This blog post is for visitors who are intending to experience, explore and savour the Scottish Highlands. I invite you to not use roads as a personal racetrack but instead experience the breadth of Highland history, scenery, community and culture, as well as to support our local businesses. As we start 2022, when visitors to the Scottish Highlands and Islands are expected to increase, this post gives you some top tips on how to plan your trip! (All information is correct at the time of writing - January 2022)
My perspective is as someone who lives on the North Coast 500 route, and who plans trips across Scotland each year. With many people choosing to explore the UK rather than venturing abroad, what were once undiscovered quiet places are now soaring in popularity and are busier throughout the year, so it's essential to put some thought into your trip before you hit the road!
PLAN YOUR TRIP AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE
- Decide on the type of accommodation you need… and book it as soon as you can (particularly important for camping and motor home spaces). If you planning to camp, check this link which tells you where you can and can't camp in Scotland.
- If flexibility for changing bookings is a must for you, check the applicable cancellation policies for accommodation before you book.
- Consider investing in a travel insurance policy in case you do have to make changes to bookings or car rental agreements.
- There are a couple of useful Facebook groups if you do get in a tight spot and need to find accommodation, either at short notice or if you are bringing your dog/s with you. Make sure that you are specific in your requirements when publishing a request for accommodation availability!
- Consider basing yourself in one location and do day trips – think if you would prefer to be in a place where you can have a choice of evening meals (big town) or if you are happy to pick up supplies and take picnics and cook at home in the evening. We've particularly enjoyed holidays when we've based ourselves in Lairg, Inverness or outwith the Highland area, Aberlour to explore Speyside and Moray. For exploring Caithness, you could base yourselves in the towns of Wick or Thurso, which also gives you the option to hop across the Pentland Firth to Orkney. You can read about my Northlink B&B experience upon the MV Hamnavoe here.
- Make a bucket list of activities/attractions that need booking in advance. Many of the tours do book up quickly particularly during the peak season and maybe have limits on participants so don't rely on waiting until a few days before your anticipated visit!
CONSIDER THE TIMING OF YOUR TRIP
Late spring and summertime are the most popular times of the year to visit the Highlands, due to the long daylight hours and the fact that many attractions open from April to October. However, we regularly travel around Scotland on the shoulder season months of February and March, October and November. Sometimes you can get beautiful weather in these months (equally, sometimes winter has been known to start early/finish late!)
One big downside of a Highland trip between May and September is that the dreaded midges are out in force, particularly on the west coast where dream conditions (warm, wet and windless) mean that midges can thrive. Look at the midge forecast, invest in some midge-repellent and wear long sleeves/full trousers to avoid getting bit! To see how much of a problem midges can be, take a look at the One Minute Midge Challenge below.
PLAN YOUR TRIP AND TRAVEL RESPONSIBLY
There's a lot to think about when visiting the Scottish Highlands so when you plan your trip, please be respectful of local communities going about day to day life!
- If you are driving a camper van, caravan or large motor home, take a look at this guidance to help you drive on single-track roads.
- Due to many sharp bends and steep gradients of the Bealach Na Ba, caravans and motor homes should not be driven on this road (Lochcarron to Applecross) and there are roadsigns advising this. An alternative route can be followed which allows you to see the grandeur of the hills from a lower level. The last thing you want in your holiday is to be calling emergency breakdown!
- No matter what vehicle you are driving, you should ensure that you are confident in using single track roads and passing places so that the roads can be used by locals going about their daily business as well as by emergency vehicles. As tempting as it can be in and about the Highlands, if a single track road is busy, a passing place should not be used as a base for a photoshoot or as a parking space at any time.
- The Highlands and the North Coast 500 is a popular area for all kinds of vehicles, including walkers and cyclists completing fundraising challenges, and wild grazing animals, even on the main route. Please respect everyone as you travel!
- Check your estimated travel time between locations by using a Maps App or similar, or tune into a local radio station to keep in touch with road closures or incidents.
- Incorrect and disrespectful disposal of rubbish including motor home waste has been a major issue in the Highlands in recent years - if you are travelling around the region, please check this list of where motor homes can access waste disposal points. There are plenty of bins, but if they are full and awaiting collection, please do not leave your rubbish by the bin, as winds could disperse this and spoil the beautiful Highland landscape. Hang onto it and look for another bin on your travels.
- The Highlands have public toilets around the region, many of which are maintained by local communities or the regional council. Where there is no public toilet, there may be a comfort scheme set up in a local cafe or restaurant. If in doubt, please ask - locals would much rather this than finding human waste in their communities or land. More information can be found on the Highland Council website.
- Be aware of where you can refuel your vehicle. Most towns will have a refuelling facilities or charging points nearby but it is always worth knowing how far your next fuel stop is.
- Consider lowering your carbon footprint and use a train where possible for shorter day trips. Scotland's railways showcase some of the best of the region that you wouldn't see from your car!
- Take plenty of photos, and leave only footprints!
TIPS FOR EXPERIENCING THE BEST OF THE HIGHLANDS
- The Highlands has a rich larder of ingredients, and creative souls who turn these into some of the best Scottish products. Of course sometimes your budget may necessitate a trip to a supermarket, but do consider popping into a deli or village shop, as they will stock locally made bakery items, preserves, snacks and more for you to enjoy on your journey or take home as gifts!
- Similiarly, if you're looking for somewhere to eat, take a look at the best places to eat and drink on the NC500 (in my opinion!) here. Plan your trip by booking ahead as due to Covid, restaurants and cafes might have limited seating.
- If you want to get outdoors and do lots of walking, I highly recommend the WalkHighlands website which details lots of walks appropriate for all abilities. Remember to wear clothing appropriate to the terrain and weather (bearing in mind that you can get all four seasons in Scotland on any given day!), and particularly for non-signposted walks, make sure you take equipment like a map/compass. If you need to contact emergency services, download the what3words app in advance so that you can provide an exact location.
- As you travel round, look for village or town noticeboards which will advertise local events. On one trip to Orkney, we found details of a harvest ceilidh in one of the village halls which we were welcomed to!
I hope that this guide gives you some helpful tips and resources that you can use for planning your next adventure in the Highlands of Scotland, and wish you a relaxing and enjoyable trip!