Scotland: 10 Day Road Trip - Highlands and Isle of Skye
As a couple who enjoy the outdoors, historic spots and places (Lindsey in particular really loves castles), and interesting geology, Scotland has long been on our list of places to visit. We also both have ancestors from the country, which always piques our interest in checking out a place.
After returning from a 10-day Ring Road trip to Iceland in mid-summer 2018 (read about that trip here), we immediately wanted to plan our next road trip and set our sights on Scotland for summer 2019. For the second year in a row, we were able to escape some of the hottest, most humid weather in Virginia and enjoy wearing coats and hiking in pleasant weather!
In this blog we cover how we went about determining our route for this road trip, the route we took, some highlights and a high level overview of activities along the way, what we’d do differently if we got a do-over of the trip, and some interesting stats on what I’m calling the Outlander Effect. If this blog whets your appetite, continue on to read our more detailed blogs about the trip!
Planning our Scottish Road Trip
How we determined our route
Planning the trip was pretty easy once we figured out the part of the country to focus on. We initially considered doing the route branded by Scotland’s tourism board as the North Coast 500 (500 miles in length, hence the name), which basically starts in Inverness and loops up and around the northernmost finger of the country. After realizing we would have better flight times and options into Edinburgh and reading about a few other spots in our travel book - Eyewitness Travel: Scotland - that we really wanted to see, we scrapped the north coast route and planned our own route from scratch, which is really what we're more used to doing.
No regets - the route we planned and the sights along the way were nothing short of epic!
What route did we take?
While we recommend you read the detailed blogs to follow that bring our travels more to life and highlight the amazing side trips, hikes, castles, and scenery, this will give you an overview of the general flow of the trip. We will have more detailed maps embedded in those other blogs, but you can view the general route on the map below. We spent two nights in each destination.
Starting in Edinburgh, which is Scotland’s capital city (though smaller in population than Glasgow), we had about one and a half days to explore the city. From there, we headed north to Grantown-on-Spey, which is nestled in the Cairngorms, the largest national park in the United Kingdom. The Cairngorms are the names of the mountains embedded within the park, the setting is beautiful, and the majority of the visitors to the park are domestic or UK citizens. Coming from the United States, we are used to a significant number of national parks and a fairly long history of the park system. By comparison, the Cairngorms were only the second national park to be established in Scotland - and this occurred in 2003!
With a number of interesting stops along the way, our next destination was Portree, on the Isle of Skye, which we used as our base to explore the peninsula and sights of this coastal region that holds an important spot in Scottish history as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hideout after his failed attempt to regain his family’s throne. Isle of Skye is part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago and is one of the larger islands.
Our next stop, Fort William, served as more of a central location for other places we wanted to explore in the region, including taking the famous “Harry Potter train” over the Glenfinnan Viaduct out to the coastal town of Mallaig on what is said to be one of the most beautiful train rides.
Our last stop before catching our flight out of Edinburgh was in the adorable small town of Callander, which sits in the Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond region (this park was the first in the country, established in 2002), on the border between the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands.
Trip Highlights on our 10-day Scottish Adventure
This is a tough one because something is only a ‘highlight’ in relation to other less notable activities! The trip was a wonderful balance of different activities - exploration of historic castles and other ruins, indoor and outdoor museums, a battlefield, hiking along the coast and in the inland mountains and valleys, a ride on a steam train, and much more.
Linlithgow Palace was not at all crowded when we visited first thing in the morning, but what made this palace stand out for me is that it is a ruin (a fire left it in its current roof-less condition) and completely open to the public to explore on your own. The birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, this palace has an important place in Scottish history. As visitors, we were able to wander the endless levels and passageways, a maze-like journey that provided unexpected surprises. We were able to climb the the top of one of the turrets and survey the palace from above and the river running through the countryside. We were able to also descend down dark stone steps to subterranean and very dark basement kitchen spaces. It was mesmerizing to have the opportunity to explore this palace on our own - in our own time, finding our own routes through the building, and to envision what it must have looked like in its full glory.
The Fairy Glen is a magical spot to visit on the Isle of Skye. The green rolling and twisting hills are unlike anything I have seen before. Their forms and very unique, and it’s no wonder that the word fairy is associated with them - they truly feel magical and like a place out of time and of another place. Like Linlithgow Palace, there is not one way to explore this area - there are a number of different paths meander up and over or around the hills so that each person will likely have a different experience of the place. There is a tall, rocky outcrop that from afar looks so high and like it has a sheer wall up to it that it doesn’t look like it would be accessible until you realize that yes, those are people atop it! The route to the top is not exactly easy but nor is it as hard to get to as it first appears. Two members of our party of four climbed to the top.
Would we return to Scotland?
In a heartbeat! It felt like we barely scratched the surface, and there was so much more we could have done in each spot we visited if we had more time.
Trip Do-Over: What would we do differently?
Two nights in each place was not nearly enough. If I could re-do the trip and take more time, I would have booked three nights per stop. As it was, we ended up feeling more rushed than I’m used to on trips and had to keep an eye on our watches and sometimes hit the road before we really were ready to leave where we were.
Part of the reason for this is that traveling on the country roads, especially on the left side of the road, required more time between destinations than we had fully anticipated. The other challenge is that a lot of places that having closing hours mean that we needed to get somewhere by a certain time to see it before it closed, check in to a B&B by a certain time, or ensure we would find an open restaurant for food, particularly in the less populated areas.
Scotland Fun Hiking Fact
Scotland’s 2003 Land Reform Act created what is often called a “right to roam” in the country. This is important for any hikers to be aware of and creates boundless hiking opportunities when in the country. In short, as long as people behave responsibly, they can traverse anywhere they want! There is no need to wonder whether you may venture onto private property - it is all fair game. This is so very different than the United States’ ‘no trespassing’ haven for private property rights and was astounding to learn. For more details on the Act and how behaving ‘responsibly’ is defined, you can read more on this site.
The Outlander Effect: Scotland has seen a recent uptick in visitors from the US, surpassing 500,000 visitors in 2017 for the first time. This influx compares to an average of around 300,000 visitors from the US per year from 2008-2013 with the numbers starting to creep up after that point. While I cannot completely prove this point, I do have a few data points that back me up. I posit that this increase is entirely or almost entirely due to what I will call The Outlander Effect. I do think that the Harry Potter franchise is responsible for some of this, too, though it appeared to be to a lesser extent. The majority of the Harry Potter connections to the country are due to J.K. Rowling writing the books in Edinburgh.
Here are three reasons why I think Outlander is directly causing the additional tourism from the US: (1) Outlander first aired in 2014 and tourism numbers from the US started an immediate climb; (2) Outlander tours and references were all over the place in Scotland; and (3) information from the Scottish tourism board which tracks what brings tourists from different countries to Scotland. The Scottish tourism board’s data notes that the US stands out from other countries on one stat in particular - 18% say they’re visiting to visit a film or TV location. This is neither good nor bad - depends on your point of view - but it is interesting the impact one successful show can have on a country!
Full disclosure: I started reading the original book series when it was first published back in the 1990s while I was in high school. I think this is the book version of saying that I liked a band before they were popular. But I loved reading about the history of Scotland brought alive in the books and have no doubt that they furthered my interest in the country. And yes, I have seen some of the show (a season or so behind) and do like it, though the books are, of course, better.