When you travel north in Scotland, you’ll notice some dramatic changes in the landscape. The land is less populated, wilder, wider, and nature is everywhere. With the two major cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow being further south, much of the Highlands has a remote and rural feel to it. The beaches are empty and windswept, the hills and lochs are haunting and moody, and the small towns are traditional and predominantly local. This gives the Highlands an altogether different feel to the Lowlands, and it gives visitors the feeling of truly being in a different country. Along the winding coastline, on the banks of lochs, and by dense woodlands, you’ll find the most charming small towns, all with their own character. Here are six charming small towns to visit in the Scottish Highlands.
A traditional Scottish market town on the banks of the River Tay, Dunkeld is about as charming as it gets. You won’t see many new buildings here; this town is traditional and original. The “little houses” as they’re known locally are a gathering of brightly colored homes that were built in the early 1700s. These homes, although they are private residencies, have been restored by the National Trust because they are so historically important. The local Ell Shop is also now owned by the National Trust because of its historical significance, though it is still run as a shop. The shop is named after the old ‘ell’ measurement of fabric, which was just over a meter long. This is a lovely old town for wandering around and marveling at how life used to be.
Where To Stay
Keep it traditional and stay at Pheasant Cottage, which, like the little houses, dates back to the 1700s. The cottage has been renovated inside and has all modern amenities, but it also holds onto some lovely original features. This old stone-built cottage sleeps six people and has two bathrooms. Set amid rolling country landscapes, the cottage is private while still being close to town.
By Scottish standards, Strathpeffer is a new town. In the 1800s this area was still all farmland and the town didn’t exist. It was the discovery of a sulfurous spring here that changed the fate of this area and Strathpeffer promptly became a spa town. You won’t see many spa towns in Scotland. There are around seven former spa towns across the country in total, which makes this place quite unusual. It might not technically still be a spa town, but Strathpeffer still has its natural spring. The old sampling pavilion is still there and the pump room is now a tourist information center, though you can still sample the natural spring waters in both. It’s a lovely old town to visit, with an interesting history and magical healing waters.
A short walk from the town you’ll find Castle Leod. Visit Strathpeffer in August and the Highland Gathering is held on the grounds of the castle. The Highland Gathering is like a miniature Olympic Games. Contestants lift heavy weights, take part in tug-o-war, hill racing, and displays of Highland dancing and bagpiping. Castle Leod is seat of the clan Mackenzie and dates back to the 11th century. You can visit the castle on a tour, but open days are limited to just a few throughout the year.
Way up in the Scottish Highlands, in a curl of land by the sea, Kylesku awaits. Kylesku is a small, remote town in the historic county of Sutherland. With the bridge stretching over to the other side of the mainland, it feels like you’re on an island, but this is in fact a kind of peninsula. There’s not a lot here, so if you like it quiet this is the ideal place to stay. The snaking, arching bridge is this area’s most well-known landmark, and while most visitors photograph this engineering beauty, the town is also a beautiful place for outdoor activities. It’s the perfect base to hike from and there are boat tours to take you around the coastline and to the surrounding areas. Kylesku is all about kicking back and enjoying the landscape in calm and peaceful surroundings.
Where To Stay And Eat
Kylesku Hotel is a beautiful boutique hotel with 11 bedrooms and a restaurant specializing in local seafood, meats and produce. The hotel is a magical haven surrounded by sea lochs, dramatic peaks, and hills. Guests can indulge in the delicious seafood platter that changes daily depending on what has been caught that morning, making the food here feel authentic and local. This generous platter features fresh oysters, crab, lobster, and langoustines. There are also hand-dived king scallops as well as 28 day-aged sirloin steak, the Crofter’s burger, and free-range chicken kebabs.
The town of Dornoch is in some ways a typical Highland town, it has the wild scenery, the rugged coastline, the mountains, and the lochs, but at Dornoch, you get the luxury version of a traditional Highland town. Not only can you play golf, hike, fish, and everything else you associate with the Highlands, but you can also enjoy a spa experience and a luxury chauffeur tour of the area. Dornoch is where you come if you want that little something extra for your stay in the Highlands. Between May and September, the Dornoch Pipe Band parades through the town square on Saturday evenings, dramatically and atmospherically floodlit against the Castle Hotel. In late October, there’s a weekend whisky festival. This is a town with a packed program of events, a luxury attitude, and beauty everywhere you look.
Where To Stay
If you were in any doubt about Dornoch’s luxury approach, stay at Links House at Royal Dornoch, Scotland’s most northerly luxury destinations. With a newly-opened fine dining concept and incredibly luxurious accommodations, the hotel is truly one of the country’s finest. With bedrooms that overlook the first tee at Royal Dornoch Golf Club and a range of activities on offer, including the NC500 driving route, clay pigeon shooting, fishing, and field sports, a stay at Links House is one of the best ways to experience the Scottish Highlands.
On a jut of land in the east of the Highlands, Cromarty is a harbor town on the peninsula known as “the Black Isle.” Like Kylesku, this is a peninsula, and it’s easy to forget that the town is part of the mainland. The sea is very present here and can be seen from most viewpoints in town. It’s also how this town has traditionally made its living and the thing that has shaped its character the most. The town is made up of narrow streets lined with seaside cottages that huddle together against the ever-present sea breeze. The geologist and author, Hugh Miller, is Cromarty’s most famous son, and his former home, the only remaining thatched cottage in town, is now a museum dedicated to him. This is a quiet and quaint highland town that gazes out to the ocean.
Look out for the two big houses on Church Street, built by two brothers who were wealthy merchants in the 19th century. The first house, which has a flight of steps leading up to the elevated front door, was built by one of the brothers for his new bride. The second house was built by the other brother out of annoyance and a need to compete because the bride had been his sweetheart first. They are both striking houses on a street of cottages, with an interesting story behind them.
Pitlochry is a stunning small town that’s surrounded by woodland, hills, lochs, and meadows. Many visitors come here for adventure sports, as the dramatic landscape makes it the perfect place for rock climbing, bungee jumping, and canoeing. But if you like to take things a little easier, one of the oldest working distilleries is in this town, where you can enjoy a dram or two. You might not want to climb or canoe, but the views of the areas these sports are enjoyed in are breathtaking to experience, and being a spectator can be as much fun as taking part. When you want to explore the area you can hike to tumbling waterfalls, gaze at majestic mountains, walk through woodland, and experience Queen’s View, named after Queen Victoria, who loved it here. You can also play a round of golf or go fishing in the loch here.
Where To Stay
With its fairy-tale turret placing it firmly in the land of myths and legends, East Haugh House has been part of the Atholl Estate here for 350 years. The hotel has 12 rooms, one of which with a four-poster bed and a jacuzzi bath. There’s also a self-catering lodge on the grounds that includes a real fire and a roll-top bath. East Haugh House looks like a fairy tale castle for a princess, set on gorgeous grounds, and when you stay here, you’ll feel like you really are royalty.