As promised, here is Part III of our Scotland trip. This will take you from Glasgow to Beauly and back down and around to some smaller towns, ending at Edinburgh. It bookends the two previous posts. All told, we spent two full weeks in this beautiful country.
We flew from Toronto direct to Glasgow via AirTransat. As I mentioned in my first Scotland post , the drive from Michigan to Toronto was well worth it as we saved a ton of money and flying time. I would fly internationally with AirTransat again – very positive experience. Upon arriving in Glasgow, we (my Japanese sister, Rihoko, my daughter and her boyfriend, and I) picked up our rental car. We chose a minivan that seats six easily and could do seven in a pinch. I’ve already regaled you with the adventure involved – deciphering the Glaswegian accent, navigating the city streets on the “wrong” side of the road and braving the giant roundabouts, which also spun in the wrong direction – so I won’t repeat.
We spent our first night in a Premier Inn (budget hotel) in Dumbarton, just north of Glasgow and not far from Loch Lomond. Premier Inns proved to be consistently clean and adequate to our needs, and at a budget price. I highly recommend them for stopovers. Thanks to my frugal Scottish friend, K, of Exquisite Scotland tours for the recommendation and help booking! Once we picked up my son from the train station – and I happily relinquished the car keys to him – we headed out to find somewhere to stretch our weary legs and breathe in some fresh air.
Balloch Country Park and Scottish Delights
We ended up at Balloch Country Park, which sits prettily on the shores of Loch Lomond. This loch is often featured in songs that speak of its beauty. It did not disappoint! I highly recommend a stop here. Entrance to the park is free. There is a castle and walled garden on the grounds, impressive views of the loch, and nature trails aplenty. The castle is no longer habitable and entry is forbidden, but we were able to wander around outside and through the walled garden. I use a certain word often throughout my Scotland blogs, but I can’t help it. This park had charm. The whole country is charming. I was smitten here at Balloch Country Park and the country continued to work its way into my heart throughout our time there.
After enjoying the park for a few hours, we found a small restaurant nearby and had our first taste of some Scottish delights – Cullen skink and haggis, washed down with some Scottish lager. Cullen skink is a creamy soup (or “skink”) made with smoked haddock. Haggis is the national food of Scotland, essentially a crumbly sausage dish. Everything was delicious!
The next morning we headed north on the A82. The beginning of our ride took us along the gorgeous shoreline of Loch Lomond. The country roads are typically quite narrow, and with the lake on one side and stone walls fronting the homes on the other, there was very little room for error! It was the weekend and we came across many camper vans and other large vehicles that made the drive rather unnerving at times. I could see bits of colored paint and plastic embedded in the stone walls we drove by — not a comforting sign.
Once we left Loch Lomond behind, we were treated to the wild, wide open spaces of Scotland. We couldn’t resist pulling over for a rest near Rannoch Moor. The views from the highway alone drew the eye and the spirit. Rannoch Moor is a vast stretch of land. You will find rocky outcrops, rivers, bogs and more and a variety of plants and animals. This is an area I would love to return to to experience in depth. It is recommended to enjoy the area via a ride on the West Highland Railway.
Our next stop was Fort William, which figures prominently in The Outlander series as an important location related to the Jacobite Rebellion of the mid-1700s. The fort, originally built in 1654 and known as the Garrison of Inverlochy, was a British stronghold and means to control the Highland clans. It was abandoned after the Restoration but rebuilt in the 1690s, and then used again to support the British forces in their efforts against the clans.
The town no longer boasts a fort, though the history of the area is preserved in the collections of the West Highland Museum. My sister and I spent some time wandering through. Fort William is currently best known as a starting point for hiking and climbing since it is very near Ben Nevis and other munros. It is also the start/endpoint of the West Highland Way and the Glen Way – both very popular long-haul hiking trails. I would love to hike at least a part of these trails, as they promise stunning views and satisfying climbs.
We had lunch at the Wildcat Café, which boasted a delightful variety of vegan dishes. I found the entire country to be refreshingly progressive – with no-fuss vegan and vegetarian menu options. Plastic bags and to-go packaging were rare and always cost extra. Everything seemed so much more clean and fresh – even in the cities.
Heading Back Around and Down
It took the entire day to wend our way from Dumbarton to Erchless Castle – but the drive was well worth it for the sights and experiences along the way. You can find an accounting of our time at Erchless in my first Scotland post.
At the end of our idyllic international family reunion at Erchless, the kids, Rihoko and I headed out for an additional 5 days of vacation. We would be delivering Rihoko to the airport the next morning, but were determined to fit in some additional sightseeing before she had to go.
Just east of Inverness, we stopped at the Clava Cairns. The Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava were created during the Bronze Age. The sight is a well-preserved example of a distant history of the Highlands, dating back around 4,000 years! The site is a truly peaceful setting with an otherworldly air. While walking around the grounds, which are free to enter, it wasn’t hard to imagine these prehistoric people laying their loved ones to rest here.
Our next stop was Pitlochry. We enjoyed coffee and a scone here and visited some of the cute shops in town. The nearby Blair Athol Distillery was our true destination. It is a beautiful whisky distillery and all of us declared it our favorite whisky of the trip!
Stirling and Surroundings
We stayed overnight in Paisley, just outside of Glasgow, at another Premier Inn. After delivering Rihoko to the airport the next morning, we headed to our final stay at an AirBnB in Stirling. The location was perfect for our last few days, situated between Glasgow and Edinburgh with some nice day trip options. Our host was generous with recommendations and the flat was well-appointed with nice extra touches – like a dish filled with Scottish tablet (really tasty candy!).
We visited Doune Castle, a 14th century courtyard castle – famously the exterior setting for Winterfell (Game of Thrones) and Castle Leoch (The Outlander), it also featured in several scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is an entry fee of about $7+, depending on your chosen tour. We purchased the self-guided audio tour. The narrators were none other than Monty Python star, Terry Jones, and everyone’s favorite Outlander, Jamie Fraser (actor Sam Heughan). The audio tour included actual history as well as tidbits from the making of the shows.
It is worth noting that Stirling Castle is a must-see as well, though one we did not visit. We’d kind of had our fill of castles by then – having lived in one for a week and visited three others already. I didn’t regret this because I will be going back and can catch these gems another time!
National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument, which I found fascinating, provided some amazing panoramic views of the area. William Wallace is considered the Guardian of Scotland. Over 700 years ago, Wallace was instrumental in uniting the country’s clans. After Wallace’s death, Robert the Bruce continued the fight and achieved victory in 1314.
Once parked and admission paid for (~$12/adult), we traversed the Wallace Way, a rather steep path up to the base of the monument. You can choose to be driven by bus instead. There, we were greeted by a member of Wallace’s army (actor portrayal… of course!) who regaled us with some interesting history and fun stories. We entered the monument via the Keepers Lodge, which houses a small lounge. A gift shop is on the first level of the monument. As you ascend the 246 narrow steps of the winding staircase, you go through the Hall of Arms, the Hall of Heroes and the Royal Chamber. Continue upward to the Crown, where you get a bird’s-eye view of the area.
Dunblane and Bridge of Allan
We drove through some thoroughly charming small towns as we explored the area. I fell head-over-heels for Dunblane, a town just a few miles north of Stirling. It is a bucolic setting on the Allan Water, a small river that eventually runs into the River Forth. A 13th century cathedral near 17th century homes, Scotland’s oldest private library and a walking trail along the river are just some of the treasures there. We visited the local museum where we met a Canadian woman who had uprooted herself from the Toronto area to return to her roots in Scotland. Her story was very inspiring!
Bridge of Allan provided great options for fish and chips, more lovely views of the Allan Water and some unique shops as well. And in between there were always hills, trees and lots of sheep. I couldn’t ask for a more picturesque drive! By the way, there are more sheep than humans living in Scotland. And, another bit of trivia – Scotland boasts the world’s highest percentage of natural redheads, with 13%, while Ireland comes in second with 10%.
We saved an entire day for Edinburgh. Honestly, that wasn’t enough. There is so much to see and do in this gorgeous old city, the capital of Scotland. Here are some highlights of our day:
The Royal Mile and Princes Street Gardens
The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare of Old Town, with Edinburgh Castle at its head and the Palace of Holyroodhouse at its foot. You will find all sorts of things to see and do along this series of streets. We wandered through souvenir shops, visited the Scottish Storytelling Centre and enjoyed the beautiful façade of St. Giles’ Cathedral. The Scottish Parliament had attracted a slew of climate activists since a significant decision was being debated in Parliament the week we were there. It was prime people-watching where the activists had settled, let me tell you! Anna and Jake scheduled a tour of a gin distillery while Ben and I visited the Elephant House Café, made famous as the “birthplace of Harry Potter”, though JK Rowling recently shut that claim down.
We strolled in and out of shops and found ourselves in the Princes Street Gardens. I love how the city moves from paved streets to green spaces with such ease! The centerpiece of the Gardens is the Ross Fountain, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Jules Klagmann and purchased for Scotland by Mr. Daniel Ross, who described the fountain as “obtaining universal admiration”. Details on the fountain include four female figures representing science, arts, poetry and industry.
Just off of the Royal Mile is the National Museum of Scotland. Our history-loving Jake, my daughter’s boyfriend, could hardly contain his excitement. He was an excellent tour guide!
Lunch, A Haircut and Arthur’s Seat
We had lunch at the Union of Genius, a little soup shop. The soups were unique and very delicious! I highly recommend it. We stopped for coffee while my son got a quick trim at a local barber. Well rested, we decided to head over to Arthur’s Seat. As I mentioned, Edinburgh slips easily from paved, busy streets to grassy, natural areas. Walking beyond the Parliament building and past the activists’ temporary tent city, we were suddenly at the foot of an ancient volcano in Holyrood Park. Arthur’s Seat is the highest point in the park. Only my son made it to the top. My legs had fairly given out after two weeks of walking, hiking and walking some more. Evenso, the portion I hiked up provided some lovely views of the city. At the top, of course, you are provided a full panoramic view of the area. This was a lovely midday break from the confines of the city streets.
Dinner and Ghost Stories
A Thai restaurant, Krua Khun Mae, tucked away in one of many of Edinburgh’s closes served up a delicious dinner. Afterward, we meandered back to the Mercat Cross, eager to begin our ghostly walking tour, courtesy of Mercat Tours. Our guide shared a bunch of fun – and frightening – history of the city as we wound our way in and out of the nearby closes. She told of how Mercat Cross marks the town center, where the locals came for all sorts of “entertainment”, including whippings, hangings and the like. We learned to never look up if we heard someone shout, “Gardez loo!” from above, and then were led down into the Blair Street vaults where ghosts still wander. The evening ended with whisky and more ghost stories. The tour was a hoot and well worth the price. Mercat Tours offers several different types of tours, so the faint of heart needn’t worry!
Stirling, Then Home
Our final day in Scotland was spent exploring Stirling itself. We saw The Kelpies, a famous equine sculpture, though we did not stop to visit. We found a quaint little bar & bothy, Nicky Tams, to enjoy a light lunch. Again, there were vegan options, even on a pub menu! After returning to the flat to pack, we walked to a restaurant recommended by our AirBnB host, The Inn of Torbrex. The food was fantastic and the service was unhurried. Tip: your server will not bring the bill until you ask for it – so different from the US. It was a fine way to wrap up our vacation. All of us were ready to head home, but thoroughly satisfied with our adventure! “Haste ye back!”, a common farewell greeting, is something I have taken to heart!
I hope you will share your experiences of Scotland in the comments. I look forward to returning someday soon and plan to spend an unhurried, un-touristy time there. Any tips you have would be welcome!