Please critique my road trip in Scotland
July 24, 2017 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Hi Mefites, I’m going to Scotland with my SO fo a 10 days trip in September. We’re mainly interested in gorgeous landscapes and lonely places, wild animals, haunted castles and are open to hiking, cycling & kayaking. We would like to keep the driving up to 3 hours per day maximum.

We have the choice between Glasgow or Edinburgh as the starting / arrival point. 
Once off the plane we’d like to first start with a train and then rent a car a bit outside of the big cities so we can experiment with the dreaded driving on the opposite side of the road in a quiet place.
Here’s how I envision the trip after having read the Rough Guide and the previous posts & comments on the subject here on MeFi :

- Glasgow / Edinburgh - Inverness by train. Rent a car here.
- Loch Ness and loch affric
- Loch affric - Ullapool
- Ullapool- isle of Harris
- Isle of Harris - isle of Skye
- Isle of Skye
- Isle of Skye - Glen coe
- Spend a day exploring Glen Coe / Ben Nevis / West Highland Way
- Glen coe - Trossachs
- Trossachs / Loch lomond - Doune castle - Falkirk bridge (?) - Edinburgh

What do you think? Am I cramming too much in too little days? Is there some must-see I am missing?

Also, how difficult are the single track roads? (For example, compared to the narrow roads of the french / Swiss Alps?). Can we rent a basic car with those roads in mind or should we rent something "sturdier" / more comfortable?

Thank you in advance (and pardon my English!)
posted by Ifite to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
We did this a few years ago and it looks great to me! I don't think it's too much driving, particularly since it looks like you're spending a couple of nights in the same place in the middle of the trip on Skye. On a trip like this, driving is part of the fun.

The roads are not bad. The only scary moments we had on single track roads were at the very beginning when we didn't understand what was going on. The smallest roads are lightly traveled and everybody has a vested interest in paying attention and being courteous road-sharers.
posted by something something at 12:05 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

As long as you're traveling near Ullapool, make it a point to take in the Gardens of Inverewe. Although situated on the same longitude as Juneau, AK, thanks to the Gulf Stream you can see semi-tropical plants. Treat yourself to cullin skink in the cafeteria on the grounds.

Also watch for Plockton, where 30 foot Royal Palms border the loch.

Before heading south from Inverness to Loch Ness, consider a detour slightly west to Moniack Castle to taste their white wine made from the sap of the silver birch.
posted by John Borrowman at 12:36 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

The roads are fine but be aware that a mile on the Highlands takes a lot longer to drive than a mile on a fast straight road- it can be surprising how long it takes to get somewhere not that far away!
posted by KateViolet at 12:45 PM on July 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Skye to Glen Coe, if it is wet and raining like it was when we did similar, is going to suck the life out of you. You will be on a narrow highway, possibly blocked by slow moving tour buses and people on bikes.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Parts of the train journey Edinburgh to Inverness are really beautiful, so good choice there.

It does sound like waaaay more driving than I'd want to do though - you sound like you'll be driving almost every day? That to me seems like kind of a waste - the beauty of the Highlands is in being able to slow down, get away from the rat race and breeeathe, so I'd encourage you to hit fewer spots but actually spend time at some of them rather than just drive through them (or to arrive, have an hour or two there in the evening, sleep, then get up and leave again).

I realise this might be a cultural thing - Brits live in a small place so we have a different perception of distance. But still, I think it's important not to come to the Highlands and spend every day in the car! Do some hillwalking, sit in some pubs. Slow down.
posted by penguin pie at 2:13 PM on July 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

We just got back from a trip that had two full days in Skye, plus an afternoon and a morning on either end (with drive to/from Glasgow taking up the rest of those days), and still could have explored more. And this was *with* beautiful weather so we were able to get in most of the hikes we had planned.

So, agree with the calls to slow down some. Maybe skip over the Lochs? We found that driving along Loch Ness (which we did on a previous trip)/Loch Lomond was lovely, but we didn't have the same "WE MUST STOP AND GO ON A HIKE NOW" feeling that we had in Skye.

We had An Incident on the road up to the Quinraing (it's a one lane road where there's a blind spot where it's hard to see cars coming up/down in time to pull over in a passing place and we had to get towed out of the boggy ditch on the side of the road), but otherwise driving on the wrong side was fine, if unnerving at first.

We found that, for the most part, slower drivers were good at letting people overtake, but did in fact get stuck behind a slow moving lorry somewhere south of Glen Coe. So definitely lower your expectations for how fast you'll get places--that plus the narrow roads + adjusting to driving on the left will slow you down.
posted by damayanti at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you everybody for your suggestions to slow down. I kinda hate cars / driving so thank you for suggesting spending more time in fewer places. We'll probably spend a week in Skye / exploring its nearby islands and then stay somewhere in the great glen. Now let's see if we have the guts to bring the tent and do some camping ;)
posted by Ifite at 3:10 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi, I just got back from my second road trip in Scotland (my first one was also in September), and I've got just a couple notes.

- Glasgow / Edinburgh - Inverness by train. Rent a car here.
You can save some time and money by training to Stirling and renting a car there, if you're not married to Ness / Affric / Ullapool. Either way's fine, though.

If you do this, take the northern route around Loch Lomond. The road gets awfully crowded.

- Loch affric - Ullapool
You luck jerk. I just took the more northerly route from Skye to Inverness, and it was just gorgeous.

- Isle of Harris - isle of Skye
- Isle of Skye
- Isle of Skye - Glen coe
Note that you can spend a lot of time in Skye without getting tired of it. There's way more than three days' worth to see and do, especially if you like peace and quiet. The traditional must-hike is the Quiraing, but there are tons of lovely hikes.

- Isle of Skye - Glen coe
- Spend a day exploring Glen Coe / Ben Nevis / West Highland Way
- Glen coe - Trossachs
Similarly, the Glen Coe area has a ton that's worth seeing, and if you like hikes, you can spend quite a lot of time there. Enjoy a dinner in the nice restaurant in Ballacullish.

I would probably linger a bit more, but I like laying my head in the same place for some consecutive days and frankly love Skye.

You might consider Mull. It's a big island and very lightly populated. There's quite a bit of wildlife, a ruined castle or two, and some terrific, quiet scenery. You can take your car over on a ferry.

Any car they rent you should be fine. The single track roads aren't difficult at all. I would recommend a car with GPS if you don't save the maps to your phone ahead of time.

You can find great hikes with

Have fun!
posted by The Gaffer at 3:18 PM on July 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh - and if you're were to end up passing through Glencoe, it's practically illegal* to do that without stopping at The Clachaig. Go round to the Boots Bar at the back if it's open for maximum atmosphere.

*actually, speaking of legalities, while I'm urging you to spend all this time in pubs, worth noting that the drink-drive limit in Scotland is lower than the rest of the UK.
posted by penguin pie at 4:05 PM on July 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Locate a copy of "Raw Spirit" by Iain Banks. The late author of fiction and greatly celebrated science fiction also wrote this book about his life, his travels to just about every malt distillery in Scotland, and it includes his chosen "great wee roads," roads that're really great to drive on, either because of road drama (sharp turns and narrow straights), picturesque views (lochs and villages) and so on. I'm not much of Scotch drinker, but this book was still the thing that most made me want to visit Scotland.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:32 PM on July 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

Re starting point: Both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are busy but welcoming places. If you decided to hire a car from either location and to spend most of your time driving - then I would not say that either place would be too intimidating to start: you get the biggest choice of and the cheapest car hire and, if you are heading out of town - you are not going to be stuck in city traffic.

In terms of Glasgow and Edinburgh as cities: there is a great deal to see in both places, you would want to do so in without a car; I think. Given the wider context of your trip, you might be better to pick one and spend more time exploring it rather than skim both. The the other city in more detail next trip. Fly into whichever city you choose to focus on.

I would be tempted to either embrace train travel totally or to ditch it in favour of using a car for everywhere outside the cities. On a train only holiday I would be sure to catch the West Highland line from Glasgow up to Mallaig with a connecting bus to Skye, at some point - then loop back from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness and south.

Regarding islands: part of the point of visiting the islands is that there is slower pace of life there. For this reason, if it were me, I would choose either Harris/Lewis or Skye and concentrate on that: the former for the real feeling of getting away from it all and the latter for a bit of that but also its amazing landscape. And personally - if I were planning to go near Ullapool with a car - I would also look at the mainland area to the north on the Coigath peninsular and leading to Lochinver: amazing country up there.

The guide book that most Scots use to root out more unusual places is Scotland the Best by the way. It is just the sort of well informed, opinionated view on what is worth catching and what is not - that is good to have around.
posted by rongorongo at 12:16 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I notice you mention the relatively obscure Doune castle. Often people who are drawn there are pilgrims driven by Monty Python and the Holy Grail - or Outlander - and visitors in both categories will be well rewarded. If you happen to be an Outlander fan then run a search of filming locations - they take you to some great places. I discovered that "Lallybroch" lies down an un-promising back road labelled "saw mill" about 5 miles away from where I live, for example.)
posted by rongorongo at 12:26 AM on July 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I did the same trip last year!

One thing I would strongly consider adding is the train ride with the West Highland Railway, it is one of the most beautiful train rides I have ever undertaken. It includes the Harry Potter Bridge and traverses one of the most remote places in Britain, Rannoch Moor. At Rannoch Station there is a small Hotel, the "Moor of Rannoch Hotel". I would stay there for a night or two and hike there, it's stunning. This can be your means of getting back to Glasgow, as the West Highland Railway goes from Oban to Glasgow.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 4:47 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

You MUST visit Isle of Skye! I was there with my husband that time last year and I really want to go back. I told him I wanted to see "green grass, mountains and sea" and Scotland delivered. We walked the Quiaraing which was just stunning. Absolutely breathtaking. If we go back I def want to do the Old Man of Storr as well. Glen Coe was lovely as well (we did the north path on the side of Ben Nevis but it was blocked by clouds) but honestly Isle of Skye was just amazing. I'm so jealous you're going and I think you're making me want to plan another trip.

I would highly recommend good hiking shoes, waterproof anorak, and the Walk the Highlands website.
posted by like_neon at 5:34 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

We just came back from a trip to Berneray & Skye, via Arisaig on the way up and Edinburgh on the way down. Your itinerary looks aweome. Few small points from me.

- seconding Scotland the Best - the only drawback is that you'll want to visit EVERYTHING you read about

- train to Inverness is easier from Edinburgh than from Glasgow (assuming that you're flying in?)

- the boat from Ullapool goes to Stornoway, which is on Lewis not Harris (although they're joined together) - this could be a beautiful part of the trip, but might cost you a few extra days because it's a long way & there are not many sailings - a shortened & more leisurely version might go Glen Affric - Glen Shiel - Kyle of Lochalsh & then onto Skye via the bridge. Then back via the Armadale - Mallaig ferry, and onwards to Glencoe (or maybe even with a diversion via Ardnamurchan to nip across to Tobermory, via the ferry at Kilchoan)

- be sure to spend time in the forests in Glen Affric - there's not much of the original Caledonian Forest left, this is the biggest remnant - for an adventurous hike & fun overnight trip (bring food and a sleeping bag, and wear your sturdiest boots), you can leave your car in the car park at the western end of Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin and walk (3-4 hours) to the youth hostel at Alltbeithe

- you're missing the worst of the midgies by going later in the year, but bring spray for the evenings - Avon Skin So Soft is good

Enjoy it! I hope the sun shines.
posted by rd45 at 7:05 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it helps to ease into the driving by starting at an airport rental car place and hitting the big M roads right away. Those roads feel the most familiar to my American sensibilities, and you can adjust to the left-side perspective easier when you feel like you have enough space in your lane. I find it's not hard to stay on the left, but I have such a hard time knowing where the other side of my car ends, and the lanes on most roads are much narrower than what I'm used to. When we did our Scotland trip a couple of years ago we got a rental car at the Glasgow airport and drove straight to Edinburgh from there.

The worst drive of the trip, was going in one day from Inverness, to Loch Ness, to Urquhart Castle, to Fort William, down the length of Loch Lomond, to an inn at the very far end of Lomond. It rained for the entire drive, the edge of the road was frighteningly close to Loch Lomond, and it was a white knuckle drive for hours. It looks like you have the Glencoe/Trossachs/Lomond area broken up into a couple of days, which should make the driving bearable. The drive from the bottom of Loch Lomond to Glasgow was surprisingly harrowing to me, too, so Lomond to Edinburgh may be a stretch. Also, bear in mind that whoever is driving won't really get to enjoy the scenery. My trip companions said the Glencoe area and the moors were lovely despite the rain, all I saw was asphalt and the backs of other vehicles.

Doune Castle is totally worth seeing, as is Stirling Castle. We stayed a night in Culcreuch Castle, which is supposedly haunted, and is absolutely lovely. Staying in a castle can be surprisingly cheap, depending on the castle, I highly recommend a night in a castle if you can swing it. Also, you probably don't have time for it in your itinerary for this trip, but the Highland Folk Museum was one of my favorite sights on our trip. If you like history, it's amazing. If you happen to be on an Outlander pilgrimage, it's the filming location for the S1 episode Rent. In case your curiosity is piqued, we did Doune and the Highland Folk Museum in one day, starting from Culcreuch Castle and ending in Inverness, but that did involve a lot of driving and didn't leave us much time for exploring the Inverness area.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 11:01 AM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Doune Castle is lovely but if you're planning to see Doune/Falkirk you must see Stirling while in the area. Also not far from Stirling/Falkirk is Culross. The most beaufitul and underrated village in Scotland. Culross is not only beautiful to look at it has a fascinating history of coal mining and salt production.
posted by mani at 1:50 PM on July 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey, I'm back from Scotland! It was splendid, bursting with Indian summer colours and blackberries :)
We camped in a tent every night and surprisingly it was awesome. There are some lovely campsites in Scotland that give you this "into the wild" vibe but with hot showers... Special mention to the Glenbrittle campsite, with the sea on your left and the Cuillings on your right, and the Camusdarach one, with their white sand beaches.
Thank you for the books recommendations! Scotland the Best and Ian Banks' Raw spirit were never far.
We saw lots of deers (Glencoe, Glenbrittle, Arisaig), seals (at the northest point of Skye), rabbits, 60s-style cows (oops, Highlander cows), sheeps and birds. Surprisingly, deers were much less afraid by us that sheeps.
I cannot tell which place was my favourite, they're all pretty different and awesome. Let's say that Loch Affric, Loch Morar and Glenbrittle are the ones that struck me the most, but it is partially due to extremely good weather.
Enough rambling, thank you again Mefites :)
posted by Ifite at 12:23 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

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