IN MISTY HOLLOWS and on desolate mountain slopes, from the cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh to pastel cottages on the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s ancient history imbues its landscape with layers of myth and meaning. On a trip to the Highlands and islands, travelers will encounter remnants of Neolithic ring forts and hear tales of Pictish warriors who once roamed the impenetrable Caledonian pinewoods, putting fear into the hearts of invading Roman soldiers. Gaelic clans and opportunistic Vikings clashed for centuries on the beaches and hillsides, raising castles and routing armies, until conflicts with the English crown eclipsed all other rivalries. Heroic battles won and lost, monarchs lauded and loathed, fairies appeased and monsters imagined—such stories burst from Scotland’s seams, waiting to intrigue and enchant every visitor.
Many visitors begin their journey in Edinburgh, the seat of the Scottish Parliament and a cosmopolitan gateway to the Highlands. Wander down narrow medieval streets and admire neat Georgian townhouses in the historic neighborhoods of Auld Reekie, so-called for the clouds of smoke that once covered this center of Scottish industry. Today it is sometimes called the “Athens of the north,” a cultural capital and haven for intellectuals, philosophers, and artists, from poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns to famed author J. K. Rowling.
North of Edinburgh lie the rolling moors and forbidding peaks of the Highlands, one of the last strongholds of Gaelic language and culture in Great Britain. Today, only 1% of the population report the ability to speak Gaelic, with efforts underway to preserve and promote this ancient tongue among newer generations. In this spectacular landscape, standing stones tower over barren peat bogs, castle spires soar above sparkling lochs, and ancient clan seats preside over lush fields grazed by hairy Highland cows. Hikers brave wind and rain to scale green mountainsides, afterward taking shelter by the fire in cozy pubs and warming up with a dram of famed malt whisky.
Soon it’s over the sea to Skye, the largest and northernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, an otherworldly realm of jagged peaks, misty forest glades, and sweeping beaches. Red deer and golden eagles inhabit steep valleys in the imposing Cuillin Hills, while travelers can take in breathtaking views from the sheer cliffs of the Quiraing. Around the island, iconic whitewashed houses overlook calm harbors and rolling green hills, and locals gather in the pub on windy evenings to recount tales of brave heroines and heroes, mysterious happenings, and fascinating history.
Experience the legacy of these legends on an expedition to the wild Highlands and islands.
Published, nationalgeographic.com, 31 May 2019