Short Scotland trip advice
September 1, 2011 10:36 PM   Subscribe

Quick trip to Scotland, is it too ambitious to try to get breathtaking scenery, a whisky distillery, a castle visit?

The wife and I have always wanted to visit Scotland, and we have a few days to do it. Understanding that this is not enough time to do Scotland justice, but preferring something over nothing, we want to see what your best plan of attack would be and if we're being too ambitious. We arrive in London at 2:15pm on Wednesday September 7th and have to get back to London by the evening of Saturday September 10th.

We want to see jaw-dropping Scottish countryside we've seen in magazines, would love to try a whisky distillery, and maybe check out a castle. Our budget is not very high, but we're also not college students. An inexpensive b&b in the countryside sounds ideal. Renting a car and doing the drive mentioned in Where should we go in Scotland Glencoe to Skye would be our dream, but is that trying to fit too much? Should we combine some rail travel that will allow the driver to enjoy a beer and the view for part of the trip?

Our priority isn't cities or museums, and we're in our early 30's but are fine with hostels and "younger" style travel to save some money. I've read the other threads but they're for people fortunate to have more time.

What city should we go to from London to start off from? How should we get there, budget flight, overnight sleeper train, day train? Thanks so much for any input, we'll raise a glass to you next week!
posted by tslugmo to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The UK is pretty small. You can drive end to end in not long at all. However up the north of Scotland the roads get small and you can't speed along those so easily.

Getting from London to Scotland wouldn't be too tricky in a day, I don't reckon. punch in some thoughts on google maps.

Flying is also alright, but you eat up time in airports.

Train sounds amazing fun and romantic, but we decided on our trip that a) we already had a car lined up, b) the schedule didn't fit and c) it just took too long. (plus: d) was expensive too!)

Do you want to see SCOTLAND and nothing else, or are you squeezing in the rest of the UK on this trip as well? The UK is a small place, but boy there is a lot crammed in there.

I'm sure there would be places where there are castles, distilleries, and amazing scenery rolled into one.

Oh- remember the weather. When we were at Skye it bucketed (we were chased with historic floods that year, everywhere we went) and the scenery wasn't as good as it could have been.

I'd vote for Edinburgh over Glasgow (sorry Glaswegians) and Highlands over Borders. - but those are my family biases.
posted by titanium_geek at 11:15 PM on September 1, 2011

I think it will be a whirlwind of a "if it's Tuesday..." variety, but doable depending on your amount of stuff seen vs. time immersed in specifics.

If the Glen Coe to Skye drive is your dream, I think you can make that work and fit in other things around/within it.

My first suggestion would be a cheap flight into Inverness (aka The Gateway to the Highlands). The train or driving is going to eat up pretty much two days (one up, one back) if you really want to see the Highlands rather than concentrating on the sights around Edinburgh/Glasgow. If you are really trying to maximize time in Scotland and can push through travel fatigue/jetlag, get a flight out the day you arrive and spend that night in Scotland so you are ready to hit the ground running. Make sure to give yourself enough time to make it. I believe a lot of the budget flights to Inverness are out of London Luton rather than Heathrow or Gatwick, so you'll likely have to make an airport transfer and with customs, traffic, security on the other end, that could be a fair amount of time.

Spend the night in Inverness and have your car rental ready to go, either picked up at the airport or scheduled for easy morning pick-up. You can then head out towards Glen Coe, which is about 90 miles or so from Inverness. Either along this route or the Glen Coe Skye route, there will be opportunities to detour to castles. You could also spend Thursday focusing on the drive and stopping where it catches your eye with the end goal being to reach Skye by the evening. Once you are on Skye, there's Dunvegan Castle (the oldest continually inhabited castle in Scotland) on Skye itself, as is the Talisker distillery which offers tours. Spend Friday kicking around Skye to see the sights there and then you can either a) spend another night on Skye and get up very early for the drive back to Inverness, b) leave Skye that afternoon/evening and pick a midway point to stay the night and then drive back to Inverness or c) drive all the way back to Inverness that night. (Though I think c is a pretty bad idea. At this point, between travel and intense sightseeing and driving and the like, you are probably going to be pretty exhausted.)

Get a flight back from Inverness on Saturday with enough time to get you back into London and where you need to be when you need to be there (assuming no delays).

Like I said, it's a whirlwind, but if you really want to see all of those things I think you can make it happen, especially if you are comfortable with a slight gamble vis-a-vis flight delays when it comes to the timing of your transport in and out of Scotland.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 11:23 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Alternately, you could take the Caledonian sleeper up to Inverness out of Euston (gets in around 8 or 9 the next morning, I think) to avoid airport madness on your arrival and thus combine your transport and accomodation costs for the trip up/your first night. You could actually take it directly to Fort William which is very close to Glen Coe and gets in around 9 or 10 in the morning. You could then rent a car in Fort William and start your driving tour right from Glen Coe (I don't know how well you sleep on trains, but something to consider.) I'd still do a flight back from Inverness to London, howeve and there's the cost of returning the rental car to a different location than where you picked it up, if you are allowed to do so.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 11:34 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, for those really short of time, the typical solution would be to be in Edinburgh for a few days to visit the castle and a few other sites there, and to sign up for a daytrip by bus (coach). There are tons of alternatives available, and I distinctly remember several that included some highlands, one castle and one distillery...
posted by Namlit at 12:35 AM on September 2, 2011

Edinburgh also has the Whisky Heritage Tasting and tour.
posted by infini at 12:43 AM on September 2, 2011

You could take the Train to Fort WIlliam or Mallaig from just about anywhere ( including Glasgow 3 trains a day ) then Ferry to Skye if you want.

The train trip to Fort William is known as Britains most scenic. West Highland Line

Lots of distillery opportunities if you want and Ben Nevis as a passing treat.
posted by stuartmm at 1:40 AM on September 2, 2011

Sleeper to Fort William.

Hire car, Glencoe, Skye if you want to, or Mull via the wonderful Ardnamurchan Peninsula and then to Tobermory Distillery.

I prefer my castles ruined, so I'd suggest Castle Tioram near Moidart on the way back from Mull.

Note that driving around this area is interesting, many of the roads are single track and driven fast by the locals, be careful. Also never underestimate distances, it may seem like a short trip to the other side of the loch, but you have to drive around the loch to get there. (Which is where the Corran Ferry comes in near Fort William, it knocks 40 miles of the journey to Ardnamurchan).
posted by hardcode at 1:44 AM on September 2, 2011

It would be easily doable to reach Glasgow by Wednesday evening and travel back to London on Saturday, leaving 2 full days and nights for your trip. If you fly to Glasgow International (not Prestwick), it's only a half hour drive to the shores of Loch Lomond for an overnight stay. On Thursday, you can drive along Loch Lomond and through Glencoe to Skye. The drive is around 4 hours, so if you leave reasonably early, there will be time for a stop off at a castle such as Eilean Donan. On Friday you would have time to tootle around Skye for a bit, maybe visit a distillery, then head off. You could either head back the same way, or go via Loch Ness to Inverness, passing Urquhart Castle on the way.
The sleeper to Fort William is a good option, but just make sure you wake early so you don't miss the scenery. If you are thinking of flying, check Skyscanner which will search all of the budget and scheduled options for you.
posted by Jakey at 2:31 AM on September 2, 2011

seconding Jakey's advice - that's pretty much a shortened version of what we did (including the Talisker distillery on Skye, which was cute). personally i'd want to do it at a much more leisurely pace, but it's doable if you don't dawdle.
posted by wayward vagabond at 2:39 AM on September 2, 2011

Hi! I live just out the other side of Glencoe and turn left, hop a ferry and drive until the road ends yadda yadda, a bit further down the coast from Skye. Some people here have some odd suggestions. "Through Glencoe to Skye" makes it sound like Skye is just the other end of the glen. It most emphatically is not. It's another half hour to the Fort, then either an hour to Mallaig, and get the ferry which puts you in Sleat (nice, but not what you're looking for, drive on), or do the big drive-around via Glen Shiel for the bridge (much longer, but at least you get Eilean Donan on the way (and you end up in Broadford. Again, nice enough, but not Awesome Skye (tm) ). There are no commercial flights to Skye.

It is a punishing drive up from London. We had some friends come visit last month, they made the drive up to us from Bristol, and.... yikes. No. Bad. You can do it, but you won't get the best experience in that time.

Here are a couple of thoughts:

- Take the train to Fort William. There's a small distillery in town, a small castle (Inverlochy), and you can see the UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. Carve out 10 hours to go up and come back down (fewer if you're fast). Then have a post-walk drink at the Grog and Gruel. Only don't eat there (rubbish quasi-Mexican). Have one at the Grog, cross over the bypass for AWESOME food at the Crannog, then go to downstairs at Cobb's and drink something brewed by Atlas brewery, then over to the Maryburgh and stare at the goths, then go for a late one at the Skipinnish Ceilidh House, maybe do a drunken reel or two. Congrats. You've just done Fort William.

- Take the train to Glasgow, then take a coach that goes to Fort William. Why? It's faster on that leg of the journey than the train, it's cheaper if you don't have a railcard, and crucially, the coach goes via Glencoe, and the train does not. And it is spectacular, so much so I'd hesitate to drive it because it's lovely just to stare. But don't get off in Fort William, get off in Glencoe, and stay at Clachaig Inn (tell the bus driver to let you off there and not in the village). Don't drink in the main bar, drink in the Boots Bar. Have the venison burgers. Tell the barman to pour you a Jura Superstition. Listen to live music. If your hangover is not too bad in the morning, walk up the Pap of Glencoe. Let your jaw drop at the amazing scenery.

- There are actually loads of places between Glasgow and Fort William that are closer and will tick your boxes. The Loch Lomond/Trossachs area, for instance. Check these out.

- See Skye some other time when you have time to do it justice. We cycled around it for three weeks last year and still didn't see everything we wanted to see (good thing we live nearby...)

Please, I beg of you, please don't be someone who does a 3-day driveby topping out with 12 hours on Skye and thinks they've "done" Scotland. Pick one place, stay there, it will be wonderful, I promise.
posted by Cuppatea at 4:53 AM on September 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sorry, forgot to mention - there is one place up here that combines both castle AND distillery and you can stay there. Glenborrodale on Ardamurchan, home to the Adelphi bottlers (and future distillery). You'll need a car to do that because public transport in this direction is almost nonexistent (I say almost because you could try to get a lift with the school bus and sometimes the postman).
posted by Cuppatea at 5:01 AM on September 2, 2011

I only had time to go to Edinburgh.

But there I found an awesome castle, climbed a big hill (a mountain to my southern Ontario/Cambridgeshire eye) and bought the best Scotch I've ever tasted at Royal Mile Whiskies.

But next time I think I'll go to Fort William.
posted by jb at 5:13 AM on September 2, 2011


A fine looking place it is too, we drove past it several time when we stayed near Strontian.
posted by hardcode at 5:13 AM on September 2, 2011

Mr. Ipsum and I go to the UK every few years (he's a British ex-pat) and in 2007 we spent some time in the Isle of Skye. He has a friend there, who said that any time we wanted to come stay with her, to feel free, so we took her up on it.

Just on that island, we were able to do scenery, a castle and a distillery. We went to the Talisker (sp?) distillery, the McCleod Castle, and saw lots of scenery. Skye is very rural, and it seems like there are 2 main industries: sheep farming, and running a bed and breakfast. Just about every property/building we saw was one of those two. It did have a lot of nice scenery.

We flew from London Gatwick into Inverness, where we took a bus tour (recommended), then rented a car and drove to Skye. Personally, if I were to do this again, I'd prefer to just drive from London to Skye. I really don't think we saved much time, because we had to factor in time to get to the airport early, wait around, then fly out, then get another rental car (since we already had one in London, etc.)
posted by LaurenIpsum at 5:30 AM on September 2, 2011

Having lived near Inverness my number one method of travel between there and London would be the sleeper. Get a cabin and you're nicely rocked to sleep. Two things about it: do not attempt to eat the complimentary breakfast. It is not actually food. Secondly, it is very often seriously delayed, so tell the people you're hiring a car from that you're coming on the sleeper and you might be late to pick up the car.

Second choice would be to fly. I wouldn't drive London to the Highlands unless every other transport option was unavailable.

As for what you want to see - I'm finding it harder to think of areas of the Highlands that don't have lovely scenery, a distillery and a castle. It really depends on what you want from your castle (so, say, Urqhart is a ruin, Dunrobin is more of a stately home) and which whisky is most to your taste.

Also, Public Service Announcement: pull over to let people overtake! 20mph is a good speed to admire the scenery, less if you're due at a meeting somewhere.
posted by Coobeastie at 7:40 AM on September 2, 2011

Lots of good advice here. My take...

Don't drive to Scotland, it's soul destroying. Or fly for that matter. Take a train, a Virgin Pendelino from Euston to Glasgow gets you there in 3 hours or so. They're modern, fast, comfortable and if you can stretch to first class there's food, drink, wi-fi and newspapers. Stay overnight in Glasgow, the Radisson Blu is beside the station you arrive at. Get up the next day and hire a car from Enterprise just beside the Radisson Hotel (book in advance online) and take the beautiful drive past Loch Lomond, through Glen Coe and on to Fort William. Check into the Lime Tree for a night (and dinner) and spend the next morning at the Ben Nevis Distillery before returning to Glasgow again for a night and back to London on Saturday.

Or just cut to the chase and take the Caledonian Sleeper all the way from London Euston to Fort William, you'll wake up in the Highlands on the legendary West Highland Line on Thursday morning and reaching Fort William you can push on to Mallaig on The Jacobite aka The Harry Potter Train. From Mallaig you could possibly do a day trip to Skye on Friday and take in the Talisker Distillery and Dunvegan Castle etc. Perhaps using a tour company. Then reverse the journey to get back to London.

Another option is the Sleeper right up to Inverness and then hire a car and drive to Skye. Takes a couple of hours along the banks of Loch Ness. Inverness is a nice place too, good food and drink with an excellent distillery at Glen Ord.You miss out on Glen Coe though...

It's a lot to squeeze in, perhaps Skye is a bridge (or ferry) too far in your alloted time. But if you don't mind the long drive you can certainly reach Skye from Glasgow by car in 5 hours, just keep going past Fort William and gain yourself a day to explore.

Have fun!
posted by R.Stornoway at 12:54 PM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Actually London- Glasgow more like 4.5 hrs)
posted by R.Stornoway at 1:00 PM on September 2, 2011

You can take a train from King's Cross to Edinburgh, which is about 4.5hrs and costs £70 return - cheaper than the sleeper although of course it's not the full distance...but then you can spend a night in Edinburgh before travelling on. It's a gorgeous city.
posted by mippy at 5:25 AM on September 3, 2011

Response by poster: wow! This is some amazing advice! I knew I could count on mefites to offer a diverse set of fantastic solutions. I've taken a preliminary look at some of them, and the Caledonian sleeper option sounds dreamy. But I looked up pricing and for the 2 of us with a berth each it would be $530 one-way. Even though that includes accommodation for the night, it seems like an easyjet to Glasgow or Inverness at $150-$200 and a less expensive hostel or b&b there might work for our budget better.

We are flying into London from Los Angeles, so you're right, jetlag will be a factor and if we're too ambitious, we won't enjoy it. Driving from London is not an option. As much as I want to do what sounds like one of the most beautiful drives in the world up in the Highlands, is it too much? Should we just go to Edinburgh and enjoy the view from there? I have a feeling I'll regret not seeing the Highlands since we may not get the chance again for a while...

Maybe R.Stornoway's first itinerary with a cheaper flight and b&b instead. So many of your guys' proposed trips sound tempting! More research is in order. Thank you so much!
posted by tslugmo at 7:15 PM on September 3, 2011

Cuppatea is on the right track, for sure. Amazing though the West Coast up to Skye is (and presumably beyond, too!), doing all this in three days when you have to start from and return to London is not going to be enjoyable--or at least, it wouldn't be for me! So here's a different suggestion along the same lines: take advantage of the Isle of Arran, which isn't called 'Scotland in miniature' for nothing.

Wed 7: arrive in London 2.15pm, get through immigration and baggage reclaim, head into town and without hurrying too much take a late afternoon train to Glasgow. Arrive in Glasgow late evening; drink pint of beer, eat poke of fish and chips, sleep near station.

Thu 8: up and out early in the morning to catch 8.33am train from Glasgow to Ardrossan. (If there are two trains parked on the platform, make sure you get on the right one--I once found myself headed to Paisley at this point.) By 9.45 you'll be on a ferry chugging out into the Firth of Clyde, the mountains of Arran rising ahead of you and the long low form of the Kintyre peninsula running along the horizon beyond. Turn back and look at the Ayrshire coast behind you, too, and north (up towards the Isle of Bute, and the mountains of Cowal) and south (at Ailsa Craig further down the Firth). By eleven o'clock in the morning you'll be off the ferry, and the program for the next 48 hours (depending on how you travel--which requires a bit of planning on Arran, as on any Scottish island) could vary. But to stick with your three wishes, there's Brodick Castle and the Arran Distillery, and any walk in the northern half of the island (highest point Goatfell) will have amazing scenery. Fit in a meal at Creelers at some point. Getting up to Lochranza Youth Hostel would take a little planning (though it's only about 15 miles from Brodick) but would be worth it, and would combine well with a visit to the distillery a mile or two up the road: nice hostel; a quiet and gorgeous location that feels far more remote than you'd believe, given the fairly short crow-flies distance to Glasgow; the atmospheric shell of a tough little castle on the strand; and a good pub not far away. Also, less taxing than Goatfell and the other high peaks, a walk in the hills above the unsettled northern shore of the island gives soul-expanding views north up the Firth of Clyde and the Argyll mountains (and very few people). Take advice on suitable routes at the Youth Hostel.

Depending on what you do with your time, you could get back to London via Glasgow on the Saturday evening with a fairly leisurely start that morning--the late morning or even lunchtime ferry would still get you into London late in the evening rather than in the middle of the night. Or, if you took your London-Glasgow tickets on the East Coast main line, you could get off Arran late afternoon on the Friday (16.40 sailing), go back to Glasgow, and get a train on to Edinburgh. You'd be arriving in Edinburgh at something like eight o'clock, eight thirty--certainly not too late for dinner. The festival's over, so finding somewhere to stay should be easy. The next day you'd have plenty of time for a good wander round the centre of town before catching a train back to London mid or late afternoon (depending on how late you want to get there).

A quick note on travel costs. It's not going to be cheap, but it doesn't need to be that expensive either (and should be rather less hasslesome than getting to and from airports that no-frills operators use). First, tickets for the Glasgow-Ardrossan train and Ardrossan-Brodick ferry (for foot passengers) aren't expensive. The real cost will be getting from London to Scotland. But remember that on British intercity trains, a return journey usually costs only a bit more than a one-way. If you want to do the Edinburgh stop-off on the way back, you're allowed to break the return leg of a journey (at least, I've always understood this to be the case, and have never had any trouble doing it), so this won't cost any extra. However, at this stage (midday UK time on Sunday) there are still advance purchase single tickets available (; use 'advanced search' to add 'via Edinburgh'; when you choose your tickets and click to buy them it will take you to a train company website, since this is just the official information aggregator)--these work out cheaper but restrict you to specific trains so you'd need to work out your timetable carefully, especially if you wanted to build in the stop-off in Edinburgh (in which case, I'd just get the advance tickets for the London-Edinburgh bit, the journeys to Glasgow and Ardrossan not being long or costly enough for it to make much difference).

Trains from London and Edinburgh to Glasgow can arrive at either Glasgow Central or Queen Street station. Trains from Glasgow to Ardrossan are from Central only.

Oh--it's still light reasonably late this week (sunset in Edinburgh tonight is 8pm). That's handy as regards seeing scenery from the train, not having to rush down from the hilltop as night falls just after lunch, etc.

Just a couple of alternative suggestions. Enjoy yourselves, whatever you do!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 5:30 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You are all so kind to be so generous with your suggestions including full itineraries! The more I research it, the more it looks like a train to Glasgow, and exploring from there is a better idea than trying to get all the way to Skye on this trip. With a car rental being only $40/day, it seems like that gives us the most freedom once we're there. Now we're just trying to decide whether to do lapsangsouchong's Isle of Arran itinerary, or combine a bit of Jakey's advice to drive through Loch Lomond, Glencoe and Fort William, perhaps not all the way to Skye.

Thanks lapsangsouchong for all the great pointers, specific station info, and the tip about return journey's being not much more than one-ways. I found the Virgin train to Glasgow return fare was cheaper than Easyjet's return fare. We're tempted to include the stop-off in Edinburgh from Glasgow if we end up doing a less ambitious schedule.
posted by tslugmo at 11:11 AM on September 5, 2011

Oh, I know you're not into cities that much, but Edinburgh is just so special, you know? The castle there is amazing. Glasgow is a bit more industrial, Edinburgh- try hard not to miss it!

My English prof has a theory that JK Rowling wrote Hogwarts based off of Edinburgh castle since you can see it from the cafe that she wrote HP1 in. The Elephant House.
posted by titanium_geek at 6:17 AM on September 6, 2011

« Older Best domain name registrar?   |   Get your peanuts here! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.