Fàilte gu Alba – The Highlands

“When shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

(Macbeth, Act I, Scene i)

Welcome to the next installment of my Scotland posts. This time we will dive into my 2-day excursion through the Scottish Highlands. (Just for you all, here’s some background music for while you’re reading through! I know it starts all jolly and gets super dark, but honestly, I think it’s super reflective of Scotland – jolly folk, sometimes jolly weather, sometimes super dark weather – especially in the Highlands with all the immense and looming landscapes.)

DAY 1: TÌORAIDH GLASGOW

In my last post, I left you all hanging at the end of my first day solo in Glasgow and Paisley. But as with every new day, a new adventure was ahead – and the next leg of my journey was, thankfully, with two awesome friends, Sean and Ayoung. I tried to wake up early to pack up and get ready while waiting for a message from Sean or Ayoung notifying me of when their arrival in Glasgow. Much to my surprise, they both arrived earlier than I anticipated (almost a whole hour ahead of schedule! I definitely recommend National Express over MegaBus if you decide to make a coach trip from London…) so I shook myself out of my tired state, rushed as best as I could, and ran to catch the next bus to the city center.

Once I reached Buchanan, I was greeted with hugs and hellos from my friends and we scurried on over to the next bus that would bring us to Glasgow Airport (this is where we had to pick up our rental car that Sean so graciously sorted out and drove us around in). After a bit of confusion with the rental company (extra fees for being under 25, cars available, etc.) we finally made our way to the lot to our gleaming, black stallion – an Audi A3 (this was such a difference compared to a Ford or Toyota that you would normally get in the US, but hey, Europeans gotta ride in style, aye?). With our bags thrown in the back, and the decision for me to be the navigator (I had created a map prior to our trip with all the places that I thought may be of interest while we were on the road – don’t worry, Ayoung and Sean approved of it, so it was not a solo effort by any means. There were inputs and edits made through their suggestions/requests! In the end, however, we were super ambitious and didn’t get to hit every last destination on the map. But no harm, no foul – it’s just an extra reason to go back to Scotland!)

An overview of our 2 day road trip – there were some changes along the way

TO THE HIGHLANDS WE GO

After struggling a bit with cellular data connection (courtesy of Ayoung – bless your unlimited data plan!) we finally loaded up the Google Map and plugged in our first destination of the trip into our Audi’s built-in GPS (also bless this rental car for having this). First stop on our list, Inveraray and Inveraray Castle.

Along our drive, we made our way through/around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park – just the beginning of the stunning scenery that Scotland holds. Thankfully, the weather held up as we had blooming sunshine and scattered clouds upon leaving Glasgow. While it was still a bit chilly (it was the end of March, so it made sense that the average temperatures around Scotland can vary from 0°C to 10°C, and sometimes colder in the Highlands. For you non-metric folk, that’s about 32°F to 50°F.), the sun gave me enough warmth to stay comfortable (though I did sweat a bit, I don’t think Ayoung or Sean would agree with me on being warm, haha). Tragically, I didn’t take that many pictures in this beginning leg of the trip as I was just too happy to be reunited with my friends. Needless to say, there was a lot of catching up, chatting, and karaoke-ing going on. (We even got around to naming our car. We, of course, chose “Dreich”.) And to be fair, you kind of get entranced by the beauty of the landscape that you forget that you have a camera.

Eventually, as we drove around the swerving roads along Loch Lomond and Loch Fyne, we finally made it to Inveraray Castle. Because we were living on the college student budget, we decided to forgo the entrance fee to walk inside/on the castle grounds as we had several other stops to make before we would pack up for the day. Instead, we parked our car on an empty side street and took a few minutes to stretch our limbs, breathe in the fresh and cool Scottish air, frolic amongst the grazing sheep, and take pictures of the castle. [Learn more about Inveraray Castle here.]

Once we got back in the car, we decided we would go look for food as we made our way to our next stop. The only thing was, we had lost signal in the small town of Inveraray, so we didn’t know where said “next stop” was. We decided to drive along A83 (the same road we were on getting to Inveraray) to see if we could find anything. Much to our chagrin, we did not come along anything for several kilometers, so we decided to turn around and search for wifi so we could modify our route – this time opting for the Isle of Skye (several other stops were along the same route to Skye). We stopped by a small restaurant along the banks of Loch Fyne to ask for directions, and were told to head back to Inveraray and to turn to A819 which would take us farther north into the Highlands. We thanked the keepers and decided to head back to town for brunch, pick up snacks for the drive up (yas, Walkers Shortbread, yas), connect to wifi and download offline maps/coordinates, and then head to Skye.

LET THE SKY FALL

One thing any Highland traveler should know is that the roads to and through the Highlands occasionally shift from motorways to single track lanes. The roads follow the contours of many of the imposing landscapes that you will drive through, whether it be a glen, valley, loch, etc. Needless to say, the driving can be intimidating if you are not used to rugged terrain/off-road driving – or simply if you are not used to driving on the opposite side of the road. (Thankfully, Sean was comfortable with it all.) Regardless of such peril, you will experience some of the most intense and dramatic shift in scenery along the way. Take it from me and my friends, it was wild out there.

As we headed off from lowlands and lochs near and around Inveraray, we entered the A819 – our first official single track road. The road initially started off quite straight, then slowly  became hilly, gradually increasing in incline and curvature. The terrain started to get more rugged, as we started to see small glens/hills coming up on either side of us. Interestingly enough, there was lots of water – perhaps tributaries from the River Aray which flowed alongside us as we drove northward. We made several stops for pictures. First was at a small designated picnic area with a small car lot. On our left we had the river beside us, with a small bridge going across and a few picnic tables scattered around. To our right were hills, trees, and a partly cloudy sky. We took in the peacefulness, as well as pictures, and then headed back to our car to continue on. We stopped shortly after once again to take more pictures – literally, you could stop anywhere – nearly everything would have made for a scenic photo-op!

As we continued on through, the clouds that were lightly scattered before started building up. Likewise, the rolling hills gradually grew higher and higher creating quite a striking backdrop. Rolling past Bridge of Orchy (a hamlet village – learn more here) and Loch Tulla, it was at this point where we were about to enter through some of the most cinematically famous terrain, and our next destination – Glen Coe. As many of you may know, movies such as the James Bond installment Skyfall, was shot throughout the Glen Coe region of the Highlands. Similarly, much of the Academy Award winning film Braveheart was shot on location in Glen Coe as well.

Read more about Glen Coe here, but to keep it short the area is actually a region of volcanic origin and was named after the River Coe which runs through the glens. The drive through Glen Coe and around Ben Nevis has also been named one of Scotland’s National Scenic Areas – a true testament to the ruggedly enchanting stretch of land. In true James Bond nature, as soon as we entered the road into the glens, we cruised along to the James Bond theme. At this point, the clouds had really built up, they weren’t quite low enough yet for heavy rain, but there was a bit of mist as we drove along and stopped at various spots for pictures. I remember just getting super excited here – being a fan of natural scenery and national parks, Glen Coe had it all for me. Even despite the complete flip in weather which was now pure dreich, I was ecstatic. My only sadness stemmed from being unable to go on a hike through the glen due to the time constraints we had – but again, another reason to come back to the Highlands!

A TOUCH OF SKYE

Upon leaving the Glen Coe region, we made our way up to Fort William and to the tallest mountain in Scotland, Ben Nevis. [Learn more about Fort William and Ben Nevis.] Again, I would have loved to do some hiking on Ben Nevis, but we were trying to make the most of the day by heading off to our next stop – the Isle of Skye. Main points that we hoped to hit through Skye were:

  • Eilean Donan Castle
  • Kilt Rock
  • The Quiraing
  • The Fairy Pools/Faerie Glen

The drive west in to the Isle of Skye twists and winds up and down as you zip through. Once again, the landscape becomes so dramatic with the steepness of various glens surrounding you, carved by the waters falling along its sides from the melting snow caps. The serenity of the smaller lochs that you pass by also add to the atmosphere. Here the elevation begins to increase as well, so temperatures begin to drop accordingly. Unfortunately for us, the weather only worsened as we headed westward. The rain had started to come down quite hard, with only brief moments of lighter drizzling (let it be known, that it add even more dramatic effect to the surroundings – it was quite surreal in all honesty). The wind had also picked up significantly as we entered Skye. We weren’t sure how much longer the “daylight” would last, so we came to the sad agreement of making Eilean Donan our most westward stop for the day. (Now looking back, we had just barely missed truly entering Skye which was just several kilometers away from the castle.)

Nevertheless, we still had amazing views (despite the rain) of Eilean Donan – as some say, the most beautiful castle in all of Scotland. Eilean Donan (read more here) also happens to be the most photographed castle in Scotland as well – and even in the rain, you could still understand why. The castle is set out where three different lochs intersect – Loch Alsh, Loch Long, and Loch Duich. Behind, the glens add even more grandeur to the setting. So there we stood, taking in the castle’s splendor, trying to keep ourselves from leaving. But as the rain continued to crash down, we sloshed over to the car to start our journey towards our Airbnb for the night.

A BRIEF ENCOUNTER WITH NESSIE

As we made our descent out of Skye, we started to get less intense weather. The rain had slowed to light showers (and eventually to a light misting), and the grayness of the clouds lightened into more of a gray-blue hue. We were making good time in heading to our Airbnb in Forres and had hoped to even make a short pitstop by the famous Loch Ness or the Highland capital of Inverness. We passed through several small towns and eventually made it to the tip of Loch Ness. We joked about the Loch Ness monster and bantered away as we drove alongside the loch. Then suddenly, the road started getting a little bumpier and the car jerked after a loud pop sound. Sean, who was driving, immediately knew something was wrong – and he was right. We had just punctured our tire and gotten a flat right next to Loch Ness. Ayoung and I panicked. Sean tried to calm us, telling us he knew how to change a tire, but was first going to call the rental company. Unluckily for us, we were in the middle of no where – with the closest city (Inverness) being nearly 40 minutes to an hour away from us. The rental company advised us to stay where we were and that they would send someone over to help us. With our cellphone batteries draining as fast as our spirits, we waited off the side of the road for help to come. We quickly gave a call to our Airbnb hosts to update them on our situation, and tried to keep the mood light – this definitely had become a damper on our spirits. Sean and Ayoung were starting to feel the effects of a 9 hour bus ride and opted to take a power nap. I decided to stay awake as the watch guard. As the blue-gray clouds turned to darkness, the cold began to creep in as well. Finally, after what felt like forever (nearly 1.5-2 hours), we saw from the opposite side of the road the bright lights of a truck pull up in front of our car. Alas, after a few minutes of discussion and replacement of our flat tire, we continued straight for Forres.

Luckily for us, no one was hurt and there weren’t other damages to the vehicle. Our repairman had told us that there are actually many random accidents that happen in that particular stretch of the road we were on, so it wasn’t unusual that we found ourselves victim to a flat. Perhaps it’s the mystical powers of Nessie wreaking havoc… we may never know. But hey, at least we got to spend some quality time by Loch Ness with Nessie, wherever she may have been lurking.

PIT STOP IN FORRES

Our little fiasco with the flat tire had put us way behind schedule. We had hoped to reach our Airbnb a bit earlier in the evening to settle down and explore the small town of Forres. After passing through Inverness and taking note of how late it was and how many food places weren’t open, we decided to pick up food at a takeaway store and then eat once we arrived at our Airbnb. Ayoung opted for a butty, Sean couldn’t resist the fish ‘n’ chips, and I decided to be brave and try haggis. [Find out about haggis here.] My verdict on haggis: DELICIOUS. Despite the description/how it is made/what is in it/etc. it tastes really good, and you definitely need to try it. Granted, I was starving at that point, so probably anything would’ve tasted good, but seriously, give haggis a go if you’re brave enough! (If you can’t handle it, wash it down with some Scottish whisky.)

IMG_7645

Sean and Ayoung – we were so excited to finally eat!

Finally, at nearly 11 PM we made it to our final stop for the day. Our hosts, were unbelievably kind and generous for staying up so late to wait for us. We were greeted by one of our hosts, Steve, upon arrival. After parking our car, we were given the keys to our cozy little eco cabin that we were staying in for the night. Everything was built and set up by hand by our hosts – it was quite amazing to say the least. The cabin (which was actually a refurbished wagon trailer) was equipped with a running sink, wood-burning fireplace, outlets, a canopy bed, and pullout couch beds. You could imagine how cold the evening got, so it was such a treat and surprise to see that Steve had already started a fire for us. (We added one log successfully, but forgot about the fire until it burned out later. Long story short – we used up a whole box of matches trying to rekindle the fire and we failed miserably.) Another unique thing about the cabin was that the bathroom was an outdoor one, which was also built by hand and set up in a way for the “waste” to be completely compostable and eco-friendly. We also had an OUTDOOR shower! (Which I ended up using in the morning despite the almost freezing temperature outside – again, would totally recommend this. It is really such an experience!) After chowing down on our food and settling down, we finally took some much needed rest for the night.

In the morning, Ayoung and I were up and ready to go. We let Sean sleep in a bit more, so we explored the town a bit. It was quiet and quaint, and from what I observed, the residents seemed quite friendly. After exploring we went back to our cabin to get ready for the day and to check out. Once we got our things together and packed back in the car, we headed back into town for breakfast/brunch then continued on for our second day of traveling.

DAY 2: WHEN SHALL WE THREE MEET AGAIN

Day 2 of our journey ended up being just a lot more driving as Sean suggested dropping me off at my next destination, Edinburgh, before heading back to Glasgow with Ayoung. Also, the rainy weather continued on for most of our journey. However, we were able to stop by and drive through some of the places mentioned in Macbeth which made my Shakespearean heart skip a beat. We first headed to Cawdor Castle – unfortunately, because it was not yet the season for visitors, we were only able to linger around the outsides of the castle grounds. The rain once again had started to pick up, and we still had a ways to go to get to Edinburgh/Glasgow.

The bridge crossing into the backside of Cawdor Castle

Our drive south brought us through Cairngorms National Park (learn more here). For most of our journey, aside from a gas refill and stop at Blair Castle, we were driving through the Cairngorms mountain range and along the River Spey. Again, just like the ride up to Skye, we were surrounded by mountains and smaller hills towering majestically around us. It was an incredibly scenic drive, to say the least. We also passed through another Macbeth destination – Dunsinane Hill. Though there isn’t actually much to see in that area, we had decided to skip it to make the most of our time to reach Edinburgh early. The rain continued on and off, but thankfully as we got closer to Edinburgh, the rain started to slow down.

Culloden Viaduct – this was a bit outside of Cairngorms

As we crossed into Edinburgh, it started to sink in that our Scotland crew was about to split up in just a few hours. The conversation slowed a bit as it gradually hit us, but even after arriving at my next Airbnb for the night, we decided to spend more time at dinner together before we went our separate ways. We continued to rave about our short time up in the Highlands and as well as about how going back to London and having to get back into “revision mode” was going to be awful. After a while, it was soon time for Ayoung and Sean to leave for Glasgow and for me to return back to my Airbnb and plan for my solo excursion through Edinburgh for the next few days. We said our farewells and wished each other safe travels, promising to keep in touch and hang out again once we were all back in London. With one last hug, Sean and Ayoung swung out of my Airbnb’s street, and once again, just as I had begun this trip, I was venturing alone again. Exhausted, I settled into my room at my host’s place and started to plan out my plans for Edinburgh the next day.

With that, our trip to the Highlands had come to an end. There were so many stunning things that we saw and so much natural beauty to take in. But for just a short 2 days, there was still so much left to be seen and discovered. I most definitely hope to visit the Highlands again – and hopefully it is not too far in the future! For those of you who want suggestions for places to visit and resources to look at, don’t be scared to ask! Definitely start with the Visit Scotland website!


Navigate here:

To far ahead? – Go back to Glasgow & Paisley

On to the next post? – Fast forward to Edinburgh, Part 1 or Edinburgh, Part 2

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