Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
Highland is one of the 32 unitary council areas into which Scotland has been divided since 1996. In terms of size, Highland is the largest council area in Scotland, covering 10,085 square miles or 26,484 square kilometers. This makes it around four times the size of the next-largest council area. It extends from Cape Wrath and Durness in the far north west to Duncansby Head in the far north east, to the boundaries of Perth and Kinross in the south east, and to the Sound of Mull and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in the south west. The area also includes the Isle of Skye.
The Highland Council Area includes much of what many people will think of as Scotland's most Scottish scenery. Glen Coe, the Mamores, Ben Nevis, Loch Ness, Kintail, Knoydart, the Cuillin on Skye, Torridon, the mountains and sea lochs of Wester Ross and North West Sutherland: these all lie within the area.
Having said that, there is an awkwardness about the name "Highland" which simply won't go away. It is far more common to talk of "The Highlands" or "The Highlands and Islands" than of "Highland". And it helps to know they are very different things. "Highland" or, as it is often described, "The Highland Council Area" is simply the area looked after by Highland Council and can be drawn unambiguously on a map.
"The Highlands" is a rather broader and vaguer term which is usually taken to mean all the upland areas of the north and west of the country, including the Highland Council Area but extending well beyond it. And "The Highlands and Islands" adds the islands off the west of Scotland to the area being discussed and, sometimes, depending on who is using the term, Orkney and Shetland as well.
Travel within Highland is usually by road, and the main roads tend to be reasonably good for most of the year. They can, however, seem crowded for a brief period at the height of summer, and they can be prone to bad weather in winter: especially in areas away from the west coast. Many roads have been upgraded and improved over the years, though Highland remains home to many of Scotland's surviving single track roads. For more information, visit our feature page on driving single track roads. Highland is also surprisingly well served by railways, and some lines take you through otherwise inaccessible scenery.
In terms of our coverage, Highland includes all of the following Undiscovered Scotland Areas: Caithness & Sutherland; Wester Ross; Inverness, Nairn & Cromarty Firth; Aviemore & Badenoch; Loch Ness & The Great Glen; Skye & Lochalsh; Mallaig, Ardgour & Ardnamurchan; Fort William & Glen Spean; and Glencoe & Loch Leven. It also includes part of Speyside.
Historically, what is now the Highland Council Area was covered by six of Scotland's 34 traditional counties. Caithness covered the far north east, including Wick and Thurso. Sutherland covered a vast swathe of the far north. Ross-shire cut across from east coast to west coast north of Inverness, and also included the Isle of Lewis, not part of the modern Highland Council Area. The next traditional county was Cromartyshire. This, rather bizarrely, comprised a series of enclaves within Ross-shire. South from Ross-shire was Inverness-shire. This extended from Inverness in the east to the west coast. It also included the Isle of Skye which remains part of Highland, plus Harris, The Uists and Barra in the Western Isles, which are not part of the modern Highland Council Area. The final traditional county was Nairnshire, which was a small county extending south from Nairn.
Cromartyshire's collection of exclaves were only the most striking of a series of oddities about the traditional map of the counties in this part of Scotland. A reorganisation in 1890 converted Ross-shire and Cromartyshire into the single county of Ross & Cromarty, and tidied up a number of other enclaves and exclaves, leaving five contiguous counties, though the Western Isles was still divided between two of them. It is worth adding one further layer of complexity at this stage. Ross-shire, before its merger with Cromartyshire in 1890, was often divided for descriptive purposes into Wester Ross and Easter Ross, with the dividing line between them vague, but approximately following the watershed. Both Wester Ross and Easter Ross are terms that survive in common use into the modern era.
Fast forward to a major reorganisation of 1975, and the name "Highland" first appeared as one of the 12 regions into which Scotland was divided. This largely included the areas of the five traditional counties it replaced, though in the west the region called The Western Isles was created from what had previously been parts of Ross & Cromarty and Inverness-shire. Meanwhile, in the south, Highland took over a chunk of what had previously been part of Argyll to the north of the Sound of Mull, and in the east it acquired an area around Grantown on Spey from the County of Moray.
Highland Region was the upper of two tiers of local government. The lower tier was formed by eight district councils: Badenoch and Strathspey, Caithness, Inverness, Lochaber, Nairn, Ross & Cromarty, Skye & Lochalsh, and Sutherland. Four of these were roughly similar in coverage to four of the preceding counties (except for the parts in the Western Isles): Caithness, Sutherland, Ross & Cromarty and Nairn, while the other four were largely produced by chopping up Inverness-shire, in places supplemented by additions from neighbours.
In 1996, another major reorganisation swept regions and districts away, replacing them with 32 unitary councils. Highland became one of those councils. Initially it divided its coverage into eight management areas that were closely based on the eight districts. Since 2007, Highland Council has divided up its area rather differently into three operational areas: "Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross"; "Ross, Skye and Lochaber"; and "Inverness, Nairn, and Badenoch & Strathspey".