The Northern Highlands and the Western Isles

We’ve compiled the best of the best in The Northern Highlands and the Western Isles - browse our top choices for the top things to see or do during your stay.

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  • 1. Applecross

    The most exciting way to reach this small community facing Skye is by a twisting, turning coastal road, which leaves the A896 just a few miles south of Shieldaig; simply follow the brown sign marked "Wester Ross Coastal Trail." A series of hairpin bends corkscrews up the steep wall at the head of a corrie (a glacier-cut mountain valley) and over the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle). There are spectacular views of Raasay and Skye from the bare plateau on top, and you can brag afterward that you've been on what is probably Scotland's highest drivable road.

    Highland, Scotland
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  • 2. Assynt and Coigach

    To the east and south of Lochinver lies a different kind of landscape: a vast region of brooding mountains and languid lochs, where peaks punch their way out of heathered terrain and appear to constantly shift positions. Even their names have a more mysterious air than those of the bens (mountain peaks or hills) elsewhere: Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp, Suilven. Some hark back to Norse rather than to Gaelic—a reminder that Vikings used to sail this northern shore. The highlight of the region is the eerily pretty Loch Assynt, peppered with tiny wooded isles, but the Coigach Peninsula northwest of Ullapool is equally dramatic.

    Highland, Scotland
  • 3. Calanais Standing Stones

    The west coast of Lewis is rich in prehistoric sites, and the most famous of these is the Calanais Standing Stones. Believed to have been positioned in several stages between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, this arrangement consists of an avenue of 19 monoliths extending northward from a circle of 13 stones, with other rows leading south, east, and west. Ruins of a cairn sit within the circle on the east side. Researchers believe they may have been used for astronomical observations, but you're free to cook up your own theories. The visitor center has an interesting exhibit on the stones, a very pleasant tearoom, and a gift shop.

    Callanish, Western Isles, HS2 9DY, Scotland
  • 4. Castle Varrich

    Standing on a high rocky outcrop, overlooking both the town and the Kyle of Tongue, Castle Varrich (or Bharrich) was built by Clan Mackay in the 14th century—but possibly not from scratch. It's believed an old Norse fort may have previously occupied the site. Today, a steel staircase and viewing platform make it easily accessible to visitors, who can walk from Tongue and back in less than an hour. The clearly signposted path gets a little steep in parts, but the climb is worth it for the spectacular views.

    Tongue, Highland, IV27 4XE, Scotland
  • 5. Coldbackie Beach

    This windswept bay, 3 miles north of Tongue just off the road from Thurso, is a well-kept secret, offering powder-white sands, spectacular island views, and perfect peace and quiet—so long as you don't arrive when surf's up. To get here simply park in Coldbackie and walk. Amenities: parking (no fee); water sports. Best for: solitude; surfing; walking.

    Coldbackie, Tongue, Highland, IV27 4XP, Scotland
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  • 6. Drumbeg Loop

    Bold souls journeying from Kylesku to Lochinver may enjoy taking the interesting, single-track B869 Drumbeg Loop. It has several challenging hairpin turns along with breathtaking coastal views. Head 2 miles south of Kylesku on the A894, and hang a right when you see the brown sign to "An Druim Beag." Although it's only 20 miles to Lochinver, it will take at least an hour without stops—but plan on longer, because you'll definitely want to stop. Highlights include the stunning sweep of sand at Clashnessie Bay, the beautiful Stoer Point Lighthouse, and the red-sandstone sea stack known as the Old Man of Stoer (not to be confused with the Old Man of Storr on Skye). The latter two are just off the Drumbeg Loop; turn right onto the small, signposted road between Clashnessie and Stoer. If you're an energetic walker, you can hike across the short turf and heather along the cliff-top for fine views west toward Lewis and Harris.

    Highland, Scotland
  • 7. Dunnet Bay Distillery

    This small north coast distillery proves that Scotland's craft-spirits boom has stretched to the very edges of the mainland. Run by husband and wife team Martin and Claire Murray, Dunnet Bay Distillery has gained plaudits and prizes galore for its Rock Rose gin—notable for its use of sea buckthorn, rhodiola rosea (the eponymous "rock rose"), and other coastal botanicals. The distillery also produces a superb vodka called Holy Grass. As well as selling the spirits neat, there are also fun, seasonal cocktail releases, from the gingerbread espresso martini to the winter-spiced negroni. You can tour the "wee" distillery all year round, including taking a stroll around the herb garden and greenhouse (lean down to sniff the deliciously citrusy lemon verbena). Children younger than 18 are allowed to visit and are admitted on the tour free of charge with an accompanying adult.

    Off A836, Thurso, Highland, KW14 8XD, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Tours £15, Closed Sun.
  • 8. Eilean Donan Castle

    Guarding the confluence of lochs Long, Alsh, and Duich stands the most picturesque of all Scottish fortifications. Eilean Donan Castle, perched on an islet connected to the mainland by a stone-arched bridge, dates from the 14th century and has all the dramatic stone walls, timber ceilings, and winding stairs you could possibly desire. Empty and neglected for years after being bombarded by frigates of the Royal Navy during an abortive Spanish-Jacobite landing in 1719, this romantic Scottish icon was almost entirely rebuilt from a ruin in the early 20th century. The kitchen re-creates the busy scene before a grand banquet, and the upper floors show how the castle was transformed into a grand house. The picturesque cover of a thousand travel brochures, Eilean Donan has also appeared in a number of Hollywood movies and TV shows, from The Wicker Man to Highlander. There's a gift shop and a coffeehouse for the many visitors. The castle lies 8½ miles east of Kyle Lochalsh; you'll pass it if you're coming from the south.

    Off A87, Dornie, Highland, IV40 8DX, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £10
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  • 9. Fairy Pools

    One of the most magical sights in Scotland, the Fairy Pools are a spectacularly beautiful collection of waterfalls and plunge pools in the midst of Glen Brittle. The rocky gray landscape contrasts with the vivid blue-green of the pools, the colorful plant life, and visiting wildlife (including, occasionally, red deer) to give the environment a fairy-tale feel. You can walk to the pools from a parking lot 20 minutes away. Come at sunrise or sunset for smaller crowds and the opportunity for a truly enchanting swim—just don't expect the water to be warm. If you're willing to climb to the upper pools, you can even find some seclusion at peak hours.

    Glenbrittle, Highland, IV47 8TA, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free; parking £5 a day
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  • 10. Glen Torridon

    The scenic spectacle of Glen Torridon lies east of Shieldaig; if you're following the A896 from Kinlochewe to Shieldaig, you pass right through it. Some say that Glen Torridon has the finest mountain scenery in Scotland. It consists mainly of the long, gray, quartzite flanks of Beinn Eighe and Liathach, with its distinct ridge profile that looks like the keel of an upturned boat.

    Highland, Scotland
  • 11. Glenmorangie Distillery

    The light color and delicate floral taste of the Speyside whiskies is exemplified in Glenmorangie, one of the best known of the Highland whiskies. The picturesque distillery in Tain, 8 miles south of town across Dornoch Forth, offers fascinating tastings that reveal how the taste is achieved (the secret's in the exceedingly tall stills). The Classic Tour (£18) includes three drams.

    Off A9, Tain, Highland, IV19 1PZ, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Tours from £18
  • 12. Handa Island

    Just off the coast of Scourie is Handa Island, a sanctuary that shelters huge seabird colonies, especially impressive at nesting time. On the dramatic cliffs you can gaze at more than 200,000 nesting birds, including guillemots, razorbills, great skuas, kittiwakes, and, of course, crowd-pleasingly colorful puffins. Sturdy boots, a waterproof jacket, and a degree of fitness are needed to walk the path around the island. This remarkable reserve, administered by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is open only in spring and summer. Get there on the Handa Ferry (—in reality, a small open boat—from Tarbet, 3 miles north of Scourie. It runs Monday to Saturday and costs £20 per person.

    Highland, IV27 4TE, Scotland
    07920-468572-Handa Island ranger

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Closed Oct.–Mar
  • 13. Inverewe Garden

    A highlight of the area, Inverewe Garden has lush plantings tucked away behind a dense barrier of trees and shrubs. This is all thanks to the warm North Atlantic Drift, which takes the edge off winter frosts. Inverewe is sometimes described as subtropical, but this inaccuracy irritates the head gardener; do not expect coconuts and palm trees here. Instead, look for rarities like the blue Himalayan poppy. The garden, located 6 miles north of Gairloch, is also a haven for wildlife, with Scotland's Big 5 (the red squirrel, red deer, otter, seal, and golden eagle) all found around here.

    Off A832, Poolewe, Highland, IV22 2LG, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £13, Closed Nov.–Mar.
  • 14. Isle of Harris Distillery

    Opened in 2015, this island distillery rapidly gained a reputation for its distinctive gin, infused with coastal botanicals including sugar kelp. Its first malt whisky, called The Hearach (the Gaelic term for an inhabitant of Harris), is currently maturing in bourbon barrels. The distillery conducts guided tours (£10) every weekday from March to October—call to book in advance.

    Tarbert, Western Isles, HS3 3DJ, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free; tours £10
  • 15. Loch Maree

    Southeast of Gairloch stretches one of Scotland's most scenic lochs, Loch Maree. Its harmonious setting, with tall Scots pines and the mountain Slioch looming as a backdrop, is regularly visited by red deer, as well as the endangered pine marten (a member of the weasel family)—though they're just as likely to be hanging around the trash cans as in the trees. There are few official parking places along the loch, but these are nestled between the trees with limited views, so be prepared to park and climb to a better vantage point.

    Gairloch, Highland, Scotland
  • 16. Pulteney Distillery

    Unusually for a distillery, Pulteney is situated very close to the town center, and it has been for almost 200 years. The spirit produced here, known as "gold," was once in the shadow of the town's other big "silver" industry—herring fishing. But, despite a hairy period of prohibition, it has easily outlasted its competition. The brooding brick distillery is open for tours and tastings, so join the standard one-hour tour (£10) for a behind-the-scenes look at the facilities and a taste of the award-winning 12-year-old Old Pulteney—famed for its smooth, faintly briny character with a lingering, butterscotch-sweet finish. Or, for £25, experience all this plus additional tastings of three older expressions.

    Huddart St., Wick, Highland, KW1 5BA, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Tours from £10, Closed weekends
  • 17. Sandwood Bay

    Sandwood Bay is one of Scotland's most spectacular—and most isolated—beaches. The only way to reach it is to walk 4 miles each way across sheep fields and sand dunes. It's a lovely, fairly easy walk, and while it's not quite the hidden gem it once was, leave early and you're still likely to have the long, sandy beach, with its dramatic sea stack Am Buachaille, all to yourself. To get here turn off the A838 onto the B801 at Rhiconich (14 miles southwest of Durness), then turn off at Kinlochbervie to Balchrick. Just before you reach the latter, look for a tiny white sign to "Sandwood," then follow this single-track lane to its end, where you can park and start walking. Plan for a four-hour trip in all, including a good amount of time on the beach. Amenities: parking (no fee). Best for: solitude; walking.

    Durness, Highland, IV27 4RU, Scotland
  • 18. Smoo Cave

    This atmospheric cavern, hollowed out of the limestone by rushing water, feels like something from a fantasy novel. Located a mile east of Durness, the combined sea-and-freshwater cave, complete with gushing waterfall, can be reached via a steep cliff stairway from the Smoo Cave parking lot. But don't start your descent before reading the explanatory boards at the top of the stairs: they tell the history of those who lived and used the caves in much earlier times. From April through October, 20-minute boat trips (£10) into the cave's inner chamber are available. Once you've climbed back up to the parking area, cross the road for a view down into the cavern from atop the waterfall.

    Off A838, Durness, Highland, IV27 4QB, Scotland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free
  • 19. St. Clement's Church

    At the southernmost point of Harris, in the village of Rodel 3 miles southeast of Leverburgh, lies St. Clement's Church—the most impressive pre-Reformation House of God in the Outer Hebrides. The large cruciform church, which sits atop a small hillock, was built around 1500. Head inside to see the magnificently sculpted 16th-century wall tomb of the church's builder, clan chief Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle.

    A859, Rodel, Western Isles, HS5 3TW, Scotland
  • 20. St. Kilda Village

    This crumbling, wind-ravaged village is the last remnant of the community that lived on Hirta for thousands of years. For most of that time, the St. Kildans lived in utter isolation, with the abundant birdlife providing the bulk of their diet. But, in the 1830s, visiting missionary Reverend Neil Mackenzie decided to improve living conditions on the island and raised funds for the construction of this street of Hebridean blackhouses, along with a church, manse (minister's residence), and school. Today, visitors to St. Kilda can walk in and around the village buildings, with one house containing an informative museum telling the incredible story of island life through pottery, textiles, and photographs.

    Western Isles, G76 9ER, Scotland

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