“I feel a sort of reverence in going over these scenes in this most beautiful country, which I am proud to call my own, where there was such devoted loyalty to the family of my ancestors – for Stuart blood is in my veins.”
Queen Victoria, journal entry in 1873
This quote represents quite nicely how I feel about Scotland, although my blood is that of the McKenzie’s rather than the Stuarts. I’ve always been proud of my Scottish heritage, with such a large family that I’ve been close to my whole life. Although I did feel slightly uncomfortable walking around the highlands with the name McKenzie and a truly southern English accent!
This trip came about because we wanted to go away for a week to celebrate our anniversary. We debated cheap beach holidays then settled, somehow, on Scotland. A Scottish road trip has been something we’ve wanted to do for a while now, so we thought why not?! We chose to fly and rent a car rather than drive all the way up from Sussex, seeing as we weren’t planning to dive or anything. That’ll be another trip!
We landed in Glasgow at about 3 pm with only our hand luggage and made our way to the car rental place via the shuttle bus provided. We got given our car, after they tried to swindle us out of an extra £10 a day for the next model up, and we set off. At home we have an almost 16 year old fiesta so a brand new Citroen C1 felt just fine to us! We also didn’t have a sat nav, only the road map I’d bought so we were doing this old school. Leg one of the journey was to get to Fort William for the night. The drive took about 2 hours and we went through the stunning Loch Lomond National Park and Glen Coe. I made James stop so I could get this shot:
There was even a little snow up there still! We didn’t stop again and arrived at our Fort William guest house in good time, a lovely little place over looking Loch Linnhe just before you get into town. Being here, of course I had to take James to see Ben Nevis. I climbed it years ago with my parents and sister, so it was nice going back although I’d forgotten that you can’t see the summit from the road, it’s hidden behind the surrounding landscape. We tried to get a table for dinner at the on-site restaurant but they were full so we ended up in a pub on the high street which was wonderful! The Grog and Gruel is a traditional feeling place with a great menu of pies, burgers and haggis, but also pizza and tex-mex food. After a little walk up the high street we headed back to our guest house for an early night ready for the long day I had planned next. Not before we’d taken some photos of the glorious sunset though!
This was by far our busiest and, I think, most enjoyable day. Breakfast was huge, with a Scottish cooked breakfast but then also cereal, toast and a waffle maker on the side! Lucky for me James doesn’t like black pudding so I got double helpings all week. We set of at 9 am with our first stop the Glenfinnan Viaduct, more famously known as the Harry Potter bridge. Unfortunately we weren’t there at the right time to see the steam train but it was very impressive nonetheless and we had it to ourselves.
The structure itself is concrete I believe but the multitude of arches and mountains in the background make it just breathtaking. There is a walk you can do from here to get a better view from the other side but we didn’t have time, we had a ferry to catch!
Next we had to get to the ferry port in Mallaig, a picturesque journey following the railway track. We were there for the ferry to the Isle of Skye, the bit I had been most looking forward to. We left the little port town for our hour crossing to Armdale. The feature image at the top of this post is some of the scenery we had along the way. There’s something so peaceful about layers of mountains fading into blueness like that. It makes you remember how small you are and how insignificant your worries are to the world.
Upon arriving in Skye, we immediately headed north, towards Uig and the mysterious Fairy Glen. This whole island is beautiful with it’s own small mountain range and dramatic scenery. I should say, we were so incredibly lucky the entire week to have glorious sunshine, which made everything so much more inviting. We made it to Fairly Glen by accident actually. James took a wrong turn (which I’d probably told him to take…) so I had to use my phone to get us back on track when I realised we we’d just passed the glen. Even once we arrived in the spot on the map it took us forever to find it. It is not signposted and there were no hoards of tourists to show us the way. To save you time if you ever venture that way, park near the small pond on the right hand side and make your way over the ridge behind the pond. There’s sort of a path, and it will lead you to the glen. When we arrived, eventually, we found circles of rocks that are either meticulously cared for or they are moved regularly. There is also a mound you can climb to get a beautiful view of the whole thing.
The hills here are totally different to the rest of the area. Like they have wrinkles in them, while the surrounding land is smooth. Even when we drove away we could still pick out the place from a distance. Our next stop was the Quiraing. This was a place I’d read about and couldn’t wait to get to. It’s an area in the north east of Skye with some incredible views of the enchanting landscape. We donned our walking boots and set off on what turned out to be a 3 hour hike. But it was so worth it. The path is clearly marked and you begin setting off towards some imposing rock formations, with a stunning view behind you. Then you are led round the back of the mountain for what feels like forever before you start climbing, emerging at the top with a lookout over the sea, my favourite view of the whole trip. The top is a bit marshy, even in the good weather we had so be careful, and there isn’t a well marked path here so just keep heading roughly south until you start to see the descent. From here, you get another breathtaking view of the Quiraing. The descent is tricky and steep, full concentration required.
By now it was about 5 pm. I’d really wanted to climb to see the Old Man of Storr but we just didn’t have time. You can get a reasonable view of it heading south from the Quiraing to Portree but if you stop at the marked car park, you can’t see a thing unless you actually do the walk. In the main town of Portree, we stopped for dinner. At least one fish and chips meal is obligatory on any Scotland visit. My final activity for the day was to go and watch the sunset from the Neist Point Lighthouse, the westernmost point on the island. Everything in Scotland is much further away than you think it’s going to be because of the tiny single roads everywhere. Passing points become your best friend in an attempt not to lose the deposit on the car squeezing by other vehicles, but this slows you down incredibly. We arrived at the car park with probably about 10 mins to spare and I literally ran to find a good viewing point. We didn’t have time to get to the lighthouse itself which is another 20 minutes or so walk away, and with the amazing weather, it seemed everyone else on the island had the same plan as me so the crowds were pretty large. It was a beautiful place, I just wish we hadn’t been so rushed.
Not only was it a mad dash to get there, it was also a mad dash to make it to our hostel and collect our key before the office shut. And now with it being dark, the roads became even more treacherous. James was amazing, driving as fast as he could with my dodgy directions, getting us to the hostel only 5 minutes late. Thankfully the guy knew we were coming so he’d waited, but he did not seem impressed. We slept very well that night, so exhausted from the day.
The next morning we had breakfast at a lovely little cafe across the road with wonderful coffee and gorgeous mountain views. Our first stop this day was the Fairy Pools in south west Skye. This was more than worth the drive. The walk is as long as you choose to make it although the best views of the pools are a little way up. The river is winding and so pretty, with crystal clear waters. I couldn’t resist taking a paddle, the water was so cold, my feet were numb within 2 minutes! If you only have time to do one thing on the Isle of Skye, I’d highly recommend going here. It’s the perfect family walk too.
Then we set off back towards the mainland over the Skye Bridge with our next stop being Eilean Donan Castle. This was the busiest place we’d been to so far, with several tour buses. But listed as the most beautiful castle in Scotland, we couldn’t really drive by so close and not visit. I’d done very little research about this place before we arrived so I was stunned to learn that in the 13th century, this castle was owned by my ancestors, clan McKenzie/MacKenzie! It was very surreal walking where they’d once walked.
From Eilean Donan, we headed towards Gairloch on the west coast. Our drive took us partly along the Coastal Road and was so pretty. Surrounded by mountains, Lochs appearing as if out of nowhere as you turn a corner and barely a single car on the road, we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, which was exactly the aim of this road trip. The drives between each destination were as much part of the fun and we made several stops along the way to admire the views.
That night, we’d booked into one of the only hotels we could find in the area, the Gairloch Hotel. It was the strangest place. From the outside it looked amazing, then you walk in and it’s like stepping back into the 90s. All the decor was outdated, and our room was at the end of a long, winding corridor like something out of a horror movie. The room itself was nice and big and clean, but the TV was a tiny 10×10″ thing and the bathroom had some loose fittings. Dinner was an even stranger experience, there were three things to pick from the menu which were then brought out to us within 5 minutes. The waiter also tried to tell me I was ordering wrong by asking for wine before the food…
Needless to say we got out of there as soon as we could and took a walk along the beach to the pub down the road. The walk along the road would have taken about 10 minutes, we decided (after a bottle of wine) to climb over the rocks which took considerably longer and was much more fun. And there was the bonus of another sunset.
Day 4 our goal was to get to Inverness. On the way we stopped at two waterfalls and Loch Ness. There are plenty of gorges across the central highlands and the waterfalls that come with those are all free to visit and worth the time. The two we saw had suspension bridges over the river for a good view of the falls.
Just outside of Inverness we stopped at Loch Ness. We ended up parking in a little village that was actually quite a way from the loch. It took us about half an hour through a little residential area and a woodland to reach Loch Ness. Even once we got there, there wasn’t a great deal to see. Despite being the most famous loch, it’s not the prettiest, it’s just one of those things you have to see. That evening we walked into the city from our guest house. We went to take a look at the castle and wandered round the cobbled streets before ending up in a Chinese buffet restaurant (I know, I know). After eating, we walked into a small pub, full of locals that all stared at us when we entered. It was a nice place though, good for people watching and very amusing when a french couple came in to try whiskey for the first time.
Days 5 & 6
Our last two days were spent in the two national parks, the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond. Overall we preferred the Cairngorms. It felt like a bigger space, more wild with more to see. We visited Loch an Eilein, a beautiful walk through peaceful pine forest.
In the Loch Lomond national park, we climbed Ben A’an, a fairly arduous walk for people with our low fitness levels. The view from the top is stunning though, overlooking Loch Katrine.
On our last morning, the day of our actual anniversary, we went to Loch Lomond itself, and walked around the grounds of Buchanan Castle. A lovely way to end our tour. Scotland is an amazing place and visiting slightly out of season in May, meant that we had almost every place we visited to ourselves, adding to the feeling of vastness you get everywhere you go in the highlands.
Although we spent about the same as if we’d gone abroad, exploring your own country is so important and we’d thoroughly advocate anyone to do it.