Scotland is one of those places which, no matter how many photos you have seen of it, no matter how many blogs you’ve read about it , it still takes your breath away! The landscape is surreal – glistening lakes, deep glens surrounded by looming mountains, thick woodlands and beautiful castles. It is totally different from the grassy meadows, grazing sheep and pretty cottages of England that I have gotten used to.
Traditionally, Scotland had been geographically divided into the Lowlands and Highlands. The exact boundary is not clearly defined , though the region to the north and west of the Highland Boundary fault is largely known as the Highlands. Culturally, the clan system was very much prevalent in the Highlands and Gaelic was the main language spoken here. During our visit ,we learnt a lot about the clashes between the Highlands clans and the British government in the past – something we were not aware of prior to our trip to Scotland. Most people associate Scotland with tartan, kilts, bagpipes – these are really a Highland way of life. We chose to mainly visit the Scottish Highlands which is what I will be elaborating on in this post.
7 days is just about enough to see the main sites and to get a feel of the land. You can either start your trip in Edinburgh or Glasgow as both are major cities with busy airports. We chose to take a train to Glasgow , which was a pretty ride through North England though in hindsight, I would have probably chosen to fly as it is much quicker.
This is a classic itinerary which follows a route through the most stunning parts of Scotland:
Day 1: Reach Glasgow early in the day and take in the sights of the city . Drive to Loch Lomond National Park later and stay overnight.
In Glasgow, we hopped aboard a city sightseeing bus tour – convenient with a 4 year old. There are also a lot of walking tours to choose from, if a bus tour is not your thing.
The drive from Glasgow to our cottage rental in Tyndrum, a small village within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, took about an hour. Tyndrum is at the northern end of the park- a better option would be to stay in Luss ( expensive) , Balloch or Tarbet, so it is convenient for the boat rides.
Day 2 : See the lakes and take a boat trip. You can also choose to rent bikes and follow bike routes around the lakes.
We chose to take the steamship Sir Walter Scott to cruise along the waters of Loch Katrine. We took a 1 hour cruise in the afternoon from Trossachs Pier and enjoyed it although the sunny skies gave way to rain about halfway through ( not unusual in Scotland!)
Loch Lomond has a shoreline of 153 km and there are numerous companies which offer cruises over this beautiful lake. There are also hiking trails and biking routes – there are visitor information centers in Balmaha, Callander, Balloch , Tarbet and Aberfoyle which can provide you with detailed information and maps.
Day 3: Drive towards Fort William. Stop at Glencoe en-route for the spectacular scenery. Take a gondola ride and see Ben Navis.
Glencoe is one of those iconic images of Scotland that is found often on postcards and other tourist souvenirs. The James Bond movie Skyfall was shot here! It was also the site of the Glencoe massacre of the MacDonald clan by British government forced in 1692. Glencoe is a glen ( valley) bounded by the majestic peaks of Bidean nam Bian, Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag on the north ( Give yourself a pat on the back if you managed to pronounce the names!!).
The Glencoe visitor center is run by the National Trust for Scotland and has parking, a cafe and a viewing platform. There are various walks from the center into the surrounding woodlands and the trails are colour coded according to the level of difficulty. We chose a couple of easy walks suitable for children and enjoyed walking through the woodlands with small streams running though and the view of mountains in the distance. For the more adventurous , there are opportunities to climb the peaks surrounding Glencoe and do a spot of strenuous hill walking.
We then drove towards Fort William and briefly stopped for lunch. Fort William itself is a pretty but touristy town. On its outskirts, the Nevis range mountain gondola takes visitors up the Aonach Mor and from the top, there are spectacular views of Ben Navis. Mountain bikers were practicing on the slopes for the World championships that was to take place the next day and we spent some time just gawking at their skill and dexterity in navigating the rough terrain. The gondola ride itself was an attraction for my son – he likened the experience to Peppa on a mountain gondola in one of the episodes of the hugely popular preschool series Peppa Pig!
Day 5: Drive to the Isle of Skye by taking the Skye Bridge. Stop to gawk at the Eilean Donan Castle on the way. ( If you choose to take the ferry from Mallaig, then it is not possible to see the castle en route).
We opted to drive instead of taking the ferry – if you choose to go the ferry route , then a stop at Glenfinnan viaduct to see the ‘ Harry Potter train ‘ is a must. We are huge Potter fans but with a 4 year old in tow, it was going to be difficult for us to make it in time to see the train chugging past. Thus we drove through Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye Bridge to the Isle of Skye.
En-route, in the village of Dornie, is the iconic Eilean Donan Castle. It is probably the most recognisable of Scotland’s castles and has been the filming location for many movies, including Indian films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kandukondein Kandukondein. It is certainly the most romantic of castles, sitting at an intersection of 3 sea lochs. We did not venture into the castle but the surrounds are so picturesque, we spent hours just taking photos and walking around it.
We reached Isle of Skye late in the day and clear blue skies welcomed us to this magical place. Our rental cottage’s garden stretched out to a tidal inlet and from the house, there were uninterrupted views across Broadford bay! There was also a real fireplace in the lounge, which we lit after a lot of reading instructions on Google – only to have my father say after it was lit that he was used to lighting wood fires all the time in his younger days! And he chose to just stand by and watch us struggle!
Day 6: Explore the Isle of Skye – hike to the Old Man of Storr or around the Quairaing, go whale watching in the Atlantic or visit one of the smaller islands off the coast by speed boat.
We drove to the Old Man of Storr and just as we neared, angry black clouds threatened us with rain. Sure enough, the moment we parked our car , the heavens opened and there was a deafening downpour. So we sat in the car and looked at the Old Man from our windows. All plans of hiking had gone kaput- we made the fundamental mistake of not carrying rain-proof gear while out and about in Scotland ( we had left it in the cottage).
We then went on to take a speed boat ride across the Atlantic from Elgol with AquaXplore- the sun was back now thankfully. We were hoping to see dolphins, Minke whales, seals, puffins and porpoises. We did see a lot of seals and we saw puffins too. No whales or dolphins though – my son was most disappointed. We stopped for lunch on the tiny island of Canna before taking the boat back to Elgol. This remote Hebridean island has only one cafe which is brilliant. Cafe Canna serves fresh , no fuss food – sandwiches, soups, an assortment of cakes and hot drinks. The evening menu is more elaborate – with vegetarian options for each course! Though we only had lunch here , this little cafe has earned a special place in my heart for being vegetarian friendly despite its remote location!
Day 7 : Drive back over the Skye Bridge to Inverness airport for the flight back home.
Sadly , all good things must end and so did our trip. We managed to get a small glimpse of this beautiful land and I was already planning our next trip on the flight back home!
SOME TRAVEL TIPS:
It is pretty much essential to rent a car in Scotland. A road trip is the best way to see this beautiful region. You can choose to use public transport but you will miss out on smaller towns and the flexibility to stop for photos . The roads in Scotland are mostly narrow two way roads except for the motorways connecting bigger towns but we never felt unsafe driving here. Drivers in the UK generally follow road rules conscientiously and are respectful of other drivers.
There are numerous car rental options – we chose Enterprise and were entirely happy with their service.
If you eat anything and everything , then you must try some of the local specialties- haggis ( a Scottish sausage made from sheep’s stomach stuffed with a mince of sheep’s liver ,heart and lungs) , Scottish smoked salmon, black pudding ( it is a ‘blood’ sausage, not a dessert!).
If you are, however, a vegetarian like me , then just reading about the foods above may have made you squeamish! But fret not! There are some veggie options , especially for breakfast. Scottish porridge is a traditional food that dates back centuries – it is made from porridge oats, water, salt and served with creamy milk. It is unlike the sweetened variety that we are all used to. Vegetarian haggis is now offered in many cafes – a mix of pulses, oatmeal, vegetables and spices. In my research prior to the trip , I found a lot of breakfast places in small towns which offered a ‘vegetarian Scottish breakfast’ – a thing never heard of in the past in Scotland!
One of the consultants in my hospital is Scottish and during a particularly long night shift, she reminisced about her childhood and especially about the various typical Scottish sweets and candies she had enjoyed as a child. That was the first time I heard about tablet ( a sort of fudge which is very sweet), soor plooms ( a sweet and sour boiled sweet) and Edinburgh rock. We actually bought a sample of these when I found a confectionery shop in Fort William – they were however too sweet for my taste! If you have a sweet tooth unlike me , then go ahead and try them!
Unfortunately, other than breakfast, it is difficult to find vegetarian options for your meals. We chose to thus go self catering for dinner and made do with jacket potatoes and sandwiches for lunch.
Scotland has mild summers and cold winters – the landscape is such that , no matter when you visit, it is bound to be beautiful and surreal. We chose late May-early June, before the school summer holidays and high prices hit. It was very pleasant and rarely did we need a jacket for warmth. However, May to September is midge season in the Highlands and this small flying insect can be quite an irritation especially on walks or hikes. There are numerous articles on the web on how to avoid them – read them and sift through the advice as some of them can be quite silly like chewing garlic or taking yeast tablets.
At nearly 2000 words, this article should have managed to convince you to visit Scotland! If you have already been , tell me what you loved about it ( and what you did not- probably the midges!).