Wild and remote, the Northern Highlands and the Western Isles of Scotland have a timeless grandeur. Dramatic cliffs, long beaches, and craggy mountains that rise up out of moorland like islands in a sea heighten the romance and mystery. Well-preserved Eilean Donan Castle marks a kind of gateway to the Isle of Skye, famous for the brooding Cuillin Mountains and forever associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Jurassic-era sites (dinosaurs left their prints here), prehistoric ruins, crumbling castles, and abandoned crofts (small farms) compress the whole span of history in the islands.
In Sutherland and Caithness in northern Scotland, the roads hug the coast, dipping down toward beaches and up again to give stunning views over the ocean or across rippled, desolate stretches of heather moorland toward the impressive and singular profiles of mountains like Ben Hope and Suilven. These twisted, undulating roads—many of them single-track—demand that you shift down a gear, pause to let others pass, and take the time to do less and experience more of the rough-hewn beauty. If you're lucky, you may see an otter fishing along the coast, an eagle soaring overhead, or catch sight of deer with their antlers jutting above the horizon.
Sutherland was once the southern land belonging to the Vikings, and some names reflect this. Cape Wrath got its name from the Viking word hvarth, meaning "turning point," and Suilven translates as "pillar." The Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides are referred to as the Western Isles, and remain the stronghold of the Gaelic language. Skye is often called Scotland in miniature because the terrain shifts from lush valleys in the south, to the rugged girdle of the Cuillin Mountains, and then to the steep cliffs that define the northern coast. A short ferry journey away, moody Harris lays claim to the brilliant golden sands of Luskentyre. To the north, Lewis boasts incredible prehistoric sites, including the lunar-aligned Calanais Standing Stones and Dun Carloway (an Iron Age circular tower), as well as a lighthouse that looks ready to tip into the Atlantic.
Depending on the weather, a trip to the Northern Highlands and the Western Isles can feel like a tropical getaway or a blustery, rain-drenched holiday where this much-touted phrase makes sense: "There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing."