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Why consider visiting the North Highlands of Scotland?

Most people know very little about the North Highlands, the vast expanse between Inverness and the north coast of mainland Scotland. Until fairly recently it was a little-known area outside of the local communities and those who had ventured north to take jobs in the growing nuclear power industry over 50 years ago.

A map of the North Highlands of Scotland which highlights the coastal route of the North Coast 500 in red.
North Coast 500 route

And then in 2015, the North Coast 500 came into being – a coastal route utilising the roads which already existed and linking many of the existing features which the area had to offer into one touring route. In effect the NC500 is just the marketing of this circular road system but had historically been less travelled due to the lack of supporting infrastructure and facilities – and its distance from anywhere else!

The NC500 is a great ‘tool’ to assist visitors but, in truth, it only encompasses part of the area. What it misses is the depth of history, wildlife and human experience which can be found throughout the whole region including the ‘interior’ or inland section.


In simple terms why should you visit the North Highlands?

  • It is the best of Scotland without the crowds!

  • It has dramatic landscapes, is rich in history, has an abundance of wildlife, lots of stunning beaches and the biggest skies.

  • And it has time – you can find peace, space and tranquillity like nowhere else on the UK mainland.

And if this interests you - please read on!


So why don't more folk visit?

A big sky over a desolate landscape, looking down a valley between a series of mountains on either side.
The wild North Highlands' landscape

Well, it is a long way from the rest of the UK in most people’s eyes. And even when you reach Inverness at the southernmost end of the area, it is still another 2/1/2 – 3 hours drive to reach the north coast (and that’s the fastest route).

Covering an area 10 times the size of Skye, means it is big, vast in fact, and this can be scary to the visitor. And added to this, because of this great expanse, without the infrastructure, towns, facilities or recognised visitor attractions which you may find further south, it doesn’t make it easy for the first-time visitor to navigate and discover what's there.

But what are you missing?

With this expanse of land comes great variety – in terms of landscape, history and the experiences you can have.


The ruined keep of a castle on the edge of the cliff and the sea behind
Bucholie Castle, Caithness

The area has lots and lots of history, both ancient and modern, and much of it is undisturbed or located in areas where you can still stand and imagine what it was like ‘back in the time’. This is because the land is not overdeveloped – often not developed at all! It hasn’t been ripped up to make a car park or destroyed to build a block of flats or extend a conurbation.


A puffin perched on teh edge of teh cliff
The famous puffin

In turn, this means there is also more visible and accessible wildlife, which is also less bothered by people. Puffins, red deer, seals, dolphins, birds of prey, sea birds, and otters can be seen at the right times of year and even orca can be seen from the cliff tops – a truly magical experience. No wonder there are recognised orca watchers who trail round the coast in season hoping to spot one on their journey around our coastline.


An aerial shot of a beach on the right, the sea on the left and mountains in the distance.
Achnahaird Beach

And the landscape – each aspect of the coast is different. The east coast provides the human history with fishing harbours and castles, the north coast enjoys an abundance of beautiful beaches and the west holds the stunning mountains and lochs of the NWH Geopark and beyond – the history of geology right there in front of you in all its glory.

And as for the interior, the part folk often miss altogether, you have lots of history, the ‘Flow Country’ and the chance to stay in the remotest hotel in Britain!

Skye v. the North Highlands?

People often visit Skye because they’ve seen it on the TV or read about it in guidebooks. But the North Highlands has everything Skye has and more, so if you have a little more time do not be daunted in visiting the North Highlands – be brave, take the road less travelled, get away from the crowds and come and see the most beautiful and expansive part of Scotland. You won’t be disappointed.

Benefits of a private tour guide?

An aerial shot of a single track road with a sharp hairpin bend
Driving Bealach Na Ba

There are a number of guide books to get you started – particularly focusing on the NC500 but if you have more time and a few more pennies, consider taking a private tour. You’ll have a fantastic time, you will learn more and you won’t need to worry about driving single track roads or finding toilets (!) - it will all be done for you!

To put it into context – one set of our tour guests spoke to a fellow traveller who we had bumped into several days in a row as they had toured the same route over a similar timeframe. The other traveller said to our guests, "Well, I’m glad I didn’t pay for a private guide as we’re obviously travelling the same ground". Our guests asked if she had seen one particular location. “Err, no” she said. “And did you enjoy..." and quoted another location. “Umm, no we didn’t”. “Oh well never mind, maybe next time”, our guests politely responded!

For sure, you could visit the North Highlands for a month and probably not see and experience all there is to see. But just make sure that when you do venture north, you give yourself enough time and truly make the most of it.

For more insight into the North Highlands, why not make a quick cuppa and have a listen to this UK Travel Planning podcast featuring Sally-Ann from North Coast Explorer Tours.

Happy travels!

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