I get loads of questions every month from readers seeking my input on their itineraries and asking for recommendations for how they should spend their time in Scotland. I’m honored and happy to help, and it’s a task I take seriously. For many people, it will be their only trip to Scotland, the one they scrimped and saved to make a reality, the one they might’ve dreamed about for years.
I realized after my first consultation that I couldn’t just serve up my top five Scottish destinations to every inquirer. It wasn’t targeted, so it wasn’t very helpful. And when I pondered the situation, it didn’t feel right.
Looking at my notes, I started dividing my favorites into categories to help hasten my responses as many people request my help on a short timeframe. I started getting the sense that the information was more helpful, more actionable and relevant. It was working.
After receiving some more emails while I was in Italy these past couple weeks, a question bubbled up through my happy, wine-soaked consciousness: Why is this information where only I can see it?
So, after four years of Traveling Savage, a decade’s-worth of trips to Scotland, and more than 300 posts specifically about Scotland’s people, culture, history, and nature, I feel that now is the time to start rolling out a series of “Best Of” articles highlighting my favorite places and activities. These articles should serve as good starting points for plans – nothing like this can ever be truly static or definitive – that readers can use as shortcuts while I hash out more specific recommendations on a case-by-case basis.
I’m starting with one of my favorite things about Scotland: The natural beauty! Read on one and all. Nature lovers – this one’s for you.
The Hermitage in Perthshire
When I stumbled on The Hermitage in 2011, I was already in love with Perthshire’s heavily-forested interior. Within walking distance of magical Dunkeld, The Hermitage sits on the banks of the River Braan in the Craigvinean Forest, a woodland with soaring Douglas Fir trees that reach heights near 200 feet.
The maintained yet unobtrusive path winds through the wood, over mossy stone bridges, past Georgian follies and the fascinating Ossian’s Cave, before linking up with a 30-mile network of 18th-century paths leading to various parts of Dunkeld. This area suits both those who want a quick dip into nature and more serious hikers.
Scotland is a land full of gorgeous walks and hikes, but the walk I took through the Hermitage in early spring reigns as the best in my experience. The woods retains an ancient presence, and the ground cover is agreeably minimal thanks to the high canopy.
Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms National Park
As the A93 pushes westward through the region of Scotland known as Deeside, it runs into an immovable object at the highland village of Braemar: The Cairngorms National Park. There, as the A93 makes a left turn and shoots south toward the rolling hills of Perth and Tayside, an unclassified road pushes further west, deeper into the mountainous Cairngorms, toward a lesson in natural beauty. The Mar Lodge Estate.
The Mar Lodge Estate comprises more than 72,000 acres and four of the five highest peaks in the Cairngorms mountains. These towering mountains and a shock of dense forest crowd around the Linn of Dee, a natural rock gorge that coalesces the broad River Dee into a frothing monster.
Roads and hiking trails press on to high plateau covered by Caledonian pine forest, heathery moorland, and juniper scrub. Serious hikers will find a collection of mountain bothies for shelter. But for the roads, this part of the Cairngorms National Park feels like people have yet to discover it.
Staffa and Fingal’s Cave
Just west of the Isle of Mull lies an island the old Norse called “pillar island.” We call it Staffa, but you have to give credit to the Norse’s penchant for naming things accurately. Staffa rises from the surging sea like so many hexagonal straws clutched in your fist. It is a marvel of geology in the Treshnish archipelago, just a gorgeous boat ride from one of the docks on western Mull.
Grey seals bobbed in the water and lounged on the rocks, while bottlenose dolphins, whales, and scads of seabirds followed our Turus Mara boat. We peered into the dark recess of Fingal’s Cave, a place that has captivated artists for centuries, before disembarking on the tiny island.
As I climbed up the rickety stone-and-iron staircase to the grassy crown of the island, our boat sped off, leaving its passengers with some quiet time on Staffa. This is truly one of Scotland’s “thin spaces,” where something that you can’t quite name hovers within your perceptions.
The Isle of Skye’s Neist Point
The Isle of Skye has no shortage of natural wonders, but one of my all-time favorite places is Neist Point. It might just be Skye’s most westerly point as it lies beyond Dunvegan, past Milovaig, on the western edge of Skye’s northwestern peninsula, Duirinish.
Neist Point is little more than a finger of land jutting into The Minch with an old lighthouse standing on a cliff, but the wind there is otherworldly – the kind of constant, wind-tunnel-esque barrage of air that will loft you into the stratosphere like a kite if your jacket happens to be unzipped. More than one person leaned a few degrees over the cliff’s edge and marveled at the power of the wind to keep them upright. I abstained. Other than gravity and my wife’s displeasure at the prospect of me tumbling into the sea, I’m not one to trust invisible forces.
Neist Point offers perfect views of Skye’s rugged coastline, and, just maybe on a clear day, the Outer Hebrides.
Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most iconic glens for good reason. The A82 delves through this narrow valley beneath towering, snow-capped peaks hung with ice-white streams and grassy mantles. In fact, the drive from Invergarry through Glencoe and along Loch Leven down to Crianlarich is one that shouldn’t be missed. The Grampians and Rannoch Moor posses some of Scotland’s most austere beauty.
The hell of it is the drive always seems like a luge shooting me south toward Glasgow as I rarely stay in this part of Scotland. I will rectify this soon and you should avoid making this error, nature lovers. These west highlands are stunning and, barring Fort William, largely empty.
Hikers and walkers will find this part of Scotland a paradise of opportunities. Check out the great Walk Highlands site for detailed walks.
A year from now or two years from now, will these still be my top five destinations for nature lovers? Only time will tell, and despite all my travels around Scotland I’ve still got a lot left to see.