It started with a flat tire. Ten minutes after picking up a rental car outside of Inverness, the first stop on a driving tour of the Scottish Highlands, I heard a loud pop and rolled to a stop. Roadside assistance came to my rescue, with a spare tire and a few jokes about how continental Europeans are even worse at driving on the left side of the road than Americans.
My mishap was in many ways a fitting introduction to a region characterized by both its severity and its levity. For centuries, the Highlands were known as a place of hard-won survival, where the damp cold shaped daily life. At the same time, the region’s steep mountains and rolling green hills have attracted travelers since the early 19th century, when Sir Walter Scott extolled virtues of the Highlands in the popular novels he set there. The area’s rich cultural heritage, world-renowned whisky, and welcoming locals continue to draw travelers to this day.
Inverness, considered the unofficial capital of the Highlands, is a three-hour train ride from Edinburgh. The trip north is a pleasure, as the route skirts the jagged coastline, cutting through villages and sheep farms along the way.
Some locals argue that Inverness was at its most charming prior to World War II, before contemporary buildings marred a cityscape dominated by 18th and 19th century constructions, but most of the well-known attractions have been lovingly maintained.
In the heart of the town, the Victorian Market, with its vaulted ceilings, long arcades, and rows of shops carrying the work of local craftsmen, is reminiscent of Paris’s covered passages. The Mustard Seed, a restaurant just two blocks away, serves up hearty local fare, including haggis bonbons, a savory dish akin to meatballs but composed of sheep’s stomach.
The winding River Ness cuts through the middle of the city, and stone bridges connect the river’s banks. The picturesque St. Andrew’s Cathedral, built in the 19th century of red stone and granite, sits right on the water’s edge. Nearby, Leakey’s Bookshop occupies a former church, and is heated in part by wood-burning stoves. Owner Charles Leakey can navigate the stock of nearly 100,000 volumes with a deft hand.
My first stop on my way out of Inverness was Clava Cairns, about a 10-minute drive away. The cairns are an example of the many burial sites scattered across the Highlands, but what makes them remarkable is their great age—they were first used by Iron Age residents in 2,000 B.C. Sites like these can be found throughout the British Isles — most notably at Stonehenge — and their supposed mystical qualities have inspired a range of cultural homages, including the novel-turned-television-hit Outlander.
The coastal village of Dornoch, population 1,000, is an hour’s drive from Inverness. Castle Dornoch, a hotel with a distillery attached, offers simple but comfortable lodgings (and a decanter of whiskey next to one’s bed). Despite its modest appearance, the restaurant at Castle Dornoch serves some of the best food in the area, including fresh pasta tossed with local prawns and king scallops.
Set out before sunrise on the road to Croick Church, an hour north of Inverness in rural Ardgay, and you’ll see mist still clinging to the hilly terrain, especially near the coast. Lined with trees and old stone walls, the twisting routes have 30 mph speed limits. Dilapidated castles dot long stretches of farmland. Budgeting extra time into a driving trip of the Highlands is crucial, as rogue livestock and scenic overlooks make for frequent interruptions. The road to the church eventually narrows to one lane, with sheep farms on either side for almost 10 miles.
Croick Church has become a monument to the Highland Clearances, when British soldiers and Scottish landowners cleared the land of subsistence farmers starting in the late 18th century. An estimated 150,000 people were forced to leave their homes over the course of the next century. The 18 evicted families of Glencavie parish were too pious to shelter in the church itself, so they took refuge in the courtyard, carving their names and messages into the windowpanes. Their etchings are preserved in the glass, and the church never locks its doors as a symbolic gesture.
The cultural heritage of the Highlanders isn’t entirely somber, however. The region is known for its world-class whisky and the celebrations that go with it. Founded in 1838, Glen Ord Distillery, an hour’s drive south, has been producing its Singleton malt for nearly two centuries. Aged in sherry and bourbon casks, the whisky has a smoother, less peaty flavor than that of some neighboring distilleries. Glen Ord is the last remaining distillery on the Black Isle, a region so named for its dark loam, which provides ideal conditions for growing the barley used in scotch.
The route south from the distillery to Fort Augustus stretches along one side of the famous Loch Ness for nearly 25 miles. The dark waters of the loch hug one side of the road, and signs warning of falling rocks from steep cliff faces stand on the other.
Loch Ness looks ominous on cloudy days, and it’s not difficult to imagine a mythical sea creature lurking in the deep, black water.
Fort Augustus is the perfect stop for a late lunch of Scottish comfort foods (fish and chips, haggis sandwiches). Situated at the southern tip of Loch Ness, the compact village has a population of just a few hundred people, giving it a small-town charm. Boats sail up and down the narrow canal that cuts through the town and feeds into the loch. A handful of craft and gift shops line the canal, hawking tartans of every color. A dock at the end of the canal juts into the loch, giving one the sense of standing almost in the water.
The Lovat, a four-star hotel housed in a Victorian home along the Caledonian Canal, is ideal for an overnight stop.
The neighboring Invergarry Castle dates from an era when powerful clans ruled the Highlands. British soldiers attempted to burn it down on two separate occasions, but the scorched bones of the original framework remain, a fitting embodiment of Highland resiliency. A restoration project is underway, and safety concerns prevent visitors from entering the building, but the grounds of the estate remain open. Some four-stories high, the façade of the castle towers over the edge of Loch Oich, its winding stone staircase visible from the exterior.
The four-hour drive out of the Highlands to Glasgow winds through some of the steepest peaks in the country, including Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom at 4,413 feet. With Scotland’s near-constant drizzle, driving on the mountain roads can be a frightening but powerful experience. There are almost no streetlights, even on the larger routes (which often have just two lanes), and with few cars in the off-season, only a handful of BBC radio stations interrupt the quiet. From certain vantage points the mountains seem like a never-ending sequence of slick pavement and rising peaks.
If the long drive starts to take its toll — or if the one road to Glasgow is briefly closed for construction, as it was for me — the 300-year-old Drover’s Inn in Loch Lomond serves up tea and hearty meals. It’s also rumored to be one of the most haunted places in Scotland.
Soon the roads turned to multi-lane highways, and within an hour I arrived in Glasgow. With its manicured squares and Art Nouveau architecture, the city is a stark return to metropolitan life. A cultural and educational hub, Glasgow is home to the Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, and a host of galleries and museums.
After driving alone for several days and seeing more sheep than people by a factor of at least 10, I was thrust back into the crowds and the hum of noise that goes along with them. Even in the middle of the week, the city bustles, as students from the art and architecture schools smoke cigarettes on the way to class, and young professionals meet up for pints in the city’s many pubs. I settled in with a pint of Guinness near the center of town, still shaking the caked Highland mud off my boots.