So many castles, so little time...
What better place for a road trip than one filled with breathtaking mountainscapes, crumbling castles and men in checkered skirts? One thing is for sure, you will never be bored driving through Scotland. A destination I find particularly great for car hopping as the distances between sights are so short (at least from a northern Swede's point of view!).
This 5 day itinerary goes above and beyond the bigger cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow; instead we will start and finish in Granite City aka Aberdeen. It includes a distillery tour, the possibility to see Nessie and surveying the tracks of the Hogwarts Express; along with recommendations for hostels and hikes. Pack up and let's go!
Aberdeen, Strathisla Distillery and Celtic Live Music in Inverness
Start the day off with breakfast at Granite City gem Foodstory Cafe (13-15 Thistle St). Their doors open at 8am and the interiors consisting of odd chairs and upcycled tabletops set the perfect scene for a calm morning before hitting the road.
Strathisla Distillery (Keith)
Take the A96 heading north-west towards Keith and the Strathisla Distillery (75 mins). Strathisla is one of the oldest still operating distilleries in Scotland and their two wooden pagodas really sets the atmosphere. A guided tour starts at £7.50pp and takes you around the place, the refinement from barley to bottled whiskey and includes a tasting at the end. (You can purchase a driver's kit to try later if you are behind the wheel!)
Continue along A96 towards the Highland Capital of Inverness (82 mins). Take a walk along the river and enjoy the view of Inverness Castle around sunset. The city houses several cosy wee pubs well worth a visit. We had dinner at the Castle Tavern (1 View Pl) just by the castle, continued on to what is considered a hidden gem The Market Bar (32 Church St) full of wooden interiors, a small stage for live music and a jukebox(!). Just across the street you will find Hootananny (67 Church Street) that holds live sessions of traditional music every night of the week.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Highland Backpackers (24 Rose St), centrally located right next to the bus station. Dorm style rooms start at £10pp/night.
The castle upon three lochs, the fairy pools and a round glasshouse
Eilean Donan Castle
Equipped with a big Take Away-coffee, head south along river Ness towards Fort Augustus. The quickest, and also scenic, route is along A82 (53 mins). We drove on the "wrong side" of the loch, alongthe smaller B862, but were pretty happy with that detour as we passed small graveyards, fairy tale-like forests and fishing boats (no water monsters in sight though!).
From Fort Augustus, get on road A882 (which will turn into A82 as you continue west) until you reach Eilean Donan Castle. This is one of the most photographed castles in the world, as it stands beautifully on a small tidal islands on the meeting point of three lochs - Duich, Long and Alsh. You might also recognise it from the 2012 Bond film Skyfall, among others. A visit to the castle grounds starts at £7.50pp, for up-to-date opening hours check the website.
The Fairy Pools (Glenbrittle)
From the Castle, get back on A87 to reach the Isle of Skye. Crossing the Skye bridge, as it loops both horisontally and verstically, is an experience on its own! The bridge was built in 1992 and since a couple of years it is toll-free to cross.
Our first Skye-stop was a visit to the Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle. Turn of A87 in Sligachan, continuing to Glenbrittle and then follow the signs. There is an allocated parking lot, but due to the crowds we parked along the steep road. From the car park, you continue down a muddy path down the glen to reach the crystal blue water pools. Bring your swimsuit if you are feeling frisky! To reach the pools and return back to the car park takes about 40 minutes.
Accommodation: We stayed at family-run Skyewalker Hostel which was a darn delight. Not only is it built on a pun-theme, it is also well-equipped, tidy, has good showers and above all - a giant round glass house out in the garden.) Dorm style rooms start at £17pp/night.
From Glenbrittle to Portnalong where it is located takes about half an hour.
Black sand beaches and a large pinnacle
We started the morning with coffee in Portree (35 min drive along A87) which is the main city of Skye. Afterwards we took a stroll around the many colourful buildings and picked some wild blackberries down by the harbour.
The Old Man of Storr
Another 15 minutes north along A87 lies the Old Man of Storr - a large pinnacle rock that can been seen from miles around. To reach the Old Man itself is about a 3.8km hike that will take around 75 minutes, there and back to the car park. We did not walk all the way to the top, but the hill offered some spectacular views either way.
The quickest route from the pinnacle to Dunvegan is to drive back to Portree and turn (45 minutes). We chose to detour the entire isle along A855 - which I recommend to anyone who enjoys watching sheep. This road will eventually turn into A87 where you change to A850 that will take you to west coast village Dunvegan (95 mins). Dunvegan is located down a hill, with some artisan coffee and artist studios.
From Dunvegan we continued to Carbost (30 mins) where the Talisker Distillery is located. We had a peek at the shop before driving on to Talisker Bay (16 mins). From the car park, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to the beach itself. You will pass by a private house and sheep will be grazing freely, so be respectful and do not leave any rubbish behind. The beach dunes themselves are super cool, I have actually never seen black sand?!
We had dinner at the cosy Old Inn in Carbost (that actually had a vegan curry!... Which I downed in five seconds - starving after a day full of hiking in the fresh air.) before returning back to the SkyeWalker Hostel.
the hogwarts express and the most beautifully located church in scotland
Day 4 - lucikly you got hiking yesterday, as day four is the most driving-dense of the itinerary
The Armadale - Mallaig Ferry
Rather than leaving Skye the same way we arrived, we wanted to leave the old-fashioned way - by ferry boat! We drove from the hostel to departure point Armadale along A87, then turning off to A851 just after Harrapool (66 mins). Do call to book a slot in advance though, or there is a chance you will have to do a detour back to the bridge to reach mainland. We were only lucky a bus did a no-show, so we got to squeeze in.
The ferry takes you between Armadale and Mallaig (25 mins) and a single trip costs £9.40 per car, along with an extra £2.50 per driver/passenger. Check time tables and up to date pricing on their website.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct and the Church of St Mary & St Finnan
This one is for all you fellow Harry Potter fans! The Glenfinnan viaduct which is featured to carry the Hogwarts Express in several of the films (it is also printed on the back of the Scottish £10 notes!). From Mallaig, take the A830 to Glenfinnan (38 mins) then follow local signs to get to the viaduct view point.
By coincidence, we crossed the Church of St Mary & St Finnan which is well worth a visit. A beautiful Gothic style catholic church that stands overlooking Loch Shiel. Probably making it one of the most scenicly placed churches in all of Scotland!
Continue along A830 to Fort William (30 mins) - a larger settlement where it might a good idea to stock up on some more food. If you are good on time, it is only another half hour drive to reach picturesque Glencoe from here. Driving around Kinlochleven and back to Fort William is done in about 1hr20.
From Fort William, continue north east along A86, turning right in Laggan to reach A9 via road A889. From Pitlochry take A924 to Kirkmichael, changing to B950 to reach The Old Military Road A93 that will take you to Braemar (170 mins drive from Fort William). Phew - did you get all that?
Accommodation: Stay at the Braemar Youth Hostel (21 Glenshee Rd)that offer dorm style rooms from £15pp/night.
... Back to the east coast
Craigendarroch Hill (Ballater)
Time to get hiking again! After breakfast, make your way to Ballater along A93 (25 mins). This wee but steep hike starts behinds the Old Railway Station in central Ballater, where you continue along the old church (that is now a hotel) turning right onto a footpath that will lead you up to a magnificent view amongst the oak trees.
Back in the car, continue along A93, turning right onto A957 in Crathes towards Stonehaven (66 mins). Drive out to see the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, admission fees from £7pp, of or just go for an ice-cream at infamous Aunty Betty's (The Promenade) - the latest I heard, they do vegan ice cream too!
Head back to Aberdeen on A90 (35 mins) to return the car. Go all out on a typically Scottish meal. At Howies (50 Chapel St) they do a delicious Vegetarian Haggis, Neeps & Tatties that is in fact vegan. After dinner, head to the basement of The Tippling House (4 Belmont St) for a relaxing drink - reminiscing over the past days around beautiful Scotland.
For more ideas on things to do in Aberdeen, have a look at: Granite City Gems.
Have you visited Scotland? Do you have any top tips on sights to see and routes to drive? Feel free to share below! x
photo diary entries from the trip for inspiration:
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