I like to run away. Not to cities with a bag full of my earthly possessions but to the places where people aren’t. Give me swaying trees, give me vast skies, give me shores with water softly lapping or white waves crashing. Give me nature. It’s in nature that I feel reconnected. The problems of the world melt away. There is nothing more humbling as a human to stand in front of a mountain or the sea and feel like you are merely a minuscule collection of cells in the grand scheme of things. I feel like a being with no further purpose than to just breathe and be.
After a tough few months, my husband and I wanted to escape to the Highlands of Scotland and get away for a week. We didn’t have a large budget and weren’t looking for anything fancy, especially as we would be spending most nights in a different place.
You can’t beat a map, especially when there’s no GPS!
We drafted a rough plan of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see. In an ideal world, one with plenty of spare cash, I would have preferred to either catch a flight or train up (the notion of a sleeper train has a much more romantic connotation in my mind) and hire a car there saving a day of driving, but in reality it’s so much more expensive so that idea was nixed.
Plotting our route, we decided on having a rest stop half way-ish to Scotland and half way-ish back plus a stop off to see friends near Edinburgh. I had wanted to visit Glencoe and drive along the A82 ever since seeing Skyfall so a stop near Fort William seemed appropriate. As our budget was more lemonade than Moët, we booked Travelodges and Premier Inns with a Secret Escape deal for a little break from the basic.
I warn you that my pictures don’t do the scenery the justice they deserve. You need to visit these places and view with your own eyes.
Day One: London to Kendal
Early Sunday morning, waving goodbye to my precious Atti-cat and having ensured he had enough hot water bottles to keep him snug, we drove out of London. We stopped somewhere on the M40 for second breakfast (at the same time as a coach load of Watford fans headed up to Liverpool for a match, cue the queues) and for hubby (who would be driving the whole trip because I can’t drive) a break from the godawful singing he would experience for the next six days.
We stopped off in Morecambe Bay because I thought we might find a delightful fish and chip shop by the sands. Maybe we took a wrong turn because it seemed so quiet and isolated, with barely anything open. Of course it wasn’t the season but I thought at least on a sunny Sunday there’d be a few more options! Never mind, it provided a good time to get out and stretch the legs and take a few pictures. I would have gone out further on to the sands but I had just watched programme on the danger of quicksand in the area and really didn’t fancy having to be rescued from an isolated beach.
Onwards we went through some absolutely gorgeous scenery in to the Lake District with the roads looking more like something from New England in Fall than the North West of England. We drove on the twisty road that ran along the eastern edge of Lake Windermere. Every little sneak peek through the trees made me want to see it in all its glory.
Where Morecambe was isolated, Windermere was packed. People everywhere, spilling over the pavements into the road, crammed into tea shops and jammed in car parks. I couldn’t bear it. The very reason for our road trip was to escape the rat race and the masses. We U-turned back to an isolated car park a mile or so before the town and ate our snacks in the car before heading down to the edge of the water.
I dipped my fingers in (a ritual I continued throughout the trip, mainly to see how cold it was – was it swimmable?! – but also to leave an epithelial marker of mine in the water and a little Windermere on me.
We continued up to Kendal, checked in to our glamorous Premier Inn room for the night and took a little wander. You would think that in Kendal, you would find shops selling plenty of Kendal Mint Cake. Any that did had closed for the day or weren’t displaying any wares. I needed warming up so had a Russian Earl Grey tea and a toasted tea cake at Brew Brothers.
Night came and brought a freezing wind, we briskly walked to dinner and on our way back I noticed how the streets were so utterly deserted. As a city girl this is still something that surprises me. Even more odd is that I find it so disconcerting at night in small towns and yet it’s what I long for during the day in the city!
Day Two: Kendal to Fort William
This was part of the road trip that I was most looking forward to. The drive out of the lakes and in to the Peak District was beautiful. Low stone walls dotted the landscape like grey rollercoaster tracks undulating over green hills. The skies were clear and sheep were our only companions until we reached the motorway.
The roads were pretty clear until we reached Glasgow and Monday morning rush hour. Thankfully we circumnavigated it and saw the signs for the road of dreams… The A82.
Our first stop on this route was the cute village of Luss a.k.a. the easiest place to stop at Loch Lomond, simply follow the diversion. Second breakfast time meant another hot pot of tea and a delicious coffee and walnut cake from the cafe plus a fuss from the resident dog and then an excuse to walk it off along the shore of the lake.
I hadn’t realised I would fall in love with the Lochs as much as I did; Lomond was the start of a beautiful love affair. Sure, the clear blue skies and crisp sunshine that we were blessed with made things better, but it was such a pretty place. I learnt that Lomond is huge – the largest in surface area in Great Britain. I couldn’t believe the clarity of the water either, I imagined returning in the summer with my wetsuit and it still being as cold!
Sated, we continued. I kept grinning in awe and wonder at the beauty of the views, telling hubby not to look and keep his eyes on the road which is one of the greatest benefits of being a passenger and not a driver! The sun glinted off the water and the steep rocky sides of the hills enclosed us in its warmth. I abused the word ‘wow’ (as well as a few swear words) but it no longer seemed to be able to convey just how awesome the view was.
The landscape shifted to a broader view. Expansive hills became mountains with snow-capped peaks. We followed Bond’s route to Skyfall and entered Glencoe.
Objects in the rear view mirror may appear less awesome than they are
Hills beyond hills, beyond hills, beyond hills.
There’s a track that you can take to get to where Bond parks the car near a stream and really pretend you’re 007. I believe it’s marked Glen Etive Ski Centre. I didn’t drive down it because a) going down lonely tracks not knowing what the condition of the road is like gives me the wiggins and b) it’s something saved for next time.
Glen Etive panorama
I’m the dark smudge on the left.
We pulled over in a large-ish car park space and got out. A path led in to the Glen and something took over my legs. Perhaps they were just so grateful for moving and not sat in a car, but I just kept walking. I could’ve walked miles easily if it weren’t for hubby yelling at me to come back. I felt bewitched, entranced and completely captivated by this land. Begrudgingly, I turned back.
We arrived in Fort William, found our hotel for the next two nights – a snazzy Travelodge at the top of town – dropped off our bags and headed back out again. As we still had plenty of time until sunset we decided to head over to Glenfinnan which was only 15 miles away.
Gorgeous sunlight illuminating the loch below and setting the autumnal colours alight
Harry Potter fans may recognise this viaduct although it’s missing the Hogwarts Express
The monument is just by the lochside with the viaduct a little way behind. The Loch Shiel waters were completely still with barely a ripple against the shore. I looked along the banks, hoping to see an otter or seal or something, but nothing appeared. I dipped my fingers in, confirmed the temperature and looked at the monument. It marks the place from whence Bonnie Prince Charlie or Prince Charles Stuart launched his standard and is memorial to those clansmen who died for the Jacobite cause. It was beautifully serene when we visited, barely any one around. Bliss!
The Glenfinnan Monument
We headed back to Fort William with the dying light in time to see Ben Nevis illuminated by the setting sun and to find dinner. We ended up eating on the pier above Loch Linnhe at Crannog Seafood Restaurant and thought the food delicious and fresh if a little London-y price-wise. There’s really not much else to do in Fort William, the high street was dead so we turned in for the night.
The view of Loch Linnhe from the pier
Day Three: Fort William (Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye)
Unlike the previous few days we weren’t as lucky with the weather and woke up to dark grey skies threatening freezing cold rain. I believe the term is Dreich and it’s a brilliant word, say it, dreeugh. It wouldn’t stop us and our plans to head to Eilean Donan Castle and the Isle of Skye.
Eilean Donan Castle
The castle appears all of a sudden, round a corner of stone on one of the second most beautiful roads I’ve ever been on – the A87 – framed by distant hills and the convergence of three lochs – Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. It was featured in Highlander (one of my favourite films) and The World Is Not Enough. It’s well worth a stop off; the vista of it within the lochs is stunning and the house is lovely enough but I thought the most wonderful thing was the kitchen scene re-enactment, one of the best I’ve seen with loads of details – spot the cat in the pantry!
More tea and scones consumed (it must have been brunch time) we set off towards Skye. I was really sad that we wouldn’t be able to get to the Old Man of Storr or the Quiraing because the weather was starting to really close in. We did manage to get along to a viewpoint before the distant mountains disappeared completely and stopped off for a delicious fish and chip lunch by the water’s edge, eating in the car as the rain lashed down. Our failure to get to see Skye properly has definitely made my desire to visit again go up a notch!
All we could see of Skye!
Day Four: Fort William to Inverness
Like the rest of the world, we woke up to the news a reality TV show mogul had won the US election and were feeling a teensy bit despondent. The best way to get over this was a trip to a whisky (no e as it’s Scotch) distillery, via a castle and Loch Ness. En route we passed a spot that I won’t ever forget, mostly because I moaned about not being able to stop and take a picture of it! Loch Oich is just after you cross a bridge and part of the Caledonian Canal, linking the lochs of the Great Glen; Loch Lochy (no lie, that’s its name) and Loch Ness. Due to the stunning time of year it looked more like New England and the autumn leaves were all the shades of fire. If you go past in November, make sure you stop!
The ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
I’d seen Urquhart Castle featured on Poppy D’s vlog from a trip just a week or so before ours and made a mental note to visit. I’d recommend visiting earlier in the day when the site is quiet and if you’re very lucky, you get a free guided tour all to yourself. Plus if you’re English Heritage members you can get in for half price, or if you’re a member for more than a year, it’s free.
It’s a beautiful and tranquil place with more than 1000 years of history. I always wish I had glasses that could glimpse the past – it would have been huge in its un-ruined state. We learnt loads from Keith, our lovely guide and really enjoyed the ambience of the place. Loch Ness is deep, huge and cold (I checked!) and I didn’t see Nessie but there’s something about the water that makes you think that you have seen something just slip under the water.
Loch Ness Panorama
Taking the scenic route again, we headed to the Glen Ord distillery at Muir of Ord, run by Diageo. This distillery produces a Scotch single malt whisky called The Singleton of Glen Ord for the Asian market. Again, going out of season meant it was quiet and only one other couple joined us on the tour. Our lovely guide (and I’m gutted because I’ve completely forgotten her name) was extremely knowledgable and took us through the whole process from malting to tasting. You can’t take any photos around the distillery processes mainly because of the risk of fire especially in the warehouse where the angel’s share smells delicious enough to get tipsy on the air alone!
After a few samplers I was a barrel of laughs.
I finished my drinks and hubby’s too (he was driving)
The end of the tour brought the tastings and let’s just say I giggled my way through six small glasses of whisky on a Tuesday lunchtime. We tried the 12 year old, (a great everyday whisky) a 15 year old (a bit sharper, not my favourite) and an 18 year old whisky which was immediately purchased and is reserved as my special whisky.
I floated back to the car and as we still had sunlight, boisterously demanded we progress onwards and explored a little more of the Black Isle, so named for the dark quality of the soil. Our route took us to a little fishing town on the peninsula called Cromarty which has the Cromarty Firth on one side and the Moray Firth on the other. The town was deserted again but wonderfully so; rather than feeling abandoned it felt like everyone was tucked up at home, evidenced by the peat fires we could smell in the wind. We popped in to a gallery and the pottery shop next door, purchased a few cards then returned to the beach to watch the sunset.
That’s the body language of an excited seal spotter!
The dark smudge in the lower left hand side is a seal!
The incredibly pretty harbour at Cromarty
You can see the platforms in the distance
I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally see a seal in the distance. It frolicked about in the water for a good while, almost following our path along the coast. A lady in the bakery said we might be able to see dolphins from Fortrose so we drove over. Suffice to say we saw zero dolphins but it felt great to be on an adventure!
We returned to Inverness extremely happy and tired (and I was post tipsy) ready for dinner and bed for the next day.
Day Five: Inverness to Aberdeen
For some reason I was in a really weird mood. I’m used to my mood swings but this felt different… like loss. It took me a while to realise it was because I was back in a city and away from the mountains and lochs. To appease me we detoured into Aviemore, a place I hadn’t visited since a school trip when I was 14. I had a wonderful flashback of walking past a parade listening to Just a Girl on my Walkman (yes, I’m that old) and pretending I was cool.
Heading back towards the coast on the A95 we found another scenic road which happened to be the Malt Whisky Trail running alongside the River Spey. The valleys housed the distinctive pagodas of distilleries, some less than a mile from each other.
A beautiful castle gatehouse
The colour of the water!
We lazily cruised onwards towards Elgin, stopping off at the Johnstons Wool and Cashmere shop for some Christmas presents and then followed the coastal road and the North Sea wondering if we could spot another seal or even an otter or dolphin.
Bolts of cloth at Johnstons in Elgin
View from a ruined house at Portsoy
Skirting along the Buchan coast meant we could pull in to fishing towns that caught our eye. I was delighted to spot a brown tourist sign for a 17th Century old harbour at Portsoy and we pulled up. The harbour was sweet enough but I rather liked the ruined wall with window view of the sea. Imagine doing your washing up from that spot!
The seaside made me feel a little better but knowing we were heading back to a busy city made the blues come back. I’d have to come up with a different plan for the journey on to Livingston tomorrow to avoid the evil mood.
Light was staring to fade again and I didn’t want to get to our hotel too late, especially as we had decided to splash out a little on an amazing Secret Escapes deal that included a bottle of wine on arrival, 3 course dinner and breakfast plus a gorgeously plush room that made a change from budget business travel. The Mercure Ardoe hotel just outside the city was lovely, huge and luxurious. A shame we couldn’t experience it more or take advantage of the spa offers but we slept amazingly well and the last time on the trip that we wouldn’t hear traffic and other city noises.
Day Six: Aberdeen to Livingston
The sun was shining and the weather was milder than ever as we set off south via the west.
Friends had recommended the A93 road that runs through all the B’s – Ballater, Braemar and Balmoral. This would take us south via the Cairngorms and some stunning scenery. I instantly felt my mood lift and my smile return as we headed higher in to the snow dusted hills.
Trees covered in lichen
Yes, that’s me running in delight through virgin snow!
I had thought to perhaps stop off at Queenie’s Scottish residence at Balmoral but sadly it was closed. Instead we followed the road just to the side of it (half expecting a security officer to launch themselves at the car with an assault rifle commanding us to stop at any moment) and arrived at Royal Lochnagar, a charming distillery with a famous royal neighbour. It was wonderful to see snow on the ground (cue me running into an untouched patch) and the smell of malt in the crisp, cold air.
This tour was a lovely contrast to the larger site at Muir of Ord. Again, no photos allowed but I really enjoyed being to understand the processes and the difference between the two. Of course I enjoyed another tasting to warm me up and we set off again, stopping off at locations to take pictures of the beautiful Dee river and grabbing a bite to eat at t a s t e in Braemar.
As we climbed higher we started to see even more snow…
Glenshee looking pretty
I felt like a giddy kipper surrounded by clouds and mountains and snow. Our route took us through Glenshee and the ski centre. I have this strange love of piste bashers and was so happy to see them parked up, ready for a dumping of snow and grooming the pistes for the season ahead.
Delighted by the day’s adventures we wendled our way down towards Edinburgh and past the cities to our motorway hotel. Luckily, two sets of dear friends lived only about ten minutes away from each so we quickly stopped off at one for a quick hug before heading over for dinner with the others and their gorgeous young kids.
Day Seven: Livingston to London
We had originally planned to split the journey home with a stay overnight in Darlington but I really wanted to see my kitty and sleep in my own bed, so a crazy early start meant we could do the journey from Livingston to London in seven hours. I’m not going to lie, it was horrendous weather; continuous drizzle, lashings of spray and grey skies do not make for pleasant car journeys.
I learned so much on this trip – that 80’s/90’s songs are the best ones to sing along to, that I really enjoy Scotch whisky, that I love the landscapes in Scotland but especially love the Highlands and Lochs, that we were so incredibly lucky with the weather, that driving 200 miles a day isn’t so far, that I can’t wait to go back very soon.
At last we were home, just 1751 miles later and with a new haul of whiskies to remember Scotland and enjoy, ready to plan our return.
Thank you, dear reader, for getting to the end… it’s been just as arduous trying to write about the trip as I loved it so much. I truly believe that it’s a magical pace and my pictures and words do it very little justice, so please head up there and enjoy!
“And I would
walk drive 500 nearly two thousand miles…”
Loch Fyne, Royal Lochnagar, Singleton of Glen Ord and Lagavulin.