A land as rich in its beauty as it is in its history and culture, Scotland had been on my radar for many years. Finally old enough to rent a car without exorbitant insurance fees, 2018 was the perfect time to set off on a long-awaited road trip through Scotland’s central belt and Highlands. From busier cities and historical landmarks to greenery and grazing sheep as far as the eye can see, beautiful Scotland has something to offer everyone, and it’s guaranteed to implant itself strongly in your heart.
The beautiful capital of Scotland is the perfect gateway to the Scottish Highlands, with Glasgow being another option. Edinburgh is truly a stunning city with plenty to keep you busy for days and days, making it a great option for a holiday in itself. Our road trip took a circular route, starting from, and returning to, Edinburgh.
We based ourselves in the centre of all the action with accommodation just off the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare of the Old Town running between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse.
A short bus ride from the Old Town, Mimi’s Bakehouse in the area of Leith is a lovely breakfast or tea spot. Their Beforenoon Tea is an original take on afternoon tea for breakfast, and every item was delicious.
If you’re after a traditional fish and chips, head over to the City Restaurant for some stunning fresh fish in a light, crispy batter. If you’re not a very big eater, you might wish to share – the portion is very generous.
Edinburgh Castle is probably Edinburgh’s most famous landmark, dominating the skyline from its position on Castle Rock. Research suggests that this large fortress has witnessed 26 sieges in its lifetime, and had a part to play in much of Scotland’s history. You can spend the better part of a day exploring all the rooms and exhibitions it has to offer, but if, like us, you only have a few hours to spare, I still suggest you take a look around. Hopefully you’re met with better weather than us, allowing you to take your time wandering around and appreciating the views, although be prepared for droves of people whenever you visit.
Ting Thai Caravan is a good stop for a quick, affordable and very casual thai lunch. Unlike what the name suggests the place is a restaurant with large tables to share, and will likely involve a short wait to get seated since it’s a popular spot with youths.
A cheese lover’s haven, Meltmongers is another popular and quick eating spot, specialising in a large variety of toasties for you to fill up on at a relatively low price.
St. Giles Cathedral, conveniently located on the Royal Mile, is the principal place of worship of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, a stunning church deserving of a visit.
Papii is a busy, little breakfast and brunch spot, serving up great eggs benedict and waffles, amongst others, although it might also involve a wait for a table.
Baba Budan serves up some lovely donuts, with flavours changing daily, although to our surprise we weren’t huge fans of the coffee at this popular coffee spot.
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions consists of five floors of interactive hands-on optical illusions, including a vortex tunnel, mirror maze and shrinking room. It’s a fun way to while away an hour to two on the Royal Mile, although we thought it was a little over-priced for what it was.
The National Museum of Scotland includes collections relating to Scottish antiquities, culture and history, science and technology, natural history, and world cultures amongst others, a great option especially considering that it has no entrance free.
There’s plenty of spots for burger lovers in Edinburgh. We went with Burgers and Beers Grillhouse and Bread Meats Bread – both served up some solid burgers, with the latter edging out the former, although neither came close to dethroning my no. 1 burger spot – Roxor in Bratislava. The search continues.
Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic monument to Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, amongst the largest monuments to a writer in the world, dominates Princes Street, one of the main shopping roads in Edinburgh.
All fellow Outlander fans might be interested to know that Midhope Castle, the building used as the exterior of Lallybroch in the TV series, is just a short drive from Edinburgh. It was therefore our first stop on our roadtrip en route to Stirling. Part of the private Hopetoun Estate, visitors to Midhope will first need to purchase a parking permit from the Farm Shop on the estate, which offers some lovely products for you to snack on on your journey.
Our second stop en route to Stirling was the town of Linlithgow in order to visit Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Surprisingly, the palace never featured in any of my search results on what to see around Scotland, and we only came to know about it since it was one of the attractions on our Explorer Pass – I say surprisingly, because this ruin is absolutely breathtaking, one of my favourite spots from those I visited around Scotland. The upside of it not being very popular is obviously that it had very little visitors, adding to the atmosphere of this large maze of rooms and staircases.
Our first overnight stop on our roadtrip was Stirling. Honestly, I expected Stirling’s old town to be more extensive than what it is – a few short roads leading up to Stirling Castle – with the rest of the city being fairly nondescript. The Castle, however, boasts a rich history featuring the likes of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, with some gorgeous royal rooms open to the public and extensive views over the area from its position on a volcanic outcrop. The Wallace Monument is visible in the distance, a worthy visit (I hear!) for those with enough energy left to take the climb. The Old Town Jail, unfortunately, was closed when we visited, and we didn’t make it in time to sample one of Bluebell Tea Room’s popular scones. Nawab, offering authentic Indian cuisine just a short walk from the Old Town, is a good dinner option when in Stirling.
Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
Any roadtrip through Scotland must include a visit to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park – the scenery here is breath-taking. At almost 200 square kilometres there is plenty to do here for weeks, but at least one day allows you to get a glimpse of what this stunning area has to offer.
We began our day with a climb to the summit of Ben A’an, one of the most popular of Scotland’s hills. When you read ‘hill’, do not picture a leisurely stroll – it appears that some people had that idea, and I saw a few turn back. It was a challenging, steep climb to the top for us, but is achievable in around 1.5 hours of steady climbing. Hiking boots are highly advisable as the terrain is rough and sometimes slippery; the photos below only show the easy, flat parts as the tougher portions require complete concentration. Reaching the summit awards you with a gorgeous view over Loch Katrine and the surrounding areas, unless the view is covered by fog!
There is a parking lot around a 10 minute drive from Ben A’an parking lot which overlooks Loch Venachar; it’s a lovely and quiet little area.
The ruins of Inchmahome Priory, located on a wooded island in the centre of the Lake of Menteith, is one peaceful getaway, reachable by a short boat ride. Chosen as a monastic sanctuary, Robert the Bruce sought solace here and Mary Queen of Scots found safety here as a child.
Loch Lomond is the UK’s largest fresh water body, with a surface area of around 71 kilometres squared. It crosses the Highland Boundary Fault, considered as the boundary between the lowlands of Central Scotland and the Highlands. We took in the vast beauty and serenity of Loch Lomond through a cruise on Sweeney’s Cruises and from the shores of Duck Bay.
We spent the night in the picturesque, tiny village of Drymen, and enjoyed dinner at the homely Clachan Inn, which boasts to be the oldest registered pub in all of Scotland.
As we were driving in the direction of Fort William the next day on the A84, we happened to drive by such a stunning scene that we had to make a stop. So, purely accidentally, we got to enjoy the stunning Loch Lubnaig, which makes a perfect picnic spot.
A medieval courtyard stronghold, Doune Castle has been made all the more popular due to it being a filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones and Outlander. Outlander fans will be glad to find out that the audio tour includes excerpts by Sam Heughan.
Driving through Glencoe Valley should be at the top of any Highlands roadtrip. The drive on the A82 is one of the most scenic drives in the country. There’s plenty of opportune photo stops along the way; keep your eyes peeled for small parking bays which allow you to pull over. What a gorgeous place!
We based ourselves in Fort William as a convenient stopping point after our drive through Glencoe and before our venture into Glenfinnan. The town itself is of little interest, although it does have a small but great museum on Highland history – the West Highland Museum – as well as the ruined Old Inverlochy Castle on the banks of River Lochy. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Browns, which included some haggis fritters which were very well done.
Glenfinnan features in one of Scotland’s most important historical periods, with the 1745 Jacobite rising commencing with Prince Charles Edward Stuart raising his standard on the shores of Loch Shiel in Glenfinnan. The Glenfinnan Monument is erected there to commemorate this. Most visitors to Glenfinnan, however, come for the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a railway viaduct which carries the Jacobite steam train, made popular thanks to the Harry Potter movies with the Hogwarts Express filmed driving over the viaduct. After waiting for the train to call at Glenfinnan with a crowd of other visitors on the hills nearby, we grabbed a quick, satisfying bite in a very unique setting at the Glenfinnan Station Museum Dining Cart.
Kyle of Lochalsh
En route to the Isle of Skye from Fort William, we made a short call at Eileen Donan Castle, probably one of the most iconic images of Scotland. We chose not to enter the Castle based on lukewarm reviews, but had to take a few shots of this pretty Castle on an island situated at a point where three lochs meet.
The Isle of Skye
A visit to the Highlands is not complete without a visit to the world-famous Isle of Skye. With plenty of dramatic landscapes there is a long list of what to see on the Isle of Skye, but it takes a while to drive from one famous sight to another. For this reason we sadly missed out on the Fairy Pools but, getting very lucky with the weather, we had an incredible time with the rest.
We visited the remote Loch Coruisk with Misty Isle Cruises from the remote village of Elgol. After a look at a family of seals we docked at Loch Coruisk, and got to explore and relax by this beautiful lake, before heading back on the boat treated to shortbread and a warm drink.
On the way to Elgol, we had lunch at the Blue Shed Cafe; the setting is hard to beat and the simple food was flavourful and filling.
The Old Man of Storr is a large pinnacle of rock that was created by an enormous ancient landside, resulting in probably the Isle of Skye’s most photographed landscape. It is a gruelling, steep climb to the point where you overlook the Old Man, especially on a hot day, but this natural marvel is not one to miss.
We feasted on seafood at Chuchullin, in Portree where we were based. My seafood platter was so incredibly fresh that I had to finish it, even thought it would probably have been enough for two.
Fairy Glen is a unique little place, visited by very few people, which continues to add to the magical atmosphere.
If I was forced to choose my favourite spot from all those I visited in Scotland, I think I would have to go with Neist Point. The combination of the natural jagged arrow-head rock, the lighthouse, the dramatic fog, and the ‘walking in the clouds’ feeling from our viewpoint made it a memorable experience.
The northernmost city in the United Kingdom, Inverness is considered as the capital of the Highlands. It combines city life with natural beauty right on its doorstep.
For me, and all history buffs and/or Outlander fans too no doubt, the largest draw is Culloden battlefield, the site of the tragic final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The museum is highly informative and interactive, and walking on the moor itself and viewing the tombstones erected in commemoration of the slaughtered clansmen is an emotional experience.
Another must see when in the area is obviously Loch Ness, and although you’re unlikely to spot Nessie, you will get a chance to have a good look at the stunning ruins of Urquhart Castle on its banks and learn about its rich history. Close to the castle, grab breakfast or lunch at the warm Cafe Eighty2.
Inverness itself is a charming place, with plenty of streets to stroll and explore and shops, restaurants and bars to spend your money at.
The Cairngorms National Park
At the largest national park in the UK, there is plenty to see and do. With just a few hours there, we spent some energy at TreeZone Aviemore, relaxed by Loch an Eilein, and toured and sampled whisky at Dalwhinnie Distillery, the home of my favourite single malt. We enjoyed breakfast at Carrbridge Kitchen, also a popular lunch spot, but missed out on the famous Mountain Cafe since lines were too long for our schedule.
Whether it’s your first venture into driving abroad or you’re a seasoned pro, Scotland is the place to do it. With a steering wheel in your hand you can sample the best that the country has to offer in a relatively short time. It’s the place to be whether you want to sit by a lake, hike through mountain ranges or explore medieval castles. What are you waiting for?
Until the next adventure!