It’s hard not to fall in love with Scotland. It’s wild, rugged beauty left us in awe every day of our two-week road trip through the Scottish Highlands.
Driving is the best and only way to see the most beautiful corners of this country. Even on the rainy days, there was still magic in the air as we made our way along windy roads, with low clouds sweeping the mountains, slanting rain making patterns across the sky, leaving everything sparkling and fresh.
Weaving our way amongst the mountains we constantly felt exposed and at the mercy of the elements. It may not sound like everyone’s idea of a nice place to visit, but we loved how the raw beauty and forces of nature so obviously on display made us feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves.
The pure charm of Scotland makes it feel simultaneously comforting and foreboding, homely and isolated, endless and compact. Like being wrapped in a warm blanket you can’t seem to untangle yourself from. Yeah, we absolutely LOVED this road trip!
Hopefully, by sharing some of our favourite moments from along the journey, you may be inspired to book your own holiday in bonny Scotland – you will not regret it. Ideally, we recommend visiting during summer – yes it may be peak season, but any other time of the year and you might find your plans get thrown out the window due to bad weather.
Stirling Kelpies and The Helix
Barely an hour after leaving Edinburgh and we spied these incredible structures rising up over the fields. Apparently, the Kelpies are lit up from within at night so we’ll just have to come back to see that! It’s well worth stopping for a break at the Helix and walking around these impressive sculptures.
There’s plenty of space to stretch your legs, a cafe, playground, bike paths and in the summer a swimming area. Parking is expensive, as it seems to be everywhere in the UK, so it’s just something you have to factor in. Nearby is the famous Falkirk Wheel which is also meant to be pretty spectacular. Unfortunately, this time around we were short on time and was not able to give it a look.
Fearnan, Loch Tay
After deciding to bypass the traditional Loch Lomond area in favour of somewhere quieter and less touristy, we settled on Loch Tay which was nice and central for day trips. Oh, the gems you can find on Airbnb. Our first three nights were spent in a cosy old Crofter’s cottage, left with a damn good bottle of wine too (perks of a good Airbnb host!).
This first stop on our trip was firmly locked in as proper relax holiday. Having had less than a week between finishing our jobs, packing up our lives, moving to the UK and flogging ourselves around London and Edinburgh for a week, it was nice to finally be in holiday mode. Being back in the countryside filled us both with joy, having breakfast outside to the sounds of chirping birds and bleating lambs in the nearby field, sipping wine under clear starry skies to the drone of insects – it was all very wholesome. Only Tim was brave enough to have a swim in the freezing waters of the Loch on one of the beautiful 20-something degree days we had!
This is the beauty of a road trip, it gives you the freedom to stay in random places, out of bigger towns and cities. We’d never heard of Fearnan or Loch Tay but now it really stands out in our memories from the road trip.
Blair Castle and Highland Games
One of our day trips from Fearnan was to see the annual Highland Games at Blair Castle. If you get a chance see some Highland Games you must DO IT! We had a hilarious day out at Blair Castle watching the games from our sunny hillside perch. We packed a picnic and arrived just before lunchtime to the sound of bagpipes floating through the air and across the fields. And they do not stop, all day. Which is pretty impressive really, the lung capacity for that sort of instrument has to be phenomenal.
So the scene is set – bagpipes and a sunny field, perfect conditions to watch some outrageous sports by big men in little kilts. Hammer Throw, Discuss, Tug-o-War, Shot Put and the legendary Caber Toss were all on display, these guys were huge (think the monster guy from Game of Thrones), and they have to be to be able to lift and throw an enormous telegraph pole and flip it on its head. The whole crowd lost it when the favourite (comically 2 x larger than all the other competitors) finally flipped his caber.
After watching some of the sports we wandered over to actual Blair Castle where the Atholl Highlanders, Europe’s last remaining private army, were preparing for their entrance to officially open the games. Looking resplendent in their full-on regalia they all marched into the arena, drums beating, pipes blowing to ceremoniously fire the canon and open the games.
All the pomp and circumstance now finished with, they lay down their instruments and line up for a relay race – yes you read correctly. It was hilarious! Decked out head to toe in full tartan, running full pelt around the arena. Next up was the open to public footrace for every age group. The most competitive (and fittest) of our crew, Stu joined in the open men’s race, though was pipped at the post by the 80-year-old who was given a 100m handicap!
So if you’re keen for some authentic Highlander action these games aren’t to be missed. Aside from the games themselves, you can find all sorts of food trucks selling fried haggis, fairy floss and junky souvenirs, Highland dancing girls in bright tartans hopping nimbly over crossed swords and much more. The whole games had a great community feel which we instantly felt a part of. We are already starting to plan which games to go to this year!
Loch Tummel Hotel
A dull day found us cruising along searching for a distillery to check out for the afternoon. The GPS on Anna’s new UK phone was having trouble understanding our flat Aussie accents, so Tim decided to put on his best Sean Connery impression to ask ‘OK Google, take us to the nearest distillery’…and it worked! We drove on in fits of laughter and amazing(ly terrible) Sean Connery impersonations only to stumble upon the Loch Tummel Hotel, which looked too good to pass up.
Sat atop a hillside overlooking the Loch was this beautiful hotel in the middle of nowhere. We ordered a round of beers and carried it across the road to the picnic tables to enjoy the most magnificent beer garden view we’ve ever seen – a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon. A quick stop by Queen’s View on the way home to appreciate the span of mountains and water laid out before us left us ready for a red wine before bed.
Glencoe and Fort William
The first thing we noticed driving through Glencoe and Fort William area was how tall and sheer the mountains were around us. Anna grew up in western Victoria, a pretty flat area of the state, and Tim in Gippsland, with rolling green hills, so we’d never really experienced anything quite like having countless mountains rising straight up from the valleys to surround us on all sides.
We were so taken by this magnificent region that it deserved a whole blog post of its own, so make sure to head over and read our Glencoe and Fort William guide. We cover our beginner’s journey into the world of hiking, tracking down James Bond and Harry Potter, and plenty more useful tips.
Stopping briefly on the way at the Falls of Falloch to see some wilderness sculptures, we discovered the wee devil beasties that are Highland Midgies. Little swarming bloodsuckers that bite – think mini mosquitoes that travel in packs of a thousand. It was impossible to get in the car without bringing them in with us, so travellers beware! Come prepared with insect repellant or a super cool bug net. They disappear in windy weather (apparently they’re too small and light to fly well in breezy weather, thank goodness), so it’s the still days around water that you need to be wary.
Isle of Skye
Where do we start with the Isle of Skye? This stunning island took our breath away repeatedly every day and ever since we left, we’ve had a hankering to go back and stay longer. Over the last nine months of our travels, only a few places have really had as profound an impact on us as Skye.
Our Airbnb host Beth had heaps of local knowledge to share and made us feel really welcome, which has been our experience with most our Airbnb’s so far. Our four days on the Island was nowhere near enough time to explore everywhere, but again we felt it deserved its own post, so head on over and read our highlights from the Isle of Skye, which includes some of the most incredible hikes and views we have ever seen.
Bealach na Bà Mountain Pass
If you love a good mountain road then the Bealach na Bà this will not disappoint. Sharp hairpin bends snake this single track road all the way to the top of the highest mountain pass in Britain. We watched the temperature gauge steadily decrease as we ascended, dropping from a pleasant 21℃ to a chilly 11℃ at the top!
The first time over misty clouds obscured the view and it felt like we were standing in a cloud (we literally were). Down the other side for our lunch in the sun at Applecross with the cutest Highland Coos for company. For the return journey over the mountain, some of the clouds had cleared for a spectacular view of the valleys around us. It can be a hairy road at the best of times particularly due to its popularity with cyclists and motorcyclists – so not for the faint of heart.
Old Military Road, the Cairngorms and Kirriemuir
Setting off from near Inverness after a quick overnight stay, we started our journey back to Edinburgh via the Old Military Road through the Cairngorms National Park. Regarded as one of the best drives in the UK and Europe, this amazing road was originally built in 1745 after the Scottish Jacobite rising.
Featuring nearly 100kms of stunning views over bare landscapes and mountain ranges, through twisty hairpins and steep gradients this is an immensely fun road to drive. With a royal wave at Her Majesty as we passed Balmoral, we stayed the night briefly in Kirriemuir, which happens to be the birthplace of both J.M Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and once home to Bon Scott, the AC/DC legend. We seem to be winning with our Scottish Airbnb gems, our host’s mother left us with a whole quiche for dinner and some delicious muffins!
The Wee Chippy
Since touching down in the UK, we (more specifically, Anna) have had a serious craving for some proper Fish and Chips. So on our way back to Edinburgh we took a cheeky little detour to Anstruther, just past St. Andrews, to sample the highly rated Wee Chippy. Despite the incessant rain putting a real dampener on our final drive into Edinburgh, the enormous piece of fish was well worth the detour.
Note: we have now travelled extensively through the UK so we think it’s time soon for an article with our best Fish and Chips recommendations!
After dropping our hire car off in Edinburgh we quickly replaced it with a super cheap one-way relocation deal on a campervan to drive back down to London. Newcastleton wouldn’t normally be on everyone’s Scottish itinerary, but we have a very good Scottish-Aussie friend Linzi, whose parents live here so we stopped for a few nights to relax and enjoy some home comforts. Saying goodbye felt like leaving home, the warm and generous hospitality of others is a blessing when you’re so far from your own home and family. Many thanks to Sandra, Willy (Pippa and Roger) and Liam for letting us crash for a few nights!
Still on our Scotland List
Honestly, we’d go back and do everything again! But there’s definitely a few places we missed along the way
- Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
- Loch Ness – gotta have a look for Nessy
- Outer Hebrides
- Shetland Islands
- Skye – again, yes this place was so freaking beautiful and there’s so much more to see
- Glencoe – so many Munros still to bag!
- Glenfinnan – we saw the viaduct but missed the Harry Potter train
6 Tips for Planning a Scotland Road Trip
- Try for at least 2 weeks if you’re planning on getting up to the Isle of Skye or to do a full lap. Otherwise stick closer to Glencoe or the Cairngorms.
- Stay in undiscovered small villages. You can’t go wrong, they are all so cute you never know what you will discover. Take the opportunity of a car to branch out from your accommodation in the main towns.
- Bag at least 1 Munro – There are so many great hill walks in Scotland. Read more about them in our Glencoe and Fort William intro to hiking article.
- Download your maps. Reception can be super patchy so make sure you either download or have physical copies of where you are going.
- Check the forecast. The weather can change pretty quickly in the Highlands and can ruin your plans, so make sure you have a flexible schedule and check the weather forecast constantly.
- Learn how to drive single track roads. You need to be super alert and ready to back up at a moments notice to let others pass. Lower your speed down around corners with no line of sight and keep a mental note of the last passing point or driveway you can use.
3 Scotland Road Trip Budgeting Tips
- Consider staying somewhere you can cook your own food – we love cooking and when on a budget it can really keep your daily costs low. We also made our own lunches on the road and had heaps of snacks and fruit for days in the car.
- Stay in each location 3 nights. We’ve found that’s the perfect amount of time to chill and spread out a bit without worrying about constantly unpacking and repacking your bags. Plus if you’re booking through a site like Airbnb, the longer you’re in one location means you aren’t constantly paying their service fee for new bookings and your host might offer a discounted rate.
- Look for discount fuel. Topping up at discount fuel can make a big difference in price. We have seen price differences of up to 15 cents per litre in some places around the UK. Tesco, Morrisons and others all have their own cheap petrol stations now so keep your eyes peeled.
Our favourite Scotland memories
TUCK into a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer and an IRN-BRU. Both local delicacies to which we are now addicted.
CLIMB every mountain (well maybe not EVERY mountain but at least one!)
DISTIL your thoughts whilst enjoying a dram of Talisker or Blair Athol whiskey.
DIP in for a swim in one of the hundreds of lochs (only for brave!)
BREATHE in the fresh mountain air as you take in the million shades of green and blue.
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