Visit Scotland in August and you’ll discover two very different destinations. First stop, Edinburgh for all manner of high drama and hijinks, with several festivals running in tandem. Then escape northwards to the magical landscapes of the Highlands: There’s blissful solitude, dark lochs (one with a monster … or a very large catfish), curiously shaped mountains known as Munros, bewitching castles, rugged coastlines, windswept islands, whisky, and wildlife—and, of course, the friendliest of people (particularly when the sun comes out).
by Nic McCormack
1 | EDINBURGH
Few capitals make as striking a stopover as Edinburgh—a (not so) New Town of Georgian architecture on a symmetrical grid, an Old Town of winding cobbled streets and medieval buildings, and Edinburgh Castle sitting on an extinct volcano above it all. Get a panoramic view of the surrounding city from Arthur’s Seat, at 822 feet the highest peak of Holyrood Park’s hills. It isn’t a difficult climb, but many opt for a gentle amble up to the nearby cliffs known as Salisbury Crags. From there you can see the Firth of Forth (an estuary that flows into the North Sea), the coast, and the Forth and Rail bridges beyond that will take you northwards to the Highlands.
2 | EDINBURGH FESTIVALS
Tjimurdance Theater performs on the Royal Mile during last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In summer, the world’s largest arts festival, which includes the Edinburgh International Festival (eif.co.uk), Fringe (edfringe.com), Book Festival (edbookfest.co.uk), Art Festival (edinburghartfestival.com), Edinburgh Mela (edinburgh-mela.co.uk), and the Military Tattoo (edintattoo.co.uk), turns up the volume in every way imaginable—and makes it the perfect season to visit Scotland. Even if you don’t buy a ticket for anything, you can’t escape the cheerful bedlam, with street performers everywhere and enthusiastic Fringe performers cramming flyers into your hand every five minutes.
03 | PORTREE
The colorful town of Portree is set around a natural harbor on the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast. It’s an ideal base to explore the nearby Old Man of Storr, a curious lava-flow pinnacle used by Ridley Scott for the opening scene of Prometheus. The shape of this rugged coastline of peninsulas and bays, sea arches and stalks, has been likened to a lobster’s claw and a wing and is rich with wildlife. Keep your camera ready for sea eagles, seals, Atlantic salmon, pine martins, and deer. If you have time, travel farther afield to the Outer Hebrides to experience some of Scotland’s best beaches, from Traigh Scarasta on the Isle of Harris to Traigh Mhor on the Isle of Lewis.
04 | MULL SHEEP
A flock of sheep stand their ground on the Isle of Mull, the Inner Hebrides's second largest island. After a few days negotiating the narrow roads that crisscross the Scottish Highlands, you come to expect wildlife and livestock around every corner. Think of it as your own personal speed limit.
05 | THE OLD KILN, ARDBEG DISTILLERY
A highlight of the Highlands is the whisky distilleries that open their doors to visitors for a tour and a dram. Here, a view over barrels at Ardbeg (ardbeg.com) on Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides and home to eight distilleries, including Lagavulin and the famously peaty Laphroaig (laphroaig.com). On Skye, you’ll find Talisker nestled beside a sea loch, while Dalwhinnie, the highest distillery in Scotland, is located in the Cairngorms. But head to Speyside for sheer concentration of distilleries, including the Macallan (themacallan.com), where you get the personal treatment thanks to a maximum of 10 people per tour. (Lagavulin, Talisker, Dalwhinnie:discovering-distilleries.com)
06 | HIGHLAND GAMES
Come summer, Highland Games throughout the region showcase Scottish culture with feats of brawn and might, from strongmen sports such as hammer throwing (seen here), tossing the caber, backhold wrestling, and tug-o-war, to field and track events such as hill running as well as Highland dancing and Scottish piping competitions. It’s thought the games are rooted in the 11th century, when King Malcolm III organized a hill race to find a speedy personal messenger. The Cowal Gathering in Argyll (cowalgathering.com) is the largest Highland Games in the world and takes place Aug. 27–29.
07 | EILEAN DONAN CASTLE
Eilean Donan Castle perches on a tidal island where three sea lochs—Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh—meet, seen here in an aerial view with the Isle of Skye in the distance. There have been four fortified castles on this spot since the 13th century, but the site was left in ruins following the Jacobite Uprising in 1719. Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap is the one to thank for the restored castle you can visit today. He bought the island in 1911 and embarked on a grueling 20-year restoration. (eileandonancastle.com)
08 | DANNY MACASKILL, ISLE OF SKYE
Mountain biking is a major outdoor pursuit in Scotland, but few enthusiasts could hope to achieve anything near the abilities of Danny MacAskill, seen here balancing along the Cullins Ridge on his native Skye. In 2009 his street trials video, filmed by a friend, went viral. Since then he’s been featured in the New York Times, nominated for numerous awards (including National Geographic Adventurer of the Year), carried the Olympic Torch through Glasgow, and appeared in music videos and advertisements. (dannymacaskill.co.uk)
09 | FAIRY POOLS
At the foot of the Cullins, the charming Fairy Pools are a must-visit on Skye. This series of crystal-clear waterfalls and pools bewitch plenty of summer visitors into taking a dip, often regretted immediately—the icy water is beyond bracing.
10 | POOL HOUSE HOTEL
When it comes to romantic settings, the five-suite Pool House on Loch Ewe, overlooking subtropical gardens, is one of your best options in the Highlands. The interiors are stylish and strewn with antiques, such as this over-the-top tub, but it’s far from stuffy—owned and managed by the Harrison family, it’s all about luxurious comfort. The Rowallan Room, with a fullsize antique billiard table, includes a huge cabinet displaying rare fine malts, while the intimate Henry Bacon dining room is a perfect perch to watch seals and otters bobbing by. (pool-house.co.uk)
11 | THE DUNCANSBY STACKS
John o' Groats may be commonly regarded as the most northerly point of the mainland, but that honor actually belongs to the nearby Duncansby Stacks at Duncansby Head (just a wee bit farther north). The town, though, is still important: Named after Dutchman Jan de Groot, who was commissioned by King James IV to run a ferry between Scotland's mainland and Orkney Islands, it remains a ferry departure point for the 40-minute journey to Burwick. If you have the time and energy, you could join the End to Enders on a continual quest to run, cycle, or walk the 874 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End on the southwest coast of England … or vice versa. (endtoenders.com)
12 | GLENFINNAN VIADUCT
The Jacobite Steam Train (westcoastrailways.co.uk) crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, part of a 84-mile journey from Fort William to Mallaig, where you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye. There are endless classic Highland views en route, but it’s the viaduct crossing that’s the highlight—Harry Potter fans will recognize it from the movies. The luxurious Royal Scotsman (belmond.com) is the most relaxing way to enjoy the majestic scenery, with 2- to 7-day excursions (including special whiskey-lover and golf-themed itineraries) offering rich-hued, en-suite cabins, mahogany-paneled dining cars, and an observation car.
13 | CASTLE STUART GOLF LINKS
The modern 18-hole game of golf is generally thought to have originated in Scotland. Here, Paul Casey walks the 18th hole of Castle Stuart during the 2013 Scottish Open. Located in Inverness, on the east coast, this challenging yet playable course, designed by Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse, overlooks the Moray Firth with additional views of Ben Wyvis, Kessock Bridge, historic Fort George, and Chanonry Lighthouse. There’s also a circular, Art Deco-style clubhouse overlooking the 9th and 18th greens to encourage you to appreciate the surroundings further with a drink in hand. (castlestuartgolf.com)
14 | GAIRLOCH'S BEACHES
Base yourself at Gairloch in Wester Ross and explore its rocky coastline, where you’ll discover numerous sandy beaches lapped by the clearest water, including Big Sand and Redpoint. The surrounding scenery is spectacular, and the views across the Minch (the strait dividing the northwest Highlands and the Inner Hebrides from the Outer Hebrides) captures a lot of what the Highlands is about. Visit the Rubha Reidh Lighthouse to spot whales, basking sharks, and dolphins.
15 | SCALLOP DIVERS
When it comes to seafood, the Highlands has an abundance of riches, including the king scallop. The Ethical Shellfish Company (ethicalshellfishcompany.co.uk) collects hand-dived scallops to order from a small boat in the Isle of Mull. This local supplier supports only hand-dived, creel-caught, hand-gathered, and line-caught methods that don’t damage the marine environment.
16 | BLACK ROCK COTTAGE, GLENCOE
Owned by the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club, Black Rock Cottage sits at the foot of Meall a’ Bhuird at the entrance to Glencoe. Founded in 1908, the club’s members made the first all-female expedition to the previously unmapped Phurbal Chyachumbu glacier and the first-ever ascent of a 22,000-foot peak on the frontier of Nepal and Tibet. Today, the cottage is their base when they climb in the Great Highland Glen. With Buachaille Etive Mòr (Gaelic for “the great herdsman of Etive”) soaring more than 3,350 feet in the background, it’s almost impossible to pass without reaching for your camera. (ladiesscottishclimbingclub.org)
17 | THE BOATH HOUSE
The Michelin-starred restaurant at Boath House hotel in Nairn adheres to Slow Food Movement practices. It uses ingredients from local suppliers, growers, and foragers, while the fresh seafood on your plate, like this rich Scottish salmon, is caught daily by west coast fishermen. Much of the fruit, herbs, and vegetables come from the Boath House’s own kitchen gardens, and the honey hails from the property’s beehives, both located on the 22-acre grounds. (boath-house.com)
18 | MULL OTTERS
With more than 300 miles of rocky coastline, Mull has proven to be an ideal habitat for otters—this is the place to see these elusive creatures in high numbers, usually kicking back on seaweed-covered rocks. Be aware that these furry critters are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, so consider joining a tour. Mull Magic’s Otter Walk will get you to their hangouts without disturbing them and will provide plenty of otter facts along the way. (mullmagic.com)