Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
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(Map from Lonely Planet)
The Highlands are the part of Scotland generally referring to the area North of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Our trip took us from Edinburg, to Glasgow, to Lull, to Oban, to Skye, to Inverness, and then to Stirling to finish it up.
HEADED TO OBAN
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Known as the “most beautiful village” in Scotland, it's a stop on many tourist itineraries. It lies between Glasgow and Oban, on the banks of Loch Lomond. There are a few walks around the area, I think the longest takes an hour. There is one place to buy smoked salmon and a few places offering baked goods and shortbread (I completely forgot shortbread was a Scottish thing, and also forgot how delicious it was). It's a cute stop that doesn't take long to walk through at all. However, the only parking in Luss required payment coins, of which we had none. A Scotsman who saw us standing at the meter insisted on giving us money for parking, without even being asked and without being given anything in return. It was truly generous and very appreciated. Thank you, random Scotsman!
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A charming town on the bay, home of the well known:
Well now that I've started drinking whisky, our trip wouldn't be complete without a stop here. Our guide, Mary, was phenomenal and our only regret was taking the last tour of the day because we couldn't stay and chat (read: drink scotch) any longer. We got to try Oban 9 Y/O straight from the cask and then the tried and true Oban 14 Y/O. We are looking forward to returning to the US and Costco so we can pick up some Oban 14 Y/O 😁. Can you believe Oban Distillery has only SEVEN full-time employees?
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Yes, we purchased this map at the Oban shop and plan on hanging it in our future house. Are you a Scotch whisky drinker? What's your favorite? What should we try next??
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We didn't get out the door early enough to take a trip to the inner Hebride island of Mull, so we opted to drive south from Oban instead to the former slate mining village of Ellenabeich. It's a very calm, quiet, tiny town. It was a nice place to stop. You can see the old quarry flooded in. Probably a large number of old buildings can source their slate roofs from this area.
Oban Chocolate Co Hands down the favorite breakfast/tea time we had here- making delicious waffles, single origin hot chocolates, fresh scones, and other tasty treats. It's also a chocolatier, with various chocolates for purchase and even a window to view chocolate making in the back.
Dunollie Castle This is the historical castle and lands of clan MacDougall. The castle is mostly in ruins, but there is a house on the property dating back from 1745, where the family still lives (!!!). The grounds are quiet, nice, and relaxing, and there are a few exhibitions in the house of antiques, etc. Getting to the castle requires a short uphill hike that provides beautiful views of Oban and the surrounding area. Do you have Scottish ancestry? Can you trace your family back to a single clan? Do you have a tartan? I'm currently fascinated with this 😅
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HEADED TO SKYE
Between the drive from Oban to Isle of Skye, we stopped at the highest mountain in the UK- Ben Nevis- standing at over 4k feet.
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We took the cable car up to the top, and hiked 20 minutes to a viewing point. We were told this was a clear day 😂. I guess that's kind of true…
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It was incredibly windy at the top, but we had the whole thing to ourselves!
ISLE OF SKYE
Skye is the the largest island in Scotland, and tourism here is booming of late. There is a bridge to get from the mainland to the island, but it's still almost an hour drive to reach the largest town on Skye- Portree. This is where we opted to stay.
The island itself has a population of 10,000 people and plenty more sheep. The roads are… decent. There are a few one lane roads with speeds of 60mph to get you up and down, left and right across the island. It feels like suicide because 60mph feels WAY TOO FAST for a road with virtually no shoulder, limited visibility, occasional single track bridges, and no median.
So what do the other roads look like, you might wonder? Single track. They have intermittent pull outs for when you come across another car going the opposite direction. It's quite an adventure and I was glad it wasn't me behind the wheel! Several times we had to reverse down the road to the previous stop-off. Not for the faint of heart.
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With the high demand of tourism and relatively small supply of accommodations, prices are easily $100+ more per night here than they are anywhere else in Scotland. Also, you have to book well in advance- you can't show up the day-of looking for a place. The same goes for restaurants- you need reservations if you want to eat dinner at a nice place.
Up until this point, we had been pretty darn lucky with the weather. Spending two weeks in Scotland and only get rained out once… not so bad. It was a bummer that it happened in Skye though, easily the most expensive of stays and on one of our two full days on Skye.
We had arrived in Skye at nearly sundown on Friday night. Saturday, our first day, was a steady rain all day long. I talked everyone into going for a walk down the road to the center of town. Well… yeah…. we got absolutely soaked. We walked the mile back home and had to hang up all our stuff to dry, leaving us stuck inside for the rest of the day while the sky continued to drench the earth.
Saturday was our second and final night in Skye, which meant the following morning we had to pack up our stuff and drive almost three hours to the next stop- Inverness. Oh, we also took additional time to see some of the highlights of Skye as well 😛. There are many, many things to explore here, the most well known being the most north-east “leaf” of the island. We opted to focus our time there.
Following Earth Trekker's advice, we started at the Fairy Glen. It's an easy hike with a beautiful rock spiral in the center of some very green grass. Of course, when I looked up the name of the rock formation, I discovered the following:
In recent years visitors have started to move the rocks to create spirals on the ground. We have been told that some of the bus tour guides have made up and encouraged some rituals involving walking the spirals then leaving a coin or token in the centre as an offering to the fairies for good luck. The locals on Skye have repeatedly removed these stone spirals in an attempt to keep the Glen in it's natural state.
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It was a nice, relaxing spot. But I would recommend other, less wellknown areas of the island; or at the very least, arrive there super early (before 8:30am) to beat the crowds.
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Next stop was the Quairaing:
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Quairaing provide what might be the most well known landscapes of Skye. Ryan and I were able to hike a bit here and get fabulous views. The crowds do thin out once you're 10-15 minutes into the hike. The path is pretty easy, though there is one point where you cross a waterfall, and I could see the rocks being pretty slick for some people. Also, there were at least two dead sheep down the hill, so stay on the marked path and take care!
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Not pictured is the newly wedded couple doing this hike in a kilt (reasonable) and a wedding dress (but how?!?!). The Scots take adventure to a whole new level! But seriously, I am already envious of those wedding pictures… 😅
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls provided a nice viewing point of an interesting rock formation. It's not so easy to see in the picture below, but there are colums of rock that make it look like a pleated kilt. This was also pretty busy, but it's a short view so the full parking lot turns over frequently.
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By the time we made it to the Old Man of Storr, the group was pretty beat from hiking and anticipating the long drive ahead of us. We hiked to the base, then I continued up a bit but ultimately turned back. The path wasn't very clear and you definitely need two hours to dedicate to hiking up to the Old Man. Unfortunately we didn't get any great pictures of the Storr, but here's one from close to the base:
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The path continues much farther on the right. I wish we had more time to dedicate to this hike and the island itself, but it just means we have another good reason to return to Skye 😄
The drive to Inverness brought us along Loch Ness but there were no Nessie sightings. It is around 750 feet deep and holds more water than in all the lakes and rivers of England and Wales combined.
We had two nights in Inverness. We walked around the town center, went into an old used bookstore, Ryan found pour over coffee (!!), we explored the castle in town and went to the viewing point at the top and enjoyed the views of the city. It's small city, a population of about 45,000.
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I stumbled upon raving reviews of the “Highland Malt Whisky Experience” so Ryan and I opted to do the second night at a local pub. It was one of our favorite experiences in Scotland! We tried five whiskies from different regional distilleries, listened to history, folklore, and music with our two guides. I highly recommend doing this! It was on the pricey side, but worth it, even for non-whisky drinkers. They run these every Tuesday and Thursday nights at MacGregor's Bar, hosted by Bruce MacGregor and Davy Holt (seasonal).
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HEADED TO STIRLING
We took a scenic, out of the way drive to Habitat Coffee in a rural part of Scotland. Why? Because the Inverness pour-over/specialty coffee shop's owner recommended this cafe! Aberfeldy is home to Aberfeldy Distillery (the primary single malt found in Dewar's whisky) and has fewer than 2,000 people. We walked into the cafe and were immediately greeted with pleasant acoustic guitar live music and a big smile from a waitress who promptly seated us. We ordered hot drinks and sat quietly, enjoying the music. After a few songs, the gentleman playing the guitar started packing up and clearing a table near us. In typical Scottish fashion, we struck up a conversation and found out that he had lived in San Diego in 2000 and had actually won the Coronado sand castle competition. The owner, Mike, eventually joined in and he and Ryan talked endlessly about coffee. We learned that there's a huge labor shortage in the UK, and that this cafe in particular currently has a limited menu and closed off sections of the seating area because they simply cannot find employees to keep the cafe fully staffed. We then got into another discussion with a customer, a lovely British woman, who told us about her adventures riding a motorcycle from the UK through Africa by herself. Two hours after stopping in Aberfeldy, we got back in the car and continued our journey. It was such an unexpected, wonderful experience and for us highlighted how lovely and genuine the people are in this corner of the world.
From Inverness, we drove to Stirling, our last stop. We saw the Stirling Castle, arriving about an hour before closing. The young man who sold us tickets must have felt bad, because he gave us audio tours for free. We rushed through it, but were able to get a good feel for the place anyways.
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We spent one night here, then the following day Ryan returned the rental car and we all headed to the train station for our connection in Edinburg. Eli and Iliana headed for London to catch their flight the following day, and Ryan and I continued to York and the rest of our European adventures by train.
DWNTGB (Do We Need To Go Back) Rating
I had a fantastic time in the Highlands. The views are absolutely spectacular, and the hiking is excellent. Despite two weeks in Scotland, there's still plenty of stuff we left undiscovered, and I would relish the opportunity to go back and continue exploring.
HECK YES- I can't wait to go back. I fear having to deal with midges, the feared ferocious small biting insects that live in the wild heather all over the Highlands. We didn't encounter them at all in our time here, but I've heard they are such a terror! I think you could spend all summer long exploring this northern corner of the world. Also it makes it incredibly easy to share the same language (even if sometimes it might not sound like it 😂)