Highlands Highlights in the Heart of Scotland

Sleepy Loch Tay, home to fascinating Iron Age settlements, is just two hours north of Edinburgh.
Though the Clava Cairns appear to be just some giant piles of rocks, they are actually Neolithic burial chambers dating from 4,000 years ago.
By Rick Steves

North of the pastoral Lowlands and the urban bustle of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands feature a wild, severely undulating terrain that's punctuated by lochs (lakes) and fringed by sea lochs (inlets) and islands. Whenever I want a taste of traditional Scotland, this is where I come.

Even if you don't have time time to venture too far north in your Scottish travels, it's good to balance the big cities with a taste of the Highlands' sleepy, more traditional village scene. About two hours north of Edinburgh, tiny Kenmore fits the bill perfectly. Little more than the fancy domain of its castle, a church set in a bouquet of tombstones, and a line of humble houses, Kenmore offers a fine dose of small-town Scottish flavor.

Loch Tay, near Kenmore, is a fascinating place. All across Scotland, archaeologists know that little round islands on the lochs are evidence of crannogs — circular houses on stilts that date to 500 years before Christ. Iron-Age Scots built on the water because in an age before roads, people traveled by boat, and because waterways were easily defended against rampaging animals (or people). Scientists have found evidence of 18 such crannogs on Loch Tay alone. One has been rebuilt, using mostly traditional methods, and now houses the Scottish Crannog Centre, a museum dedicated to demonstrating the skills every crannog homeowner needed, such as making fire by rubbing sticks.

From Loch Tay it's an easy drive westward to Glencoe and beyond to the arresting Inner Hebrides, the islands just off Scotland's west coast. (My favorites are Mull and Iona, easily reached from the charming port town of Oban, and, farther north the justly famous Isle of Skye.)

Or you could keep heading up north toward Inverness. The most direct route takes you past the likable tourist town of Pitlochry, an enjoyable overnight stop with ample whisky-centric sightseeing opportunities.

But even more I enjoy the drive along the impressive Caledonian Canal: three lochs and a series of canals cut Scotland in two, from Oban at the southwest end and Inverness at the other. Lochs Oich, Lochy, and Ness were connected in the early 1800s by the great British engineer Thomas Telford. Over 20 miles of canals and locks connecting 40 miles of lakes, Telford's raising ships from sea level to 51 feet (Ness), to 93 feet (Lochy), and to 106 feet (Oich). The best lock stop is Fort Augustus, where the canal hits Loch Ness. In Fort Augustus, the free Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre, three locks above the main road, gives a good rundown on Telford's work.

Most people can't resist a stop along Loch Ness. The loch, 24 miles long, less than a mile wide, and the third deepest lake in Europe, is deepest near 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…but the only monster you're certain to spot is a mountain of Nessie kitsch. Near Urquhart Castle 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 (closer to Inverness) is better. Have a visit, then steal away from the crowds, peer deep into the lake, and wait.

Workaday Inverness, the only true city in the Highlands (and the last outpost of civilization for those headed northward), has a pleasantly bustling pedestrian downtown -- but most importantly it's an ideal springboard for some of the Highland's most arresting sights.

The Highlands' past is written all over its landscape. Perhaps no other place is as evocative as the memorial battlefield of Culloden, a 15-minute drive east of Inverness. In 1746, Jacobite troops (most of them Highlanders) gave it their all to put the Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie on the English throne…and failed. While only about 50 English soldiers died, the Highlanders lost about 1,500 men. Bonnie Prince Charlie declared, "Every man for himself!" as he galloped away. The Highlanders scattered. Touring Culloden is a powerful experience, made even more so by watching the 360-degree video that re-creates the slaughter.

Near Culloden is another fascinating sight — the Clava Cairns. I'd always known about England's famous stone circles, but it wasn't till my first visit here that I realized Scotland had fancy-pants, overachieving knuckle draggers, too. At Clava Cairns, set in a peaceful grove of trees, are the remains of three stone burial mounds, each cleverly constructed between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. At first they appear to be just some giant piles of rocks, but a closer look reveals some fascinating prehistoric logic at play -- such as how, at each winter solstice, the sun illuminates each cairn's entrance shaft, as if by magic. Wandering through these mysterious cairns, knowing they're as old as the pyramids, is a thought-provoking reminder that Scotland's fascinating history goes back far beyond Braveheart.