My daughter and I are traveling to Scotland from October 23 to November7- yes, I know it's late but that's when she can go. We are from Washington state and are used to rain. It's our second trip to Scotland. We have chosen a couple of things we really want to do- the Orkney prehistoric sites, Skye ( we have been there before but it's so amazing we want to go again) Kilmartin Glen (maybe), Stirling Castle or Glamis, and a few days in Edinburgh and Glasgow. She wants to check out the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow and maybe graduate school at the University of Edinburgh. How reasonable is it to rent a car, drive to Kilmartin, then to Skye via Mallaig, spend a few days on Skye, drive to Thurso, ferry to Orkney, spend a few days there, then drive back to Edinburgh via Inverness or something like that? I have read that the drive from Skye to Thurso along the coast is spectacular. Am I crazy to plan so much driving? I don't want to spend the whole trip driving. Any suggestions? We had hoped to work in Mull and Iona, as we are Macleans and wanted to visit Duart again, but I don't see how that will work.
I don't think you're crazy to plan a lot of driving, but -- as you know from living in Washington state -- it will get dark early at that time of year, so plan your daylight hours intentionally. Getting to Skye, if you're not wedded to the Mallaig ferry, it might be faster to drive via Dornie and take the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge. Keep in mind that ferries can be delayed or canceled in bad weather. How many days in the cities do you need? Your time in the outlying destinations will be constrained by your city to-do list.
I can vouch for Kilmartin Glen and Glamis Castle in particular.
Kilmartin is a tiny village and you will want the small map to find the cairns (costs about 1 pound in the tiny museum), otherwise you can go right past the turnoff as it is not well signposted. In the village itself there's a collection of engraved stone slabs right near the church, hundreds of years old but some still legible to modern eyes. As for a place to stay, we stayed at Brambles in Inveraray and liked it so much the first time that we planned another trip to return there. Along Loch Fyne between Lochgilphead and Inveraray is the Auchindrain Township open-air museum. Their last open day in the fall is October 31, so if you want to go you'll need to do it during your first week.
Glamis Castle has amazing gardens, an excellent tea shop/cafeteria, and guided tours. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable. It was altogether a great experience.
As long as you're prepared for rain and shorter days, you should be able to accomplish all of your plans. A lot of bed and breakfasts will be closed for the season, so you may have to rely on hotels, especially as you venture farther north. I've been over in November, but closer to the end of the month. The nights do close in earlier, as you get closer to the winter solstice, but you'll find that people are more friendly in the off season than they are in peak season.
Edinburgh to Kilmartin is at least a four to five hour drive, then Kilmartin to Mallaig is about four hours via Oban and Fort William. Since you're going through Oban anyway, you could take a day to visit Mull. The ferries won't be as frequent in late October, so you'll need to pay closer attention to the ferry schedules. The A830 from Fort William to Mallaig should be particularly attractive at that time of year. If you have to overnight in Mallaig, there are several good places to stay. Also, please note that Duart Castle closes for the season on October 18th., which is outwith your time frame.
If you do decide to visit Mull anyway, you could save yourself a bit of driving by going from Oban to Craignure, then Tobermory to Kilchoan by ferry. You can then travel through Ardnamurchan and Moidart, joining the A830 at Lochailort, which is 2/3 of the way to Mallaig. The Tobermory to Kilchoan ferry has more limited hours in October/November, and doesn't operate at all on Sunday.
Taking the Skye bridge from Kyle, then following the NC500 to Thurso, starting at Strathcarron, would be quite an adventure at that time of the year. You'll need to pay close attention to weather forecasts, as you could possibly encounter snow on the west coast. If things look dicey, there's no shame in heading inland, then taking the A9 from Inverness or Dingwall up to Thurso.
This is all doable, even at that time of year. This past winter was particularly rough in Scotland, especially February through April. As the summer has been particularly hot this year, the warmer weather may continue in to the autumn. You may find yourselves with sunny, pleasant days even in to November. Get yourselves a good map (AA map available at Tesco filling stations for 1 pound 99) and a compass, and with a navigator, you should have no problems getting about. Also, if you have to make a choice between Stirling and Glamis castles, go with Stirling.
Best of luck formulating your plans. Do you have room for me in your suitcase?
p.s.: If you haven't already done so, get a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Scotland. It contains a lot of useful information not included in the RS guide.
Thanks to you both! Lots to think about here. I’m not too worried about the weather as it’s probably pretty similar to western Washington and I live in a very rural area. I was hoping to mostly do Airbnb as funds will be tight.
Hi again, karen02242003,
Most airbnbs will want a multiple night stay, which should be okay for your time on Orkney. Some of the B&Bs on Skye, especially around Viewfield Road in Portree, should be open at that time of year, as Skye is becoming a 12 month destination.
When you're closer to the larger cities (Inverness, Stirling, Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc.), check out the Premier Inns and Travelodge chains. They should have excellent rates for that time of year, and would be well below what you'd pay at an airbnb. Especially if you can plan far enough ahead to go with their non-refundable "Saver" rate. You can economize during your travels by buying three pound meal deals at many supermarkets. That includes a very good sandwich, drink, and dessert or crisps for around three pounds. We had those for lunch just about every day, and sometimes for dinner as well. My wife and I just returned from 30 days in Scotland, and we only once spent more than 20 pounds in a day on meals. We ate very well, too. Lots of fresh fruit, cheese, and instant porridge. So you can economize, and still have a wonderful time!
Best wishes once again!
I'll second Mike's advice about the affordable meals at supermarket cafeterias. The Morrisons supermarket near the train station in Ft. William was our first experience with this, and it was really nice quality food at a great price!
The last time I was in Scotland I was surprised by the high quality of food in the supermarket. I am kind of picky about food but we had some great meals from the ready to eat section. I am mainly worried that I will be doing too much driving and won’t be able to relax and enjoy the trip.
Hi again, karen02242003,
The quality of food in Scottish supermarkets (Tesco, ASDA, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Co-op, etc.) has now surpassed the quality of food in just about every U.S. supermarket chain, with the possible exception of Wegman's. I have to bring a paper towel when I go to Tesco, as I end up salivating so much looking at the desserts in the refrigerated section. And don't even get me started on the quality of the fresh fruits in the produce section. Rasps (Angus grown) to die for!
Can your daughter help with the driving? It would help if you had a second driver, and if she's apprehensive about driving on the left, you could hire a car with automatic transmission to avoid having to shift gears. I just came back from driving over 2,100 miles in Scotland, and it is tiring after more than five or six hours on the road on some days. However, the anticipation of getting to that next town, and the chance of seeing something stunningly beautiful, makes all that driving worthwhile.
The coast road from Skye to Scrabster is full of "Holy s__t!" moments. You'll see some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. Check out the NC500 website, and see if you don't agree.
Best wishes for your upcoming holiday!
Thanks again for the encouragement! Unfortunately I will be the only driver. I may look into flying to the Orkneys as the ferry is quite pricy. And that may buy us some time as well. Not sure yet...but whatever we do, it’s going to be great. We loved Scotland the last time we were there and can’t wait to go back!
On a trip to Scotland a few years ago we wound up renting 3 separate cars on separate legs of the trip, including in Orkney. Leaving Orkney, we used a cheap, easy flybe airline flight from Kirkwall to Inverness, then picked up another car and toured Skye and the Scottish mainland from there. The security check people at the Kirkwall airport are the nicest we've ever encountered at any airport, by the way. Not sure if it would ultimately save you time or money, or keep you from seeing something you'd have seen along the road, but flying is certainly an option.
Do bear in mind that up here in the wilds of Skye and elsewhere we have a lot of single track roads. You may already have encountered these if you drove here before, but just in case..... These are exactly what it says on the tin! Single track i.e. one small strip of road shared by traffic travelling in both directions. There are frequent passing places which you use to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. You keep left regardless of which side the passing place is on, stopping opposite the passing place if it is on the other side, and the traffic coming the other way then goes into the passing place while you continue on your way. The trick is not to get in to a convoy of more than two cars as otherwise there is not enough room for everyone to pass.
You are certainly planning a lot of driving, especially as you are the only driver. There will be limited day light and risk of deer (there are lots of very large red deer here). I would personally fly to Orkney and get another car when there.
Hmmmm all good points. I have driven on Skye before and understand the challenge! I will look into flights to Inverness. I was really hoping to do the drive from Thurso or Gills Bay to Skye as I read that it’s sp but maybe I’m over ambitious. Do you think two days is long enough in the Orkneys? Or three?
We certainly could've used more time on Orkney, but 3 nights and 2 days allowed us to visit 2 towns, several ancient sights, and even head north to walk out to the Brough of Birsay, which you can cross at low tide -- just make sure you know when the tide is coming back in, so you don't get stranded!