Please plan my Scottish road (or rail?) trip
February 7, 2022 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Let's pretend I'm actually going on my belated honeymoon in May even though it seems deeply implausible. How do I get from one thing to another, and what are the things?

I've looked at previous similar questions and they've been enormously helpful, but people seem to really love talking about visiting Scotland so I thought I'd drop my own snowflakes here and collect personalized wisdom from the hivemind. Here are the deets:

- I've got enough vacation to take two full weeks off, but would rather take a bit less if we won't feel rushed, since two weeks is a long time to let stuff pile up
- Must be in London on May 15, sufficiently recovered from jet lag to enjoy a promenade performance
- At least one overnight in Edinburgh
- Need a way to get from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye that will ideally contribute to our enjoyment rather than diminishing it
- I know from reading previous threads that we should plan on three days on Skye at least

Outstanding questions:
- I feel confident getting from London to Edinburgh on the train. But should we be renting a car in Edinburgh or taking the train to Inverness and renting a car there? Or other? We both drive, but neither drives stick or has practice driving on the left. On the flip side I genuinely love trains, but previous questions made Inverness feel like not exactly a must-see (plus in our own car we don't have to wear masks—I assume they're still masking on transit there?). This ties into the next question:
- (most important) What should we be trying to see in between Edinburgh and Skye? How many days should we take for the journey?
- What must we see on Skye? We definitely should have a car by this point even if we took the train out of Edinburgh, right?
- I've been to Edinburgh and while I think it's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever been to, I don't feel there are more things I need to Do there besides walking around. But will I regret only doing one overnight? I can only afford one night at the place we're planning to stay, lol.
- Similarly, we're not feeling like we need more than a couple days in London, to recover from jet lag and go to our show and eat Dishoom. Is that foolish?
- Should I be trying to do an open-jaw flight so we don't have to make our way back to London? If we fly out of Glasgow, we could see a different set of things in between Skye and Glasgow, though then we need to spend at least a couple days in Glasgow, right? I've never been. If we fly out of Glasgow or Edinburgh do we need to pay the ridiculous airport taxes you get when you fly out of Heathrow?

In terms of stuff to see:
- We are good walkers but not jocks
- We like beautiful nature but especially if it's a little weird/spooky (hence why I'm so obsessed with Skye)
- That said, I'm more of a city guy and love to see weird things in cities, but since I'm dragging us across the ocean for an immersive theater production I feel I've probably checked that box
- Not especially into history in isolation but yes into mythology/legend/history that is connected with these things
- I love to see or meet animals as long as they're happy and not stressed out

Aspiring travel agents, please go to town! I haven't planned an international trip since 2017 and the plan was "go to Berlin and hang out" so all this movement feels very overwhelming to me.
posted by babelfish to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
TL;DR: get a car in Edinburgh and be open to stopping at things that present themselves to you. And, plan to spend most time on Skye and surroundings rather than continually moving around. Sense of place is important.

I've done basically this trip back before the pandemic (also in May). We rented a car in Edinburgh and drove to Skye, then passed through Inverness on the way back. Our trip was 4 or 5 days in Edinburgh, a day trip to Sterling, an overnight in Oban, I think 4 days on Skye, a night in Pitlochry, and then back to Edinburgh for a train back to London. All told it was a bit more than two weeks away from home, and I'd take at least as much or more if I were you. If you're worried about "letting stuff pile up" - don't.

If I were to do it again, I'd cut down the time in Edinburgh and spend more time in the highlands. Sterling was fine - the castle is fun but I wouldn't bother with the Wallace Memorial - and I'd just stop there on the way to somewhere else. I wouldn't go to Pitlochry.

To your specific questions in order-
  • I'd rent the car in Edinburgh and drive from there. There are lots of things you'll find in between Inverness and Edinburgh that would be awesome to see and visit. We semi-randomly stopped at the Kelpies, which were wonderful, and completely just ran into Eileen Donan and stopped and had an awesome time. Pre-book the car and specify an automatic; this was no problem to do. Driving on the left is just a smidge weird, but you'll take to it just fine. For me the hardest part was judging how far the car extended to my left vs right since I'm sitting on the opposite side, but staying in the right lanes, turns, roundabouts, etc was just fine.
  • I'd plan for one or two nights in between. As I said, we stopped at Oban to visit the distillery, which was a great tour (ask for Gus). Eileen Donan for sure. I wish we'd stopped at Glencoe. Loch Lomond is gorgeous. And Ben Nevis is high on my climbing list. That said, on a separate trip I was time-crunched and drove straight through from Glasgow airport to Skye and it was a fine drive.
  • The Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing, the Talisker distillery, Skye Weavers, maybe a light hike in the Black Cuillen, the Fairy Pools, Neist Point. There are also some great trails near Staffin that take you to old archaeological ruins on a beach and will probably get you close to some sheep too.
  • I mean, depends on what you want to do in Edinburgh. If we went back, we'd probably only stay a night too. That said, if you haven't been, and since you like weird and spooky, I strongly recommend the Surgeons' Hall Museum.
  • One night in London is all you need for this trip - that's exactly what we did. If I take a long vacation to the UK, I'm either spending a ton of time in London or not much at all. Don't waste your Scotland trip on London. Also, I think Dishoom coasts on reputation more than being actually great. I found it very good, but far from the first place I'll go back to next time I'm in London.
  • You could fly out of Glasgow, but it's likely you'll transit back through London anyway. I'm very Glasgow curious - I've only flew in and out of the airport but never been to the city proper - and I'm not sure I'd try to jam it into this trip. If Skye is your target, I'd focus on Skye and the highlands and save Glasgow for next time.
If you have any followups, happy to answer here or by MeMail.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 8:27 AM on February 7, 2022

If you're looking for weird/spooly nature on the way to Skye, I might humbly suggest hitting Glencoe (which is just mind-blowing) and environs on the way to Skye. You could train to Fort Willian and rent a car there (or there-ish). The Western Highlands are super-spectacular and can change pretty dramatically ( I drove from Stirling to Fort William-ish in 2019--also not much of a lefthand driver--and the drive was just jawdropping) .

Seconding Oban as a nice stop if you're out that way.

Inverness is fine. It's a great jumping off point for a lot of the Highlands, and a small city with all of the conveniences should you need to outfit etc. There's not that much to do in Inverness proper. And take my advice and don't get stuck there on a Sunday (though you can definitely drink with hikers from all over the world, if that's your thing), because on Sunday even the bookshop is closed.

But really this is me saying again, do Glencoe. It's worth it.

Loch Lomond is lovely too.

In other news, following because I'm slated to go to Skye in September.
posted by thivaia at 8:36 AM on February 7, 2022

The real railway buffs Go from Glasgow to Mallaig, ferry to Skye then back to the mainland to rail it from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness. Check out Corrour and Rannoch as you whizz past.
Do not even look at the Cuillin Hills on Skye without stout boots, stout heart and iron rations.
Film prep: Gregory's Girl and Sunshine on Leith
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:40 AM on February 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

Pre-COVID, I took a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, then drove to Glencoe, Plockton, and Inverness. You might have an easier time renting an automatic in Edinburgh or Glasgow; Inverness is a lot smaller and some rental companies don't have an actual desk at the airport there. (I do recommend getting full insurance coverage via the rental company since you're new to driving on the left.) If you drive from Edinburgh or Glasglow toward the Isle of Skye, you'll pass through the Glencoe area and pass Ben Nevis, all of which is pretty mind-blowing scenery. I'd even recommend spending a night in Glencoe or Fort William. The Loch Leven Hotel is cute and has a great restaurant.

A few places I stumbled across and really enjoyed were the Falls of Falloch, the An Torr Woodlands, and Invergarry Castle / Glengarry Castle Hotel (for high tea). I also genuinely enjoyed the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in Inverness. Also, you might know this since you've been to Edinburgh, but walking eastward from the Water of Leith Walkway and under the Dean Bridge is amazing.
posted by neushoorn at 8:41 AM on February 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Only a few small things to contribute:
- There's a Dishoom in Edinburgh if that helps.
- Edinburgh to Inverness - maybe depends if you want to stop. As someone else mentioned the car makes it easier to stop and explore, but if you're planning to go direct, I'd personally prefer the train Edinburgh to Inverness wearing a mask than driving maskless but unsure of my driving skills. The A9 (the main road you'll be on) is notoriously awful at the best of times - busy and narrow. If you get the train, sit on the left hand side for the most breathtaking views. Yep, we're still masked on public transport here, and have been throughout the pandemic, so could well still be in May.
- Glasgow is definitely worth a couple of days of wandering around. Not as instantly and obviously beautiful as Edinburgh but has a totally different big city energy. Mad and friendly. Sounds like you'd enjoy Glasgow Necropolis and a friend of mine raved about the Glasgow Central Station Tours - tours of the tunnels under the station and city with a guy who is super-passionate about it and apparently really makes the whole experience. Which reminds me, I must book myself.
- If you follow the suggestions here to swing by Glencoe, it's compulsory to stop at the Clachaig.
posted by penguin pie at 9:10 AM on February 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

I've done the drive from Glasgow to Skye, as well as Inverness to Skye. Both drives are gorgeous. We did them in one day, and sort of went "5 hours? That's nothingǃ" but it does, in actuality, take a lot longer than that, particularly if you're getting used to the roads, which, assuming you're coming from the US, are going to be narrower and more winding, plus the whole driving on the left thing, so you're just going to go slower. Fort William is a good stopping point.

Skye also has a lot of one lane roads, where you'll need to pull over to let someone else pass. Hot tip, avoid going off the road even a little bit to let someone squeeze by outside of a passing zone because you might get stuck in the mud and need to get towed and then the pub later that night at least two people will ask you "are you the people that got stuck" ask me how I know.

For the Glasgow trip: we did a red eye to Glasgow; slept there one night, and drove up the next day.

I recommend staying in Portree if you're in Skye; we stayed in Sligachan our first time, which was gorgeous, but in Portree you can stock up on groceries, have a bigger range of food, etc.

For animals: you can see otters from the Kylerhea Otter Hide.

In addition to the stuff listed above, Talisker Beach is lovely.
posted by damayanti at 9:27 AM on February 7, 2022

We like beautiful nature but especially if it's a little weird/spooky

Research whether your intended destinations are on ley lines.
posted by John Borrowman at 10:05 AM on February 7, 2022

I wouldn't go to Pitlochry.

Yes, it's a bit touristy. Dunkeld is a better stopping point on the A9 - there's a nice view down the Tay from the bridge, and the cathedral and grounds are worth exploring.

If you're comfortable with trains, the West Highland Line really is as spectacular as everyone says, and the Kyle of Lochalsh line comes a very close second (plus you can walk over the bridge for lunch on Skye at the other end).
posted by offog at 10:22 AM on February 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

My wife and I took this trip in reverse for our honeymoon (sort of -- started in Shetland & Orkney, train to Inverness, rented a car to Skye and then back through Speyside down to Edinburgh). My information is likely a bit out of date but here were some highlights.
- I would rent a car. There's so much to do and see and little spots to stop along the way.
- If you have the time and the weather's amenable, driving up through the Cairmgorns to Inverness is a terrific trip. For scotch you can visit Edradour on your way up, we stayed at the Moulin Hotel in Pitlochry which was great. You can visit Balmoral Castle depending on the route you take as well.
- Outside of Inverness, eat at the Oakwood if you can, and the drive down Loch Ness (and visiting Urquhart Castle) is great. Glen Affric is a wonderful area for a walk as well.
- We took the north route to Skye from Inverness, went up to Ullapool (actually all the way up to Lochinver) and drove down the coast -- an absolutely incredible drive, some of the most amazing scenery we saw all trip, and quite time-consuming.
- On Skye, make for Coral Beach -- just incredible:
- The drive out to and the lighthouse at Neist are wonderful. There's an inn and restaurant out there called the Three Chimneys where we had a fantastic dinner.
posted by j.edwards at 10:27 AM on February 7, 2022

Possibly unpopular opinion: I hate the Skye bridge. The Skye bridge has (almost) ruined Skye.

Driving a car is the second-worst form of transport for Skye (the worst is camper van aka RV). That goes double if you're not very good on singletrack roads. The bridge has encouraged everyone to think that they should drive to Skye, and then tick off each entry in that listicle which tells you The Top Seven Things You Must See in Skye (You're Really Gonna Love #3 - So Quaint!!) - and now everyone follows the same narrow roads to exactly the same fairy pools / lighthouse / quiraing and it's just a fckn traffic jam the whole way around. Skye is a huge island, by local standards, and you'll spend many hours of frustration trying to get from #3 (so quaint!!) to #4 (so cute!!) on that list, just to stand in line to get your instagram shot before you look at your watch & think - o crikey, we'd better get on our way to #5 because it's a two hour drive away in this traffic.

BUT!! You should still do this trip, and you will still have a wonderful time. Here's how you do it.

1. Fly to London, do London things
2. Take the overnight sleeper train to Fort William. Leaves Euston about 10pm-ish, will get you to Fort William about 09:00 or so.
3. Take the local train to Mallaig - this is the world's greatest railway journey (tm)
4. From Mallaig, take the ferry to Armadale, which is by far the nicest way to arrive in Skye (second nicest is the ferry from Glenelg, but you need a car for that)
5. Hang out in / near Armadale, soak it all in, go for a walk, find somewhere for dinner, stay the night. It's quiet at this end of Skye because the bridge funnels everyone in via a completely different route now.
6. Next day, take the bus to Portree. Hang out there, go for a walk, stay the night.
7. Next day, take another bus. You could go to Carbost for the Talisker distillery (currently closed for tours tho), or Colbost for a meal at the Three Chimneys, or to the Old Man of Storr for your quiraing-ish walking experience, or another ferry from Sconser to see a whole different island in Raasay. Stay over.
8. Time to turn back for home, but don't worry - still lots of fun to be had on the way. First you head for Kyle of Lochalsh. That's a short bus-ride away from Portree, just over the bridge & back on the mainland.
9. From here you get a train to Inverness. Stay over. Hit the bars. Chat to backpackers.
10. Next day, you take the train to Edinburgh. Hang out there, do Edinburgh things, stay over.
11. Train back to London & home

The point of doing it this way is both to slow the fk down, and to minimise the time that you spend gripping the wheel & staring murderously at the back of the rented camper van that's been right in front of you for the past 40 miles at an average of 15mph - and hence also to maximise the time you spend in the fresh air or in the pub doing fun stuff. You will see some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, in the most stress-free way possible.

You can get Skye bus timetables from the Stagecoach Bus website - I would link directly to the pdf but the site is down right now. They all go to, from or through Portree so it's easiest to use that as the focal point. Find walking routes here: Ferry times are at the Caledonian MacBrayne site, sleeper trains are at

Thank me later. Enjoy!!
posted by rd45 at 2:29 PM on February 7, 2022 [14 favorites]

They like walking, 500 miles and then 500 moar, especially for romantic reasons.

I'll bet the rail routes give you great viewing time, I drove last Summer out via Glasgow and under Ben Nevis. A friend was on his motorbike and me in my hair-dryer powered car, we liked the Glenelg Inn and the forest road on the way to the ferry access for Skye.
posted by k3ninho at 3:10 PM on February 7, 2022

rd45’s itinerary sounds just great and I’d definitely consider that rather than driving.

Either way, getting the sleeper up to Edinburgh and beyond is great.

If you’re going to rent a car we’ve always had great experiences renting from Enterprise, who will collect you from a station which makes things easier. You can also do a one-way rental from them if that opens up possibilities. But another time we got the train to Fort William and rented from a local firm, Practical Car & Van Rental, who were also good and also picked us up from the station.

We went to Skye in May a few years ago and it was already really busy, before peak season. Book for any restaurants or pubs you plan to eat in. It was all fine, just really busy, and enjoyment felt very weather dependent, which is extremely hit and miss. If you weren’t obsessed with Skye I’d suggest looking at all the other equally amazing places to visit in Scotland that won’t be so full of lines of cars and mobile homes going from one spot to another! But I hope you have a lovely time.
posted by fabius at 5:26 AM on February 8, 2022

I liked Pitlochry honestly because there were 2 distilleries (Eradour and Blair Athol) within walking distance from train station and we were short on time. 2 distilleries that are very different from each other, one is small and sticks to old traditions and the other larger distillery similar to others.

If you are going to skye, I would definitely rent a car in Scotland to have that freedom.
posted by radsqd at 8:40 AM on February 8, 2022

Most of the pandemic rules have been lifted in the UK. Other than London which has mandetory face coverings on the transport network most are recommended around the UK. Scotland's rules were a lot stricter than England but I believe these are now being relaxed or hopefully fully removed by May, all being well with number of cases.

I would suggest doing at least 2 days at a minimum in London, or 3 to add a day to recover from your flight. London has many free things to do and the weather should hopefully be great around that time. I would suggest taking an eveing train from London to Edinburgh. When you arrive in Edinburgh check into your hotel and head to bed. Start exploring the city the following morning. If you stay fairly central, many of the places to see are in the center of the city. The Royal Mile, the castle, the secret garden at the witchery...all within walking distance. If you stay a second day then prearrange any tours in advance for things like the whiskey tours. Or you can have this for later part of the day if you only want one day in Edinburgh.

For the Isle of Skye, I would suggest renting your own car and exploring at your own pace as well as making as many stops as you please. Have a look on the Visit Scotland site for additional inspiration on potential stops to add to your itinerary. If you don't fancy driving or planning that part of your trip. There are 3-8 day tours from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye with prices ranging from £135+ from sites like Get Your Guide. Afterward you can head back on the train or even fly from Edinburgh to London. The annoying thing is that flights tend to be cheaper than trains but luggage allowances on the flights is a pain in the back side. Which ever method you choose, book as early as possible for better ticket prices. You can look at sights like trainline, megabus for cheap tickets for the trains. BA also tend to have good ticket prices but book in advance as I said. All the best with your trip.
posted by MissMissy at 8:01 AM on February 9, 2022

Most of the pandemic rules have been lifted in the UK England.

FTFY. Masks are still mandatory throughout Scotland on public transport and in shops, and have been right through the pandemic even when they were lifted in England for long spells, and I don't think that's going to change imminently. There's no big push for the mask mandate to be removed in Scotland atm. Maybe by May, but do make sure you look up rules for Scotland, as they've been different from England throughout, significantly so at times.
posted by penguin pie at 2:05 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

More film prep: I Know Where I'm Going
posted by diodotos at 9:44 PM on February 10, 2022

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