Visit Scotland's Highlands in winter for a wonderful holiday destination!
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Spending the holiday season in the Scottish Highlands is perfect for those who love the outdoors and don’t mind bundling up a little bit to head out and explore. Christmas markets will fill the cobblestone streets of centuries old towns and cities, jovial laughter and singing spills out of warmly-lit restaurants and bars, and the tourist crowds are all but nonexistent compared to summertime.
Despite the shorter days (there are only about six hours of daylight in December), there’s plenty to see and do during the day before getting some relaxation time in by a fire or heading out to see some live music with a local whisky. The shorter days also allow for later starts to the morning, which is ideal on vacation, especially when you get to enjoy a tasty meat pie or sausage roll for breakfast!!
Keep in mind during your planning that if you explore the Highlands outside of the winter season, you'll have longer days and thus more time to see more sites.
Don’t worry, too, about not getting to see wildlife – there’s plenty to see, even when the snow begins to fall. You'll find a handful of wildlife-spotting opportunities below!
Our Scottish Highlights trip last Christmas was more magical than we ever could have imagined. Keep reading for our 9-Day itinerary for winter in Scotland, including a free map! You can also pick and choose a handful of the suggested days below if you don't have 9 days to spend in Scotland.
Day 1: Edinburgh
Day 2: Loch Leven and Aviemore
Day 3: Aviemore and Cairngorm Reindeer Centre
Day 4: Elgin Cathedral/Glen Ord Distillery and Inverness
Day 5: Culloden Battlefield and Clava Cairns
Day 6: Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, and Castle Stalker
Day 7: Glencoe, Glen Etive, and Steall Falls
Day 8: Glenfinnan Viaduct and Monument, and Mallaig
Day 9: Oban and Trossachs National Park
9-Day Itinerary for Scotland's Highlands in Winter
Day 1 in Scotland: Edinburgh
Upon arrival to Edinburgh, Scotland, rent a car from the airport and travel to your hotel in the city. Note that this itinerary depends on being comfortable with driving in Scotland (opposite side of the road from the United States and much of the rest of Europe), so keep this in mind as your prepare for your trip.
We recommend staying the Motel One Princes Street in New Town Edinburgh, as it’s close to many of the main attractions, but not so much that you’ll be awake all night with music and boisterous noise.
TIP: the parking garage for the Motel One Princes Street is about a five minute walk away at the Q Park Omni (Greenside Row, Edinburgh EH1 3AN, UK) – don’t forget to get the discount voucher from the front desk of the hotel to get 50% off the ticket price.
Attractions in Edinburgh:
Edinburgh is a Harry Potter lover's dream as JK Rowling spent some of her time in Edinburgh when she wrote some of the series' books.
Black Medicine coffee shop and The Elephant House coffee shop are two places where Rowling is said to have spent time writing. They've also got wonderful coffee and cakes!
Continue on to other sites that inspired Rowling in her writing, such as Greyfriars Kirkyard right in the city, where you can see tombstones with names like Riddel and McGonagall. Remember that this is a cemetery, so please be respectful of the grounds and keep your voice level down.
Although it has no connection to JK Rowling or the Harry Potter story, Diagon House is a fun place to visit and it's where you can purchase all sorts of Harry Potter paraphernalia. Is the shop touristy? One hundred percent, but it's still fun to see!
Coffee and cakes at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, one of the locations presumed to be where JK Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter Series. Photo by Nathan Rolls
The Royal Mile has loads of tourist shops with everything Scottish inspired you could imagine, from wool scarves and hats to butter cookies. The shops are fun to walk in and around, and the architecture is even better to behold. The Royal Mile is so named because it is the main road that leads up to the Edinburgh Castle.
Tour the Castle grounds for a spectacular view of the city and to see some beautifully done war memorials, and head inside to see the crown jewels and Scotland's National War Museum. Events are held at and around the Castle throughout the year, so check their webpage for upcoming events during your visit!
Only a five minute walk from the Motel One Princes Street, Calton Hill is the perfect way to get a stunning view of the city, especially at sunset. There are a handful of monuments lining the pathway leading to the top, which are a good distraction from the steep hill you need to climb to reach the end!
If you're looking for a longer hike, head on over to Hollyrood Park and climb to Arthur's Seat, the highest point in this cluster of small mountains. You can make a solid day of visiting just this area, by checking out the Palace of Hollyroodhouse, the Queen's residence when she is in Scotland, and hiking up from there, or even driving to the Dunsapie Loch parking area and doing the shorter hike from there. You'll get stunning views of the city from the top, but keep in mind that on a nice day you'll be sharing the space with many other tourists. You'll work up an appetite solved only by traditional Scottish fare, such as that found at the Sheep Heid Inn.
Some people enjoy reading books inspired by or set in their travel destination - look no further than the Writer's Museum for your inspiration. The works and lives of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, three highly celebrated and revered Scottish authors.
Food and Nightlife:
We enjoyed an incredible dinner, with a jovial and warm atmosphere, at The Outsider. If you're going on a weekend, be sure to make reservations as they'll fill up quickly! You can also look into some more traditional Scottish fare at Angels with Bagpipes, set in a stunning 16th century building.
After dinner, make your way over to Sandy Bell’s, a small, local pub with that small, local feel despite it becoming more and more popular. There's a wide array of beer on tap and tons of whiskys from which to choose. They have live, traditional Scottish music every night, but be sure to arrive shortly before the show is slated to start - the pub is small and will fill up quickly!
If you're visiting Edinburgh around the Christmas season, the Edinburgh Christmas Market will be open from mid-November into the New Year. The Market is set up around Scott Monument, just a couple minutes walk from the Motel One Princes Street. You'll find all sorts of delicious food and local artisans selling handmade artworks at the numerous fair stalls.
Gate to Greyfriar's Kirkyard, a cemetery established in the 1500s, with beautiful monuments and a nice view of the city. Photo by Christa Rolls
Day 2 in Scotland: Loch Leven and Aviemore
One of the first things I do when planning vacation is seek out the best place to get my morning coffee (no shame - I love coffee). Head to The Milkman for your morning brew, whether that be an espresso, a luscious cappuccino, or a hot chocolate, and a freshly baked pastry. The croissants are flaky and delicious!! This intimate cafe is a wonderful place to start the day.
The cappuccinos at The Milkman in Edinburgh are delicious, and the people-watching opportunities are top-tier. Photo by Christa Rolls
After taking your time with breakfast, and even walking around a bit more to pop into any shops you missed the day before (you can leave your luggage in the secure storage at the hotel while you explore around), pick up your car (if you're at the Motel One, don't forget that voucher ticket for parking!) and head out of the city on the M90 northwards.
Your first destination is only about an hour north - Loch Leven Nature Reserve, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) site.
RSPB is a nature conservation organization geared toward managing and acquiring land in the United Kingdom for the purpose of turning that land into reserves for birds and other wildlife. There are currently around 180 total reserves around the U.K.
Loch Leven is a wonderful place to bird watch and dip your toes into the Highland's nature. The Reserve has wooded walks with blinds behind bird feeders, where you spot tits, robins, red squirrels, and various other wildlife in hiding. Head out to the marsh boardwalk (£5 for adults, £1 for children) to get a great view of waterfowl taking residence on the lake, and keep an eye toward the sky for birds of prey flying over the marshy edges.
After working up an appetite with all that walking, stop at the Reserve's cafe for a coffee and panini, or other delicious food options.
Loch Leven Nature Reserve is a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) site with an interpretive center, cafe, and trails heading out along the Loch shores. Photo by Christa Rolls
After strolling about Loch Leven and enjoying your first taste of the countryside, continue north toward the Cairngorms National Park.
If daylight is still on you side, stop in the town of Blair Atholl at the foot of the Cairngorms. Explore the village and marvel at the stunning 13th century Blair Castle. The Castle closes around 31 October, however, winter and holiday events are periodically held in November and December, such as seeing a bag-piping Santa in his grotto, holiday fairs, touring the Castle decorated for Christmastime, and lunch at the Castle on Christmas Day. The Castle also offers wildlife Range Rover tours year-round, where you can spot wildlife of the Scottish Highlands, such as red deer, badgers, various birds, pine marten, mountain hare, and more.
Your last destination for the day is the small town of Aviemore, a fabulous place to stop over in the Highlands to experience what the Cairngorm Mountains have to offer. We recommend staying in Aviemore for at least two nights. We’ve spoken with people from all over the U.K. and the consensus is that this is perfect jumping off point for those wanting to experience the natural beauty and recreational opportunities this region has to offer.
We recommend staying at the Airbnb Antler Corner, which is about 5 minutes from the middle of town, but it's a great price for a cute, quiet place to lay your head at a reasonable price. The Airbnb host is also incredibly kind and informative for various activities and places to eat in the area.
Alternatively, you can stay at the Cairngorm Hotel, which has great service and is right at the center of the town.
Food and Nightlife:
We ate at a couple of the local joints in town, and would absolutely recommend both. The Winking Owl is right in the center of town and has a whole suite of traditional Scottish fare on the menu. Down further by the river, the Old Bridge Inn offers a more gourmet spin on local specialties - don't miss their fish of the day, caught locally! Be sure to make reservations if you're going on the weekend, especially at the Winking Owl!
Aviemore is a small town, so it's not exactly bumping at night, but there's still some great places to cap off your evening. The Cairngorm Hotel especially has live music starting around 10 on most nights, allowing you to sit in a relaxed setting over a nice local beer or whisky.
Day 3 in Scotland: Aviemore and Cairngorm Reindeer Centre
Sunrise in winter in the Highlands typically isn't until well after 8 AM, and one of the delicious coffee shops in Aviemore, The Coffee Pot, doesn't open until 10 AM, which is when you'll need to be at your first stop for the day. A suitable alternative is a small café called Asher’s Bakery, with meat pies and sweet pastries for an early, on-the-go breakfast. Grab an extra, fresh-baked meat pie for a late-morning snack - you'll need it along with plenty of water!
A reindeer forages on grass and moss at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. Photo by Christa Rolls
A visit to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is in order, and you'll need to arrive about 30 minutes before their opening time (during high season in summer, we recommend arriving an hour early, especially on the weekend) in order to secure a spot on their hill tour as they're first come first served (which run daily, except in January and February, at 11 AM).
The hill visit is a guided, 15-20 minute walk up to the hills where the only free-roaming herd of reindeer take residence. The Centre employees will guide you through a paddock area where they'll answer any and all reindeer related questions, tell you about the history of the area, and even allow you to hand feed willing reindeer.
The hill tour is £15 for adults, £9 for children, and free for kids under 5. The shop and paddocks close in January through early February due to the potentially bad weather in the mountains, so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
We found it incredibly relaxing hanging out on the hills watching the Reindeer forage and interact with each other. We were allowed to stay up there as long as we wanted after the tour, but we only ended up staying until around 1 PM because of the chilly weather.
It will be early afternoon by the time you're all finished with the hill tour, so there are a number of options for you to explore! The nearby Glenmore Forest Park and Loch Morlich have wonderful hiking trails and are considered some of the best bird watching destinations in the Highlands. You can explore these areas on your own by stopping over at the Glenmore Forest Park Visitor Centre to get a map of hiking trails and conditions.
Alternatively, you can drive further up to Cairngorm Mountain, where the road ends, and hike one of the trails just off the parking lot. Most people will head straight up the Cairngorm Mountain trail, but we suggest heading on the trail heading southwest of the car park, following the Leth-choin creek. Bring your binoculars and step lightly on the trail, keeping an eye and ear out for various wildlife, such as mountain hare, red grouse, ptarmigan, and capercaillie.
Look for snowy patches on the rocky mountain slopes, but be careful where you step, especially if there's snow on the trail grounds. If you see white, pigeon-sized birds flying from snow patch to snow patch, it's likely these are ptarmigans in their winter plumage!!
Scotland has Right to Roam laws, allowing you to to off-trail to explore more - nonetheless, be cognizant of your footprint and watch where you're walking! Note that depending on how mild the winter is, there might be more snow on these trails than when we visited; you may need to snowshoe, but be sure to check in with the rangers at Cairngorm Moutain before heading out.
Ptarmigans will camouflage themselves in snow patches as they begin getting their white winter plumage. Photo by Nathan Rolls
After a wonderful day of exploring around Cairngorm Mountain, head back to town for refreshments and dinner. If you're feeling up to a drive later at night, check the aurora forecast for the region. It's rare for aurora sightings to occur so far south, and you won't see them if the sky is cloudy, but it's not impossible to see them either! Scotland is home to a handful of dark sky parks, and the nearest to Aviemore is Blairfindy Farm.
Stay in Aviemore another night.
Day 4 in Scotland: Elgin Cathedral/Glen Ord Distillery and Inverness
Take the morning easy in heading out, and stop by one of the cafes/coffee shops in town. Begin your journey north, where you'll have the option to do one of two things: either head towards Elgin, where you can visit Elgin Cathedral, a 13th century ruin, or continue toward Inverness, where you can visit the Glen Ord Scotch Whisky Distillery.
If you decide to visit Elgin Cathedral, you won't be disappointed by the history and fascinating stories told by rock carvings that are centuries old. Carvings and pictishes can be found in the stones throughout the Cathedral ruins as well as on tombstones in the graveyard. The land on which the Cathedral is located is stunning, just next to Cooper Park and the River Lossie, so exploring around the park and town after your visit to the ruins is a relaxing way to spend part of the day.
The cost for a visit to the Elgin Cathedral is £7.5 for adults, £4.50 for children, and free for kids under 5. If you are bringing kids along, be sure to print out the interactive quiz and/or artifact-finding game!
There's a surprising number of Indian and East Asian restaurants in town - check out the Qismat Tandoori for lunch to warm up out of the cold.
Alternatively, drive out to Glen Ord to taste some of the best Whisky in the region. The Distillery offers a number of tour types, from a basic tour of the distillery to various levels of tasting their famous Singleton Scotch. The tour guides will also be able to provide interesting insight to the history and background of Scotch in the region as well as the history of the Inverness-shire area.
Stunning homes as seen from the Ness Walk along the River Ness in Inverness. Photo by Christa Rolls
After exploring for part of the day, head on into Inverness to check into your hotel and walk around the city.
We recommend staying at the Beaufort Hotel, located up the hill from the main part of the city. It's about a 5-10 minute walk to get to the center of everything, but we enjoyed the attentive staff and most of all, being away from the main bars that play music well into the night.
Inverness isn't a large city, but it's a great jumping off point to see many incredible sites in the area. It has an incredible food scene, and the nightlife is sure to keep you busy even on the darkest and coldest nights in winter. It's also recently become the starting and ending point for the North Coast 500, a 500 mile long-distance, epic road trip around the northern part of Scotland.
Take a stroll around the city, starting at the Inverness Castle, where you can tour the grounds and walk up the tower for a spectacular view of the city. Tours of the interior are not offered. Head down to the River Ness to walk along the tree-hewn riverside and appreciate the city's architecture. We loved exploring the various art galleries, such as the Castle Gallery on Castle Street.
Food and Nightlife:
One of the components I looked into at every destination we went was where to hear live Scottish music - I couldn't get enough! In Inverness, Hootananny’s Bar or Johnny Foxes are the two best places for live traditional and modern Scottish music. Hootananny's is huge, so you're sure to get a seat at least at the bar, but Johnny Foxes is more intimate and fills up QUICKLY.
There are more delicious places to eat in town than you'll have time for, but we have a handful of recommendations depending on what you're feeling:
We highly recommend eating at the Mustard Seed – they have incredible food and the best espresso martini you can imagine. The atmosphere is also warm and fun, so see if you can get a table by the fire or on the upper level, where you can look down to watch the bartender make drinks and the kitchen prep food. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time.
The Fig & Thistle has a beautiful selection of steaks and fish, all locally sourced. The menu is written out on a chalkboard each day, so their specialties change regularly, but you won't be disappointed in the options. Make a reservation ahead of time, even the same day, if you're planning on a later dinner.
For delicious cocktails and a modern twist on Scottish cuisine, check out Rocpool, set right on the River Ness. The interior is cozy and the staff are jovial and friendly. Again, be sure to make reservations for the evening as it fills up quickly!
Day 5 in Scotland: Culloden Battlefield and the Clava Cairns
Today is a history-packed day, so be sure to get an early start with a big cup of coffee.
Start your day off right with a solid cup of coffee and breakfast at the Rendezvous Café. They serve a no-nonsense, full Scottish breakfast as well as fresh baked scones and cakes.
Head over to Culloden Battlefield after breakfast to learn about the history of the Jacobite rebellion against the British rule, and the tragic ending for the soldiers who fought at this battlefield.
At first glance, this might look only like a giant field, but really it's so much more - the way in which the memorials are laid out and the history is retold is respectful and well-done. Start at the Visitor's Center if you'd like to see the artifacts found on the battlefield even centuries later as well as learn more about the history found here. Private guides can be arranged two weeks in advance, if you'd like a personalized 60-minute tour of the grounds. Entry is £11 for adults and £27 per family.
One of the many memorial stones that line the pathways looping through the moors of Culloden Battlefield. Photo by Christa Rolls.
You can also tour the Battleground trails free of charge on your own. Loop around the trails, reading the interpretive plaques along the way. Note the large red flags that stretch across the moor represent the front line of the government troops and the blue flags represent the front line of the Jacobites. Take care to be respectful, as you walk on hallowed ground - you'll pass the memorials erected by the surviving families and clans for those who died at Culloden.
After visiting and spending time at Culloden, drive down some of the back roads, meandering next to farms, historic homes, and glens. About ten minutes away, you'll reach the Clava Cairns, stone graves dating back thousands of years (approximately, 4,000!).
Entry into the paddock to see the Cairns is free - just drive up to the parking area and let yourself in through the sheep and cow-proof door.
Not only are the Cairns incredibly old, but what is almost as incredible is how well-preserved they are after so many millennia. There are dozens are cairns around Inverness, but these are some of the easiest to see and access. There is a sense of magic felt at this site, and it's a beautiful and peaceful place to wander around and read about the history of how the Cairns came about.
The Clava Cairns are old burial sites surrounded by stones believed to have been used to astronomical purposes. Photo by Christa Rolls
Stay another night in Inverness, and explore another delicious restaurant, followed by some live Scottish music!
Day 6 in Scotland: Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, and Castle Stalker
Bid farewell to Inverness this morning, and begin heading south on the A82 from Inverness.
Shortly after you cross the River Ness, stop at The Bakery on Tomnahurich Street for some delicious coffee and baked goods, such as croissants or meat pies! When we find bakeries like this one we usually grab a couple extra treats for the road to eat later. You've got a day packed with castles sightseeing, so you'll need the energy!
Enjoy the drive down to Urquhart Castle along Loch Ness, the largest body of fresh water in the United Kingdom.
You'll see the pull-off for the Castle before you really see the castle itself - you must first pay for your ticket (£9 for adults and £5.40 for children) and climb down some old stone steps. There is an interpretive movie to tell the long and interesting history of Urquhart and how it came to stand in ruins today, so this is worth a watch before you head out on the grounds to see the Castle.
Views from all over the grounds are stunning, especially looking out toward Loch Ness, and you really get a feeling for how huge this Castle was! Its location on the hill above Loch Ness makes it obvious why it was such a sought after location many centuries ago. You'll probably spend about an hour walking around and taking in all the sights.
Urquhart Castle sits right on the edge of Loch Ness, and makes for a perfect stop as you drive south along the Loch Ness road. Photo by Christa Rolls
Although it will take you about an hour out of the way from your end destination, we highly recommend visiting Eilean Donan Castle towards the Isle of Skye. Skye isn't included in this itinerary because of limited time, but certainly if you have more time you should plan on visiting this stunning island or consider making a trip back just to explore the Isles :)
Eilean Donan is arguably one of the most stunning castles in the Highlands, in part because of its preserved structure and in part because of the stunning surrounding scenery. There's a delicious cafe at the Castle serving homemade goods, and even if you don't want to tour the inside of the castle, you can hike on some of the trails right around the area to appreciate the area's beauty from a different perspective (e.g., the Dun Totaig trail starting from Letterfearn across the Loch Duich).
If you're "castled out", continue on down to Fort William to walk around the shops and explore the city streets at the base of Ben Nevis, a major destination for hikers and skiers alike. Otherwise head south toward Glencoe to check into your hotel first before continuing on to see Castle Stalker around sunset.
There are only limited tours of Castle Stalker and they're typically in the summer, but seeing it from the shore is quite beautiful.
We recommend staying at the Glencoe Inn.
During our particular trip, we got a Christmas package where they fed and housed us for three nights – although the package is pricey, we felt it was incredibly worth it. Because we were visiting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we knew many places wouldn't be open for lunches, dinners, etc. and felt the convenience of having someone cook for us the whole time would answer our problem.
The Inn’s chef really knows what he’s doing and the family that runs the Inn takes great care of you! It might not look like much from the outside, as it sits right next to the gas station, but the rooms are cozy and beautiful, and the wood fire hearth is perfect for sitting by and having a drink after a long hike.
Check out availability for The Glencoe Inn and other possible hotel options in Glencoe below:
Loch Leven of Glencoe is stunning any time of day, especially at sunrise and sunset. Photo by Christa Rolls
Food and Nightlife:
We ate at the Glencoe Inn the whole time we were in Glencoe, since we had the special Christmas package, but there are plenty of delicious places to eat in and around the area.
Check out the Glencoe Gathering or the Clachaig Inn for a wide variety of Scottish food items and even live music at night. Don't worry, they don't disappoint on their beverage options either!
If you're up to the drive, head up to Fort William for a handful of wonderful pub options, such as the Volunteer Arms and The Grog and Gruel.
Day 7 in Scotland: Glencoe, Glen Etive, and Steall Falls
Glencoe is one of the most stunning places you'll see on this trip - the word "glen" isn't in it for nothing.
Glencoe itself is a small, quiet town, especially in wintertime. But it makes a great jumping off point to seeing some stunning locations in the area. This is one of the most visited sites from people attempting to do day trips from the larger cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh when they don't have much time to spend in the Highlands. Keep this in mind if you go during the high season.
The seemingly endless hills all shades of green, orange, purple, and brown are just waiting to be explored, and there are a ton of different hiking trails to explore all along the Glencoe area.
Even if you aren't feeling up to hiking, simply driving around this area is totally worth it any time of day, but everything is illuminated in that incredible golden light of sunrise and sunset.
The Visitor's Center just east of Glencoe is worth a stop, especially to get a map and more information about the top sites to see in the area.
We recommend driving down the road east from here, and you'll see why within minutes. The hills are stunning and you'll spot numerous waterfalls along the way. Take the opportunity to get off at some of the car pull-off areas to hike around and explore, especially at the Three Sisters car park, where you can get a wonderful view of the Three Sisters of Glencoe, and even hike up toward them or Hidden Valley.
View from the Three Sisters Car Park, looking west along the Glencoe road. Hidden Valley and its waterfalls are off to the left. Photo by Christa Rolls
Continue down to Glen Etive, park your car, and just walk down the road. In wintertime, you won't be dodging many cars on the road, and you'll be surprised how few people are actually in the area. It would seem it should be constantly busy with how beautiful it is!
Keep an eye out for mountain hare, red deer, red grouse, and other wildlife. Herds of red deer will walk through the hills here, so be sure to be quiet as you walk the road and trails because you can actually get within a good viewing distance as long as you aren't super loud. Red grouse will flit from bush to bush as you walk along, and you'll hear their distinctive "Daffy Duck-like," "ping pong ball bouncing" call and their dark, round figure float to further bushes for hiding.
A Red Grouse blends in with the surrounding vegetation and rocks. Notice the distinctive, white eye ring and the red patch at the top of its head. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Further still up the road is the River Coupall, and you'll find some incredible places to just stop the car and walk about.
Given there's plenty of time left in the day, see about heading up to the Ben Nevis bridge and hiking Steall Falls. This will depend largely on what the road conditions look like at the time you visit, so if there's very heavy snow then your vehicle might not be able to make the drive up. Trust us, you won't know when to stop taking pictures!!
Head on back for a relaxing evening by the fire, or head over to Clachaig Inn for some live music and even a whisky tasting.
Day 8 in Scotland: Glenfinnan Viaduct and Monument, and Mallaig
Get an early start to the day and head out by the time the sun starts to come up (in winter, remember, this is still only 08:30 or thereabouts). This will be a pretty big driving day again, but a wonderful one at that!
Head up through Fort William and head west on the A830 toward Glenfinnan. The area around the monument and viaduct are beautiful, and you'll appreciate the feat that went into the architecture of the viaduct itself.
The railway runs from Fort William all the way to Mallaig at the end of the line before you get to the Isle of Skye.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct is partly made famous because it's where the Hogwarts train scenes were filmed. Remember that scene? And thinking it was all CGI?? It wasn't. You can even see the "Harry Potter train", or the Jacobite Train as it's called, go across the viaduct at a certain time in the morning. The train will pass over the viaduct around 10:45 AM and again at around 3:00 PM - be sure to arrive at least thirty minutes before the train is set to pass over, as it takes time to walk from the parking area to the viaduct!
Check the website for updated train schedules and to make sure the train is running. There's a trail that leads right up the northwestern side of the viaduct so you can get an incredible vantage point. Hang out up there with your camera to get a shot of the Jacobite going over the viaduct - the conductor always blows the horn as they cross, so you'll get that iconic steam plume coming out of the top!
The Glenfinnan Viaduct and surrounding hills are illuminated by the morning sun. A trail runs right under the Viaduct to allow visitors a better view of the surrounding area from the top of a nearby hill. Photo by Christa Rolls
There's also the option to ride the Jacobite itself from Fort William to Mallaig and back, which takes a couple hours one-way and is a beautiful ride. The train ended up not running the day we went (it doesn't run the day before and after Christmas as well as on Christmas Day), but we really enjoyed seeing the area anyway, and making the relaxing drive up to the coast!
After you've seen the Jacobite or hiked the trail, walk over to the Glenfinnan Monument, the location where the Jacobite uprising first began, when "Bonnie Prince Charlie" erected his flag to let it be known that he intended to take Scotland back from the British.
View from famous Glenfinnan Monument, looking out to the hills along Loch Shiel. Photo by Christa Rolls
Continue up the road toward Arisaig, a really sweet little town right on the water. Looking out to the ocean you can see the Isle of Eigg, which has a distinctive shape on the horizon. Drive slowly on the way to Arisaig, as the moors and glens are absolutely stunning!! We recommend even stopping at Loch Eilt along the way to walk around and explore - check out the Cafe Rhu once you've arrived in town for some local treats and a hot cup of joe.
Keep an eye out for birds of prey all along the roads and in the moors hunting for small mammals. Even in wintertime there are plenty of birds to be seen!
As you go along the coast to Mallaig, you might even see seals near some of the more remote shores, as seals will give birth to their pups until December.
Mallaig is quiet in wintertime, and if you aren't going to Skye then there isn't much to do in the town itself, but the whole drive up is worth what you'll get to see. There are, however, plenty of wonderful cafes and places to get a solid Fish and Chips meal - check out The Bakehouse & Cannog for scrumptious sausage rolls and other pastries and Jaffy's Fish and Chips for its namesake.
Stay in Glencoe for your last night in the Highlands!
Day 9 in Scotland: Oban, Trossachs National Park
Time flies! It's already your last day in Scotland - don't worry, though. The Highlands have a way of capturing your heart and drawing you back again, especially to come in the summertime when you can see puffins and other breeding seabirds.
The suggested activities for today assume you have a later flight out of the city instead of earlier in the day. If you have an early flight, we suggest staying closer to the airport the evening before to allow you plenty of time to get to your flight on time.
Given you have time to explore a little more on your last day, we suggest heading south by way of Oban to tour the distillery - if you haven't quite gotten enough of whisky tasting, that is. Note that Oban is going to taste more like the whisky of the Isles instead of the mainland, and is thus more "peaty" than Glen Ord.
The distillery is open throughout the year at various times, and they offer a variety of tasting tours to meet your needs. More personalized tours require reservations ahead of time, so check with the distillery's personnel before your trip to secure a spot.
If you have even more time or want to skip the distillery tour/tasting, head down to the Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond for more sightseeing and hiking.
It's hard to imagine the scenery remaining beautiful after every beautiful thing you've seen throughout the past week or so, but somehow the Highlands never cease to amaze. Ben Lomond, one of the tallest mountains in the Park, has incredible trails leading up to the highest points for wonderful views of the area. It's also a great place to bird watching any time of year, so bring your binoculars and keep an eye out!
Phew! Look at everything you can see in the Highlands in just a little over a week!! While this list of places doesn't cover every possible opportunity in Scotland, we feel it's great for those who want to add some different components into their Scotland trip as well as enjoy the outdoors.
We hope you enjoy every minute of your Scotland tour!
Travel tip: In Scotland, "there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing" -- Sir Ranulph Fiennes
There are a handful of items that comfortably got me through the chilly winter weather in Scotland.
Let us know your favorite places in Scotland, and send us a message or comment below if you have questions about our suggested itinerary!
Happy birding and traveling!
Christa and Nathan