The land that brought you haggis, bagpipes, IRN BRU, golf, the telephone, the television, The Proclaimers, penicillin and See You Jimmy Hats is obviously a place worth visiting – not to mention its mythical creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster and more namely the Scottish sun. The latter has only been sighted on very few occasions, and of which, I was lucky enough to witness for 6 days straight as I road tripped around the Scottish highlands. I can tell you firsthand, that when the urban legend does pop it’s scintillating head out from behind the grey unyielding rainclouds, it drenches the land in unparalleled beauty with everything it touches.
I road tripped around Scotland for 6 days in a van and I fell absolutely in love with this bonnie country and its rugged landscape. It all started in Edinburgh where I met up with my Dutch friend Pieter and we hired a travel van through Bunk Campers. It was an affordable Volkswagen that served as wheels, accomodation and most importantly, a wind shield.
We spent the next 6 days traveling up north along the west coast to the northern most tip of Scotland and then back down via the east coast through an exotic cluster of towns called Thrumster, Ulbster, Occumster, Sibster, Bilbster and Badlipster! BADLIPSTER is my personal favourite. However the town called ‘Badcall’ was a close call for funniest name.
The tourism industry call this road route of Scotland the North Coast 500 and it is essentially what we did – but with a few detours thanks to some local knowledge from my relatives and of course the allurement of Google maps and it’s ornate landmarks that had us chasing dirt tracks to discover what they called an ‘Open Air Church’ to which we discovered was just a flashy name for a ruin. We similarly stumbled upon many an ‘open air’ church, house and pub in the consecutive days.. Too bad we were in a Scottish winter where alfresco dining isn’t celebrated far less viable. However the ruins in the remote highlands of Scotland are beautiful in their own right and worth taking the scenic route for.
In that 6 days we saw Edinburgh castle, Loch Lomond, Glencoe, the Glenfinnan viaduct aka The Hogwarts Express, one of Scotland’s most photogenic castles – Eilean Donan, the Isle of Skye (before Harry Styles flew over it in his new film clip – some pop trivia for you), touched the erected Old Man of Storr (not how it sounds I promise), left footprints in the sand on the most remote beach in the UK, and had the best hot chocolate in Scotland – not to mention the best of highland hospitality that led to a sudden spike in tea and scone consumption.
Before I delve into the road trip route, it is important to note that a lot of these remote roads up North are single lane tracks and road etiquette is very important. There are passing places every few hundred metres where you have to pull in and let the upcoming car pass. But because we went in winter the roads were very quiet (save a few of the locals – highland cows, sheep and the like). Peak hour below.
The photos I have featured below look beautiful and sunny however this is probably not an accurate representation of a Scottish winter. Let’s just say I soon learned (after living in Scotland for two months) that the lyrics of one of my favourite childhood songs ‘Why Does it always Rain on Me‘ by the Scottish band Travis, was not because he lied when he was 17 – as the lyrics would have you so duly believe – but because he lived in Scotland where it always rains. “Why does it always rain on me? Is it because I lied when I was 17?” No it’s because you live in Scotland you daft shite (‘shite’ ever increasingly becoming my favourite Scottish noun).
But one thing I can say for certain is that what Scotland lack in sunshine – they make up for tenfold in their sunny dispositions. Probably the friendliest most hospitable people I have ever met on my travels and whom I will never forget. I recommend Scotland to any traveler seeking adventure, breathtaking landscape, rich history and one of a kind culture.
OUR ROAD TRIP ITINERARY//
Picked up the van at 11am. Parked in the city and explored the town.
Things to see:
The Royal Mile
St Giles’ Cathedral
Princes Street Gardens
Woke up to the sun rising and illuminating the Edinburgh Castle on the hill.
Drove to Glasgow.
Wandered Glasgow city. Didn’t spend too much time there but had lunch and wandered around admiring the Victorian and art nouveau architecture that is now home to such a cultural hub. We then made tracks for Loch Lomond via the A82 and stayed the night at Loch Lomond at a place on the waters edge called Duck Bay.
LOCH LOMOND, GLENCOE & GLENFINNAN//
Woke up to an amazing sunrise overlooking the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Had breakfast in the company of a very friendly red robin!
Made tracks on the A82 toward the breathtaking mountain scenery of Glencoe and stopped for a packed lunch in Bridge Of Orchy.
Then stayed on the A82 to Ft William for a ‘wee’ look around the town. In summer you could climb UK’s highest peak – Ben Nevis – but set aside a whole day for this! Amateurs, don’t attempt this in winter unless you have some casual ski goggles, a head torch, a harness, a balaclava to fit under helmet, some crampons – ‘preferably with anti-balling plates’ and some ice axes just casually hanging around in the back seat. We learnt this the hard way as two ignorant punks in North Face jackets and sneakers.
From Ft William we headed out to Glenfinnan which has the famous viaduct from the Harry Potter movies – the Hogwarts Express. You can have a picnic on the hill and watch the train pass.
We then headed back toward Ft William where we turned off on the A87 to head toward Kyle of Lochalsh. This road will take you past Eilean Donan Castle (in Durnie) which is well worth a visit and a look inside! We stayed the night here on the hill and star gazed!! Most amazing night sky and shooting stars – but come prepared with LOTS of thermals and blankets!
ISLE OF SKYE & APPLECROSS//
Woke up to the rising sun peeping through the blue silhouetted mountains.
Then headed toward the Isle of Skye. We stopped in Portree for breakfast (traditional Scottish brekkie with haggis and Stornaway black pudding) and then headed toward the rocky Old Man Of Storr. Parked the van at the bottom and then walked to the top. This takes about 1.5 – 2 hours to walk to the top but WELL worth the view!
Once we got back to the car we headed out of Skye and toward a very quaint and cute town called Applecross. Had dinner in their local pub called the Applecross Inn – had delicious fresh haddock and chips and home made ice-cream. By this time it was dark and we headed to Oldshoremore to stay the night.
SANDWOOD BAY, DURNESS & DUNNETT HEAD//
Woke up to sheep all around the van! Had brekkie and then headed to Sandwood Bay (most remote beach in the UK). If you put in the GPS it will lead you to the closest parking spot but you will still have to walk about 2 hours before you reach the beach. But well worth it when you walk over the last hill and see the rolling mountains meet the fierce Inner Seas of the West Coast. You have the place to yourself and if it wasn’t for the howling winds and your ten layers of winter clothing ft. thermal underwear you could think you were in Thailand – with the pale blue water and white sand. Just hold on tight to your coconut because gale force winds could see it knock out and kill your companion with one blow.
Then we headed further North to Durness for the “best hot chocolate in the UK” at Cocoa Mountain. This place is so off the beaten track that we got lost trying to find it but this added to its cozy appeal and the hot chocolate was to die for (if you hadn’t already on the long isolated trek to Sandwood Bay and/or by lethal flying coconut).
We then headed to Balnakeil Bay in Durness which was also very beautiful.
After a brisk walk on the beach it started to rain and so we jumped back in the van and headed to Smoo Cave which is a combined sea and fresh water cave. A true testament to mother natures beauty. We then left en route to Dunnett Head (so we could say “Been there, Dunnett”) and stayed the night at a lookout near a lighthouse. This is the most northern tip of Scotland.
JOHN O’GROATS, INVERNESS & LOCH NESS//
Woke up to a rainbow over the van and blue skies.
Headed to John O’Groats for brekkie. Had coffee at a really cute and quirky cafe called Stacks. Must visit! We learned that the cafe was named after the “actual stacks” that hitherto our morning coffee, didn’t know existed! (another must visit!)
We then headed back toward Inverness which is the capital of the Highlands and a beautiful city with gorgeous old architecture. Checked out Leakey’s Bookshop which is probably one of the most characteristic bookshops I have ever seen. Bought a book and then strolled to the Ness Islands Park which is very magical. In the afternoon we got back in the van and visited Loch Ness on a little pebble shore in Dores before heading to Drumnadrochit for hot chocolate and a visit to Urquhart Castle.
We then drove back to Edinburgh to return the van and have a long hot shower and a big cry that it was all over. Proceeded to watch Scottish love stories like Braveheart and Outlander while eating Haggis straight from the wrapping with a spoon (it’s too cold to eat ice cream from the tub in Scotland). Oh and FYI, don’t ask what’s in haggis. It is like the Loch Ness Monster, the Scottish sun and what lies hidden under mens kilts – some things are best left unknown. However Scotland is something to be known. Trust me.
Will ye go lassie go!