Hidden in the Highlands: Road Tripping Scotland

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The Journey

For one week of travelling around the Scottish Highlands we hired a deluxe 5 berth campervan. Being people who like the basic ‘vanlife’ lifestyle we thought we would give the upgraded version a go for a week with Elric’s parents to see what it was like. We found travelling like this is much more comparable to staying in a studio apartment as opposed to a vehicle. First of all we were huge driving along the road, we could tell other cars were a little afraid of us, especially when driving in small one-way streets (we would generally get through quite easily as all the other cars would stop straight away as soon as they saw us coming from afar). The interior is also designed to feel very homely and everything needed to live a self contained lifestyle is neatly placed to maximise efficiency. We found excessive amounts of settings for heating, lighting, water, electricity and everything else you could think of. ‘Camping’ has developed a lot that’s for sure. We could park anywhere we liked, like the van, but with very limited water for showers and limited capacity in the toilet it felt like if you wanted to take advantage of the full luxury of this moving house you would need to spend some time in campgrounds too. It was a cool experience, a bit more than you need if you are used to living it a bit rougher, but a cool experience for sure.

Scotland

One thing that’s great about travelling like this in Scotland is the ability to stay (pretty much) wherever you like. Scotland land access legislation allows free camping anywhere where there are not specific camping restrictions as long as you leave no trace, don’t start fires, don’t overcrowd the area etc. etc. (more information can be found here). It’s such a great way to explore the landscape of a country like this, and it seemed that most people respected the land they were staying on which was great to see.

My photos on this blog really don’t do the beauty of what we saw justice, so if your after some beautiful unedited photos have a look at Elric’s ‘Exploring Scotland‘ photo blog!

The Story

Day 1: Edinburgh → Glamis Castle → Glencoe

After picking up our new home in Edinburgh the previous evening we thought it would be best to stay somewhere close-ish to town so that we could spend some time working out how the camper ‘works’ (there are a lot of settings). So we stayed at a quiet parking lot by a dock so when we woke it was to a beautiful view of the ocean.

Our first day of forecast rain turned out to be perfectly sunny nearly the whole day. We seem to have been having a lot of good luck with potentially very bad weather recently! But as we would soon find out the weather in Scotland is incredibly unpredictable. You can have a clear blue sky one minute, then pouring rain the next, before switching back to sun again. It is crazy how fast it all changes over here, and impossible to know how to prepare when you leave the car. But on the first day at least we didn’t have any rain to worry about.

You can’t go to Scotland without visiting a castle, so we made that step one. Glamis castle was the home of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother when she was a child, and many of the rooms are set up exactly the same as they were when she lived there. Included in the entrance fee is a public tour which was really well put together. We got shown around the castle by a knowledgeable and energetic guide dressed the part in a classic tartan vest. He described to us the ghost stories and legends that are echoed through the walls of the castle, as well as a decent amount of history which was surprisingly really interesting (I’ve never thought of myself as being a ‘royal history buff’, but this was great). It is also the legendary setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which brought be back to studying the play in high school English classes. Some of the rooms definitely had a Macbeth type feel about them. Overall we loved it.

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We left the castle to find a beautiful blue sky waiting for us, and it seems we were right to come early as the place was now starting to fill with visitors (when we arrived there was next to no one). The gardens were also beautiful to wander around, I don’t think the gardens only ticket would be worth it though, it’s definitely worth taking the trip inside.

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We then headed a bit further west to Scone Palace. We didn’t think it was worth the entry fee to go and see the inside of another grand building in one day so we just had a look from the outside. As we were looking though we heard some sounds in the distance, somebody speaking through a microphone like a horse race or something, so we decided to sneak around the side of the castle walls to see what was going on. Just outside the palace there was some kind of car and farm show with collections of very old cars, tractors, bikes, machinery as well as a few animals too. There were stalls of people selling old car parts, and an area where people drove their tractors or rode their bikes around in a circle to show them off in front of a small crowd sitting in the stands. It was a very uniquely bizarre experience, but we definitely felt very much immersed in Scottish culture.

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After a little wander around the show we headed off to Glencoe. It is an area we had heard a lot about with many hikes in the mountains, waterfalls and white water rivers. The drive in between Tyndrum and Glencoe was incredible. We drove between the mountains admiring waterfall after waterfall along the way. But as it was getting a little late we would have to save any exploring for the next day. As the rain started to come in we grabbed ourselves some classic British fish and chips before heading off back to the camper.

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Day 2: Glencoe

Before starting the trip we had a decent look at all of the hiking options in the area and they all looked incredible with beautiful views wherever you go. One we had put top on the list was Buachaille Etive Mor, but unfortunately with the heavy rain coming through we thought a 7 hour hike would be a bit too much. Instead we took a shorter hike up the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. This hike is a section of the West Highland Way which is a 154km one way hike from Milngavie to Fort William, and has views over the Buachaille Etive Mor and surrounding mountains. Despite the occasional rain shower the hike was beautiful. After reaching the top of the Devils Staircase we took a small extra ‘unofficial’ section up to a mountain peak that hikers before us had made with cairns to guide the way.

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We arrived back at the camper just as the rain started to really pour down. We had thought about doing another hike in the ‘lost valley’ if the weather held out, but instead decided to go for a scenic drive alongside the River Etive. At the start of the road was a sign saying ‘not suitable for campers’, but we decided to give it a go anyway. The road was a very narrow and one-way so it was lucky we didn’t meet many others along the way. There were some ‘passing areas’ every few hundred metres but if we came across another large vehicle they would definitely not be enough… I’m very glad we went there though. The river is beautifully clear with rapids throughout (apparently it is a very good rive for experienced kayakers), and the surrounding mountains are draped with many long skinny waterfalls which makes a beautiful scene. It is no surprise that part of the movie Skyfall was filmed here (my photos really don’t do it justice).

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After a bit of a drive we headed back just past Glencoe to a place where you can do indoor ice climbing, a great activity to shelter from the rain! It was closing soon so we decided we would park up for the night and give it a go tomorrow. After a quick trip to the supermarket (and a very close car accident) we cooked up some fajitas in the car and played cards into the evening while listening to the rain pound down on the roof. There really is something truly great about this kind of travelling.

Day 3: Glencoe → Fort William → Glenfinnan → Plockton

In Glencoe there is the biggest indoor ice climbing area in the world at a place called Ice Factor. We thought this was a place not to be missed for someone like Elric’s dad who is an avid climber. Elric and his dad tried out the ice climbing while I stuck to training on the classic wall (they also have massive rock climbing walls!). Ice climbing is definitely a very unique thing to do on a rainy morning in Glencoe, and pretty exhausting for sure. It was also pretty ideal to be able to use the shower, camping car travel is great but with a tightly restricted supply of water it makes showering a bit of a mission…

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After working up an appetite we headed over to Fort William for lunch stumbling upon one of the best spots we could have found. An amazing cafe with delicious food, all vegan, all local and with everything environmentally focused right down to the reusable straws. It is called the Wildcat Cafe, definitely go there if you ever head to Fort William!

We then took a bit of a detour off our route to the Isle of Skye to go to Glenfinnan, the location of the famous bridge from Harry Potter. It was a very cool thing to see as unlike many ‘movie sites’ it is quite unchanged with special effects in the movie, you feel like you are right there. Unfortunately the Harry Potter train was not running while we were there so we didn’t see any trains go over the bridge, but just seeing the bridge was cool enough. It was also a beautiful walk over the hills for people not interested in the Harry Potter aspect of it (despite the fact it was pretty muddy this time of year).

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We continued along the road towards the Isle of Skye making a quick stop at Eilean Donan Castle. When we arrived the sun was low in the sky making the small castle on the water glow. It was just a small place but it is always beautiful being surprised by little gems as you are driving by.

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It the early evening we arrived in Plockton, a small and tranquil town right on the water. It kind of reminded me a bit of Akaroa in New Zealand. We were very surprised to find in such a small quiet place all of the restaurants were completely booked out. I think it seems to be a popular holiday spot for an older generation and can see why it would be as it’s very relaxed and very beautiful.

Day 4: Plockton →  Portree → The Storr → The Fairy Pools

We woke to a beautiful morning. The sun rose over the water making the white houses on the waterfront shine. Apparently around this area there is a bit of a micro-climate where even if the surrounding area has torrential rain there will be sun and a clear sky here.

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We took a wander around the small peninsula just at the end of the town. We wanted to see if we could see some seals so we did a bit of bush bashing down to the rocky shore to see if we could spy some. Unfortunately we couldn’t spot any so I guess we will have to come back to New Zealand for that. The walk was really pretty though with some great views out over the water. Perfect start to what would turn out to be a very busy day.

From Plockton we headed out to the Isle of Sky. We did a lot of driving taking us to many beautiful spots. The first place we stopped was by the River Sligachan. The light was absolutely stunning here with blue sky on one side and dark clouds on the other making the clear water look a very deep blue. But once again as the rain came in we headed off to our next stop, lunch at Pentree. The restaurant we went to was very nice, however, I wonder if the seafood pâté Elric and I ate may have been stored in a not so perfect way… I have no idea if it was this, but the next three days we were not in the best shape to say the least… Pentree is a very pretty place though, and I’m really loving being able to speak my own language again with random people, even if it’s just the waiters.

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Straight after lunch we headed off to a classic hike on the Isle of Skye to The Old Man of Storr. This is a place where there is a formation of large rocks that look like they are shooting up out of the ground. As we started to walk up the rocks looked like they blended into the cliff behind them, it wasn’t until you were at the top that you saw the formations true beauty. The surrounding landscape was also beautiful with green hills rolling down to the ocean.

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A little further around the peninsula we found the Kilt Rock waterfall. You don’t get the best view from the viewpoint and while we were there a bus load of tourists were fighting for the best photo spots which wasn’t ideal, but it was a pretty waterfall with very unique cliffs surrounding either side.

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After once again running back to the camper to try and beat the rain we headed a little further along the peninsula again to try our luck at finding some fossilized dinosaur footprints at Staffin Beach. Despite our best efforts looking exactly where the map told us to look we decided to give up and move on. Apparently just before us there was a large group of people looking for a long time without finding anything slightly resembling a footprint. Maybe you need to use a decent chunk of your imagination to find them because they certainly aren’t obvious. This was my best shot at finding them anyway, I think I’ll give myself half a point for imagination…

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We continued to drive around the peninsula before heading back east towards where we would stop for the night close to The Fairy Pools. on the southern half of the Isle. Here there is another popular small walk along a waterfall, but we would save that for the light of the morning.

Day 5: The Fairy Pools → Elgol → Bridge of Tilt

We began the day with a little wander around ‘the fairy pools’. The name is a little deceiving because rather than seeing several pools you follow a path along a long waterfall. The water was incredibly clear and beautiful against a stunning mountainous backdrop. Unfortunately though about half way through our walk I began to feel pretty unwell. And with that the next few days would be a bit spoilt by sickness… By the time we headed back to the camper the rain was pouring down and the streets completely packed with cars so it’s a good thing we parked close to the walk last night and headed out early. It is clearly a very popular place to come when in the Isle of Skye.

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Elgol was our next stop, a small town on the rugged coast of the south. It was so windy that it made walking a bit of a struggle but the unique cliffs shooting up out of the water were worth having a look at. After a bite to eat from a cute little cafe called ‘The Shop’ which is also the general store for the town and part of the town hall which is also the school hall (the town is really small), Elric and his parents went for a little wander around the cliffs. I instead had a nap in the camper trying to kill off whatever I had caught, but when Elric got back a little while later the sickness had hit him too… Apparently the walk was very pretty, but I think it would have been a lot more enjoyable without the gale force winds and sickness.

We stopped at a campground close to The Bridge of Tilt for the night so that we could sort out the camper to give back and have some decent showers (I think this is one of the only downsides to camper life). This town looked very beautiful filled with old stone buildings. I’d love to come back and explore a little more when feeling a bit more on top of it. It is also very close to Cairngorms National Park which I’m sure has lots of beautiful spots to find. But we were just happy to get have an early night tonight for sure.

Day 6: Bridge of Tilt → Edinburgh

After a decent sleep in we headed off to explore Edinburgh. I’m very glad we had a wander around despite feeling very unwell. The old streets are beautiful, exactly like you see in photos. The rain was on and off as usual but we are pretty used to that by now and probably added a bit to it’s character. It is clear everybody else is used to the rain too because the streets are still buzzing with people well prepared for any weather. It was pretty funny to watch a rain shower come and go with everybody opening and closing their umbrellas one after another along the street like a musical performance or something. We even came across some street performers playing bagpipes and performing magic tricks, it all felt like a very classic Scottish environment, and I loved it.

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As we walked through the streets we took a few stops in fudge shops and clothing stores all selling outfits in classic tartan. It was pretty cool seeing my classic Scottish last name in most of the shops. I would have really liked to get a big winter scarf in Stewart tartan, but I wasn’t really in the mood for browsing around too much while feeling unwell. I have a good feeling I will be back here though, so next time!

We needed to get up early in the morning to get our flight so we parked in the same spot by the dock where we started. We found out in the morning that it is a beautiful spot to capture the sunrise.

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