Visiting Scotland (part 3)

This is part three of my three-part series of posts about what I recommend on a visit to Scotland. I'm writing posts because I get asked a lot and this is easier than repeating myself a bunch of times.

You can get part 1 of the series here – dealing with Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, and general links to agencies and our past photo posts – and part 2 of the series here – dealing with the Isle of Skye.

Part 3: Road trips

There are a lot of cool places to see in Scotland but I don't have time to write a travel book or extensive posts about all of them (except the two previous ones). In this post I'm going to list some of my favorite driving routes that allow you to see a bunch of cool scenery and/or places along with a few pointers to specific items. I recommend getting the Ordinance Survey Landranger series of maps that cover the routes you're going to drive as they list all kinds of interesting historical things to see. For all of these I also recommend doing more research of the routes and places to stop, depending on what you like to do. Many of the places listed here have whisky distilleries nearby or clan centers. I've put in wikipedia links (if existing) the first time a place is mentioned.

  • Glasgow to Crianlarich. This goes along the A82 road that skirts the side of Loch Lomond, one of the most picturesque, and the largest, bodies of water in the UK. For the adventurous, take a detour along the other side of the loch to Rowardennan and climb Ben Lomond. Luss is a pretty village to stop at – many times I've jumped off its pier into the loch. Make sure to stop at the hydro plant alongside the A82 (you can't miss it – four giant pipes climbing the mountainside to the reservoir at the top). Crianlarich is a railway junction where the Callendar & Oban and West Highland railways converged. The next stop, Tyndrum, has two stations – one for the Oban line and one for the Fort William line.
  • Arrochar to Oban via Inverary. This is one of my most favorite drives in all of Scotland. Get to Arrochar on the A814 – either coming through Helensburgh (which is my home town in Scotland) and Garelochhead on the A814 past the giant submarine base as Faslane (the reason we moved to Helensburgh in 1977) or crossing over from Tarbet on the A82 using the A83. If you go through Helensburgh, stop at the Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The A83 skirts the head of the imaginatively-named Loch Long and then heads up the old military road to the pass called the Rest and Be Thankful. Stop and look down the hill at what you've just come up, and marvel at the old road which rises precipitously below you. Continue down to Loch Fyne and stop in at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar – a wonderful place to eat seafood. Continue along the road to Inverary. As you go over the bridge at the traffic lights outside the town, look to the right to see the impressive Inverary Castle, seat of the Duke of Argyll. Inverary is good to stop and walk around – lots of things to do. Continue down the A83 through excellent scenery to Lochgilphead. From here you can take a long detour down to Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre, from which you'll be able to see Northern Ireland on a good day. You can also go a little north and go left on the B841 to explore the old churches, 700-year old grave stones and crosses at Kilmory and Kielmore, with excellent views to the Paps of Jura. You can walk down to the cool ruins of Castle Sween. Crinan is also worth stopping at – the start of the Crinan Canal. Continue up the A816 to one of my top five places in the world, Kilmartin. There's an excellent visitor center here, along with 5000-year old stone circles, standing stones, and Neolithic burial chambers. Continue north to Oban, stopping every so often to see if you can see any sea eagles, particularly at the large marina, Craobh Haven. Oban is a cool place with lots to do – I recommend walking down the pier and getting some fresh seafood.
  • Oban to Crianlarich. The A85 from Oban passes through some cool little villages, with Connel Ferry being the first. There's no ferry any longer since the bridge was built. Loch Etive drains into the sea here and the tidal rush can be extreme, especially when sea kayaking or in a boat. Taynuilt is worth stopping at for the old Bonawe Iron Furnace. Stop at the Cruachan power station and also take a detour to see a replica crannog in Loch Awe. From there it's downhill to Tyndrum, unless you take a detour along the B8074 through Glen Orchy up to Bridge of Orchy on the A82. I once saw a pair of huge Golden Eagles in the road there.
  • Oban to Fort William via Ballachulish. At Connel Ferry, turn left on the A828 towards Ballachulish. A great little road – make sure to check out Barcaldine Castle and the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary – I took a school trip there by train from Helensburgh when I was 9. At Portnacroish you'll see Castle Stalker, which is the castle at the end of the movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail. There's also a great little luxury hotel with excellent food at Port Appin. From there you'll drive up the side of Loch Linnhe, eventually joining the A82 at Ballachulish and heading up the nondescript road to Fort William. There isn't a huge amount to do in Fort William – it's more a place to rest and stay overnight if you're skiing, climbing, walking or touring.
  • Crianlarich to Fort William through Glen Coe. After Tyndrum you'll climb up into the mountains. When you reach the top of the hill, you'll see the railway line and a trail on your right, which both go to Fort William. The trail is the famous West Highland Way, which starts just outside Glasgow – I've never done it, but my younger brother did a few years back. Continue to look on your right to see the horseshoe curve the railway line makes as it traverses three mountains. After passing through Bridge of Orchy, the road heads downhill to Loch Tulla. Here you'll go through a distinctive bridge, which marks the south end of Rannoch Moor. The other bridge is at the entrance to Glen Coe. You'll climb a steep hill and then you're on Rannoch Moor proper. Make sure to stop along the way and get some reflection photos in one of the little bodies of water by the road. After cross the moor, you'll see a giant mountain right in front of you – this is Buachaille Etive Mòr (colloquially known simply as The Buachialle pronounced 'The Boo-kal'). A cool detour goes down Glen Etive, where I must have spent 20-odd nights over the years camped beside the river while hill walking. Glen Coe is steeped in history, most notably the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. It's also got some of the most amazing scenery in Scotland – I think it's best seen in overcast weather, when the mountains look like they're brooding. There are numerous cool walks to take, from strolls to hard-core roped-up mountaineering – this is one of the most popular walking and climbing destinations in Scotland. Make sure to stop at the visitor center in Glencoe Village. From there you follow the road around to Ballachulish and up to Fort William.
  • Train to Fort William. Optionally, take the train from Glasgow to Fort William – a stunning ride through desolate countryside. It rides up high along the side of Loch Lomond too and goes through my home town of Helensburgh.
  • Ardnamurchan Peninsula. This is a great place to go camping, especially by the side of Loch Sunart. It's pretty remote but has some wonderful beaches and plenty of camping space. You get there from the A830 almost at Mallaig or by taking the Corarn Ferry just south of Fort William (I've done both). Drive down to the ferry to the Isle of Mull, cross over to Tobermory (a very picturesque little town) and then head down to Fhionnphort and take the ferry to the isle of Iona to see the ancient Iona Abbey (which I've yet to do). You can also get to Tobermory by ferry from Oban (which is what I've done in the past).
  • Fort William to Inverness. This drive takes you along the Great Glen. Stop at Fort Augustus to see all the river locks. You can also rent a barge or boat and motor/sail between the town and the city. Check out the very cool remains of Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness and see if you can see the monster :-) There's a visitor center in nearby Drumnadrochit that has a giant Loch Ness Monster that your kids will like. Inverness has a lot of cool things to see but I've never stayed overnight there as I much prefer being out on the West Coast.
  • Perth to Inverness. This follows the A9 road. Be careful when driving it as it's a notorious accident blackspot. Places to visit include Dunkeld, The Hermitage, Pitlochry, Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, Aviemore, the Cairngorms, and all the whisky distilleries around the River Spey (collectively known as the Speyside Malts). I can recommend the Hilton Coylumbridge where they also have lodges for rent. Also checkout the Culloden Battefield and visitor center – the site of the decisive battle that ended the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.
  • Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh. Follow the A82 to the junction with the A87, maybe driving up to the Aonach Mòr ski center just north of Fort William. On the A87, make sure to stop at the viewpoint overlooking Loch Garry, which from there looks like a map of Scotland. Loch Cluanie is very interesting depending on the height of the water. You can get down to the foot of the Cluanie dam and there's an overlook too. At the far end of the loch, stop at the Cluanie Inn for some soup and a beer. You then drive down through picturesque Glen Shiel to Shiel Bridge. Here you can take a detour over the Man Ratagan to Glenelg (where there's an excellent broch to see) and get on to Skye through the ferry there. Continuing along the A87 you'll pass the world famous (from the movie Highlander) Eilean Donan castle – well worth a visit – before arriving in Kyle of Lochalsh.
  • Skye. See my second post in the series.
  • Kyle of Lochalsh to Torridon. This is another of my favorite drives in all of Scotland. It takes you through Lochcarron (maybe take a detour to Plockton on the way) and over the (in)famous Bealach-na-Ba road to Applecross, one of my top five favorite places on the planet. You can read all about that trip in my photo post from 2009. After driving north, with stunning views across to Skye and Raasay, you'll come to Loch Torridon with stunning views of the Torridon mountains, eventually joining the A832. For a short trip, turn right towards the A890 and then right again towards Kyle of Lochalsh. For the more adventurous, turn left and head around the Gairloch pensinsula. Lots of excellent views and deserted beaches. When you get to Gruinard, look out at the island. It's where the British government tested anthrax during WWII. It's safe now, apparently… Also check out the excellent Inverewe Garden. When you reach the A835, turn right to head south towards the A832 junction to make a loop back to Kyle of Lochalsh.
  • Ullapool to Durness. From Inverness or Kyle of Lochalsh, you'll eventually end up on the A835 if you want to go north west of Ullapool. Make sure to stop at Corrieshalloch Gorge. Ullapool is also the main ferry port for the Outer Hebrides islands. From Ullapool, drive north on the A835 and turn left when you hit the A837. Follow this north and then west to Lochinver. From Lochinver, take the B869 road around the peninsula and make sure to stop at Achmelvich. It's a great place to camp and has a stunning beach – check out the little ranger hut too. The road is single-track, very twisty, and very steep in places – definitely for the adventurous. Whichever way you go, you'll end up on the A894. At Kylesku you'll go over the only bridge over the Atlantic and here was the one time I had to stop driving in the middle of the road because the rain was coming down so hard I literally couldn't see, even with the wipers on full. Make sure you have a hat :-) Continue north through stunning scenery until you get to Durness. There's nothing much at Kinlochbervie so I don't recommend taking that side trip.
  • Durness to John o' Groats. If you can, spend the day at Durness – the most sparsely populated area in Western Europe. There are utterly stunning beaches just a little east of the village and also just to the west of where the road enters the village. You absolutely must see the fabulous Smoo Cave just to the west of the village, where a 60 foot waterfall goes under the road and into a chamber you can access. If you can, go visit the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. This is driving along the Pentland Firth – one of the roughest bodies of water around the UK and partially what persuaded me not to follow my Father's footsteps in the Royal Navy. You'll go past Loch Eriboll where the German U-boats surrendered in WWII after the Battle of the Atlantic, Tongue (where you can cut south to Inverness), and Thurso – the main ferry port for Orkney and the nearest town to the Dounreay nuclear reactor where my Father was stationed for a small time. Take a detour to Dunnet Head (the most northerly point of the British mainland – check out the lighthouse and sea stacks) before heading to John o' Groats (often mistakenly referred to as the most northerly point).

There's easily several week's worth of things to do here and the driving can be done in small chunks as the country isn't really big. You can get from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Kyle of Lochalsh in about 6 hours on a good day.

There are many, many more places to see – I didn't even touch on areas south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, The Trossachs, or in eastern Scotland – but I ran out of time – the series took me about 6 hours altogether.

I hope you've enjoyed my series of blog posts and they prove useful to some of you!

Visiting Scotland (part 2)

This is part two of my three-part series of posts about what I recommend on a visit to Scotland. I'm writing posts because I get asked a lot and this is easier than repeating myself a bunch of times.

You can get part 1 of the series here – dealing with Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, and general links to agencies and our past photo posts – and part 3 of the series here – dealing with driving tours of the west and north west.

Part 2: Isle of Skye

Some of the coolest places to visit in Scotland are the various islands. I haven't been to the Orkney, Shetland, or the Outer Hebrides (Lewis, Harris, etc) but I have spent several months of my life over the last 20 years exploring Skye (and I'm taking Kimberly and our girls there in July).

  (Image borrowed from Lonely Planet – see here for their Isle of Skye guide.)

The Gaelic name for Skye is Eailean a' Cheo, which stands for Island of Clouds. It's a gorgeous place with high, jagged mountains (the Cuillin), fabulous sandy beaches, and breathtaking views. But it can also be very wet and windy, especially on the western side of the island that looks out over The Minch – the stormy body of water between Skye and the mainland and the Outer Hebrides. Winds up to 80mph have been recorded with average rainfall on the island of 60-80 inches. Best time for good weather is May.

When I first started going to Skye, you could only get to it by ferry, with the main ferry operated by Caledonian Macbrayne and taking a couple of minutes to go from Kyle of Lochalsh (on the mainland) to Kyleakin (on Skye). Now it's been replaced with an ugly bridge between the two that was the cause of much protest when it was built in the 1990s.

I'd advise you to take the ferry that goes between Glenelg and Kylerhea (here it is when we got off it in 2009). There's another multi-hour ferry that goes between Mallaig (on the mainland) and Armadale on Skye. I've never taken it.

 

It's called the Glenelg ferry. This is a 6-car ferry and is the only surviving turntable ferry in Scotland. It's a far more romantic way to get to Skye than going over the bridge. The narrow waterway that the ferry crosses has one of the strongest tidal rushes in the UK – more than 12 knots during a Spring tide.

When you get to the other side, take the first right into a little car park. It's the car park for the short walk to the sea otter viewing hide – I've seen them before!

You'll notice that most of the roads apart from the main A87 up to the Outer Hebrides ferries at Uig, parts of the Portree to Staffin road, and parts of the Sligachan to Dunvegan road, are single track roads. They're excellent fun to drive in something like a Landrover and I advise renting an SUV of some kind. I get mine from Aberdeen 4×4 – they'll deliver/pick-up anywhere in Scotland and have a good range of quality cars/SUVs at decent prices.

Rather than write an essay on all the places to see in Skye, here's a bullet list with Wikipedia and other links for places I think are worth visiting. The drives to all these places are worthwhile and I'd recommend driving to the end of every road on the island to see all kinds of ruined castles, old churchyards, and great views.

  • Clan Donald Centre. This is in the remains of Armadale Castle (former home of the MacDonald clan) and is also near the ruins of Duncaith Castle (tiny little road to get there). I've camped a few times in the bay at Tokavaig.
  • The Cuillin. Some of the best hill-walking and mountaineering is in the Cuillin mountain range, plus some hard-core climbing on the Inaccessible Pinnacle. These mountains can be seen from most places on the island, and a good portion of the mainland coast. A good starting point is Sligachan in the middle of the island, where there's a large campground, hotel and pub. Sligachan is also where the main road splits off to Dunvegan from the main A87.
  • Elgol. There's nothing much here apart from a small harbor, but the drive to the end of the peninsula is worthwhile. You can also walk along the beach to "Prince Charlie's Cave".
  • Portree. This is the main town on Skye (population 2000) and is a great place to base your stay. I can recommend the Royal Hotel right in the middle of town and the Cuillin Hills Hotel about 1/2 mile outside. Lots of great pubs here too.
  • The Old Man of Storr. On the A855 to Staffin, you can park and walk up to the Old Man, a 165-ft granite pillar in the middle of a lunar-like rock landscape.
  • Kilt Rock. Further up the A855, just south of Staffin, you can pull off to the right to see the 180ft tall sea cliffs with bands of colors and a huge waterfall as the run-off from the nearby loch falls into the sea.
  • Staffin. There's been a settlement at Staffin since 7000BC! It's a gorgeous place (see below) with excellent views north to Flodigarry and the Quirang rock formation (at upper left below). There's a good campsite just south of Staffin on the right where I've camped many times. I recommend driving down to the pier to get some good views.

  (borrowed from Wikipedia)

  • The Quirang. This is a really cool (and very large) rock formation that is a land slip. If you take the road from Flodigarry to Uig you drive through the formation.
  • Flodigarry Country House Hotel. Great boutique hotel that also has an excellent bar and restaurant.
  • Kilmuir Museum of Island Life. As you turn around the north corner of the peninsula, there's a crofting museum that's well worth visiting. Also checkout the nearby grave monument of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie at part of the disastrous 1745 Battle of Culloden.
  • Uig. Not much here apart from the ferry terminal. I can recommend the Uig Hotel where I stayed over New Year in the 90s (New Year's Day was a wild, wild hangover day). It has fishing, horse-riding, and some great walks.
  • Dunvegan Castle. This is an incredible castle and the home of the Clan MacLeod and the old Lords of the Isles for more than 800 years. The castle tour is an absolute must.

  (borrowed from Wikipedia)

  • Neist Point. From Dunvegan (going south) you take a small road on the right which leads out to Neist Point where there's an incredible walk over cliffs to the lighthouse.
  • The Three Chimneys. This is a celebrated restaurant and hotel in an old crofting building on the shores of Loch Dunvegan. Book in advance! On the same road from Dunvegan to Neist.
  • Talisker Distillery. This is the only whisky distillery on Skye and has a great tour around its famous and picturesque buildings. A must visit!

Enjoy!

Visiting Scotland (part 1)

A friend of ours on the SQL Server doc team asked me to recommend some places to visit for their upcoming trip to Scotland so instead of dashing off a long list in email I thought I'd do it as a blog post so others can benefit too.

I'm going to concentrate on the areas I know well, which are the West Coast, Skye, and the North West of Scotland. Links are mostly to Wikipedia. I hope you find it useful – it's a bit of a brain dump of historical places, good scenery, and good drives – and I'm going to do it over multiple posts.

Also check out the photos I posted when I first took Kimberly to Scotland in 2009: Photos and stories from our Scotland trip – spot the photo I took that became my Twitter avatar…

And check out Kimberly's post about that trip: Scotland is amazingly beautiful but, ah, the weather IS worse than Seattle!

Before planning a trip check out the websites of the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish National Heritage to see what historic properties are near where you're going.

You can get part 2 (about the Isle of Skye) here and part 3 (about driving trips in the west and north west) here.

Part 1: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling

First off you need to visit Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling. I went to high school (Glasgow Academy) in Glasgow for six years, living 22 miles north in Helensburgh, by the large Royal Navy submarine base at Faslane where my father was based for many years. I went to the University of Edinburgh (majored in Computer Science and Electronics) and lived there for 8 years, and lived close to Stirling for a few years too – so I know all three cities extremely well. I think Edinburgh is definitely my favorite of the three, which is why I have more to recommend there. You can easily spend a week on these three cities alone, or a week just in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh

Places to visit: Edinburgh Castle (try to be there at 1pm when they fire the artillery gun), Holyrood Palace, drive through Holyrood Park (for the adventurous, I strongly recommend climbing Arthur's Seat for awesome views over the city and off to the famous Forth Rail Bridge). Try to be there at the time of the Edinburgh Festival in August and take in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in the grounds of the castle (book in advance – it's sold out completely for every show over the last ten years – I used to have a student apartment one summer in the early '90s where we could see it every night). The Scottish National Gallery has an excellent collection of artwork and the National Museum of Scotland is very cool, including a bunch of the famous Lewis Chessmen. Lots of excellent restaurants – I strongly recommend The Witchery on the Royal Mile. Literally hundreds of excellent pubs – way too many to name – but check out Greyfriar's Bobby, Rose St Brewery, and anything down in the Grassmarket. I've only stayed in one hotel in Edinburgh – The Glass House – very cool boutique hotel. Oh, and also check out St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile too (although I'm not religous at all I love ecclesiastical architecture!). Make sure to do one of the cool spooky tours – underground or a ghost tour.

I also recommend taking a drive up the coast of Fife, checking out St Andrews (where my sister lives – awesome old city), Falkland Palace, and Hopetoun House. Check out the movies Restless Natives and Trainspotting (one of my top-5 – beware, not for the faint-hearted, like any of Irving Welsh's awesome books).

It's only an hour by train or road (via the M8) to Glasgow… I used to do it every day during the summer months between university years when I still lived in Edinburgh and worked for British Telecom at their Glasgow software engineering center (they sponsored me through university – thanks BT!).

Glasgow

Glasgow is a very different place from Edinburgh – it will always kind of feel like where I grew up as I went to school here from the ages of 11 to 18 (taking the train every day from home). There's huge rivalry between the two cities as well.

I don't know any of the hotels in Glasgow I'm afraid, but there are loads of good restaurants and pubs. I recommend any of the Sarti restaurants, The Italian Kitchen, the Ashoka in Ashton Lane, and my absolute favorite: The Ubiquitous Chip (also in Ashton Lane). Ashton Lane is in the 'West End', near Byres Road where there are lots of great pubs. It's also near the utterly fabulous Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – a giant museum with incredible exhibits. Easily a day just for that. Also check out the nearby, and equally excellent, Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel. Both of these are near Kelvingrove Park, through which I used to walk to school in my final year of high school. You should also try to make it out to the Burrell Collection, another excellent museum.

Glasgow's a lot more industrial than Edinburgh and has less historical buildings. Kind of in a triangle between the two to the north is Stirling, easily accessible by road or train…

Stirling

For the last few years when I worked at DEC I lived in a charming, small village in Stirlingshire called Kippen, about forty miles from the DEC offices in Livingston (a 'new town' with nothing really interesting at all, except the original Livingston which is now called Livingston Village). Stirlingshire has excellent rolling countryside and is really at the south end of the highlands of Scotland.

Stirling is a really ancient place, dating from the Stone Age. First off you must visit Stirling Castle, which sits on an imposing 'crag and tail' rock formation just like Edinburgh Castle – that could be a day itself. Also check out the Wallace Monument, which commemorates Sir William Wallace (think Braveheart) and has his sword on display. Again, lots of good restaurants and bars – none that spring to mind as essential visits though. The only hotel I've stayed in nearby is Airth Castle Hotel – try to get a turret room – very cool. Try to walk around the Old Town of Stirling (down from the castle basically) to see lots of other historic buildings.

Nearby is Blair Drummond Safari Park. I'm not a big fan of zoos but if you're traveling with kids then this will earn you points with them. Bridge of Allan is also worth checking out, as is Doune Castle.

End of part one…