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A Highlands tour: To the heart of the Highlands
From monster-spotting to clan history and blockbuster scenery, here’s how to make the most of your time on a Highlands tour
To the heart of the Highlands: A Highlands tour
The Scottish Highlands is a place of epic landscapes, where legends and stories permeate the heather-coated hills and glassy lochs – some of them true and some of them perhaps not.
It’s renowned for its haunting beauty, from its ruined castles that speak of tragic love stories, families split by allegiances, and merciless power battles to vast areas of natural beauty with empty white sandy beaches at their fringes and small communities hidden within, as mighty Munros all around guard their secrets.
Unless you have several weeks or more to explore the Highlands, you won’t see it all – not even close – but luckily many of the Highland’s most iconic places are within easy travelling distance of each other, making a Highlands tour that reads like a bucket list of Scotland’s most memorable experiences highly achievable: Loch Ness, Ben Nevis, Glen Coe, and Glenfinnan.
There are two main ways to reach this heartland on a Highlands tour. You can travel from Glasgow by road or train, up through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, skirting along Rannoch Moor before crossing through Glen Coe to reach Fort William and the great hulk that is Ben Nevis.
From here, you can board the Jacobite Steam Train to cross the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, or follow the route of the Great Glen up from where it spills into the sea at Loch Linnhe all the way to Loch Ness.
A Highlands tour: Loch Ness
For this Highlands tour, we’re taking the other route, from Inverness, which plunges you into Highland scenery within minutes of leaving the city.
For very soon you will reach the shores of Loch Ness, the largest of all Scottish lochs by volume – it is said that if you took all the water from all the lakes, rivers and reservoirs in England and Wales, it wouldn’t fill it. And here, according to legend, lives a mysterious creature, which lots of people have claimed to have seen but no one has been able to provide a genuine photograph of.
Storytelling is in the blood in Scotland so it’s no wonder the story of the enigmatic Loch Ness Monster has endured. But who or what is Nessie? A giant eel? A plesiosaur that has somehow survived since the Cretaceous period? The same monster who inhabits Loch Morar (near Mallaig) who travels between the two lochs via a secret underground tunnel? Or is she simply the figment of some very active imaginations?
In 2019, a team of scientists led by New Zealand’s University of Otago who examined the DNA in 250 water samples from the loch said the most “plausible” answer was she was some kind of large eel.
So that settled it? Hardly. You don’t dispel a thousand-year- old myth (and almost a century of monster-mania) with a simple thing like science.
The first recorded sighting of Nessie is found in an ancient biography of St Columba. According to the text, in AD 565, the Irish monk banished a strange water “beast” to the loch after it attacked one of his followers. There were various mysterious sightings in the ensuing centuries as the idea of kelpies in the loch became woven into local folklore.
But the story of a monster only took hold in the 1930s when Mrs Aldie Mackay, the manager of the Drumnadrochit Hotel on the west shore of Loch Ness, reported seeing a “beast” in the water as she looked out over the loch towards Aldourie Castle as she and her husband drove to Inverness.
The story originally ran in the Inverness Courier newspaper under the headline ‘Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness’, but it was soon picked up by the national and international press and Nessie hunters began arriving in their droves, hoping to catch their own glimpse of the monster.
Over the years there have been more than 1,000 registered sightings, plus several hoaxes, but the story persists. This summer, 90 years on from Aldie Mackay’s sighting, the old Loch Ness Centre, (which incidentally is housed in the old Drumnadrochit Hotel that she used to manage), reopened following a £1.5m restoration project.
Now looked after by Continuum Attractions, the people behind the hugely successful Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, the hope is that the transformation of this once tired Nessie attraction into an immersive visitor attraction will keep the mystery of Nessie alive for many years to come. During the one-hour experience visitors will ‘meet’ Mrs Aldie Mackay to learn about how her sighting gave birth to a modern legend and get to examine some of the scientific equipment and methodology used to test theories.
There is also a chance to take a ride aboard Deepscan, the centre’s own boat, which takes its name from Operation Deepscan, the huge sonar exploration of the loch led by Adrian Shine that took place in 1987 to try and determine once and for all the truth about Nessie, but which (typically) was inconclusive. The idea is that by the end of the experience visitors can come to their own conclusions as to Nessie’s existence.
One man who is convinced of Nessie’s existence is ‘Nessie hunter’ Steve Feltham, who has devoted the past 30 years of his life to finding the monster. Steve lives in a caravan on the eastern shore of the loch, which is permanently parked on the pretty stony beach behind the Dores Inn – a whitewashed stone building, which is a great spot for lunch.
If Steve is ‘at home’ he is only too happy to answer any questions curious visitors may have. A lifelong Nessie fan, Steve came here in 1990 with the sole purpose of finding proof of Nessie (the first year of his time here was documented in the BBC programme Desperately Seeking Nessie). He thought it would take three years, over 30 years later he is still here.
Visitors whose interest in the monster has been similarly sparked can board one of the Loch Ness By Jacobite cruises at Dochgarroch at the head of the loch. The two-hour return Contemplation cruise travels from Dochgarroch up to Urquhart Castle, the atmospheric ruins of what was once one of Scotland’s most contested castles.
It was taken by King Edward I of England in the 13th century, and repeatedly by the Lords of the Isles in the later Middle Ages before Clan Grant were tasked with bringing it back into use in the 16th century. Urquhart was garrisoned by government forces in 1690 during the first Jacobite rising. When they left two years later, they blew it up to ensure it couldn’t be used by anyone else – a tour of its craggy ruins when you are back on dry land is highly recommended.
On the boat cruise your guide will also point out Aldourie Castle on the other side of the loch, a 17th-century house elaborately extended and embellished in the 19th century, with turrets, oriel windows, and a balustraded round tower which give it a decidedly Rapunzel feel. The castle can be booked for exclusive use, while there are some more affordable holiday cottages in the grounds.
Once back at the dock there’s a lovely shop and good café in Dochgarroch and if you are savvy, you will have booked ahead so you can check into the gorgeous Loch Ness Cottages Collection – a trio of self-catering properties that come with plenty of home comforts, including wood-burning stoves, Agas, coffee machines, and luxury tweed blankets.
If you are travelling from north to south on the loch (or vice versa) then take our advice and take the eastern road as it is much more picturesque and goes not only through Dores but also the little village of Foyers, which is home to a café, grocery store/post office and an ice cream kiosk. Foyers is also where you will find the Falls of Foyers, which Robert Burns visited in 1787, writing: “Among the healthy hills and ragged woods, The roaring Foyers pours his mossy floods.”
At the southern end of the loch, Fort Augustus is Loch Ness’s main tourist hub, with gift shops, pubs, cafés, and tours, plus the Caledonian Centre, which explains more about Thomas Telford’s building of the Caledonian Canal, which slices through Scotland from Inverness and the Moray Firth in the north all the way to Fort William and Loch Linnhe in the south. Picnic tables are positioned well for watching boats navigate the locks as they enter and leave Loch Ness.
The Lovat Hotel and Restaurant, a few minutes’ walk from the canal on the eastern shore is the fanciest place to stay, while a couple of minutes’ away on the western side is Morag’s Lodge, a lovely welcoming place for budget travellers, who are looking for warm hospitality, generous homemade meals and to meet like-minded travellers (it’s owned by Haggis Adventures, so lots of tours stop here).
A Highlands tour: Caledonian Canal
Leaving Loch Ness in its wake and heading south on your Highlands tour, the Caledonian Canal then connects other less touristy lochs. First up is Loch Oich where you can visit the Well of the Seven Heads, near Invergarry, where you will often see holidaymakers idling on the pebbly beach or splashing in the water. This part of the loch is marked by an obelisk by the side of the road with a carving on top depicting a hand wielding a dagger positioned above seven severed heads.
Erected by the chief of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry in 1812, the obelisk remembers the murder of two young MacDonalds in a family brawl and the revenge meted out on their killers under the orders of Sir James of Duntulm Castle, which saw their killers beheaded. You’ll need to park in the Loch Oich car park and carefully walk back along the busy road to view it up close.
Further south, Loch Lochy is one of the most underrated lochs in the Highlands – its steep forested banks rising on one side create beautiful reflections in the blue waters on still days, and it is one of the deepest lochs in Scotland after Loch Morar, Loch Ness (and possibly Loch Lomond).
Of course, depths of this scale require a mythical beast and Loch Lochy is said to have its very own kelpie, which supposedly overturned boats and lured horses from their nearby pastures.
This vast loch was also the scene of a notorious clan battle – the Battle of the Shirts – in which members of Clan Donald and Clan Fraser battled with such ferocity that by the end just 13 of the 800 clansmen stood standing.
All that feels very, very far away when you are at The Whispering Pine Lodge, a serene, Alpine-like hotel that overlooks the loch on the eastern banks and has its own private pebbly beach.
Rooms inside the main hotel have plenty of Highland touches, from four-poster beds draped in cosy blankets to tartan rugs, fireplaces, and antique furnishings, all of which create a wonderfully snug environment from where to soak up the loch views.
Taken over by Mumbai-born brother and sister Sanjay and Rachna Narang in 2019, it is perhaps one of the biggest surprises in the Highlands. For in its Lochside Brasserie restaurant, alongside Highlands staples such as grilled lobster or Scotch beef steak, there is a tempting choice of Indian dishes, reflecting the heritage of the owners. As you look around at diners hungrily tucking into poppadoms and curries, it’s clear this menu choice is a hit.
There are also lots of luxury wooden cabins a short walk from the main hotel, which come under the name Black Sheep Hotel Cabins, where guests can cook for themselves if they like, but we’re told they rarely do.
But then why would you cook for yourself with food as good as this? More casual meals can be enjoyed at the outdoor Lochview Bar & Grill, while the Burns Bar is a traditional Highlands bar with pictures of Robert Burns and the words of one his most romantic poems (A Red, Red Rose) scrawled by the fireplace.
The hotel also has a lovely spa and is keen to offer more experiences to its guests, such as ranger-led tours of its nearby Halcyon Farm, which overlooks Loch Garry, where guests can get close to sheep and Highland cows under the expert guidance of Kenneth Knot, who also runs fishing expeditions through the hotel.
Just a 25-minute drive further south of Loch Lochy is Fort William, home to Scotland’s highest Munro, Ben Nevis, which looms over the Highlands town.
The Ben Nevis Visitor Centre is a must for your Highlands tour and anyone considering any walks in the region, including the walk to Steall Falls – the second highest waterfall in Scotland – and Ben Nevis itself.
En route to Fort William from Loch Lochy, you can’t help but notice the Commando Memorial, a large conspicuous statue that stands a mile outside Spean Bridge and remembers members of the British Commando Forces who trained here in the Second World War. The unforgiving nature of this wild, harsh landscape of mountains and lochs, often covered in snow and ice, was considered appropriate preparation for the elite fighters.
By the time you’ve reached Fort William you’ve reached the end of the Caledonian Canal. It’s worth noting that all this route to this point can be taken by water either with a self-drive hire boat through LeBoat or on an all-inclusive cruise with Caledonian Discovery.
A Highlands tour: Glen Coe and Glenfinnan
From Fort William you have two choices – go east through Glen Coe, a vast valley that was the scene of the most notorious episode in clan history, or west to Glenfinnan, home to a gargantuan monument to the Jacobite soldiers who pledged their allegiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie after he landed here in 1745 and raised his father’s standard, setting into motion what would be the last Jacobite stand.
Our recommendation is the former. If you are driving, it’s a sublime, though hair-raising, 40-mile drive through the valley to the Bridge of Orchy where you can stay at the very good hotel, or stop for lunch before your return.
Glen Coe is a place of epic proportions, where mountain peaks stab at the sky and water falls like tears down the crevices of the mountains as though the hills are mourning the many MacDonalds who were killed during the Glencoe Massacre when their guests turned on them.
Afterwards, head back through the valley, stopping at the village of Glencoe to visit the monument to those fallen clan people and to visit the Glencoe Folk Museum, housed in a little thatched building.
Then it’s back to Fort William where from April to September you can board the Jacobite Steam Train, which chugs across the Glenfinnan Viaduct, bringing you firmly into Prince Charlie country. Look out for the Glenfinnan Monument on the shore of Loch Shiel that honours the Jacobites who fought along with Bonnie Prince Charlie before the train continues on, past snow-white beaches and Loch Morar, all the way to Mallaig to catch the ferry to Skye.
This Highlands tour shows the very best of the Highlands – a route that takes in some of the most iconic places in all of Scotland, all of which is eminently possible to see in one, pinch-me-so- I-know-I’m-not-dreaming trip. The Highlands are calling, the question is: are you ready to answer?
This is an extract, read the full future in the September/October issue of Scotland, available to buy here from 18 August.
Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
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