Please sign in to post.

Trip Report: Scotland in 9 Days or We've never met a sticky toffee pudding we didn't like.

The cat woke me up asking for his breakfast. I lay in bed for a moment, staring up at the ceiling, trying to get my brain working. Then it hit me. Woo hoo! This was Travel Day! The all important first day of our Scottish vacation. I glanced over at the clock. . . . . Oh, no. It's so early . . . and so long before we even head to the airport. My excitement dwindled some. I might have even whined a bit (I should mention now I am not a terribly patient person.) Well, I was wide awake so I might as well start the day. The cat's voice was getting louder and I had a huge list to cross off before we even stepped foot out the door. . . . .

But I'm getting ahead of myself. A bit of backstory first, I think. My husband (in future reference, dh) and I have always had Scotland and Ireland on our bucket list. After doing a bit of research, though, we realized we could only really visit one country with the amount of vacation time we had. So we chose Scotland, and figured what we didn't get to see or do is what future visits are for! We traveled at the beginning of May (8th-18th) 2018, and considered this trip our 25th wedding anniversary gift to each other. While we didn't go wild, we did splurge in a few places (more on that later.) We left our two kids home to house sit and were glad to get the occasional text from them. They followed our journey on Google pix, as well, whenever our cell phone pictures would back up online.

Before we left on our trip, I scoured tons of web sites for trip reports about and photos of Scotland, anything we could use for our own trip. And I love to share the same now that we've returned. (If you look at my profile, I also have given it a shot at an online blog of sorts, where you can find many, many pictures from our Scottish adventure.)

But fair warning – I love to write, and am assuming some of you reading my report will be headed for Scotland for the first time, which is why I tried to include lots of details (not always to everyone's liking.) If it seems I concentrated on some of the “major” sites in Scotland, well, I did. They only became “major” sites because so many people want to see them and we were no different. Feel free, therefore, to skim over any sections that might not interest you or if you feel your eyes starting to glaze over. Otherwise, enjoy our journey!

Day 0/1 (Tuesday, May 8/Wednesday, May 9)

Fast forward to mid-afternoon of Travel Day, or Day Zero as I call it. Made it this far! Turns out patience is not a deadly disease after all! Having extra time actually turned out to be a good thing, as it took quite us awhile to decide what to wear to the airport.

Side note: For any who are interested in how we packed, I do have a separate packing list. Feel free to message me if you would like a copy. We don't pack terribly light, and with our choice of airline this time we didn't have to, since we were allowed one checked bag each for free. But we do pack sensibly. We got along fine with one 36L backpack and one smaller backpack each as our carry-on items, and only one small (20-inch) checked bag, since our trekking poles were prohibited as carry-on. And as long as we had to check a bag, we also threw in some other disposable items (a couple of Atkins protein shakes and bars, some extra old – and therefore disposable – underwear, and extra printed trip information that could be thrown away each night after we were done with it.) It was a bit heavy at the start of our trip (around 12 pounds) but by the mid-way point contained only the trekking poles and a few pieces of paper. It also made for a much easier trip home, when we stuffed it full of our dirty laundry and used our carry-ons for the important souvenirs.

Posted by
122 posts

Having said all that, we were trying to wear some heavier things (hiking shoes, etc) onto the plane, rather than packing more, but the temperature the day we left was set to hit a high of around 70F (20C) with bright sunshine. After some debate, we came to a compromise (leave off one of the extra shirt layers, stuff it into the luggage, and carry the raincoats. And crank up the air conditioning in the car.) And feeling just a slight pang of guilt (very small pang) for not bringing the kids along this time, we headed out the door.

Posted by
3261 posts

I'm looking forward to reading your report. And just in case your kids are like our daughter, who thinks her parents should feel guilty for leaving her behind(either at home or once when we were upgraded to first class(she was 18) and she complained about being left behind in coach-talk about entitled!), the three of us just got back from 2 1/2 weeks in Scotland, England, and New York, and she complained because In August the parents are going to Cape Cod without her!

Posted by
4725 posts

once when we were upgraded to first class and she complained about being left behind in coach-talk about entitled!

How old was she? We have never left our children in economy. If we're flying business or first then they do too. They're our responsibility and I don't think that anyone else, cabin crew or other passengers, should be placed in a position where they would feel some duty of care towards them. Yes it is expensive particularly as I refuse to fly long haul in economy but no-one said having kids was going to be cheap! Once they reach 16 then they can go at the back (with much consternation I suspect).

If it was an upgrade I suspect either my wife or I would stay with the kids whilst the other one took the upgrade.

Posted by
122 posts

Lol, cala! Actually, the kids were pretty good this time about not complaining too much, chiefly I think since it was our anniversary trip. And we've been pretty fortunate to be able to travel most of the time as a family, although I recall them being pretty miffed the time we went to Disney World without them. While I call them my "kids" (since they still are my children), they really are young adults now. My eldest just graduated from college and is living at home working to save up money, and the youngest is a sophomore in college. If we take them along on trips in the future, and had the chance to upgrade to business, we wouldn't hesitate to leave them in coach or coach plus! :)

Posted by
122 posts

our trip, cont'd:

We left a bit early for the airport, telling ourselves it was to avoid rush hour traffic (we were flying out of Philadelphia, the closest airport to our house, and had a 6:50 pm flight) but really we were just too excited to wait at home any longer. We were leaving on a Tuesday, because I had heard this was the best day to get a lower-cost flight, and also because it would give us nine days in Scotland, a day on each end to travel, and the weekend when we came back, to recover, before going back to work. I'm not sure we actually saved much money, but our timing worked well and we never hit any major delays.

Initially, we had booked seats in British Airways' World Traveler Plus section one level up from steerage, but about a month before we left BA enticed us with an upgrade to business class, with a “special limited time offer.” (you know, the one that was still available the day we left) We used a few frequent flier points and the cost wasn't too bad. One of those splurges I talked about earlier. While dh is used to business class, since he flies frequently for work, it was my first time. We were lucky enough to get seats in the upper “hump” of the plane directly behind the cockpit, which gave us a much quieter ride. Plus just finding our seats was very cool. I don't normally walk up a flight of stairs in the plane to get to my seat. And it was fun to look into the cockpit from five feet away and watch the pilot as she got us ready for takeoff.

The first flight was uneventful, and it was nice to feel a bit pampered. Dh has his routine down by now and drifted off to sleep as soon as he could put the seat down flat, having had a bite to eat before we boarded. It took me a bit longer, since I wanted to savor every moment of this new business class experience. I managed to hold off sleep long enough to have an appetizer and drink, but then I was out too. Hard to imagine wishing for a longer flight, but since it was only about six to six-and-a-half hours from takeoff to landing, it didn't leave much time for sleep. But I got a respectable five-ish hours at least, and dh got a bit more. Although it was a bit stuffy up where we were, the seats themselves were very nice, and I told my 6'3 son later that he would have been in heaven with how much room there was to stretch out. Space was not an issue.

We landed about twenty minutes early at Heathrow to bright sunshine (an omen for the days ahead?), but used up some time taxiing around before reaching our gate. We had just over two hours to connect with our flight to Edinburgh, but didn't have to worry (I worried anyway.) We were off the plane in five minutes and security wasn't too busy. When we reached the general gate area for our next flight, I was surprised to find we were so early they hadn't even posted what gate we would leave from yet. We staked our claim to a couple of seats in the crowded terminal area, and used the spare time to get some food and use the restrooms. With all the shops around us, I felt like I was back at the mall near our house.

Since our plane to Edinburgh (an A321) was departing from the tarmac, we were bused out. It was fun the first time we ever did it. Now, not so much. Boarding in group 3, we managed to get a seat on the first bus to the plane. And boy, they crammed us on. It was standing room only by the time we left the terminal. Being on the first bus, though, gave us more time to find our seat, stow our luggage, etc. without a crowd behind us. We were able to fit our luggage in the bins no problem, and the BA folks didn't look twice at our bags. However, they were tagging each personal item with a yellow tag - their way of controlling what would fit under the seat - and we did have to remind them to give us ones for our small backpacks. I didn't see anyone forced to gate check, but BA had asked earlier for volunteers to check a bag free of charge, as it was a full flight.

Posted by
122 posts

Just over an hour to Edinburgh and even though we made it up to 32k feet, it felt like we were descending almost right after we took off. Again, we landed on time, and dragged our weary bodies into the terminal. We hit up an ATM (a LINK one) near our gate and withdrew £100, before going through passport control and over to baggage claim. Our luggage was coming out as we walked up, and literally a few minutes later we were out of the terminal and into a taxi (Another splurge – taxi vs bus.) We had planned on £25 for the taxi to our hotel on Grassmarket, but traffic was light and on arrival the meter read £18. We told him to round it up to £20. As dh was paying, I just had to take a quick shot of our cab, one of those iconic black UK ones that look so different from the ones we are used to seeing in the US.

Although we hoped our hotel (Apex City of Edinburgh) would have a room ready for us, we weren't surprised when they didn't, since it wasn't yet one o'clock. They offered to store our luggage, and after we did some re-arranging to make our small backpacks lighter to carry, we headed out for lunch. By now, we were starving.

As we left the hotel and started making our way through the streets of the Grassmarket - surrounded by the historic buildings of the Old Town and a few pubs, with the cobblestones underfoot, and with the Castle looming over us from its spot up on the nearby hill - it finally hit me that we were in Scotland. These were the views I had only seen up to now on Google. And while just a bit more commercialized than I had expected, it was fitting in nicely with my tourist notion of what the city should be like.

For lunch, we went to Auld Jock's Pie shop just down the road. I had seen the menu online and really wanted to try it. We ordered (savory) pies topped with crusty puff pastry. A bit messy to eat, but delicious! We also tried IrnBru for the first time. The drink comes in an orange can, but it's definitely not an orange taste – more like a mild cream soda - but very good. As we chatted with our server, we found out he grew up in Canada, and lived for awhile one state over from us. Very small world.

Posted by
122 posts

After lunch, we quickly popped into the nearby White Hart Inn to reserve a table for dinner. Said to be the oldest pub in Edinburgh, it didn't look old, but certainly had that traditional pub atmosphere to me, with a bar along one wall and mismatched chairs pulled up here and there to the few tables that filled the rest of the space. As we waited for a server to jot down our name, I saw someone holding a glass of an almost completely black liquid and was intrigued. I thought it might be some sort of beer and when I asked I found out it was Guinness, a type I had never tried before. I vowed then and there it would be part of my meal this evening. We were later glad we made reservations when we did. We found that at most places you needed to reserve for dinner, but if you did so a few hours ahead of when you wanted to eat, they usually had space available. We were hit or miss for making reservations this trip, since our schedule was a bit unsure at times, but we lucked out and always got a seat, usually after a bit of a wait.

Next, it was off to Greyfriar's Kirkyard, a great place to start our tour of Edinburgh, since the overcast, misty day suited the cemetery perfectly. The gray sky and weathered tombstones really contrasted with the green grass, and we got some wonderful shots. It was fascinating to wander through and read the inscriptions on some of the stones and to see just how old the graves are. Sad, too, to notice how young people were when they died back then. The grave markers themselves ranged from wildly and ornately carved ones down to others that were simply two initials and the year. We used Google to find where certain grave sites were (Thomas Riddell and McGonegall in particular) those being ones it was said JK Rowling used as inspiration in her books, and took a rubbing of the Riddell one for my daughter, a huge HP fan. We also found the memorial to Greyfriar's Bobby, the dog that supposedly sat by his master's grave site everyday, after his master passed away, until the day he himself died. It might have been the 19th century version of advertising, but I'm such a sucker for these stories!

When we had exhausted our interest in graves, we headed over to the National Museum of Scotland (free and how awesome is that?!), where we hoped to spend a few hours. We also took this opportunity to use their free restrooms. I had heard the view out over Edinburgh from the seventh floor roof was wonderful, so we grabbed a museum map, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't find the correct elevator (jet lag brain, I think).We finally asked a very friendly docent for help, and after winding through most of the first floor, she lead us to the correct place. It was slow, stopping on every floor, but beat hoofing it up that many flights. We ended up with a (mostly) 360 degree view out over the city and some great cityscape pictures. The museum has such a wonderful variety of exhibits, it was hard for us to pick and choose what to see next, so we just kind of wandered after that, taking in as much as we could. I made sure, though, that we got a quick peek at the display of Dolly, the first sheep to be successfully cloned from an adult cell. Dh, with his science background, was fascinated.

About ninety minutes into our museum visit, we really started to feel the jet lag, so we reluctantly called it a day for sightseeing, having barely scratched the surface, and headed back to our hotel. The staff had kindly brought up our bags and we spent awhile unpacking, admiring the view of the castle from our window, and trying to stay awake, before heading to supper.

Posted by
3261 posts

JC She was a Senior in High School- I totally agree with you about leaving a young child without supervision, but a child about to go to the big bad world of the State University, yes.

And are you aware that the FDA banned Irn Bru(or at least the Scottish version of it) from the USA because of the dye it contains?

We also enjoyed seeing Dolly and since your husband has a science background, have you been to the Eagle Pub in Cambridge where Watson and Crick often ate lunch and first announced that they had determined the structure of DNA?

Posted by
122 posts

We didn't know about the Eagle Pub, but have added it to our travel folder as a place to stop if we're ever in the area. Thanks for the tip.

As for IrnBru, I found that interesting, since I saw I can order it on Amazon. I went back online and found out it's a modified, US-acceptable version sold on Amazon. I might just have to get some now, to see if there is a difference in taste. Or I could just have dh bring a few cans back for me every time he goes to the U.K. for work. ;)

Posted by
4725 posts

The makers of Irn Bru upset many of their fans earlier this year when they changed the recipe and halved the amount of sugar (replacing it with artificial sweeteners). What you can buy now is a shadow of its former glory!

Posted by
4725 posts

JC She was a Senior in High School- I totally agree with you about leaving a young child without supervision, but a child about to go to the big bad world of the State University, yes.

In that case then yes, she's old enough to sulk on her own in economy.

Posted by
69 posts

fantastic post! we will be there next month. thanks for sharing.

Posted by
122 posts

You're very welcome! Glad you like it so far.

Here's the finish to our first day:

The place was rocking, and people were two deep at the bar. Although some criticize pub food, we love it. Much of our vacation was spent eating in places like this and we certainly had our favorite foods. If it was offered on the menu, we usually started with pate - chicken or otherwise (this night was no different except that it was wild boar pate (yum!) which came with bread that was crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.) We like to try “native” foods when we travel, so I decided to be adventurous right away, and ordered the haggis, neeps (mashed turnips), and tatties (mashed potatoes) dish. It came with a rich sauce. Really delicious, and we enjoyed haggis more than once this trip. And there were so many ways to have haggis - this time dh's burger was topped with it, which he too enjoyed. And I got my taste of Guinness, that smooth, rich, dark beer that I had seen earlier in the day, while dh rounded out his meal with an IPA. For dessert, our favorite . . sticky toffee pudding. I make it at home but it never tastes as good.

As we ate, a couple from Stuttgart were seated next to us, and their polite inquiry as to how the haggis tasted turned into us having an almost two-hour long conversation with them about everything under the sun. We love to talk with Europeans while on vacation, and often get quite a different world view, especially in regards to politics (fascinating to see how other countries view our system compared to theirs!) We finally realized we had better ask for the check or we would be there all night. (The relaxed European style of not rushing diners out of a restaurant is always so refreshing.) We saw our new friends twice more around Edinburgh, before leaving the city.

Since it was still very light out, even though it was past 8:30 pm, we decided to take a quick trek up to the Castle to have a look around. We found a path leading up from Grassmarket, but were lulled into thinking it would be an easy stroll, a gentle uphill walk. The road quickly turned into many stairs – at least eight or ten long sets - and reality set in. This would be a climb. Well, we did need to work off supper.

We reached the Royal Mile with only a few (three? four?) pauses to catch our breath. This time of the evening, fewer people were around, great for photos. The Castle was even more spectacular close up, and we spent some time just walking near the perimeter of the massive building. We then meandered along the Mile, down as far as St. Giles Cathedral. Most of the shops were closed, so it was easier to focus on smaller details we might have missed during the day. The mist had stopped . . . misting . . . and it wasn't very chilly. We slowly walked back up to the Castle to see it all lit up, then called it a night.

Our walk back to the hotel was mercifully mostly downhill, and as we got back to our hotel room, jet lag set in with a vengeance. It was all we could do to brush our teeth, before our heads hit the pillows and we were out cold. At least, we remembered to set the alarm for morning.

Posted by
4725 posts

Loving your trip report! I can't believe you've never encountered Guinness before, particularly as you hail from the East Coast.

I absolutely love haggis as well, particularly as part of a full Scottish breakfast. I also had a haggis burger last time I was in Edinburgh, washed down with fizzy Vimto, felt like a complete local!

Edinburgh is a fantastic city and your enthusiasm is infectious........carry on!

Posted by
2057 posts

Taking notes as I will be in Edinburgh (and other parts of Scotland, too) next September. Thank you for taking the time to post this fun-to-read and very informative trip report. I'm enjoying every word!

Posted by
122 posts

Thanks, JC. Yeah, dh and I are much more wine drinkers, although he does like his IPAs. I had heard of Guinness, but didn't know anything about it, including the fact that it was so dark. I'm hooked now, but I need to find just the right place that serves it on tap. Haven't found that yet, and getting it from the bottle is just not as good. Going to try and find haggis somewhere around here, too, which I suspect will be a lot harder!

Glad you're enjoying the report, andi! I can go on a bit sometimes! But if it can help other people, it's worth it. Hope you find the rest useful for your trip as well. Remembering all we did, and after two months have gone by, now that's the challenge! Good thing I kept a small journal every day.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 2 (Thursday, May 10)

While we don't normally like to set an alarm while on vacation, we only had so much time in Edinburgh, and wanted to make the most of it. Even so, when it went off this morning, I asked dh to add another half hour. Overcoming jet lag is hard for me!

Our hotel did not have free breakfast, which believe it or not was nice in a way, since it gave us a reason to see what the neighborhood had to offer. Feeling rather lazy, though, I'm afraid we didn't get too far, as we found Biddy Mulligan's - a bar attached to a hotel - almost directly across the street from us. It looked decent from the outside, opened early (by now it was 8:15 am), and yipee! offered a “full Irish.”

Side note: We love “full” breakfasts overseas! While not normally big breakfast eaters, we first tried a full English last year, in Weymouth, and loved it, so were happy to try other versions. (I have a few pictures of our various full Scottish in my online blog) We also wanted to try black pudding and went for it right away - we were (nervous but) curious. We both liked it, and from then on had fun comparing the taste and texture every time we had it again. I'm not sure if it was homemade, or just a commercial version, but it was tasty. Those mornings we weren't so hungry we either went for a bowl of porridge (the ones with whisky added were the best!) or a cold buffet - some pastry items, fresh fruit, yogurt and such. And thankfully coffee now seems to be just as accepted as tea as a beverage of choice, although being used to half-and-half with my brew, I had to ask for some cream to add in. Otherwise, we got milk in a pitcher, usually equivalent to our skim milk. Dh was fine with that. Perhaps the fact that we partook in so many full Scottish accounted for the few extra pounds we each carted home. (And it wasn't part of our luggage!)

Goal number one today was exploring Edinburgh Castle. We had bought Explorer Passes online ahead of time, so we weren't too worried about getting there early, but were rather horrified to come up to the esplanade about five minutes before opening only to find huge lines (well over 100 people). There were no signs stating which line to use, so dh went up and asked a castle worker where to go. But no worries. Our line was for pre-purchased tix and EP, and boy was it efficient! The workers had little portable hand scanners, and it was less than five minutes after opening that we were through the entrance.

More uphill walking (groan), but we were on a mission now. It was a minor bucket list item of mine to see the crown jewels, but I knew the room they are kept in is tiny and was afraid we would be too squished to really see much. So we headed there straightaway, only glancing at the exhibits leading in but planning to come back later in the day to explore more thoroughly (we did.) Thus, when we reached the crown jewels we had almost ten wonderful uninterrupted minutes - with just them, the two docents in the room, and only one other couple - before the rest of the hordes made their way in. Talk about fantastic! What a beautiful sight, and my fingers were itching to take pictures, but none were allowed. We just soaked up the beauty and enjoyed talking with the docents about the history behind them. And while we hadn't thought about it prior to this, we heard how they would eventually leave their home in the Castle and travel to London, quite possibly in just the next few years, when the monarchy is passed to Prince Charles. While no one can predict when this might happen, we realized it would certainly be in our lifetime. Imagine the security required to transport something as valuable as these!

Posted by
122 posts

After getting our fill of all that glitter, we were ready for the Castle itself. For the rest of the morning we just meandered, seeing only small crowds. We marveled at all those imposing medieval buildings and had fun exploring the many little nooks and crannies, and our cameras were getting quite a workout! Most areas were well signed and very informative. One of our favorites was the vividly painted Great Hall. The building itself dates from the early 16th century, but the interior was re-done several times, from the Victorian age onward. We like what they did with the place! (Dh spent a lot of his time trying to capture the larger areas in panorama with his cell phone.) One building we found very moving was the Scottish National War Memorial, which honors those Scots who died in both World Wars and conflicts since then. To maintain the respectful and somber atmosphere inside the building, visitors were asked not to take photos and to talk very softly if at all. The interior holds books listing the fallen from each of these conflicts.

We also stopped at the whisky store inside the castle, where free samples of the day's special were being offered. We ended buying a bottle (good marketing), and a few of the small sample sized whiskys for my dad. As we used up the toiletries from our 311 bags this trip, we made space for these samples, and didn't have to worry about checking them on the way home. We fit twelve sample bottles into two 311 bags easily.

Posted by
122 posts

As we left the Castle, we had to rethink our plans. Initially, we wanted to eat lunch at the Cannonball Restaurant just outside the front area, but were still too full from breakfast. So instead we opted to walk down to Princes Street Gardens, something I had hoped we could fit in while in Edinburgh, since it offers great views of the Castle from below. We found a path off to the left of the Castle esplanade. The day was on the cool side, but sunny, and the path was not terribly steep, but very green and inviting. And best of all, it was downhill, although we knew that meant going back uphill later in the day. After crossing a bridge over the railroad tracks coming from the Waverly train station, we headed left toward the Ross Fountain, but sadly found it completed boarded up and being worked on. We made our way slowly through the park and saw lots of people taking advantage of the nice weather to sit on park benches or lounge on the grass. At a small cafe in the middle of the park, we shared a Scottish egg (very good) and a yogurt bar (meh), washed down with more IrnBru, and knew what time it was when we heard the cannon go off at the Castle.

We eventually made our way back to the Royal Mile, this time a bit further down from the Castle. It was bustling by now, but we never felt overwhelmed, and even the few stores we went into (and there was certainly no lack of these) really weren't too busy. We had a good time exploring some of the closes, taking yet more pictures, and we even succumbed and bought a few souvenirs. And since I love European cathedrals, I knew we had to visit St. Giles Cathedral. It did not disappoint! The soaring interior was breathtaking, and the rich blue on part of the ceiling amazing. And the £2 cost for a sticker to be allowed to take pictures was well worth it. When we first walked in, we heard the huge organ being played, and found out it was in the process of being tuned. The music continued for most of our visit, the notes a nice accompaniment to the Cathedral itself.

Mid afternoon, we were enticed into the nearby Bella Italia restaurant by the really wonderful smells wafting out. The restaurant was very light and airy, not at all crowded, and our waitress was funny and most accommodating. When we asked to move tables to be closer to an outlet to charge our phones during the meal, she was glad to help. And while we aren't normally huge Italian food fans, we had no problem picking two dishes from the menu. Dh got the Marco Polo dish and I ended up with the chicken pollo a la crema. Delicious! We ended the meal splitting a strawberry gelato and a cappuccino.

Bolstered by the food, we spent more time exploring, finding a very cute mini garden just by taking a little stroll down one of the side streets, and then finding another church cemetery to explore, right off the Mile. We never reached Holyrood Castle like we thought we might, but we had a Cadies and Witchery tour scheduled for 7 pm, and wanted to get off our feet for a bit beforehand. So we retraced our steps back up the Mile and spent some time in the upstairs bar at Cannonball, near where we were to meet for our tour. I'm sure we might have had a problem getting a dinner reservation at this point, but we only wanted drinks. The bar was very quiet, with nice couches for lounging. The entire time we were there, we saw only two couples and what looked like the male part of a wedding party come in for a drink.

Posted by
122 posts

We had mixed feelings about the tour we took next. While our guide (character name “Alexander Clapperton”) was quite funny, the 1 ½ hour long tour took us through many of the places we had explored on our own during the day, and dragged a bit, though more because of the material than the presentation. Since there was a group of middle school age kids along, our guide also had to be careful how risque his character got, so some of the fun was lost there as well. The tour wasn't too costly, though, so we were satisfied. It ended near St. Giles, and we sat outside the church for a bit, before heading to Angels with Bagpipes for our 8:45 pm reservation.

Unfortunately, the food while well presented wasn't quite to our liking. During the meal, though, we had a chance to talk to the couple seated next to us (the tables were fairly close together) and they, too, were renting a car and heading out of town the next day like we were. We were among the last few people to leave the restaurant.

We walked back to our hotel by way of Victoria St., enjoying the last of the setting sun. We made a quick stop at the hotel's front desk to make change for our upcoming bus ride the next day, then turned in for the night. But not before making sure to plug in all of our various batteries overnight to charge yet again.

Posted by
2057 posts

I'm having so much fun traveling with you; thanks again for taking me along.😉 My notebook (for my own trip) is filling up with your recommendations and observations.

Posted by
3261 posts

I wish some of the churches that forbid photography would adopt St. Giles' fee. It's expensive to keep up those old churches and that's a really appropriate way to separate tourists from our money. I was really disappointed not to be able to take photos at Durham cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and the books they sell don't do an adequate job of photos.

Posted by
4725 posts

we shared a Scottish egg

More pedantry I know but it's called a Scotch egg, never a Scottish egg. For those who don't know it's a hard (or soft) boiled egg encased in sausage meat, breadcrumbed and then deep fried. Often eaten cold as part of a picnic but can also be served warm.

Posted by
122 posts

Andi, that's exactly what we did before our trip! Took notes on everything!

Cala, I agree. When we were in London last year, we didn't pay to take the tour of Westminster partly because of that: they want you to pay all that money then don't even let you take pictures. We got so much more out of it by going to an evensong service there, then buying a postcard or two to remember it by. At least not all cathedrals are like that, though. My son and I loved it when we toured St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, in that we paid (a small) admission and got to take all the pictures we wanted. St. Giles has the right idea.

LA, thanks for following along!

JC: "Scotch" egg. Got it. Either way - very tasty!

Posted by
122 posts

Day 3 (Friday, May 11)

Today was the day we were picking up our rental car, but not until mid-morning, so we had time for another relaxing breakfast at Biddy Mulligans before heading out. We were renting our car from a dealership in nearby Sighthill and planned to use the bus to get there rather than a taxi. Not only was it less expensive, but it gave us a chance to immerse ourselves just a little bit more in the local scene. The bus stop was conveniently located right outside our hotel. Since we weren't sure how accurate the timetables were we checked out just a bit early and were waiting when the bus came by. It actually came a few minutes later than what was posted but got us to the dealership in plenty of time.

Our bus ride was one of the few times I remember actually needing to use cash this trip. We paid £1.70 each and it is exact change only, no exceptions. As we boarded, I asked the driver if he could let us know just before we got to our stop and he was glad to. We had seen the area around the dealership on Google street view, but didn't want to miss it. And it was fascinating to see just how overwhelmingly polite people were. No matter the mood they seemed to be in while on the bus (happy, grumpy, etc.) EVERYONE made it a point to say “thank you” to the driver when they got off.

The Arnold Clark dealership was just a short walk from the bus stop, and we found signs directing us to the Fiat area for our rental. We had requested an automatic Toyota Yaris, since that's what we drive at home, automatic being one of the key words here. Dh has driven stick shift in the UK before, but wasn't really a fan. And we knew there were no guarantees as to what we would end up with, but we were happy with that size category. Therefore, we were really surprised when we were given an automatic Peugeot 3008 SUV. Quite a bit bigger than we were expecting, but fortunately not huge. And with just 10K miles on it, it still felt brand new. We decided we could live with it and were very happy later that we did. This thing was loaded! Throughout the next week, dh loved playing with all the electronic features, claiming the car was probably smarter than he was. (He made some such comment upon returning the car, and the rental employee asked him how we liked the three air freshener settings. We didn't even know there was one, let alone three!!) It's too bad the brand isn't sold in the US.

The built-in sat-nav (gps) was way better than we had hoped, too. We will never drive overseas again without one. This one accepted postal codes to locate places, something we didn't think about until we realized we could Google a site and the postal code would show up as part of the information. With one minor exception, there were postal codes for every place we went and it always took us right to the site. We had downloaded screenshots of Google maps onto our iPad ahead of time, to use as backup, but within a few hours abandoned those in favor of the sat-nav. It was a great help at roundabouts as well, both orally and visually directing us just where to go.

While we are not used to a diesel car, it was almost impossible to use the wrong gas when filling up, since the nozzles were different sizes. It also gave us tremendous gas mileage, which worked out well since we ended up driving 900+ miles over the course of the week, and gas was averaging £1.27/liter (about $6.75/gallon at then current exchange rates.) After closely inspecting the car for damage (only a few minor scratches, one of which the employee herself pointed out), dh took ten minutes or so to become familiar with the car and re-acquaint himself with driving on the left, and we were on our way.

Posted by
122 posts

Our final destination today was Pitlochry, but we planned to spend most of the day touring the university town of St. Andrews. From the dealership, we quickly got onto M8, then M9, to M90 and over the new and modern Queensferry Bridge. Traffic was fairly light and the roadways were nice and wide. It was fun to be back in the land of left side driving. (Especially when dh was the one currently doing the driving!) Except for a view of the very cool looking old Forth Bridge near South Queensferry, the scenery was typical motorway (highway). Soon after connecting with A91 toward St. Andrews, though, it became much more picturesque. And a bit trickier. We went through small towns where the cars were parked partially out into the road, and the roads narrowed quite a bit. We tried to keep in mind proper etiquette in going around these cars, and give way where we should, but not everyone was as polite. Traffic was very much stop and start.

Because I had read that parking in St. Andrews can sometimes be in short supply, we made sure to have a few possible choices in mind as we entered town. Amazingly enough, we found a spot right away in the first (free) lot we tried, although it took a bit of maneuvering to get our SUV in. We shut off the engine and headed for a nearby bar/hotel, Greyfriars, near the entrance to the lot, as it was now past regular lunch time and we were hungry. The menu looked good and the food lived up to that.

With lunch taken care of, we headed out for the main events of the day - first a tour of the St. Andrews Cathedral ruins, then a visit to the nearby Castle ruins (both part of our Explorer Pass). It was about 52 degrees (about 11C), but as we got closer to both ruins, located near the water as they were, the wind off the water made it feel much cooler. Our raincoats, and the layers underneath, did a great job keeping us warm. It had been trying to rain the whole morning, and the sky was gray, much like it had been two days ago in Edinburgh, but again, this weather made for some wonderful moody pictures of both sets of ruins.

As we wandered the Cathedral ruins first, we marveled at all the intricately carved detail that was evident in the heavy, thick stones still standing. Several of the beautiful arches that used to hold stain glass were still intact, and it was quite the sight to see them standing there, as if just waiting for the glass to be added back again. And once again, as in many of the old cemeteries we had already seen, the gravestones that were part of the Cathedral grounds gave fascinating insight into 17th and 18th century life here. Some were intricately carved, others very simple, and the stories they told provided for very interesting reading. We spent a lot of our time here.

Next, we walked over to the Castle ruins, just a short five minute walk away. While not as majestic looking as the Cathedral, the ruins of the Castle, (which was first completed about 1400, reduced to ruins in 1547, and then rebuilt much more grandly than it had been) nonetheless offered plenty to hold our interest. Unfortunately, the underground mine section was closed when we were there, but we were able to peer into the dimly lit bottle dungeon and had no problem imagining just how bad it must have been for those who were dropped down 22 feet into it and simply forgotten. There were plenty of places to climb up onto the ruins and get some nice landscape shots, but it was a bit harder here to visualize how it might have looked in its glory years.

The town of St. Andrews was very walk-able, and we did a bit of souvenir shopping as well, as my brother-in-law is a big golf nut. We also took a quick look at the nearby famous golf course, but decided not to wander around much there, being the non-golfers that we are.

Posted by
122 posts

During our visit we saw relatively few tourists, which made the one large group we encountered as we walked back to our car really stand out. They were blocking the sidewalk ahead of us, and as we came up to them we noticed most were staring intently across the street and pointing their cameras that way. Now, I really try to be patient when someone is using a camera, but after a few minutes it became ridiculous. They were very focused! We couldn't understand what the attraction was until we finally started to push our way through the crowd and I heard “Will and Kate.” We figured the two must have eaten at the small restaurant there while attending university and that's what was holding everyone's attention. I try not to judge, but I'm afraid the building everyone was looking at just wasn't that photogenic!

We had spent so much time at both ruins that it was now late afternoon, and we worried about rush-hour traffic around Perth, so we reluctantly opted not to visit nearby Falkland as we had hoped. We weren't sure how bad traffic might be, and we needed to check into our b&b before 8 pm, so we headed out straightaway.

We plugged our Pitlochry b&b into the gps, and ended up being directed a different way back to M90. We went back out A91, connected to A92 through Dundee and onto A90, coming back to M90 around Perth. Apparently, it was the faster route at the time. A bit more roundabout, but we avoided the narrower roads we drove on coming into town, and the ride along the River Tay was scenic enough. We did hit traffic at the two major roundabouts in Perth, but being used to east coast US traffic, it didn't really bother us. We were only delayed for about twenty minutes total, and surprisingly, we reached our b&b (the Wellwood Guest House) just after 6:45 pm.

We thought it a bit unusual when, upon checking in, we first were escorted into the nearby lounge and asked to fill out a breakfast form for the next morning, then were taken up to our room. I understand the need to plan ahead, but we could have done it after we had unpacked. I had reserved Room #4 online, based on the pictures provided, but we were given Room #6, because our host said it was “bigger.” We thought the new room adequate, so didn't complain, but were rather annoyed that the decision had been made for us. The room was nicely decorated, though, and the en-suite bathroom had a rain head shower and towel warmers. We also had wash clothes for all but one of our b&bs, including this one. I was a bit surprised, since I knew this wasn't very common in Europe.

We brought in our luggage then walked down into town, a bit nervous since we had not made dinner reservations. We lucked out at the first place we tried, the Auld Smiddy Inn. After viewing their online menu at home, I thought we would enjoy it and we did. Even though we lacked reservations, the staff were gracious and quickly found us a small table for two near the bar. While the inside was a bit more modern than the quite the quaint old country inn I had been imagining, the service and the food were fine.

We both began with the pate that we so love, then dh had the chicken stroganoff - one of the specials that night. He was surprised by the addition of curry type spices, but said it was delicious. I went with the old standard of fish and chips, and found it refreshing that the peas that came with the dish were not mushy this time. I like mine on the firm side. The restaurant was fairly busy, and we had to wait a while to get our desserts (more sticky toffee pudding), but we had nowhere else to go and used the time to wind down from traveling.

We had hoped to do a bit of souvenir shopping here, but it seemed the entire town rolled up the sidewalks early, with most shops closing at 5 pm. And unfortunately, we would be on the road before they opened again in the morning. So we did a bit of tv channel hopping back at our hotel, and called it an early night.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 4 (Saturday, May 12)

We were able to linger a bit more over breakfast again this morning and enjoyed the view of the garden from our table in the dining area. It was still early in the year for most flowers, apparently, but I could imagine how colorful the landscape would look in a few weeks, when the large rhododendron bushes began to bloom. We left Pitlochry to bright sunshine and a forecast for much the same all day. It was a bit cool, about 46F (8C), but warming quickly. Our b&b for the next two nights was about two plus hours away, in Daviot, just outside of Inverness, but we had a lot we wanted to see on the way.

Our first planned stop was the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. I am a big Outlander fan, having read all of the books in the series long before it made it to television, and while we were not able to visit a lot of the sites related to the series, I was determined we would try to at least visit a few. The museum was high on the list, since we love to visit re-created historical sites. The fact that it was tied to my favorite book series was just icing on the cake.

It was a relaxing drive to Newtonmore, although far from short. While only about 41 miles from the museum, we were now starting to get into some pretty awesome scenery, skirting around the edge of the Cairgorms National Park as we drove up A9. The lower hills started transitioning into ever larger mountains, and many still had patches of snow on them, something I had hoped for but wasn't sure of seeing. After all, it was May already. I began asking dh to stop at almost every parking spot along the way for pictures. He really started sighing (quietly) when we stopped at what seemed like the tenth one in less than half an hour, but did it anyway. My hero!

Eventually, we turned off on B9150 toward Newtonmore, reaching the museum only half an hour after it opened. Admission and parking are free, but they welcome donations, something we were happy to do. We headed straight for the recreated 1700's village, about a ten-minute walk down a gently rolling path from the front entrance, and through a shady, wonderful smelling pine forest.

As we came up the last hill, we saw the village spread out over about an acre of land. It included a few barn buildings and several thatched roof cottages, plus a small pond in the middle, with a view on one side of the beautiful mountains in the distance. The village was used to film part of the Outlander tv show (season 1, episode 5) and while I can imagine the docents are getting a bit tired of being asked about the show so much, the one we talked to was more than willing to point out just where each scene was filmed, as she was on site at the time. Some of the buildings have been recreated, others moved to the site from elsewhere. It was a very idyllic setting, until you actually go inside the cottages and see how dark, dusty and smoky (from lit peat fires in some of the hearths) the interiors are. I imagine the inhabitants took every opportunity to be outside when they could. The structures themselves are amazing, built without modern day power tools. We spent over an hour in this section alone.

Before visiting the rest of the site, we grabbed a quick bite at the on-site cafe. Mostly sandwiches, but I had a nice bowl of cream of broccoli soup. While we didn't find the rest of the site quite as interesting, they have a nice collection of buildings from around the Highlands, some which were not open when we were there. We loved the schoolhouse and how when new, it was ordered from a catalog as a metal kit, and simply put together on its original site. It's furnished how it would have looked in 1937, complete with desks, books and a school bell.

Posted by
2057 posts

Sticky toffee pudding is going to be one of the highlights of my trip, too. Love the stuff. I am particularly enjoying all your details and you have given me several new ideas of interesting places to see and explore as well as pubs to try. I will also make it a point to try the pate (and haggis, too.). Thanks for all the ideas!

Posted by
122 posts

To be fair, we didn't have sticky toffee pudding every night. I mean, sometimes it just wasn't on the menu. . . . . :)

But it was nice to find pate in so many restaurants throughout Scotland. Its much harder to find and more expensive here around us. I wonder if that's because of the outcry not too long ago about how it's made (at least with goose liver pate, and I'm sure with chicken pate as well.) So we got our fill while we could!

More installments coming up!

Posted by
122 posts

As we left the museum, I took a moment to ask the woman at the front gate if she knew of any Highland cows (“hairy coos”) in the area. While she didn't mention road numbers specifically, she mentioned turning off near train tracks as we entered the nearby town of Kingussie, which turned out to be B970. Just a mile or two outside of town, we came to a pasture with a few hairy coos, but they were farther away from the side of the road, and not inclined to pose. We decided to stay on this road a bit more, relying on our gps to eventually get us back to A9.

Doing this gave us the best unexpected surprise of the whole trip. Not more than a mile or two further down the road, we came across a huge stone ruin set up on a hill overlooking the entire countryside – the ruins of Ruthven Barracks. No entrance fee, no large parking area, no fanfare. Just a few signs describing the site, and lots of solitude. Only one other couple toured the site in the time we spent there.

By mid-afternoon, we had re-connected with A9, near Kincraig. The roundabout route took us a bit longer than anticipated, since we hadn't realized B970 was almost a single-track road, the first we encountered on our trip. (Ok, maybe track-and-a-half!) While offering sleepy, pastoral views of the surrounding countryside, and not terribly busy, B970 was also not very straight, either, and dh ended up going slower than expected.

Our next b&b, the Daviot Lodge just south of Inverness, had requested we call ahead of time to let them know when we would be arriving, so as to have someone there to greet us. We had called before leaving the States, with an anticipated arrival time of 3 pm. Our side trip through the countryside delayed us about half an hour, though, and it was definitely good to have the b&b phone number easily accessible.

I had known ahead of time our b&b was located out in the country and away from the hustle and bustle of Inverness itself, since many reviews I read suggested the need for a car to get there. But driving up, we were surprised to see just how rural it was, surrounded by fields and pastures, even though we were only a scant fifteen minutes from the city center. We were greeted at the door, given a choice of one of two rooms for our two-night stay, and instructed how to fill out the form for breakfast the next morning. Our room on the second floor was large and very nicely decorated, and the en suite bathroom again had a rain head shower. We were surprised to find that our bed actually had a top sheet as well as the standard duvet, the only b&b we stayed at that had one. As we looked out the two windows over the bed, we could see cows in the pasture nearby.

Posted by
4725 posts

Its much harder to find and more expensive here around us. I wonder if that's because of the outcry not too long ago about how it's made (at least with goose liver pate, and I'm sure with chicken pate as well.)

It's only foie gras that attracts the outcry. Chicken pate is made from 'normal' chicken livers. Foie gras is the liver itself which can be served in a multitude of ways including being made into pate.

Posted by
122 posts

True, it wasn't actually listed as pate de foie gras. I just assumed it was the same. Glad to hear it. Now the activists won't have to be angry at us for eating so much of it! :)

Posted by
122 posts

After unloading the car, we immediately headed back out. We wanted to visit Culloden Battlefield, and knew the visitor's center closed at 6 pm, so we headed there first. Parking was £2, and while you would normally get your parking pass from one of the automatic machines, we didn't have enough change, so dh paid inside the center. I believe you can just walk around the battlefield without cost, but we had heard the displays inside the center were worth the price of admission (£11/pp, not part of Explorer Pass) and had to agree. It was fascinating to learn about the battle and the events leading up to it, from both the English and Jacobite points of view. I had known some of the history already, having read the Outlander series, but the displays gave much more detail. In addition, the center showed a five minute film, in 360-degree format, that immerses you in the middle of the (re-created) battle. Just a bit unnerving to say the least.

But the real moving experience came from walking through the moor itself, especially after realizing that it is, in essence, a huge graveyard. Stones etched with the names of the Jacobite clans that fought and died here are scattered throughout, where it is believed each clan fell, as well as some for the English, too. At the base of some of the clan markers lay flowers wrapped in bits of tartan, many of the flowers fresh.

Red and blue flags mark where each side started, and the distance between them, while not huge by today's standards, is amazing when you realize the Highlanders were running full tilt through this moor in early spring. The battlefield has been restored to be as close as possible to what historians believe it was like on that fateful day, and it was quite rough looking. As it was later in the day when we arrived, not many people were around, and the battlefield was very quiet, except for the baaing of a few nearby sheep.

Next, we drove a few minutes down the road to Clava Cairns. This site consists of three Bronze Age cairns (rock tombs) and some standing stones. Again, as we had arrived here rather late in the day, it was nearly deserted, and very peaceful. The lower, slanting rays of the late afternoon sun really lit up the entire site. Initially, we had planned this visit because of the standing stones. Outlander fan (geek?) that I am, I had dh take two pictures – one of me touching the stones and one of just the stones. I told him I would work some Photoshop magic when we got home, so it would appear that I am disappearing in the shots. He just humored me. In the long run, I think we both found the cairns themselves and the history behind them even more fascinating than the stones. (Did I mention that I am also an armchair archaeologist?)

We chose the Culloden Moor Inn for supper tonight more for convenience of location than anything else, although we had taken a look at the online menu before leaving home and found it appealing. When we first drove by it, on our way to Clava Cairns, I almost missed it since it didn't appear very inviting from the outside. We decided to try it anyway. The expansive interior reminded me of what we would call a family-style restaurant; big tables, lots of open space and a noise volume to match. We arrived just before 7 pm, and knew by how fast the servers were scurrying about, that we might be in trouble having not made reservations. But the friendly hostess assured us that she could get us in if we could wait a bit. We were seated by 7:30 pm.

While service was understandably slow, since the place was pretty slammed, the food was good and certainly plentiful. We shared a haggis appetizer (3 haggis balls with a mini side of salad and a very nice herb dip), then dh went for the steak while I tried their steak and ale pie, with puff pastry. The side of veggies that came with it were a bit underdone, but the coleslaw was awesome! They didn't have the Guinness I had hoped for, but had another similar dark beer on tap.

Posted by
122 posts

When we got back to our b&b, we found our bed had been turned down and some tea light candles lit, all very romantic. The room also boasted a carafe of sherry. We didn't indulge tonight, being rather full from supper still, but enjoyed some the following evening. We were lulled to sleep by the gentle sounds of the cows outside our window.

Posted by
2057 posts

OK, I just can't resist-did Jamie show up when you touched the stones?!?!?! I, too, read all the books before it was even a gleam in pay tv's eye. Lovely host at your B&B; very thoughtful and considerate of their guests.

Posted by
122 posts

Oh, if only!!!!!! But believe it or not, I actually paused a brief moment before putting my hand on the stone. I can handle things like tent camping for a week or two no problem. Living in late 18th century Scotland, though? Hmmm, maybe not so much, no matter how cute my rescuer might be! :)

My mom actually got me into the book series in the first place and now she's reaping the benefits. Our cable contract recently expired and we felt we had to renew our Starz package so I could keep recording the episodes for her, since they don't have cable!

Posted by
122 posts

Day 5 (Sunday, May 13)

Today we were off to visit some castles – one a ruin and one still occupied (part-time). But first, another (mostly) full Scottish breakfast. Mostly full, since neither of us had quite developed a liking for the scones that were often offered. They reminded us a lot of pancakes from home and we felt like we needed syrup to pour on top of them. We just left them off our morning menu choices. (Since we returned home I have been told that they taste best fresh and hot off a griddle.)

After being entertained during breakfast by a variety of birds attacking the feeders just outside the dining room window, we got ready to head out. It was a cooler and overcast, drizzly morning, so we decided to wear our rain pants and take a change of clothes for if the weather should improve later.

Our route took us up through Inverness on A9, then back down A82 toward Urquhart Castle. Apparently, this was the quickest route. At this point, I was grateful for our gps, as we went through about six roundabouts before leaving the city. Inverness was pretty quiet on this early Sunday morning, and traffic was light. Although I had hoped we would at least be able to see the River Ness while going through town, we didn't go near it, instead driving through an area of mostly shops, gas stations and apartments.

The scenery improved as we left the outskirts of town. We began to catch sight of the water more often, and the beginnings of Loch Ness. And although bracketed on one side by the water and on the other by a rock wall, A82 was a fairly easy drive here; two-lanes, decently wide, with plenty of lay-bys. And these were certainly a necessity as we quite often picked up a string of faster drivers behind us and needed to pull over to let them pass. Just before we reached the Castle, we went through Drumnadrochit, a small little town seemingly consisting mostly of shops, hotels and two very touristy looking attractions dealing with the Loch Ness monster. (Apparently one is more scientific in its offerings than the other, but we didn't have time to visit either one to verify that.)

We arrived at Urquhart Castle around 9:30 am, just as it opened. The parking lot was nearly empty and there was no line to speak of, and we used our Explorer Passes once again. For the first 45 minutes or so, it drizzled fairly heavily, before finally tapering off, then stopping altogether. Thank goodness for rain coats! Even though the sun continued to hide, the fog lingered, breaking up slowly and making for a very picturesque view of the hills above the Loch.

For being in ruins, the castle stretches out over a fairly large area, from the oldest section – the one with the smallest, least intact ruins – to the “newest” (rebuilt in the mid-1500's but mostly in ruins today) that includes a tower section (Grant Tower) we could climb up into. This isn't for the faint of heart, though, as the steps are narrow and quite steep, and there isn't much room to pass those coming back down at the same time. There is also a path at the back of the Castle grounds, leading down to the Loch. While I didn't explore there, dh did. I told him to watch his back for any prehistoric critters that might be lurking in the depths.

We spent the bulk of the morning here and had the site largely to ourselves for much of that time. It was only around mid-day that the tour boats on the Loch started docking regularly and things got more crowded. Since we had seen everything we wanted to, we figured it was a good time to grab a bite at the small cafe, as one tour group headed out and another went to watch a video. Cullen skink, another must try for me, was on the menu today and dh and I ended up sharing a bowl. It was creamy and delicious and reminded me of New England clam chowder, although with haddock instead of clams. We supplemented the soup with a bagel each. And more IrnBru. Really started to develop a liking for that.

Posted by
122 posts

We left Urquhart around 12:30 pm just as the sun started to break through. At least it promised to be nice for the rest of the day. As we reached the car, we were approached by a couple of guys backpacking, who needed a lift to Fort William. Unfortunately, we were on our way to Cawdor Castle, but I thought I saw them catch a ride as we left the parking lot. It took us a little over an hour to reach Cawdor Castle, as a result of getting a bit turned around going back through Inverness (we weren't listening closely enough to the gps and missed our exit), but it easily rerouted us to A96 and on to Cawdor (via B9090.) Almost as soon as we got off of A96, we were back in a country setting again, and the rest of the drive to the Castle was very serene.

Before we left the Urquhart parking lot we went ahead and made reservations for supper, at the Cawdor Tavern. For once, it turned out that we really didn't have to do so, but at least we now had a set time for supper. We also knew how much time we had to tour the Castle and gardens.

As we got up to the ticket booth after parking, we saw a sign posted “no backpacks.” Most of the time this is a size issue and we can get away with our personal sized backpack, since it's very small. This time, though, the attendant wouldn't be swayed, telling us it was more for security than anything else. No problem. We pulled out the few things we really needed (camera, spare batteries, etc.) and dh hoofed it back to the car with the rest. It wasn't far. After such stress (cue sarcasm here) and with the luxury of so much time, we just had to make a stop first at the castle's little cafe for a cappuccino and some lemon cake. We were on vacation after all.

Again, we could not use our Explorer Passes, but the £11.50/pp cost included admission to the extensive gardens as well. This castle is interesting in that (we were told by the very friendly and talkative front door attendant) it's still the part-time residence of the current dowager Lady Cawdor, who lives here from around October to April, outside of the main tourist season. The decorations do seem more homey in some parts of the castle, but it's hard to imagine living with a few of the more ancient (and probably fantastically valuable) items scattered around. Let me rephrase that. It's hard for me to imagine dh and my kids ever living with furnishings this valuable.

We started by touring every accessible inch of the Castle interior, marveling at the gigantic framed family portraits, the luxurious furnishings, and all of the wonderful huge hanging tapestries. As the tapestries were so old, they were kept safe from wandering hands behind sheets of plexiglass. Still visible, but protected. Most of the rooms on display were roped off in such a way as to create a walkway through them, and it was a nice way to do things rather than make visitors view each room from a doorway. It created a feeling of openess and freedom to wander, although we certainly saw staff members keeping an eye on things, and I'm sure there were surveillance cameras even if we couldn't see them.

The old kitchen was a favorite of mine. It was actively used for almost 300 years (1640-1938). It is not decorative in any way, with simple whitewashed walls and long wooden tables, but it is huge with almost every conceivable tool the cooks of those time periods could have hoped to have, on display. A bit rustic, but still practical (in a non-electrical way) even today. Even the gift shop, with its wonderful stone archways, has been designed to blend in to the Castle setting.

Posted by
122 posts

I was also glad for a chance to see the Thorn Tree, at the heart of the Castle, ever since I read of the legend surrounding it online. As the legend goes, the Thane (chief of the clan) of Cawdor, who lived in a small castle nearby, wanted to build a new and stronger castle. He had a dream in which he was told to load a chest of gold onto the back of a donkey. Where the donkey stopped to rest would be where he could safely build his new castle. The donkey apparently stopped at the base of this hawthorn tree. The tree is still here today, but modern scientific analysis has shown that it died sometime around 1372, and is a holly not a hawthorn. Still an interesting tale.

Next, we turned to the outside of the castle, heading first to the formal walled garden. While this section contains some flowers, interest comes more from the shapes of the bushes and trees, as well as fountains and statues. As we walked through, we saw a huge hedge maze, with a bull statue in the middle. Unfortunately, the maze was not open to the public (probably lost too many tourists in there), but it was fun to walk around. One feature we both liked – a tall cylindrical flowing water fountain - was part of the Paradise Garden section. This area is said to contain all white flowers, but not many were in bloom. But the box hedges! If only I could trim my hedges that precisely. If only I had a gardener!

By this point it was starting to get quite warm, close to 70F (almost 20C), and we certainly felt it, as we still had on a few layers of clothing. We shed some of those layers, then found a shady bench next to the castle, and sat for awhile taking in the gorgeous scenery, before heading over to the other garden area at the back of the castle. More of a casual section, this area was stunning with the tail end of the azaleas blooming, and promised to be even more beautiful further along in the season. As we wandered through here, we found a door in one of the outer stone walls that lead to a naturalized forest area alongside the castle walls. I had been hearing water for awhile, and discovered a small stream nearby. While dh had fun creating animated pictures (gifs) of the stream on his cell phone, I spent some time getting up close shots of a few fiddlehead ferns.

We finally left just as the castle started to close, and sat in the car for a bit, changing out the camera battery and re-packing our backpacks.

We had a reservation tonight at the Cawdor Tavern just down the road, and made it easily. And it wasn't a bit crowded. In contrast to our restaurant of the night before, the Tavern felt much more like a local country inn. We ordered a mix of our favorites and a few new selections, and finished off the meal with two delicious desserts. In addition, I saw the tavern had Glayva on the drink menu, something I had wanted to taste ever since I heard about it back home. I'm not really a whisky fan, but I knew Glayva was supposed to taste similar to Drambuie, which I do like. After trying it here, I found I really enjoyed it. To me, it was just a bit sweeter than Drambuie. We ended up buying a bottle at one of the co-ops we stopped at later in our trip. Dh said he will stick to regular whisky.

We got back to our b&b, to find our friendly resident cows and their calves gathered near the parking area. Again, our bed had been turned down and the little tea light candles lit. We Skyped back home with the kids – they passed along Mother's Day wishes – then took some time to re-work our luggage, and a small but growing pile of souvenirs, before indulging in a bit of the sherry and biscuits in our room.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 6 (Monday, May 14)

We checked out and were on our way early this morning, since it would be a longer travel day and we had a lot we wanted to see. Our goal was to reach Portree, on the Isle of Skye - a several hour journey as it was – for a late lunch, while still leaving plenty of time built in for stops along the way. The plan was to find a place to eat when we reached Portree, check into our b&b just outside of town, then try and make it to Neist Point Lighthouse by mid-afternoon. An ambitious itinerary, but we felt confident with it.

Traffic was a bit heavier through Inverness today, the start of a new workweek for many, but since it was the same route as yesterday it was somewhat more familiar. It wasn't long before we were back on A82 and driving along Loch Ness again. As cloudy as yesterday morning had been, today was bright sunshine and we paused several times along A82 to take pictures. The Loch was such a gorgeous shade of blue, reflecting the few clouds perfectly. And at one of these stops, we also got a nice unexpected view of Urquhart Castle in the distance.

A short way past Urquhart, we turned onto A887 (near Invermoriston), then A87 after that. It wasn't long before my cameras were again working overtime. The trees thinned out considerably and the landscape became much more rugged and open. Long stretches of flatter, scrubbier land, split with the occasional meandering waterway, were bracketed by mountains in the near distance. And these mountains while covered with a thin blanket of soft green and brown also still had snow as well in the higher elevations. Of course, all of this beautiful landscape almost demanded that we stop often to try and capture the view. I just wish the photos we took could come close to capturing that fabulous scenery but it really is best experienced in person.

As we got close to the town of Dornie, I started keeping an eye out for Eilean Donan Castle, but it was pretty hard to miss the Castle parking lot, just off A87. The place was quite busy this morning, and the lot (free parking) was almost full, with tour buses, cars and motorcycles everywhere. We managed to get a space as someone else left. I had heard mixed reviews about taking a tour of the Castle itself, and we decided to leave that for our return trip if we had time. We knew we at least wanted to get a few shots of the outside, and figured it made a good place to take a break and use the facilities. We felt comfortable time wise, so we also hit up the cafe for a snack and coffee.

Now, I understand the Castle is a public venue, but it was annoying to see a few people climbing over the rocks below the castle, more or less preventing decent pictures for the rest of us. Fortunately, they didn't stay long, and we got some nice shots. There was even a bagpiper near the parking lot. I'm guessing castle management encourages this, (or even provides for it) since it certainly attracted a lot of attention. He was friendly, very good at playing, and was happy to pause for pictures with us tourists.

Later, as we continued on, we pulled off the road at one of the nearby parking areas for a brief look at the bridge to Skye in the distance, before crossing over to the island. For some reason we had thought the bridge would be bigger, but I think that was just our East Coast mentality kicking in again.

Posted by
122 posts

We reached the outskirts of Portree around 2:30 pm, about 45 minutes after crossing the bridge. Because we weren't sure of where we wanted to go in town initially, we stopped while I grabbed my iPad and the screenshot of Portree I had taken before we left on our trip. We located what I thought was the free parking area I had read about online, down by the harbor (I think it was on Quay St.), and decided to go there first, figuring that would do for now.

The town was quite busy, with traffic and pedestrians alike, and the streets rather narrow, making it a bit trickier to drive through. We were glad to again get a spot in the full parking lot just as someone else pulled out, even though it was a tighter fit for our SUV. We hiked up the hill to the town center, finding the Granary Restaurant for a late lunch. It was another place I had read about, and while the menu wasn't quite as advertised online, we both managed to find dishes we liked. We didn't have reservations, but they had a free table. Apparently, we made it just in time for lunch, since soon after we placed our orders, they stopped serving hot food and switched over to pastries and beverages. We saw several groups turned away as we ate.

On our way out of town to our b&b, we stopped for gas (the first of only two such stops in over 900 miles), since we were down to about half a tank. By 4:30 pm, we were pulling into the parking lot of Skeabost House, our home for the next two nights. It was located about ten minutes outside of town, just off A850, and the exterior quite nicely fit with what my idea of a Scottish country mansion should look like.

We had cringed at the cost when making these reservations, since we didn't really decide we wanted to spend a few nights on Skye until nearly mid-March and didn't have as much choice of hotel by then, but were very pleased with both the hotel and our room. I had worried we might get a room in one of the newer sections, outside the grand old building and with apparently more of a standard hotel feel, but our room was right up the main staircase on the second floor. In talking with the desk manager who checked us in, we found out they were already taking bookings for August 2019.

Our room and en suite bath were a bit smaller than some of the others we stayed in, but the nice high ceilings made it seem larger, and I think we had a king size bed. As with our other b&bs, we were personally taken up to our room and shown the amenities (including real milk for the coffee, kept in an insulated container). At least we didn't have to pre-select our breakfast choices here each night, but then again it was a substantially larger hotel.

Not long after we had come onto the island, the sun had begun to dim as a light fog started covering the area. As we left the hotel, we noticed the sky had gotten quite a bit grayer, but at least it wasn't raining. We plugged the Neist Point Lighthouse postal code into our gps and were on our way. Although we relied on gps the whole way, I'm pretty sure we went A850 to Dunvegan, then A863. At this point, the road started narrowing, although I don't recall it going down to a single-track road until we turned onto B884. We had used Google street view while at home, to note the turn off to the lighthouse near Milovaig, and if I recall correctly, we had no problem knowing where to turn. But getting out to the lighthouse was an adventure from then on and dh really ended up having his prior UK driving skills put to the test . . . .

Posted by
122 posts

While very picturesque, the single-track road we drove on was not nice and straight, but filled with hilly sections, some of them blind hills. And we knew we would have to go slow, but we literally didn't break 20 mph in some sections. (All the while our digital dashboard was merrily suggesting a maximum speed of 60 mph. Hmmm. Not happening.) Then we encountered those errant, meandering sheep and lambs. The sheep aren't fenced in for the most part, and probably wouldn't pay attention to sheep crossing signs anyway. And dang if the little ones aren't really cute. But they had a tendency to stop suddenly or change direction while crossing the middle of the road. Played havoc with the steering.

Still not terrible, though, as driving goes. But then, to cap it all off, we encountered Mr. Demonic Farm Machinery Driver. Most of the drivers we passed on the way were the utmost in politeness, making sure they stopped at lay bys long before we got there, or throwing out a friendly wave when we did the same. However, as we came over one of those blind hills, we saw not very far away a gigantic (taller than our SUV) piece of some sort of farm equipment making it's way toward us. Fast. Very fast. No problem. He had a lay by – and a fairly large one at that - on his side, before we would reach it. Only he didn't pull over.

Cue a mild case of panic, as by this point, we had two other cars behind us. And we had passed the lay by on our side some ways back. Hoping the cars behind us would understand, dh quickly stopped, put us into reverse and started slowly backing up, even while Mr. DFMD kept speeding toward us. I didn't know those machines could go so fast.

Well, long story short, Mr. DFMD did actually slow down at the very last minute, as we and the other cars behind us worked to back up and squeeze into the lay by behind us, but we were just shaking our heads as he passed. YMWHV (Your mileage will hopefully vary!)

But on a much more positive note – it was on our drive out to Neist Point that I finally got my pictures of hairy coos. We were still about three miles from Dunvegan on A850, when there they were, two of them just hanging out in a field on the right hand side of the road. And these beautiful, shaggy coos were more than happy to pose for us this time. We found a safe place to pull off the road and shot picture after picture, the scenery adding the perfect backdrop.

After finally making it (alive) to the lighthouse, we realized we didn't really want to hike down to it, or more importantly, back up again when we were done. Maybe we missed something, but the lighthouse didn't seem like it would be quite so picturesque close up, and we felt we could take better pictures from a distance. Plus, it was blowing pretty hard and chilly. (But at least no rain! Not today.)

We just hiked up the hill from the parking lot ten or fifteen minutes, until we could get some nice “lighhouse-on-the-cliffs-with-the-fog-rolling-by” shots, those classic ones of the lighthouse that you see on most of the travel websites. We tried to linger longer to enjoy the moment, but even with gloves, our hands were going numb. But maniac farm machinery drivers aside, I would have been very disappointed if we had not gotten this chance to see the lighthouse.

Anticipating an equally long trip back to our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised when we took far less time getting back, even with a few more stops for pictures. We had booked supper for 8:30 pm at our hotel, and from then on enjoyed a nice, relaxing evening. I think the delicious meal (and wine, and sticky toffee pudding, too) went a long way toward accomplishing this.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 7 (Tuesday, May 15)

When we looked out the window this morning, we saw that the low, overcast skies of the night before had carried over and a quick check of the morning's forecast didn't look promising. But today was the day we planned to tour around the Trotternish Peninsula, including a hike up Old Man of Storr, so we dressed in layers and rain pants and headed down to breakfast.

We got out early, which worked well as the day went on. As we drove north on A855, along the eastern side of the Peninsula, we were able to see parts of the Old Man in the distance as fog had not yet obscured the hills. Although we weren't entirely sure where the parking lot was we knew we had the right place as we drove up and saw a large, almost full pull-off area over to the left. We managed to squeeze into one of the few remaining slots along one side. Parking was tight but not too overly chaotic yet.

We added a few water bottles to our backpacks, switched into our hiking shoes, unfolded our trekking poles, covered the camera with a Ziploc bag, and we were set. The hike itself wasn't overly strenuous especially at the start, with a loose gravel trail. As we went along it became a bit steeper, but with plenty of switchbacks. About twenty minutes into our hike, though, as we got higher up we started to encounter sideways blowing mist/fog and a bit of drizzle.

About half way up, the trail changed and had us scrambling over rocky hillside, and we were glad we had our poles. It was also at this point I began to wish I had put in a few more miles on the elliptical each day at the gym back home. The thighs were beginning to feel it. We had taken a few pictures along the first part of the hike, but as we climbed it became harder and harder to see for any distance, as the fog continued to deepen. As we kept going, we were surprised to see how many people were hiking up behind us, but a glance back down to the road showed us why. There must have been 30 or more cars strung out along both sides of the road around the parking lot, as well as a tour bus, although I doubt those tourists were climbing so high.

After about an hour or so of hiking/climbing, we reached a large level area, still a bit below the Old Man rock formation itself. We paused to catch our breath and take a drink, while we debated how much further we wanted to go. The cool weather was invigorating, and the wind was keeping us from overheating, but the heavy fog seemed to be mixing more with rain now. We were dry inside, but beginning to drip on the outside. And we could only see the rock formations above us every few minutes, when the wind blew strong enough to blow aside the fog. At this point, we decided going higher wouldn't gain us much, so we began to make our way back down. Our poles were again a big help as we descended over the uneven, rocky ground.

The entire hike took us about two hours, but we did stop a couple of times along the way. When we got back to our car, we switched out of our muddy shoes and laid everything out in the trunk (boot) on garbage bags I had brought from home, to try and dry them out some. We sat for a bit in the car, munching on protein bars, as we decided what to do next. It was still raining and we didn't know how much we would see in this weather, but figured we could soldier on for a bit more. We stopped next at Lealt Falls a few minutes down the road, and put our raincoats back on to climb down to the viewing platform, but I had to keep wiping the rain from my camera lens every few minutes. At this point we finally gave in and headed off for an early lunch.

Posted by
122 posts

We drove again just a bit further, to the Skye Pie Cafe (at the Glenview Inn), a restaurant I was eager to try. It had a bit of a mellow, homespun, 60's vibe to it, but was welcoming from the moment we stepped inside. (I have since heard from a fellow traveler that they plan on closing the restaurant sometime in the near future to concentrate on another business venture. If true, it would be very sad. It was a favorite of ours this trip.)

Coming early as we did, we managed to get in before the rest of the crowd, and were seated right away. It was good to be warm and dry, and the food was very good. Dh had a chicken and mushroom pie and I sampled their fish based one, along with splitting an order of chunky fries (chips.) We also got a couple of ginger beers. Not normally one to get dessert for lunch, I couldn't resist this time when I saw (yet again) sticky toffee pudding on the menu. I thought it was the best version I had eaten so far, with a side of cream instead of ice cream. Dh opted to go for the crumble apple pie and and was happy with his choice, too.

As we ate, we pondered once again how to proceed with the rest of our day. By the time lunch was over, we had decided to head back to our hotel for a shower and nap, and hope the weather cleared up later in the day (it was forecast to do so.) It was definitely the right decision.

Warm and rested, we again headed out late afternoon (around 5 pm), as the sun was beginning to re-emerge. We drove back up and around the rest of the peninsula, stopping first at Mealt Falls/Kilt Rock. With no fog obscuring things now, we had great views. The sheer rocks were stunning in the sunlight, and even the Falls were impressive, although I kept wishing the overlook area extended out just a bit more. I leaned further and further out but just couldn't quite capture a view of the Falls that I was completely happy with. Dh was just happy when I stopped trying, as he didn't want to have to scrape his wife off the rocks far below.

Next, we continued along A855, hoping to take a quick look at the Quiraing. We were so involved in the breathtaking scenery as we drove, however, we completely missed the parking lot and were past it before we even thought about it. We decided to leave it for our next visit. We also debated touring the ruins of Duntulm Castle, but I think we were getting just the tiniest bit tired of ruins by this point, and were content to pass by, just stopping for pictures every now and then. And before we left home we had planned on visiting the Skye Museum, but it was now later in the day and we knew it would be closed. We did, however, continue up the road past it to the nearby cemetery (we definitely do have a thing for cemeteries) to see where Flora McDonald was buried. The late afternoon sun lent a peaceful look to the landscape and we were the only ones around.

Posted by
122 posts

Our plan was to stop somewhere in Uig for supper, and as we reached the outskirts around 7:30pm, I hoped our (again) lack of a reservation wouldn't be a problem. I knew I wanted to try the Ferry Inn, so we stopped there first. When we asked if they had a table, our luck continued to hold. We could have one, but we would have to wait about half an hour until it was free. Not a problem. We just sat in the small bar area near the entrance and had a drink. A pint of Guinness for me and a Skye lager for dh and the time flew by. We were seated just after 8 pm, and felt lucky indeed, as we again watched several larger groups turned away. The bar manager even came up to us apologizing for not being able to seat us sooner, but we were quick to reassure him we were grateful to even be able to get a table.

After supper, we took a few minutes to admire the now close-to-setting sun (it was about 9:30 pm), then made our way back to Portree to try and get a few pictures of the iconic colored buildings in town. We knew to head toward the Cuillin House Hotel, which I read was up on a hill facing town, but didn't go all the way. The road was horrendous, and as much as we swerved, we couldn't completely avoid all the deep potholes. We quickly found an area to park down below and got some good shots.

Our nap during the afternoon had kept us going, and we ended up sitting in one of the nicely decorated rooms off the hotel lobby for a bit after getting back, before finally retiring to our room just before 11 pm. It would be another busy day tomorrow.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 8 (Wednesday, May 16)

Another early start today, since we wanted to be down for breakfast when the dining room opened at 7:30 am. Dh opted for the cold buffet this morning, and I went with the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. This would be our biggest driving day yet, and we wanted to make the most of every minute of it. I had planned for a ten-hour day, to take in all that we could of our route back off Skye and through the entire Glen Coe area; it would be pushing 12+ hours later when we would finally make it into the parking lot of our next b&b.

As we loaded the car, it was around 46F (8C), but temperatures were on the rise. It promised to be another nice day. Before leaving Skye, we first stopped at the Sligachan Bridge, and the sunshine really made the mountains in the distance pop out. It was very busy here this morning, much more so than any other spot we had seen up to this point. Cars continued to stream in and out of the parking lot of the nearby hotel as people paused for a quick photo of the bridge. Others were loading up their cars as they left the hotel after having spent the night. Perhaps this was the next wave of tourists, here just as we were leaving. If so, we had been lucky to have encountered so few people in our travels to date.

We felt sad as we crossed the bridge back off Skye, even as we continued to take in all the gorgeous views, because we knew we only had a short time left in Scotland from here on out. As we traveled down A87, past where we had hooked in from A887 coming to Skye, I started to see why some people consider this an even more scenic road than others we had traveled so far. As we drove toward Invergarry, the entire landscape really opened up. High jagged peaks unfolded into yet more distant mountains, extending all the way to the horizon. The intense blue of the water in the lochs we passed along the way rivaled the blue of the sky above.

We continued along A87, then A82, stopping for a short time at the Commando Monument, near Spean Bridge. This site was not something we had known about prior to coming upon it, but seeing the cars and tour buses going in and out made us curious enough to stop. The Monument and surrounding memorials are dedicated to the men of the original British Commando Forces from World War II and the site is nicely done. It also offered a great view of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain. Or rather, one of the displays on site helped educate us as to which mountain, out of the many visible, was Ben Nevis. It wasn't always easy to tell which one was the tallest.

By now, we were about half an hour away from the turnoff to A830, the road to the Glenfinnan Monument. We decided to detour that way, since this was another site I had been interested in visiting. We had kept it on the list of possibilities to see, after I learned more of its historical significance after reading the Outlander series. Also, we had seen pictures of it online and really wanted to see the site for ourselves.

We reached Glenfinnan shortly before 2 pm, and found a spot in the busy lower parking lot, then went to get a bite to eat at the tiny on-site cafe before visiting the monument itself. We grabbed a few sandwiches (not the most enjoyable of our trip thus far unfortunately) and found a shady spot at one of the outside tables.

Posted by
122 posts

After eating, we took a few minutes to stroll through the attached gift shop, and that's when we spotted the schedule for the next “Harry Potter” train crossing and realized just how close we were time-wise. Apparently there would be two trains crossing the nearby viaduct (one train each way) - at 3:15 pm and at 3:25 pm - if only we could wait that long. But it would be a big chunk out of our time budget. We agonized over our decision, knowing our daughter (huge HP fan) would love a shot of the train coming by, but also knowing it might limit what we had planned for the rest of the day. We decided to go for it after realizing that we still had a lot of daylight left with the sun setting so much later and that we didn't have a set check-in time at our next b&b.

We first took some time to walk out and see out the Monument close up, really the reason we ended up here to begin with. Standing there looking up at the lone Highlander atop the monument, I thought back to our visit to Culloden a few days earlier and what the Jacobite supporters of Prince Charles went through as they tried to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British throne. This quiet spot on the edge of Loch Shiel was the start of their ill-fated campaign, just as Culloden was the end.

After taking a few more pictures, we headed back to the visitor's center to find where to go to see the train. The parking lot attendant we talked to suggested walking to the other parking lot further up the road and then a bit further on from there to get more of a bottoms-up view of the viaduct, but we wanted the side view of the train passing by. By looking around a bit, we found a path to the left of the visitors center and up a hillside trail to a spot overlooking both the Monument and the nearby viaduct.

We waited about half an hour with thirty or so other tourists for the train to come through, and a visible ripple of excitement went through the group when we heard the train whistle a few seconds before we saw the train. If what I overheard someone else say was true, the train had only started making this afternoon run again for the tourist season a few days prior, so again our luck was holding. (I checked later – they were correct.)

We got as many pictures as we could in the scant minute it took the train to cross the viaduct, and stayed another ten minutes to watch the second train come by from the opposite direction. We knew we had thrown off our timetable somewhat, but the excited text we got when our daughter saw the pictures later on Google more than made up for it.

It took us a bit longer to get back to A82 and then through Fort William than we originally thought it would. Therefore, when we saw an information center off A82 not too far from Glencoe, we stopped in. A big goal of ours was to head down Glen Etive to the loch at the end, but it was another single track road, and we knew it would take some time to travel. It was nearing 5 pm by this point, and we wanted to get an estimate of how long it might take us to drive, knowing we still had to go another hour or more from that point down to Arrochar and our b&b for the night. We learned it usually took 45 minutes each way from A82. We figured it would probably take us longer. But we decided to do it anyway. We could not have made a better decision.

Posted by
122 posts

To me, taking this single-track road - with those soaring mountains so close to us - was the best thing we did our entire visit. I'm not sure dh felt quite the same, since he was the one doing the driving, but we both thought the scenery alone was well worth it.

In addition to soaking in all the beautiful views along the way, we also had an up-close encounter with some friendly red deer. About halfway down to the Loch, we saw off in the distance people gathered on the side of the road by their car. Not too unusual, but I did a double take when I saw they were petting several deer just off the edge of the road. We reached the spot as the other car was leaving, but the deer were still hanging around. What a photo opportunity! We pulled off and I moved quickly to get out, hoping to get off a few shots before the deer left, but if anything they came even closer! By the time I had my camera ready, I literally could have stretched out my hand and touched the one. I really had to limit myself to just taking pictures, but it was hard as they were so cute and curious!

It took us nearly an hour to reach the end of the road and it was very quiet as we got out of the car. We had passed no more than fifteen to twenty cars getting here, plus several empty parked cars and tents along the river. We explored around the edge of the Loch, with just another couple (in their camper) and their dog for company the entire time. The views were absolutely spectacular, especially when the hills around us began taking on that late-afternoon shadow as the sun slipped behind them. It was getting chilly as we got back in the car for the drive back out.

Our return trip back to A82 didn't take us as long, and it was nice to get a view of the surrounding mountains going the other way too. As we continued on our way, we had to slow down again as we got closer to Loch Lomond. While the road wasn't really much narrower here, it was now bracketed in places by a rocky cliff on one side and a stone wall on the other. It also went back to a winding road, instead of a long, straight one. Not dh's favorite stretch of road this trip, but after all those single-track roads up to this point, not terrible either. Our trusty gps had us scheduled to arrive at our b&b in Arrochar (the Village Inn) at 8:15 pm, and it was just about that when we pulled into the parking lot.

In addition to providing accommodations, the Village Inn is also a very busy pub, and it took us a bit to find the “front desk” and a person to check us in. This was the only b&b of our entire trip I had not been able to pay for ahead of time; I could only make the reservation online. However, while we like having most of our big expenses settled before beginning our trip, it was easy enough to set money aside in our budget for our room tonight. We weren't sure what the room would look like, since this seemed to be first and foremost a pub, but were pleased when we saw it. It was huge, with a small fireplace on one wall, high ceilings, and a very tall (operable) window that looked out over the loch across the street. The bathroom was a bit small, with a tub we had to step up into, but I think the floors were heated. Felt like it, anyway.

When reserving a room, I had read on the website that we had until 11 pm to eat. But this was not the case. The BAR was open until 11 pm. Food stopped being served at 9 pm. Therefore, we just left our luggage in the car after we checked in and went to eat first. The food was good pub food (a fish filled pie for me, topped with mashed, and a burger for dh; plus an appetizer of haggis).

After our long day, it was all we could do not to tumble into bed immediately, but we took a few minutes to re-arrange some of our luggage and tidy up a bit, as things had gotten somewhat jumbled by this point. The next day would be our last full one in Scotland, and we had another full day planned, so it wasn't long before we turned in.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 9 (Thursday, May 17)

Breakfast today was served in one of the pub's downstairs dining rooms and once more we enjoyed a relaxing full Scottish before checking out. The weather was certainly cooperating again, with bright sunshine and a temperature of almost 55 F (about 13C) as we loaded the car. We were on the road by 9 am and stopped briefly to put a few £ of gas in the tank on our way out of town. Although we had taken the option of not having to return our rental car full, we were pretty low and didn't want to run out of gas on the way. It was a bit more costly today, at £1.34/liter.

For the last full day of our Scotland trip, we planned on visiting two castles – Doune and Stirling. Dh input the postal code for Doune Castle and we were on our way. Once we got back onto A82 outside of Arrochar, it wasn't long before the road started to widen back out, even though it remained two lanes. We did have to travel a few more narrow roads later in the day, but these were always two lanes, never back to single-track again.

After driving a little more than an hour, we reached Doune Castle. The parking lot was filling up, but we never felt particularly crowded while touring the castle. We again were able to use our Explorer Passes, and decided to get the free audio guides that went with them this time. Monty Python fans might recognize Doune Castle from scenes filmed there, while Outlander fans will recognize it as the stand-in for Castle Leoch in the show's first season. The Castle is definitely trading on these, as the audio tape is narrated by Terry Jones (MP) with added segments by Sam Heughan (Jamie in Outlander). Currently one of the rooms in the Castle contains a display showing how it was set up to film Outlander,

As we walked up from the main gate and into a central courtyard it wasn't too hard to see why some historians view Doune as only half a castle. Even though a wall surrounds the entire area, there are only buildings on two sides of the courtyard. After studying what remains architecturally, they believe that the western and southern parts of the castle were either never completed or once existed but were removed so thoroughly that no trace of them remains.

One side of the Castle contains the gatehouse below and three stories of private living quarters, including the Lord's Hall and the Duchess' Hall above that. On the other side are the lower level cellars, the kitchen - with its massive 18 foot long fireplace - and two stories of guest rooms. These two areas are connected by the long, towering Great Hall. The stones that make up the buildings are largely original from the 1500s and I loved seeing those in the kitchen area that still show marks where knives were sharpened.

Since we each had different parts of the Castle we wanted to focus on, dh and I ended up each wandering around on our own. He liked to listen to some of the extra audio segments on Monty Python while I am not as much of a fan and instead focused more on the Oulander bits. We would meet near the entrance when we were done.

This plan worked out well, as I got done first and was able to spend some time in the gift shop. It was definitely more relaxing shopping without dh. Not that he ever complained, but some guys just give off that silent “do we really have to do more shopping?” vibe. Maybe I was a little too relaxed since I ended up spending more than I might have otherwise. It was our last full day, though, and we hadn't come anywhere close to our travel budget, so I whipped out the credit card without a twinge of guilt.

We had planned on eating lunch here before heading over to Stirling Castle but found out Doune didn't have a cafe. We briefly considered trying to find somewhere in town to eat, but I hadn't done any research on restaurants and I knew Stirling Castle would have someplace to eat.

Posted by
122 posts

It took us twenty minutes or so to get to Stirling Castle. At one point, we ended up on M9 briefly and I don't think dh knew what to do with all that space. As we got closer, he decided to follow signs for the castle instead of listening to our gps, and we ended up taking a rather roundabout route through town. In the end, we made it to the entrance just fine, but it probably took us a little longer.

As we reached the bottom of the hill leading up to the parking lot, we were dismayed to see a sign stating the parking lot was full/closed. This didn't seem to be deterring the other ten cars waiting in line, though, so we joined the queue. The parking staff managed quite efficiently, letting one car in as another one left. It took a bit longer than we hoped, but we managed to park after about 25 minutes. Parking was £4.

After entering with our Explorer Passes, we headed right for the Unicorn Cafe, since it was after 1 pm by now. Although the place was busy, we got our food quickly and there were plenty of seats available. We both ended up with chicken mushroom pasta for lunch, definitely much better than what I had thought we might find. It didn't take us long to eat, and when we were done dh found a spot with good cell service and checked us in online for our flights the next day, while I took pictures. The castle did not lack for character, and I probably took fifty shots while waiting for him to finish.

When a docent announced the next tour group forming (tours were free), we joined in, and spent an hour or so getting a good overview of the castle and the history behind it. While our guide didn't take us into every area, he did touch on a lot. Those areas he spent less time on we ended up re-visiting on our own. And some online reviews I had read before our trip mentioned that people had a hard time understanding their guides because of strong accents, but that was not the case with us.

One of our favorite parts of this castle was the recently restored Royal Palace. Made to look like it might have when Mary, Queen of Scots lived there, it contains two separate areas (apartments), one each for the king and queen. Each apartment contains a hall, a “presence chamber” and a bedchamber, plus other small living areas. The colors are quite vivid and very rich looking. In the King's Presence chamber the ceiling is decorated with replicas of what are know as the “Stirling Heads,” round portraits carved from oak and representing kings, queens, courtiers and some Biblical figures. The originals are on display elsewhere in the Castle. In the Queen's Presence Chamber hang seven huge recreated tapestries. These massive pieces took weavers over 10 years to recreate, using traditional methods, and cost £12 million. The originals hang in the Cloisters, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

As the afternoon went on, the crowds thinned considerably, which allowed us more time to talk one-on-one with the costumed interpreters and we learned quite a bit. For instance, although the Queen had her own private bedchambers, she rarely used them, instead sleeping in different rooms each night. This was a tactical move, so that disgruntled servants couldn't “leak” the location of her bedroom to outside enemies, thus making it harder for her to be killed should these enemies get inside the Castle walls.

We certainly didn't rush our visit, but by 5:30 pm felt we had seen all of what we wanted to. A quick jaunt through the gift shops (yes, there was more than one) and we headed back to our car.

Posted by
122 posts

Our final b&b for the trip was the Norton House Hotel & Spa, about twenty minutes away. We picked it for its close proximity to the airport (15 minutes) and good online reviews, and ended up being very pleased with the hotel. When we checked in for the night, we were surprised to find we had been upgraded to a junior suite, the Ratho Suite. We were astounded, though, to get to the room and find out just what that upgrade meant. We had two floors, two bathrooms (one of the showers had 6 jets sprays and a rain shower head), a tv over the tub in the downstairs bathroom, and a balcony. For just the two of us. It's a shame the kids weren't with us.

I had hoped to use our free time this evening to head over to Queensferry to get pictures of the 128-year-old Forth Bridge, then find a spot to eat, but we were pretty wiped out by now. We decided to eat at our hotel's restaurant instead and made a reservation when we checked in. Before heading down to supper, we spent some time exploring our awesome room a bit more, playing with the various buttons and such, and emptying out our backpacks for the night.

For our last supper in Scotland, we began with more chicken pate. I then ordered more fish and chips, since they didn't have haggis on the menu. It came with chunky fries (chips) and a nice side of mixed veggies, but sadly the peas were more of a paste this time. Dh had another well cooked steak and a glass of wine. I indulged in another Guinness.

While only about ten minutes away from the airport, our hotel had a very secluded country feel, and we took some time after supper to stroll around the property. As it began to get dark, we headed back to the room to begin the ponderous chore of re-arranging our luggage for the flights home the next day.

We had managed to get rid of a lot of toiletries and such in ten days, but had accumulated quite a bit in the way of souvenir books, bottles of whisky - miniature and full-sized - and other mementos. With the exception of the two full-sized whisky bottles, though, we managed to fit all our other souvenirs into our carry-on bags and crammed all of our dirty laundry into the checked bag. As an added precaution, I popped the full-sized bottles we had to check into padded travel bottle bags before wrapping them up in dirty clothes. They made it home fine.

It was late by the time we finally finishing organizing everything, but we didn't have to return our rental car the next day until 10:30 am, so we knew we could take it easy the next morning.

Posted by
122 posts

Day 10 (Friday, May 18)

We lingered this morning over breakfast, enjoying the hotel's hot and cold buffet. While this hotel definitely seemed to cater to business people, we did see other couples who were probably on vacation like us. It didn't take us long to finish packing, having organized the night before, and we were checked out just after 9:30 am, more from a sense of excitement and nothing more to do than any real need to rush.

We had opted to return our rental car to the Arnold Clark at the airport for convenience. We made it there in fifteen minutes, and dh took one last fond look at the electronic wonder that had been our vehicle for the week. The site was quite crowded, but more with people picking up cars than dropping off. It took only a few minutes until someone came over to check us out. Since the car had no damage, things went quickly. We signed the rental company's paperwork, then made sure they signed our copy before we felt satisfied.

A shuttle to the airport came within five minutes and we were at the terminal a few minutes later. While it gave us peace of mind to make it to the airport early, we actually had to wait about half an hour to check in. There were plenty of seats, though, and dh quickly hooked into the airport's free wi-fi.

As we waited, we also debated whether or not to upgrade our seats on the Heathrow to Philadelphia leg of our journey home. We were booked in steerage (coach) and figured we had enough of our planned budget left over to treat ourselves to at least coach plus. Alas, when we finally did check in, we found that BA had switched our plane to a smaller version for that leg, since it was nowhere near full, and that it was unclear whether there would be any seats available for us to upgrade to. The BA rep told us to check at the flight connections desk when we reached Heathrow. We thought we would give it another try then if we had time.

After we got our boarding passes and dropped off our checked bag, we meandered around the shops at the airport, something we hadn't had time to do when arriving nine days ago, using up the rest of our cash. Since our flight wouldn't begin boarding until around 1:15 pm, we also had time to grab an early lunch. After seeing what was available, we settled on the Gathering restaurant. I was happy to be able to order haggis one last time, along with a final pint of Guinness, and dh enjoyed some pasta.

On leaving Edinburgh, we had an actual gate, so we didn't need to board on the tarmac this time, like we had before the flight here. Again, it was a full flight but we had no problems with stashing our luggage. And again, another early arrival at Heathrow that was mostly taken up taxiing to the gate. We had just over an hour and a half layover this time. Because we didn't have to go through security, we felt comfortable stopping at the flight desk, to check on an upgrade. But, no, that section of the plane was completely full. We resigned ourselves to the prospect of cramped seats for the long ride home.

Posted by
122 posts

We arrived at Heathrow at the A gates, and had to take the people mover/tram over to B gates, where our flight was leaving from. We must have arrived at quite the wrong time, because we were completely smooshed on the tram once we boarded. People just kept piling on. I'm not normally a rude person, but in order to get off at our stop (not everyone was), we had to elbow people out of the way to get to the exit doors. I have never been on one of those trams when it was quite so full.

We went through passport inspection very quickly, and again had to hang out near the B gates for 15 minutes or so before finding out our departing gate. We used this time to fill up our water bottles for the flight at one of the convenient nearby filling stations.

Apparently BA still had trouble filling seats, because dh and I had a spare seat in our row as the plane took off and other rows were completely empty. Dh wanted to move up one row to the empty emergency door row, for more leg room, but others claimed it first. As it was, though, we had no problem stretching out with the empty seat between us. We left the gate right on time, but got bogged down in a queue waiting to get into the air, and took off about 15 minutes late.

The flight this time didn't seem quite as long as I had remembered from the past, and both dh and I used the time to do some reading on our Kindle apps, plus catch up on more recent movies we hadn't yet seen in the theaters. We had a great view of the landscape as we passed over Labrador and Newfoundland, and I got a few shots out the window.

We landed nearly on time back in Philadelphia, at close to 8 pm (but 1 am to our tired bodies), to temps in the mid 50's and rainy weather. Yep, the vacation was definitely over. Time to get home, hug our kids, use the weekend to recover from jet lag and process all of our photos. All 4,913 of them.

Side note: If you would like to see pictures from our trip, you can click on my profile and then the link to my blog website, under Scotland 2018. Due to forum rules, I am not allowed to post the actual link here, but feel free to PM me if you have any questions.

Posted by
2057 posts

What a wonderful (and very thorough!) trip report. I enjoyed reading every word and will be looking at your photos again. I am very excited about my trip to London and Scotland and will be re-reading (bookmarked, now thanks to our illustrious Webmaster!) since we will we be visiting quite a few of the places you have mentioned. Thanks for taking the enormous amount of time it must have taken you to write such a comprehensive and well-written report!

Posted by
122 posts

I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it and seeing the pictures! Thanks for slogging through with me.

Please come back after your trip and let us know how it went and if you can, post a link to your pictures, too. I love reading other people's trip reviews, too! Have a great trip!

Posted by
1894 posts

I'm sorry you had to leave to come home, as I was really enjoying traveling along with you! ;)
Lovely descriptive trip report.

Posted by
122 posts

Thanks for the kind words and for reading! Yeah (sigh) we were pretty bummed to leave Scotland, too. But writing this has been a great way to relive it. Now time to plan a future return trip! (Although dh did bring up a trip to Newfoundland the last time we discussed it . . .) 😳