The Highlands are a different world: less so than ever before, perhaps, due to migrations, global culture and gentrification brought by newcomers and holiday-home owners, but still, the northern lands of Scotland are a special place indeed.
Culturally, it's not easy to disentangle all the ''romance of Scotland'' kitsch and tartan tat, and people (not all them Scots) will spend a lot of time trying to explain what's ''authentic'' and what's not – and the non-authentic label is frequently attached to the Walter-Scott instigated pageantry of the kilts, clan tartans and (most of the) Scottish Dancing. It sometimes feels like after the Highland spirit and the ''real'' Highland culture was emasculated after the fail of the Jacobite rebellions and the Clearances, it was safe to bring on a tame and twee version of the real thing for the consumption of the first Victorian tourists. The Jacobite story is not simple, either, because it's a massive simplification to equate the Highlanders with the Jacobites (and Catholics) and the Lowlanders with the supporters of the (Protestant) William. Besides, many of Scott's Georgian inventions have been joyfully adopted and become and important part of the national culture in the intervening 200 or so years.
Leaving all the historical and cultural distinctions aside, the Highlands are, for many, simply synonymous with the wilderness: the unpredictable weather, fierce winds, craggy mountains and coast of infinite variety.
And yet, even the definition of the Highlands is not entirely agreed upon. It's a cultural and historical concept and most strictly applies to the area north-west of the Highland Boundary Fault – a geological line that cuts Scotland from Arran in the south-west to Stonehaven in the north-east. However, as the Gaelic culture is historically important for the concept, the flat arable lands around Aberdeen as well as the very north-east of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.
The current Highland council area covers much of the historical Highland region, but they also include parts of Aberdeenshire, Angus, Perthshire and Stirlingshire as well as Argyll and Bute and the outer Hebrides.
However you define the region – and for the casual traveller it's actually not that difficult to notice the passage to the Highlands, marked basically by the increasing wilderness of the landscape and weather and marked thinning of the population – it has a lot to offer to the visitor.
First of all, is, of course, the landscape with the drama, variety, gloom and heart-breaking beauty of the lochs, mountains and coast. It's a hiker's paradise (though the weather, and the midges, are a pain) with countless walks and so much relatively remote space that you can spend a lifetime exploring it.
All the traditional ''country sports'' are big in the Highlands (and one may argue that their presence and the influence large landowners have accounts for lack of more popular tourism), and shooting and fishing are widely practised, whether by rich landowners and their guests, paying visitors or poaching traditionalist locals. More recently, less fusty pursuits have started developing, and even extreme sports New-Zealand style make shy appearance. Skiing and snowboarding is possible (though unreliable) in several ski resorts, surfing is good on many beaches (and some of those – especially in the Western Isles – are spectacular in themselves), kite-surfing even better (because wind is something that Highlands do have a lot of – sadly evidenced by disgusting proliferation of wind-turbines).
The region is also awash with history, from the numerous castles to battlefields to more modest but not less telling reminders of the social history of the ordinary people who inhabited the glens and coasts of the Highlands. To this, current, often vibrant cultural life adds an extra dimension, from the Gaelic choral singing to folk music to numerous art galleries and craft shops.