Two days in the Scottish Highlands without a car
January 29, 2018 8:47 PM   Subscribe

I've convinced my husband to let us tack on a Scottish sojourn before a family reunion in July. Where in the Highlands should we go?

Right now, our itinerary looks like this:

Day 1: Land in Glasgow, stay there, sleep off jet lag.
Day 2-3: Highland adventure!
Day 4-5: Edinburgh
Day 5: Leave for reunion.

I am looking for the perfect Highlands town we can take a train / bus to (from Glasgow) and from (to Edinburgh). I am not interested in spending 5+ hours on a train/bus, so thus I think Skye is out of the question. Ideally, there will be hikes and sights to see directly from the town (or via bus). It doesn't have to be lively! I just want to feel cocooned by the Highlands and stay in a cute bed and breakfast.

I was thinking Fort William, but am not sure if there's a better option. I also had a grand plan of doing a night in Fort William and then taking the train to Inverness for a night, but am not sure if that's too much stuffed into two days.

I'm not interested in shaving days off the Edinburgh part of my trip.

Thank you!
posted by good day merlock to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I had a great time in Aviemore, and then taking the ventricular railway in the Cairn Gorms.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:58 PM on January 29, 2018

Fort William itself is kind of ugly. If you’re willing to stay on the train another hour or so (bonus: it is the most beautiful rail route) you could get to Arisaig or Mallaig at the end of the line.

Fort William to Inverness by train means going all the way back to Glasgow to change trains, do not recommend. Inverness itself is nice though and there’ll be bus day trip tours out of the city, or you can get the train a bit further north and see some more of the Highlands.

Alternatively, Pitlochry is very pretty and only about 90 minutes from Glasgow by train.
posted by Catseye at 11:34 PM on January 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would also pass on Fort William, unless you want to climb Ben Nevis. Arisaig is lovely though & very typical of the west coast generally - a few nice places to stay, beautiful beaches nearby. You can take a boat trip to the Small Isles if you're interested in a Hebridean dimension to this trip. Mallaig is not so great, really just a port from which you'd go to Skye - which I agree is probably too far for a trip of this length. The train from Glasgow to Arisaig is a unique journey. There's a reason why all those Harry Potter movies were located up there. That island where Dumbledore was buried? You'll see it from your window (sit on the right of the carriage).

Going the other way - Aviemore or Inverness are both good suggestions. The landscape in the Cairngorms is totally different to the west coast - so, you can maybe decide whether you want stirring rugged grandeur (east) or a slightly softer & somewhat more forested terrain with sea lochs etc (west). Don't try to do both, you don't have time.

Pitlochry or Blair Atholl or other locations in Tayside are cute too although a little bit tartan-and-shortbread. Crianlarich would also be a good base for a couple of days' walking, and is easy to reach by train, but you'd be getting off before all the most beautiful scenery really begins.
posted by rd45 at 1:24 AM on January 30, 2018

Fort William is a setting in Outlander; is that why you want to go gdm?
posted by brujita at 1:31 AM on January 30, 2018

You could get a bus tour from Glasgow that would cover Glencoe, Urquart Castle and a trip on Loch Ness.

Or nip up to Oban with its splendid ‘Greek’ McCaig’s Tower and take a boat to Mull or some such.
posted by Segundus at 1:39 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Or how about one of these?
posted by Segundus at 1:45 AM on January 30, 2018

Fort William is a setting in Outlander; is that why you want to go gdm?

FYI if this is the appeal, 'Fort William' in Outlander is filmed at Blackness Castle in West Lothian. Short train + bus journey from Glasgow or Edinburgh, and there are a ton of tour companies that go round Outlander filming locations.
posted by Catseye at 2:01 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Take the Oban spur of the West Highland line. Oban is delightful and picturesque and you can practically swim to Mull from there if you want to visit an island.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:42 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Get, and use, a good midge repellant. They can make walking around the Highlands a misery.
posted by epo at 5:31 AM on January 30, 2018

Another vote for Oban. Three hours from Glasgow by train. A scenic journey, a beautiful wee town, and the option of a boat ride to the islands if you want. You'd need to go back to Glasgow and then get a train to Edinburgh, though. But G to E is only an hour.

Or if you wanted to try somewhere smaller, you could look at all the small places the Glasgow - Oban train stops and see if any of them appeal - bung in a search from Oban to Glasgow on the Scotrail website, click on a journey, then click 'Calling Points' and google the place names that pop up. The first few stops, Dumbarton, Helensburgh etc., are not what you're after, but after that, there are some sweet little villages. I've only ever driven through them so other people might be able to weigh in on what they're like individually, but I've often thought "This is nice, I should come here some time instead of just driving through..."

A definite vote against Fort William. A beautiful spot ruined by an ugly dual carriageway that separates the town from the loch front. I also find Mallaig pretty charmless tbh.

Traveline Scotland
is also useful for transport planning - integrated searches including trains and buses. It can be a bit glitchy but I've had their staff be super-helpful on Twitter when it didn't work, and look things up on my behalf.

And yes, get midge repellent. Go into any of the outdoor shops in Glasgow and pick up some Skin So Soft (moisturiser made by Avon that just happens to have midge repellent properties and has been coopted by the outdoor fraternity) or Smidge.
posted by penguin pie at 7:44 AM on January 30, 2018

Response by poster: Ha! I only picked Fort William because someone mentioned it on a question here and I thought maybe it looked cute? Clearly I am wrong. And clearly I should watch Outlander before I go!
posted by good day merlock at 8:03 AM on January 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ach, Fort William has some nice corners, and the setting and journey up are both stunning. But here's its glorious waterfront.
posted by penguin pie at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2018

Oban is pretty, Fort William less so---reminded me of industrial forestry towns in the Canadian Rockies, in fact.

As well as a pretty town site, Oban also gives access to some island tours, which could be a very nice way to spend a day.
posted by bonehead at 8:40 AM on January 30, 2018

Response by poster: Thank you guys! Right now I'm leaning towards the western Highlands, and possibly taking a train to Inverness and doing a day trip from there, then possibly stopping in Aviemore on the way to Edinburgh. The West Highland lines looks GORGEOUS and I am devastated to not go on the line, but the 6+ hour train ride from Mallaig to Edinburgh is just too much (and I don't think Oban is quite what we're looking for.

Thank you for all these wonderful suggestions!
posted by good day merlock at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2018

Welcome to Scotland!

I would also not recommend Fort William or Inverness for a short trip - stay on the west coast line by train. Inverness is a nice city (my parents live nearby) but it's far away and doesn't have the most dramatic scenery. For a couple of days I would strongly recommend the line going towards Fort William instead.

For example, absolutely take the train from Glasgow north towards Fort William - for a shorter trip you could stop off at any of the villages/stops by Loch Lomond. You could get off at Arrochar/Tarbet and walk west to Loch Long (so long they used it to practise shooting torpedos) or east to Loch Lomond. I do NOT recommend the Arrochar hotel though. You can climb The Cobbler, or all the paths leading to it are nice as well. The website linked to - Walk Highlands - is great for searching for hikes by the way. I find the descriptions and standards accurate. From Arrochar/Tarbet you can also go east, get a ferry across Loch Lomond and climb Ben Lomond - the southernmost Munro. It's quite a long climb, but if you get good weather, either of these hikes will give you wonderful views north to the highlands and west to the Islands.

Then agree with those above who suggest Oban. From Arrochar on the train you will get to see some spectacular scenery with a great mixture of ocean and mountain.

The train from Fort William to Mallaig (not to Oban) is spectacular as well though. Mallaig is a nice enough village to walk around, visit the beach, and get some fish and chips but there is probably (?) more to do from Oban including getting a ferry somewhere. If the weather isn't great (and there's a good chance it won't be!) then from Oban you could get a ferry to Mull and have a look around rather than being stuck in Fort William (I had a miserable summer job there once so maybe I am biased...)

Another option is to go south from Glasgow and get the train then the ferry to the Isle of Arran. Arran is known as 'Scotland in miniature' for a reason - it has a great variety of landscape (because of it's complex geology if you're into that kind of thing - I am!) and there is a bus that meets the ferry that will take you to lodging. I stayed in the Lochranza youth hostel, and there is a distillery nearby which you can visit. If you time it right, you can leave from Glasgow, climb Goatfell and get back to Glasgow that evening! Or find a nice pub in Arran and celebrate your walk.

Very much agree with those above who recommend to bring or buy bug repellant. Deep Woods Off (I got some from the USA) works well. You might also want a midge net to go over your head if it's really bad. PM me if you have any questions :)
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:23 PM on January 30, 2018

Ack - I just saw your second reply, apologies for the further Oban suggestions.

I would still suggest Arrochar or somewhere along the west coast line or Arran as opposed to Inverness. A day trip from Inverness is not going to get you anywhere that exciting without a lot of bus travel. You can, for example, go on the train to remotest Torridon, which is amazing, but another 2.5 hours each way (i.e. the length of journey problem back to Edinburgh you mention) and there are nice mountains closer to Glasgow/Edinburgh (i.e. The Cobbler, above) and the train journey is more scenic. I take the train a lot from Edinburgh to Inverness and back, and it's by no means bland, but not as nice as the west highland line from Glasgow. On the way back you might have to change in Glasgow but then it's less than an hour to Edinburgh.

Or Pitlochry/Bridge of Atholl. Lots of good hiking and I have stayed at the Pitlochry Hydro hotel which was fairly nice. Ben Vrackie is an easy climb and a great intro to the higlands. There are also a lot of nice river walks and/or you can get the train up to Blair Atholl and walk back.

Bridge of Orchy maybe? There's only the one hotel there but a nice walk right across from the tiny train station. Two quite big hills or you can just do one.

Crianlarich - I have stayed at the Crianlarich Hotel and you can do some nice walking around there. Some of the hiking can get pretty boggy from past experience (and I got super attacked by midges near Ben More!).

Trains and pricing can be a little complicated - again, happy to answer any other questions.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:40 PM on January 30, 2018

P.S I should do my PSA and say that if you do plan to climb any of the mountains I've mentioned above, make sure you have a waterproof coat and trousers, decent boots or shoes and at least a hat and gloves with you. Nothing majorly expensive, but enough to keep the wind and rain out. The weather here can change very quickly, and it can get very cold, rainy and foggy even in July.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:47 PM on January 30, 2018

You're planning two nights in the Highlands, is that right? I would suggest the following:

Day 2: Get the train from Glasgow to Inverness and stay the night either in Inverness or Dingwall. I've only ever been through Dingwall on the train, but I think it might tick your "cosyness" box better than Inverness.

Day 3: Take the North Highland train line from Inverness/Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh and back. This train trip is even better than the West Highland line and packs an incredible amount into its 2.5 hours. I don't think you could do better for a day trip that lets you see the Highlands. I've taken that train trip at least 10 times, and can't imagine getting bored with it. Admittedly, I do enjoy train travel for its own sake more than it sounds as if you do, but honestly, the time on the train will fly by.

There's an 8.55 departure from Inverness (9.29 from Dingwall) that gets into Kyle of Lochalsh at 11.30. It then heads back to Inverness at 12.08. Alternatively, there's a 10.56 departure from Inverness that heads back to Inverness at 13.46. There isn't a lot to do in Kyle itself, but it's worth going there for the view across to Skye. I'd be inclined to get the early train, spend half an hour in Kyle, then get the same train back and get off after 15 minutes at the exquisite village of Plockton. You'd then have an hour and a half to wander around Plockton before getting the later train back to Inverness. [I should admit that I've never done this myself, but have looked longingly at Plockton from the train.]

You could spend the night in Dingwall, Inverness or even Aviemore. Either way, you'll be nicely placed for a fairly easy trip to Edinburgh on Day 4.
posted by kelper at 2:32 AM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Plockton is definitely worth an hour and a half may not be THE Perfect Highlands Town but it certainly is one of them.

Nthing kelper to say that my feeling is that in Scotland the train journey is part of the travel experience, not just your way to get between two places. The scenery is incredible.
posted by Preserver at 11:54 AM on January 31, 2018

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