Although great mountain ranges dominate northern Scotland, their bleakness in this lonely stretch of Britain is tempered, by wild sea lochs that gouge deep into the surface; by icy streams that tumble through green and wooded glens. By the calm waters of huge inland lochs and, above all, by the ever-changing mood of the sky that provides a continual range of hues over all. Although a wilderness, the Scottish Highlands show many traces of human habitation and reminders of the past. Crumbling crofts recall the enforced depopulation of the 18th & 19th centuries, when the land was cleared of inhabitants to make room for large-scale sheep farming. Ruined castles are the signature of the turbulent Middle Ages, while dramatic burial chambers, standing stones, hillforts and dry-stone brochs are prehistoric reminders. The north-west Highlands run north from the geological fault line that cuts diagonally across Scotland like a sabre-cut. This fault, known as the Great Glen, is a series of lochs linked together by the Caledonian Canal, a magnificent relic of 19th century engineering.
The largest of these lochs is the dark and mysterious Loch Ness, with the brooding ruins of Urquhart Castle clinging to its banks. 24 miles in length and about 1 mile wide, it is home, possibly, to a colony of as yet unidentified creatures, known the world over as the Loch Ness Monster. No newcomer this; an inscription on a 14th century map tells vaguely, but chillingly, of "waves without wind, fish without fins, islands that float". Seldom has the 'monster' been better described.
The impressive mass of Ben Nevis dominates the south-west end of the Great Glen, whose rivers are wild and hustled onward by waterfalls. At 4406ft Ben Nevis is the highest of all British summits, a granite mass towering above the busy tourist centre of Fort William, its bleak plateau accessible by way of footpath. A few miles to the south of Fort William, the Three Sisters of Glen Coe bare silent witness to a dreadful event, even by Highland standards. One of Scotland's wildest and most celebrated glens, Glen Coe, often now referred to as the Glen of Weeping, was the scene in 1692 of the notorious massacre of the MacDonald clan. Having failed to swear allegiance to William III, and also forswear the Jacobite cause by the time demanded, the government sent Robert Campbell to Glen Coe with a company of troops. After enjoying 12 days hospitality, the pro-English Campbells butchered more than 40 of their unsuspecting hosts, during a violent snowstorm in the early hours of a February morning. A stone cross marks the site.
Highland castles have an abiding appeal. Eilean Donan Castle, built as a Royal stronghold in the 13th century, is set on a desolate rocky islet in Loch Duich; in one period a defender against Viking raiders in another a Jacobite stronghold. Blair Castle was given its present castellated appearance in the 19th century after mid 18th century renovation. Deeside and Donside have the greatest concentration of castles of all styles and ages, from Braemar, stronghold of the Earls of Mar, to Victorian mock medieval like Balmoral, the Royal residence. Craigievar Castle is a vision of towers, turrets, corbels and crow stepped gables, the fairy-tale castle of everyone's imagination.
Winter sports, on the snow-covered slopes of the Cairngorm Mountains, have made this part of the Highlands a popular tourist area. At its best, Scottish skiing compares well with skiing on the continent, although bitter winds and sudden 'white outs', caused by mists and blizzards, can make it unpredictable. The season usually lasts from early December to the end of May, at which point different visitors arrive, those wishing to glimpse the teeming wildlife of lochs, woodland and glen; natural inhabitants include otters, red deer, grouse, osprey and golden eagles.
Off the Scottish mainland are clusters of islands of varying size. The Isle of Skye, the major island of the Inner Hebrides, is renowned for its wind-swept, dramatic landscapes of deep lochs and jagged mountains. Its history is long and harsh, interweaving myth with reality; Norse invaders, fierce clan feuds, forcible evictions, Bonnie Prince Charlie's brief sojourn there - a magical mix of bravery, hardship and endurance. Much further to the north, the Orkney and Shetland Islands were settled by Norsemen in the 9th century, and for 500 years were ruled by either Norway or Denmark. Many relics remain from this period; especially striking are the ruins of great halls designed by Norse earls. Scattered everywhere too are prehistoric sites, particularly so in Shetland, where they are to be found in abundance.