Written by Jean Southwick.
Our Adventure with Haggis, Peas, Plaid, Sheep, Isle of Skye, and Roundabouts!
As I write this on a cold wintery day in Michigan I think back to what a wonderful trip our family enjoyed to Scotland last summer. It was about this same time a year ago that I was able to mentally escape the “Winter of 2014” by throwing myself into planning our 40th Anniversary trip to Scotland. It was the trip of a life time! What fabulous memories!
Each of the five of us made a “short list” of things we wanted to do and experience with one item as the “holy grail”. The list included quite a fun mix spanning the generations; everything from hiking on the Isle of Skye, trekking the beautiful Highlands, biking*, golfing the Old Course of St. Andrews, finding a Highland Cow, watch some World Cup Soccer at local pubs, try haggis, visit a Whiskey Distillery, and look for Nessie! Of course all this sprinkled with castles visits; but not too many.
*I eventually nixed the biking after finding that there are absolutely no shoulders along the narrow, hilly, and winding roads! It was harrowing enough with a vehicle! I would suggest taking some extra time and do some “off road” biking. Maybe next time…
My husband and I flew in one day earlier than the “kids” who arrived the following day. It worked out great; they began from different airports and were able to join each other at the connecting city. We took the new Tram from the Edinburgh Airport to St. Andrews Square, near Waverly Station; cost about 8 pounds round trip or 5 pounds one way. The tram runs about every 10 minutes from the airport and will take about 35 minutes; tickets can be purchased from the ticket machine at the tram stop. Use your credit card or coins no greater than 2 pounds as no change is given back.
The Airlink 100 Bus also runs this route; cost about 4 pounds per person. A taxi is about 40 pounds for a minibus one way.
We loved our stay at the spacious 3 bedroom suite at Princes Street Suites; it’s in a great location, just a few blocks east of the 200 foot tall gothic Scott Monument, close to the Waverly Station, and a 10 minute walk to the Royal Mile. If you do not want to rent a car you could actually use the Princes Street Suites as a base and take the train to outlying areas for sightseeing. Our suite/apartment had a fully equipped kitchen and a roof top terrace with beautiful views of the skyline. While in Edinburgh we took a half day Double Decker Hop On Hop Off City Tour to get the lay of the land and learned lots of interesting historical facts about the city. The bus took us past The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat and past the Royal Botanic Garden. We learned that there is an Old Town Edinburgh and a New Town Edinburgh. Anything from the late 18th century is New; Old Town is from the 12th century and consists of narrow streets and alleyways. Both are beautiful, New Town is mostly all Georgian architecture with the same stone and very much similar to each other.
Edinburgh is a great city for walking with amazing views of the castle, spires, and the Firth of Fourth! We enjoyed walking by the street performers including the bagpipe players and trying different pubs for our meals! No worries about finding haggis on the menu; every restaurant or pub offers haggis of some shape or form. Probably just for visitors! I never realized how much the Scots love their peas! Mushy peas, steamed peas, boiled peas, mashed peas, peas and cabbage, peas with mint butter…
A delightful surprise to us was Calton Hill and the Nelson Monument! It was literally steps away from our hotel and has one of the best viewpoints in Edinburgh, reaching from the Castle out to the Firth of Forth (estuary of the River Forth which flows into the North Sea). Also on Calton Hill is a” Parthenon like” monument honoring the war dead. Construction began in 1822 but they ran out of money so all that’s standing are 12 columns. Close by is Calton Hill Cemetery where Scotland’s famous bard, Robert Burns is buried; it’s worth a visit if you are in the area.
We used our pre ordered Historic Scotland Explorer Passes on our initial visit to Edinburgh Castle. What a bargain! For about $60USD per person the Explorer Pass gives you access to more than 75 sites across Scotland, including the major castles. Edinburgh Castle is at the top of the Royal Mile (shops, eateries, souvenir shops and etc…) While at Edinburgh Castle be sure to stop in the War Museum (included in the Castle admission); Plan to spend a few hours up to half a day at the Castle and surrounding area. We were able to see the bleachers and stands getting set up in the castle esplanade for the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo at the Castle. It takes three months to set up and three months to take down. The Tattoo takes place every August and always sells out; attendance exceeds 200,000 over the month. Purchase Tattoo tickets early if you plan to attend!
Renting a car in Scotland
After two days of sightseeing, eating and walking in the city we picked up our rental car. Easy! The hotel arranged for a large taxi to take us back to the airport for our car rental. (We decided to pick up the car at the airport rather than a city location as we wanted a little practice driving on the left before we tackled city driving! Good decision!) Generally it’s smart to book a small rental for driving in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but since there were five us we upgraded to a Volkswagen SUV. It worked out great for us, but I would only recommend a large vehicle if you have more than 4 adults. (The roads and lanes are narrow with no real shoulder as we know it.) You will need to have an International Driver Permit with valid credit card in order to rent a car.
Driving on the left side of the road was an easy accomplishment for our grown children, but not so much for me and my almost retired husband. He admitted that he was a nervous wreck and willingly handed over the car keys to “the kids”. THAT was a first! (You can’t take the “agent” out of a recently retired travel agent and naturally we were equipped with plenty of maps and apps; including an inverter to recharge electrical devices and battery back ups!) Seriously though, it takes about a day to become acclimated to driving on the other side, and we were so glad that we had rented a Navigation System with the rental car. We loved the heads up from the Tom Tom about the upcoming roundabouts and which left to take! About half way into our trip the Tom Tom broke but by then we were in the groove! At that point we were able to get along quite well with our maps and gadgets (iPhones and iPad). Scotland has very few real intersections as we know them in the states; it’s all about the roundabouts!
On our way to Saint Andrews and Kilconquhar Castle Estates we drove to Stirling and visited the famous Stirling Castle, near the 1297 victory site for William Wallace. Stirling guarded the route that the English armies from the south used to invade Scotland. Stirling Castle is the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots and is well known for its Great Hall and beautiful Royal Palace; it’s rated as one of the top 3 castles to see in Scotland. (The other 2 are Edinburgh Castle and Urquhart Castle.) After leaving Stirling we drove to the ancient Kingdom of Fife for our 1 night stay in a large multi bedroom suite at Kilconquhar Castle Estate. Very unique. Castles come in all shapes, sizes and condition. The Kilconquhar was similar to a large manor house and has a pool, miniature golf and offers horseback riding. After dinner at the outdoor terrace we had fun with other visitors and locals playing a “Trivia Game” at the bar. Lots of fun and great conversation!
At last! The Piece de resistance! Playing golf on the links at Saint Andrews Old Course had been on my husband’s Bucket List for many years and we were hoping that this would be his lucky day. Since he was the only person in our party that was planning to golf, he had already made arrangements with the course many months prior to our arrival. Based on the dates of our travel itinerary he was given the time and day when he should show up at the Old Course Club House and wait for the “lottery” to take place. His “golf angel” was with him and after waiting only a few hours he was able to tee off on the Old Course! He was on cloud nine for weeks! (Expect to pay about 250 GBP to rent clubs and play 18 holes.) No “buggies” are allowed on the course.
While my husband was living his dream on the links the rest of us went on a little road trip along the North Sea Coast and spent some time in the charming and quaint coastal village of Crail. It’s definitely worth your time to stop if you are driving along the coast, it’s very picturesque; we saw lots of artists with their easels and paints. We made it back to Saint Andrews just in time to witness Bill finish up on the 18th hole! The day had started out cool and drizzly but by the time his round was over it turned out to be sunny with beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds. Priceless.
Highlands, Bruar Falls and Cairngorm National Park
On to our next adventure, the Highlands, Aviemore and The Cairngorm National Park, the largest National Park in the UK! Beautiful mountains, land of osprey and ptarmigan! The area offers many seasonal outdoor activities; it’s great for biking, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting and water sports. As we drove through the Highlands we stopped for a little rest break along highway A9 near Blair Atoll at a place called House of Bruar, known at “The Harrods of the North”. We bought an ice cream cone and saw signposts directing us behind the building for Bruar Falls. Another surprise and spectacular hike along the falls, up a steep bath to a bridge over a gorge! Incredible! Our little rest stop stretched to about 2 hours! A hidden gem!
We spent the night near Aviemore; the next day we took another hike in the Cairngorm Mountains and made our way to Speyside; known at the Whiskey Triangle. There are more whiskey distilleries in this area than in any other area of Scotland. The fast running Spey River plays an important role in the success of the distilleries and also known as a great area for anglers. We spent about half a day in Aberlour, home of Aberlour Whiskey and the famous Joseph Walker shortbread. The Aberlour Whiskey tour was very interesting, even for us “non whiskey” lovers. After our tour and whiskey sampling we discovered a walking trail next door to the distillery; it was a delightful and easy walk along a footpath, past the displayed art work, around Linn Falls, up the hill, through the village and back to our car!
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
West of Inverness and on Loch Ness are the ruins of Urquhart Castle, full of Highland history and once one of Scotland’s largest castles. You can climb the towers and see artifacts from the medieval ages. The visitor’s center has a short film and a wonderful gift shop. Between the gift shop and the castle is a very large trebuchet standing on the shore of Loch Ness; you can easily imagine the castle under siege!
We left the Loch Ness area and drove west toward Fort William and Glencoe. Our home for 2 nights was the fabulous Gleanspean Lodge (a former hunting estate from the 1920’s and 30’s), with beautiful views of the mountains, including Ben Nevis! We used this as a base for our trip to the Isle of Skye. This is a beautiful area with mountains and waterfalls; very popular area for hiking and hill climbers.
Our favorite stop! We took the car ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye and returned via the bridge at Kyle of Lochaish. What amazing mountains and sea views! The Isle of Skye is great for active people, in addition to mountaineering and hiking it offers camping, kayaking, fishing and more. The isle has few roads, all are narrow, some are dirt lanes and VERY narrow with sheep and horses “owning” the road. Our hikes included Old Man Storr, the Quiraing and the Black Cuillins. We stopped at a pub in Portree for a bite to eat and to catch some of the Germany versus U.S. World Cup game and who should come in but the foursome from Germany that we met earlier in the week at the Aberlour Distillery! It was such great fun to cheer for our teams. The local Scots were encouraging to the U.S., even as we lost the match. It was almost 11pm with still a little daylight left by the time we crossed the bridge taking us off the isle. Given the late hour there was hardly any traffic on our way back through the mountains to Glenspean Lodge, but soon it became very dark; we narrowly missed almost a dozen Highland Deer (the size of elk), several fox and a pine martin. It was a treacherous drive and we were crazy to drive it that late at night. VERY SCARY!
Loch Lomond is south of Forth William and about 20 miles northwest of Glasgow. This whole lake area is a very popular and a busy vacation spot for the Scots; lots of outdoor act ivies such as boating and biking. We stopped in Balloch, on the southern tip of Loch Lomond, for a delightful lunch and stroll on the south side of the lake.
We stayed in Ayr one night and enjoyed spending some time walking the very wide beach and exploring the town. We decided to look for gifts and found a great woolen shop that I think sold every plaid possible! (Each clan has their own plaid.) A very nice gentleman saw us wandering around looking for a good dinner spot and personally guided us to the Beresford Terrace, part art gallery and part fine dining. Excellent! The South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway area is home of the official Burns Heritage Trail where their famous bard, Robert Burns lived. They are VERY proud of their poets and especially Robert Burns. We talked with several people that make an annual trip to the area purposely to immerse themselves studying Burns.
We enjoyed another easy hike in the Galloway Forest and Glen Trool. It was very wooded and hilly but not as steep or mountainous as the Highland Hikes.
The Scots are very friendly and welcoming to their visitors; they always had a smile and were patient with all our questions and sooo nice! Since we were visiting in June we had a lot of daylight hours, it didn’t really get dark until almost 11pm! We took advantage of every minute! SO MUCH FUN!!
Our most favorite portion of the trip was the Isle of Skye; stunning views, amazing rock formations and landscapes; a photographers dream! There were so many areas for great hikes; we could have stayed a couple of days here!
Our Scotland road trip in a nut shell: 2 nights in Edinburgh, drive through Central Scotland to Stirling Castle and Wallace Monument, 1 night Kilconquhar in Fife, then northeast along the coast to Crail and the Old Course at St. Andrews. From there we hiked in the Cairngorm National Park, The Highlands, Speyside & Glenlivet. Next, northwest to Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness near Inverness, then west to Fort William and Glencoe. We took a full day trip north to the Isle of Skye by ferry. With just a few days remaining we drove south to Loch Lomond and Balloch, visited Loch Lomond Brewery, then further south and past Glasgow to the coastal town of Ayr (located on the east side of North Channel, separating Scotland from Northern Ireland). We spent some time in Southern Scotland hiking the hills around Glen Trool in Dumfires and Galloway, ending with the Robert The Bruce Trail in Dumfries. Lastly we drove back north to Edinburgh to spend the night at an airport hotel prior to our morning departure back to the U.S.
Remember to keep receipts for items you have purchased as when you get to the airport you can fill out a tax refund form and will be sent a refund in the mail for a portion of the taxes paid.
Pros and Cons renting a car
Of course booking a packaged guided tour is great for people looking for a more “carefree” trip as most of your travel arrangements are taken care of ahead of time, and no worries about driving.
Advantages with renting a car are obvious; freedom of coming and going as you wish. You can also visit the out of the way places not on a normal packaged bus tour. The disadvantage of renting a car is also very obvious as driving on the narrow, winding roads can be a little intimidating. (I would be the first to admit that if we did not have our own “chauffeurs” with us we would have booked a bus tour!) Another option is to hire a driver for your entire trip or parts of your visit. As in any trip that you are planning, do your homework, go to the library or bookstore and research that destination, then call Classic Travel in Okemos.
Classic Travel experts
I booked the car rental, most of the hotels, flights and trip insurance with Classic Travel. Given all the details and hours of planning involved to create a successful trip, my best advice is for you to contact Classic Travel. Joy and her team of knowledgeable and well traveled agents have “many decades” of experience. Priceless!
“Haste Ye Back”!