I was so close to not visiting Scotland, or any of the United Kingdom, but with the help of a friend I had met earlier on in my trip I was convinced to venture to this brilliant country. I think the highlands of Scotland would be beautiful any time of year, but being among the crisp autumn breeze and colourful falling leaves it was truly magical.
The best way to see the highlands is by car, so my friend and I posted a message on the Couchsurfing website and, with the two girls who responded, we departed from Edinburgh one cold wet morning in our little hire car.
We did a lot of research when hiring a car in Scotland and took many points into consideration like departure and return from Edinburgh, the office was easy enough to get to and pick up the car and which company would of course provide the best deal. In the end we chose Budget UK, http://www.budget.co.uk, and decided upon a 5-door manual car which ranged in price from £180-£195 depending on the dates chosen for our journey.
Off we went and headed north and drove through the quiet city of Perth for coffee then continued along our route, passing a dairy farm with homemade ice cream – unquestionably worth the detour. The only problem with driving through Scotland in the colder months is the lack of daylight. It will start to get dark at 4:30 p.m. and sunrise isn’t until 7:30 a.m. Since we started our first day late, we pulled over into the town of Inverness and checked into the Inverness Youth Hostel for £13 each per night. A very standard hostel but a good location in the small city centre and across the road from huge supermarket which allowed us to stock up on supplies for the week and sit down to plan our journey. If you’re looking for something to do join the overly friendly locals at the pub for live music and beers.
We continued north along the coast and to Chanonry point. We were told by some locals that it’s very common to see seals and even dolphins! But with our luck, we saw neither so we kept on moving. You don’t have to hire a car and do this journey yourself because there are many highland bus tours available, but one of the major benefits of having a car is that you can stop whenever you like. We went down one particular road filled with overgrown large trees covered in beautiful yellow and orange leaves, so we had the chance to stop and play around in the fallen leaves and enjoy the beauty of the countryside.
We drove along to Dunrobin Castle, which overlooks the water, and went for a walk along the beach of Brora, which is very popular in summer. Next, we headed over to one of the Nordic Castles, the Castle of Old Wick, but unfortunately all that is left is a wall. However, if you walk past the fences and through the mud directly up to it you will be amazed by the dreamlike views.
We soon reached the northernmost point of Scotland, Duncansby Head. If you’re daring enough go for a swim in the four degree water, it’s absolutely crazy but some of my friends can now say they’ve been swimming at the top of Scotland.
If you have the time to make a slight detour, drive through the city of Thurso and head to the delicious Sandra’s Fish and Chips for dinner. Sandra is completely lovely and her fish and chips go down a treat, especially when followed by one of her infamous deep fried Mars Bars. Spend the night in Thurso or drive down to Ullapool and rug up for the evening at the Argyll Hotel for £16 per night, which includes a huge Scottish breakfast, clean rooms and modern bathrooms. The hotel staff were very friendly and we spent all night in the hotel lobby playing trivia in front of the fireplace and drinking red wine.
If you choose Ullapool, stop by the beautiful Corrieshalloch Gorge, the UK’s biggest gorge.
Heading back down the west coast, we stopped in Red Hill and finally saw the one animal everyone had been itching to see, the Highland cows!
Where next? Auchtertyre Dornie and to Scotland’s most visited Castle: Eilean Dornie Castle. We were extremely lucky to witness an Australian/Scottish wedding when we arrived! Made it that much more special.
We continued further down the coast into Plockton, a small fishing village where you can walk across the water onto a little island and play on the rocks and eat some fresh muscles. We stopped in Armadale to see yet another castle and run around the gardens climbing trees and causing havoc.
Finding accommodation on the Isle of Skye is difficult, so it is preferable to drive into Kyleakin because there are a few bed and breakfasts and hostels. We spent the night at Skye Backpackers for £14 each per night, which was close to a large supermarket, really funky interior, awesome staff, a huge kitchen and a very cosy common room with a fireplace. As I mentioned earlier, the days are shorter in winter so it’s better to have an early night and wake up just before sunrise to make the most out of your day. We left most mornings just before the sun rose and it was truly beautiful seeing the mountains on the Isle of Syke at sunrise.
With the sun shining and snow covering the mountains in the distance we stopped at a few viewing points to see the Old Man of Storr and Kilt Rock.
It was time to go inland through Quiriang and to the opposite coastline stopping in Uig, known for its Skye-brewed beer. Do you believe in fairies? Drive south to Sligachan and wash your face in the enchanted water known to bring you good luck and youthful beauty.
Whenever it came to lunch we stopped anywhere that would give us hot drinks and hearty Scottish food. The Scots are absolutely warm-hearted and kind, so instead of looking for top notch tourist locations, search for your food and accommodation by gauging how the locals are towards you. Invermorrison is certainly a small town just full of friendly locals!
Over in Loch Ness, we took a visit to Nessyland and one of the boys had a quick dip in the ice cold water. Next stop was Fort Augustus, but to be honest there’s not much to do except have a hop around the small animal farm with ginormous rabbits and getting to feed some of the highland cows. Needing a drink and a lively atmosphere? Spend the night in Fort William at one of their bed and breakfasts (we stayed at Macleans Guesthouse for £17 each a night in a private room with two queen sized beds, huge modern bathroom and a delicious Scottish breakfast, with the lovely owners Mark and Brandy), then explore the pubs in the city centre for a good night out.
Driving to the south, we veered off through Kinlochleven, which was spectacular. The view was indescribable and like something out of a dream. We hiked up the Grey Mares Waterfall and then drove towards Glencoe.
Glencoe would have to be one of my favourite stops on this road trip. Maybe it was the time of year we went or the people I was with, but everything was so breathtaking and magical. Take the long walk to Glen Etive Mountain and play in the snow while enjoying some incredible scenery. Driving through Loch Lommond, we stopped for some Scottish whisky at the infamous pub, The Dovers Inn, but only stop to eat there if you will be heading north later that day. If you continue towards Dumbatron you can enjoy a delicious buffet at the Crown Cavery!
Hostels are few and far between in the highlands, so we opted for bed and breakfasts. Having a group of four people made finding accommodation easy. We never booked in advance, but just arrived into a town and went from door to door asking if they had beds free. I would estimate that the week trip cost just over £200, including all our food, petrol, accommodation and other fun times, and it was completely and utterly worth every cent.
I spent my last week in Scotland exploring the main cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. If you’re short for time and have to choose between the two, the beautiful, flawless city of Edinburgh should win. Glasgow, while fun and full of friendly locals, lacks for activities outside of going to comedy clubs and getting boozy.
Edinburgh, on the other hand, was an absolute delight. I stayed at Caledonian Backpackers for £14-£18 for a bed in a dorm room. The hostel is much larger than what I usually go for but had a great environment and atmosphere as well as being located right in the city centre. From cute cafés such as Love Crumbs and the Elephant House (where JK Rowling was inspired to write the first two Harry Potter books) to the endless comedy at The Stand and the gigantic delicious pig rolls at Oink – please make it a must-do whilst in the city to visit, Edinburgh really had something for everyone.
Join the free walking tour for some great history of the city and get taken to the Edinburgh Castle, St Giles’ Cathedral, The Royal Mile, around the Old and New towns, Mercat Cross, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Scott Monument, Princes Street Gardens, Grassmarket, site of Witch Burnings, National Museum, Covenanters’ Pirson and many more.
If you’re into markets you’ll love both the St Mary’s Farmers Market and the Edinburgh Farmers Market on Saturdays as well as the spectacular Stockbridge Markets held on Sundays. The markets are small but the produce is fresh and the food is incredibly tasty.
Check out the beautiful and historic Edinburgh Castle and venture into the gloomy Greyfriars graveyard: if you’re a Harry Potter fan try spotting some familiar names! Lastly, make sure you take the climb up to Arthurs Seat and enjoy the incredible view of Edinburgh city. Edinburgh is also home to the world renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For an entire month, the city is bursting with every type of show: free shows, ticketed shows, comedy shows, musicals, art exhibitions and street performances. Accommodation prices will rise during this time, but most would say that it’s worth it.
Megabus is widely used throughout the UK so using this company as means of transportation is easily accessible whilst in Scotland. Going from Edinburgh to Glasgow is a very small £4 journey. London, England to Edinburgh can range from £15-£30 depending on when you book your bus ticket. Belfast, Ireland to Cairnryan via ferry with Stenaline for £20 then take the short public bus or train ride from Cairnryan to Glasgow. It’s also very easy to jump on a cheap flight with Easyjet or Ryan air which if you book in advance can find some incredibly reasonable deals.
I’m so glad I made the decision to visit Scotland in the end as it really is such a beautiful country and has so much to offer. I can’t recommend taking the road trip through the highlands enough as it was such a unique experience and one I will never forget. Spending a couple of weeks in Scotland is more than enough for you to experience the local culture, check out some of the main sights and of course explore the highlands. Though some will say you can never spend enough time in Scotland!