Planning My Trip to Northern Scotland

by Keith Savage · 9 comments

The wilderness near Bonar Bridge

I’ve been thinking about this trip for a long time. The northwest highlands, an area some Scots consider to be the “true” highlands, stretch north of the beaten path running from Inverness to Skye. This is an achingly beautiful stretch of wilderness, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what this region has to offer. The reason? The farther you get from the heart of Scotland the more your trip must revolve around those distant destinations. For example, it doesn’t make sense to stop in Wester Ross when the rest of your trip is east of Loch Ness. That’s not an effective use of time and time is the primary currency when we’re talking about vacation. Finally, now I am directing my full attention to the north.

It has been a couple years since I wrote a post like this, and that one, which looked at planning my trip to southern Scotland, provided a lot of background on my planning philosophy. I suggest you read it again if that’s what you’re interested in because I won’t be rehashing it here. Instead, this post will focus more on the content of my upcoming trip.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Region(s)

For the purposes of this trip, the northwest highlands, which isn’t actually a political entity, includes everything north of an imaginary line drawn from Inverness to Loch Carron. It also mirrors the North Coast 500, an ingenious idea from Scotland’s tourism marketeers. This area includes Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, and Easter Ross, though I will be focusing less on Easter Ross since I’ve seen much more of that region en route to and from the Orkney Islands. Admittedly, this is an enormous swath of Scotland, and, while it is less densely populated than the south, I am under no impression that I can do it justice with a single trip. Wester Ross and Sutherland are at the top of my priority list for their beauty and countless glowing reviews from many I’ve encountered in my travels.

Step 2: Timing and Length

Shoulder season is my preferred time of year to travel to Scotland, and spring has become something of a tradition. It just seems to work going away before the busyness of summer kicks into full gear, and it doesn’t hurt that Scotland is beautiful in April/May/June with fewer hordes of tourists. That said, the northwest highlands are not the highest priority for most tourists and so shoulder season is less important for this particular trip.

Planning a solo trip is very easy because I only have to worry about my schedule, but I am traveling with Sarah and my retired parents on this trip and it’s part of a larger jaunt that includes a week in France with my sister before Scotland. With so many schedules involved the options for timing the trip quickly got reduced to one, but being in Scotland the first half of June will be great. Definitely a unique situation.

Since I am traveling with others who have finite vacation days, I also have a hard limit for the trip’s length (I could bid them adieu and continue on but that is absolutely no fun and logistically difficult to boot). All that said, I will be spending a week in France before devoting two weeks to northwest Scotland. In a perfect world I think I’d have around a month to inch my way along the coast, but there’s always next trip.

Step 3: Route

As we are flying into Edinburgh from the south of France, I will, for once, not be jet-lagged upon arriving to Scotland. This is fortuitous because our destination is far to the north of the cities and I don’t want to waste a night up front getting over jet-lag. We will pick up a car immediately upon landing and drive north to Grantown-on-Spey for a night in the Cairngorms National Park. The following morning we’ll head west across country to Wester Ross, exploring Gairloch, Torridon, Applecross, and up to Ullapool for the next week. We will continue north into Sutherland and then east into Caithness for the following week before driving back to Edinburgh for our last night.

Step 4: Destinations

A big part of this trip’s allure is its wide-open nature. There isn’t a list of must-see places that, should you miss them, would otherwise result in a staid and boring visit. Instead, it’s the beauty of the land itself, with its countless beaches, cliffs, hikes, and ruins, that is the attraction, and this emphasizes serendipity. Of course I’ve done my research, and I do have a fairly long list of places to keep in mind as we explore the back roads of the northwest highlands. Places like Loch TorridonBealach na Bá, the Falls of Kirkaig, Dun Dornaigail Broch, Knockan Crag, Ardvech Ruins, Smoo Cave, Eas Coul Aluinn Falls, Suilven, An Teallach, and the beach at Redpoint just to name a few. I’ve also got distillery visits lined up at Tomatin, Wolfburn, and Pulteney.

Step 5: Cost vs. Budget

As with the timing and length of this trip, its budget/cost is unique. I have other travelers to help cover the cost of transportation, accommodation, and meals, which means we can generally afford a nicer visit. As you probably know by now, I am super picky about accommodations. I spent the early planning sessions finding nice places to stay and booking them. Most of that happened back in November because I was waiting for plans to firm up with others in my party, but if you’re picky like me seven months ahead of time is almost too late. Here’s a tip that will be useful to anyone planning a trip to Scotland on their own or with the help of my services: Book your accommodations a year ahead of time (if you can) if you’re looking for really special places to stay.

So there you have it! My upcoming two-week trip to Scotland in a nutshell. I’m really looking forward to it and would value your suggestions for places to visit. Please let me know in the comments!

Laura DurhamNo Gravatar April 24, 2016 at 2:44 PM

Get out to the coast! The northern coast of Scotland has some of the most beautiful white sand beaches, perfect for a bit of wild swimming. Rispond Beach is one of my personal favorites, and not too far from Ullapool I believe. Also Smoo Cave is on the way to Rispond and of course is always worth a stop!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 25, 2016 at 8:27 AM

Rispond Beach, got it. Smoo Cave is already on the list. Thanks Laura!

MichaelNo Gravatar April 24, 2016 at 2:44 PM

Hi Keith,
My spouse and I have been traveling to Scotland regularly for 20 years — 20 years this summer, in fact. To say that I “identify with” you and your blog is an understatement, and I thought it was about time I left you a comment to express my appreciation for it. Plus, you’ve saved me a lot of time and trouble explaining where and how to travel in Scotland to friends and acquaintances – I just tell them to check your blog out!

The reason I’m writing today is that, coincidentally, my spouse and I will be traveling with friends in this part of Scotland at roughly the same time as you and your party will. It’s our favorite part of the country, and we can’t wait to get back there. I hope you and your group enjoy it and have a great time.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 25, 2016 at 8:40 AM

Hi Michael,

Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to know that even folks as well traveled in Scotland as you and your spouse find Traveling Savage interesting/useful. Now I’m even more excited to visit the northwest highlands in depth! Who knows, maybe we’ll even bump into each other. There aren’t that many souls in Europe’s last great wilderness.

Safe travels,

Rose BNo Gravatar April 22, 2016 at 7:00 PM

Hi Keith,

Been an avid follower of your blog for over a year now. So happy your returning again this year 2016. My trip is not until 2017 . Your beautiful pictures, history and tips made me go back and read every entry. Planning to use your services just took look over my schedule added suggestions when it gets closer. Have already decided to travel May or June, to stay 15 days (if i can afford it) and limit myself to only four home places to visit. (Oban, Inverness and Edinburgh) So many suggestion.. wish i could see more. Using Inverness to take a tour of Orkney sites, visit Rosemarkie’s Groam home Museum of Black Isle). Your blog makes my heart skip a beat, and day dream. Looking forward to your future installments.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 22, 2016 at 7:37 PM

Hi Rose,

Thanks for the kind comments! I’m glad you’ve found this place helpful and inspirational. Your trip sounds wonderful, and I commend you on getting up to Orkney. The Groam House is a fantastic little museum, too. Looking forward to hearing from you down the line.

All the best,

Jim StuhtNo Gravatar April 20, 2016 at 12:56 PM

Try to make sure your drive the B869 thru Drumbeg if you get the chance. It’s an incredible road that can’t have more than 100′ of straight tarmac along its’ entire run. We drove it in 2012 and it was a hoot.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 21, 2016 at 7:12 AM

Thanks for the idea, Jim!

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