Exploring Scotland in 15 Beautiful Days
When it comes to travel I am a bit of an opportunist, so when some friends decided to get hitched in Scotland deciding to go was a fairly easy decision. To make the most out of the lengthy and moderately expensive flight, my partner and I opted to turn our hop-over-the-pond into a two-week adventure!
I have always thought road trips are the best trips, so if you can muster up the courage to drive on the other side of the road and on the other side of the car, or find a travel companion with the same sense of adventure, then a Scottish-style road trip might be a little bit of perfection! 1 wee little auto, 2 wandering Canadian souls and fifteen blissful days in Scotland – let the fun begin!
When it came to planning we didn’t leave too much up to chance. Having learned we were travelling during their busiest season (July/August) we opted to book all of our accommodations ahead of time. While we sacrificed some spontaneity, we were able to guarantee ourselves comfortable and affordable accommodations every night. In hindsight this was still the right choice, as ‘no vacancy’ signs were a common and regular occurrence. Planning ahead meant doing a lot of research well in advance and having a reasonable idea about where and what we wanted to see and do. We had a short “must hit list" that created the basic structure of the trip, and the rest was left to spur of the moment decisions on the road.
Kelly and Bryan’s Wee Scottish Road Trip
Glasgow – Fort William – Isle of Skye – Inverness – Stonehaven – Anstruther – Edinburgh
Glasgow (Day 1-3)
Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, is often overshadowed by the tourist draw of Edinburgh, but this bustling city should not be overlooked so quickly! There is much to see, do, taste and hear! Just walk around and enjoy the city, there is an indescribable buzz to Glasgow that you can see and feel. Grab some lunch and find somewhere comfortable to sit and listen to the amazing musical talent you will literally find everywhere. If you ever get tired of this, which I doubt you will, take a wander through one of the many free art galleries or museums – Glasgow is a great city for free activities!
Our time in Glasgow was spent wandering the downtown core by the City Chambers and Buchanan street, exploring Glasgow Green and the Peoples Palace, being arty-fartsy at the Gallery of Modern Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and of course as a touring audience happily pausing to listen and enjoy the diversity of local musical talent…and there may have been a pub or two along the way, though no one is counting…
Accommodations: Eurohostel – private accommodations at a great price, nice and close to the city and easily accessible via transit.
Fort William (Day4-6)
We left Glasgow and began the drive north to Fort William passing the beautiful Loch Lomond and Glen Coe. Not to worry, there are plenty of photo ops, walking paths and trails when you need to stretch your legs. Take the day slow and be sure to stop and let the views sink in.
Fort William is a haven for the hearty outdoor adventurer, so if that is your thing then it is definitely worth a visit! We flocked to Fort William because Ben Nevis, the highest peak on the British Isles, was on our “must hit list”. And let me tell you, Ben Nevis is not for the faint at heart. While the trail itself is fairly straightforward, it is 1,346 meters above sea level and weather conditions can get dicey at the summit. Be prepared – maps, compass and warm clothing is essential.
If the weather gets rainy (haha, “if”!), take an afternoon to hop aboard the Jacobite Steam Train, as made famous by the Harry Potter films. The experience is every bit as enchanting as you hope it would be; the rocking railcar, hot tea and biscuits and some of the most breathtaking views of the mountains, countryside and coast. The train stops in the coastal town, Mallaig, for 1.5 hours before turning back. Tickets sell way in advance, but they often have a small number available same day for all you non-planners – arrive at 8am for your best shot at a golden ticket.
Accommodations: Aite Cruinnichidt Hostel – Rustic family run establishment with lots of charm. It’s cozy, clean and comfortable. Great kitchen facilities and even has a sauna! Recommended for families and couples. Fairly inaccessible without a car.
Isle of Skye (Day 7-9)
A several hour drive west will take you to Isle of Skye – Oh Skye, I think I left a piece of my heart there. Something about Skye feels different than all other places; it was small, intimate and ruggedly beautiful. Fortunate for us, we really got to explore the island in our three days there. We stayed near Uig, Portree and Glenbrittle, all very unique and beautiful in their own way.
We thoroughly enjoyed driving the North West coast of Skye stopping at Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and the Quirang mountains. Old Man of Storr is a bit of a tourist trap, but it is hauntingly gorgeous and is worth giving extra time to explore the surrounding trails. Our hike through the Quirang was probably my favourite activity! It was later in the afternoon so the trails were quiet, the temperature was warm, the sun was out, and did I mention the beautiful luscious green mountain range with a blue ocean backdrop? That certainly helped a bit.
We finished our first night on Skye sleeping in a caravan in the country. We cooked dinner and got comfortable after a long day outside, drinking tea and watching the farmers and their dogs herd the sheep home for the night.
On our second day on Isle of Skye we took some time to explore the Cuillan mountain range, the truest looking mountains you will find in Scotland – dark, foreboding and awe-inspiring. Much of the Cuillans are for experienced rock climbers and mountaineers, but there are many wonderful hikes that are manageable for the average hiker. We climbed to Coire Lagan, a tiny loch set amidst the booming rock peaks of the range, and soon after did a short wander through the Fairy Pools. Oh Fairy Pools – again, a major attraction since it is close to roadside and only a few kilometer venture, but oh so beautiful! From roadside it looks like a mere crack at the base of the Cuillans, but as you walk closer it opens up to a wondrous little world of streams, waterfalls and the cleanest pools you could ever find. The water is brisk to say the least, but it might be worth a quick dip – if you are brave enough!
On our final day at Skye we headed to the most westerly point to explore the lighthouse at Neist Point. What remains of the lighthouse is architecturally beautiful, though up close it has a tragic melancholy feel. The windows are barred and the doors padlocked, but a quick look in the windows reveals a place very much lived in. You can’t help but feel like its inhabitants deserted quickly, never to return. It is a bit of a drive to get here, but I think it is worth it – the golden lighthouse, the craggily dramatic cliffs and, of course, the wild wild ocean.
If you haven’t seen a castle yet, Dunvegan is a lovely option if you are on the west coast of Skye– it has all the classic elements you would hope for in a castle; lots of history, beautiful artifacts and immaculate gardens. Cross your fingers for a break in the rain, because it is worth lingering in the gorgeous gardens.
And if you haven’t been to a whisky distillery yet, check out Talisker! This is the only distillery on Isle of Skye – take shelter from the rain, take a tour or just stop in for some free samples. I learned very quickly that I don’t care for whisky!
Inverness (Day 10)
Our days of leisure had passed and the remainder of the trip required a lot of movement, many days with several hours of driving. We had a big driving day from Isle of Skye to Inverness, and admittedly did not spend much time in this fair city. We drove around Loch Ness and explored the Loch Ness Exhibition, it was interesting but not worth the cost (12P). We did our own self-guided drive tour around Loch Ness, taking time for a short hike to Dog Falls in Glen Affric and later enjoyed the Falls of Foyers. Again, lots of opportunities to jump out of the car and enjoy the views. This was a long day of driving, so when we got to our hostel we showered, ate and went to bed. Sorry Inverness, we did not do you justice!
Stonehaven (Day 11)
We departed poor forgotten Inverness early so we could have time to explore Cairngorms National Park, somewhat on the way to our next destination. It’s a shame I did not research this region more because there are fantastic hiking and camping opportunities there! We spent our morning hiking and fought against the most insane winds I have ever experienced, it literally almost knocked me over! After getting our share of the mountains, heather and a hot bowl of soup, it was another long drive to the west coast. Upon arrival in the quaint sea town of Stonehaven, we grabbed some beers and some crisps and relaxed at the beach.
Anstruther (Day 12)
From Stonehaven we went totally off course to check out Stirling Castle – another truly impressive relic of Scotland’s history. Old town in Stirling was just littered with old, beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets. The views from inside the castle walls are amazing – mountains on the horizon, quiet city below and the memorial tower for William Wallace standing strong and stark in the distance.
We spent the night in the small town of Anstruther, part of a lovely collection of fishing towns in Fife. These little towns are dripping with charm – colourful buildings line the coastal walkway, marinas harbour boats of all shapes and varieties and that salty sea air is at its best. We wished we had a little more time here to take a boat excursion, maybe try out some fishing and get out on the ocean – though time did not allow it, as we were on to the great Edinburgh!
Accommodations: Murray Library Hostel – Brand new hostel with immaculate rooms, gorgeous views and a fantastic kitchen.
Edinburgh (Day 13-15)
Our time in Edinburgh aligned with three different festivals; the Edinburgh Festival, The Literary Festival and Fringe, so the city was crazier than normal, or so I have been told. There really is so much to see and do here, so you may have to pick and choose, but more than likely you will go for some of the classics like Edinburgh castle. Exploring Edinburgh Castle kind of feels like being at an amusement park; line ups for tickets, line ups to get into the castle, line ups to look at exhibits in the castle, yeesh! I was ready to go back to the mountains already! Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful and grand site to explore, one not to be missed.
Wander the Golden Mile and take your time, because there is so much to see! There are countless street performers, artists, musicians and lots of little shops to peak your interest. We took advantage of Fringe and sat in on some quite hilarious (and free!) comedy shows in the local pubs, and there are many pubs! So many pubs! And they are busy ALL of the time! It is a tad humorous actually.
If you have a thing for scary stuff then try out a ghost tour – we did one of the underground tunnel ghost tours and was sadly a bit disappointed. It was a bit short and not scary really… though I also booked for the 3pm one just in case, so maybe that was my fault…
Lastly, pull out your hiking shoes again and get up to Arthurs Seat, Edinburgh’s mini-mountain – this is your last chance to get that lactic acid in your thighs pumping! It is windy and slippery up there, but the view is spectacular and it wasn’t going to be a good hair day anyway!
A Few Final Thoughts
-The old saying “if you don’t like the weather just wait 10 minutes” is completely true! I will never know how it is possible to be hot, cold, wet and windblown all at once, but it totally happens.
-There is no such thing as a good hair day in Scotland! Between the wind and the rain you have no chance. Don’t feel too self-conscious though, everyone else has bad hair too.
-Try the haggis! It is really delicious and everyone does it a little bit different.
-Scottish folk are generally over the top friendly people! They are kind, have a great sense of humour and are genuinely curious people – so go ahead and say hello!
-Dressing appropriately is all about the layers – layer up, have a waterproof shell and you will be golden.
-If you are going to climb Ben Nevis bring warmer clothing than you think you might need. I wish I had packed another layer, hat and gloves. Fifteen minutes at the top and I was a shivering-teeth-chattering-mess – it was 0 degrees at the top in the first week of August... on a nice day.
-If you have access to a kitchen then cooking meals will save you a lot of money! We were often able to make tasty, healthy and substantial meals for well under 10P. We also learned that we really enjoyed traveling and eating this way. We still had delicious meals out, but we did it less often and made it more of a treat.
-If I did it again I would camp Scotland! Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ law allows you to camp and explore essentially anywhere, as long as you aren’t causing mischief. Set up your tent or park your camper van just about anywhere you want, for free – I LOVE IT! I was major jealous of all those Westfalia’s parked at beautiful lookouts with mountain views and lochs at foot.
-Bloody Midges! Who knew such tiny inconsequential bugs could be so awful. Be prepared for them, but maybe pick up something locally. We brought a bug cream from home and that didn’t seem to deter them.
-Your partner, or maybe even you, might develop a slight Scottish inflection often paired with calling everyone ‘mate’ (though I am not sure that is a Scottish thing)… even so, don’t worry about it too much, you’ll lose it on the plane ride home.