Red deer, winter walks and malt whisky: the Scottish Highlands and islands through the eyes of local people | Spirit of the Highlands and Islands

The Highlands – people and their passions
Scotland’s Highlands and islands are renowned for their natural beauty, rich history and opportunities for outdoor adventure. The magnificent Cairngorms National Park is a not-to-be missed highlight all year round with its soaring mountains, vast forests and ancient ruins. But there is also a wealth of things to see and do indoors, giving visitors, particularly in autumn and winter, a chance to see an alternative side to this splendid place.

Highlands-based artist and painter Ann Vastano, of the Old Post Office Cafe Gallery in Kincraig, points visitors to the evenings of traditional music, storytelling and poetry, the Storylands Sessions, run by Merryn Glover and Hamish Napier in the Badenoch area. She’s also a fan of places such as The Bookmark, a cosy bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey, where the knowledgable owner Marjory Marshall stocks all the latest bestsellers, champions local writers and has sections dedicated to Scottish history and the Cairngorms. “There are so many people here who are passionate about what they do,” says Vastano. “And they want to share that passion with visitors.”

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Shetland – 6,000 years of history in a day
Just a seven-minute ferry ride from Shetland’s capital Lerwick, the island of Bressay offers 6,000 years of human history in a day. Archaeologist Chris Dyer, who moved to Shetland in 2006, has a soft spot for Cullingsbrough, to the northeast of Bressay, where ruins provide an insight in to island life since ancient times – a neolithic turf dyke, Viking houses, a broch, a manse and croft houses.

Other highlights include a walk up Ward Hill, Bressay’s highest point, offering fantastic views across the whole of Shetland and a trip to the southernmost point to walk the coast past the old lighthouse and take a picture with the enormous first world war gun that still “guards” the island.

And don’t miss a tour of Chris Dyer’s agriculture holding, Garths Croft, where he focuses on sustainability, self-sufficiency and protecting heritage breeds in a spectacular natural landscape. “I’m the crofter, shepherd, tractor driver, drystone wall builder, guide, alongside professionally being an archaeologist and part-time retained island firefighter,” he says.

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Orkney – stone age tombs and stunning views
Historian and storyteller Tom Muir recommends looking beyond the obvious attractions when exploring his home of Orkney. “As well as the stunning neolithic monuments of the World Heritage Site,” he says, “there are other amazing places, tucked away but easy to access. The tomb of Cuween Hill, just over a 10-minute drive from Kirkwall, is one of the most original, intact stone age tombs and well worth the short walk up the hillside to see it. The views there are stunning as well.”

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Red Deer Stag
In autumn, visitors may be lucky enough to see stags in the hills of Argyll. Photograph: Jonathan Andrew/Getty Images

Argyll & The Isles – red deer and green hills
Many locations across Scotland’s Highlands and islands offer panoramic views and endless opportunities to spot rare wildlife, and Argyll is no exception. “Many of Scotland’s iconic species can be found in Argyll,” says Pete Creech, wildlife ranger at Argyll Beaver Centre, part of the Heart of Argyll Wildlife Organisation. His work takes him to the heart of Knapdale Forest, a 500-hectare (1,200-acre) site of special scientific interest, which he says is his favourite place to be. “In autumn, visitors should look out for red squirrels, pine martens, hen harriers and, if you are in the hills, you might be lucky enough to catch the roaring of the stags as the red deer rut gets underway. It’s always green (we get just under two metres of rain a year) and, after 22 years here it still takes my breath away.”

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Moray Speyside – a land of contrasts
As well as wonderful wildlife, the Highlands and islands are a terrific source of tales and myths. Among Moray Speyside’s historical titbits is the story of the real Macbeth, on whom Shakespeare’s tragic hero was based. “Not many people know that the real Macbeth ruled Moray Speyside about 1,000 years ago,” says David Wilson, Visit Moray Speyside operations and marketing coordinator. “Or that around Forres there are many places associated with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, including the ‘blasted heath’ where he met the three witches.”

He adds: “We are a land of natural contrasts, from the mighty Cairngorms mountains to the rugged world-famous Moray Firth coast. Unspoilt and untapped lands, our unique microclimate and excellent transport links make Moray Speyside the ideal year-round outdoor destination. You can explore miles of waymarked trails, golden beaches and crystal-clear rivers. We offer everything from stargazing to skiing.”

As the home of malt whisky, Moray Speyside has plenty of distilleries that are open to visitors, including The Cairn, brand new and nestled in the Cairngorms National Park at Craggan, near Grantown-on-Spey.

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Outer Hebrides – wild about ponies
Further west, you’ll find gems such as the family-run North Uist Distillery, which, despite its name, is located on Benbecula. Co-founder and creative director Kate MacDonald says: “We have the most spectacular white sandy beaches in Uist and Benbecula which are great places to walk. Or if it rains, come to our distillery for a tasting!”

The Outer Hebrides are also home to the native Eriskay ponies, an ancient rare breed that is now considered endangered. Today, there are only about 400 in the world but a charity, Comann Each nan Eilean – The Eriskay Pony Society, is working to protect them through conservation work and breeding programmes. Visitors can see the ponies roaming free on the islands of Eriskay and South Uist.

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Looking towards Arran from Millport Isle of Cumbrae Ayrshire Scotland
The coast around Millport, the main town on Cumbrae, is made for exploring. Photograph: Keith Fergus/Alamy

The Isles of Arran and Cumbrae – panoramic views and a ‘crocodile’
Near Blackwaterfoot on Arran, the Currie family run Bellevue Farm. As the sixth generation to farm on the island, Donald and Ailsa rear sheep and beef, and grow malting barley for Arran whisky. Sitting on a hilltop, the farm spoils visitors with spectacular views over the Kilbrannan Sound and Kintyre peninsula. As well as offering farm tours and running farmers’ markets to celebrate local produce, the family let out holiday cottages situated just a short walk from the beach, and close to shops and restaurants.

Across the water is Cumbrae, known as Scotland’s most accessible island. Bronwyn Jenkins-Deas, co-owner of Isle of Cumbrae Distillers, says: “We’re just an eight-minute ferry ride from the mainland town of Largs, and Largs is less than an hour by train from Glasgow and two from Edinburgh. And you don’t need a car here. In fact, cycling is officially our national sport! The island’s just over 10 miles around and relatively flat, so Millport, our only town, is the perfect place to rent a bike and enjoy a wee cycle round the island.”

Daniel Jack, one of the founders of the eco-cabin accommodation business Jack’s Alt-Stays, agrees that the island is a “cyclists’ paradise”, with most places just a quick ride away. He points visitors in the direction of the Cathedral of the Isles, believed to be the smallest cathedral in Britain, and to the panoramic views of the whole island from the Glaid Stone. He’s also a huge fan of crocodile rock, an outcrop on the beach whose resemblance to a croc has been enhanced for more than a century by a nifty coat of paint.

But as far as hidden gems go, he has an unusual top tip: “In the West Bay area, you might notice part of a cannon poking up through the ground by the sea wall,” he says. “It’s a German Howitzer 150mm field gun manufactured in Munich for the first world war.”

It turns out that after the war Millport was one of many Scottish burghs given captured German ordnance as a form of memorial. “This proved to be very unpopular as the public felt they were an unwelcome reminder of the war,” says Jack. “So what happened to Millport’s two guns? Well, one disappeared, and the story is that it was launched into the Clyde, and the other was buried, but the ground has since eroded and it now sits partially exposed.” The result is a unique site for Millport’s visitors to see and explore.

Find out more about visiting the Ayrshire & Arran

Where will your next Scottish adventure take you? Discover the Highlands and islands this winter

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