UK 2009: The Scottish Highlands

This is the second of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. The first is here. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a lot of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future. You can see a map of our entire trip here.


July 5

After arriving in Edinburgh, we picked up our luggage and made our way to the rental car pick-up area. When we got to the counter and confirmed our reservation, we pointed to our stack of suitcases and asked if the car was going to be big enough – this was our biggest worry about the car rental. The attendant said “Let’s go find out”, and she grabbed a set of keys, left the counter, and walked outside. The four of us followed her with the luggage until we found ourselves in front of a black four-door Toyota Avensis. She opened the trunk and we instantly knew we were fine. We grabbed the biggest suitcase and put it in the trunk and marvelled at how much space there still was. While Gail and the boys put the cases in the car and unpacked the car seats, I returned with the attendant to the desk to get the paperwork signed. A few minutes later, we were on our way. After a brief stop at a nearby Marks and Spencer’s to pick up a couple more pairs of shorts for me, we fired up the GPS we borrowed from some friends and headed north for Pitlochry. Sitting on the wrong right-hand side of the car wasn’t as big a change as I expected (though I was glad that we got an automatic, shifting gears with my wrong left hand would have added to the challenge), but driving on the wrong left-hand side of the road took a bit of getting used to. I asked Gail to tell me if I was too far left (i.e. partially on the shoulder), and I figured the drivers coming the other way would let me know if I was too far right. Thankfully, they never had to.

We crossed the Forth Road Bridge out of Edinburgh and about an hour and a half of relatively uneventful driving later, we arrived in Pitlochry. We stayed at a lovely little B&B called Dalshian House, just outside of town. This was the first time that Gail and I had ever stayed at a B&B. We had a family room, with a queen bed and two singles. We asked for a dinner recommendation and headed into town to a place called “The Auld Smiddy” where we had a wonderful meal. After dinner, we went to a little place across the street to get ice cream cones, and walked down to the Pitlochry dam and fish ladder. Everything was closed but we walked around anyway for a little while before heading back to the B&B and the boys watched some Harry Potter before bed.


July 6

Breakfast at Dalshian House was more like a restaurant than any other B&B we stayed at, in that there were menus given to us at breakfast time. In the other B&Bs, we got a menu the day before and filled it out for the next morning before going to bed. After breakfast, we checked out and drove up to Killiecrankie, where we planned on doing the entire 16km walk. But it was just starting to rain when we got to the visitor’s centre, and within a few minutes the skies just opened. After waiting and hoping for ten or fifteen minutes, we heard thunder and decided that the rain was not going to let up anytime soon. Even if it did, we were going to be on this walk for several hours, so if the skies opened again when we were halfway through the walk, it would be a very wet and uncomfortable morning indeed. This turned out to be a good decision, since it rained on and off most of the day. We decided to skip the walk and drove to nearby Blair Castle. The boys were kept far more entertained at this castle than at most of the chateaux we visited in France – when we walked in the door, the people working there asked the boys if they wanted to do a treasure hunt. The staff had gone through the castle and put together a bunch of questions based on the information in each room, and hidden a little white ribbon cross in each room. You had to find the cross and answer the questions and turn the sheet in at the end, and then there was a monthly prize draw. There were questions like “In the dining room, who painted the portrait on the wall?” and “In the tapestry room, when was the oldest tapestry made?” We had never seen that kind of activity before, but the kids enjoyed it, and we certainly appreciated it. We subsequently saw similar things at a couple of other castles.

After Blair Castle, we drove another hour and a half further north to our next B&B, Dunlichity House near Inverness. This one was quite remote; at least fifteen minutes along a small B-road off of the main highway. This was my first experience driving on a single-lane road. If it was a busy road it might have been nerve-wracking – there were lots of “passing places” where you had to pull in to allow cars going the other way to pass by (or they would pull in to allow you to go by) – but there was essentially no traffic, so it was no big deal. The B&B was a beautiful little place; only three guest rooms, and on our first night there, we were the only guests. The room had a queen bed and bunk beds for the boys, as well as a TV with DVD player. There was a small library of DVDs available, so the boys watched “Because of Winn-Dixie” before bed. Gail read in the room, and I read in the little lounge across the hall from our room. The lounge had a CD player in it with a collection of CDs – the one in the player was David Gilmour’s excellent album “On An Island”. I played that followed by Pink Floyd’s Echoes while reading and had a very relaxing evening.


July 7

This day was one of my favourite days on this vacation, a driving tour around Loch Ness. We started out by having a full Scottish breakfast including cereal, eggs, bacon, beans, and sausage, and I also had haggis. I’ve had it a few times before – it’s like a spicy sausage made with various types of meat (mainly organs). In the old days, it was made and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach, but they just use sausage casings these days. I really enjoyed it, though nobody else was willing to try it. With full tummies, we drove south-west to the Falls of Foyers, where we walked around a short trail (maybe 1 km). On the way there, we saw both a male and female pheasant, a few roe deer, and of course many sheep. We continued south-west to Fort Augustus, at the far end of Loch Ness. We stopped there for lunch, watched a woman create little Nessies out of glass (and bought a couple), watched some boats navigating the locks there, and the boys took their shoes and socks off and played a little in the frigid loch.

We continued our drive on the other side of the Loch, driving north-east to Drumnadrochit, home of Urquhart Castle and a couple of Nessie exhibits. We went to see one such exhibit, which was a movie about the legend of the Loch Ness monster, as well as a “conveniently-located gift shop”. This is one of our little jokes about touristy places – many of these types of exhibits (or even rides at places like Disney World)  empty out directly into a gift shop, so you cannot exit the attraction without having been given the opportunity to buy overpriced trinkets. Very convenient.

The drive continued north-east to Inverness, where we had dinner at a pub called Maverick’s before heading back to Dalshian House.


July 8

After more haggis for breakfast (yum!) we left Dunlichity House and drove to Inverness, where we spent a couple of hours doing laundry. Once the clothes were clean, dry, and folded, we headed west to the Isle of Skye. The GPS pointed us down the highway on the north side of Loch Ness through Drumnadrochit again, but rather than retracing our steps from the previous day, we drove further north and took a slightly different route, through the middle of the highlands. There were tall green mountains on either side of the car, lots of heather, and of course lots of sheep. The scenery was incredible. One thing we noticed in this part of Scotland was that place names on the highway signs had the Gaelic equivalents underneath the English names. After a couple of hours, we arrived at Eilean Donan Castle, one of the oldest castles in Scotland. After a tour of the castle, we continued over the Skye Bridge onto the Isle of Skye. One of the first things I noticed was that the street signs had changed – now the place names were in Gaelic with English underneath. Apart from that, Skye didn’t look much different from where we had just been driving, but as it turned out, that’s because we were at the south end of the island. We headed for Port Righ (Portree in English), which was a half-hour from the bridge. The further north we went, the less Skye looked like mainland Scotland – the mountains weren’t any bigger, but some of them were craggier and less smooth than the ones in the highlands. Portree is a cute little town, and we had a bit of a time finding our hotel. The front door is right on the main street, but to get to the parking lot you had to basically turn left onto a street that was one way the other way and then immediately turn left again onto another street, though the calling that second one a “street” was generous. It was more of an alley with a stone wall on one side and garbage dumpsters and storage bins on the other, leaving enough room for the width of our car plus a few inches. The hotel itself, the Urquhart Caledonian Hotel, was very nice though – once again we had a queen bed plus bunk beds. We went down to the bar/restaurant (I usually avoid restaurants in hotels since they’re generally overpriced, but this one was very reasonably priced – for the UK, anyway) for dinner, where I was very excited to have my first-ever Guinness. I generally like dark beer, but I had a bad experience with Guinness once (I took a big swig thinking it was root beer) so I’d been avoiding it. The impression I’ve always had about Guinness is that like Alexander Keith’s, those who like it like it a lot, so I gave it a try, but I guess I’m not in that camp. It was very smooth, but I wasn’t too fond of the taste. The John Smith’s ale I had the next week was much better.


July 9

We had a very nice breakfast at the hotel, and then strolled down to the pier in Portree and then back up to a visitor’s centre and gift shop (of course) to buy some souvenirs. During breakfast, we happened to ask our server for some advice on things to see on Skye, expecting a 30-second conversation. She proceeded to give us detailed directions and advice on what to see and what not to see on the island. We planned on driving north from Portree to the tip of the island, then heading west to Uig (pronounced “OO-ig”) and back south again, but she recommended going the other way – heading towards Uig first, then driving east back across the island (not all the way up to the tip) and then back down towards Portree. This turned out to be excellent advice, because the little single-lane road we took across the island from Uig contained some of the most amazing scenery of the entire trip. There was a little parking lot near the east end of the road that we stopped at and climbed some of the nearby hills for a while, which was a lot of fun. We drove back down towards Portree, and then back west towards Dunvegan. Our tour guide breakfast server had recommended we not pay to see Dunvegan Castle – she said it’s a nice castle, but very overpriced and since we’d already seen Eilean Donan, it wasn’t worth it for us to pay to see Dunvegan. From Dunvegan, we took a beautiful drive down the west side of the island to Armadale, where we took a half-hour ferry ride back to the Scottish mainland, arriving at Mallaig. From Mallaig, we drove towards our next B&B near Fort William. On the way, we stopped at Glenfinnan to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a huge railway bridge seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our B&B, the Kilmalyn Guest House, was actually in a town called Corpach, just outside of Fort William, and despite being in a two-hundred-year-old house, the room was very bright and modern, with an amazing view of Ben Nevis and the surrounding mountains. (We were in bedroom 1 – the purple one.) The huge bathroom had just been redone and looked very modern, complete with halogen lights in the floor. Though beautiful, the design of this new bathroom was a little odd – who puts a clear (not frosted) glass door on a bathroom, especially right in front of the toilet? Also the bathroom door didn’t latch closed properly and even if it had, there was no lock. Obviously bathroom privacy wasn’t a big deal for this guy. Other than that, the room was very comfortable and the owner and his family were very friendly. We asked for a restaurant recommendation in Fort William, and he suggested we try a pizza place called The Stables. The next morning when we thanked him for the recommendation, he admitted that it was his brother’s place. At first I was a little annoyed by this obviously biased recommendation, but we did specifically ask for a pizza place and the pizza was excellent.


July 10

After breakfast (even more haggis!), we went to Nevis Ridge, and took the gondola up the mountain (called Aonach Mor), where there are a couple of walking trails at the top. The boys loved the gondola ride, and the views were stunning. We grabbed lunch at the base of the mountain, and continued on our way south towards a town called Ballachulish, where we had read somewhere about a chocolate factory. Once there, we found that the factory was closed, but the person at the visitor’s centre told us about a little road leading towards the town of Dalness. She suggested that we take a little drive down that road for some of the most beautiful views of the highlands, and she just might have been right. It weaved through the bottom of the mountains right alongside a little river. We saw some people camping alongside the road, and a number of empty cars parked off to the side whose owners were presumably hiking nearby. We didn’t get all the way to Dalness, but we really enjoyed this little detour.

We continued south, along the west short of Loch Lomond, and this is where the driving got a little scary. The road was two lanes all the way, but each lane was just wider than the car. In addition, there was a stone wall on each side and no shoulder. To top it all off, there were lots of curves and it was one of the busiest highways we’d seen thus far. I’d really enjoyed driving in Scotland up to that point, but that hour of the drive wasn’t as much fun. Eventually we got to the south end of the loch, and drove through Glasgow towards Hamilton. The highways we took didn’t go near downtown, so this was really all we saw of Glasgow. But I’ve been to Glasgow before, and if I had to choose between seeing Glasgow and seeing Edinburgh, I’d choose Edinburgh in a heartbeat.

Our hotel in Hamilton was the Premier Inn right off of the northbound motorway, so we had to pass it going southbound, turn around, get back on the motorway going northbound, and then pull off at the next exit. The majority of my family lives in or near Larkhall (further south), so over the next four days, we became very familiar with the roundabout at the next motorway exit, since we had to do the same thing every day – go north to that exit, turn around at the roundabout and go south on the motorway, and then continue to Larkhall. After the lovely little B&Bs we’d stayed at in the highlands, the room at the Premier Inn could best be described as functional. It had walls and a ceiling, beds and a bathroom, and a TV for checking the weather on the BBC. The room we were given had a queen bed and a day bed with a trundle, which meant that one of the boys would basically be sleeping on a single mattress on the floor. For one night this would have been fine, but we were there for four nights, so we asked if there was a bigger family room. There was, but it wasn’t available until the next night, so we spent one night in the first room and then they moved us to the other one.

When we arrived, we called my Aunt Sandra to let her know that we had arrived, and she invited us for dinner tea. We went there and visited for a little while before heading back to bed.

Thus ended phase two of the trip, and the next day began phase three, visiting with my family. After four days with family, we did more sightseeing in Edinburgh, so that will be included in the phase three posting, which will be posted soon is here.


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