The United Kingdom is obviously a hugely popular travel destination, but if the prospect of glitzy shopping strips, Royal Family memorabilia and the Union Jack aren’t your bag then there’s nothing better than exploring the Scottish Highlands where all three of those things are effectively prohibited.
Edinburgh is a logical starting point, and a beautiful city to boot. But tempting as it is to soak up the urban areas, the sheer amount of discoveries awaiting you further north will leave you kicking yourself that you spent those two days trying to find a decent coffee in Aberdeen. My advice? Ditch the cities.
A good start is Aviemore, a holiday town nestled in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park and home to an abundance of walking trails, ski routes and towering peaks like Ben Macdui and Cairngorm itself. There you can have a crack at one of Scotland’s most famous outdoorsy pursuits: Munro Bagging. Scotland has 282 mountains that are classed as Munros, and the idea is to ‘bag’ them all. In fine summer months many are just a particularly solid hike, but in colder months you’ll have to take a lot more care conquering some intimidatingly snow-capped peaks.
Depending on time, you’ve then got a few options. You could make a beeline for the far north and catch a ferry to Orkney, an archipelago with as strong a connection to Scandinavia as it does to the mainland. With plenty of Neolithic ruins and scenery, island hopping is an attractive prospect.
This was initially our plan until a helpful AirBnB host in Inverness intervened and recommended heading up through Wester Ross, a frankly terrifying drive of narrow single lane roads winding through some of truly breathtaking mountains and valleys. Terrifying, but amazing.
Soon the mountains meet the ocean on Scotland’s north east coast, where free-roaming sheep have claimed much of the road without any fear of traffic, and small fishing towns can be found around every corner. The diversity of culinary choices can at first seem overwhelming, but for discerning foodies they can be divided into roughly three categories: fish, chips, and crisps.
If you’re after recognisable major-motion-picture scenery, Glencoe and its surrounding hills further south are dotted with iconic locations. Lost on the way to Britain’s highest peak Ben Nevis, we did a U-turn in the battlefield from Braveheart. The random cabin we rented? Literally a stone’s throw away from where they built Hagrid’s Hut, which itself was just down the road from an iconic valley seen in Highlander. Important question: is it disrespectful to pose for a selfie by the real-life island where they buried Dumbledore? Either way, it was emotional.
The Isle of Skye is also magical is its own way, with Insta-famous locations like the Old Man of Storr and the Fairy Pools just as epic in real life as their names suggest. Alternatively the slightly smaller Isle of Arran packs in some impressive sights – and a pretty great whiskey distillery to boot.
Ultimately though, there’s just no shortage of places to explore. Just bring a good pair of boots, a waterproof jacket and a tough little hire car and you’ll be donning tartan and speaking disparagingly about the English in no time at all. Oh, and don’t forget to pat one of those Highland cows with epic Taylor Swift bangs.
Photography by Sia Duff