One of only two national parks in Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park – part of the famous Scottish Highlands – is also the UK’slargest at 4,528 km2 (1,748 sq m). Interestingly, despite Scotland’s vast and wild landscapes, the Cairngorms, along with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, are Scotland’s only official national parks (the Isle of Skye is just scratching the surface – think more so the Isles of Staffa, Lewis or Harris, Assynt, Knoydart or Torridon for true Scottish wilderness). A dual tourism season destination, the Cairngorms Mountains are equally renowned for hiking and mountain biking in the summer as they are for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. The Cairngorms also contain Scotland’s second-highest peak, Ben MacDui ; as it clocks in at 1,344m, Ben Macdui is considered a munro (meaning over 1,000m high). Located in the central Highlands, the best jumping-off point would be the quaint and sporty town of Aviemore, about 40 minutes south of Inverness.
Pro tip: get up early to explore the mountains bathed in early morning sunlight and avoid other visitors to the region. An easy way to explore the backcountry of the northern Cairngorms is on the Speyside Way.
The city that feels a bit like its at the end of the world, Inverness is a small cosmopolitan outpost in northern Scotland. Crowned with Inverness Castle, the city – and castle – cling to the banks of the River Ness. This relatively new castle was only built in 1836, but it sits on the roots of what was originally an 11th century castle. Today’s castle is built in the neo-gothic style, though the former castle was a proper medieval lump of stone. It’s not open to the public today for good reason: it is currently home to the Inverness Sherif Court (Scotland’s civil and criminal court). That said, you can visit the Castle Viewpoint for a bird’s eye view of Inverness from the top of the building (admission £5). Though the interior of the castle is closed, the exterior is an emblem of Inverness. It’s also certainly a worth to climb to the top of the castle hill to enjoy the view over Inverness and beyond! Fun fact: find Inverness Castle on one side of certain £50 RBS banknotes.
Pro Tip: Keep going past the castle along the river to follow forest trails through the Ness Islands. Hungry? You’ll definitely have to check out the delicious menu at The Kitchen Brasserie, less than 5 minutes walk from the Castle. Book lovers will love the magnificent Leakey’s Bookshop located in an old church! Looking for music? Try Hootananny for a pint and traditional music!
The jewel of the north, Inverness is known as the city that crowns the shores of Loch Ness, famed home to the mythically elusive monster Nessie. Despite this claim to fame, few visit the compact Scottish city, and even fewer appreciate it. The official gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the northern-ness of Inverness gives you the feeling of being at the ends of Earth’s civilisation (it’s the UK’s northernmost city). Small enough to visit in a day, Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. It is ranked 5th out of nearly 200 British cities for best quality of life as well as Scotland’s 1st (and the UK’s 2nd) happiest city; being collectively happy seems to be a northern thing as Denmark, Sweden and Norway also often rank at the top of world lists. As you wander the streets of Inverness, there’s certain familiar British-ness (e.g. Boots, Cafe Nero, WH Smiths and Tesco’s…) but at the same time, something resoundly Scottish. Start at the majestic Leakey’s Bookshop and follow the River Ness past the ancient churches and over bouncing bridges, past the modern castle on the hill as the rivers weaves and twines its way towards the long and narrow Loch Ness. Long before you arrive, you’ll stumble across a series of long and narrow islands – the Ness Isles – a 3 mile (5k) forested loop fringed by the quiet river – a place just perfect for a stroll or a jog in the fresh air of any season! Oh and by the way, Macbeth is from here! Or rather, his real life 11th century counterpart was.
Pro tip: Inverness Train/Bus Station is in the city centre. The airport is an easy 25 minute bus ride – get bus 11A from Marks & Spenser’s. There are Loch Ness half day boat tours for those wishing to see the lake and ruins of Urquhart Castle. Looking for quick, yummy food? Try the Filling Station by the train station for hearty comfort food.
Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style.
Pro tip: To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Rough and rugged, clinging to a pointed cliff, perchaed atop a low peninsula jutting out into the ocean, Dunnattor Castle is certainly one of the most eye-catching castles of northern Europe. Located on the Scottish Coast near Stonehaven village and south of the sprawling silver metropolis that is Aberdeen, Dunnattor Castle is best approached on foot. Hiking from Stonehaven, take the back alleyways and countryside path that rises behind the village, eventually depositing you in the emerald grass of Scotland’s countryside. Walk between the rolling country hills and sheer coastal drops with fluffy sheep for company, past the Somme War Memorial before turning a bend after about 3 km to see the distant peninsula crowned with its castellated turrets. Dunnattor Castle dates back to the 15th century, and once even hid the Scottish crown jewels from the invading Cromwell army during the 17th century. Take your time exploring the castle as well as its hidden coves and beaches as you listen to the crash of the waves on the foot of the cliff. Whether gazing at this medieval fortress from above or below, it’s clear that it is an extraordinary feat of architectural imagination and engineering!
‘By the wee birchen corries lie patches of green Where gardens and bare-headed bairnies have been, But the huts now are rickles of stone, nettle-grown, And the once human homes, e’en their names are unknown.’
-Anonymous Victorian poet upon looking over nearby Loch Rannoch
Multiple reasons could account for any of the dozens of abandoned settlements in Scotland’s Highlands. Forced evictions, changing economies, harsh living conditions, changes in animal behaviour or soil richness, new weather patterns, or the industrial revolution are but a few. Reasons for this particular settlement’s abandonment are unknown. The trail to Mt Schiehallion (the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’) which overlooks Loch Rannoch snakes its way up and past this little village – today little more than a picturesque ruin. Though most people amble by it with little more than a quick photo, it serves one to stop and give it a little respect – those little ruins were once someone’s house, and one day, your house may be little more than a pile of rocks. Though sad, such is the way of things. Even buildings have a circle of life.
Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands
Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating profound connection between you and the land itself.
Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland
There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.
Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)
A stone’s throw away from Aberdeen, the quaint seaside village of Stonehaven clings to the North Sea coastline. Aside from the usual charming nature of being in an adorable village along the rugged, Scottish coastline with waves lapping at your feet, Stonehaven is also home to some of the best fish and chips in the UK. Indeed, The Bay won awards in 2012 & 2013 for best takeaway fish and chips, and it is worth the short wait and the slightly high prices for the delicious battered fresh fish. Stonehaven is also the home of the “deep fried Mars Bar,” developed in 1995 by the Haven Chip Bar (now called The Carron). And despite immediately feeling the need to run a marathon afterwards in order to counterbalance the unhealthiness of the snack, the taste is pretty darn delicious! Not only is Stonehaven a good place to come to eat, it is also relaxing and beautiful, especially so after hiking up to the ridge just above the town, watching the light play off the golden-tinted stones and rooftops. While most come here in order to access the equally-beautiful Dunnottar Castle down the road, don’t miss out on the hidden gem that is Stonehaven itself.
Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…Here in Lyon, now that the deluge has started, it seems determined to continue for the duration of the weekend. Therefore, it only seems fitting to post a photo of a rainy day. As everyone in the world already knows, the UK is a rainy place. What many people don’t know is that it doesn’t actually rain that much there when one looks at the accumulated inches/centimeters of rain (in fact, London and Washington, DC have similar annual accumulation). No, most of the time, the UK is just grey and drizzling. This, of course, can be frustrating, but it can also be beautiful. All of these drizzly days make for green grass and an abundance of flowers. Since there are less of them, they make you appreciate the sunny days like never before. And in some ways, you love the British Isles for their rain, because really, how can Scotland be Scotland without a few grey skies? Edinburgh, arguably the prettiest of Scotland’s main cities, seems to sparkle like a diamond after a bout of rain showers especially here on the city’s beautiful High Street. Umbrellas with fun colors and designs are as much a part of the local fashion here as coats or shoes. And really, the occasional rainy day can be fun! A rainy day means curling up with a good book and a cup of joe in a snug coffee house. It means hitting up museums and cinemas. It means watching a TV/movie marathon. It means spending two hours baking cookies or muffins. It means a fantastic excuse to have that delicious hot chocolate or fancy latte. So stop frowning, grab your umbrella, and jump in a puddle!
They don’t call Scotland’s northern metropolis “The Granite City” for nothing—Aberdeen is remarkably grey. But somehow, its greyness is what makes it special. In fact, another of it’s nicknames is “The Silver City;” so-called because the locally-quarried granite tends to sparkle due to a mineral called mica which is infused within the blocks. Aberdeen has been the site of human habitation for something like 8,000 years, and Aberdeen University is the 3rd oldest university in Britain! Unfortunately, it’s also known as Europe’s oil capital—which has undoubtedly brought wealth to the city, but hasn’t exactly helped its reputation. Regardless, its ‘Ancient University’ (yes—that’s an official term in Britain!) has many of foreign students studying within its ancient walls, giving the city an international, worldly feel despite its high altitude.
Nothing beats a good set of ruins! In all seriousness, sometimes what has been left to crumble away is just as important as what has been redone and rebuilt. And when it comes to castles, often the most romantic castles, the most picturesque, the most spectacular are the ones quietly deteriorating – especially in Scotland. Case in point, imagine Dunnottor Castle on its cliff-side peninsula, Stirling Castle in the rugged hills, Eilean Donan Castle (the most photographed castle in Scotland) on its beautiful loch, and of course, St Andrews castle itself on the beach. Circa 1200, the St Andrew’s Castle was sacked, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, burned, sacked, rebuilt, etc., as the Scots and the English often clashed and continually took their disagreements to the battlefield. Today, the ruins border nearby St Andrews University (the oldest university in Scotland and also the institution that educated Prince William and Kate Middleton), while overlooking the shores of the North Sea, whose waves quietly lap the base of the castle’s cliffs. The ruins are quite beautiful in a crumbly, “everything falls apart,” romantic sort of way.
Ah the infamous rugged Scottish coast. Perhaps because of its northern location, perhaps because of its sparse population, or perhaps because of its numerous castles and famous myths, legends and stories that have come out of this small country, Scotland always seems so…remote and rugged, in a rather romantic way. Little seems to have changed in Scotland over the years. One of the nicest ways to see Scotland is by train—and the best time? Early morning! Scottish sunrises such as this one are mystical, reminiscent of bygone Scottish tales of giants, dwarfs, warriors, and other fantastical creatures. Of course, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen are beautiful and bustling metropolises, but if you want to feel like you’ve stepped off the page of a Scottish legend, jump on a train head for the northern coast, and get there in time to catch the sunrise!
No, it’s not Hogwarts (though it seems that half the universities in Britain could pass for the magical school!). This is St. Andrew’s University in St. Andrews, Scotland. It’s claim to fame is that it is the university that brought about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s relationship and eventual marriage. St Andrews has impressive statistics: It is one of the UK’s Ancient Universities (along with giants such as Cambridge and Oxford), it is the oldest ‘uni’ (to use the colloquial term) in Scotland, it is ranked the 4th best in the UK, it was established in 1410-13 meaning it recently celebrated its 600th birthday (my US university recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday and people were excited about that!), and it has produced 5 Nobel Laureates (not to mention the Royal Marriage of Kate & Will!). 30% of the university is composed of foreign students (from 100+ countries worldwide), impressive even for the UK. And the campus itself is, of course, jaw-droppingly beautiful! Located next to a ruined castle, St Andrews also happens to sport one of the oldest golf courses in the world (1552). If you can survive the high-level academics, it seems to be a pretty beautiful place to study!
The Royal Mile, is, well, royally impressive, as it’s name suggests. Approximately one Scots mile long, the Royal Mile is a collection of stately streets with massive stone buildings rising up on either side of the cobblestoned street. It runs between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, snaking past many of Edinburgh’s finest buildings and streets. For literature nerds and Harry Potter fans alike, nearby there is also a pub entitled The Elephant House, which styles itself as “The birthplace of Harry Potter.” The above street here is one of the many beautiful interconnecting streets jutting off the Royal Mile.
Dunnottar is an easy place to fall in love. Perhaps due to the rugged nature of the peninsula, perhaps due to the fact that it is a castle on a cliff, perhaps due to brilliant surrounding countryside, Dunnottar Castle will make your heart flutter. The stone fortress is perched on a peninsula which is perched on a cliff, which creates an imposing image as you traipse through the Scottish countryside to get here. Dating back to 1400, this castle is probably the most famous of the roughly 55 castles in Aberdeenshire alone – one of the most castle-dense counties in all of the UK. Dunnottar Castle is well worth the traipse, even if you don’t go inside. The countryside hike to the castle is gorgeous. The castle itself is dramatic and picaresque, which exactly what you’d expect from a Scottish castle. Hidden beaches and steep cliffs line the castle’s edges, sporting a ruggedness that truly defines Scotland’s coast. Dunnottar Castle is full of untold treasures, and not just the sort of treasure that glitters!
With less than 10,000 people, this Scottish fishing village is the perfect weekend getaway to find fresh air, fantastic fish ‘n chips (located in town is the UK’s best fish ‘n chips stand for several years running!), and a wistful beach. Stonehaven, or “Stoney” is a quaint village with a quiet beach and better yet, surrounded by rolling countryside hills, quiet walking paths and countless castles! A great starting place for a stroll in the countryside or just a quiet afternoon away from the city, Stonehaven is a lovely place to kick back.
Battle of Somme war memorial near Stonehaven, Scotland
Standing on the top of Black Hill and dominating the cloud-streamed skyline, this is an impressive (and unexpected) war memorial erected in the middle of a relatively empty, cow-dotted field. Dedicated to the British Army’s worst day in history where over 60,000 Brits died at the Battle of Somme in a single day, this little stone memorial was placed here by citizens on the nearby town to commemorate those who were killed in battle as well as their fellow countrymen who also lost their lives. It makes for a somber moment of reflection on an otherwise joyful hike through the rugged Scottish countryside.
The ruins of Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, Scotland.
Built in the 15th/16th centuries, this majestic fortress is best known for hiding the Honours of Scotland (Scottish crown jewels) from Oliver Cromwell and his armies. Today, the ruins cling to this small rugged peninsula jutting out along Scotland’s coast. To reach it, one must hike through rolling green fields along crumbling cliffs, watching the ruins slowly grow closer and closer. Up close, the castle is no less rugged or spectacular!