Scottish Highlands Travel Guide
Rich rewards for the traveler
Skibo epitomizes the very best of the Scottish Highlands—house parties, field sports, dramatic landscapes, rooms in which to curl up in comfort when the rain lashes outside. But the Highlands harbor other rich rewards for the traveler, as the guide below outlines.
The defining line of the Scottish Highlands is blurred. Geologically, it's the Highland Boundary Fault, running from the Firth of Clyde in the west to Stonehaven in the east. Popularly, and for the purposes of this guide, it's the two thirds of Scotland north of Perth, excluding the flat region around Aberdeen. Inverness is the largest city, and a good base from which to scout the Highlands.
The islands are their own monster altogether—capricious ferry times, weather, and facilities—but if you are going to make the detour, Jurra, Raasay, Iona, Mull, and Rum are the most attractive. Islay boasts spectacular beaches; Skye has an exceptional restaurant-with-rooms called Three Chimneys. ($320. Colbost, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye IV55 8ZT; 1470-511-258; fax 1470-511-358; www.threechimneys.co.uk.) Avoid Orkney, which is desolate, and Lewis, less an island than a bog sitting on the sea.
Telephone Numbers: Country code is 44. Add 0 to local area codes if calling from within the United Kingdom.
Local Time: Five hours ahead of EST.
Currency: British pound. Scotland als issues its own notes (acceptable in any par of the UK). The current exchange rate is £0.69=$1.00.
Taxes: Many goods and hotels in the UK are subject to a value added tax (VAT) of 17.5%.
Tipping: Restaurant service is usually included and specified on the bill. Otherwise, tip 10%. It is customary to tip gamekeepers and gillies $32 per day per gun or rod.
When to Visit: High season runs from May to September, and temperatures can nudge 75°F in July. The days are long—in the far north, darkness barely falls in June and July. However, roads are crowded and the warmth brings midges—tiny biting insects that are the scourge of many Scottish holidays. Winter, especially December and January, is bitter and many sites and smaller hotels close. The best times are spring for the wildflowers, August for the heather bloom, and autumn, when the woodland colors are at their richest. Expect rain at any time.
Airlines: Fly direct to Glasgow from Newark, New Jersey, with Continental Airlines (800-231-0856). Or go via London with Delta Airlines (800-241-4141), United Airlines (800-538-2929), American Airlines (800-433-7300), Virgin Atlantic Airways (800-862-8621), and British Airways (800-247-9297), which flies from London to Inverness, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Flight time is seven hours from the East Coast. Glasgow Airport (141-887-1111), Edinburgh Airport (131-333-1000), Inverness Airport (1667-464-000). Check flights from Inverness if the mist is in; they're frequently canceled or delayed.
Private Charters: For UK-internal flights or sightseeing tours, call Chauffair Ltd. (1252-377-880), a new, high-end private charter company based at Farnborough, near London. In Scotland, call Highland Airways (1667-462-664), based at Inverness Airport. For helicopters, call PDG (870-607-9000), also based at Inverness. It is the most efficient way to travel to the outlying islands.
Trains: ScotRail (8457-550-033) operate the Caledonian Sleeper, an overnight trai between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow. For other direct train services, call National Rail Enquiries (345-222-333). The Royal Scotsman (131-555-1344), an Edwardian sleepe train with mahogany and damask-lined cars and Royal Worcester china, operates tour of the Highlands.
Cars: Avis (870-606-0100), Hertz (870-599-6699), Budget (1442-276-266). For four-wheel drives suited to winter and off-road driving: Alldrive 4x4 Rental Ltd. (1764-664-300). For private drivers: Little's Chauffeur Drive (141-883-2111), in Glasgow, and Prestige Chauffeur Company (1463-794-979), in Inverness.
En Route: If you've got an early flight out of Inverness, stay at Culloden House (Culloden, Inverness; 1463-790-461), a grand hotel with helpful service five minutes by car from the airport. $275-$390. If you are overnighting in Edinburgh, stay at The Bonham (35 Drumsheugh Gardens; 131-226-6050; fax 131-226-6080), a new contemporary hotel occupying three Victorian houses. $285-$430. Eat a Restaurant Martin Wishart (54 The Shore, Leith; 131-553-3557; fax 131-467-7091), not centrally located but well worth the trek fo Edinburgh's most accomplished fare. Dinner for two, $95. In Glasgow, stay at Grouch Saint Jude's (190 Bath Street; 141-352-8800; fax 141-352-8801), also new and, like its siste in London, quietly contemporary with a clubby feel. $140-$255. Eat at ArtHouse Grill (ArtHouse Hotel, 129 Bath Street; 141-221-6789; fax 141-221-6777); the oysters are nectar. Dinner for two, $80. Later in the year, look ou for two major hotel openings: The Scotsma in Edinburgh and No.1 in Glasgow.
Sporting Notes: Pheasant, Oct. 1-Feb. 1. Grouse, Aug. 12-Dec. 10. Stag, July 1-Oct. 20. Hind, Oct. 21-Feb. 15. Peak hunting seaso is the last two weeks of August. Salmon, Mar.-Nov. (best in October, but rivers vary). Sea trout, June-July. Shooting and fishing largely restricted on Sundays. Oversea guests require a UK visitor's shotgun permit: $19 direct from the British police. A licens to kill game is also necessary: $10 from any British post office. Agents will make these arrangements on request.
Scottish Tourist Board: 23 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 3TP; 131-332-2433; fax 131-343-1513; www.visitscotland.com
"I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot," wrote Queen Victoria of her stay here in 1873. Thankfully, the setting hasn't changed much—despite the estate shrinking from 42,000 to 500 acres and the baronial manse being turned into a hotel. It's a vast, austere, crenelated villa constructed in the mid-19th century in the foothills of Ben Nevis where the Great Glen begins to taper into the sea. This belies a surprisingly small capacity (only 17 rooms) and an unexpectedly comfortable, quietly opulent interior. Inverlochy has a huge reputation and a Michelin star for its superlative Modern British fare (though Simon Haigh, the longstanding chef, was leaving shortly after my stay).
The castle has three dining rooms (furnished with period antiques), two drawing rooms (one with a magnificent Venetian crystal chandelier and French Empire frescoed ceiling), a billiard room, and suites like little fiefdoms. The largest are the Queen's Room (a fourposter bed, pink-and-cream chintzes) and King's Suite (similar, but in blue). Both overlook the private loch with views toward Glen Loy, where clouds and light sweep across the hills. I preferred the east-facing rooms under the imposing shadow of Ben Nevis, and the best of the lot is Torlundy, where the knuckle-shaped summit is framed by ramparts.
Grand Scottish houses can be rather sinister. Not here. Much of this has to do with the service—a blend of jovial Highland hospitality with a dash of formal French thrown in, meaning that no one will turn up their nose at mud-encrusted boots, but the four-course dinner always comes with an amuse-bouche and afternoon tea with a departing bow. $500-$700. Torlundy, Fort William PH33 6SN; toll-free from the United States, 888-424-0106; 1397-702-177; fax 1397-702-953; www.inverlochy.co.uk
The Gleneagles Hotel
When it opened in 1924, Gleneagles was described as the Riviera of the Highlands. It was a fixture on the social calendar: yachting at Cowes, polo at Deauville, golf and grouse at Gleneagles. Still considered a must on any Highland itinerary (it's an hour's drive north from Edinburgh and Glasgow), Gleneagles is beginning, alas, to show signs of wear—and of relying too heavily on its reputation.
It certainly appears impressive: a vast 220-room hotel designed to look like a French château set in 850 acres of woodland. But Gleneagles is more than this—it is a one-of-a-kind Highland resort. There are three 18-hole championship golf courses, two designed by Braid, one by Nicklaus. The Equestrian Centre has two indoor arenas and 27 horses. There are schools in falconry, shooting (clays only), and off-road driving, plus two private salmon beats on the River Tay. There is also a health club, which includes a spa, gym, two swimming pools, four tennis courts and, what must be a first in Scotland, an outdoor hot tub. The shopping arcade is like a miniature Bond Street (Escada et al.). And there are three restaurants (Strathearn serves exceptional traditional Scottish cuisine) and a bar. They say there is one staff member to every guest—but frankly, they would do better to up the quality than balance the ratios.
The accommodation is varied. This is because of ongoing refurbishment. The traditional rooms, apparently popular wit regulars, I thought drab: dull chintzes, tired furniture, bathrooms that have seen better days. I liked what they refer to as the "first phase" rooms, which were renovated two years ago in more contemporary beiges, browns, and creams. Of these, the best is room 294 overlooking Glen Devon (you pay a premium for the view). The "second phase" rooms are also quite comfortable, with a look that is contemporary tartan. Something for everyone is Gleneagles' appeal—though a room that smelled of cigarettes, as mine did, isn't what they meant, I'm sure. $425-$2,050 (activities extra). Auchterarder, Perthshire PH3 1NF; toll-free from the United States, 866-463-8734; 1764-662-231; fax 1764-662-134; www.gleneagles.com
Staying at Kinnaird is like being the guest of a very chic laird, except you can hole up à deux and not have to bother with the fireside small talk. In this intimate, nine-room hotel, there is no lobby; family portraits and antiques form a friendly clutter in the drawing room; the club chairs are comfortably worn; and stuffed fishing trophies are displayed on the billiard room's walls.
The house is an ivy-covered Edwardian mansion sitting above a wooded valley of the Tay. Lawns sweep down toward the river with two miles of good double-bank fishing. Behind are russet woods and steel-gray crags, part of Kinnaird's 9,000-acre estate. Beyond, and the only caveat, is the busy A9, also making Kinnaird a popular southern Highland stop-off on the long drive north.
Never have I felt so glad to check into a hotel. I was greeted by name and ushered to my room, where an open fire was already blazing (service here is always one step ahead). It was homey and sunny (painted a glorious yellow), and the immaculate marble bathroom was replete with heated rails and the thickest fluffy towels.
To be sure, the rooms are heavenly—soft chintzes, open fires, wide beds overlooking either the valley (the better view) or the crags behind. But it is the food that makes Kinnaird such a closely guarded secret among its regulars. The chef is Trevor Brooks, who, significantly, came via Inverlochy's kitchen, and delivers serious food with a refreshingly light touch. A pavé of Kinnaird applewood-smoked salmon with seared scallops and Jerusalem artichokes or North Sea cod with spinach, asparagus, langoustine, and a warm tartar sauce are, unlike so much Scottish fare, delicate enough to be worked off gently with a game of backgammon by the fire. $530-$690. Kinnaird by Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 OLB; 1796-482-440; fax 1796-482-289; www.kinnairdestate.com
Boath House is a small hotel near Nairn. It's just the ticket for those who have no interest in playing golf, because it has a one-room spa (also open to nonresidents) featuring Aveda facials and body treatments. It also is a recommended lunch stop if you are out golfing at Nairn or Lossiemouth. $180-$255. Auldearn, Nairnshire IV1 5TE; 1667-454-896; fax 1667-455-469; www.boath-house.com
Private lodges offering hunting, fishing, and shooting are the next best thing after Skibo if you want to do Scotland in traditional style. A number of landowners rent their ancestral homes with staff and all sporting rights to groups of paying guests. This is also a way to get on some of the more exclusive rivers (take the Naver, for example, which only has 12 rods to its 21 miles). The following tour operators will arrange such accommodations for you. Rental periods are generally a minimum of one week. Prices are available on request.
Holland & Holland the London gun maker, is the most upmarket of the operators, with more than 60 estates on their books. Of these, the top all-around property is Kinveachy Lodge, 30 miles south of Inverness on Viscount Reidhaven's 30,000-acre Strathspey estate. Stalking (deer hunting) is available, as is grouse hunting (walked-up and driven), in addition to rough shooting (snipe, woodcock, and pheasant) and fishing on the River Spey (currently one of the best rivers, along with the Tay and Helmsdale). The 19th-century lodge sleeps 19 people. Kinveachy is comfortable though not opulent, furnished with sporting trophies, antique tapestries, and tartan carpets. Holland & Holland, 50 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022; 212-752-7755; fax 212-752-6975; www.hollandandholland.com
CKD Finlayson Hughes is the insider's company used by Brits (Holland & Holland, on the other hand, caters mostly to the corporate and American markets, and gets top dollar). CKD offers a superior spread of properties, although it is less hands-on (it won't, for example, sort out flights). For stalking, the best place is Affric Lodge—though the lodge is so beautiful you would be forgiven for passing up the sport—ten miles up the eponymous glen amid 10,500 acres of deer forest. The setting is truly spectacular, perched on an islet on the eastern end of a loch, deep in the central Highlands' heartland, with views westward to the Five Sisters of Kintail. The lodge, which sleeps 12 people, is a tour de force in Ralph Lauren, complete with valuable antiques—and in one room, original Edwin Landseer murals. This lodge, easily justified out of season, is in a league of its own. There is also Corrybrough, for driven grouse shooting, and Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, on the Isle of Harris, with exceptional fishing. $ CKD Finlayson Hughes, Lynedoch House, Barossa Place, Perth PH1 5EP; 1738-451-600; fax 1738-451-900; www.ckdfh.co.uk
OTHER RECOMMENDED AGENTS include the sporting specialist Roxton Bailey Robinson Worldwide ($ 25 High Street, Hungerford, Berkshire RG17 ONF; 1488-689-701; fax 1488-689-730; www.rbrww.com); they have fishing on four of Scotland's premier rivers. Newcomer George Goldsmith (Catchpell House, Carpet Lane, Edinburgh EH6 6SP; 131-468-8535; fax 131-467-0099; www.sportingestates.com) rents private castles with and without the sport.
Since the Highlands are underpopulate and all but empty in winter, good, stand-alone restaurants are rare. Instead, Scotland has a number of restaurants-with-rooms.
Altnaharrie Inn near Ullapool is the only restaurant in Scotland to have two Michelin stars and a private launch to pick you up. Occupying an old drovers' inn on the other side of Loch Broom, near Ullapool, it is run by husband-and-wife team Fred Brown and Gunn Eriksen, he the waiter, she the chef. Seafood plays a prominent role in the four-course prix-fixe. Reserve early—this is one of the UK's most revered pilgrimage sites for gourmands. $ $430. Ullapool, Ross-shire IV26 2SS; 1854-633-230.
Airds Hotel in Port Appin has rooms that are almost as good as its excellent Modern British fare (four courses, with choice), for which it has garnered one Michelin star. $380-$450. $ Port Appin, Appin, Argyll PA38 4DF; 1631-730-236; fax 1631-730-535; www.airds-hotel.com
The Cross in Kingussie is making a noise with its simple but inventive twists on Scottish staples—hot-smoked Shetland salmon with De Puy lentils, or marinated quail with pickled vegetables. Rooms at The Cross aren't remotely luxurious, but they're good enough after a five-course meal. $350. Tweed Mill Brae, Kingussie PH21 1TC; 1540-661-166; fax 1540-661-080.
OTHER RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS include Oystercatcher, the place to go if you're staying at Skibo. In nearby Portmahomack, this café-style eatery, overlooking the Dornoch Firth, serves the best fish and chips in Scotland. Dinner for two, $55. Portmahomack, Tain, Easter Ross IV20 1YB; 1862-871-560. Also in the vicinity is 2 Quail in Dornoch, a small but serious restaurant beginning to make a name for itself. Dinner for two, $85. Castle Street, Dornoch, Sutherland, IV25 3SN; 1862-811-811.
Boat of Garten Golf Club is the most picturesque of the Highland courses—5,86 yards in the shadow of the Cairngorms, where ospreys outnumber caddies. Boat of Garten, Inverness-shire PH24 3BQ; 1479-831-282; fax 1479-831-523.
Moray Golf Club, on the Moray Coast, a half-hour drive from Nairn, is a championship links course—relatively undiscovered (most visitors play Nairn) and popular with Scottish golfing insiders. $ Stotfield Road, Lossiemouth, Moray, Morayshire IV31 6QS; 1343-812-018; fax 1343-815-102.
Royal Dornoch, 45 miles north of Inverness and laid out in 1891, is rated 15th in the world. It follows the natural humps of old-dune embankments, with great swards of fairway running above the beaches of Dornoch Bay. As soon as you know you are coming to Scotland, book your tee time. Royal Dornoch is a course with no poor holes and the most stimulating sequences in all the Highlands. $ Golf Road, Dornoch, Sutherland IV25 3LW; 1862-810-219; fax 1862-810-792; www.royaldornoch.com
Anta Scotland, a ten-year-old ceramics and textiles outfit, is one of Scotland's more fashionable haunts. Their tartan ceramics are delightful—in Macallan, Maclachlan, Macleod, and Blackwatch. And the rugs, made of pure Shetland wool, have a contemporary look that seems to have passed by the rest of Scotland. This is the factory outlet, located 35 miles northeast of Inverness (the main store is in Edinburgh). Fearn, Tain, Ross-shire IV20 1XW; 1862-832-477; fax 1862-832-616; www.anta.co.uk
Campbell & Co. of Beauly, specializing in sporting tweeds, highland dress, and knitwear, is a must on any northern itinerary. It features all the big Scottish names, with well-regarded bespoke tailoring. Now in the fourth generation of the founding family, service is rendered in a clipped Scots accent by James and his sisters Catriona and Miriam, both clad in prim, knee-length tartan A-line skirts and sashes. The Highland Tweed House, Beauly, Inverness-shire AIV4 7BU; 1463-782-239; fax 1463-782-834.
The Glenalmond Tweed Company looks unpromising—a scruffy shop down a rough farm track—but it has the largest selection of handwoven Harris Tweeds outside the Western Isles. Cloth is of the highest quality: traditional lichen-dyed herringbones, bright-colored featherweight tartans, rose-pink and dogtooth tweeds—all woven by Hebridean crofters. Ready-to-wear is also available. The must-buy here is the tough-wearing luggage: well-cut, waterproof, with first-class written all over it. $ Culnacloich, Glenalmond, Perth PH1 3SN; 1738-880-322; fax 1738-880-431.
Gordon & MacPhail is ground zero for malt whiskies, the only draw to the otherwise dour town of Elgin. Since 1895, the spirit merchant has sold every kind of Scotch available, including distillery-bottled single malts (over 100 brands), vatted malts, and whisky-based liqueurs. Gordon & MacPhail is best known for its own labels, as well as for an exceptional collection of rare old malts, with a whisky for every year from 1936. Do not, however, expect to see a Scot handing over $4,960 for the 50-year-old Dalmore. Locals will inform you that whisky doesn't improve beyond 15 years. 58-60 South Street, Elgin IV30 1JY; 1343-545-111; fax 1343-540-155; www.gordonandmacphail.com
The House of Bruar, commonly dubbed the "Harrods of the North," is a 60,000-square-foot retail space off the heavily traveled A9—the Highland's one-stop shop for all things Scottish. The food emporium features the very finest in local produce—wild venison from Rannoch Smokery, Gigha Isle cheeses, Dundee cake, oatcakes, heather honey. It is also the largest golf-clothing store in Scotland. The clothing section is comprehensive—knitwear, tweeds, outdoor wear—and the restaurant, a popular pit stop on the drive north, is where you go for your haggis, neeps, and tatties. Blair Atholl, Perthshire PH18 5TW; 1796-483-236; fax 1796-483-218; www.houseofbruar.com
Hunters of Brora, established in 1901, has long been a Highlands institution—the stalwart of sporting tweeds, patronized by the Royals, and the supplier of Burberry and Daks. Recently, however, the company has been in and out of the hands of different owners. The only real reason to come here is for the heavy 22- and 23-ounce fabrics, which are built to take the punishment of Highland sport—that, and if you are interested in having a private-estate tweed drawn up. Brora, Sutherland KW9 6NA; 1408-623-523; fax 1408-623-500.
Iain Marr Antiques is much the classiest dealer, specializing in Scottish silver and assorted Highland regalia (dating from 1700), and pebble jewelry. The silver dinner services are exquisite, but you can also pick up wares of a more unusual nature. Recently sold for $10,208: a ram's head snuff mull, or snuffbox, on casters, with bejeweled antlers. $ 3 Mid Street, Beauly, Inverness-shire IV4 7DP; 1463-782-372; fax 1463-783-623; www.iain-marr-antiques.com
Inverawe Smokehouses, 80 miles north of Glasgow, is some distance out of the way, but thankfully there's a reliable mail-order service. Smoked products include eel, halibut, and Inverawe kippers, but it is the salmon for which this family-owned operation is esteemed—the best in Scotland, as its competitors will concede. Taynuilt, Argyll PA35 1HU; 1866-822-446; fax 1866-822-274; www.smokedsalmon.co.uk
MacNaughtons of Pitlochry. founded on Loch Tayside in 1792, is where all self-respecting Scots come for their tartans (or to trace them), made to order into kilts or pure worsted wool trousers. Make the detour for the cloth, not the ready-to-wear articles. Station Road, Pitlochry PH16 5AF; 1796-472-722; fax 1796-474-266; www.macnaughton-group.com
Blair Castle, which dates from 1269, was the last castle in Britain to have been besieged, and it remains headquarters to Britain's only private army (known as the Atholl Highlanders). Eight miles north of Pitlochry, the castle is the ancestral home of the earls and dukes of Atholl, and looks like something out of a child's fairy tale: white, turreted, and castellated. Thirty-two rooms are open to the public. Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH18 5TL; 1796-481-207; fax 1796-481-487; www.blair-castle.co.uk
Cawdor Castle, eight miles to the northeast of Culloden, is a moated castle dating from 1372, immortalized in Shakespeare's Macbeth (despite the fact that the 11th-century king was dead before this place was built). It is filled with Flemish tapestries, paintings, and weapons. Makes for an excellent two-day trip with Culloden battlefield, where in 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated in the last pitched battle fought on British soil. Cawdor, Nairn IV12 5RD; 1667-404-615; fax 1667-404-674; www.cawdorcastle.com
Dunrobin Castle and Gardens, on the Sutherland coast 50 miles to the north of Inverness, is the Highlands' most spectacular castle, although, aesthetically speaking, it left me cold. The 189-room extravaganza, which for 800 years was home to the dukes of Sutherland (at one point the largest landowners in Western Europe), is a peculiar medley of 17th-century Scottish and 18th-century French. Golspie, Sutherland KW10 6SF; 1408-633-177.
With more than 900 million bottles of whisky exported every year, it is hardly surprising that distilleries capitalize on guided tours. But it is a heavily beaten trail (especially Speyside) and often the whisky costs less if you buy it at the local store.
Edradour is unique. Established in 1825, this is Scotland's smallest distillery. It must be its prettiest, a clutch of whitewashed buildings on the edge of Moulin Moor. Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5JP; 1796-472-095; fax 1796-472-002; www.edradour.co.uk
Glenlivet (Glenlivet, Banffshire AB37 9DB; 1542-783-220; www.theglenlivet.com), Glenturret (Crieff, Perthshire PH7 4HA; 1764-656-565; www.glenturret.com), and Glenmorangie (Tain, Ross-shire IV19 1PZ; 1862-892-043; www.glenmorangie.com) are informative, if vast and touristy.
About this Guide
Prices In U.S. dollars.
Hotel Prices High-season rates from the least expensive double room to the most expensive suite. Includes breakfast.
Restaurants-with-Rooms Rates are for two and include breakfast and dinner.
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For assistance with travel to the Scottish Highlands, or any other destination, call 800-443-7672 (PTS) or 877-877-0987 (CTS). From abroad, call 623-492-5000 collect.
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Disclaimer: the information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in March 2001, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.