The Scottish Highlands are one of the last great wildernesses of the British Isles; a magical land of ragged coastlines, majestic mountains and awe-inspiring lochs. In one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe, it is easy to feel that you are at the ends of the earth, yet in reality you are never far away from an inviting little town or village where you will find all sorts of amenities and that famous Highland hospitality.
I have toured around the Highlands many times and it never fails to deliver new and exciting discoveries. The greatest trick that the Highlands manages to pull off is its magical impression of vastness and remoteness, while at the same time being neither all that remote nor vast.
I was born in Edinburgh, but grew up in the Northern Highlands not far from Loch Ness. Just like my favourite poet Norman MacCaig, I now divide my life between winters in my native city and summers in various places around the Highlands. It is only a short trip to get to the Highlands from Scotland’s central belt, and once there, nothing is too far away.
I don’t drive, and you might think that would stand in the way of travelling around the Highlands. I suppose it would make my life a little easier if I did drive, but it isn’t a necessary skill for anyone wanting to visit the Highlands.
I travel north at least twice a year and the easiest and cheapest way to get there is by taking the bus to Inverness. Megabus offer the cheapest fare leaving from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and it takes a little over three hours – the same as the train, but a lot lighter on the pocket.
The bus route takes you up the A9 through some of the most incredible landscapes in the world. You first pass through the rolling lowlands before climbing up into the Cairngorm Mountain range, following a centuries-old route through glens and over rivers that leads all the way to Inverness. In the winter you are surrounded by snow and ice, and in the summer the incredible sight of mountains that appear purple due to the blooming heather all around.
You arrive in Inverness at the main coach station. I’ll be honest, it’s not the most attractive place on earth, but don’t let this deceive you – Inverness is a charming town that is considered the capital of the Highlands. It is the ideal base from which to discover all that the Highlands has to offer, filled with great hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.
One of the best attractions of Inverness is the world famous Loch Ness. Jacobite Cruises offer tours of Loch Ness by boat, with bus pick-ups from Inverness city centre. I can’t recommend this experience enough – it was something I did many times as a child growing up in the Highlands and still enjoy today. Loch Ness is a magical place, and who knows – you may even see the Loch Ness Monster.
Another great Highland discovery trip that doesn’t require a car is taking the train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh.
This train journey featured in Michael Palin’s “Great Railway Journeys of the World”, and for good reason – a trip along the Kyle line is possibly one of the most memorable journeys on earth. You can pick up the train in the morning from Inverness and enjoy the incredible scenery roll by as you travel west to Kyle. Once at the Kyle of Lochalsh you can enjoy stunning views of the Isle of Skye and take a boat trip to see the seals and sea otters that live in the beautiful waters.
For the more adventurous amongst you, you could continue your travel by bus on to Portree, the main town on the lsle of Skye, or alternatively you can head back to Inverness either on the same day or after a great night drinking whiskey and listening to music in the lively local bars. On my last trip to Kyle of Lochalsh I had a great night of live music and a comfortable bed at Saucy Mary’s just across the water from Kyle on the Isle of Skye.
On the way home, I thoroughly recommend taking a break in your trip to spend some time in the wonderfully colourful harbour town of Plockton. The bay is so protected from the elements by the surrounding mountains that the locals grow palm trees along the shore front. The last time I was there I had some of the best fish and chips I have ever had in my life, made to order, from the Harbour Fish Bar.
This trip could easily be accomplished on a weekend, allowing you to get the last Sunday bus from Inverness back to Glasgow or Edinburgh. If you come from further afield, the last bus from Inverness will get you into Glasgow in plenty of time to connect with the sleeper-bus to London.
Written by Jonathan Gordon, an enthusiastic free bus travel blogger from Edinburgh.