There are so many glorious points of interest in the north of Scotland – the highlands and islands off the coast – that it would take reams of paper to cover it all. Here are some of the notables ones we encountered on our Insight Vacations Country Roads of Scotland tour.
Normally, the ferry across from John O’Groats (that’s a village, not a person, so don’t start looking for a Scottish geezer), which bills itself as the most northerly mainland point in Britain (that honour actually goes to Dunnet Head), can be over very rough seas. We were lucky as the weather was behaving. The 9.7km ride to the islands (70 of them) was quite bearable – our destination was Mainland, the largest one.
It’s a gently undulating terrain mainly filled with farmlands and lochs (lakes and reservoirs). The biggest town is Kirkwall, which has St Magnus Cathedral, a landmark harking back to its Viking past.
A must-visit in Orkney and its Unesco heritage listings is the Neolithic links and the prime example is Skara Brae. Get “stoned” and connected to our distant past. Don’t forget to also drop by at the mysterious Ring of Brodgar, where excavations are still ongoing. It’s a henge and stone circle akin to Stonehenge but smaller, and you can actually get up close to it.
For a bit of contrast, have a look in at the Italian Chapel built during World War II by Italian prisoners of war.
Isle of Skye
With the bridge from the mainland, it’s easier to get to Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago. It’s a heady mix of rugged landscapes dotted with castles here and there, and lovely little fishing towns. The main town and port of Portree is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. We were based at sleepy Broadford though, but we took a coach tour around the island, which has lochs, rocky hills and beautiful vistas of vast coastlines with little islands sprinkled here and there.
Do not miss the viewing point at Kilt Rock, so named because the basalt rock seems to have pleats. There is also the spectacular Mealt Waterfall plunging 60m from the cliff face into the sea. As it had not rained for a while, the volume was not as big as the norm.
Another iconic sight is the Old Man of Storr, which is part of the Trotternish Ridge and one of the highly recommended walks here. You won’t get bored in Skye, especially if you’re into the outdoors.
Eilean Donan Castle
Getting to the second most famous castle in Scotland again takes you through some beautiful countryside, also filled with serene lochs. Various “forms” of the castle have been around since the 13th century but a big portion of it was destroyed in 1719. Arguably “the most beautiful castle in Scotland”, it was rebuilt in 1932. You might recognise it from the countless movies its been featured in including Highlander (1986), the Bond film The World Is Not Enough (1999) and something connected to Malaysia, Entrapment (1999).
Located about 13km from the town of Fort William, it is a poignant place to stop at. It was originally set up as a dedication to the men of the British Commando Forces in World War II and unveiled in 1952. A Garden of Remembrance was added later and tributes to those who died in various conflicts that came after, have also been erected there.
From the memorial site one can also see Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
Another scenic journey is passing by the Trossachs National Park, where you see lots of hikers on the various trails. Loch Lomond is Britain’s largest inland water body by surface area and offers stunning views all along its shores. One of the top 10 trails in the world takes hikers from Fort William, past the vast portion of Loch Lomond and to the outskirts of Glasgow – all of 154km.
It lends its name to of one of the most famous of Scottish “folk” songs. And one of the most famous figures in Scottish history, Rob Roy, is associated with the area.
A great way to see the lake is by taking a cruise, which is an optional excursion for this tour.