I’ll forever cherish my Scotland road trip in the dreamy Highlands riding through emerald green mountains, glorious waterfalls, jaw dropping castles, haunted battlefields and gelid lochs filled with monsters and mysteries. It was even more special in the company of dear old friends. A road trip in these corners of Scotland is an adventure to treasure for a lifetime, and in four days I experienced a ton (consider adding a fifth day to simply rest). In this article you’ll find two itineraries for a marvelous great time using Inverness as your home base.
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- Inverness: perfect base to start your Scottish Highlands Road Trip
- Bundle up: it’s cold even in the summer
- Gaelic language revival
- My two Scotland road trip itineraries
- Road Trip 1: from Inverness, drive South to Glencoe
- 1. Learn the history of Inverness and the Highlands on a walking tour
- 2. Visit Culloden Battlefield
- 3. Discover pre-history at the 4,000 year old Clava Cairns
- 4. Find the Loch Ness monster
- 5. Have a picnic at Urquhart Castle
- 6. Marvel at Buachaille Etive Mòr, one of the most photographed mountains in Scotland
- 7. Discover the “Wee White House”
- Road Trip 2: From Inverness, drive North to Portmahomack
- Road Trip 1: from Inverness, drive South to Glencoe
- A few words on haggis, a Scottish delicacy
Inverness: perfect base to start your Scottish Highlands Road Trip
Inverness, a lovely town of roughly 50,000 people, is known as the gateway to the Highlands and also its cultural capital. It’s currently one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, but it still holds old town charm. Some of the top Highlands sights, such as Culloden Battlefield and Loch Ness, are located less than 45 minutes away by car.
Getting there by train: the 3.5 hour train ride from Edinburgh’s Waverly station to Inverness is poetically scenic. Mountains, waterfalls, colorful train stations and famous golf courses will delight your eyes. Buy train tickets to Inverness on the Scotrail website and plan at least 60 days ahead due to high demand, particularly in the summer.
Getting there by air: Inverness has a small international airport (INV) that connects to major European hubs. From there I flew directly to Dublin, Ireland.
Bundle up: it’s cold even in the summer
I was wearing a mid-weight jacket in late July / early August. You’ll experience four seasons in a day, so dress in layers and carry a raincoat / umbrella with you at all times. Up in the mountains temperatures dropped to the 30s F (less than 5 C) overnight and didn’t go above 60 F (15 C) during the day.
Gaelic language revival
Speakers of Gaelic, the Scott language, were heavily persecuted, particularly after the 18th century Jacobite rebellion. However, there are still over 60,000 people in Scotland who speak Gaelic. In fact, as the country heals its past wounds, Gaelic has experienced a revival that spills over pop culture (fans of the Outlander series can’t get enough of Jamie Fraser speaking Gaelic). Street signs throughout Scotland are displayed both in English and Gaelic. Here’s some great trivia for your game night: the word whiskey is rooted in Gaelic and means “water of life.” I had the pleasure to hear locals speaking their ancestral idiom while walking the streets of Inverness.
It was one of the handful of times during my 4-month solo trip to 12 European countries when I had the privilege to reconnect with longtime friends. Lucci had recently moved from the US to Inverness with her Scottish husband Donald and kids. They opened their home to an additional six of us with loving hospitality. Thamine and family flew in from Southeast Asia. Juliana, Lucci’s sister, was visiting from Rio de Janeiro with their mom. Together we had a delightful time exploring the beautiful Highlands, laughing, sharing good meals and singing karaoke through the night.
My two Scotland road trip itineraries
As mentioned, I experienced all of these sights in four days, but would recommend adding a fifth day for more rest time in between explorations.
Road Trip 1: from Inverness, drive South to Glencoe
I recommend a minimum of three full days for this itinerary, which includes an overnight stay in Glencoe. Highlights:
- Inverness walking tour: 2-3 hours
- Culloden Battlefield: 2- 4 hours
- Clava Cairns: 1 hour
- Loch Ness (Loch Ness Center and Exhibition): half day
- Urquhart Castle: half day
- Glencoe (Buachaille Etive Mòr, Kingshouse Hotel, “Wee White House”): full day
1. Learn the history of Inverness and the Highlands on a walking tour
Gain an overview of the local history and folklore in this insightful walking tour. Part of the charm is meeting the lovely Cath, an Inverness local and tour guide who dresses in red tartan from head to toe.
The tour starts at the Inverness Visitor Icentre. From there, you’ll head to the bridge over the River Ness, where you can spot fishermen catching salmon; Abertarff, the oldest house in town, from 1593; the courtyard of Old High Church (oldest church in Inverness, with structures built in the 1500s); the Graveyard, where the British brutally executed and buried Jacobites; the 19th century Victorian Market; Leakey’s Bookshop (housed in the 1793 Gaelic Church); the Town House, from 1880; Market Brae Steps; Inverness Castle (exterior only), and many others. For more information, visit the Original Inverness Walking Tour With Local Guide Cath
2. Visit Culloden Battlefield
The Battle of Culloden changed the course of British, Scottish and European history. With the support of many Highlander clans, the Jacobite rebellion intended to restore the House of Stewart to the British throne. In this exact location in 1745, 1,300 men were slain in less than one hour, of which approximately 1,250 were Jacobites. After the battle, the British army banned the Highlander way of life, including kilts, tartans, bagpipes and the local Gaelic language.
You can walk in the vast park where the bloody battle took place. Red and blue flags mark the areas where the Jacobites and the British army stood. Along the way, tombstones in memory of the fallen clans. A visitor center showcases interactive experiences, as well as weapons and artifacts of this tragic event. For information and tickets, visit the Culloden Battlefield website.
3. Discover pre-history at the 4,000 year old Clava Cairns
Only a 5-minute drive from Culloden Battlefield, the Clava Cairns are the remains of an ancient cemetery that provide clues into life in the Bronze Age. In those rocks that align with the solstices, I felt a special energy, an invisible veil of sacred ancient rites and mysticism mixed in the misty breeze. It’s free to the public and open all year long. Learn more on the official Clava Cairns website.
4. Find the Loch Ness monster
Must admit: this was a major bucket list for me! As a child I’d love to hear stories about the Loch Ness monster. In case you didn’t know, loch is Gaelic for lake or sea inlet. Drive around the famous Loch Ness searching for the legendary Nessie, the monster who supposedly lives in the depths of these dark, gelid waters. If you can’t find her, stop by the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition for an interactive tour showcasing more than 500 million years of geological history and, of course, all all things Nessie. For information, visit the Loch Ness Centre website.
5. Have a picnic at Urquhart Castle
Overlooking Loch Ness, the ruins of this medieval fortress, one of the largest in Scotland, are dramatic and captivating. Start your tour at the visitor center to watch a short documentary retelling its history that goes back 1,000 years. From there, head over to the fortress to soak in the panoramic views. We paused to fill our bellies with a spread of cheeses, cold cuts, crackers and olives. In the process, we also filled our hearts with serene contentment. Use this website to plan your visit to Urquhart Castle (make sure to buy tickets and reserve parking in advance).
6. Marvel at Buachaille Etive Mòr, one of the most photographed mountains in Scotland
We left Inverness early afternoon and drove for 3.5 hours through charming winding highways to the wonderful Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe, where we spent the night. The captivating Buachaille Etive Mòr with its iconic pyramid-shaped peak was standing across from us.
Built in the early 1750s as a barracks and safe house for travelers, the Kingshouse Hotel was used by the British Army during the invasion of the Highlands and the name remained. The current inn is quite modern, but upholds a feel of old world charm. Surrounded by gorgeous peaks and peaceful rivers, this hotel is a real gem. It’s quite popular among hikers looking for comfort, great food and boozy drinks after a long adventure out in nature.
I’ll forever remember the magical moment when a magnificent stag greeted us at sunset while we sipped gin tonics and whiskey-based libations in that treasure of a place. For more information, visit the Kingshouse Hotel website.
7. Discover the “Wee White House”
We left the hotel and headed to Lagangarbh Hut, known as the “Wee White House,” a lonely cottage in the midst of stunning emerald-colored peaks, tranquil streams and nearby waterfalls. It used to be a crofter’s house (used for agriculture), but today it’s owned by the National Trust and Scottish Mountaineering Club. It’s also one of the most photographed places in Scotland, so expect to see many cars lined up along the highway.
Road Trip 2: From Inverness, drive North to Portmahomack
This itinerary is for a day trip where you leave Inverness in the morning and return early in the evening.
1. Get royal at Dunrobin Castle
Located in Golspie, one hour North of Inverness, Dunrobin Castle is, according to its website, “one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Earls and later, the Dukes of Sutherland.” It’s a fairytale looking castle that will wow you with its history and grandeur. We re-energized our bodies with delicious cakes and coffee and spent the next couple of hours discovering 18 of its 189 rooms. The garden overlooking the sea, inspired by the Palace of Versailles in Paris, is a must go. Arrive early for Falconry Displays, which we unfortunately missed. Plan your visit at the Dunrobin Castle website.
2. Visit the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
We left Dunrobin Castle and headed to the small fishing village of Portmahomack where Lucci’s husband Donald grew up. One of the highlights is the Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, built 1830. People fish in the nearby cliffs and if you’re lucky you get to spot seals and dolphins. I didn’t and instead froze my butt with the brutal ocean winds (though still enjoyed the beautiful lilac colored flowers along the way).
3. Taste whiskey at the Glenmorangie Distillery
OK, it was closed when we stopped there, but I made time for pictures anyway. And Lucci’s husband Donald had a bottle waiting for us at home, so not too shabby. Visit the Glenmorangie Distillery website.
4. Enjoy a fresh batch of fish and chips
We left Portmahomack and headed home to Inverness. On the way, we stopped for a delicious dinner of fish, chips and ale at the Inver Inn, a pub beloved by locals and tourists located in Tain, alongside the famous NC500 route. Food is fresh and service is friendly. Visit the Inver Inn website.
A few words on haggis, a Scottish delicacy
I kept postponing my haggis eating experience because fresh Highlands seafood was way more appealing. For the non-initiated, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish made of minced sheep’s heart, lungs, liver, oatmeal and spices. Nothing that a Brazilian Northeastern lady can’t handle! I was already at the Inverness airport leaving the country when I realized that I hadn’t tried it yet. This was my last chance! I ordered my plate knowing that the risk of it being bad was high (airport food quality is almost always subpar IMO). With a deep wrinkle between her eyes, the lady at the counter asked me “you know what this is made of, right?” I smiled a “yes” and ordered it anyway…and found it delicious! Not exactly what you should eat before a flight (and not something I’d order over and over again), but my belly was wee, wee happy.
And last, but not least…
Acknowledge that you can’t stop mixing fiction and reality (I’m talking about you, glorious red-haired highlander Jamie Fraser!)
Fans of the time travel, romance fantasy series Outlander won’t be able to help themselves. History and fiction will collide! I’m guilty as charged.
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