Scotland's Highlands

The Highlands stoke kilted dreams of Scotland…where legends of Bonnie Prince Charlie swirl around lonely castles. We visit the "Weeping Glen" of Glencoe, bustling Inverness, and the battlefield at Culloden. Then we'll make a pilgrimage to the spiritual capital of a major clan, and go prehistoric at Stone Age burial grounds and Iron Age island forts. Venturing along the Caledonian Canal and watching for Nessie at Loch Ness, we work up an appetite for modern Scottish cuisine and enjoy traditional folk music.

Travel Details

Inveraray Castle

Strikingly dramatic on the outside, the castle has a lavishly decorated interior that feels spacious, neatly tended, and lived in. Don't leave without doing a loop through its finely manicured gardens. (The castle, just a few minutes outside Inveraray town, makes an easy stop for drivers connecting Glasgow and Oban, but isn't worth the effort without a car.)

Beechwood Cottage B&B

In this shoes-off, slippers-on, whisky-honor-bar kind of place in Glencoe, Jackie rents three lovely rooms and Ian pursues his rock-garden dreams in the yard.

Urquhart Castle

After Urquhart Castle's owners blew it up to keep the Jacobites from taking it, the largest medieval castle in Scotland wasn't considered worth rebuilding or defending, and was abandoned. Well-placed, descriptive signs help you piece together this once-mighty fortress, and the visitors center has a tiny exhibit with interesting castle artifacts and good short film taking you on a sweep through a thousand years of tumultuous history — from St. Columba's visit to the castle's final destruction in 1689. (While the castle and Loch Ness monster exhibit described below are both tough to reach by public transportation, those without a car have several excursion-tour options from Inverness.)

Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition

With video presentations and special effects, this exhibit explains the geological and historical environment that bred the monster story, as well as the various searches that have been conducted. Refreshingly, it retains an air of healthy skepticism instead of breathless monster-chasing. It also has some artifacts related to the search, such as a hippo-foot ashtray used to fake monster footprints and the Viperfish — a harpoon-equipped submarine used in a 1969 Nessie search.

Culloden Battlefield

Culloden's cleverly designed visitors center includes an impressive four-minute, 360° movie of the a re-enacted battle, and the actual battlefield, brought alive by an excellent audioguide. Wandering the desolate, solemn field, you sense that something terrible occurred here. The visitors center and battlefield are about 15 minutes east of Inverness by car, or 40 minutes by hourly bus.

Scottish Crannog Centre

The highlight of a visit here is a two-part tour, led by passionate, well-versed guides dressed in prehistoric garb. One part of the tour takes you out across a rustic wooden bridge to the crannog itself, where you'll huddle under the thatched roof and learn about Iron Age architecture, and what life was like in those rugged times. In the other part, guides offer a hands-on demonstration of Iron Age know-how. Unfortunately, bus service to the center is too inconvenient to make it worthwhile without a car.

Clava Cairns

Scotland is littered with reminders of prehistoric peoples — especially in Orkney and along the coast of the Moray Firth — but the Clava Cairns are among the best-preserved, most interesting, and easiest to reach (but I'd skip them if you don't have a car). You'll find them nestled in the spooky countryside just beyond Culloden Battlefield.

Leault Working Sheepdogs

Each afternoon, Neil Ross presents a 45-minute demonstration of his well-trained sheepdogs on a farm outside Aviemore. The experience is vividly real and fascinating. You'll hunker down in a natural little amphitheater in the turf while Neil describes his work. After the presentation, you'll meet (and pet) the border collie stars of the show, and may have the chance to feed some lambs or to try your hand at shearing sheep. If they happen to have a litter of border collie puppies, even those who dislike dogs may find it hard to resist smuggling one home.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're packing light…but there's always room for puppies. Sheepdog puppies. We're in the Highlands of Scotland. Thanks for joining us!

The Highlands are where dreams of Scotland are set. The land of kilts, clans, and lonely castles, the Highlands offer the quintessence of Scottish charms.

In this episode we'll connect with clan heritage, be awestruck by Highland beauty, marvel at early British engineering, join in the search for a monster, time-travel back to the Iron Age, watch sheepdogs do their thing, and check out some traditional folk music.

The United Kingdom includes England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Scotland includes a third of Britain's land. Its main cities are Glasgow and Edinburgh. To the south are the Lowlands and to the north, the Highlands. Focusing on the Highlands, we'll visit Inveraray [and] Oban, and follow the Caledonian Canal to Loch Ness, Inverness, and the battlefield at Culloden.

Here in Scotland, the Highlands have more than half the land, and only 5 percent of the people. Still, it's these Highlands — so vast, yet so sparsely populated — that give us the classic image of Scotland.

The highest mountains in Britain are here in Scotland, in the Highlands. While only around 3,000 feet in altitude, they offer a dramatic welcome and a backdrop of constantly changing views for road trippers. Long lakes, called "lochs" here, cut like fjords into a land where the heritage remains strong.

In this region, so much seems proudly Scottish: Clans gather to celebrate traditional sports. Girls grow up dreaming to dance like their mothers did. Whisky is savored with reverence for the culture. And pipers still stir the Scottish soul.

And, in this land so steeped in culture, Scotland's beloved "hairy coo" feels perfectly at home. These shaggy Highland cattle have evolved to fit the environment. Their adorable bangs protect their eyes from both insects and the persistent wind.

Historically, Highland society was centered around the clan system. In medieval times, long before being tamed by any central government, the Highlands were inhabited by a collection of proud and often bickering tribes, or "clans" — each with its own chief and deep-seated traditions.

Castles dotting the landscape evoke this strong clan heritage. Scottish people — whether in Scotland or abroad as part of the Scottish diaspora — still relate to their historic clan. And many venerate a particular castle as their historic capital and almost spiritual center.

Inveraray Castle, the residence of the 13th Duke of Argyll, has a stately, turreted exterior set in a delightful garden.

Historically, a stronghold of the Campbell clan, its walls are well-hung with portraits of the many dukes who've called this palace home. Here's the first duke, with dukes number two and three on deck.

As with many such castles, the aristocratic family still lives here — like clan royals. Displays are like the family scrapbook; showing the current duke and his family, who still occupy the private half of this palace.

The public half is a museum filled with precious-if-you're-a-Campbell artifacts. This case features pendants of esteemed family members through the ages. This one's filled with dirks and daggers set against a nice Campbell tartan.

A highlight is the Armory Hall, which fills the main atrium. Here, swords and rifles are artistically arrayed in starburst patterns. Docents are standing by, and happy to answer questions.

Docent: So, our halberds here date from the 1600s. They come from the earlier castle, before this one.
Rick: Now, what is a halberd?
Docent: So, a halberd could be used against charging cavalry and you'll notice they've got tassels on them. It's not just for decoration. Don't know about you — if I'm killing someone, you don't want their blood dripping down your weapon, making it all slippy.
Rick: So, the tassels actually had a function.
Docent: That's right. So, the tassels would soak up the blood.
Rick: And these muskets?
Docent: So, this is our Brown Bess flintlock muskets, all dating from the 1740s. These are all original, and they were last used at the Battle of Culloden — 1746; the last battle fought on British soil.

Docent: Yes, so, we have, in this cabinet, some of the belongings of Rob Roy MacGregor, a kind of famous folk hero.
Rick: The famous Rob Roy?
Docent: That's right, Rob Roy MacGregor. So, this is his sporran here.
Rick: And what is a sporran?
Docent: So, a sporran, if you think of a kilt, there's no pockets in a kilt.
Rick: Right.
Docent: So, you'd have your sporran, and, in your sporran, you'd have maybe a wee bag of oatmeal.
Rick: So, this is your bag of essentials —
Docent: Exactly. Yes, for sure, yeah.
Rick: …hanging right here in front.
Docent: Yeah.

You'll find castles like this all over the Highlands. Today, countless Scottish Americans make a pilgrimage of sorts to their ancestral clan capital. If you're a Campbell, you'd come here, to Inveraray.

The main town of the west coast of the Highlands is Oban. With the arrival of the train in 1880, Oban became the unofficial capital of this region. and a destination for tourists.

Today, Oban's harborfront seems eager to please its many visitors. Victorian facades recall those early days of tourism. Before then, its economy was dominated by whisky — its venerable distillery has been busy since 1794 — and by fishing. Even today, a tiny fleet stays busy. When the rain clears, sun-starved Scots enjoy their Esplanade. And the beach brings joy to young families.

The town's port has long been a lifeline to Scotland's Hebrides Islands, earning Oban the nickname "The Gateway to the Isles."

But we'll save the islands for another episode. We're driving north, deeper into the Highlands. Of course, here in Britain, you drive on the left-hand side of the road. You get used to it. The roads are good, the traffic's light, and the scenery is gorgeous.

The stunning valley called Glencoe offers the essence of the wild and stark beauty of the Highlands. While the valley is massive in scale, at its entrance is a tiny and practical home base.

Glencoe village is basically a one-street town gathered around its church. There's the humble folk museum, plenty of B&Bs — we're staying with Jackie and Ian [at Beechwood Cottage B&B] — and a memorial to a terrible tragedy — a tragedy that, while three centuries old, still resonates.

To be sure we get the story right, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.

Rick: This is a beautiful valley.
Colin: Yeah, well, it does have a sad story, though. In 1692, there was a massacre here and government troops — Redcoats, made up mostly of Campbells — they were sent here by the king. They were given the orders to ride to the homes of the MacDonalds of Glencoe and to await further instruction. So, they enjoyed the hospitality, the Highland hospitality, of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and, after 12 days, the further instruction arrived for the Campbells to massacre the MacDonalds of Glencoe. As the MacDonalds slept in their beds, the Campbells carried out the order. We know that 38 MacDonalds were killed as they slept. Others fled for the hills. This was midwinter, in the Highlands of Scotland, and many others perished and died in the cold. Ever since then, this has been known as the "Weeping Glen."

It's fitting that such an epic, dramatic incident should be set in this equally epic and dramatic valley, where the cliffsides still seem to weep.

Glencoe valley leads up, into the vast Rannoch Moor. This moor — the biggest expanse of uninhabited land in Britain — is hundreds of desolate square miles, much enjoyed by hikers and lovers of nature.

When filmmakers want a stunning, rugged backdrop, when hikers want a scenic challenge, and when Scots want to remember their hard-fought past…they all think of Glencoe.

As we drive north from Glencoe, we find a massive fault line, slashing about 60 miles across the Highlands, nearly cutting Scotland in two. The drive from here northeast to Inverness follows three long, skinny lakes created by the "Great Glen Fault" and a series of 19th-century canals that lace them together. This is the Caledonian Canal.

Perhaps the most idyllic stop along the canal is the little town of Fort Augustus, built around an impressive staircase of locks. Today, this historic piece of British engineering is a welcoming park.

Two hundred years ago, as Britain was at full steam during the Industrial Age, it connected these lakes with about 20 miles of canals and locks. That was so its ships could avoid the long journey around the north of the country. The Caledonian Canal took 19 years and cost a fortune to construct. It opened in 1822.

While these locks were an engineering marvel in their day, they were quickly antiquated — and a disaster commercially. Shortly after the canal opened, ships were built too big to fit. And, shortly after that, with the advent of steam trains, the Caledonian Canal became almost useless…except for Romantic Age tourism. And today, the canal remains a hit with holiday-goers.

The most famous part of the Caledonian Canal route is the long and skinny Loch Ness. Twenty-two miles long and over 700 feet deep, it's essentially the vast chasm of that fault line, filled with water. They say Loch Ness contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined.

Loch Ness is deepest near Urquhart Castle. While thoroughly ruined, and little more than an empty shell to climb through, in its medieval heyday this strategically situated castle was one of the most important in the Highlands — controlling traffic along the Great Glen. Today, so gloriously situated with a view of virtually the entire lake, it's extremely popular with tourists, and the perfect place to look for the Loch Ness monster.

While the lake is, frankly, boring, the local tourist industry thrives on the legend of the Loch Ness monster. It is a thrilling thought, and there have been several seemingly reliable "sightings."

And, of course, there's a touristy exhibit that would love to tell the story thoughtfully. The Loch Ness Exhibition is spearheaded by scientist and naturalist Adrian Shine, who's spent decades studying the Nessie phenomenon.

Rick: Adrian, can you tell me the mission of this exhibition?
Adrian: Our mission is to be part of the essential sense of place. We are not a monster show, but we will tell you a lot, whether you like it or not, about Scottish lochs, by arguing about the Loch Ness monster. But we do it in a fairly entertaining way, I like to think, because we're talking about the one thing we would all like to have in Loch Ness. What we do is take you through the history of the search for an unusual animal in Loch Ness. In the '60s, it was surface surveillance, with big, telephoto-lens cameras. Having failed, in the '70s, we went underwater, partly in my own little, photographic hide, Machan. Having failed to encounter a beast, we resorted to sonar in the 1980s — sort of underwater radar. We built a flatpack sonar search vessel on a beach in 1981, patrolled up and down the loch. The contacts led, in the end, to Operation Deep Scan in 1987, with the fleet. In the '90s, we got a bit canny. We used an indirect method and we have been, ever since, and it's general science. What could the loch support, in terms of food resources? What do the temperatures tell us about what could live in Loch Ness? And, finally, we have the environmental message, in terms of the record within the Loch Ness sediments. I would like our visitors to go away thinking about what could live in Loch Ness, when we have explained Loch Ness. Go and see Loch Ness, but, if you want to understand it, come here. And, at the same time, and above everything, we want them to go away knowing a lot more about Scottish lochs.

Just beyond Loch Ness, I feel the real spirit of Scotland most deeply at Culloden, the site of the last major land battle fought on British soil.

About 300 years ago, Scotland was embroiled in a bloody civil war with England. While it's a complicated story, basically, the Scots were fighting for their culture — to put a Catholic king on the throne and to keep their ancient clan traditions. The last leader of this cause was Prince Charles Edward Stuart — fondly known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie." His forces were called the "Jacobites" — named for his grandfather, the deposed King James. (James was Catholic, and his name was "Jacubus" in Latin — and that's why the rebels were called "Jacobites.")

For a long time, Bonnie Prince Charlie confounded the English and their Protestant monarch. Slipping from valley to valley, hiding behind clever disguises and in sympathetic farmhouses, Charlie kept the Scottish dreams of his Jacobite followers alive.

Those dreams ended here, at the decisive Battle of Culloden in 1746. The onsite museum tells the story vividly. Docents demonstrate battle techniques to give visitors context. And a small theater captivates its audience with a dramatic re-enactment.

The Scottish clans gathered every possible warrior. But they were outnumbered and outgunned by the British Redcoats. While the clans fought fiercely, the British were cool, methodical, and ruthless. The hour-long battle was a catastrophe for the Highlanders, as the British army finally and thoroughly defeated the Jacobites. Survivors broke ranks and ran for the hills.

After the battle, the British army hunted down and killed clan chiefs and sympathizers. They banned kilts, tartans, bagpipes, and even the local language. Scottish Highland culture would never fully recover.

On the battlefield, flags mark where the two armies lined up. This is where most of the hand-to-hand fighting took place. As visitors wander the battlefield, they pass mass graves and ponder how entire clans fought, died, and were buried here at this Scottish Alamo. For many, this is an emotional visit.

Nearby, the town of Inverness straddles the River Ness near the eastern end of the Caledonian Canal. This town's charm lies in its normalcy — Inverness is a simple, midsize Scottish city that gives you a taste of the "urban" Highlands. It has a disheveled, ruddy-cheeked grittiness, and is well-located for enjoying nearby sights. Check out the bustling, pedestrianized downtown and stroll the riverside.

Inverness is a great place for music in the pubs. Tonight, MacGregor's is hosting a session — not a formal concert — but just an open table for local musicians to get together and jam. While this is a modern pub, it embraces traditional Scottish music, which is clearly alive and well. Music brings the Highland people together — even today.

It's an inviting conviviality — everyone seems eager to get to know each other, and visitors feel welcome. You enjoy amazing music for the cost of a beer…and the beer is great.

We're driving south to learn how some of the original Highlanders lived. Across Scotland, little round islands on lakes are the remains of pre-historic fortified homes. These are called "crannogs" — and date back centuries before Christ. Here at the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay one's been rebuilt, using mostly traditional methods, and now welcomes visitors.

Docent: This is the Scottish Crannog Centre. It's a reproduction of a 2,500-year-old crannog that archaeologists are excavating, as we speak, in Loch Tay, right now. It was built out in the loch itself for defensive purposes. In Scotland then, you had bears, you had wolves, you had big cats — called "lynx," other people roaming the countryside. And if you're out here in the water, there's only one way in and out, and that's the walkway. So, if you can keep that secure, you, yourself, in here, are going to feel a lot safer.

Guides demonstrate Iron Age technology — turning a lathe…grinding flour…

Docent: …stones against each other.

and even starting a fire the really old-fashioned way.

Rick: Whoa.
Docent: That's how you make a fire.

You can give the tools a try yourself — and discover how easy the guides make it look.

Scotland is littered with reminders of prehistoric people from an even earlier age. At [the] Clava Cairns, three Bronze Age burial chambers date from about 4,000 years ago. Each was once buried under turf-covered mounds, and surrounded by a stone circle. The central "ring cairn" has an open space in its middle. The two "passage cairns" each have an entrance shaft that — on the winter solstice — lines up with the setting sun. Visitors are caught up in the peaceful wonder of this ancient and sacred site.

Enjoy the mystery of this place: Were these stone circles part of a celestial calendar? Was the soul of the deceased transported into the next life when the sun was just right? Nobody really knows.

But everyone knows sheepdogs are fun. A favorite experience when touring Scotland is to visit a working sheep farm, and meet the farmer and his dogs. Each afternoon, Neil Ross takes a break from farming to show off his well-trained sheepdogs. And his son, Tristan, is learning from the master.

Neil: The main purpose of the dog is go down the field, get the sheep, and bring them back. The voice commands — I'll explain the voice commands to you. This command means "stop that dog." [long whistle] Stop command. The dogs' hearing is like electric. The command "away to me" means "right." Wee Mark, wee Mark, wee Mark. "Stop" is "lie down." Little Mark. The voice command "come-bye" is "left." Bo, come-bye. [double-tone whistle] That whistle sound [two double-tone whistles] means "left." [single down-tone whistle] means "right." [three long whistles, then a "left" whistle]

Great, another foreign language I can't understand. The show ends with a demonstration on how to shear sheep, with the kids getting a chance to help. The dogs love some attention when they're on break, and there are always lambs to be fed.

We connected with spectacular landscapes, shared traditional music, felt the power of history, and were inspired by the pride of this resilient culture.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at Scotland's Highlands — with its rich heritage and majestic nature. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

Clips