Magical Highlands and Islands of Scotland’s West

By Rick Steves
The center of Oban is not a square or market, but its harbor. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
Glencoe's valley has the quintessentially wild, stark beauty that make the Scottish Highlands so compelling. (photo: Gretchen Strauch)
The Unknown Highlander, a monument to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, surveys the shore of Loch Shiel. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)

Set your Scottish dreams 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, and the misty air is filled with magic and mystery.

The area northwest of Glasgow offers a fun and easy dip into the Highlands. A smart place to spend the night is in Oban, a low-key port town that's equal parts endearing and functional. What it lacks in must-see sights it makes up for in charm, with a winding promenade lined with gravel beaches, ice-cream stands, good eateries, and a famous whisky distillery. Wind, boats, gulls, and the promise of a wide-open Atlantic beyond give Oban a rugged charm.

For the best day trip from Oban, tour the islands of Mull and Iona (several Oban-based tour companies offer an array of options). 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. Things are 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 a visit here 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 here was rebuilt in the 19th century. But with sparkling-white crescents of sand 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 island's only real village, Baile Mòr, has shops, a restaurant/pub, a few accommodations, a tiny heritage center, and no bank.

Those more interested in nature than Iona's early-Christian history will enjoy trips to the wildly scenic Isle of Staffa, with the famous basalt columns of Fingal's Cave — and, in summer, a colony of puffins.

About an hour's drive north of Oban is the valley of Glencoe, offering all 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: In 1692, British Redcoats came to the valley and were sheltered and fed for 12 days by the MacDonalds. One morning, the soldiers were ordered to rise up early and kill their sleeping hosts, violating the rules of Highland hospitality and earning the valley the name "The Weeping Glen." It's fitting that such an epic, dramatic incident should be set in this equally epic, dramatic valley, where the cliffsides seem to weep with running streams when it rains. While driving through here, I make it a point to get out of the car and feel the wonder of the Highlands.

Glencoe town is just a line of houses, but it's worth stopping here for the huggable Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum. This tiny, thatched, early-18th-century croft house is jammed 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 past the village is the Glencoe Visitors Centre. This modern facility, designed to resemble a clachan (a traditional Highlands settlement), offers hiking advice and an exhibit on the surrounding landscape and local history.

From Glencoe it's not much farther along to Fort William, the second-biggest town in the Highlands (after Inverness) and the starting point for the Road to the Isles, which leads past rugged landscape to the Isle of Skye. It was in this corner Scotland that Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745, in his attempt to regain the British throne for his father. En route is Glenfinnan, where Charlie officially kicked off his armed Jacobite rebellion, with 1,500 clansmen compatirots in tow. (Sadly, Glenfinnan is also where he retreated to eight months later, after his campaign's crushing defeat at Culloden, near Inverness.) A small museum there tells the story, and a stirring statue nearby memorializes the doomed uprising.

Wherever you stop on route, Celtic music provides the perfect backdrop at the end of a Highlands day. Part of its attraction is how it's invigorated by the driving and organic beat of the bodhrán — that ubiquitous handheld, animal-skinned drum thumped with such vibrancy with a single stick. I see the tumult of the past and the love of heritage in the eyes of the musicians. There really is a spark that mixes well with beer, smiles, and pub ambience. Each evening, in almost every town, the happy sound of traditional folk music spills out of local pubs. And each evening, visitors have the chance to join in the fun.