The ruggedly beautiful Scottish Highlands is one of the last wildernesses in Europe. Here, a heritage of romance and individualism mirror a magnificent backdrop of powerful seas, imposing mountains and verdant flora. Due to a history of migrations and the Highlands’ challenging geography, this region is one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. The quiet beauty of the Highlands is but one of its draws; on a three-day itinerary you’ll also get to see its wildlife and a history that dates back to the Stone Age.
Day 1: The Islands and Skara Brae
On your first day, take a day trip to the Orkney Islands. Departing from Inverness, the Highlands’ capital, you’ll take a ferry to Orkneys, an archipelago on the north end of Scotland. As you cross the Pentland Firth, keep your eyes peeled for puffins, seals and even whales. Once you have disembarked, your journey really begins. By coach, you’ll visit the capital town of Kirkwall, home to the Viking cathedral of St. Magnus, and continue on to the Orkneys’ famous prehistoric artifacts. As you cross the islands, you’ll be awed by some of the oldest and most-intact Neolithic sites in Europe, in particular, the Stone Age village of Skara Brae. Skara Brae predates Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, and along with Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, it is a fascinating glimpse into human history and social development. The tour concludes at John O’Groats, the northernmost tip of Scotland. The tour is about 14 hours, so you’ll want to pack refreshments.
Day 2: John O'Groats
If you didn’t get enough wildlife on your trip to the Orkneys, consider a wildlife cruise from John O’Groats. This trip is relatively short; at 90 minutes, it’s a fun and informative jaunt filled with plenty of opportunities to photograph the Highland’s spectacular scenery, as well as its abundant birdlife. Puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes all make their home amid the rugged cliffs, and you can also see Atlantic gray seals, porpoises and the occasional whale. Spend the morning exploring John O’Groats and take this tour in the afternoon; in particular, you’ll want to see the Stacks of Duncansby, three peculiar rock formations jutting out of the sea. These and other amazing, natural architecture are the real reason for visiting John O’Groats, as they are some of the most impressive natural formations in the world.
Day 3: Nessie's Place
You might want to make your last day in the Highlands an options-open sort of affair. For starters, there’s Loch Ness. This 23 mi (37 km) long lake is most famous for 'Nessie,' the mysterious sea creature who may or may not inhabit its chilly waters; boat cruises allow visitors a chance to search for the monster, though your chances of finding it are slim. Urquhart Castle, on the loch’s western shore, is popular with locals and visitors. Other attractions in and around Inverness include Fort George, an 18th century fortress and museum; the Clava Cairns, burial sites that are thousands of years old; and the allegedly haunted Castle Stuart. Inverness is also well-known for a fairly vibrant nightlife; its bars and pubs are popular stops for the best in regional live music.