A couple of years ago I rolled out a series of Itinerary Ideas articles that highlighted different areas of Scotland. When I’d written as many as I could, I couldn’t help but notice there were still some glaring holes on the map, little wastelands of knowledge here on my site. It was this process that kickstarted the planning of my subsequent trips – I needed to dig into and explore these areas in more depth, and so I hit the road this past spring to ferret out some of the great visitor experiences in Lochaber and the west highlands.
These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their importance for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
Lochaber & West Highlands
When the mind wanders to Scotland, the grandeur and beauty of Lochaber and the west highlands is kindled in the imagination. This is a place of sweeping glens, epic vistas, and towering hills wreathed in shadow and shrouded in mist. From Glencoe to Ben Nevis and Glenfinnan to Oban, this region is loaded with obvious gems, and there are far more hidden places that will escape your short-lived passage through this glimmering realm. Yet for all Lochaber and the west highland’s scenic wealth it is often relegated to drive-through territory en route to the Isle of Skye. Indeed this was my glaring sin for all too long, and for shame, for this part of Scotland stands tall with the country’s most popular destinations. In this dissonance is opportunity for serendipity, to find those hidden places before they are no longer hidden, and it is the act of finding that keeps us traveling.
Things You Can’t Miss
Hiking in Glencoe. Glencoe is one of the most beautiful glens in all of Scotland, and that’s saying something. Tucked in the west highlands just south of Fort William, it is an easy visit as the main highway shoots directly through its heart, making soaking in its grandeur a piece of cake. There are many hikes you can make in the valley of Glencoe, such as the taxing hike up into the Lost Valley and the more accessible Signal Rock and An Torr, but one and all are astoundingly beautiful.
The Fairy Bridge of Glen Creran. There’s boundless serendipity to be had in the west highlands where hidden treasures lurk in every glen. When I happened upon the Fairy Bridge of Glen Creran I wished time would stop. Perhaps there is no more magical place in all of Scotland, though the Ring of Brodgar might have words with me for saying that. Glen Creran is tucked deep in the hills at the head of Loch Creran, which is essentially the backside of Glencoe. This is not by any means on the main tourist drag, so you need to do a little planning to fit this into a trip. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Castle Tioram. Castle Tioram (pronounced Chee-rum) stands on a tidal island in Loch Moidart deep in the windswept, barren wilds of Moidart. This is a special place. Much like the feeling I get in Orkney, there is a subconscious vibrance about the whole area. The journey here, the finding of this place slipping from human memory, down rough roads and over rocky heath contributes to the awe-inspiring view of the castle atop a rock that the sea can’t quite swallow.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge. One of the best short hikes in all of Scotland, Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge is, well, gorgeous with just enough complexity to make it interesting. The trail leads along the side of the Nevis Gorge, over rocks running with streams and through old growth woodland. The upland meadow beneath the falls feels like a hidden place of old, but these days the hike is fairly famous and you won’t have the chance to escape a horde of fellow hikers barring, perhaps, a winter sojourn. Still, what a beautiful reward at the end.
Castle Stalker. Standing on a tiny island in Loch Linnhe off the coast of Appin, Castle Stalker possesses a magnificent setting in the west highlands. Remembered for its connection to Monty Python, it will be remembered in your memory for its beauty. While it’s possible to take a boat out to the island and tour the 14th-century castle, it is far from necessary. Grab a seat at the Castle Stalker View Café and just soak it in.
The town of Oban. The west highlands’ major town is a bustling port handling ferries to the Inner Hebrides. Houses cling to a hillside tumbling toward the water, and on clear days there are unimpeded views out to Mull, Lismore, and other islands in the Firth of Lorn. In town, visit McCaig’s Tower and the Oban distillery before grabbing lunch at a place like Cuan Mor.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Explore Morvern and Ardnamurchan. On the west side of Loch Linnhe lie the windswept and austere lands of Morvern and Ardnamurchan. This great peninsula is largely unpeopled but scattered with intriguing castles, beaches, and sanctuaries. If a day out driving through lesser-known scenery sounds appealing, take the car ferry at Corran and disappear in the hills of Morvern and Ardnamurchan.
Hike up to shuttered Mamore Lodge Hotel above Kinlochleven. Little Kinlochleven stands at the head of Loch Leven just northeast of Glencoe in fjord-like setting. The Grey Mare’s Tail hike leads out of town and up into the hills to Mamore Lodge Hotel, which has closed relatively recently. The lodge itself is not very impressive, but the views from the hillside as you hike up are solid gold. This is Lochaber and the west highlands in perfect form!
Find Sanna Beach. Sanna Beach lies at the westernmost tip of the Ardnamurchan peninsula and figures into many beach-hunters‘ top five beaches in Scotland lists. Few places are so remote, but Sanna’s white dunes and superb views to the Small Isles make it an attractive day out in the west highlands. The journey is not for the faint of heart, for the final leg involves driving on single-track roads for thirty minutes.
Logistics & Salient Bits
Bases. Most people think of Fort William when they look at this region, but I find Fort William a bit uninspiring. Sure, it has Ben Nevis looming over town in grand fashion, but there are nicer areas to stay. Take Kinlochleven, for instance. This is a quiet, pretty town in magnificent environs right near Glencoe. In general, however, I don’t think there are particular towns you must use as a base in this part of Scotland. Instead, focus on quality accommodations. I loved the Eco Pods right along the shore of Loch Linnhe. It’s out there in the wild but it proved to be a non-issue for getting around the area. Oban makes a good base if you intend to range out to the islands of the Inner Hebrides.
Transportation. A rental car is the best way to see the best of Scotland, but in some areas of the country you can get away with public transportation and still put together an enjoyable trip. Lochaber and the west highlands is not one of those places. The train does trundle up to Fort William from Glasgow, but to do many of the hikes and see many of the places I’ve mentioned in this article you need a car. Trying to cobble together transportation to these often far-flung destinations using buses and trains is an exercise in futility. Rent the car!
Food & Drink. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of tasty establishments I found in this part of Scotland. Being on the west coast the area is blessed with loads of good seafood that appeared on menus everywhere. The Castle Stalker View Café, basically on top of the Eco Pods, made excellent baked goods and breakfasts. The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe offered delicious real ales and pub food, including a particularly delicious highland game pie with juniper berries and gin. The Creagan Inn north of Oban seemed like a good place to grab a pint and the food wasn’t half bad either. In Oban, Cuan Mor was a hit with me and my travel companions – we ate there at least twice. The Pierhouse Restaurant in Port Appin was similarly popular though a little pricier, and the seafood was fantastic. The Holly Tree in Kentallen provided fantastic views across Loch Linnhe and particularly tasty Hebridean oyster.
Another boatload of itinerary ideas packaged up to help you plan a trip to Lochaber and the west highlands. I hope these places will give you pause in your trip planning and reason to visit this gorgeous part of Scotland.