Keith, 18km (11 miles) northwest of Huntly, grew because of its strategic location, where the main road and rail routes between Inverness and Aberdeen cross the River Isla. It has an ancient history, but owes its present look to the town planning of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today it's a major stopover along the Malt Whisky Trail.
The oldest operating distillery in the Scottish Highlands, the Strathisla Distillery, on Seafield Avenue (tel. 01542/783-044), was established in 1786. Hours are March to October, Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm, Sunday 12:30 to 4pm. Admission is £5 for adults, free for children 8 to 18 (children 7 and under not admitted). The admission fee includes a £3 voucher redeemable in the distillery shop against a 70-cubic-liter bottle of whisky. Be warned that tours of this distillery are self-guided.
James Duff, the fourth earl of Fife, founded Dufftown in 1817. The four main streets of town converge at the clock tower, which is also the tourist office (tel. 01340/820-501). April to October, the office is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm.
A center of the whisky-distilling industry, Dufftown is surrounded by seven malt distilleries. The family-owned Glenfiddich Distillery is on A941, 1km (2/3 mile) north (tel. 01340/820-373; www.glenfiddich.com). It's open Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 4:30pm (Easter to mid-Oct also Sat 9:30am-4:30pm and Sun noon-4:30pm). Guides in kilts show you around the plant and explain the process of distilling. A film on the history of distilling is also shown. At the end of the tour, which is free, you're given a dram of malt whisky to sample. There's also a souvenir shop.
Other sights include Balvenie Castle, along A941 (tel. 01340/820-121), the ruins of a moated 14th-century stronghold that lie on the south side of the Glenfiddich Distillery. During her northern campaign against the earl of Huntly, Mary Queen of Scots spent 2 nights here. April to September, it's open daily from 9:30am to 6:30pm. Admission is £3.70 for adults, £3 for seniors, and £1.85 for children 5 to 15.
This vacation resort, with its gray-granite buildings, is 55km (34 miles) southeast of Inverness in a wooded valley with views of the Cairngorm Mountains. It's a center for winter sports as well as for first-rate salmon fishing on the Spey. Founded on a heather-covered moor in 1765 by Sir James Grant, Grantown-on-Spey became the seat of Grant's ancient family. The town was famous in the 19th century as a Highland tourist center. From here, you can explore the valleys of the Don and Dee, the Cairngorms, and Culloden Moor, scene of the historic battle in 1746, when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army were defeated. A year-round tourist information office is on High Street (tel. 01479/872-773). April to October only, hours are daily 9am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 4pm.
As you leave Grantown-on-Spey and head east along A95, drive to the junction with B9008; go south and you won't miss the Glenlivet Distillery. The Glenlivet Reception Centre (tel. 01340/821-720; www.theglenlivet.com) is 16km (10 miles) north of the nearest town, Tomintoul. Near the River Livet, a Spey tributary, this distillery is one of the most famous in Scotland. It's open mid-March to October, Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm and Sunday 12:30 to 4pm. Admission is free.
Back on A95, you can visit the Glenfarclas Distillery at Ballindalloch (tel. 01807/500-209; www.glenfarclas.co.uk), one of the few malt whisky distilleries that's still independent of the giants. Founded in 1836, Glenfarclas is managed by the fifth generation of the Grant family. There's a small craft shop, and each visitor is offered a dram of Glenfarclas Malt Whisky. The admission of £4 is for visitors over age 18, and there's a discount of £1 on any purchase of £10 or more. It's open all year, Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm; June to September, it's also open Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 10am to 4pm.
Kincraig enjoys a scenic location at the northern end of Loch Insh, overlooking the Spey Valley to the west and the Cairngorm Mountains to the east. Near Kincraig, the most notable sight is the Highland Wildlife Park (tel. 01540/651-270; www.highlandwildlifepark.org), a natural area of parkland with a collection of wildlife, some of which is extinct elsewhere in Scotland. Herds of European bison, red deer, shaggy Highland cattle, wild horses, St. Kilda Soay sheep, and roe deer roam the park. In enclosures are wolves, polecats, wildcats, beavers, badgers, and pine martens. You can observe protected birds, such as golden eagles and several species of grouse -- of special interest is the capercaillie ("horse of the woods"), a large Eurasian grouse that is native to Scotland's pine forests. There's a visitor center with a gift shop, a cafe, and exhibition areas. Ample parking and picnic sites are also available.
You need a car to go through the park; walkers are discouraged and are picked up by park rangers. The park is open every day at 10am. April and October, the last entrance is at 4pm (July-Aug last entrance at 5pm). November to March, the last entrance is at 2pm. All people and vehicles are expected to vacate the park within 2 hours of the day's last admission. The entrance fee is £12 for adults, seniors, and students, and £9.50 for children 5 to 15; 3 and under free. A family ticket costs £37.
Your next stop along the Spey might be at the little summer vacation resort and winter ski center of Kingussie (pronounced "King-you-see"), just off A9, the capital of Badenoch, a district known as "the drowned land" because the Spey can flood the valley when the snows of a severe winter melt in the spring. Kingussie, 188km (117 miles) northwest of Edinburgh, 66km (41 miles) south of Inverness, and 18km (11 miles) southwest of Aviemore, practically adjoins Newtonmore directly northeast along A86.
The Highland Folk Museum, Duke Street (tel. 01540/673-551; www.highlandfolk.com), was the first folk museum established in Scotland (1934), and its collections are based on the life of the Highlanders. You'll see domestic, agricultural, and industrial items. Open-air exhibits include a turf kailyard (kitchen garden), a Lewis "black house," and old vehicles and carts. Traditional events, such as spinning, music making, and handicraft fairs, are held throughout the summer. Admission is free. April to August, hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, September and October, Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm.
A summer-only tourist center is on King Street (tel. 01540/661-297; www.kingussie.co.uk). It's open only April to October, Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm, and on Sunday 10am to 5pm.
A Speyside town with five distilleries, Rothes is just to the south of the Glen of Rothes, 79km (49 miles) east of Inverness and 100km (62 miles) northwest of Aberdeen. Founded in 1766, the town is between Ben Aigan and Conerock Hill. A little settlement, the basis of the town today, grew up around Rothes Castle, ancient stronghold of the Leslie family, who lived here until 1622. Only a single massive wall of the castle remains.
The region's best distillery tours are offered by the Glen Grant Distillery (tel. 01542/783-318; www.glengrant.com). Opened in 1840 by a hardworking and hard-drinking pair of brothers, James and John Grant, and now administered by the Chivas & Glenlivet Group (a division of Seagram's), it's 1km (2/3 mile) north of Rothes, beside the Elgin-Perth (A941) highway. It's open March 21 to October, Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm, Sunday from 12:30 to 4pm. Admission is free (no children under 8). Visits include the opportunity to buy the brand's whisky at a discount.
The center of local government in the Moray district and an ancient royal burgh, the cathedral city of Elgin is on the Lossie River, 61km (38 miles) east of Inverness and 110km (68 miles) northwest of Aberdeen. The city's medieval plan has been retained, with "wynds" and "pends" connecting the main artery with other streets. The castle, as was customary in medieval town layouts, stood at one end of the main thoroughfare, with the cathedral -- now a magnificent ruin -- at the other. Nothing remains of the castle, but the site is a great place for a scenic walk. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell came this way on their Highland tour and reported a "vile dinner" at the Red Lion Inn in 1773.
Lady Hill stands on High Street, opposite the post office. This is the hilltop location of what was once the royal castle of Elgin. Birnie Kirk, at Birnie, 5km (3 miles) south of Elgin and west of A941 to Rothes, for a time, was the seat of a bishopric. It dates from about 1140, when it was constructed on the site of a much earlier church founded by St. Brendan. One of the few Norman churches in Scotland still in regular use, it's open daily from 10am to 4pm.
On King Street are the ruins of the Elgin Cathedral (tel. 01343/547-171), off North College Street near A96. It was founded in 1224 but destroyed in 1390 by the "wolf of Badenoch," the natural son of Robert II. After its destruction, the citizens of Elgin rebuilt their beloved cathedral and turned it into one of the most attractive and graceful buildings in Scotland. However, when the central tower collapsed in 1711, the cathedral was allowed to fall into decay. It's open April to September, daily 9:30am to 5:30pm; and October to March, Saturday to Wednesday 9:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is £4.70 for adults, £3.70 for seniors, and £2.35 for children 5 to 15.
After exploring Elgin, you can drive 10km (6 miles) southwest to Pluscarden Abbey, off B9010. This is one of the most beautiful drives in the area, through the bucolic Black Burn Valley, where a priory was founded in 1230 by Alexander II. After centuries of decline, a new order of Benedictines arrived in 1974 and reestablished monastic life. You can visit restored transepts, monastic buildings, and the church choir. Admission is free to this active religious community, which is open daily from 9am to 5pm.
If you're a fan of Scottish ruins, head for Spynie Palace (tel. 01343/546-358), reached along A941. The former 15th-century headquarters of the bishops of Moray was used until 1573, when it was allowed to fall into ruins; for safety reasons, you can view them only from the outside. This is another great place for country walks, and from the top of a tower are magnificent vistas over the Laigh of Moray. It's open April to September, Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 5:30pm; and October to March, Saturday and Sunday 9:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is £3 for adults, £3 for students and seniors, and £1.85 for children 5 to 15. Ages 4 and under free.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.