Where to even begin? My sister and I took the most magical trip to Scotland a few of summers ago and we haven't stopped thinking about it since. We had always dreamt of stepping foot on the Highlands; standing on a bonnie green moor, windblown, overlooking a brooding ocean; and frolicking with sheep through low-hanging mist and fairy glens. And while our actual trip was uncommonly sunny and warm, Scotland exceeded our expectations and then some.
We began our adventure in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Hilly and full of old-world charm, this city is a World Heritage Site and dates back thousands of years. Walking and public transit were our preferred methods for navigating the city, and we were able to take a bus from the airport to Edinburgh’s historic center. After climbing what seemed to be a very steep hill, large rolling suitcases in tow, we reached our hotel directly off the Royal Mile - Fraser Suites.
Fraser Suites occupies a 130-year-old building on St. Giles Street and lives up to its luxury standards. The views of old rooftops from our windows, the modern bathroom and kitchenette, the complete silence in the middle of a bustling city, and (not to mention) the shortbread - my sister and I would stay here again in a heartbeat given the chance. Whenever we opened the front door and stepped into the street, bagpipes filled the air and stirred something old inside of us, something mystical and secret.
For two days, we explored the city. We rubbed Greyfriars Bobby’s nose for good luck (and because we were missing our own cairn terrier, Magi); paid our respects to the great J.K. Rowling (at The Elephant Cafe and in Greyfriars Kirkyard at Tom Riddle’s grave); stood on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle overlooking Stockbridge; strolled through Dean Village; toured Mary King’s Close (narrow streets and tenements named after the mechant burgess who lived there during the 17th-century); and made sure to stop by the beautiful Victoria Street and Circus Lane.
We ate dinner at The Scran and Scallie - one of the only meals we had planned ahead of time. The team behind the gastropub is also behind The Kitchin, a popular Michelin star restaurant in Edinburgh. I still think about the pea risotto - bright green and oh-so creamy - that my sister ordered. (I had the bangers and mash - almost as good.)
After meticulous research, we had decided renting a car and embarking on a cross-country roadtrip would be the best way to see this beautiful place.
Our third day in Scotland found us packing our bags and finally hitting the road. We made our way up the A90 - I white-knuckled and tense with my sister co-piloting, as driving on the opposite side of the road AND on the opposite side of the car was quite the experience. Luckily, we fell into a rhythm (a few close calls on some narrow streets in Stonehaven, notwithstanding).
All that aforementioned research came into play when we decided to visit Dunnottar Castle, on the coast just outside of Stonehaven. We were breathless - perhaps from another close call when we turned off the road and into the parking lot, but mostly from the views and amazing feeling of walking among the ruins of a medieval castle set on a dramatic cliff overlooking the North Sea. Parts of the castle date back to the 14th-century - we were definitely transported back in time during our visit. Beautiful blue skies and strong sea winds greeted us and, coupled with rolling green hills that rose from the shoreline, we knew this would be one of our favorite places in Scotland.
We stayed until closing then made our way back to the road, and north to Aberdeen where we bed down for the night. I had read that Aberdeen was an industrial city, filled with granite buildings and we found that particularly true. Grant it, we were hardly there for 24-hours, but our one excursion to a small fisherman’s village (that the internet boasted to be picturesque and worth the visit) left us feeling slightly misled. It could have been the long walk through an industrial section of shipyards or the very cold, very blustery wind that, upon our arrival in Footdee, had us asking if we were actually there. Either way, I am sure we owe The Granite City a second chance as my list of places to go was quite long and I wouldn’t mind seeing a puffin or two!
Aberdeen behind us, we made our way west to the Malt Whisky Trail, which runs north of and through Cairngorms National Park. It’s true that Steve McDonald’s “Sons of Somerled” album may have been blasting through the car’s speakers as we finally entered the Scottish Highlands, that long dreamt of land. The unusual sunshine we’d been privy to so far on our trip had been overtaken by moody clouds and grey skies in Aberdeen, and continued to hang over us. There was a certain magic of the Highlands that wouldn’t have come through so strong without that perfect grey backdrop.
We passed through Dufftown (the Malt Whisky Capital of the World) and under its canopy of trees our excitement grew - we were almost to our next destination.
We finally emerged in a clearing with a low stone wall. Our tires churned the gravel in the parking lot as we came to a stop next to a slew of motorcycles and grazing cows. We had arrived at Glenfiddich Distillery.
Why we chose to visit Glenfiddich over other distilleries escapes me now, but it was a delight. One of the last family-owned distilleries, Glenfiddich (Scottish gaelic for “valley of the deer”) has produced single malt Scotch whisky for over five generations. We opted for the Spirit of Innovation Tour and were lucky enough to be able to spend some time in Warehouse 8 where the whisky experiments and innovation abound.
Our private tasting and tour over, we headed to The Malt Barn for a late lunch. The sun peeked through clouds and made its way across the stone floor to our table where we warmed ourselves over coffee, dipping hunks of bread into Cullen Skink, a traditional local fish soup. Satiated, we made our way to the gift shop before heading back to the car.
Now distilling enthusiasts, we hoped to catch a glimpse of skilled coopers making casks at nearby Speyside Cooperage. Their coopers use traditional methods and tools; iit is the only working cooperage in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, we arrived just after the last tour began - another line item for our next trip.
Back on the road, we wound our way to Aviemore in Cairngorms National Park for another one night stay. A rather uneventful trip thus far (with the exception of a terrible upper respiratory viral infection I had been suffering mere days before our trip began, and which continued well beyond our return to the States), we finally faced a few bumps in the road in the form of our Coylumbridge hotel. Let’s just say we got what we paid for, and then some. We were happy to wave goodbye the next morning and turn our attention to our next highly anticipated destination: the Highland Folk Museum.
The UK’s first open-air museum, we felt immersed in Highland life as we made our way over a mile of grounds consisting of period-accurate buildings and decor ranging in time from the early-1700s to the mid-1900s. The setting couldn’t be more beautiful and it was a very enjoyable way to spend the better part of our morning. Farm animals wandered part of the grounds, period actors/docents appeared here and there, and at times we were completely alone - transported.
We mainly subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and crisps (potato chips) for the duration of our trip, and that day’s lunch was no different. We bought some crisps and sodas - a splurge - at the museum’s cafe then sat in the car, sandwiches made on the dashboard, watching tourists and discussing the logistics of our next leg of driving…to the Isle of Skye.
Luckily, we had planned our trip when the sun rose early and set late (near midnight) which gave us more driving hours; but, we had to stick to a timetable that day as our bed and breakfast hosts were expecting us by 5:00 pm. What a drive. Audible oohs and ahhs had been uttered at regular intervals on our trip already, but as we crossed the rugged landscape of Skye, headed for Portree, we knew we had come to a place we would be sad to leave.
We arrived a little late at Viewmount (due in part to my “careful” driving) to be greeted by our gracious hosts, Christine and Ian. Our room had been upgraded to a stand-alone cottage in the back of the property and, honestly, we looked forward to the seclusion. White linens swung on the line in the early evening sun, a necessity for drying we later learned when our towels were still damp by the next use. Tired of driving, but in need of dinner and a few provisions (crisps, anyone?), we headed to downtown Portree and had dinner then walked to the nearby Co-op Market.
After some much needed sleep, we started our first full day on Skye eating a traditional, homemade full breakfast. Christine and Ian know how to fortify their guests and did so every morning during our stay at Viewmount. Eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, and potato scones with tea and coffee prepared us for the day’s biting cold. (Plus, we knew we had PB, B, and C to look forward to if we didn’t stuff ourselves at breakfast.)
The day was overcast, one of the few we experienced during our ten in Scotland. With the heater on and sweaters pulled up to our chins, we drove up the A87 to the Fairy Glen in the hills of Uig. We drove slowly as we weren’t the only ones looking for magic down the narrow, single track road that wound around small grassy hills and ponds. (Scottish roads are dotted with passing places for easy overtaking.)
We continued on to the Skye Museum of Island Life, stopping on the side of the road to follow a small sheeps’ path and stand still, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Skye continued to bowl us over with its beauty at Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls, but it was very blustery on that side of the island so we didn’t linger long. We sadly skipped the hike to Old Man of Storr - the cold combined with my poor health left me with low energy - and we definitely regret not being able to make the climb.
At some point we had picked up a brochure on Skyeskyns, so we decided to drive west to Waternish and see the traditional tannery for ourselves. Surprisingly, to us at least, all of the sheep scattered throughout the UK are mainly sourced for food, rather than wool. Skyeskyns is one of two tanneries in all of the United Kingdom.
We met a lovely couple, ex-pats from the United States who had lived in Australia before settling in England, during our tour. Connecting with other travelers and locals alike is one of our favorite things about visiting far off places. When we ran into them again at a small yarn shop later that afternoon, it was a delight as well as a realization that we were on a second honeymoon for 50 year-old couples.
Hunger finally setting in, we ended our day with dinner at the 18th-century Stein Inn - the oldest inn on the Isle of Skye, which sits at the edge of the sea. We watched an early twilight set in over bowls of soup and a pile of chips before driving back to Portree.
Reluctant to leave (but so looking forward to the next part of our trip), we had our last breakfast at Viewmount the next day and lingered in the foyer saying our goodbyes to Christine and Ian before getting back on the road.
With the sun shining in an almost cloudless sky, we drove to the Fairy Pools at Glen Brittle before leaving Skye altogether. The misty magic we were hoping for was nowhere to be found under that bright sun, but the Fairy Pools’ unworldly color definitely made up for it. Happily, we also had our closest encounter with Highland cows off the dirt road leading to the pools, and met some lovely women from California who were hiking and camping throughout Scotland.
The final leg of our trip was upon us - Trossachs National Park. We passed through Fort William and then a hair-raising drive through Glencoe on our way to our Airbnb in Balquhidder. Breathtaking for its beauty and its narrow, winding cliff-side road, we decided then and there that Glencoe was a reason in and of itself to come back to Scotland.
These last few days were our slowest. We spent more time unwinding at our cabin, watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, staying up until the sunset near midnight, sleeping in. We only had two items left on our agenda: visiting Loch Lomond, and dinner with our friends who also happened to be in Scotland and staying at a nearby converted mill.
Loch Lomond and the village of Luss were incredible. There were so many locals vacationing, camping on the little islands, kayaking. Nearby slate quarries contributed to all of the beautiful slate roofs adorning the Luss sandstone cottages, which seemed to be draped in vines and flowers. We stopped in a few shops before a simple lunch at the Visitor’s Center and a loch cruise - we’d recommend the cruise, not the food at the Visitor’s Center.
Our friends cooked us dinner at their Airbnb, the mill, after we hiked part way up Ben Lawers one afternoon. The highest mountain in the southern Highlands, it overlooks Loch Tay, which we we had a closer view of over drinks on the mill’s small balcony. That was also our last night in Scotland.
The next morning as we ticked off miles on our speedometer, we couldn’t help but wonder at the simplicity of life on the road and the joy it brought us. Our minds were free from the small decisions that normally bogged us down and we were able to truly live in the moment. On the road in Scotland, we found beauty, tranquility, and peace of mind. Maybe that is why we haven’t been able to forget it.
Epilogue coming soon… :)