My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
— Robert Burns
If you know me or follow my stories you will know my recently discovered love, nay passion, for Scotland has been sparked by watching Outlander. It was always a place I had a curiosity about but I let it slide down my list of must-see places for years. Foolish me. This February I rectified that matter and put a Highlands road trip firmly on the agenda. Also, I had a mini bucket list of sights to tick off for myself including Culloden and Highland cows. Yip, these stunning beasts with Pantene locks were on my must see list.
Thanks to a discount code from SIXT I rented a small, economy car from the Waverley Station branch. Three days with full excess protection cost £144. I was worried about driving in the Highlands in snow and any accidental damage that might occur. Having full excess cover meant I could drive without worry. I did a lot of research before I hired a car and wanted to find one where I could reduce my excess. SIXT provided the option to pay extra and reduce the excess. I know nothing about car hire excess (feel free to drop me info in the comments) as this was my first time hiring a car. You may have your own preferences regarding prices and companies but this worked for me. My car was nippy, comfy and easy to handle. Perfect for zipping about the Highlands.
My itinerary included Edinburgh > Loch Lomond > Oban > Glencoe > Drumnadrochit > Inverness > Culloden Moor > Edinburgh.
We did this Highlands trip starting at 9 am on a Monday and returning the car at 7 pm on Wednesday and I definitely know this was waaay too short. I missed so many delightful spots along the way because I was wary of driving down country lanes in the snow. Getting stuck in the wilderness was a distinct possibility and I didn’t plan on being on the news! If I had more time to do this again I would add in Skye, Inveraray and Kinnoch Rannoch as well as the Mallaig railway journey, Steall Falls, Nevis Gorge and Plodda Falls. Going in the Spring or Summer means these places are a tad more accessible to snow-nervy drivers, like me. Plus the tourism season starts in March so more places are actually open.
Highlands Gateway: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
The drive through this National Park was the beginning of the oohs and aahs on this road trip and our entryway to the Scottish Highlands boundary. The stunning landscape and beautiful countryside opens up as you drive towards the lakes. This freshwater lake and area is a boating, hiking and walking mecca. One of the lake’s islands, Inchconnachan, is even home to a wallaby colony. It is worth noting that the roads through the National Park are riddled with potholes so take it easy on the roads unless you enjoy the bumpy life.
Our first overnight stop was in Oban. Check out my link for Airbnb options in the town. This seaside harbour town is famed for its seafood, views out to the islands of Mull and Kerrera and the Inner Hebrides as well as whisky from the Oban Distillery. The town is small and walking around it does not take long at all. Our first night was spent scouting out a restaurant to eat our body weight in seafood. I noticed a lot of scallops on most restaurant menus throughout my Scottish road trip so if you are a fan, be prepared to indulge.
A few places weren’t open in February when we visited because the season hadn’t started yet so I imagine your choices might be a bit more varied later on in the year. The same is true of the Oban Distillery. Tours were limited in February and as it is one of the oldest and smallest of the distilleries they work around the tourism season. I’m not a whisky fan but the smooth, lightly smokey taste of Oban is a good introduction to Scotch whiskies in my opinion. When the distillery is fully open general entry + tasting tours cost is £10 and private tours can be pre-arranged too.
Pop up to McCaig’s Tower to enjoy those uninterrupted views of the harbour during the blue house as the fishing boats come in.
Make a pit stop to the Oban Chocolate Company and indulge in some of the most decadently luscious waffles with berries and greek yoghurt. This should set you up for the castle tour you’re about to take en route deeper into the Highlands.
On the hunt for castles
Dunstaffnage Castle, Dunollie Castle and Castle Stalker were in the area so if you are looking for things to do let’s begin there. Curious story about Dunstaffnage. I was on my way to the ticket office to buy my entry ticket and a short in stature, older, gentleman (who seemed to be working on the grounds) passed me and mumbled to me to save my money. He was a little tricky to understand given his thick, Argyll accent but he did mutter about a graveyard, saving the fee and walking around the outside instead. Should I be telling you this? I’m sure the Historic Environment Scotland website wants you to buy your admission to all of the many historic sites around the country and would have dissuaded this man from his insistences but they weren’t there, were they?! Dunstaffnage was the MacDougall stronghold until the 1300s and one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. The grounds hold the remains of a 13th-century chapel and are well worth the stroll about.
It would have been helpful if I had checked the Historic Scotland website for closures before I embarked on my castle adventure because Dunollie and Castle Stalker were closed to visitors that day but here’s the link so the same fate doesn’t befall you. I do wish I had gotten to visit Castle Stalker because it looks pretty impressive, don’t you think. Plus that name cracks me up!
Glencoe to Fort William
I feel the word stunning is utterly redundant in describing the scenery on the road from Oban to Glencoe and on to For William. The snow-covered landscape and crisp, deep blue skies accentuate the already natural beauty of the drive through the Highlands to the north. There is a stop at the Steall Falls that I would love to go back and try out but the weather started to turn as we neared Fort William and the snow was falling heavily so a detour to the falls was no longer on the cards. We couldn’t even see Ben Nevis out the window. But we did see…..HIGHLAND COWS! When I say I swerved the car into a layby in a hurry when I spotted three of these beauties in a field I mean I swerved!
Inverness and Urquhart
While I can’t say that I was looking forward to one part of my trip more so than another, seeing the Culloden battlefield and Loch Ness were pretty high up there. We stayed in the Best Western Palace Hotel in Inverness and for location, it was great. Right by the river with views of Inverness castle and undergoing a made over so the interior decor is chic and modern and feels luxe. From here we were able to explore to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. It felt a tad surreal seeing Loch Ness in real life. Not because I had any burning desire to go critter hunting. Nor do I for one second believe in the hooey that is the ‘monster’ but because it is such a famous natural location. It’s one of the places you hear about from childhood and know exactly where it is even if you never visit the location or country. Yet here I was, standing on the banks of the lake admiring the ruins of the castle at Urquhart almost 30 years after I had first heard about it. Obviously viewing the lake from the banks at any point along the journey is free but tickets to Urquhart cost about £5. There is conservation work going on so prices are reduced as parts of the castle are closed to visitors.
You’ve driven all day and need somewhere that serves delicious food that won’t break the bank. One peek on the Trip Advisor site for Inverness reveals a great range of eateries from fine dining to affordable family chain restaurants. Check out Number 27 if you fancy the cosiness of a pub with the delights on a menu you’d expect from a more upscale restaurant. I’ll admit I am still super bitter that the last scrumptious looking, Scottish tapas for two platter was ordered by the table opposite us I mean breaded Queen scallops, Scottish Highland rarebit, rabbit pistachio and mushroom roulade? Utterly disappointed I didn’t get to try them. Food FOMO is real.
The Jacobite history is alive throughout the Scottish Highlands in particular. Or maybe it was because I was looking out for it. The Jacobite cause, battles and aftermath are mentioned at many of the historic locations we stopped at along the way. From Jacobite cruises along the Loch Ness waterways and castles that were defended and raided by Jacobite soldiers to the Battlefield at Culloden.
‘The Jacobite rising of 1745 or ‘The ’45’ refers to the attempt by Charles Edward Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” or “the Young Pretender” to regain the British throne for the House of Stuart.’ – Source: Wikipedia.
The extensive visitor centre at Culloden details the rise of dissent amongst supporters of the Stuart Prince against the crown. The Highland clans sympathetic to the cause joined the Jacobite forces and faced the British army on Drumossie Moor. Outnumbered and outgunned the short-lived battle was a slaughter of the Jacobite forces. According to the BBC History Trails:
The History Bit
- The Jacobites were outnumbered around 9000 to 6000, and the ground was too marshy to accommodate the Highlanders’ favourite tactic – the headlong charge into the enemy’s ranks. Culloden did, however, lend itself more to Cumberland’s strength in heavy artillery and cavalry. The artillery decimated the clans as they awaited the command to charge. Many clansmen fell simply because the command to charge came too late, as Charles waited for the government troops to advance first, whereas the government troops just kept firing in the light of their highly successful bombardment. When the command did come, the charge itself was disorganised. The Hanoverians stood firm and blasted the Jacobite army into retreat.
- Many of the Highlanders headed for Inverness and were hunted down and killed without mercy by Cumberland’s dragoons. Others, who headed into the mountains, stood a better chance of survival, but the government troops were thorough in their retribution. Many of the legends surrounding Culloden involve the clans’ attempts to return to home and the severity of government’s reaction. The ’45 was over and Bonnie Prince Charlie headed back to the safety of France and a life of obscurity.
As a fan of the Outlander series, the scene of such a tragic event in 1746 was brought home all the more after seeing the stone markers signally the graves of fallen clansmen. Knowing how many died on that moor is heartbreaking. Knowing how the fate of the Jacobite Highlanders was to sealed; hunted by the dragoons following the defeat is chilling. And seeing the scene in real life is humbling.
The breathtaking scenery and awe-inspiring landscapes continue to amaze as you drive from Inverness back towards Edinburgh and by no means was our adventure over. I failed to look at the elevation on the map when planning my route back to the capital. Sure why would I? Let me tell you why. The A9 road from Aviemore to Edinburgh, leaving the Highlands was a slow incline. This wasn’t much cause for alarm initially. However, by the time we reached the Pass of Drumochter and the white out snow storm, I had to reduce the driving pace to a crawl. Along snow-laden roads with the windscreen wipers on panic mode we saw impressive, antlered deer just watching us from the fields nearby. Kind of creepy in hindsight. It was a bit of a hairy experience if the truth be told but perhaps that was the ‘bonus’ to driving that route in February and you wouldn’t experience the same conditions if you chose to go later on in the year. Or maybe it’s always like a polar no man’s land up in that pass. Perhaps it is always snowy. In a ‘test your driving skills’ kinda of challenge, Scotland keeps you on your toes until the end!
For ideas on how to spend your Edinburgh stay, check out my post here. Do leave me any feedback on what I should see on my next visit. Because there will be a ‘next visit. Hmm, that sounds unintentionally threatening but it’s more of a promise to myself to explore this incredible country more.