Pictorial Highlights Of A 10-Day Road Trip Around The Scottish Highlands & Lowlands
Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, Highland, Scotland. September 16, 2014
– Robert Burns, Scottish Poet (1759-1796)
A road trip around Scotland is always going to be enjoyable & memorable travel experience. For course it is. But for anyone who travels with photography in mind, Scotland is an especially special treat. It was for me. The country lived up to the high expectations I had for it. Aye, it was photogenic. It was historic & futuristic, old & new. It was inviting. It was witty. It also threw up a few pleasant surprises, especially with regard to the weather. What follows is a day-by-day pictorial look at my time exploring Scotland – 51 pictures recapping 10 days spent driving 1,468 miles/2,362 kilometres around one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
Interactive Road Trip Map & Selected Daily Highlights
Days 1 & 2
Glasgow (map A)
Stirling (map B) & Edinburgh (map C)
Cairngorms National Park, Highland (map E)
Dunnet Head, Highland (map I)
Loch Eriboll, Highland (map L)
Loch Oich, Highland (map Q)
Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides (map R-X)
Glen Coe, Highland (map a)
Culzean Castle, Ayrshire (map d)
Pre-Departure – September 9, 2014
V voted the world’s most beautiful country by the readers of RoughGuides.com, my imminent road trip around Scotland should end up being a highlight of my global rambles for the year 2014. My Scottish cousins inhabit a wee corner of northwestern Europe (the country is only slightly bigger than Eire & only slightly smaller than the whole island of Ireland) but wanting to cover a large portion of it in ten days will still require a fair bit of driving, especially considering the first three days will be spent in the ‘Big Two’ of Glasgow, the country’s largest city, & Edinburgh, its capital. After that I’ll be going up, up, up before coming back down, down, down – I’ll be foraying into the Highlands, famed for its rugged beauty, going as far as mainland Scottish terra firma will allow, before turning around to explore the West Coast & Western Isles, allegedly home to Scotland’s most alluring scenery. I’ve been to Scotland before, so long ago that it barely warrants mentioning (whoops, just did). Expectations for this road trip abound; modern city centres boasting medieval remnants of the storied Scottish past; castles, both ruined & restored; wild coastlines; empty, haunting Highlands; gorgeous hills & wooded glens; & enchanting lochs (lakes). I’m expecting to see, and photograph, them all. Oh and rain. I’ll see a bit of that too I suspect. Which is fine; I’m Irish and used to rain. Plus, it tends to makes things more photogenic. No doubt I’ll also live a few classic Scottish stereotypes (they are such for a reason); I might just sample some scotch whisky (the Scots drop the ‘e’), some haggis (just cos), & I’ll definitely get reacquainted with Irn-Bru, about as Scottish as a non-alcoholic Scottish beverage can be. As if all of that wasn’t enough, timing wise it’s going to be an exciting time to be in the country. The Ryder Cup in Gleneagles is just around the corner; the two-month Highland Homecoming celebration festival, part of the wider Homecoming 2014, will be in full swing; & more importantly the referendum on Scottish independence, set for September 18, will fall during the road trip. Och aye. Exciting times indeed. Roll on tomorrow. Roll on Scotland.
Day 1 || September 10, 2014
Posting Location: Glasgow, Scotland
OK, so today was day 1 of the road trip. But not much happened. We (my Dad & I) didn’t get to Prestwick until 5 p.m. (thank you Ryanair) at which time we picked up the hire car (thank you Hertz) & drove to Glasgow. First impressions say it’s a nice city, helped by the fact that it was a glorious evening. Glasgow seems kinder to pedestrians than it does drivers so we had a small problem finding the hotel, one we eventually surmounted. But we had no problem finding a bar (or two) after that. We were both hungry (& thirsty). Tomorrow is day 2, day 1 proper. More to follow.
Day 2 || September 11, 2014
Posting Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Wow. We walked a lot of kilometres today (our dogs were definitely barking over dinner tonight) although they still call them miles here in Glasgow. Having driven most of Glasgow’s streets last night in search of our hotel today we walked them. We also walked both banks of the city’s Clyde River. We saw quite a lot of what is an undeniably nice city. The weather helped; it was a truly beautiful day. I got sunburn. I’ve a lot more good things to say about Glasgow that I’ll eventually get round to posting but for now here’s a picture I captured today when we stumbled upon an independence rally outside the city centre Royal Glasgow Concert Hall. It got quite boisterous at times. I’m not sure which side will with the September 18th referendum but today at least in Glasgow City Centre the ‘No’ campaign had the definite advantage. It wasn’t even close.
– U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron
We leave Glasgow in the morning but we won’t be going too far. We’re heading to Edinburgh, the capital, via Stirling. They both boast castles. Two castles in the one day. It’s going to be another busy one. I’m Loving Scotland so far.
Day 3 || September 12, 2014
Posting Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Today, day 3 of the road trip, was all about cities, medieval castles & battles. We left Glasgow for Bannockburn & Stirling before continuing to Edinburgh, our present location. Here are a few pictures from the day that was.
Bannockburn || The Battle Of
On June 23 1314 King Edward II of England marched north to regain control over the Scots, led by King Robert I, aka Robert the Bruce. The Battle of Bannockburn was a turning point for the beleaguered Scots who routed the far superior English force over the course of the two-day battle. It was a significant Scottish victory in the First War of Scottish Independence and a landmark in Scottish history – the Scots would go on to finally win their independence in 1328. Today the memorial to the battle sits in a field just south of Stirling, somewhere we stopped en route to Stirling Castle.
Stirling & Stirling Castle
Stirling is one of the most striking cities in Scotland, clustered as it is around a large castle, Stirling Castle, and a medieval old-town. Historically the castle was strategically important because it guarded the lowest crossing of the River Forth, the strategic link between Highlands & Lowlands. The castle has seen a lot of strife since it was built in the early 12th century. However, things are a little more peaceful & today the castle, one of the largest and most historically & architecturally important castles in Scotland, is one of the country’s biggest draws.
Edinburgh || The Capital
– UNESCO commenting on the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh
Arriving in the capital late in the afternoon meant we didn’t have time today to visit the city’s main event, its castle – we’ll get around to that tomorrow (tickets have been bought already). But we did visit a nice cathedral & hung around the Royal Mile, the name given to a succession of streets forming the main thoroughfare of the Old Town of the city.
Forth Rail Bridge
Ten miles outside Edinburgh are the Forth Bridges, the road & rail bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. We took a spin over the road bridge this evening. We’ll be doing the same again tomorrow en route to the Highlands but I wanted to capture the massive rail bridge at night. So I did, although only just – I managed a few shots just before dense fog completely enveloped the massive iconic structure, a symbol of Scotland.
Tomorrow should bring a change of scenery. We’re leaving the cities & heading north, for the Highlands. Upwards & onwards.
Day 4 || September 14, 2014
Posting Location: Aviemore, Scotland
Today was a busy day. A long one too. I was up early, up for sunrise views over Edinburgh from the city’s Calton Hill. It was glorious, a great start to the day.
After a whopping breakfast we spent the morning looking around the awesome Edinburgh Castle, getting out of there as the crowds peaked (that castle gets busy). We then drove back across the Forth Road Bridge, with a quick stop to take a few more pictures of the neighbouring rail bridge. It still looked great, even without last night’s darkness & fog/mist. We then headed for the hills, our first taste of the Scottish Highlands, via Cairngorms National Park. We passed Balmoral, summer retreat of the Queen, a few ski resorts (closed this time of year of course), & more than a few interested bystanders.
The scenery en route today, on the so-called Highland Tourist Circuit, was always nice helped again by the beautiful weather; we’ve been so lucky weather wise thus far.
The Highland Tourist Circuit brought us to our day 4 overnight stop of Aviemore. We expected the town, Scotland’s original Highland tourist resort, to be a little livelier than it is. After all, it’s a big enough place, it was a Saturday, & it’s Highland Homecoming time, a two-month (September & October) celebration, part of the wide Homecoming 2014, of the very best in contemporary Scottish culture and Highland heritage. We’ve more of the Highlands to discover so maybe we’ll yet stumble upon some of the ‘wonderfully diverse array of events covering everything from arts and music festivals to Highland games, sporting extravaganzas, delicious food and drink’ (as per VisitScotland.com) that the Highland Homecoming offers.
To The Very Top
We continue heading north tomorrow, Day 5. We’ll go as far north as Scottish mainland Scottish terra firma will allow. Easter Head on Dunnet Head is our main destination for the day, the most northerly point of the mainland of Great Britain. It’s not too far from the much better known John o’ Groats. We’ll stay up there somewhere tonight. We’re not sure where. We’ll figure that out when we get there.
Day 5 || September 14, 2014
Posting Location: Thurso, Scotland
It’s quiet here in Thurso, the most northerly town in mainland Scotland (& thus mainland Britain), where we arrived earlier this evening. It took us the guts of 4 hours to drive here from Aviemore via stops in Wick (for lunch), John O’Groats (to wonder why people like us stop here at all), & Dunnet Head, just out the road. For the most part it was yet another beautiful day in this remote, sparsely populated corner of planet earth. Weather wise we reckon someone is smiling down on us and both my Dad and I think we know who that might be.
– From an information board outside the train station in Aviemore.
We spent most of today skirting the Highland coast with the North Sea to our right. We crossed a few bridges, three to be precise. The scenery was nice.
John O’Groats || The End of The Road
Yes, we came all this way to see a pole. You probably would too. Although we had an easier time getting here than some others did.
Dunnet Head || The Most Northerly Point on the British Mainland
No, no. This, Dunnet Head, is why we really came up here.
Day 6 || The Sutherland Unknown
We’ve gone as far north as we can go in Scotland without hopping on a ferry to the Orkney or Shetland Islands further north (maybe next trip). We’ll be heading west & south from now on, with tomorrow spent driving the great unknown (for us) of Sutherland, the sparsely populated region in the very north of Scotland. We have a few maps of the area, none of which show many roads. We’re just going to drive and see what’s out there, just like a road trip should be.
Day 6 || September 15, 2014
Posting Location: Ullapool, Highlands
There was a decidedly older, more mature crowd in the dining room of the Station Hotel in Thurso this morning. I felt like I was eating breakfast in a retirement home. Shortly after breakfast was done we were on the road again for the day, but not before having a look around the pretty centre of Thurso.
196 miles we drove today getting from Thurso to Ullapool, our overnight location for this day, day 6 of the road trip. We skirted the northern Atlantic Ocean coast for much of the day. Again we were blessed with the weather. And sights. In this remote part of the country we got to see everything from rocky headlands to sandy beaches to massive locks to mammoth caves. Oh, and we saw some iconic Highland cattle too.
North West Highlands
Driving from east to west on the A838, this is one of the first views you get of 16 kilometre long Loch Eriboll, one of the deepest sea locks in Britain that has been used by Royal Navy ships for safe & sheltered anchorage.
It’s remote up here. There aren’t too many roads & those that are here are narrow, windy affairs with regular so-called passing places, areas where one car can wait to allow another to pass – few roads are wide enough for 2 cars.
– Extract of ‘Glen Golly’ composed by Rob Donn (1714-1778) of North Sutherland in praise of a local glen & on display at the Smoo Cave
We mixed it up a bit in getting here to Ullapool; we left the coast and took an inland route past lochs, through glens & around mountains. It was still very remote, the scenery was still strikingly beautiful, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as it was on the coast. Indeed today marked the first day of the trip we saw rain. Not much though and not for too long. It’s a nice evening here in Ullapool where we’ll bed down for the night. The forecast is good for tomorrow, trip day 7, when we’ll be zigzagging back & forth across the country in a bid to get from here to the Isle of Skye via Loch Ness. That’s the plan anyway & everything has been going to plan thus far.
Day 7 || September 16, 2014
Posting Location: Kyle of Lochalsh (Klye), Highlands
Today, day 7 of the road trip, was a day of reflections. They were everywhere. It was eye candy feast the likes of which I have never before experienced. And it started early. Not long after first light I found myself on the shores of Ullapool harbour photographing reflections, which had me reflecting on past travels.
Not long after leaving Ullapool we got more reflections. Pretty special reflections aided by the sun.
While standing here in almost dead silence photographing the Loch Broom reflections a fighter jet thundered passed. We couldn’t believe it, and barely managed to capture it on camera. You can find what I did capture of it uploaded to my Instagram account here.
Loch Ness & The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition
The specifics of Loch Ness, probably Scotland’s most famous body of water, are impressive. It’s the second largest of Scotland’s lakes in terms of size (after Loch Lomond) but because of its depth – 230 metres at its deepest point – it is the largest in terms of volume; it holds more fresh water than all the lakes in England & Wales combined. The 37 kilometre long body of water is the largest and most northerly of the three interconnected lakes, waterways for the Caledonian Canal that sit astride the northeast to southwest Great Glen Fault, a massive geological fault in the Earth’s crust that cuts right through the Scottish Highlands. We didn’t cross the fault, staying as we did on the lake’s northern shore – that’s where the road, the A82, is.
Did we see The Loch Ness Monster, a.k.a. Nessie, while driving the lake’s northern shore or while standing above it photographing Urquhart Castle? Of course not, but people far more gullible than us have claimed to with the glut of ‘sightings’ occurring in the 1930s.
– An entry from 1933 on the Loch Ness History timeline of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition
Science, not to mention simple logic & a bit of common sense, says such a creature could never really exist. Not today at least. Of course the nearby Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in the Drumnadrochit Hotel stops short of claiming there really is (or isn’t) a monster beneath the murky lake waters. Instead the exhibitions 7 themed walk through rooms do a good job detailing the history of the mystery, ultimately leaving it up to the visitor to decide for themselves.
– A heads up from The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition
The best reflections of the day (& that’s saying something) made us pull over the car and stand by the shores of Loch Oich, just a few kilometres beyond Loch Ness.
This is the second and smallest (it’s only 6 kilometres long) of the three interconnected lakes that sit astride the Great Glen Fault. As with the other two lochs (Loch Ness & Loch Lochy), Loch Oich is also a navigable waterway of the 100 kilometre Caledonian Canal which connects the Scottish east & west coasts. Loch Oich is the highest point of the canal with its level having been artificially raised during canal construction to provide a navigable channel. I’d never seen anything quite like the perfect mirror image projected by the still waters of the loch and stood here for quite a while taking pictures. It was an amazing, peaceful scene, one that was again interrupted this time by 1) a low flying military cargo plane, & 2) light rain.
Scuppered on Skye
We’re overnighting tonight in somewhere called Kyle of Lochalsh – locals, not that there are many of those around come nightfall, simply call their laid-back village Kyle. We had lunch here earlier today (a late lunch admittedly but lunch nonetheless) in Hector’s Bothy Café, a Kyle institution, before driving across the new (as of 1995) Skye Bridge connecting the village, and the Scottish mainland, to the Isle of Skye, the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides islands. We had planned on bedding down in Portree, Skye’s largest town, for the night. The only problem was there were/are no free beds. Not in Portree, not anywhere on Skye, somewhere firmly on the tourist trail. The island is awash with B&Bs, hotels & guesthouses, but not one of them, not even mid-week in mid-September, could accommodate us. Yes, a popular place is Skye, very popular. So after a bit more driving than planned today (we drove 220 miles on day 7) we’re now back in Kyle having been forced to drive back off the island. We did manage to find a room for the night here, on the third floor of the has-seen-better-days Lochalsh Hotel. We’ll drive back over the Skye Bridge again in the morning and take a proper look at the Isle of Skye, billed as the location of some of Scotland’s most dramatic scenery. I, & in between staring at countless ‘No Vacancy’ signs, saw enough of the island already this evening – and what a beautiful evening it was – to get an initial appreciation for just how beautiful this part of Scotland is. Here’s hoping it is still as drop-dead gorgeous tomorrow.
Day 8 || September 17, 2014
Posting Location: Fort William, Highland
Although we’ve a few days left, today, day 8 of the road trip, was our last full day in the Scottish Highlands. Over the past 7 days we’ve been undoubtedly blessed with both scenery (of course we have, we’re touring Scotland) & weather (& pleasant surprise) but for today it might just have been a case of leaving the best for last. We spent the day touring the Isle of Skye, the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides islands & one noted for its stunning & rugged mountain scenery, among other splendours. But before we drove (back) onto the island from the mainland we drove a short distance out the A87 road from our overnight base in Kyle of Lochalsh to get a distant look at Skye, Loch Alsh & the somewhat controversial Skye Bridge.
Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, may be home to Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle (Dunvegan Castle, home of the Clan MacLeod) & one of the country’s most famous distilleries (Talisker), but it’s the island’s raw scenic beauty that most people come here to enjoy. The product of violent geographical upheavals, the Misty Isle is justly famed for its scenery, for its towering, ragged mountains, colourful patchwork of crofting villages (farmlands), & wild, rugged coastline. And it’s predominately that wild, rugged coastline, following a series of peninsulas and bays radiating out from a mountainous centre, that we explored today, a day of crystal clear skies & stunning vistas. Here are a few pictures.
Back on the Mainland
We drove 211 miles today but covered more ground than that as we took the ferry across the Sound of Sleat from Armadale on Skye’s Sleat Peninsula to Mallaig on the Scottish mainland. From there it was a short 43 mile drive to Fort William, our present location & stop for tonight. We’re still in the Highlands, but only just & only for one more night. After entering them on day 4, we’ll leave the Highlands tomorrow, day 9, spending the rest of our time in the county (2 days) in the Lowlands. The so-called Lowlands they may be but we’re sure Scotland has a few more highs in store for us.
Day 9 || September 18, 2014
Posting Location: Irvine, Aryshire
Today, September 18, 2014, was/is a momentous day in Scottish history. It’s independence referendum day. I’ve just posted about how special it is to be here on this day & as I type now the votes have been cast and the country, & the world, awaits the word, a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, of the Scottish people. Earlier today, & while Scots were voting on their future, we kept busy. Very busy. We saw an historic steam train in motion; we saw an historic canal in action; we saw a great big, hulking lump of rock, Scotland’s highest; we saw a great big glen, Scotland’s most scenic; & we saw a great big loch (lake), Scotland’s largest. Oh, and we also finished the loop, returning to the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, 9 days after we first arrived and 7 days after first leaving it. Yep, all in the one day, 147-mile day 9, the penultimate day of the ongoing road trip.
The Jacobite || An Historic Steam Train
Caledonian Canal || An Historic Canal
We drove the short distance (4 kilometres) from Fort William to Banavie primarily to see the locks of the Caledonian Canal. However, we got more than we bargained for as not long after we arrived The Jacobite passed through Banavie Station (as shown in the above picture) and a vessel stared its west coast/Atlantic Ocean to east coast/North Sea journey through the locks of the canal.
– Robert Southey (1774-1843), poet, commenting on the Neptune’s Staircase of the Caledonian Canal
Ben Nevis || A great Gig, Hulking Lump of Rock
– Denise Mina, Scottish crime writer and playwright
Glen Coe || A Great Big Glen
We drove the short distance (26 kilometres) from Fort William to Glen Coe, often considered one of the most spectacular and beautiful places in Scotland.
Loch Lomond || A Great Big Loch
Some 75 kilometres beyond Glen Coe we reached the northern reaches of Loch Lomond, a freshwater loch lying on the Highland Boundary Fault, the boundary between the Scottish Highlands & Lowlands.
High To Low
One really gets an appreciation for how small Scotland is when within the space of a less than an hour you can drive from the peaceful calm of Highland glens, lakes & one-lane roads to the bustle of rush hour traffic on clogged multi-lane motorways on the outskirts of Glasgow, the country’s biggest city. That happened to us today en route from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to Irvine in Aryshire, our present location & overnight location for tonight, day 9 of the road trip. Yes, we’re well & truly out of the Highlands now. We’re in the home straight now with only one day left of this adventure.
Day 10 || September 20, 2014
Posting Location: Ary, Aryshire
It felt like we were on a mission today, the final day of our 10-day jaunt around Scotland. And I guess we were. We had two boxes we still wanted to tick and so today we drove some 191 miles in doing so, for a complete 10-day road trip total of 1,468 miles (2,362 kilometres). First up was Lockerbie, a town in Dumfriesshire not too far (30 kilometres or so) from the border with England, a sleepy town that was forever changed by the events of December 21, 1988.
The Lockerbie Bombing
Just after 7 p.m. on December 21, 1988, the Pan American flight 103, a Boeing 747 “Maid of the Seas”, suffered an explosion at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie. All on board, 243 passengers & 11 crew members, were killed, as were 11 residents of Lockerbie. Because the aeroplane broke up at such a great height, wreckage was spread over a wide area (over 2,000 km²), with major parts – the cockpit, a large part of the fuselage, the wings, & two engines – coming down in or around Lockerbie itself; it was the wings, laden with fuel & coming down on a Lockerbie housing estate, Sherwood Crescent, that killed those on the ground while destroying many houses and creating a huge creator that remains to this day. The subsequent police investigation was the biggest ever mounted in Scotland and became a murder inquiry when evidence of a bomb was discovered. Two men accused of being Libyan Intelligence Agents were eventually charged with planting the bomb. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the crime (his co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fahima, was acquitted), was jailed for life in January 2001 following a 3-month trial under Scottish law at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. He was released from Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow on compassionate grounds in August 2009. It was thought he had only months to live as he had terminal prostate cancer, but he lived on to see the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya (in August 2011) before finally succumbing to his illness at the age of 60 in May 2012, almost 3 years after his release.
Dryfesdale Lodge Visitors’ Centre
Near the entrance to the Dryfesdale Cemetery is the Dryfesdale Lodge Visitors’ Centre. This was originally the cemetery caretaker’s cottage, but since 2003 has served as a centre for the local community & for visitors to Lockerbie, particularly for visitors to the Garden of Remembrance and Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial. A number of rooms have been converted to accommodate information about the area and the air disaster with a Book of Remembrance available for signing. On our visit the centre was manned by a very informative local volunteer. It was clear that she had mixed feelings about Lockerbie’s infamy; on one hand the locals don’t like how their sleepy little village will always be associated with Britain’s worst aviation disaster, whereas on the other they are grateful that with the crash occurring over land (schedule delays meant flight 103 should have been over the Atlantic Ocean at the time of disaster) investigators were eventually able to discover the cause & bring the perpetrators to justice.
After the sobriety of Lockerbie, it was a 2-hour, 141 kilometre drive to Culzean Castle, maybe, just maybe, Scotland’s most fabulous castle.
As impressive as the castle’s exterior is, its interior is equally so. Just make sure to bring a wide-angle lens with you as you embark on the highly recommended self-guided tour.
There are other options at Culzean for spending money beyond the entrance fee to access the estate gardens (cheaper) or self-guided tour the castle interior (more expensive). Refreshments are available costing upward of £45/€57 per person for Champagne Afternoon Tea (what what) in the exclusive top floor Eisenhower Apartment, gifted by the Kennedy’s to the ex-US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in recognition for his role as Supreme Commander during WWII – Ike visited Culzean four times including once as President. Feel like getting married? Culzean can accommodate that too at prices aren’t overly outrageous – £150/€190 a head, give or take. Or you could just lay your head. The castle’s top floors are a hotel, one we were told may be accommodating high-profile sportsmen in the very near future. Umm. The Ryder Cup in Gleneagles starts in less than a week & is a very short commute from here by helicopter.
– Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower