Scotland's historic highlands have an array of tartan patterned delights there for the taking. Admittedly climate isn't one, but don your waterproof and let the harrowing winds and driving rain add to the thrill of the adventure. Scotland is famously identified by the romantic image of a sturdy Scotsman dressed in his kilt perched amidst highland valleys, majestic mountains and rolling heather moors. Food for thought: the true beauty of the highland landscape is even more breath-taking in the flesh. Sandy beaches and coves along the north coast are an ideal spot for a picnic and the seals, dolphins and whales that inhabit the surrounding waters will make you forget you're still in Britain. Mountain climbers and ambitious hikers aspire to conquer the peaks of Ben Nevis and Ben Macdui, Scotland's second highest mountain, and to tread the paths of the jagged Torridon hills. In the far north of the highlands it is even possible to see the Northern Lights.
That said, you needn't go as far as the wilderness; the highlands are dotted with wildlife parks and discovery centres accessible by car, such as the Northwest Highlands Geopark. The cities of Inverness and Aberdeen are good choices for the more cosmopolitan visitor and have a number of events held each year. History fanatics can explore crumbling castles, journey to Moray, the birthplace of Macbeth, and explore ancient cairns (man-made stacks of stones), which are some of Scotland's earliest traces of man. In 1848 Queen Victoria bought Balmoral Castles to be her main residence and 'dear paradise in the Highlands.' Considering the Highlands are so unspoilt and extraordinarily diverse, what better place to build a paradise?
See an astrological phenomenon: the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights, or Aurora, is a naturally occurring light display visible from particularly high latitude and typically associated with the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In the past, this phenomenon has been witnessed in Aberdeenshire and scientists are confident that the mindboggling sight is easily visible from the Highlands every few months. But it is not the only staggering spectacle that you can catch without leaving the UK; travel to Harris, the largest island in the outer Hebrides, whose uncontaminated beaches are a haven for seals. Otherwise take a boat to the archipelago of St Kilda, which is the most important site for seabird breeding in north-west Europe and the location of Britain's largest puffin colony. Likewise, gaze out at wild bottlenose dolphins surfing the waters around Moray Firth, just north of Inverness, or catch a ferry from the Minch to the Outer Hebrides where you might spy basking sharks and minke whales. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Move inland to the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve whose pinewood habitats are the home of deer and eagles. For something more elusive, hunt out monster Nessy in Loch Ness, either from the banks of the Loch or from the ruined walls of Urquhart Castle, which incidentally is a medieval treasure chest displaying artifacts dating back to when the castle was inhabited. It is rare for a ruin that a 5 story high tower remains, bearing views over Loch Ness that are second-to-none, especially on a clear day. Once you've caught Nessy go for a walk, cycle or pony treck on the Great Glen Way. The golf and the angling are also supposed to be very good in the area.
Outdoor pursuits are a Scottish speciality, be it in water or on land. Hire a kayak, rowing boat or dinghy at Glencoe, undisputedly one of Scotland's most picturesque glens. If you are an adrenaline junky we recommend white water rafting, canyoning (jumping and abseiling down waterfalls) or fun yakking (paddling down rapids on an inflatable open canoe). For something more leisurely and family friendly, you can play a round of golf, hire bikes, take a lesson in photography with Glencoe Photography or let a ranger lead you out on a Landover safari. These latter activities are all suitable for children so, parents, you need not worry about having to think up twenty-four hour kids' entertainment. The highland mountains also have ski and snowboarding resorts, the best being around Fort William, Lochabar and Aonach Mòr, all of which are situated under the watchful eye of towering Ben Nevis.
If sport isn't your thing, try attractions such as the Highland Wildlife Park and Northwest Highlands Geopark. The Highland Wildlife Park is a charity run reserve that has sections for exploration by car and on foot as well as daily talks about the endangered species that roam its tundra. Entrance is expensive, but justifiable given the spacious quality of the enclosures, which makes the park superior to your regular claustrophobic zoo. Naturalists, animal lovers and families find themselves at home at the North West Highlands Geopark, Scotland's first European geopark, where you can either become an expert in Scotland's geological history at the park's visitor centres and museums, or simply enjoy a picnic on the beach or the hillside with good company and scenery that's to die for.
Think about the Highlands' awesome history. The Highlands can be distinguished from the Lowlands by the fact that traditional Gaelic speech and traditions were maintained even centuries after the Anglicisation of the Lowlands. But the history reaches further back than that. The countryside is dotted with ancient sites such as cairn Kintraw near Loch Craignis, Cairnholy I, which is two enormous chambered tombs, and Barrnakill Hands, a rock carving of two left hands believed to date back to Neolithic times. Similarly, the Picts have left their mark from the Late Iron Age in areas such as Easter Ross, just east of Ross, where the Tarbat Discovery Centre is an ideal starting point to uncover the Highlands' Dark Ages culture.
Avoid midges and ticks. This can be done in a number of ways: visit in a season other than summer, sit where there is a breeze, wear light coloured clothing and invest in a midge hat. Similarly, avoid being caught out by unpredictable weather conditions. Your waterproof and sturdy shoes are your bible for your trip. Souvenir shops at sites such as Fort William should be evaded by all except those with a penchant for collecting gaudy tartan junk.
If you're feeling brave, try the Inverness Terror Tour; Davy the Ghost will take you on an entertaining 1 1/4 hour tour recounting Inverness' grim and ghostly history for £6.50. The tour is more suited for adults than children and ends at Hootnanny's, a haunted tavern with live traditional music where a free drink is provided to calm the nerves and carry on the laughter. In a similarly ethereal vain, try to find Nessy but taking a cruise out over Loch Ness with friendly company Jacobian Cruises, leaving from Tomnahurich Bridge.
Try a challenge: climb Ben Nevis. Only suitable for the very experienced mountaineer, if this sounds for you then brace yourself for a true Alpine-style adventure. Nonetheless, it is essential that you take the climb seriously; check avalanche predictions before setting off, follow a classic route and make sure you know the way down you intend to take, including bearings, as the descent can be the most perilous section. Less ambitious walkers could try the Glenborrodale Nature Trail, a novice level walk through deciduous oak forestry on the way to Ardnamurchan. The walk can be lengthened or shortened according to ability and has good spots for wildlife watching.
Try the local culinary specialty in Moray: 'Cullen Skink.' The thick Scottish soup is made using locally fished haddock blended with potatoes and onions. It is a common starter across Moray's fine restaurants. Music fanatics should try one of the Highland's renowned music festivals Rock Ness and T in the Park and catch world class rock, indie and dance acts fill the valleys with their bass.
Bring back fresh air in your lungs and a fit and well exercised body! It's hard not to considering Scotland's superb range of sports and walking. Alternatively if you are after something more tangible to take home, visit one of Moray's whisky distilleries (coincidentally Macbeth's birthplace, Moray is also home to over half of Scotland's whisky distilleries) and buy a bottle of the finest scotch. It is a shame that a bottle is so costly, often more so than in other UK cities. However you are certainly paying for the novelty and the quality.
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