On Sunday, Al & I took to the left side of the road for a tour around Scotland. With a limited amount of time, the outer Hebrides and Orkney Islands were out of reach, but our explorations far exceeded our expectations. Scotland is gorgeous. Whether it be the view from vistas above lakes at Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, the misty ancient mountains in Glencoe, or the ever changing, ever lush forest we continuously stumbled into, we spent very little time out of awe with wild Scotland. You’ll find a recap of our route and explorations below alongside a few highlight photos. Our route proved outstanding and is highly recommended to anyone looking for a week long driving tour of Scotland!
Day 1 – We left Durham early in the morning and headed north for a walk around Melrose Abbey, which dates back to the 13th century in it’s original structure. The more recent structure was rebuilt after destruction from English invaders but still boasts a 600 year history. From there, we took a walk through Cottage Garden, a permaculture site, and the oldest food forest in the UK.
In the afternoon, we crept through Edinburgh traffic and into Loch Lomond from the east for a hike up Ben A’an. The 1200 foot ascent challenged our legs, but the view from the top proved well worth the effort. We peered down in awe at two sprawling lakes and took our time hiking down, identifying trees, & stopping on a set of boulders for an afternoon snack. Rain started in only for the last bit of our hike down, for which we were very grateful. Down in the parking lot, we fired up the butane stove & made spicy ramen for dinner before finding our camp spot for the night.
Day 2 – From Callander, we headed north towards Glencoe, not knowing what we’d find. A roadside sign welcomed us to the Highlands and within miles the landscapes transformed dramatically. The rolling hills of sheep disappeared and in their place, misty mountain tops rose high above us. The road narrowed and we twisted through a damp, brown & emerald landscape. “You’re gonna need to take a video of this,” Al instructed me from the driver’s seat. Tour buses became ever present, as did hikers and backpackers on parking pull offs. We found our way into one, to take in the looming mountains in a slower way on foot.
In the visitor center, we regained our bearings, both reveling in the spectacular landscape around us. Al compared it to Iceland, and I agreed with her. These mountains are ancient, more than 400 million years old, & teeming with waterfalls running down steep mountain sides. We doubled back to where we’d already driven, squeezed into a parking area amongst numerous touring vehicles & buses, & hiked up to The Lost Valley. There in 1962, one of Scotland greatest national tragedies occurred, when the Jacobite king ordered the slaughter of the MacDonald clan after his men had been hosted for 12 days. The clan leader was late in pledging his allegiance to the king, and for it many of his clan was wrongfully killed by the king’s soldiers. Others escaped into the mountains where many died in harsh winter conditions. From the bowl of The Lost Valley, I proclaimed, “Long live the MacDonalds!”
Day 3 – From a campsite atop the central mountains of the Isle of Skye, we finally laid down near midnight. The night before we recognized how late the sun was setting. After 10 pm, golden hour was just beginning. Night didn’t fall until midnight, and dawn broke just after 4 am. We had trouble sleeping, but it made for long days exploring. We failed to find Talisker waterfall, for signs deterring us trespassing on private lands. In a parking pull of above a valley of sheep, we shared a mug of Shiraz. The next morning, we took a driving tour around the Isle of Skye, following the road around the Trotternish peninsula & marveling at the deep blue color of the Atlantic ocean so far north. The island mountains of Skye looked like smaller cousins to Glencoe, falling sharply to the sea at their borders.
We found a parking area near Duntulm castle full of tourists exploring the ruins that gave us access to the ocean. Barnacles deterred us from putting our feet in, but we sat & listened to the waves crash, peeking in tide pools full of anemone, limpets, and snails. After 2 days of difficult hikes our legs were tired on our way back to Vana Black, our trusty carriage, up the beach through a meadow and a flock of sheep.
In Glenbrittle, we stretched our legs along an easy hike to the Fairy Pools, highly visited and easily accessible. We climbed down into an empty pool and stripped off our shoes for a soak in the chilling water next to one of many waterfalls. The cacophony of falling water soothed me as Al stared at a mountain upside down. I crossed my legs and meditated to the waterfall and the Mordor like mountain that rose above it. A trek back inland & a drive-by of the Boleskine house for a late evening activity lead us to our campsite for the night, in the valley above Fort Augustus.
Day 4 – We hadn’t planned to explore Fort Augustus but it was a fascinating side adventure! We stopped in for coffee beside a portion of the the Caledonian Canal, built at the turn of the 19th century to connect Inverness in the northeast to Fort William in the southwest. A series of 29 locks linked together 3 lakes & were meant to tamp the risk of ships moving around the tumultuous waters north around Scotland. Unfortunately by the time of its completion in 1822, steam ships had been innovated and were not as vulnerable to the rough northern waters. The Caledonian Canal, pioneered by visionary engineer Thomas Telford, revolutionized labor & engineering in Scotland, & today functions as a recreational & commercial waterway. We stayed around town watching half a dozen small ships be moved up the locks into Loch Ness, & then a charter ship, the Fingal of Caledonia, with a few small boats be transported down. Al & I shared nerd joy about the canals construction & function!
In the afternoon, we arrived in Inverness & checked into the Black Isle Hostel, where we had much needed showers & found a laundromat. An afternoon of regrouping was much needed after 4 days on the road, but by nightfall we shared a nice dinner at Ness Mahal & made friends with a solo Canadian traveler at Black Isle Brewery. We definitely slept better in Vana the night before though, but only because one of our dorm roomies yelled, “Mate! Mate! Are you serious!?” a few times during the night waking the entire room.
Day 5 – We took the morning to wander around Inverness, strolling through the Victorian market, and getting lost in Leakey’s bookstore before needing to renew our street parking voucher. We ate lunch at a popup restaurant, Tiger in the Wall, and kept fried rice & noodle takeaway to have with dinner. Heading out of town, we felt like we’d timed our stay in Inverness nicely, getting enough of its small city centre without missing anything, driving over to the Black Isle.
At Black Isle Permaculture & Arts Center, Clive Brandon toured us around his wife Judy & his 2.5 acre permaculture site, in its 7th year. Clive shone brightly upon our meeting and we shared our backgrounds while he took us around the food forest, through the hen’s backyard, and into his terrace raised beds. On our way around, he shared a binder of information & photos on what the site looked like before cultivation. Grass lawns had turned into dense guilds of herbal, insectary, & food plants. He explained to us how the grass clippings from the walkways were integrated into the composting system. We tasted leaves of lemon balm & apple mint. We gazed in awe of the beauty of lupine, a native Scottish flower, which was in full bloom.
Around the raised beds, he’d weeded to transplant baby annuals, which waited their turn along the path way. Wildlife deterrent fences encircled the beds, with aesthetically placed limbs for function & embellishment. He built a windbreak as part of the fence on the south side of the beds, where the wind howled through. He shared their vision in the space of building a tiered greenhouse on the east side of the garden and asked if we had time to take a walk around the rest of the site.
Al & I walked in awe, taking in so much technical information, following Clive down into the meadow farther away from the house, where he & Judy had woven young willows into archways over the meadow’s walkway. We stopped at a deep nature spring pond in the woods before winding around to two eco cabins that Clive & Judy built recently as vacation rental livelihood.
Inside the smaller of the two, I admired Clive’s woodworking, more deeply after I asked, “And you did most of this on your own?” “All of it,” he answered back humbly. The space was fitted with 12 volt lighting, a foot pump sink in the kitchenette, a shower, & a composting toilet. He shared their vision to donate the living space to volunteers & to artist residents. They’d hosted their first artist in the fall, who worked with natural photography techniques using plants dyes. I’d fallen deep into wonder & awe.
Inside the yurt, Al, Clive, & I took seats as the wind blew in raindrops & I asked Clive about his & Judy’s path to permaculture. We made jokes about being able to survive the apocalypse, & I thanked him (probably too many times) for showing us around. He invited us in for a cup of lemon balm tea & we obliged, connecting more & enjoying nature’s bounty through steeping. “Tuck on in,” he instructed us to sip our tea.
That night we drove into Cairngorms National Park via Aviemore, finding a lovely spot in pine forest off an old logging road. The rain had set in on our drive and didn’t seem like it’d quit soon. We broke into a bottle of wine & waited for a lull to cook potato & leek soup on the stove. It took a lifetime for the kettle to boil, after catching a small fire outside the burner twice, but eventually we slurped up our soup, soaking bread in it, & finishing our leftovers from lunch.
Day 6 – We woke up to rain that had barely quit all night long. It made for a lazy morning. After a PB&J for breakfast, I slid back down into my sleeping back & dozed off, not intending to, but waking up once Al started moving things from the front seats to the back. We’d decided over breakfast to ditch our hiking plans due to the rain & mapped out a scenic drive through the Cairngorms instead. We stopped off for coffee on our way back out through Aviemore & explored through the shops in town. The drive on the Old Military Road through Cairngorms National Park was both challenging & beautiful. Narrow twisting roads opened up to vast valley viewpoints where sheep speckled distant hillsides, giving perspective to the mountains’ size. Like Glencoe & Isle of Skye, we again felt small in the most connected way.
I drove the way back to England while Al navigated & dj’ed, but we made sure not to leave Scotland without a stop at the border & a quick pic. What an adventure it was!
Day 1 –
Newcastle to Coldstream – approx 2 hour drive
stop off at Melrose Abbey & Garden Cottage permaculture site – have lunch
Coldstream to Callander – approx 2.5 hour drive
hike Ben A’an in Loch Lomand National Park – 2.5 mile out & back w/ 1200 ft elevation gain – snack
make dinner & find camping for the night
Day 2 –
Callander to Glencoe – approx 2 hour drive
stop in Glencoe Nature Reserve visitor center
hike The Lost Valley – approx 2.5 miles out & back w/ 800 ft elevation gain – lunch @ summit
Glencoe to Portree, Isle of Skye – approx 3 hour drive
dinner @ Kyleakin on way to Portree (or in Broadford)
restock grocery provisions @ Coop in Portree – explore west of island & find camping
Day 3 –
Driving tour loop around Isle of Skye – approx 3.5 hours
from Portree up to Flodigarry & down west side of Trotternish peninsula
stop at Duntulm Castle – explore ruins & visit the ocean beach
to Glenbrittle for hike @ Fairy Pools – approx 2 miles out & back, easy
drive to Fort Augustus to peer at the Boleskine House, camp above town in the valley
Day 4 –
Into Fort Augustus for coffee & the Caledonian Canal Centre
watch boats travel in the canal locks & marvel at the engineering
midday head to Inverness for the night – approx 1 hour drive along Loch Ness
stay at Black Isle Hostel for the night, wash ourselves & our laundry
Day 5 –
Breakfast & a wander around Inverness – the Victorian market & Leakey’s bookstore
Drive to Black Isle Permaculture & Arts Center – approx 20 minute drive
Drive to Aviemore – approx 1 hour drive
into Cairngorms National Park trailhead, find campsite for the night
Day 6 –
Breakfast at camp, wake up late, back into Aviemore for coffee & light shopping
Scenic drive (Highlands Scenic Snow route) through Cairngorms
from Spey Bridge to Ballater to Perth – approx 3 hour drive
Drive back to Newcastle – approx 5 hour drive, then REST!