A Royal Adventure – Scotland Part I – The Highlands

It began as a plan to celebrate, and spend time with, my two favorite traveling companions. It turned into something so much more.

My kids, Anna and Ben, have always been game for anything. Together, we’ve visited big cities, braved the wilderness, tramped through old ruins, “trespassed” – the views were worth it! –  and gotten lost and then found again. Finally, the time had come for us to travel overseas together. Scotland was my choice. They, as usual, were up for any kind of adventure. 

Ever since I was young, Scotland has been my dream. I can’t really put a finger on it, but I do know that my aunt and uncle returned from a European vacation once upon a time, with a toy Highland “coo” and an authentic Scottish tam for me, both of which were prominently displayed in my room for many years. Scotland… Highlanders, rugged wilderness, the sea, lovely accents. It was my dream and my kids let me drag them along.

The Plan

I started researching options during Anna’s last year at Michigan State University. I mentioned our plans to my European family members – you may recall from previous posts that I have a large, very tight international family. I was hoping that they may be interested in joining us for part of the trip. Silly question! We have a family WhatsApp group and the idea quickly spread. We’d had two successful “family reunions” over the previous 15 years – one in Michigan and one in Florida – and it was apparently time to gather in Europe. Color this natural-born planner over the moon!

It took us a year to get from plan to fruition, but I enjoyed every minute. I learned so much about our destination, met kind and helpful people along the way, and simply enjoyed the anticipation of this magical trip!

We were 22 people, when all was said and done, set to spend a week in the Scottish Highlands together. What better accommodations for such a crowd than an honest-to-goodness castle!? I googled my way through some absolutely amazing options, finally settling on a place near Beauly, about 40 minutes drive west of Inverness. If you’re an Outlander fan I’m sure you are practically swooning right now. Let me drop the bad news: We did not take any Outlander tours – though there were a number to choose from. I hope you stick with me, because the Highlands we experienced were every bit as enchanting, even without Claire and Jamie. 

Getting There

My immediate family, except for Ben, who lives in California, are in Michigan. Flying out of Detroit seemed the most practical option, but I found some absurdly good deals flying direct from Toronto, Canada to Glasgow. Four hours drive to Toronto followed by a seven hour flight to Glasgow on AirTransat was what we chose. Our other options were at least 50% higher in price and involved one or more layovers. Our actual travel time was shorter this way, though we did have to allow for potential traffic issues, leaving the car in long term parking – which turned out to be super cheap – and customs at the Canadian border, which was a breeze via the Blue Water Bridge entry point. I would fly internationally on AirTransat again in a heartbeat. We had an excellent experience with them. 

We met my Japanese sister, Rihoko, who married an American and now lives in South Dakota, in Toronto. Four of us – Anna, her boyfriend, Jake, Rihoko and I –  flew to Glasgow where I had arranged to pick up a minivan rental for the two weeks we travelled the country. Two things to note here: I rented a minivan and that lovely Scottish accent I was so keen to experience? –  well, Glasgow has its own special version. We sat in the car rental place and I tried desperately to understand the instructions the young man was giving us. I pride myself on being pretty good at understanding non-native English speakers… but understanding a Glaswegian accent is a whole other story, made worse, I’m sure, by my travel fatigue. Suffice it to say, I’m very grateful for Siri and GPS! I was the designated driver since Anna and Jake were too young (drivers had to be 26+). Rihoko was my backup. In Michigan, I drive a tiny car, on the right side of the road while I sit in the driver’s seat on the left side of the car. I’ve done that for most of my nearly 40 years of driving. Driving in the UK = old dog, new trick… It was a challenge to get from the car rental place to our hotel, just outside of the city. Anna will probably tell you differently, but I thought I was doing pretty well until I took a wrong turn and ended up at a 4-lane, multi-pronged roundabout during what appeared to be rush hour. After several minutes of trying to figure out the system, I screwed up the courage to hit the gas and went for it! We finally got out of the city and I began to relax. I shouldn’t have, as I nearly crashed into a parked truck at the final turn into the hotel parking lot! Whew… did I tell you the minivan was brand new? 

We picked Ben up at the train station. His international travels were much more challenging than our direct flight, but being clever and resourceful, he arrived just a few hours later than planned, the last legs via train rather than airplane, but safe and sound. It had been several months since we were last together, so I was very glad to see him. I have to admit I was even happier to hand him the keys to the minivan! Ben was our driver for the rest of the trip. Despite some harrowing moments that were probably not as harrowing as they seemed at the time, he did a fabulous job and I was tickled pink to remain a passenger.

Our Royal Getaway in the Heart of the Highlands

We arrived at Erchless Estate on a Saturday afternoon. The winding, narrow country roads were mostly impassable for two vehicles, so there were periodic “passing places” where one car could move off the road and allow the oncoming traffic to pass. I was thoroughly charmed by the low, moss-covered stone walls running right alongside the road bordering the estate. As we drove through the entrance, a row of attached old, stone cottages appeared.

Flynn, a friendly red dog, was the first to greet us, offering a game of fetch with a stuffed Pikachu as a gesture of friendly Scottish hospitality. He was soon joined by his people, Allison and Greg, caretakers of the property, who also extended a warm greeting – minus the offer of a game of fetch!

We spent our first night in one of the cottages. It was large and well-appointed with all the comforts without losing the charm of its age. Two of the other cottages are occupied – one by the caretakers and the other by an older gentleman whose companion was a sweet spaniel of some sort.It didn’t take us long to understand that Scots are definitely dog people.

Entering Erchless Estate – The Cottages

Because the castle grounds were off limits until Sunday, Greg and Allison invited us to explore the rest of the estate. We wandered around acres of pasture land where cows and sheep grazed contentedly, explored outbuildings where we found a handyman swearing good-naturedly at a stubborn broken wheel, and then, as we circled back toward the cottages, we stumbled upon a rather mysterious walled garden. The entrance to the garden was a weathered wooden door with a rusted iron latch – something straight out of The Secret Garden. Inside, we found a wild garden and oh, so many happy chickens and ducks pecking and scratching and flitting around their untamed sanctuary. It really was like a fairy tale, and the story was just beginning!

The rest of the family rolled in throughout the day and evening, Sunday. They came from far and wide – Sweden, Brazil, the US, France and Australia – and the mood became more festive with every arrival! This was the first time we’d gathered since our last reunion in Florida 3 ½ years prior. As we drove through the wrought iron gate onto the castle grounds, proper, we were confronted with a stunning, white-washed castle, holding court in the center of a beautifully manicured lawn dotted with the grandest rhododendron bushes I’ve ever seen, in glorious full bloom! The lawn is also home to many beautiful and exotic trees.

Parts of the castle date back to the 13th century. The Clan Chisolm made Erchless Estate their home in the 16th century. Ownership has since been passed along to other families, with updates made through the years. Though it is now let as a vacation home, it retains the feel of what it once was – a grand private family home. There is a large games room with a beautiful old billiards table. Table tennis is available on the lower level, with a hot tub sitting just outside the door. The River Glass runs through the estate, which encompasses over 12,000 acres. The wilds of the estate are home to red deer and many other creatures. Honestly, we could have spent the entire week on the estate and never been bored. 

Our group was so large – 22 of us, with beds for “only” 19 in the castle, that we kept the cottage for our use throughout the week as well. The rooms of Erchless are grand but cozy. It is very spacious, with so many staircases and “secret” nooks – it never felt crowded, and I honestly got kind of lost at least once a day!  Dad, or “the Laird” as we called him, made breakfast most mornings, and the delicious smells would help us all find our way to the kitchen to start each day. There were two dining rooms – the grand dining room which could fit all of us, and a smaller, less formal one that seated about 12 – as well as a large island to gather around in the kitchen. 

Some days were planned out for the entire family, but others remained unscheduled so that smaller groups could do as they pleased; hiking, exploring, shopping, etc. The castle is rented as self-catering, and we did most of our own cooking. We did, however, take advantage of the option to have meals catered – once for a grand Scottish feast for all the family and again later in the week Allison prepared some lovely comfort food – cottage pies and vegetables. 

The Grand Feast

Our grand feast was, indeed, grand. We gathered in the formal dining room that had been elegantly turned out just for us. We enjoyed several courses, which included traditional haggis along with smoked salmon and goat cheese tart starters, a choice of beef bourguignon, fish pie and Tuscan stew with wild game sausages for the main and traditional Scottish cranachan, sticky toffee pudding or cheesecake for dessert.

The food was fabulous and we all stuffed ourselves silly. We opened a bottle of 12-year-old single malt Scotch Whiskey to wash it all down. The entire evening was memorable. The kids – all of my siblings, international and natural, and their families – presented Mom and Dad with their own piece of Scotland, courtesy of Highland Titles. They are now a Laird and Lady of Glencoe, complete with the deed to an actual square foot of Scottish soil! It was a novel way to commemorate the occasion while supporting conservation efforts in Scotland. The evening was filled with laughter and love and so much joy, and the icing on the cake was that we didn’t have to lift a finger. The dining room and kitchen were left gleaming and leftovers were stowed in the refrigerator for us to enjoy the next day.

Sightseeing

You can’t visit Scotland without learning all about the distilling of Scotch (or simply, whisky, as the Scots call it). As we splintered off into smaller groups to explore the area, I think we all made our way, at some point, to the Glen Ord Distillery, the home of Singleton Whisky. There, we learned the different methods of distilling and aging whisky and how to properly sample it. 

Most of the roads in the area are, as I mentioned, single lane and winding with miles of countryside and pastureland between each village or small town. The views are by turn stunning and incredibly peaceful – always green and quite rugged. We saw more clouds than sun and a fair amount of rain, which rarely lasted for long and was usually a light drizzle. That’s the price you pay for the views you get in return! 

Plodda Falls and Glen Affric

Two of my favorite spots were less than an hour from Erchless, along the A831 near Cannich. We hiked Plodda Falls and then did the Dog Falls trail at Glen Affric, during two separate outings. The hikes were quite easy, though there were certainly more challenging options available. There is an extensive network of trails throughout the Highlands, and we found that it was perfectly acceptable to find a parking spot almost anywhere and just start walking. You can even set up camp in the countryside, for a single night, without question. You are expected, however, to leave any wild place you visit in the same condition you found it. Glen Affric, in my opinion, was one of the most picturesque places we visited. Walking in the forest with the sound of flowing water nearby has a way of filling me with such peace. Glen Affric reminded me of my favorite place in Michigan – the western Upper Peninsula – but it was even grander and, at the same time, more serene.

After tramping several miles through nature, one does get hungry – and thirsty! Fortunately, we stumbled upon a gem of a local pub in Cannich called The Slaters Arms. It is an unassuming, cozy place that serves up a delicious plate of hot chips and a cold pint of Scottish ale that you can enjoy while settled into one of their well-worn arm chairs or couches. The pub is home to several spaniels who are happy to stop by for a pat and perhaps to share your chips. I told you, the Scots really treasure their dogs! The owner was quite chatty with us during one of our visits – sharing some interesting tales about local critters. Everyone we met was very generous with recommendations and advice, and most willing to share their opinions about everything! 

Loch Ness and Inverness

Loch Ness and Inverness drew most of us through the week. I found Inverness very clean and walk-able. The buildings are charming and the views from the Inverness Castle (now serving as governmental offices) were lovely. My father took my international siblings to the Loch Ness Rotary Club weekly meeting. The club members were thrilled to have them there to share a bit about their experiences with the Rotary International Exchange Program. Loch Ness, itself, was definitely a tourist trap and, aside from the appeal of trying to catch a glimpse of Nessie, I feel it paled in comparison to some of the more lovely lochs in Scotland. 

Somewhere In the Hills Above Beauly

I mentioned earlier that we were grateful for Siri/GPS, but I have to tell you that Siri did fail us one time while hiking in the woods. A group of us were encouraged to try some lesser known trails nearby that promised some lovely views, so off we went. Well, we got lost. Terribly lost, really. And Siri was silent for much of the trip – no signal! Fortunately, it was daylight and the weather was cooperating, because we wandered around the hills near Beauly for a good two or three hours. We found some friendly cows who tried to help us, but their Highland brogue was  as much a challenge to understand as the Glaswegian accent! We did stumble upon some lovely views and we had a lot of laughs at our own expense. You can’t really call it an adventure if you don’t get lost at least once!

Brodie Castle

Brodie Castle is another worthwhile day trip. It has lovely gardens, an adventure playground for kids and many trails to enjoy the natural surroundings. The castle itself is impressive – rose-colored and boasting beautiful turrets – and the docent who guided our tour shared some very interesting history and fun details about the building and the people who lived there.

Dining Out

Finding a place that could accommodate a large group was a bit of a struggle. The majority of eating establishments in the area are intended for smaller parties. The Cnoc Hotel, just down the road from Erchless Estate, was able to accommodate eleven of us – my parents and all of their kids with spouses – for a lovely family dinner. The grand- and great-grand kids stayed back at the castle enjoying pizza, video games and the hot tub. (Not too shabby!) We practically filled the lovely dining room of the hotel. The staff were attentive and kind. We were able to spend some quality time basking in our 50-year history as a family, enjoying the delicious food and the delights of making memories on top of memories. 

There were further day trips – to the village of Beauly and its Priory and to the Battlefield of Culloden as well as others. There is definitely plenty to see and do and most certainly we missed some goodies. I hope those of you who have been there, or plan to go, will share your impressions in the comments.

But wait, there’s more…

Despite the challenge of organizing activities that we could all attend as a group, we did manage to put two wonderful events together during that week. The family feast – thanks to Allison and her team – was amazing, of course. The second adventure involved two tour buses and plenty of time on the road – but the Isle of Skye was so worth it! That trip merits its own post, so… Coming Soon!

If you’re a fan of beautiful scenery, fresh air and friendly people, I recommend you consider a trip to the Scottish Highlands. I know, once flying overseas is possible again, I will be planning a return visit. I fell head-over-heels for this beautiful country. As noted, I’ll be following this post with one dedicated to our trip to Skye. The kids and I spent an additional week traveling around the country and I will share these adventures, which include a day in Edinburgh, with you as well.