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Scotland Highlands - May 2019

We will be flying in to Inverness from Hawaii and have our first 2 nights booked in Inverness near the train station and the castle. We could also stay at Premier Inn if that might be better. We have 12 days to explore the Highlands and Islands. This forum was an amazing help in planning our first trip to Scotland last year.

We will not be driving but relying on public transportation. After reading this forum almost all day and making a ton of notes, I'm looking for suggestions on the best way to get around. I've checked ScotRail and thought about getting either the Spirit of Scotland or the Scotland Grand Tour pass. There's also the option of the Two Together Pass. We don't need to go down to Edinburgh again (which is why we decided to start in Inverness). Suggestions from those who are more familiar with the passes would be appreciated!

We did a tour last year with Hairy Coos Tour from Edinburgh and fell in love with the Highlands. We'll be traveling light, but haven't quite decided if we want to stay in one place and do day trips or do something like the train tour and do a circular pattern of travel, changing hotels, B&Bs along the way.

We definitely want to do Skye (probably a tour), Fort William, Oban with a tour to Iona, etc, perhaps a trip to the Orkneys, John O'Groats (bottom of the list, but interested if we have time), And of course, some castles along the way! We'd LOVE to see it all, but realize we can't.

Would love to hear suggestions of other places that are accessible by public transportation and deserve a look or a stay! Reasonable hotels and/or B&Bs would be appreciated as well.

Thank you all!

Posted by
611 posts

Hello
I respect your decision not to want to drive, but honestly believe that if you can drive you would be making your holiday much more difficult than it needs to be by relying on public transport. You can request a car with automatic transmission and most people find that after a short time they become very accustomed to driving on the left.

Train routes out of Inverness are not extensive and trains are not that frequent. Here is a link to the Visit Scotland page about exploring Scotland by train. You will see that most of their recommended journeys do not start in Inverness.

https://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/tours/railway/great-rail-journeys/

If you want to do organised tours then Rabbies come highly recommended and do offer a tour to Skye from Inverness.

You can reach the Orkney islands by plane from Inverness, but once there you will either need a tour or a car to see any of the wonderful prehistoric sights. It is well worth visiting Orkney if you have an interest in these things.

Posted by
126 posts

Thanks for your thoughts, but it's just not for us. We've seen from many posts that cars are recommended, but we're senior citizens and just don't want the hassle of having to navigate unfamiliar routes as well as the right hand drive. My husband has stated several times that he doesn't want to drive and I like looking at things too much to concentrate on driving.

Posted by
7607 posts

oh you can absolutely do it by a combination of public transportation and, as you've indicated, guided tours. It will be a bit slower, though, and I don't believe you can hit all the places you've mentioned in 12 days. The advantage of public transport is of course that you can enjoy the view the entire time you're in transit - no watching the road or navigating for either of you.

I feel like you have either the option of heading down to Skye: train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, then buses on the island, plus a tour or two when you're there, then when you leave Skye, bus to Armadale, ferry over to Mallaig, then the West Highland line train east - I would recommend a stop for two nights in Glenfinnan at the wonderful Glenfinnan House Hotel - then find the best way to Oban either after the train splits off that way or maybe there's a bus from Fort William that's easier - no reason to stay or spend time in Fort William itself. After Oban or Iona, down to Glasgow to see the wonderful sites there - Charles Rennie Mackintosh sites, Tenement House, etc. etc -- and to get back home.

If you want to do the Orkneys, of course, you need to do that before you ever head south but I don't know for sure in 12 days if you have time to do that. Maybe someone else will have some guidance there.

Have you checked out the Man in Seat 61's wonderful Scotland page for info about various train routes there? And of course you know the buses and ferries will be key as well.

Posted by
7607 posts

P.S. for the distances you're wanting to cover, you definitely are in a moving-on pattern, not a stay-in-one-place-and-take-day-trips pattern

Posted by
16 posts

Am looking at Scotland for next Summer. Also an "older" driver, and don't want the hassle and angst of a car, much less working out an itinerary. I am looking at Rabbies tours and Heart of Scotland tours. I'd like to visit the Highlands, the Hebrides and Orkney. If you don't mind a tour environment, these are small group tours of 16 people and seem pretty flexible in terms of how the day is spent. They will also arrange your accommodations.

Posted by
89 posts

I just drove for 2 weeks in Scotland and can see someone being reticent. The roads are in relatively good condition, but traffic does move quickly and the roads are windy and narrow. I am 44 and have driven on the opposite side before but it was still stressful. Good for you for knowing your limits.

We spent 11 days in the Highlands and it can be done with a combo of point-to-point tickets. But can I also suggest doing some day tours mixed in so you don't miss out? We did the Three Isles Tour from Oban and loved it. The same company, West Coast Tours, runs a number of different tours to various west coast destinations. You may also consider flying directly from Inverness to the Orkney's, although that means missing out on John O'Groats. Keep massaging your itinerary and don't forget how much time it takes to arrive at train/bus stations and get from place to place. Also look closely at dining. There is certainly no shortage of pubs and restaurants in Scotland (we ate extremely well) but without a car you are more limited.

Posted by
89 posts

I just realized you also asked for B&B recs. We stayed at the Old Manse Guest House in Oban and they could not have been nicer. I wish we could post photos on this forum - we had the most beautiful view from our comfortable room. It was around 90 Euros a night for early September.

Posted by
5786 posts

Scotland in May was an enjoyable time of the year. Just be prepared for a wide range of weather but temperatures were relatively mild but will feel cool comparted to coastal Hawaii.

A good Scottish journey planner website:
https://www.travelinescotland.com/public-transport

The West Highland Railway Line is a scenic route between Fort William and Galsgow:
https://www.scotrail.co.uk/scotland-by-rail/great-scenic-rail-journeys/west-highland-line-glasgow-oban-and-fort-williammallaig

Posted by
126 posts

Thank you for the additional recommendations. I've made notes of the comments and the recommendations. I'd forgotten about The Man in Seat 61, but used his site extensively on our last trip. Thanks for the reminder! I'll check out the B&B as well.

We went to Scotland in May, 2017. We had almost perfect weather and not a lot of crowds. Hoping to beat the summer season this time as well. We tend to go constantly when we're on vacation in order to see as much as we can without losing the sense of being there and enjoying it. We relax while we're on the trains/buses drinking in the views. Times may not be as fast as driving, but we feel that we get more out of the trip than we would if we had the stress of driving and worrying about how the roads will be, etc.

We tend to map things out in a way that if we run out of time (or stamina) on a particular day, the last thing on the list is generally the one that we wouldn't mind missing this time around. It's worked for us previously and hope this time won't be much different.

Posted by
956 posts

Hi, Terri,

I'm very much a senior citizen (or OAP) as well, but not quite yet in my dotage. I've always driven while in Scotland (and England), and even at my advanced age, still enjoy the challenge of driving on the left while shifting with my left hand. Those recent models with six forward gears are a blast! However, I can appreciate your reticence regarding driving. My wife refuses to drive in Scotland, so I end up doing all of the driving. We drove over 2,100 miles in July, not including ferry travel.

Having said that, there are lots of places in Scotland which you can visit sans auto. The train service is excellent, although it certainly doesn't go everywhere. Bus service goes to many places in Scotland that you wouldn't normally expect, although a lot of the bus service in more remote areas is based on service to and from schools, with the result that they don't operate on weekends or when schools are closed for hols.

There is an excellent Premier Inn in Inverness, right on the west bank of the River Ness, about a five minute walk to the castle, and a good seven to ten minutes to the train station. There are other Premier Inns in Inverness, but the Nessbank one is closest to the action.

If you're interested in something unique, I'd recommend taking the CalMac Loch Nevis ferry to Eigg or Rum, and staying overnight. You can also tweak the ferry schedule to spend a few hours on Eigg, Rum, or Canna, going out on the Loch Nevis, then returning to Mallaig when the ferry returns to the island on the same day. You can also do a two or three island non landing tour, just to whet your appetite for your next holiday. (And there will be one!) There is really good low level hiking on all three islands. I haven't been to Muck, so I can't vouch for it. Also, there is a small ferry which sails out to the isolated peninsula of Knoydart, which is only accessible by boat or a 16 mile hike in. There's not a whole lot to do on Knoydart, with the exception of hiking on mostly easy roads. But it's a great place to chill out.

You can also take a very scenic and relatively easy (one small rock scramble) hike of about five miles from Bracorina on Loch Morar to Tarbet on Loch Nevis, then take the 3:30 ferry back to Mallaig by way of Inverie on Knoydart. Taxi from Mallaig to Bracorina is about ten pounds plus tip; ferry from Tarbet to Mallaig is 15 pounds per person.

Arran is another good place to visit, with excellent (and relatively inexpensive) local bus service around the island. My wife and I visited there for the first time this year. We've been traveling to Scotland since 1973, and we couldn't believe that we had bypassed Arran until this year. We're already planning to go back.

Best to give John O'Groats a pass. There's not much to see there, and since you're traveling by public transportation, it's not worth the extra effort and expense.

Skye would best be done with a tour, as the local buses mainly serve just the main routes to Kyleakin, Broadford, Armadale, Portree, Uig, and Dunvegan. It would be a real challenge on Skye to visit specific places, then have to wait for the next bus for your onward or return journey. If you need a taxi on Skye, I'd recommend Kenny's Taxis. Skyegirl may have an additional recommendation. We used Kenny's once when we missed the last bus out of Sligachan after a hike in the Cuillins, and had to get back to our car in Elgol.

I can make some recommendations for lodging in most places in Scotland. I'm a budget traveler, but we've always (well, almost always) been able to find good, comfortable lodging at a reasonable price. All of it en-suite. At our age, we appreciate our privacy!

Hope that helps in some way. Best wishes for your plans.

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
126 posts

Thank you, Mike! We love Scotland, but may not be able to return again after this trip. We'd pretty much decided to take a tour to Skye, so your recommendation is much appreciated! https://wowscotlandtours.com/tours-from-inverness/isle-skye-tour-inverness/ or https://www.skyescenictours.com/tours/trotternish-fairy-pools/

The three island tour we've been looking at is this one - https://www.staffatrips.co.uk/tour_bus/fulldaytour.php There's also a shorter one.

We're definitely on a budget when it comes to lodging. I have a reservation at Premier Inn in Inverness already, but also looking at Rossmont Guest House which seems to be closer to the train and castle.

I read your post about the train passes and booking individually. The pass seems easy as it covers buses and ferries, but you've made us wonder.

Since you've spent so much time in Scotland, we'll value your input and likely skip John O'Groats/Wick. Would you also bypass the Orkneys? If so, I think we'll end up going in the other direction and stop at Stirling. Did a quick run through when we were In Edinburgh last time, but didn't do the castle. What would you recommend the minimum number of nights to spend in each area?

Posted by
611 posts

Hello again Terri,
I completely respect your decision re driving and I am sure you will have a fantastic trip. Mike's advice is absolutely spot on as ever!

He is right that Skye is almost impossible by public transport. There is no railway, the nearest station being at Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland. Buses are based around school schedules and don't go to the main sights in the main. I'd recommend an organised tour probably starting from Inverness. Have a look at Rabbies, as they apparently have recommended B&Bs and hotels within defined price brackets. Most are (I believe) in Portree which would be handy for restaurants too. The only taxi company I've used (both personally and for B&B guests) is over on our side of the island (Dunvegan) and is the imaginatively named Dunvegan Taxis. It's a one man operation - Donda is that chap's name and he is wonderful. His email is dunvegantaxis@gmail.com and phone is +44(0)7584 191131.

Just to come back on the Orkneys. If you are interested in the prehistoric remains it's a 'must' but you'd need a tour I think. However, with only 12 days I might give it a miss.

Best wishes
Jacqui (Skyegirl)

Posted by
956 posts

Hello again, Terri,

Unless you have a strong desire to visit the Orkneys, you should definitely bypass the islands in favor of Scotland's west coast and islands. As Skyegirl pointed out, unless you have a keen interest in prehistoric and neolithic remains, or British military history, your days would be better spent elsewhere. Plus it's basically a three day commitment if you're using public transportation.

As I mentioned earlier, there's not a lot to do in John O'Groats. It's mainly a destination where people go to say that they've been there. It's not even the northernmost or northeasternmost point of the Scottish mainland. It's the northern terminus for the classic John O'Groats to Land's End marathon, which people travel by whatever unique method of transportation they can imagine. These treks are often done for charity.

Wick is not an attractive town (My apologies to any residents of Wick, but you know what I mean.), so unless you're visiting the Old Pulteney distillery or Castle Sinclair, it's really not worth the extra time involved in getting there.

I'd recommend taking tours of Skye originating on the island, as opposed to taking a tour out of Inverness. You can take a CityLink bus from Inverness to Portree, so you can use Portree as your base and take day trips from there. Several tour companies have day trips of Skye out of Portree. I've never used any of them, so I can't recommend one over the other. One thing that I should stress, though, is that you need to make accommodation arrangements well ahead of time on Skye, as it has become the second most popular tourist destination (and with good reason!) in Scotland. If you do decide to take an overnight tour out of Inverness (don't take a one day tour - it's too much traveling), the tour company will make accommodation arrangements.

In addition to Premier Inns, I can recommend the Strathgorm B&B in Broadford; the Almondbank B&B in Portree (a bit of a walk from the center of the town); the Chlachain Inn or the Western Isles Hotel in Mallaig; the Kathmore Guest House in Oban; the West End Guest House in Elgin; the Park Lodge Hotel in Tobermory; and the Caol-Ithe B&B in Fionnphort. None of them (except maybe the Western Isles) will break the bank.. Also Skyegirl runs a B&B near Dunvegan/Colbost, so you may want to consider that.

My wife and I don't eat as much as we used to, so we often share a meal. Not only does that keep us from feeling full, but it also helps us save money. And sometimes, there's nothing better than a fish supper eaten outdoors!

Don't forget to ask for a senior discount for tours, and at museums, castles, and other attractions. You'll often see a lower price for "concessions." That's you!

Best wishes for your planning, and have a wonderful time!

Mike (Auchterless)

Posted by
126 posts

Thank you, Skyegirl and Mike! Great info as always! Looks like the northern end is out and Stirling is in.

Still have the question re: the train/bus/ferry passes. Mike's post that I read earlier said it was less expensive to book individual trips, but does that still hold true? Since train service here in Hawaii is non-existent, we don't have much experience other than what we've done in Europe. As we've generally been "big city based" in Europe, it was pretty easy and we enjoyed traveling that way immensely. This time, though, we'll likely be moving around a bit more. What about bags on buses when going point to point? Is it worth getting an over 50 or Two Together pass?

I'll definitely look in to Portree and Skyegirl's B&B. Thanks for all the info on other B&Bs for other areas. Now, off to the maps to see where they all are. :)

Your input is invaluable! Does Scotland have any 2 for 1 options as we saw in other European cities?

Posted by
956 posts

Hi once again, Terri,

I wasn't the one who posted about the train fares. I've never used the train system, so I've not got a clue about the fares.

A quick look however, leads me to believe that the Spirit of Scotland pass may be your best bet. As you're going to be in the Highlands and Islands for 12 days, the 15 day pass would be your best bet. The 15 day pass is 179 pounds; the eight day Highland Rover pass is 85 pounds. Illogically, you could buy two consecutive eight day passes each for 170 pounds, thereby saving 18 pounds.

The tricky thing about these passes (which are for combined train and coach travel) is that you can only use them for four out of eight days, or eight out of 15 days. So once you use them the first time, you have three or seven days left. For example, if you took the train to Kyle of Lochalsh from Inverness on the first day of an eight day Highland Rover pass, you'd then have seven days left to use your final three segments of the pass. Perhaps one of our forum viewers who lives in Scotland could help make head or tail out of this. The 15 day Spirit of Scotland pass seems to provide a much more comprehensive area in which to travel, so you'd need to determine ahead of time where your plans will take you.

There is also a "Two Together" pass, which you mentioned, which provides 33% off of two tickets for people traveling together. I'm not sure whether this is for rail only, or for combined rail and coach. It means that you'd have to show the pass at each station where you're purchasing tickets, but you can also purchase tickets on line. However, you'd need access to a printer. Many hotels/B&Bs would be able to print out tickets for you. As you noted, there are also discount cards for 50 plus, but they may just be for people who already live in Scotland. OAPs get to ride free, if they're residents of Scotland.

I don't know whether that's going to help, but it's all I could find.

Best wishes!

Mike (Auchterless)

p.s.: I would think that you're responsible for your own luggage while you're traveling in Scotland. I've only ridden on a train once recently in Scotland, and I don't remember if there are overhead luggage racks. The CityLink buses do have a "hold" underneath where you can store one suitcase each, if there's enough room. Smaller items (similar to a carry on) should be able to be taken on board with you.

Posted by
126 posts

Thanks, Mike. Sorry for the confusion. I read this forum for hours and hours before posting. Whoever posted it seemed to be as knowledgeable as you are.

I'll run through the forum again hoping to find it. It does seem to be a pretty easy solution, although he said that many bus drivers weren't aware of the program and wouldn't honor the pass.

Posted by
956 posts

Hi, Terri,

It may just be the CityLink buses that honor the Spirit of Scotland passes, and not smaller, local buses. So, for instance, the pass would work on the CityLink coach from Inverness to Portree, but not for the Stagecoach buses on Skye. It should also be good for West Coast Motors, which serves the Inverness to Oban route. There's a fairly good route map of the routes honored by the Spirit of Scotland pass on their website.

Perhaps someone who lives in Scotland, and is familiar with the passes, could chime in here to help us out.

Mike (Auchterless)

p.s.: Can I house sit for you while you're in Scotland? :)

Posted by
126 posts

Hi, Mike,

Found the post, but it wasn't on this forum, but on https://community.visitscotland.com/discussion/548/spirit-of-scotland-travelpass-is-it-worth-it.

The pass covers both CityLink and Stagecoach lines.

As much as I love living in Hawaii, it does have its drawbacks, especially when we want to travel. We leave May 1, but don't get in to Inverness until May 3rd, with the longest layover only about 3 hours, and that's at LHR. Coming home is a bit different, but we do need to spend a night in Seattle due to connection times. I don't think we could clear customs and make the flight in 25 min. :)

On the plus side, we can sometimes find flights to Europe for less than to the mainland.

Posted by
611 posts

Hi Terri
Just to come back on travel passes, to say that sadly although I live here I very rarely use public transport (basically because it's non existent in terms of getting me where I want to go) and drive everywhere.

If it was me planning a trip I'd work out the itinerary, including the transport I want to take, cost it (using the national rail.co.uk site) and the Citylink bus site, and then see whether a pass(es) would be cheaper. My gut feel is that if you are willing/able to book specific trains and use 'advance' tickets that restrict you to the train you've booked, then that is likely to be the cheapest option. If, however, you want flexibility then a pass might work better.

In terms of luggage storage on trains, there is always a space at the end of each carriage to put large bags and an overhead rack for small items.

Hope that helps.
Jacqui (Skyegirl)

Posted by
126 posts

Thanks for the response, Skyegirl. I knew that trains were fine for baggage, but was wondering more about the buses that we'll have to take to get to some areas.

Where on Skye is your B&B? We're pretty sure we want to spend at least 2 days there. Sounds like something we'd be sorry to leave if we didn't give it at least 2 days.

Posted by
2258 posts

Getting back to tours, the three-day tour to Mull, Staffa, and Iona is wonderful. I think mine was with a different company, but the one you linked to sounds similar. It's a long day, but well worth it.

Orkney is also wonderful, but I'm not sure it makes sense with the time you have.

We had a car when we went to Skye, but we took a full day tour from Uig to Harris and Lewis by ferry and boat that was fantastic. At the time, I think they only offered this tour once a week. If you have the time, I would look into it. It would make a good substitute for Orkney and would only take one day if you are on Skye.

Posted by
126 posts

Thanks, Carroll! I've looked at going to Harris and Lewis, but haven't researched it enough to decide. Your post will help us decide. It sounded great when I read about it, but it's always better to hear from someone who's done it.

We've also looked at the other tour. Now, it's becoming a matter of finding the best fit for our time and stamina.

Posted by
30 posts

I've been to all the places you have mentioned, and without a rental car. While having a car can be a convenience, for the American driver, driving in Britain can be a nightmare and I always remember the driver we hired on Skye to take us around and his comments about tourists and the how much trouble they caused on the road because they didn't know how to manage 'one lane roads with suicidal sheep'. Premier Inn in Inverness, unless it has moved, is quite a walk to town. There are lots of nice places closer. We took a day trip offered by Puffin Tours, I believe, which I booked from the TI, called 'Over the Seas to Skye' and I loved it even though I had just spent two days there. John O' Groats Ferry Co. has a one day tour to Orkney from Inverness which takes you to many important sites. You can get a bus in Inverness to Culloden and if you get off at the top of the hill before Culloden you can walk down to the Clava Cairns- no charge and a delightful ancient settlement. Loved walking down and up-there was a standing stone in a field, a viaduct off the the left and all kinds of delightful Highland Cattle staring at us. Good cafeteria at Culloden. I took the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban, the bus across Mull and then another little ferry to Iona. Only had a couple of hours in Iona but it was one of the highlights of my trip. The Scotrail pass used to include the ferry- not sure if it still does. There isn't much in Fort William, but you can get the train there that takes you across the viaduct seen in 'Harry Potter' to Mallaig, where you can get the ferry for Skye. I think I wlll be coming back to Scotland in May for my fourth and perhaps final trip there (I will be 77). Perhaps I will run across you- have a great trip. P.S. I will NOT be renting a car.

Posted by
126 posts

Thank you SO much, Liz! We're close in age, so I know the feeling about it possibly being the 'last trip.'

I'll check in to the Over the Seas to Skye tour (sounds like the theme from Outlander). We've already planned on doing Culloden and the Cairns, so your info on the bus is perfect.

The rail pass from Scotrail - Spirit of Scotland - includes the ferries and both bus lines, so we think we'll be going with that. 8 days out of 15 gives us a lot of leeway, especially since we won't have 15 days there. The only drawback on this pass, if I'm reading it correctly, is that there's not any backtracking. You go in a loop, either clockwise or counterclockwise, but that seems to be the only restriction other than not being able to go before 9:15A. We're still trying to figure out if we'd be better doing 2 of the other passes or if the Grand Tour pass doesn't require the loop travel.

I just went back to the Scotrail site after replying to your rail pass post and see that I had things backwards. The Scottish Grand Tour requires the loop, but the Spirit of Scotland doesn't mention that requirement. It also shows that discount cards can be used on this as well. Now we have to decide which is better - Two Together or the Over 50.

Posted by
611 posts

Hi again Terri

Thanks for asking about out B&B. I am sure I am not allowed to 'plug' it on here so I won't mention the name, but I think we are a bit out of the way for your needs, as we are not anywhere near any public transport links. We are in the small settlement of Colbost, on the hillside about 1/2 of a mile above a famous restaurant called The Three Chimneys. We are very lucky in that we have fabulous views across the sea loch to Dunvegan Castle.

Good luck with planning the rest of your trip. It sounds as though it is coming together pretty well.
Jacqui

Posted by
126 posts

Thanks, Jacqui. We never know where we'll end up until we finalize our room reservations. We've been watching for flight deals for a year, so when we found a good one, we jumped on it.

We have the flights booked, so the planning is fully underway. I think the research is a good part of the fun!

Posted by
30 posts

Since its been 10 years since I took the 'over the seas' tour, I checked and it still exists and seems to be about the same. When I googled Puffin Express tours, it came up as Highland Tours and is listed under the 'tours from Inverness' as Eilean Donan Castle and Isle of Skye.

Posted by
105 posts

Terri, I spent 3 weeks alone traveling around Scotland and only used public transportation. While it was more challenging in the Highlands I believe it can be done creatively. I stayed in Portree and took a day trip with Real Scottish Journeys, pick up right in town square. The advantage was spending the entire day seeing all the sites without spending so much time getting to Skye from Inverness. Out of 21days I can honestly say it was my favorite day. The stories, music, relaxed atmosphere all while seeing so much incredible beauty was a day I will never forget.

Have a wonderful trip.
Kathleen

Posted by
956 posts

Note to Liz,

There is a new Premier Inn on Huntly Street, about 50 yards from the Ness Bridge, and about a three minute walk in to the center of town. Unless you get to that annoying pedestrian crossing light at Bank Street just as it turns red, in which case you have to wait about two minutes for the "green man," adding to your three minute walk. Or you could do as the locals do, and cross against the light. But watch out for maniacal drivers on Bank Street!

Mike (Auchterless)

p.s.: The hotel's website states that it is an 11 minute walk to the Inverness train station.