By Rick Steves
Set your Scottish dream in the Highlands, filled with more natural and historical mystique than people. Legends of Bonnie Prince Charlie drift among crumbling castles as pipers and kilts swirl around tourists.
The impressive Caledonian Canal slices through the Highlands, with Oban at one end and Inverness at the other. The major sights cluster along the scenic 120-mile stretch between these two towns. It's doable by bus, but easier by car. However you travel, you're likely to see lone bagpipers by the roadside, serenading you in hopes of a donation.
Oban, called the "gateway to the isles," (easy daytrips to Iona and Mull) is a busy little ferry-and-train terminal with no important sights but a charming shiver-and-bustle vitality that gives you a feel for small-town Scotland. Wind, boats, gulls, layers of islands, and the promise of a wide-open Atlantic beyond give it a rugged and salty charm.
A bit further east, the valley of Glencoe is the essence of the wild, powerful, and stark beauty of the Highlands (and, I think, excuses the hurried tourist from needing to go north of Inverness). Along with its scenery, Glencoe offers a good dose of bloody clan history. Glencoe town is just a line of houses. One is a tiny, thatched, early-18th-century croft house jammed with local history. The huggable Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museumis filled with humble exhibits gleaned from the town's old closets and attics. When one house was being rethatched, its owner found a cache of 200-year-old swords and pistols hidden there from the British Redcoats after the disastrous battle of Culloden.
A mile into the dramatic valley on the A82, you'll find the Glencoe Visitors Centre. This modern facility is designed to resemble a clachan (a traditional Highlands settlement) and offers an exhibit on the surrounding landscape and local history. The information desk inside the shop is your single best resource for advice (and maps or guidebooks) about local walks and hikes. At the back of the complex, you'll find a viewpoint with a handy 3-D model for orientation. There's also a pricey exhibition about the surrounding landscape, local history, mountaineering, and conservation. It's worth the time to watch the more-interesting-than-it-sounds video on geology, and the 14-minute film on the Glencoe Massacre, which thoughtfully traces the events leading up to the tragedy rather than simply recycling romanticized legends.
Three lochs and a series of canals cut Scotland in two. Oich, Lochy, and Ness were connected in the early 1800s by the great British engineer Thomas Telford. Traveling between Fort William and Inverness (60 miles), you'll follow Telford's work: 20 miles of canals and locks between 40 miles of lakes, raising ships from sea level to 51 feet (Ness), to 93 feet (Lochy), and to 106 feet (Oich). While "Neptune's Staircase," a series of locks near Fort William, is cleverly named, the best lock stop is Fort Augustus, where the canal hits Loch Ness. In Fort Augustus, the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre, three locks above the main road, gives a good rundown on Telford's work (free). Stroll to the top of the locks past several shops and eateries for a fine view.
You could zip ahead to Inverness (pop. 42,000) and check out its bustling pedestrian downtown and riverside paths, but most people can't resist a stop at the biggest attraction in the area, Loch Ness. The loch, 24 miles long, less than a mile wide, and the third deepest in Europe, is deepest near the Urquhart Castle, and most monster sightings are in this area. I'll admit it: I had my zoom lens out and my eyes on the water. It's a thrilling thought, and there have been several seemingly reliable "sightings" (monks, police officers, and sonar images). But you're far more likely to spot Nessie kitsch. There are two "official," fascinating-but-overpriced Loch Ness Exhibition Centres and shops within 100 yards of each other — the one in the big stone mansion (closest to Inverness) is better. Have a visit, then steal away from the crowds, peer deep into the lake, and wait.
Day Trip to Iona and Mull
For the best day trip from Oban, tour the Islands of Iona and Mull. Oban's tour companies offer an array of tours. You can spend an entire day on Mull. Those more interested in nature than church history will enjoy trips to the wildly scenic Isle of Staffa with Fingal's Cave. Trips to TreshnishIsland brim with puffins, seals, and other sea critters.
The Isle of Mull, the third-largest in Scotland, has 300 scenic miles of coastline and castles and a 3,169-foot-high mountain. Called Ben More ("big hill" in Gaelic), it was once much bigger. The last active volcano in northern Europe, it was 10,000 feet tall — the entire island of Mull — before it blew. It's calmer now, and similarly, Mull has a notably laid-back population.
The tiny island of Iona, just three miles by 1.5 miles, is famous as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. While the day is spectacular when it's sunny, it's worthwhile in any weather. A pristine light and a thoughtful peace pervade the stark, car-free island and its tiny community. While the present abbey, nunnery, and graveyard go back to the 13th century, much of what you'll see was rebuilt in the 19th century. But with buoyant clouds bouncing playfully off of distant bluffs, sparkling white sand crescents, and lone tourists camped thoughtfully atop huge rocks just looking out to sea, it's a place perfect for meditation. Climb a peak — nothing's higher than 300 feet above the sea. The village, Baile Mor, has shops, a restaurant/pub, enough beds, a meager heritage center, and no bank.