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Help with the Highlands


We will be in Scotland for 8 days starting April 26-May 5. Our main source of travel will be by train, have opted for the Spirit of Scotland pass, because we are Americans and I don't think attempting to drive would go well. Plan to use buses and taxis from train stations to our day trips/destinations so that does limit us some. We don't like to have everything planned out, as we would love some suggestions from locals, but also don't want to miss out on the best sites/views/eats because we didn't book ahead. Very open to suggestions as this is our first trip to Scotland.

4/26 arrive in Glascow, was less expensive to fly into, take train to Edinburgh. Staying at B&B, hoping to visit some local pubs. We love live music and meeting locals. Considering Sandy Bell's. Suggestions? and if it's better to use buses or taxis in Edinburgh
4/27 Spend day in Edinburgh, Castle and Museum. Would love suggestions for dinner/evening activity. Stay in B&B again
4/28 Travel to St. Andrews by train, spend the day at the Old Course, other courses. Eat at the restaurant there. Not sure how long this might take as I am a picture-taking fool and love to look around. Have not booked a room in St Andrews yet. Would love a suggestion of where to stay either in St Andrews or nearby. Would love to eat somewhere close to the water for dinner.
4/29 Travel to Aberdeen via train. Booked an AirBNB that has agreed to let us drop off our luggage early. Plan to head to Castles at this point. We know Fraser Castle for sure but wanting to do at least 1-2 more if possible. Have looked at some tours but we kind of like to move at our own pace, however if we can get more of a "behind the scenes" look we will do the tours.
4/30 travel by train to Inverness, early. Would like to go to Urquhart Castle. Our tour to Isle of Skye takes us by Loch Ness the next day by land but considering a cruise but don't know if it is better to take a morning tour or afternoon, the warmer the better. Stay in Inverness at B&B
5/1 Travel to Isle of Skye, day tour there and stay in Kyle of Lochalsh area, haven't booked anywhere yet
5/2 Train to Fort William, open to lodging and food ideas. Will not arrive until closer to lunch time.
5/3 Ben Nevis, plan to take the gondola up and go to the restaurant, take lots of pictures. Open to suggestions as to what to see there. Here is where we have an open option of where to go. Either stay near Ben Nevis/Fort Willam or take the train to Oban? or stay elsewhere
5/4 Travel by train back to Glascow and spend the evening. Suggestions for food and lodging appreciated. Would love to relax this evening.
5/5 fly out of Glascow

This is a great Forum and I've learned so much already. Thanks for any suggestions

Are you dead set on train travel? My husband and I are also American. I was so, so, so nervous about driving but I let people on this forum talk me into getting a car. Hands down, best decision we made. Scotland is so easy to drive and it is absolutely stunning. We took the bus from Edinburgh to the airport and picked up our car. We ended up driving from there all over the place! We even took a ferry to the Orkneys. I cannot stress enough how this decision changed our trip in the best way. Good luck and have a great time!

Posted by
981 posts

Hi, agrimmett79,

It's a bit difficult to help you with this, as I'm used to making these journeys by car. The car gives you the advantage of being able to stop wherever you want, except possibly in a passing place one one of those single track roads. But first of all, it's Glasgow, not Glascow!

You'll need to take a bus or taxi to Queen Street Station, not Central Station. Queen Street Station has the most direct trains in to Edinburgh. Bus is a lot cheaper, and they run in to town very frequently.

Sandy Bell's would be your best bet for live folk music, as they have sessions there just about every night. But if you're going out your first night in Scotland, you're going to be pretty tired & jetlagged. Try to turn in at a decent hour. Other choices would be the Royal Oak and the White Hart. They're both within easy walking distance of Sandy Bell's.

Taxis in Edinburgh are relatively cheap and efficient. Buses are cheaper, though, and it's fun seeing the city from the top of a double decker. You can most likely download an Edinburgh transport map before you leave the U.S.

Henderson's is our favorite restaurant in Edinburgh, but there are so many choose from. I'm sure that other readers are going to chime in with their personal favorites.

The train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen doesn't go near St. Andrews. You'd need to get off at Leuchars (preferable) or Cupar, and take the bus in to St. Andrews. There is frequent bus service from Leuchars to St. Andrews. You'll have to get the bus back (or a taxi) when you get ready to go to Aberdeen.

There are many castles near Aberdeen. If you possibly can, the most spectacularly located is Dunottar, just south of Stonehaven. It would involve getting off of the train in Stonehaven, and taking a taxi out to Dunottar. You could walk, but it would take about 45 minutes each way.

The castles closest to Aberdeen are Cragievar, Fyvie, Drum, and Crathes. Most of them are about the same distance from Aberdeen as Castle Fraser. With the exception of Crathes and Drum, most of them are off of the bus lines, so you may need a combination of bus and taxi, or go through a local tour company. The tourist information office in Aberdeen is just up the hill from the train station, and turn right on Union Street. The office is at the corner of Union Street and Shiprow. The Ashvale, in Aberdeen, is a great fish restaurant. But there are many excellent restaurants to choose from.

There is no train from from Kyle of Lochalsh to Fort William. You'd actually have to go all the way back to Glasgow to switch trains. The fastest way to get to Fort William would be to take the Stagecoach bus from Kyle to Armadale, catch the ferry to Mallaig, and take the train to Fort William. If you're lucky, you may be on the Jacobite steam train, as made popular by the "Harry Potter" movies.

If all else fails, the Premier Inn in Fort William will do for a night. The chain is uniform throughout Britain, so you know that you'll get a great room, albeit a bit soulless, a great shower, and a restaurant next door. However, if you end up there, go somewhere else for your meal. It's like a T.G.I. Friday's. Also, avoid McTavish's Kitchen!

You'll need to take a taxi to the gondola ride at Aonach Mor, which is not Ben Nevis. The Ben is about two miles away.

There is no train from Fort William to Oban. You'd have to take the train from Fort William to Tyndrum, and switch to the Glasgow to Oban line there. If you're planning to go to Oban, you'll need to take the bus.

I always recommend the Cafe Source restaurant in the basement of St Andrews Church (St Andrews in the Square) for a good meal in Glasgow. It's usually very quiet, unless there is a hen (bachelorette) party scheduled for when you're there! Food is good and reasonable. Also, again, Premier Inn is good for Glasgow. There's one centrally located near George Square, and others on the outskirts.

Posted by
5538 posts

So, I am a public transportation person and I have done some of these routes. If you don't want to drive, don't drive. It is possible to use public transport, you just need to be flexible.

I will say that the bus from Edinburgh is a little better way to go to Saint Andrews than the train. The bus station is just a few blocks from the train station in Edinburgh and it is quite easy to catch a bus to Saint Andrews there.

The one thing that I do note is that you seem to be staying in places one night quite often. This means that you are spending more time traveling which really takes away from sight-seeing time. One thing to remember about public transport is that you must travel on someone else's schedule. Frequent travel days can be more challenging. However, if this is your travel style and you enjoy it, go for it.

Posted by
981 posts

Hi again, agrimmett79,

I hope all of that information helps. There is often live folk music on the floor above at Cafe Source. They also have some great choices of traditional Scottish food. Their Cullen Skink (a fish chowder) is excellent.

I hope that this trip whets your appetite for future trips to Scotland, and I hope that you will seriously consider hiring a car for your next visit. You can get to so many more places, and you can stop wherever and whenever you want. It's a bit scary driving for the first time in Scotland, but you can upgrade to an automatic transmission, which will alleviate half of the stress. It takes about a day your first time over to get used to driving on the left, but once you get the hang of it, you'll have a blast!

Very best wishes for wonderful holiday!

Mike (auchterless)

p.s.: If you get to Dunottar Castle, you can skip Urquhart Castle. Dunottar is by far more impressive.

Posted by
700 posts

We're traveling in Scotland (for the first time) April 28 - May 15 this year. We are also using the Spirit of Scotland train pass. We did this more for the ease of being able to simply watch the landscape go by from the relative comfort of a train without the need to purchase fuel, find parking, be watching for roadway signage, etc. We're taking a counterclockwise route from Edinburgh to Inverness (not visiting Aberdeen) to Kyle of Lochalsh, taxi to Portree, two tours on the Isle of Skye (on two consecutive days), taxi to Armadale, ferry to Mallaig, Jacobite steam train to Ft. William, bus to Ballachulish, taxi through Glen Coe to Inverary via Dalmilly, then the train on to Oban, and the train from Oban to Glasgow.

Assuming your travel dates are for 2018, if you've not booked lodging for Ft. William, Kyle of Lochalsh and Oban (perhaps others), you might want to do this as soon as possible. We booked our lodging a couple months ago and some of our "first choice" venues were unavailable. Also, have you familiarized yourselves with the train timetables for each leg of your train route? You may also want to check out the various bus carriers in Scotland and their timetables; finally you may want to check taxi providers in the areas you want to visit by taxi.

Your list of places to visit seems a bit ambitious for eight days, but we're newbies to Scotland, so we'll leave this topic to others for comments.

Posted by
2949 posts

On your St. Andrews day, here's my advice.

Check the bus schedule and book ahead for a walking tour of the Old Course, allowing yourself ample time to get to the starting point after your bus from Edinburgh arrives. Be aware that the Old Course "walking" tour mostly consists of standing around on the 1st / 18th hole listening to anecdotes about famous golfers on various tournaments. If lucky, your guide may give you a photo op on the iconic Swilcan Bridge.

The British Golf Museum is fascinating whether you're into golf or not, and it has a nice cafe with huge picture windows overlooking the 1st / 18th hole.

You can play the Himalayas (Ladies Putting Green) for a very cheap price if you're there on a day when it's open to the public. Be aware there are no lockers or other facilities to hold your belongings while you play. You don't have to have golf shoes, but no high/spike heels.

Regarding Glasgow, to avoid embarrassment note the spelling and note that it's pronounced "GLASS-go" (not glas-cow). The Holiday Inn right at the airport (literally walking distance to the terminal) is very nice, probably the nicest airport hotel I've ever stayed in, and it serves lunch, dinner & snacks in addition to the (of course) buffet breakfast. There's also a Holiday Inn Express and at least one other hotel right there.

Posted by
10 posts

4/29 Travel to Aberdeen via train. Booked an AirBNB that has agreed to
let us drop off our luggage early. Plan to head to Castles at this
point. We know Fraser Castle for sure but wanting to do at least 1-2
more if possible. Have looked at some tours but we kind of like to
move at our own pace, however if we can get more of a "behind the
scenes" look we will do the tours.

You aren't going to be able to manage multiple castles in one day by public transport. There is no public transport to Castle Fraser (note - not Fraser Castle) - you would either need to get a taxi (possibly from Inverurie after getting the train) or walk 40 minutes from the road end. In order to do just about any other castle in Aberdeenshire, you would then need to return to Aberdeen in order to take public transport somewhere else. It might be feasible to hire a taxi and driver for the day, which would make it easier, but I don't think you will manage more than 2 castles at most - and even then you are likely to have to rush. Your plan to use public transport is further complicated by the fact that you are in Aberdeen on a Sunday, when buses and trains are less regular.

Have you taken into account the opening times? Castle Fraser is only open 10-4, and most of the other local castles are also either 10/11-4 or 10.30-5. Given that you can't arrive from St Andrews into Aberdeen until 10.30, by the time you have dropped your bags and got to Castle Fraser by taxi, it is going to be close to 11.30 when you arrive. For reference, the guided tours run to 1.5 hours, so even if you just rush around, you are looking at 1pm before you leave, and more likely 2 - at which point you are looking at a minimum of an hour to get to any of the other castles.

Just to say, it's my experience that the guided tours at NTS sites are generally far more interesting than going around on your own - and you can always go back through if there are things you want to see in more detail!

I would also add that the Aberdeenshire castles are a bit... samey. I've done most of them with visitors, and I wouldn't want to do multiples on one day! If you really want to do 2, I would advise maybe one of the NTS ones followed by Dunottar, which is rather different.

Posted by
981 posts

Hi again, agrimmett79,

Unless you have your heart set on Castle Fraser for some reason, here's a suggestion:

Take the Stagecoach 201 bus from Aberdeen (Union Square Bus Station) to Crathes Castle on Royal Deeside. They run infrequently on Sunday, but you should be able to catch the 11:45 bus to Crathes, which leaves from the Union Square Bus Station, which is near the train station. That would put you at Crathes Castle at 12:32, which will give you enough time to spend a couple of hours at Crathes before heading off to Dunottar (see below).

After you've visited Crathes, you could get a taxi to take you down the A957, the Slug Road, to Stonehaven and Dunottar Castle. Be sure to let the taxi company know when you want to be picked up at Crathes. If you wait until you're finished at Crathes to call, it may take over an hour for the taxi to get there. Unfortunately, the Stagecoach 105 bus, which travels the Slug Road from Crathes to Stonehaven, doesn't operate on Sundays.

Dunottar is open later than most of the baronial castles in the Aberdeen area, so you should be able to get in at least two hours there.

Have a walk along the cliffs. The location is spectacular.

After you're done at Dunottar, if the weather is decent, and you feel like stretching your legs, you could walk in to Stonehaven, along the cliffs and past the war memorial. and catch the train back to Aberdeen. The trains run very frequently, up 'til at least 10:00 p.m. The walk would take you about 45 minutes, and you'll get some wonderful views of Stonehaven and its harbour.

You'd get in to Stonehaven in time for a fish supper at the Carron or the Tolbooth before boarding your train.

Alternately, you could take a taxi from Dunottar in to Stonehaven, and board the train there, or you could take a taxi all the way back to Aberdeen. The train journey from Stonehaven to Aberdeen takes about 20 minutes. Sit on the right side of the train for the best views.