lighthouse, and many of the country’s astonishing bridges. The UNESCO-listed Forth Bridge , a vibrant red cantilevered structure spanning the estuary (“firth”) of the River Forth, is admired as an engineering wonder of the world. With the cable-stayed Queensferry Crossing nearing completion, three great bridges—two road bridges and one rail—will cross the Firth of Forth. Visitors might recognize the concrete, crescent-shaped Glenfinnan Viaduct from its appearances in the Harry Potter movies; it’s no less magical seeing it in real life. Though much smaller in stature, the humpbacked Clachan Bridge joins the ocean at both ends and so earns the grand title Bridge Over the Atlantic.
Scotland is known for its whisky, but it produces other spirits too, including gin, vodka, and even rum. Follow the Scotland Gin Trail, which takes in distilleries from as far north as Shetland to North Berwick in the southeast. Off the northwest coast, flung far out in the North Atlantic, the Isle of Harris distillery infuses its gin with locally hand-harvested sugar kelp . Craft beer, too, is booming. Combine beer and gin tasting on the northeast coast at Eden Mill, which produces both. In the Highlands, Black Isle Brewery is set on a working organic farm, source of most of its barley.
To see our itinerary for Essential Scotland, follow this link-