More and more people are opting out of the urban lifestyle, and those that make the move to the Highlands for a better quality of life are rarely disappointed. The rugged mountains form the largest upland area in Britain, and the glens, scree slopes, lochs and wide expanses of moorland make up a varied and spectacular landscape.

The Highlands are the northern-most area of mainland Scotland, from Fort William in the southwest, to Thurso and Wick in the northeastern corner. Inverness is the Highlands’ principal settlement and is also the main transport hub for the rest of the region.

To the west are the islands of Mull and the Hebrides. Skye and Lewis are the best-known islands, and regular ferry crossings connect them to the mainland and each other.

To the east, the landscape is gentler and less mountainous. Off the north coast are the Orkney and Shetlands, which are almost treeless, and where the climate can be harsh. Hot summers are rare, and the temperatures are frequently the lowest in Britain.

Activities

The magnificent scenery of the north and west of Scotland attracts many admirers, and for outdoor sports the Highlands are unrivalled. World-class shooting, stalking, fishing and climbing are all easily accessible.

Walking can be enjoyed not only in the hills and mountains but also in the forests and along the coasts, and even winter sports are an option, with skiing facilities in Glencoe, Nevis Range (Aonach Mor) and Cairngorm. With its cliffs and inlets, the coastline is spectacular, and the waters are excellent sailing territory for experienced yachtsmen.

There are also over 40 superb but often difficult golf courses dotted throughout the Highlands, some created by famous designers such as Tom Morris, James Braid and Donald Ross. The region’s better known courses include Kingussie, Newtonmore, Nairn, Dornoch, Boat of Garten and Helmsdale.

Culture and Heritage

Highland culture and heritage are quite distinct from the rest of Scotland. The Gaelic language is still spoken in some areas, and the Highland Games, which take place across the region, showcase the region’s more traditional sports and activities, from caber tossing to piping and drumming.

The Highlands are also well known for the local delicacies, such as smoked salmon, cheese and haggis, as well as the excellent malt whiskies from the distilleries of Oban, Skye, Ben Nevis and Talisker.

Transport

For anyone outside of the Highlands considering buying a property there, the remoteness of the region cannot be underestimated. A train journey to London from Inverness will take approximately eight hours, and from Fort William will take around ten hours.

However, while there are no motorways north of Dundee, the air links to Inverness are excellent: there are regular flights throughout the day to London Gatwick and Heathrow, as well as various international destinations, from Inverness airport, which is situated nine miles east of Inverness city centre.

Glasgow is approximately 95 miles south of Oban in the West Highlands, and Aberdeen is about 103 miles east of Inverness.

The Property Market

Remote and magnificent, the Highlands are the perfect choice for property buyers with a passion for outdoor pursuits seeking a better quality of life. The remoteness of the area means that the Highlands are the ideal platform to achieve this aim. This fact has not gone unnoticed during the recent property boom experienced throughout Scotland, and demand for the rural idyll that many parts of the Highlands represent is at an all-time high.

According to the Registers of Scotland Executive Agency, prices between January and March 2004 were 27% higher than they were for the same period in the previous year. However, the average house price for the Highlands during this period stood at £92,348, well below the Scottish average of £106,932.

Oban, for example, is one of the most popular towns in the Highlands, situated on the western coast. According Neil Fraser at Alexander Dawson estate agents in Oban, the town, known as the ‘capital of the Western Highlands’, is becoming more and more popular for people seeking that elusive slower pace of life. However, demand is far outstripping supply in a town with a population of just 8,500. Many come seeking the perfect waterfront cottage and leave disappointed. However, prices are still good compared to the south, and when they do come onto the market, 4-bedroom waterfront properties sell for around the £500,000 mark. Oban is not well connected, so commuting to larger towns, such as Glasgow to the south, will be difficult.

Inverness-shire is better connected and is also increasingly popular. Inverness has been, for some years, Europe’s fastest growing city, with a flood of people moving to the area from throughout the UK seeking a better quality of life. As well as being accessible thanks to the airport (see ‘transport’ above), Inverness-shire boasts wide and beautiful open spaces, and good broadband connectivity. As a result prices have almost doubled in the last three years, but again, prices are still reasonable compared with the south.

According to John Bound at CKD Galbraith, a good 4-bedroom manse (vicarage) with an acre or two of land will cost around £400,000. Larger country estates rarely come onto the market, however, when they do, expect a price tag of at least £1 million. The most sought after areas are those outside of Inverness city centre, but within a twenty-mile radius, such as Black Isle to the North, Strathnairn to the south, Beauly to the west, and Tomatin to the southeast.

The Highland property market has enjoyed the boom prices in general are on the up. However, the further north you look, the lower the prices are. Country estates do come on to the market, but be prepared for a fight. Demand is extremely strong and there simply aren’t enough estates on the market to go round.

Major towns

Inverness, Fort William, Thurso, Wick, Aberdeen, Ullapool, Oban; Lerwick (Shetland), Kirkwall (Orkney), Stornoway (Lewis).

Transport links

Train: King’s Cross to Fort William 10hr 3min (change Edinburgh and Glasgow); King’s Cross to Inverness 8hr 10min; King’s Cross to Thurso 12hr 27min (change Edinburgh and Inverness).

Car: Fort William is 497 miles from London, via the M1, M6, A74, M74 and A82;Inverness, 536 miles and Thurso 645 miles, via the M1, M6, A74, M74, M90 and A9.

Public schools

Gordonstoun School, Elgin (01343 837837). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. www.gordonstoun.org.uk/

Oban High School (01631 564231). Co-educational, age range 11-18, day.

Albyn School for Girls, Aberdeen (01224 322408). Girls only, age range 3-18, day. www.albynschool.co.uk/

Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen (01224 646346). Co-educational, age range 5-18, day and boarding. www.rgc.aberdeen.sch.uk/

Leisure

Golf courses: Kingussie (01540 661600), Newtonmore (01540 673328).

Yachting club: Royal Findhorn Yacht Club.

Fishing: rivers Spey, Dee, Don, Findhorn, Helmsdale and Awe.