When you live somewhere for a long time, and get stuck into a routine, I find that it’s often the sights right on your doorstep that you take for granted; this, unfortunately, was the case with my time in Edinburgh. I reached the end of 4 wonderful years in the city when the sudden realisation hit me that I had never been further into Scotland than a brief afternoon in St Andrews (roughly an hour’s train ride away). Given Scotland’s well-earned reputation as one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world, this was a shocking effort on my part.
So in the June of 2018 (yes, I know I’m a little late with the write-up), me, my sister, and my trusty Canon camera embarked on a week-long road trip around some of the most stunning parts of the country, starting and finishing from the comfort of my Edinburgh apartment. As if by some Scottish miracle, we were actually blessed with unbelievably nice weather, too.
From start to finish, here are the views we admired, the places we stayed, and the food we ate, along with some top tips for your journey around the bonny banks of the Scottish lochs.
Part 1: Edinburgh to St Andrews
Distance: 52 miles
Points of interest en-route: Forth Road Bridge
Our road trip began in Edinburgh’s city centre, where my sister and I bundled ourselves (and copious snacks) into our mum’s little orange Corsa, all set for a week of non-stop adventure. While our first night was to be spent in the Cairngorm mountains, we managed to nicely time our breakfast stop-off in St Andrews: a tiny university city on coast of Fife, famous for its seafront golf courses and fresh seafood. After a scenic drive across the Forth Road Bridge, we arrived in St Andrews, parking near the bus station (one of the closest parking spaces to the centre of town).
One of the most popular tourist attractions in the city is the St Andrews’ Cathedral, which is a ruined Roman Catholic cathedral built in 1158 – making it SUPER old. The actual ruins themselves are pretty cool to wander through – because there’s no entrance, it’s also completely free – but the best part is its setting, right on the cliff face. The view across the sea from behind the cathedral is spectacular, even if it’s cloudy. Which it mostly is.
The city itself is just as old and rustic, and even though it won’t take you long to find your bearings, there’s actually a lot to see. The narrow, cobbled streets are the stuff novels are made of, with houses so tiny you can’t believe humans could actually live in them. If you find yourself hungry or thirsty, or just wanting to rest your legs, you’re in for a treat – what St Andrews lacks in size, it makes up for in coffee shops and pubs. For a slightly more sophisticated dining experience, try The Seafood Ristorante, which boasts freshly-sourced fish and views across the sea; if what you’re after is a hearty pub meal and a nice cold pint, I recommend The Blue Stane.
And, of course, no trip to St Andrews is complete without a visit to Jannetta’s Gelateria, a family-run ice cream cafe renowned for its ice cream sundaes. Worth it, even in the worst Scottish weather.
Once you’re done with eating (as I never am), one of my favourite St Andrews spots is the Topping & Company bookstore, which quite literally looks like something from a J.K. Rowling novel. Not only does it have every book you could ever imagine, it also has those sliding ladders to reach the top shelves – who knew those actually existed?
Part 2: St Andrews to Dundee
Distance: 14 miles
Points of interest en-route: Tay Bridge
Although it didn’t really make much sense to stop so quickly after our visit to St Andrews, Dundee is one of those places that you always hear about, but never make the time to see. And I’m glad that we did! While the city centre itself is cute and cobbled (much like most cities in central Scotland), the pièce-de-résistance was the Dundee Law. Don’t worry, the name confused me too.
The Dundee Law, essentially, is a viewpoint-slash-park that overlooks the city and the river – on a clear day, you can see for miles. Similarly to other Scottish cities, the viewpoint actually finds itself on top of an extinct volcano, which is also pretty cool. It is most easily accessible by car or by bus – just follow the signs up the hill until there is no more hill left to climb. And, for all you fellow exercise-dodgers, there’s a car park right at the top too.
Part 3: Dundee to Pitlochry
Distance: 51 miles
Points of interest en-route: a field full of highland cows just outside Pitlochry town centre
Pitlochry, at the foot of the Cairngorm mountains, is the definition of a chocolate-box town, with little streams surrounding the main street, and a backdrop of majestic mountains. It made the perfect place for us to stop off for yet another coffee break and stretch our legs. The high street is dotted with traditional sweet shops and local produce, alongside stone cottages and tiny pubs.
Outside the main centre of town lies some of the most beautiful, peaceful countryside I’ve seen – and the narrow, winding tracks made for quite a few interesting pieces of driving on my part, including the one where I spent 10 minutes reversing along a one-way, dead-end farmer’s path, with a sheer drop into a ravine along my right-hand side, following a desperate attempt to stroke a highland cow. I’m surprised my sister is still talking to me.
Part 4: Pitlochry to Aviemore
Distance: 62 miles
Points of interest en-route: the scenery!!
Although we were technically staying just outside of Aviemore, in a little town called Boat of Garten (which is every bit as adorable as it sounds), we were at the heart of the Cairngorms. We stayed with one of my best friends from university, so obviously for us, our first few nights of accommodation were pretty easy to find. However, there are a handful of little B&Bs around the area, alongside ski lodges which, even during the summer, are also open to tourists.
One of our first ports of call in the Cairngorms was the Loch Insh Outdoor Centre, where we spent a blissful few hours kayaking around the loch, and stopping also for a riverside picnic. The kayak hire here is available from March to November, with a two-to-three-person kayak costing £25 for a two-hour session. It’s definitely worth it.
And, of course, no trip to the Highlands is complete without a visit to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre (said no-one, ever, because no-one apart from me wants to think about Christmas in June). The centre itself is well-kept and fantastically adorned with Christmas paraphernalia, including the collars worn by Santa’s herd, and ‘Santa’s Bedroom’ also. When you step outside, there are 4-5 reindeer wandering happily around the enclosure, where they are well looked-after until being released back into the mountains after a few months. The whole experience is an absolute steal too, for £3 a person. Warning: if you visit during the summer, the deer will be shedding their fur (who even knew that they did that?!), so may look mildly terrifying.
Make sure to schedule in a walk (okay, so maybe it’s more of a mini-hike) to Aviemore’s Green Loch, or “An Lochan Uaine”. Named after the emerald colour of the water, this small lake is framed by tall mountains, and requires a beautiful trek through the pines to reach it. You’re also likely to encounter some nice dogs along the way. Park your car at Glenmore Forest Park Visitors’ Centre and get your walking boots on!
Part 5: Aviemore to Inverness
Distance: 29 miles
Points of interest en-route: Inverness Castle
As the largest city in the Scottish highlands, Inverness can’t be missed. Possibly most famous for its 200-year-old castle, the city is the stuff of dark, murderous thriller novels, with its sharp Gothic architecture. Situated on the River Ness, Inverness is the crown jewel of Northern Scotland, and acts also as the cultural centre for bagpipe players from all over the world.
To begin your stop-off in the city, park underneath Inverness Castle. Not only does this drop you onto Inverness’ most breath-taking viewpoint, but it also puts you in a prime location to get into the centre of town. A quick stroll behind the castle will lead you above the river, which, on a clear day, means that you can see all the way out to sea.
A short wander down the steep, cobble-clad hill will drop you into the town centre, in the shadow of the imposing Inverness Town House. With its mystical spires and sparkling-clean stone, the building could almost have been taken straight from Beauty and the Beast. Although it is no longer home to the town council, it is still used today for meetings and functions, such as weddings. I mean, I could think of worse places to tie the knot.
A short stroll down the High Street will lead you to Market Brae Steps: an old set of stairs nestled among the shops. If you didn’t pass a Greggs, a Caffe Nero and a Subway, you could almost be transported right back to the 19th century. Almost.
Take an hour or two to browse the nearby shops, and make sure to poke your head into the Isle of Skye Candle Company. If the delicious smell doesn’t sell you one of their natural, eco-friendly candles, then the smiley staff with their gentle Scottish accents definitely will.
Part 6: Inverness to Loch Cluanie
Distance: 50 miles
Points of interest en-route: Loch Ness
Although this stop in our trip wasn’t actually planned, it was our favourite location. If we hadn’t been gazing out at the jaw-dropping scenery, we could easily have missed it, as we trundled along towards our intended destination, the Isle of Skye.
To reach Loch Cluanie from Inverness, you first have to hug the banks of the world-renowned Loch Ness. Yes, we did try to spot Nessie. No, we weren’t successful. Whilst this lake is recognised across the globe as being a must-see point in Scottish nature, Loch Cluanie is wild, undiscovered, and arguably more beautiful. Be prepared to clamber over rocks and through tall, uncut grass to reach the highest point. But, when you do reach it, you’ll never want to leave.
If you have time on your journey, spread out a blanket and have a picnic. Unsurprisingly, there’s no phone signal out there – so lay back and enjoy the silence. And maybe take a few pictures, too!
Part 7: Loch Cluanie to Uig, Isle of Skye
Distance: 84 miles
Points of interest en-route: Eilean Donan Castle
During your drive to Skye from Loch Cluanie, make sure not to miss the eerie beauty of Eilean Donan Castle. Built in the 13th Century, the fortress is sat atop a small island, meaning visitors have to cross a long, stone bridge to reach it. If ghost stories and horror movies are your idea of fun, then make sure to bring your camera. On a cloudy day, you can almost see the phantoms. An adult ticket into the castle is £10.
For so many reasons, the Isle of Skye was my most anticipated stop of the trip, having heard so much about its dramatic natural beauty – and I was defintiely not disappointed! Whatever the weather, Skye does not disappoint in its rugged backdrops and green, hilly trails; and if, like me, you happen to visit around the summer solstace, the 10pm sunsets are unlike any other.
When planning our 2-night stay on the island, we knew that there was only one way to do Skye right: sleeping pods. After a search on Airbnb, we came across Skye Holiday Pods in the Northern town of Uig, which amounted to roughly £30 each for both nights. Whilst a little snug, these cute cabins are the pinnacle of any Skye experience, and can be found dotted around the island.
We decided that there was no better way to get ourselves acquainted with Skye than to celebrate our first evening there with a hillside picnic. As the island has such a varied terrain, you’re guaranteed a stunning view from pretty much any point you choose: our own view looked across Uig bay and out to the crofting village of Idrigil.
Although we didn’t have enough time to factor this in, Idrigil is also home to the ferry port which leads out to the Isle of Harris. The journey is only 2 hours long, and is the best (and almost only) way to access the Outer Hebrides. The price depends on your vehicle type, and can be found here.
It is for good reason that the Skye Fairy Pools are one of the most highly-visited spots on the island. A series of waterfalls, whose source lies in the Cuillin Mountains, these ice-cold and crystal-clear pools are a natural phenomenon. Nothing can quite prepare you for its temperatures, but make sure to go for a dip anyway. You’ll never feel more refreshed! Any Lord of the Rings fans will be left drooling at the Mordor-esque scenery, which is also home to a wide range of animals and wildlife.
Your final night on the island should always include a sunset (unless, that is, you visit during the winter, and the sun sets at 2pm…). Head towards the Northernmost point of the island and find a West-facing hill. The higher you climb, the lovelier the colours. Just make sure you have appropriate footwear: the way down is often more terrifying than the way up.
On your way back towards mainland Scotland the next day, stop off in the quaint, pastel-coloured town of Portree for breakfast. Cafe Arriba is nestled onto the bay, and boasts that cosy, wooden atmosphere that characterises much of Skye’s culture.
Part 8: Isle of Skye to Fort William
Distance: 127 miles
Points of interest en-route: Loch Lochy (yes, really)
Located at the foot of Ben Nevis, the Western town of Fort William is frequented by trekkers, travellers and passers-through. A fishing town on the Eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, Fort William is compact, understated, and the perfect base from which to access the spattered landscapes of Scotland’s West Coast. Its proximity to the water and the mountains mean that the city is perfect for adrenaline-junkies and exercise-lovers, with everything from climbing to mountain biking on offer.
The town itself is home mainly to a variety of pubs and seafood restaurants, including the Ben Nevis Bar: in the summer, this traditional, dark-wood pub opens up its outdoor terrance, overlooking the loch. For dinner, head to Crannog Seafood Restaurant (pictured below). If the location doesn’t blow you away, then its freshly-caught mussels just might.
Only an hour’s drive from Fort William lies the Silversands of Morar beaches: an inlet nestled between the sea and the river in Morar Bay, framed by bright, white sand. Stepping foot on this beach, you’d never believe you were in Scotland. Its vast expanse of sparkling sand and its sky-blue waters make it the perfect place to catch some Scottish summer sun (if you can find it). The beach itself is natural and unspoilt, and on a weekday, you’re likely to have the entire stretch of sand to yourself.
NB: parking is a little tricky to find, and took us a while of Googling to come across. Park along the B8808, and type “Morar Beach Car Park” into Google Maps to find the most direct route.
Part 9: Fort William to Edinburgh
Distance: 133 miles
Points of interest en-route: Loch Lomond & The Kelpies
So, your Ultimate Scottish Road Trip is drawing to a close. On this final leg of the journey, the only thing to do is load up on coffee, and ensure you have the perfect end-of-roadtrip playlist.
If you have time on your way back to Edinburgh, plan your route to lead you through Loch Lomond’s National Park. Or, once you reach Falkirk, hop out and take a glance at the infamous Kelpies sculpture: two large, glittering horse’s heads.