The port of Invergordon is your gateway to the Great Glen, an area of Scotland that includes Loch Ness and the city of Inverness. Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, has the flavor of a Lowland town, its winds blowing in a sea-salt air from the Moray Firth. The Great Glen is also home to one of the world's most famous monster myths: in 1933, during a quiet news week, the editor of a local paper decided to run a story about a strange sighting of something splashing about in Loch Ness. But there's more to look for here besides Nessie, including inland lochs, craggy and steep-sided mountains, rugged promontories, deep inlets, brilliant purple and emerald moorland, and forests filled with astonishingly varied wildlife, including mountain hares, red deer, golden eagles, and ospreys.
Inverness. Inverness seems designed for the tourist, with its banks, souvenirs, high-quality woolens, and well-equipped visitor center. Compared with other Scottish towns, however, Inverness has less to offer visitors who have a keen interest in Scottish history. Throughout its past, Inverness was burned and ravaged by the restive Highland clans competing for dominance in the region. Thus, a decorative wall panel here and a fragment of tower there are all that remain amid the modern shopping facilities and 19th-century downtown developments. The town does make a good base, however, for exploring the northern end of the Great Glen.
Inverness Castle. One of Inverness's few historic landmarks is reddish sandstone Inverness Castle (now the local Sheriff Court), nestled above the river off Castle Road on Castle Hill. The current structure is Victorian, built after a former fort was blown up by the Jacobites in the 1745 campaign.
Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. The excellent, although small, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery covers archaeology, art, local history, and the natural environment in its lively displays. Castle Wynd.
Culloden Moor. Culloden was the scene of the last major battle fought on British soil-to this day considered one of the most infamous and tragic of all. Here, on a cold April day in 1746, the outnumbered, fatigued Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were destroyed by the superior firepower of George II's army. The victorious commander, the duke of Cumberland (George II's son), earned the name of the "Butcher" of Cumberland for the bloody reprisals carried out by his men on Highland families, Jacobite or not, caught in the vicinity. In the battle itself, the duke's army-greatly outnumbering the Scots-killed more than 1,000 soldiers. The National Trust for Scotland has re-created a slightly eerie version of the battlefield as it looked in 1746 that you can explore with a guided audio tour. An innovative visitor center enables you to get closer to the sights and sounds of the battle and to interact with the characters involved. Academic research and technology have helped re-create the Gaelic dialect, song, and music of the time. The excellent on-site café serves homemade soups, sandwiches, and cakes. B9006, Culloden. Admission charged.
Fort George. As a direct result of the battle at Culloden, the nervous government in London ordered the construction of a large fort on a promontory reaching into the Moray Firth: Fort George was started in 1748 and completed some 20 years later. It's perhaps the best-preserved 18th-century military fortification in Europe. A visitor center and tableaux at the fort portray the 18th-century Scottish soldier's way of life. The fort is 14 miles northeast of Iverness. Off B9006, Ardersier. Admission charged.
Cawdor Castle. Shakespeare's (1564-1616) Macbeth was Thane of Cawdor, but the sense of history that exists within the turreted walls of Cawdor Castle is more than fictional. Cawdor is a lived-in castle, not an abandoned, decaying structure. The earliest part of the castle is the 14th-century central tower; the rooms contain family portraits, tapestries, fine furniture, and paraphernalia reflecting 600 years of history. Outside the castle walls are sheltered gardens and woodland walks. Children will have a ball exploring the lush and mysterious Big Wood, with its wildflowers and varied wildlife. There are lots of creepy stories and fantastic tales amid the dank dungeons and drawbridges. If you like it here, the estate has cottages to rent. B9090, 5 miles southwest of Nairn, Cawdor. Admission charged.
Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition. If you're in search of the infamous beast Nessie, head to the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, which explores the facts and the fakes, the photographs, the unexplained sonar contacts, and the sincere testimony of eyewitnesses. You'll have to make up your own mind on Nessie. All that's really known is that Loch Ness's huge volume of water has a warming effect on the local weather, making the loch conducive to mirages in still, warm conditions. Whether or not the bestia aquatilis lurks in the depths is more than ever in doubt since 1994, when the man who took one of the most convincing photos of Nessie confessed on his deathbed that it was a fake. You can take a cruise of the loch from the center, too. A82, Drumnadrochit. Admission charged.
Urquhart Castle. About 2 miles southeast of Drumnadrochit, this castle is a favorite Loch Ness monster-watching spot. This romantically broken-down fortress stands on a promontory overlooking the loch. Because of its central and strategic position in the Great Glen line of communication, the castle has a complex history involving military offense and defense, as well as its own destruction and renovation. The castle was begun in the 13th century and was destroyed before the end of the 17th century to prevent its use by the Jacobites. The ruins of what was one of the largest castles in Scotland were then plundered for building material. A visitor center relates these events and gives an idea of what life was like here in medieval times. A82, Drumnadrochit. Admission charged.
Loch Ness. From the A82 you get many views of the formidable and famous Loch Ness, which has a greater volume of water than any other Scottish loch, a maximum depth of more than 800 feet, and its own monster-at least according to popular myth. Early travelers who passed this way included English lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and his guide and biographer, James Boswell (1740-95), who were on their way to the Hebrides in 1783. They remarked at the time about the poor condition of the population and the squalor of their homes. Another early travel writer and naturalist, Thomas Pennant (1726-98), noted that the loch kept the locality frost-free in winter. Even General Wade came here, his troops blasting and digging a road up much of the eastern shore. None of these observant early travelers ever made mention of a monster. Clearly, they had not read the local guidebooks.
Once a quiet junction on the Highland Railway, Aviemore now has all the brashness and concrete boxiness of a year-round holiday resort. The Aviemore area is a versatile walking base, but you must be dressed properly and carry emergency safety gear for high-level excursions onto the near-arctic plateau.
Cairngorms National Park. A rugged wilderness of mountains, moorlands, glens, and lochs, Cairngorms National Park is the country's second-oldest national park. Past Loch Morlich at the high parking lot on the exposed shoulders of the Cairngorm Mountains are dozens of trails for hiking and cycling. The park is especially popular with birding enthusiasts, as it's the best place to see the Scottish crossbill, the only bird unique to Britain. Weather conditions in the park change abruptly, so be sure to have the proper gear or seek out many of the guided options. This is a massive park, but a good place to start exploring is the visitor center in Aviemore.
CairnGorm Mountain Railway. A funicular railway to the top of Cairn Gorm (the mountain that gives its name to the region), the CairnGorm Mountain Railway operates both during and after the ski season and affords extensive views across the Cairngorms and the broad valley of the Spey. At the top is a visitor center and restaurant. Prebooking is recommended. B970. Admission charged.
All things "Highland" make the best souvenirs. Tartans and kilts, tweed clothing, and woolen and cashmere knits are made here. Modern breathable outdoor clothing is also in great abundance. The beauty of the landscape inspires artists and craftspeople, and you'll find their paintings, ceramics, and wooden carved items in markets and specialty shops. Foodies will love the natural smoked salmon.