Scotland is beautiful. So beautiful in fact that it made me sad knowing that I was born and raised in England and never took the time to drive up there. With endless snowcapped mountains, more sheep than you can shake a stick at and medieval architecture with the richest of histories, I would recommend a trip to Scotland for anyone who loves starting the day with a hike in the mountains and ending it with a G&T made from a local gin in a quaint village pub.
In December 2019 we drove from home (Norfolk, England) all the way up to Scotland and back, making overnight stops at Edinburgh, Isle of Skye and Glasgow. Here are nine of the best things that we did both in these destinations and on the journeys in-between:
1. Edinburgh Castle
After pulling over to take selfies at the England/Scotland border, our first stop was Edinburgh, more specifically, Edinburgh Castle.
Proudly looking out over the city from the top of the hill that Edinburgh is built upon is Edinburgh Castle. It’s centuries old and has been the centre piece to centuries of battles between the English and Scottish monarchies, all of which you can learn about within the castle’s walls.
The views of the city from the castle are amazing but the pièce de résistance is visiting the crown jewels which includes the story of how they were made, hidden, lost and then found.
PFH Top Tip: Try to be around the castle at 1pm when a gun is fired precisely at one o’ clock. The tradition comes from alerting the ships in the nearby waters to set their maritime clocks. The sound of the gun firing echos across the city and can be heard every day except for Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day.
£17.50 for adults
£10.50 for children aged 5-15 years old
Children under 5 years old go free
£14 for seniors aged 60+
1st April – 30th September 9.30 – 6pm (last entry at 5pm)
1st October – 31st March 9.30am – 5pm (last entry at 4pm)
2. Whisky tasting or a distillery tour
Edinburgh (and just about everywhere in Scotland)
Whilst in Edinburgh we went to The Scotch Whisky Experience to learn about the production of whisky. There are many options for tours at The Scotch Whisky Experience from the basic introduction covered on the Silver tour right the way through to masterclasses. As we are not fans of whisky but wanted to learn we chose the Silver tour which includes the following:
An automated whisky barrel ride that tells you the process of the production of Scotch Whisky.
An introductory video that teaches you the various aromas of Scotch whisky related to its region.
A lesson in how to taste whisky which includes a dram of Scotch Whisky (or Irn-Bru for children under 18).
A viewing of the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whisky.
A complimentary crystal whisky tasting glass (adults only).
Of course you don’t just have to go here, there are many liquor shops in Edinburgh that will teach you about Scotch Whisky, we chose here because we didn’t want to pay for an experience where we had to try more than one whisky!
The other option you have in Scotland that’s centred around alcohol is to visit one of the countless distilleries both whisky and gin. Scotland gin and whisky is world famous and you won’t find it hard to find a distillery wherever you are in the country. Even when we were on the Isle of Skye and all I could see for miles was mountains and sheep there were still two distilleries there! We weren’t successful with visiting one because the ones we tried to go to were closed on the weekend so my advice is to check in advance. My alternative advice is to sit in a pub and (responsibly) work your way through their selection of local gins!
The costs for the Silver tour as follows:
£17 for adults
£8 for children
£15 for seniors aged 60+
January – March 10am – 5pm
April 10am – 6pm
May – June 10am – 8pm
July 10am – 8.20pm
August Monday – Friday 10am – 5pm
August Saturday & Sunday 1-am – 5.40pm
September – December 10am – 5pm
Tours runs approximately every 20mins from opening.
3. Cairngorms Reindeer Centre
Cairngorms National Park
Meet Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer in their natural environment at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.
Depending on the time of year there are two different experiences available: the hill trip and the paddock visit.
If you are physically able to make the trip up the hill to where the reindeer roam free then I strongly suggest you rise early to get tickets for this tour (see more under opening times below). Upon receiving your ticket you will be given directions and a parking pass for the Sugarbowl car park just a few minutes up the road. Here you will park and wait for the rangers to gather everyone at 11am. From there they will guide you across the road and down a steep path to a bridge crossing a river, where you will then make a short but steep incline up the hill to where the free-ranging reindeer are.
The rangers will give you a brief introduction to the reindeer herd and will then give you a handful of food to hand feed them. Don’t worry about having to find a reindeer, they know you have food and will come to you. It is best advised that you take your gloves off to feed them so you can feel their velvety soft noses, trust me they’re incredibly soft!
The tour lasts around 1.5 – 2 hours but you have the option of staying a little longer if you want to hang out with the reindeer for longer. To be honest though it’s very cold up there and once the reindeer work out you don’t have any more food, they aren’t interested in cuddles anymore.
All children must stand with an adult.
Do not bend down near a reindeer, they will perceive it as a signal that you want to fight them and you’ll be smacked with their antlers. I ducked in a photo so you could see the reindeer behind me without thinking and one came up to headbutt me in the leg with her antlers.
Do not chase them.
Don’t touch their faces, it irritates them which can again result in an antler-driven headbutt.
Don’t approach them from behind, it can startle them and they may run away or again, headbutt you.
From Easter to the New Year it is possible to visit some reindeer in the paddock at the centre.
This option is best for people with mobility difficulties and young children who are unable to make the steep walk up the hill.
Whilst at the paddock rangers will teach you about the reindeer and will even be able to identify each one.
Although you are able to touch the reindeer you won’t be able to hand feed them, this is so they maintain a healthy weight.
PFH Fun Fact: Each season of calves are named with a theme. Previous themes were cheese (yes there’s Parmesan the reindeer), European cities and to commemorate the 2012 London Olympics the 2012 theme was…2012.
What to wear
Second to Ben Nevis, Cairngorms National Park is the highest mountain range in all of the United Kingdom and is a sub-arctic environment. Reindeer don’t feel the cold until the temperature drops below -30 degrees Celsius but you’re not reindeer so here’s how I recommend you keep warm:
A warm coat, preferably one that is waterproof as Scotland is notorious for rainfall, and if you go in winter the chances of snowfall are high.
A snood. A scarf may unwrap in the wind and you don’t want it to brush against the reindeers’ faces and startle them so I suggest a snood. Plus it will defend your face from the harsh windchill which can be in the minus.
Waterproof over trousers.
A wooly hat to keep heat from escaping through the top of your head and to protect your ears from the wind.
Thermal base layers, both tops and long-johns. For females I recommend a pair of thermal tights so you can have an added layer on your feet.
As many thick socks as you can fit into your boots. (I had 3 pairs of snow socks and my toes were still numb).
Layers. Layer up as much as you can under your coat.
Hiking boots or wellies (you can rent a pair of wellies for £1 from the centre if you don’t have hiking boots or wellies. They won’t let you go up with anything else on your feet).
Between June – October it is advised that you wear insect repellent.
£16 for adults
£10 for children
Children under 3 years old go free
£3.50 for adults
£2.50 for children
Children under 3 years old go free
Closed on Christmas Day, 1st January and from 6th January – 8th February 2020.
The centre opens at 10am.
Tickets are first come first served, I strongly advise arriving at least before 9.30am (9am on weekends) to make sure you get tickets.
Tours depart at 11am and 2.30pm with an additional trip at 3.30pm in July and August during weekdays.
Still arrive before 9.30am to buy your tickets for the afternoon tours as they will be sold to the people in the queue who don’t get on the 11am tour.
Winter trips may have adverse weather and therefore the centre may decline children to keep them safe. The centre telephone line is open from 9am so call ahead if you have concerns about the weather. The first time we tried to go the snow was so bad that we couldn’t even get to the centre.
The paddock is open from 10am – 5pm Easter – New Year.
4. Loch Ness
It might not be the most beautiful loch in Scotland but it’s without a doubt the most famous one! If you don’t already know why, it’s because legend has it a monster known as the Loch Ness monster, or Nessie for short, lives in the depths of the loch. Its neck long and not unlike a Brachiosaurus with its body formed of many humps that protrude from the water. The first sighting was in 1933 with various pieces of “evidence” coming to light over the years when photoshop didn’t exist so it was hard to disprove.
Despite Loch Ness being 56.4 km², a road trip around Scotland would be incomplete without an attempt to spot infamous Nessie from one of the many parking bays surrounding the loch.
There is no entrance fee to visit Loch Ness.
5. Glenfinnan Viaduct (Featured in Harry Potter)
This 30m high structure built in the 1897 is most famously known for being the railway bridge that the Hogwarts Express travels across in the first Harry Potter film of the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, it’s also worth a visit simply because it’s magnificent.
For the best view point on foot, turn right out of the car park and start walking along the road until you reach a private car park which is gated off. Walk past the gate and continue up the path until you find another small path heading up hill on your left, just before you reach the viaduct. You’ll then cross under the viaduct and start curving back on yourself as you walk along the path up the hillside. When the path widens you will be able to look out upon the viaduct.
PFH Top Tip: For the best photo op, aim to be there around 10.55am or 3pm where you will see the Jacobite steam train cross the bridge aka, the Hogwarts Express.
Though you don’t have to pay to visit the viaduct, there is a £4 charge for parking. Though we arrived at 4pm (in December) when the sun was going down and the kind gentleman allowed us to park for free because we wouldn’t be there long due to the fading light. If you just want to hop out to see the viaduct and/or have a really good camera to shoot in low light, you could try your luck doing this.
The visitor centre is open 9.30am – 4pm.
6. The Old Man of Storr
Isle of Skye
The Old Man of Storr is a peculiar rock formation up in the rocky hills on the Isle of Skye. The pinnacle was created by a massive ancient landslide and on a good day it can be seen for miles, but on a bad day, you’ll be lucky to catch it between breaks in the mist.
We, of course, hiked up on a very grey and miserable day but we did manage to catch a glimpse as the mist cleared for a few fleeting moments. I would say don’t give up hope if the weather is bad, just pray for wind.
There are various hiking routes surrounding the Old Man of Storr. As the weather was dreadful and the light was fading we chose to hike up to where it levelled out and we could appreciate the view of both the pinnacle and the vast stretch of water behind. There and back with a break for a cuppa and a few photos took us approximately 2hrs.
The terrain is steep, rocky and wet so I strongly advise hiking boots. Michael foolishly forgot to pack his and found it to be a slippery slope in his running shoes.
There is one car park that is free whilst the roadside parking is paid parking. I suggest you arrive as early as you can to park in the free car park, which is close to the entrance gate up the mountain (next to the construction site).
In winter you shouldn’t have a problem parking.
As we went in winter when it was quiet we used the free car park and therefore I don’t know the cost of parking along the road.
7. Fairy Pools
Isle of Skye
The walk from the car park to the pools isn’t strenuous like the walk up to the Man of Storr is, it’s paved for most of the way and only has a shallow incline. You do however have to cross many rushing streams both over stepping stones and giving into getting your shoes wet when the rainfall has been heavy and the rocks are submerged. For this reason I strongly recommend wellies or hiking boots.
Though many online guides will tell you the walk there and back is only 40mins, disregard this because it doesn’t include stopping to take in the view nor does it included walking to the furthest pools.
There are many pools to see but the further you go the more pure the blue water becomes in colour. Once you see it for yourself it’s not hard to imagine little fairies hanging around.
The path to the pools is the same you take back.
There is no entrance fee to the Fairy Pools but there is a parking cost of £5 per car. This is cash only so come prepared.
8. Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
There are four galleries within the GoMA, all of which are free to enter and rotate throughout the year so check ahead to see what is on here.
The best feature of the museum and no doubt the part that draws people to it from all over the world is the equestrian statue of the 1st Duke of Wellington that stands out front with a traffic cone upon his head. The traffic cone hat is a tradition that started way back in the 80s and was accepted as a way of expressing Glaswegians’ humorous side.
Entrance is free
Monday – Wednesday 10am – 5pm
Thursday 10am – 8pm
Friday 11am – 5pm
Saturday 10am – 5pm
Sunday 11am – 5pm
9. Glasgow Cathedral
Read any guide of places to visit in Glasgow and the cathedral will be top of the list. For over 800 years Christians have worshiped God from within the medieval walls of this vast cathedral. Having been dedicated in 1136, it is the oldest cathedral on mainland Scotland and is the oldest building in all of Glasgow.
Entrance is free.
Monday – Saturday 10am – 3.30pm
Sunday 1pm – 3.30pm
Our road trip around Scotland was just a week long and we were able to comfortably visit all of these places even with only 6.5 hours of daylight (as we visited in December). I chose these places to highlight because you truly get a feel for Scotland’s passions from their medieval history to the vast and beautiful landscape.
If you have any questions about my trip, feel free to contact me here.