Few places in Europe are as wild, wide and unspoilt as the Scottish Highlands. Endless roads lead you from panorama to panorama through landscapes of green valleys, dark lakes and weathered castles. Trot Op! took a road trip from Edinburgh to nearby Glasgow, but made a small 750 mile detour through the rest of Scotland.
Scotland, dear friends, is one of my favourite European destinations. Apart from the occasional sunshine, some skin pigmentation and the decency to wear a pair of trousers from time to time, the Scots have everything one could wish for. You can visit fantastic cities here, almost everyone is both chronically depressed and hilarious at the same time and especially in the north you can walk through imposing, almost uninhabited landscapes that feel like they belong in some dark primeval time. It’s no coincidence that legends like the Loch Ness Monster remain so vivid here. Even the Romans wisely decided not to venture into Scotland. Their legions subjugated the ancestors of the English as if they were a bunch of toddlers, but when they took one look at the Highlands and saw whole hordes of drunk ginger barbarians berserking down the hills, they peed all over their sandals and immediately had a four-metre-high wall raised from coast to coast to keep those half-wits out of their neat little empire.
The ideal Scotland road trip: 10 Highland stops from Edinburgh to Glasgow
In recent times people in Scotland have become a lot calmer, and now anyone who can take a joke can come and visit as they please. I was able to do just that more than a few times during my thirteen years as a travel journalist, and I never regretted it once.
“Scotland is one of my favourite European destinations. After all, apart from the occasional sunshine, some skin pigmentation and the decency to wear a pair of trousers from time to time, the Scots have everything a person could wish for.”
For those who want to take a road trip through Scotland – you’ll get used to driving on the left in about ten minutes – the only burden is the abundance of choice. You’ll pass through small atmospheric villages and along lakes you can sometimes barely see the other side of. You can spend days trekking through regions that could have come straight out of a historical drama and you’ll taste the best whiskies in the world, right on the ground where they cut the peat to dry the barley. For my last trip through Scotland, I mapped out a magnificent route from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Because those two cities are barely an hour’s drive away from each other and you could just take the highway – not all too exciting for a 3000 word article – I decided to make a small detour through almost the entire country and drive through the Highlands to the Isle of Skye, to then head south again via Loch Lomond. Along the way, I listed the ten best stops for the ideal Scotland road trip.
1. Edinburgh: the atmospheric capital
Most road trips through Scotland start in Edinburgh. This is not only because almost all flights land there, but mainly because the Scottish capital is a popular destination for city trips. As far as I’m concerned, Edinburgh is one of the most worthwhile cities to visit in Europe, and the atmosphere it oozes contributes a lot to that. The old town is steeped in history, stretching along the Royal Mile from the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse a Scottish mile away. From that main street full of historic buildings, a whole maze of dark alleys and closes departs, making the Old Town look like something straight out of the Middle Ages. Behind almost every corner and in every cemetery – these are also right in the city – there is some eerie legend lurking. As a result, multiple ghost tours are organized in the city centre. They are always informative, entertaining and nicely disturbing. I already wrote an extensive article on my last city trip to Edinburgh and all the creepy sites you can visit. Read it here.
2. Stirling Castle: the key to the north
Since time immemorial, the road to the Highlands has led through Stirling: a town an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland” is an old saying that for a long time had a lot of truth in it. For centuries, Stirling was one of the most important strategic locations in the British Isles. It’s here that William Wallace and later Robert The Bruce held off the English army. Their statues are still there, and with the National Wallace Monument, Braveheart even got a tower named after him that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Lord of the Rings. Mel Gibson’s film by the way, is a historical travesty for many Scots. Wallace was a nobleman, kilts were centuries from being invented and Gibson’s Australian-Scottish accent didn’t exactly made them go wild either.
“For centuries, Stirling was one of the most important strategic locations in the British Isles. It’s here that William Wallace and Robert the Bruce held off the English army.”
Stirling’s biggest attraction, and the reason for the city’s strategic importance, is Stirling Castle. This is an imposing fortress on an extinct volcano, and the place where Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots used to live. At the end of the nineties, the entire castle was renovated, which came with some controversy. They’d painted the main hall bright yellow on the outside and many locals thought this ridiculous. However, after analysing several old paint samples, that decision turned out to be historically correct. A lot of castles used to get a lick of paint now and then, which invalidates our image of the stereotypical grey medieval castle. This is not illogical: no one likes to live in a depressing pile of dull stones. Inside, the castle was renovated even more beautifully. All royal apartments can be visited and are richly decorated with handmade furniture, beautiful wooden ceilings and tapestries woven on site. You’ll be shown around by costumed guides who manage to stay in character without it becoming awkward.
Other interesting spots to visit in Stirling:
–The Church of the Holy Rude: old church in a beautiful graveyard, and the only surviving church outside Westminster Abbey where a coronation took place.
–Argyll’s Lodging: 17th century mansion where I had a very nice meal ten years ago. Admission is free for those with a ticket for Stirling Castle. It’s currently being renovated.
3. Glencoe: a first glimpse of the Scottish Highlands
When you drive from Stirling to Fort William – the end point of the West Highland Way: one of the most famous long-distance walks in the UK – you have to pass through Glencoe. This is a misty long valley full of jagged peaks (the Three Sisters are the most photogenic), deep gorges and thundering waterfalls that was carved out by glaciers during the ice ages. Here you’re officially out of the Lowlands and you’ll notice that immediately. Glencoe is one of Scotland’s most popular outdoor destinations. You can go for winter sports, rafting and mountain biking, or you can spend the night in so-called micro lodges (which look like large wooden sausages) in the mountains. Above all, you can make beautiful walks while feeling utterly insignificant compared to the overwhelming nature all around. Because we’re of course still in Scotland, Glencoe also has a dark story attached to it. At the end of the 17th century, the most important members of the rebellious MacDonald clan were massacred here by soldiers loyal to the king. In their own home nonetheless, after the MacDonalds had first invited them in as guests for an entire week. A Red Wedding avant la lettre, in a setting that would have fitted perfectly in Game of Thrones.
4. Loch Ness: lots of water but no Nessie
At first glance, Loch Ness doesn’t look all too different from the rest of the Scottish Lochs, but it’s still one of the most famous lakes in the world. This is of course due to the monster that keeps getting spotted by some idiots every other year, who always happen to have forgotten their phones that day so they couldn’t make any actual footage. To tempt fate a bit, I dipped my feet in the icy water at Fort Augustus near the southern tip of the lake. To my great surprise, a Nessie came swimming towards me almost immediately. A black labrador of the same name that is, who’d jumped in after a tennis ball – popular dog name here. At the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit (try and put that on your envelopes) you can learn all about the myth and why there’s almost certainly no truth in it. Although Loch Ness contains more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined – depth in some places: 230 metres – the fish stock is unfortunately far too small to sustain plesiosaurs or other prehistoric monsters. In all likelihood, Nessie was a stray sturgeon, seal or even an overturned rowing boat. Fortunately, the lake itself is pretty as well.
5. The Isle of Skye: Schotland in its purest form
For many, The Isle of Skye is the highlight of a road trip through the Scottish Highlands. It’s a sparsely populated island full of bizarre rock formations, unspoiled landscapes and a coast that alternates rugged cliffs with idyllic bays. When the light breaks through the clouds, you’re almost literally walking through a painting. Portree, with its colourful harbour, is the main village on the island, but has a population of less than 2.500 people. On Skye, it’s mostly nature attracting the crowds. The Quiraing for example, is an almost otherworldly-looking landscape full of strange bulges. These are the result of a series of landslides that are still going on – the road leading here has to be repaired almost every year. The Old Man of Storr is another insane looking rock formation, and the hike up to it is the most popular on the island. More of a fan of waterfalls? Then head to the Fairy Pools: an azure blue basin between the rocks with a whole bunch of waterfalls pouring down into it.
“For many, Skye is the highlight of a road trip through Scotland. It’s a sparsely populated island full of bizarre rock formations, unspoiled landscapes and a coast that alternates steep cliffs with idyllic bays.”
You can eat surprisingly well on a small island like Skye. The Three Chimneys is an ex-Michelin restaurant in an old cottage where you can still go for some very fine dining to then stay the night. Kinloch Lodge is another venue that once had a star: a small hotel with a top-notch restaurant in the south of Skye. The two old country houses look out over the water from a hill and are the only buildings in the area. Need even more privacy? The Storr Apartments are two luxurious studio apartments on a lake just outside Portree.
6. Go for a speed boat safari along the Skye coast
It’s often only from the water that the Skye landscape fully unfolds. Several companies offer boat tours around the island, ranging from slow and comfortable tourist boats to speedboats that reach more than 60km/h. I picked option two and was soon racing along the jagged west coast in a rib-boat from AquaXplore. If you’re lucky, you’ll see dolphins and (sometimes) even orcas on a sea safari, but neither of them showed up on my ride. On a stop in the beautiful Loch Scavaig, I did see a colony of a few hundred seals, some of which even came swimming to the boat. Behind Loch Scavaig lies the inland lake Loch Coruisk. Here, thin little waterfalls make their way down past jet-black rocks, and purple foxgloves stand out against the wet grass. When the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, the rain-soaked black rocks reflected the sunlight, making them look like quicksilver mirrors. Yes, you get to see some stuff when you travel.
7. The Talisker Distillery: drink one of the world’s best whiskies
The Isle of Skye has the perfect soil for making whisky: it’s basically a giant rock with water running off of it. Strangely, Talisker is one of the only single malts produced here. The distillery was opened on a beautiful location in the bay of the same name in 1830, and according to connoisseurs like Michael Jackson – the booze expert, not the pop star – it’s one of the best whiskies on the planet. On one of my very first press trips ever, I was invited here for a gala evening in a large tent in the bay (back when the tourist offices still had the big bucks) and whole Talisker bottles were put on the table during dinner. Even before the main course, half of my table mates had already told me their entire life story. The Scots believe that good whisky always brings back memories of the place where you drank it for the first time, and they’re right. I still have a bottle of Talisker at home, and with every occasional glass I smell wet grass, peat and the sea. If I had drunk it first in the local 7Eleven parking lot, my memory might have been a tad more vague. I guess we’ll never know.
8. The Glenfinnan Viaduct: waiting for the Hogwarts Express
Edinburgh is often cited as the city that served as the inspiration for the Harry Potter books. That’s because J.K. Rowling lived here when she wrote them. Scenes for the films though – at least as far as I know – were not actually shot there. Many other places in Scotland (and Ireland) did serve as a backdrop. The lake around Hogwarts is Loch Schiel; the waterfall where Harry gets chased by the dragon is Steall Falls and Hagrid’s hut is quite clearly located in Glencoe discussed above. The most iconic and instantly recognizable Harry Potter location however, is the Glenfinnan Viaduct. This is the stone train bridge the Hogwarts Express thunders over in the first few films. It looks exactly the same in real life. Twice a day, the old steam train that was used in the films still passes over it photogenically (at 10.45 am and at 3.00 pm). This always attracts at least a few Harry Potter fans, so you probably won’t be there alone around those times.
9. Loch Lomond: singing student songs in their natural habitat
“By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond…” Anyone who’s ever been in a student fraternity still knows this phrase by heart. It’s the intro to one of the most popular sing-alongs in the Belgian student codex. It never occurred to me that it was also an actual lake you could visit. The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is the oldest national park in Scotland however, and also one of the most popular. Loch Lomond is a vast lake above Glasgow, surrounded by rugged hills and verdant forests. Perfect day trip for Glaswegians who want to enjoy the ten days of sunshine they are blessed with each year. You can book boat tours on the lake here, or rent a kayak yourself and explore the islands. If you like something more intense, you can climb Ben Lomond: an impressive mountain 1000m high mountain that’s also in the song. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the shores of of Loch Lomond, and decided to pour one down the hatch to keep the tradition alive. Prosit senior, prosit corona.
10. Glasgow: a city with a sense of humour
The last day of my road trip through Scotland took me to a very drizzly Glasgow. The contrast with the more refined Edinburgh is quite stark. Glasgow is an ex-industrial blue-collar city. At first glance, it feels like you’re walking around in the movie Trainspotting and everything looks grey and depressing – the British Charleroi, so to speak – but if you still think that’s the case after your first walk, you haven’t looked closely enough. Glasgow has plenty of beautiful architecture and parks, and the nightlife is pretty wild. There are also several top museums to visit, with the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum as the flagship. It’s located in a massive Victorian building and has everything from dinosaurs and taxidermied animals to art by Dali and Rembrandt. It even has a WWII Spitfire hanging from the ceiling.
“Glasgow is an ex-industrial blue-collar city where at first glance everything looks somewhat grey and depressing. But if you think still think that’s the case after your first walk, you haven’t looked closely enough.”
What makes Glasgow especially unique is the hard-hitting humour and self-mockery of its inhabitants. The most iconic image in the city is a perfect example of this. In front of the Gallery of Modern Art is a heroic equestrian statue of the first Duke of Wellington. Sometime in the early 1980s, a few drunk college students climbed the statue to adorn the Duke’s head with an orange traffic cone. Every time the city services removed the improvised hat, a day or so later a new one (or a nice stack of three) was added in its place. Because the removal costs amounted to more than £10,000 annually, the city decided to put an end to the joke indefinitely and a plan was drawn up to double the height of the pedestal. When the plan was announced, half of Glasgow went raging. In one day 10,000 signatures were collected; a ‘Keep the Cone’ Facebook group grew to 72,000 members in less than 24 hours and even a protest rally was organized. Today, of course, the cone is still there.
Hotels for a road trip through Scotland
I stayed in the following hostels and hotels while on my trips
–Edinburgh Backpackers – Edinburgh: nice hostel with a number of private rooms ten meters from the Royal Mile.
–Hotel Du Vin – Edinburgh: beautiful wine hotel near Greyfriars Kirkyard
–Cruachan Hotel – Fort William: simple but cosy hotel in a mansion next to a lake in Fort William.
–Tingle Creek Hotel – Kyle of Lochalsh: small hotel in beautiful scenery opposite the coast of Skye. Not far from Eilean Donan Castle (main photo and one of the most photographed buildings in Scotland).
–Storr Apartments – Isle of Skye
–Kinloch Lodge – Isle of Skye
–Oak Tree Inn – Loch Lomond: hotel that also rents out cottages on the shores of Loch Lomond.
–Glasgow Youth Hostel – Glasgow: large hostel in Glasgow near Kelvingrove Park.