If you’ve been following this blog so far, you know that I started my Scotland trip in Edinburgh and Glasgow with big plans to hit the road alongside my new travel pal, Mimi. And hit the road we did. I’m about to tell you how we squeezed all the space between Glasgow and the Isle of Lewis, as well as highland capital Inverness, in just four days. Get ready for a wild ride, people.
Day 1: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
From our starting point in Glasgow we struck Northwest towards Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. After a hiccup with a mysterious dragging sensation and horrific sound coming from underneath the car (this was resolved, if resolved means we ignored it and it eventually went away), we made it to Luss – otherwise known as that village with the cute lane of cottages you see on Instagram.
Luss is adorable and surprisingly hopping for such a small place, but you should know all that activity is mostly due to tourists. Regardless, it deserves a quick stop on your way through the Trossachs. It’s the perfect launching spot for a cruise on Loch Lomond or water sports, if the weather allows. As intrepid travelers we didn’t actually know where we were sleeping that night, so we used the generous Loch Lomond Arms Hotel as a wifi/charging station while we made some desperate phone calls. Thus the discovery of the Wig-Wam was made, and our lives forever changed for the better. More on that later.
The Trossachs is a hot spot for hikers with hundreds of trails to explore. That makes it the ultimate place for locals to escape the city for a weekend camping trip, so you’ll see plenty of people checking into lodges with hefty backpacks in tow. It’s also chock full of good places to stop for photos. Just be careful not to wander into an elderly British couple’s back garden. It’s an honest mistake. Their view was lovely.
As you hike your way through the glens and forests of the Trossachs you’ll find plenty of towns to stop for supplies or sustenance. Callander sits on the eastern edge of the park and if you’re coming from Stirling (with it’s formidable castle and looming Wallace Monument), you’re liable to pass right through it. Stop for a coffee in one of the many cafes along main street or take a hike to postcard-worthy Bracklinn Falls. Other places of interest might be the Argyll Forest Park, Ben More, or the Falls of Dochart.
There really is something for everyone in the park. We chose to stay at Strathfillan Wigwams. By “chose” I mean it was the only place with a vacancy. It all worked out for the best, though, because I can’t imagine finding a more authentic way to experience the Trossachs than staying on a working farm down a narrow dirt lane in a cabin called “Moonshine”. Suffice it to say, life back home had prepared me well for this moment.
Strathfillan had everything we needed, from the firepit to the camp store with it’s interesting frozen food selection and lukewarm welcome from the French dude at reception. The smell of freshly baked dinosaur chicken nuggets in the communal kitchen and smoky cedar campfires wafted through the starry night. I’m slightly allergic to cedar but never mind, The Great British Bake Off played on our little TV, and it was pure magic.
Day 2: Glencoe, Glenfinnan, and Skye
That morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise, but the clouds had different ideas so instead we packed up the car and got an early start for the village of Glencoe, where we hoped to find coffee and wifi to plot our next stay. On our way out of the Trossachs we passed by the Bridge of Orchy, a town named for the bridge that connected it to the old military road that is the A82’s predecessor. Turn west at the crossroads in the center of town to find yourself crossing the namesake.
As we left Bridge of Orchy we passed Loch Tulla and soon descended in the stretch of the A82 that offers a taste of Rannoch Moor, a rugged expanse of boggy moorland that is a designated National Heritage Site. Take a look around as you drive, or better yet, pull over for a quick photo stop. This road isn’t exactly known for its patient drivers.
Rannoch Moor is an impressive expansive of wilderness, so there aren’t many roads to take advantage of if you find yourself wanting to explore more of the moors. There are walking trails for those looking to get creative, and Rannoch Station – which is connected to the West Highland line – will situate you more neatly in the center of things.
Shortly after passing Rannoch Moor we found ourselves pulling over for spectacular views of Glencoe Valley and the Three Sisters, a trio of uniquely formed mountain peaks. This valley has quite the tragic history, dating back to 1692, the year of the Glencoe Massacre. To understand what truly happened on that cold, snowy day in February, you have to take a look at something called Highland Hospitality. This is the tradition that states no one in the highlands would be turned away, for any reason, if they requested aid in poor weather – a basic code of ethics that showed highland dwellers’ compassion in what could be extremely harsh conditions. Sort of like running to home base in a heated game of playground tag, but with a lot more angry men in kilts.
I may have gotten a little distracted by that mental image.
Anyway, when William of Orange succeeded the throne of Scotland and England the clan leaders were given until Jan 1st, 1692 to pledge their allegiance to the nearest civil authority. Well, the elder of Clan MacDonald waited until the last minute to head out to Fort William, where no one was present with the authority to accept his signature. So the chief sets out for Invarary. Only problem is that it’s a seven day ride and there are a few blizzards to contend with along the way, so needless to say he missed the deadline. Procrastination strikes again. But no worries, his excuses were accepted and so was his signature. Or was it? The powers that be in the capital didn’t feel so lenient. The secretary of state issued an order for the military punishment of the clan and soon after over 100 Argyll soldiers, including members of the rival Campbell clan, sought shelter with the MacDonalds. The troops enjoyed the MacDonald’s hospitality for two weeks, and it was under this guise that the soldiers launched a savage attack on the MacDonald clan as they slept. 38 clan members died in the surprise attack, while the rest fled into the valley of Glencoe, where many more died of exposure in the snow covered hills. To this day, a bitterness still exists between the two clans, and although it was not only the Campbells who participated in this horrific act, there was a betrayal of highland tradition that will always be remembered.
After our stop in this haunting and beautiful valley we reached the village of Glencoe, where we wandered about and waited for shops to start opening. If you happen to arrive at a more reasonable hour be sure to stop in to the Glencoe Folk Museum, it’s the long white cottage with the traditional thatched roof. We posted up in the Glencoe Cafe to watch the rain as it began to drizzle down and enjoyed some delicious coffee while we hunted for accommodations on Skye.
With a destination decided for Skye and the sun starting to peek through, we made for Glenfinnan Viaduct – that’s right, folks, the Harry Potter bridge. This wasn’t my first rodeo, and at this point I was thoroughly enjoying showing Mimi my favorite highland spots while she pretended to lead an imaginary tour group. The guide was a lot of fun, but the information was questionable at best.
While you’re here, be sure to cross the street from the visitor’s center to the Jacobite monument on the shores of Loch Shiel.
From Glenfinnan we moved on to Eilean Donan Castle, and the bridge to Skye. But not before a few pictures at Loch Lochy, to commemorate our visit to a place essentially called Lake Lakey. Priceless.
We arrived at Eilean Donan Castle just a bit too late to pay for entry, but we still got some amazing photos before rushing over to the nearby community center to make use of the facilities, a very popular choice it seemed. Eilean Donan sits on it’s very own island connected to the mainland by a long stone bridge. You know it from Highlander, or just from the fact that it’s the most photographed castle in the world.
And with that we found ourselves crossing the Skye Bridge, which is an experience in and of itself. The bridge is free to cross, so if you have a car I definitely recommend it over a ferry. The incline of the bridge gives you the illusion, for a brief moment, that you’re climbing directly into the sky over Loch Alsh. And between the friendly locals, fresh food, and breathtaking nature, once you make it onto the island you’ll never want to leave.
Fun Fact: This trip was originally meant to be a hiking/*bothy trip, until we realized we were two Americans with no camping gear and therefore severely under-equipped to sleep in forest huts with no beds or running water.
*Bothies are primitive cottages in remote areas of Scotland previously utilized by estate workers in the Highlands, but that now offer basic shelter to weary hikers and are maintained by volunteers in the Mountain Bothy Association.
Our next wigwam in the tiny village of Glasnakille was as close as we could get. Glasnakille is situated on the Straithard Peninsula, and the view outside our tiny cabin overlooked Loch Slapin *insert joke about more silly lake names*. Needless to say, it was gorgeous, even with a storm rolling in. The basic cabins were situated in the picket-fenced backyard of a very hospitable mother-daughter duo. Our cabin was equipped with an electric kettle, a toaster, and a large sleeping mat. The tiny door made me feel like Gandolf going into Bilbo Baggins’ house – which, at 5 foot 2, is saying something.
We didn’t have much time to spend here, and the weather didn’t cooperate much besides, which is a shame because the Strathaird Peninsula has so much to offer! From sea caves, to access to the Cuillins, to Loch Coruisk and plenty of hiking or climbing opportunities. If you have the time you could spend a whole day here. The peninsula itself is only 2 miles across from Elgol, where you’ll find the nearest shopping and food, to Glasnakille.
Day 3: Portree to Callanish, Isle of Lewis
This was a crazy full day, starting with a stop in the Skye capital of Portree. It’s known for its row of colorful harbor houses and is the usual go-to for tourists, which makes it a touch crowded. Great for shopping, but to get the full Skye experience I would look outside this hub for a bed and breakfast or other accommodations. I was introduced to Portree on my first trip to Scotland and my favorite spot is still MacKenzie’s Bakery in the town’s main square. As described by my amazing tour guide back then (if you’re looking into tours, MacBackpackers should be first on the list), the prices here are still stuck in the 70’s. Stop in for a budget lunch or just grab a hot cocoa and stroll around town for a while.
We hit the road in the direction of Kilt Rock, a sea cliff formed from vertical basalt columns that are said to resemble the pleats in a kilt. Here you can also get a look at Mealt Falls, which drops off the cliffs for 60 meters before reaching the Sound of Raasay, if it’s not too windy that is. You’ll also find some information about nearby Staffin Beach, where the country’s largest dinosaur prints were found in 2002. If you’re interested, don’t overlook the Staffin Museum for more info on the Jurassic history of the isle.
We left the cliffs on the hunt for a bothy location we’d read about on the northern tip of the island, but wound up on a very remote road with a 2 mile trek through unknown terrain ahead of us, so we bagged that plan and set off for the Quiraing – possibly the most amazing view in all of Scotland. Pictures don’t do it justice. One look at the landscape from the top of this ancient landslip and you’ll feel like you touched down on another planet, or on some new Star Wars set. If you listen to one thing I say in this article, make it a visit to the Quiraing.
As the sun was sinking and the wind picked up we made our way to Uig, where we caught a ferry to the Isle of Harris. Coincidentally, I ran into aforementioned tour guide in Uig, small world!
The drive from Tarbert on Harris to Callanish on the Isle of Lewis has to be one of my favorite drives of all time. Long stretches of time passed where we met no other sign of life, just open moors and seemingly endless road stretching out in front of us. With the light fading and the rain starting to fall, I could only describe the scenery as eerily striking in the best possible way.
My tip for the islands, don’t expect to find anything open. After a failed attempt to get dinner at a hotel that had just reached closing time, we made a last ditch effort to find food at a gas station whose attached convenience store was lit up like a beacon of hope. Or a beacon of boxed mac and cheese and canned pineapple rings. Either way. Luckily, paired with the snacks and wine we’d stashed in the rental car over the course of our trip, it was plenty to make a backpacker’s feast.
When we finally found our accommodations for the night, we were unloading luggage in the onset of what would become a raging storm. It was late but our host, Mairi, stayed up to wait for us – because she’s an angel and everyone’s favorite grandma rolled into one. She ushered us in from the cold and expressed her deep concern over how we’d fared in the “horrible, horrible night”. Now just imagine that in the accent of a Hebrides native Gaelic speaker. If you can’t, that probably means you should go to Lewis and visit Mairi as soon as possible. You can find her apartment to rent on Airbnb. I could go on and on about how nice the host and the apartment are, but the reviews speak for themselves.
Day 4: Calanais Stones to Inverness
After a cozy night in with Netflix (bonus!), we woke up early to catch the sun rise at the Calanais Standing Stones, only a minute or so drive from the apartment! Seriously, it felt like we hit the lottery on Lewis, especially after our 2 hour photo shoot with the stones. Outlander fans, this is where you need to be.
We hit another small snag this morning when the only ferry off the island was completely full, but Mairi and her husband saved the day (and our ongoing travel plans) by feeding us breakfast and speaking to the ferry line for us. Magically, they found space for us and our rental car! Seriously, I’m pretty convinced that magic was involved. We left with Mairi as a new contact on Whatsapp and promises to come back again, a promise I fully intend to keep. See you sometime soon, Mairi!
Lewis is exactly the kind of place I’d go if I ever decided to hole up and write a novel – the perfect destination for peace, hospitality, and inspiration. It hurt my heart to leave on the ferry back to the mainland, but the show had to go on.
We had a lovely dinner in Ullapool where a waitress told me I looked like Juliet, officially the most original compliment I’ve ever received from a stranger, and then headed out for highland capital Inverness. On the way we made a quick stop at Castle Leod, Diana Gabaldon’s inspiration for Outlander’s Castle Leoch and seat of the real life Clan MacKenzie. The castle itself was closed (a theme of this road trip), but we explored the peaceful, manicured grounds and enjoyed the unusually mild and sunny evening. Maybe we explored a little too much because a defensive Springer Spaniel appeared from the rear of the castle to give us a few warning barks, followed by someone to investigate the commotion. I honestly don’t make such a habit of trespassing back home, it’s just that Scotland has room for improvement when it comes to appropriate signage. A little constructive criticism never hurt anyone.
And last but not least, Inverness! Gateway to the Highlands, Mouth of the River Ness, happiest city in Scotland, and historic hotbed, it’s a must on every Scotland itinerary. From here you can take a boat tour and do some monster hunting on Loch Ness, visit the ancient Clava Cairns, explore the scene of the bloody Battle of Culloden, and enjoy a good old fashioned Ceilidh.
Our night started out a little rough with a dodgy downtown hostel , which led to a late night of hard cider and traditional dancing at Hootenanny (my favorite Inverness pub), and a short sleep back in the car. The plus side to sleeping in your rental car? Your stuff is already packed! A painfully early morning saw me to the airport on the way to Amsterdam, and parting ways with my travel pal who was off to Belfast. If you do have more than a day in Inverness, spend some time to exploring the sites mentioned above, they’re well worth it and within a short drive of the city.
This road trip taught me that with enough determination and sleep deprivation you can fit a lot into four days. It also taught me that the ultimate way to experience Scotland is to get in a car and drive wherever your heart takes you. This beautiful country has so much to offer, and always leaves you wanting more. I guess that just means I’ll have to come back someday, and I am perfectly fine with that.