Surely I’m not the only 30-something-year-old Irish person who shamefully has never been to Scotland, right?! I mean, come on, it’s a 45 minute flight from Dublin to Edinburgh and you don’t even have to think too hard about the packing as we are basically an extension of one another’s climates. If ever there was a crew of fellow whisk(e)y slinging, ginger haired, pasty skinned folk it is the Irish and the Scottish. Not to mention the fact that we share a deep, traumatic history of watching with dismay as our accents are translated with unnecessary subtitles on American documentaries (honestly, what is with that?!) so it’s kind of shocking that we don’t see more of each other. Delightfully though, 2019 was the year for me to end my Scottish virginity and pay a visit to the beautifully-blustery land.
You might be here to see my dreadfully-interesting holiday snaps (hi, Dad!), or maybe you stumbled across this post as you’re planning your own exciting Scottish trip. Either way, I hope you can get a sparkle of Highland Inspo for your own future plans. Read on and I will set out the route Richie and I took over 8 days in rainy Scotland.
Trigger warning for Irish people: There is a lot of whisky chat, and it is supposed to be spelled without the ‘e’. Trust me, I’m a pro now…
Look, I am not one for sun holidays. To each their own and all that, but after 2 weeks in the Canaries last year I was ready to tear the walls down. I have the attention span of a millenial on a smartphone so a camper van was selected as the appropriate environment for this year’s break. After some fairly extensive research, we opted for a Weinsberg CaraCompact from Bunk Campers in Edinburgh. We booked during one of their promotions so the cost for 7 nights, 2 drivers and all the extras was about €1,300. The extras covered things like; reduced excess, windscreen & wing mirror cover, bedding, delf, gas canister etc. and if you are going with a camper I would highly recommend shelling out for these.
Having smashed a windscreen in Australia (long story…not my fault, I swear!) I can tell you from experience that windscreen cover is most alluring when you need it and haven’t bought it! You might say €1,300 is a bit steep, but it’s not far off what you would pay for a hotel / B&B and you have the liberation of being able to pick up and move when the mood takes you.
I won’t get too bogged down in the detail of this here as I could dedicate a whole post to it, but essentially Scotland has opened its public grounds to campers. This means you have the freedom to pitch up pretty much anywhere you want to. Now, there are some rules and stipulations (don’t be a d*ckhead being the main one…) but the crux of the wild camping option is that you don’t have to shell out the additional cost of paying for campsites if you don’t want to. Lots of folk will spend their entire holiday camped out at the side of a mountain or along a beach somewhere and won’t have to spend anything additional on accommodation.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Skipness
Driving time: 3hrs 40mins
We decided to give ourselves one night in a stunning little Airbnb, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town. We were in training for Islay, and as self-respecting Irish folk we take our training very seriously. One doesn’t simply walk into Islay… you need to have properly lubricated the organs first.
If Edinburgh pubs have one thing in common, it’s a ridiculously impressive back bar so we had an intense feeling of kid-in-a-sweetshop excitement as we worked our way through drams of this (a stunning little 19 year old) and drams of that (finished in sherry casks, thank you very much). Wash all that down with room temperature cask beer and a cheeky cocktail before bed and you can be sure our wake in Edinburgh was seedy. So seedy. The 10am check added insult to injury but it set us on our course for breakfast of eggs in the toursity-as-feck Deacons House Cafe before heading out back towards to Airport to collect our temporary Castle on Wheels.
The van collection itself was painless but I would recommend arriving early. The handover and run-through does take some time and if there are people ahead of you in the queue you might be waiting a while.
Day 1 for us was about getting as near as possible to the ferry terminal, as we were booked on the 9.30am sailing to Islay the following morning. We set a course in the GPS for Kennacraig and after that agreed to follow our noses to some nearby wild camping.
The drive out of Edinburgh is mostly motorway until after you’ve cleared Glasgow, so it’s a good opportunity to become acquainted with the bleedin’ massive van you are now operating. Stopping distances and spacial awareness are going to take a minute to get used to, so you’ll be thankful for not jumping right out onto a single-lane road straight away.
After Glasgow we swung a right towards Alexandria and on towards Loch Lomand. Our GPS sent us up and over the mountains and along a forest road. The rain clouds were loaded and had fallen to obscure the view. We trundled along the single-lane roads through the hauntingly beautiful Scottish forests feeling like the only car for miles.
Having loaded up the fridge with supplies we were set to arrive in Kennacraig just before sunset. Eager on our hunt for wilderness we swung left and headed towards Skipness to camp out wild by the water’s edge. Just before night fell around us we had time to cook a gourmet meal of stir fried turkey & veg with warming red wine.
A storm rained hard through the night, pelting our chariot with winds and rain while the waves gushed back and forth, only meters away from our bed. You might say that relaxation comes in all shapes and sizes, but this felt a little bit like living.
Day 2: Islay Day 1 of 2
The night’s storm cleared as the sun rose behind the mountains, warming the air and ushering the clouds away. We had breakfast and coffee in total solitude as we woke to find the sea, thankfully, calm. Being as I am an avid opponent of boats the pristine waters brought me a belly full of reassurance as we stretched, dressed and headed ferry-ward. We were smug with our 15 minute drive to the ferry terminal, the night’s wild camping had been perfectly-located for an easy start to the day.
It was a smooth sailing aboard the MV Finalaggin towards the shores of Islay (pronounced Aye-Lay or Aye-Lah) where we were greeted by the black-on-white letterings of the coastal distilleries.
Imagine a quintessential Scottish seaside town against the backdrop of rolling mountainous fields with pristine white walls and rocky beaches, and you may just have the measure of Port Ellen; Islay’s main port town. We rolled off the ferry and naively headed for Laphroaig; home to the whisky that started our love affair with Scotch.
A word of caution; you will need to book ahead for your tours!
We made a couple of quick calls and our 2 days’ worth of tours were fixed, but if it had been the busier season we probably would have been disappointed.
Typically, the basic tours on Islay run to an hour long, will be offered several times across the day and cost about £8 / £10 depending on the distillery. Each distillery will have their own additional experiences on offer, from more in-depth tastings, cask tastings, field visits or even full warehouse tours with the manager. The prices will range accordingly from £20 to £500+.
Each distillery has a slightly different approach, with deviations in their recipes so it’s easy to geek out on Islay spotting the little distinctions as you move from one to the other. If it’s your thing, I would recommend taking in as many distilleries as you can, even if you aren’t a huge fan of their whisky. Save the more expensive tours for the places you love, but the £8 basic tour of somewhere slightly-less appealing is still a unique opportunity to learn.
By the time we got our bearings and made our bookings, we only managed to take in tours in Ardbeg and Lagavulin on our first day on Islay, but it was enough to whet our pallets and get us excited for the treat on Day 2!
Somewhere between the two distilleries the weather took a sharp Scottish turn as the damp, grey clouds arrived and heavy rain filled the sea air. We headed West along the island, stopping in Bownmore for a bite before settling for the night in Port Charlotte.
Day 3: Islay Day 2 of 2
Our day started at 10am with our 2 hour treat in the Laphroaig distillery. We had opted to upgrade to one of the £70 Distillers Wares tours, which includes a full tour from the malting through to maturation stage and a more involved tasting in the warehouse. Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries who malt their own barley, so even catching a glimpse of this process was fascinating.
The open peat fires had just been lit, so having the chance to experience first hand where that rich, smoky flavour comes from was pretty special. Back in the warehouse I had the strangest sense of being star struck as we sampled some whiskies straight from a selection of old wooden casks. As a group our tour had met as strangers, but by golden dram number 3 (at 11am in the morning), we were lifelong friends in the making. As though it was something we had done for years we expertly (Dutch courage?) used large valinches to bottle a precious 250ml of our chosen tipple to take home.
At this point I should point out that there are many taxis that can take you around the island! Just ask at the reception desk and they will book your onward leg for you.
Our next stop of the day was lunch in the newest distillery, Ardnahoe; which started producing spirit in just October 2018. There is a stipulation in Scotland that a spirit needs to be in a cask for 3 years and a day before it can be called Scotch so the Ardnahoe batches are not quite ready yet. Despite not having their own whisky on the go just yet, the tour in the immaculate distillery is still worth a visit if even just to compare to the island’s others, which date from the 19th century. And you’ll still get a dram of something wonderful at the end!
By this stage in the day the weather had completely turned and there were whispers of planes and ferries being grounded due to high winds and waves. No better time for some more wild camping as we set off for Machir.
From here we wiled away the evening in our warm van watching the seagulls fighting to fly against the stormy winds. After a cruel beach walk with an almost-warming dram we battened down the hatches for another rocky night of Scottish weather.
Day 4: Islay to Skye
Driving Time: 5.5 hrs
It was at this point in the holiday we were beginning to feel very much the measure of our 30’s realising we’d never fully appreciated our cloud-like mattress and beautifully delicate pillows at home. You can’t judge us too harshly as we begin to fantasise about just how much sleep we will get when we get out of the van; “I’m going right to bed and I’m not getting up for a day”…”No. I’ll have a bath first and then sleep for the day”. Divine.
Following some back-cracks and shoulder rolls we head for a cold-morning tour of Bruichladdich distillery; a whisky that I had shamefully never even heard of. Successfully converted, we hit the road again for the shockingly-calm midday sailing back to the mainland. The boat is packed with passengers from yesterday’s cancelled sailings so I can’t help but be thankful for the serendipitous timing.
We were determined to get to Skye without splitting the driving across two days, so we set a course in the GPS to take us directly up the hebridean coast, across the land bridge and on over to Skye.
Single-lane roads & “passing places”
Scotland is littered with well-maintained single lane roads, and once you understand the basic mechanics they actually run quite smoothly. Passing places make it easy for two lanes of traffic to accommodate each other, and even the tightest roads allow for seamless flows of cars, vans and motorhomes. A few things to bear in mind if you’re driving through Scotland:
- Passing places are either sign-posted or are marked by black and white posts. You can’t miss them.
- In Scotland you drive on the left side of the road. This means that if the passing place is on your left, you need to pull in. If it’s on your right, just slow down so the on-coming traffic can pull in and allow you to pass. If you pull into a passing place on the right you are technically on the wrong side of the road and if an accident happens you’re going to have a hard time explaining yourself to an insurer.
- Don’t park in a passing place. Really. We saw a bit of this, people using them as viewing points or camping areas and it results in complete chaos. Just don’t do this.
- Give way to vehicles coming uphill whenever you can. If necessary, reverse until you reach a passing place to let the other vehicle pass.
- If you want more, there’s a cute video outlining it all here.
Our day of epic driving took us up through the heady landscapes of Middle Earth until we finally crossed the landbridge onto Skye. The clouds parted as we moved through valleys across one mountain to another, and eventually through a purple sunset onto the ancient island. It was dark when we arrived in Glenbrittle, and two weary travellers set up camp. Fuelled by gourmet tuna pasta and red wine. Bed, bed, bedly beddington.
Day 5: Fairy Pools & on to Portree
Though it is a formal campsite, Glenbrittle Campsite & Cafe offers a sense of the wilderness. The treacherous entrance road leads to luscious green grounds with minimal coverage, right at the mouth of Loch Brittle. There is an absolute 0 on phone reception, so campers attracted to this site are interested in the opportunities to hike the surrounding mountains. For the hardy hiker here is a walkway that connects directly with the top side of the Fairy Pools, though I would recommend researching the route in advance and bringing provisions.
We were not feeling hardy so we drove the 10 minutes to the Fairy Pools and took the well-worn path. For the first part of this walk there are crowds, but if you persevere onwards you will eventually pass the main “turn back” point and you can continue for as long as you please.
We found some solitude and ate our sandwiches in the rain. The landscape is hard to describe. At the crest of the first mountain you’ll find yourself shrouded on all sides by rocky, green velveteen mountains, obscured by mists and foreboding mythic atmosphere. It’s the kind of place that if you look upwards at the jagged horizon for too long it will make your head spin.
Eventually we dried off with a cuppa tea and made our way towards Portree, for warm showers and dinner. Portree is another one of those stunning Scottish seaside townlands and absolutely worth a visit if you’re on Skye. We rolled into the village and indulged in an evening chatting with new-found pals over Irn Bru, Tenants and cask ale. The things we must do for blog research!
Day 6: Staffin beach & The Old Man of Storr (2.5 hours walking) and on to Glencoe (3 hours driving)
Foggy on the details of the previous night we were spurred on to hit the road early. We started the day with a windy but beautifully scenic drive to Staffin beach in search of Dinosaur footprints. We were warned off stopping at Kilt Rock due to the 15 minute queue just to park your car. Did I mention it’s busy on Skye?! We didn’t mind as we were keen to press on to get to the Old Man of Storr for a cobweb-shaking walk.
The Skye tourist website claims that this walk is a medium and should take roughly 45 minutes, but I think that summary could only have been written by some hard-as-nails Scot who hiked in a kilt and bare feet. I’m fairly fit and it kicked the shit out of me (saying nothing more about last night’s ale…) and the pathway is non existent for much of the latter parts. Stick with it because the walk is worth it; the views from the top were absolutely spectacular.
As with most tourist-flooded walks, you are going to share your space for much of the hike but there are so many opportunities to branch off and make your own way. We spent about 2.5 hours on the mountain, but you could make a day of it if you wanted.
There seems to be a newer, gravel path which is more of a scenic journey back down (as in it’s a longer walk) but fewer people seem to want to use it so we were able to enjoy a really peaceful trek back down a quieter side of the mountain.
No rest for the wicked! We are coming to the last leg of our journey so it’s time to start making moves back towards Edinburgh. The van needs to be home before 11am on the last day, so it’s wise to minimise the final-day driving as much as possible. Out come the maps and our fingers land on Glencoe. Seems as good a spot as any!
We are refuel with dinosaur-sized fish & chip supper at the Glencoe Gathering, the self-described contemporary “posh” chippie near our campsite. After nightfall we are ushered into our camping grounds by a proud stag who stops to nibble the rain-soaked grass. He looked unperturbed by our camper as we sidled up beside him for a grainy night-time photo.
Another night in Scotland, another rainy, windy sleep. It’s starting to feel like our cot is being rocked! If you close your eyes and relax it’s almost soothing…almost…
Day 7: Glencoe → Oban → Loch Lomand. Driving Time 3.5 hours
What’s this? A sunrise? An eventually-quiet night’s sleep?! Shocking! For what felt like the first time in days the clouds parted and we were awarded momentary respite from the rain. Stumbling and stretching out of the van, we realised we had inadvertently camped between two looming, protective mountains at the edge of Loch Leven. The sunrise was stretching out and warming the air for us, we jumped at the opportunity to take a stroll and a yawny, blinky coffee outside for the first time on the trip. Bliss! We took an easy morning without moving anywhere too fast. Having squeezed a hell of a lot of distance into this journey so far, the chance to revive the senses with a lazy morning was appreciated.
Ebbing ever-closer to Edinburgh we have the chance for one more cheeky distillery tour in Oban; for an experience with an unusually lightly-smoked Scotch. I’m not sure if it was the sea air or the sunrise madness, but it felt good to shell out for the £145 bottle of the distillery exclusive Old Teddy Single Malt. This will sit proudly in our collection with the distillers exclusive 19 year Lagavulin until some dose decides to mix it with coke at a party.
Again the map comes out as we determined to push through and find somewhere to stay nearby to Edinburgh. We had planned on spending a couple of nights in Loch Ness, but we wanted to be a little closer and save ourselves a long trip on the last day. Such is the beauty of following our noses and having the freedom of the camper, plans can shift as fast as the Scottish weather and so the map was produced again and our fingers landed on Loch Lomand.
A Word about Google Reviews
As it was our last night in the camper it was fairly important we spent it on an official campsite so we could empty the grey water / toilet etc. Unfortunately, due to our last minute change of plans, we had the tense combination of staying in one of Scotland’s most popular areas and no place booked for the night. We rang and rang and the only place that could take us was Lagganbeg Caravan and Camping Park; one of the worst reviewed sites on Google.
We took the spot as the only booking we could get and agreed to stop anywhere else we could find along the road. Nothing else was available.
We landed late in the evening, expecting to be greeted by some tyrant or “knuckle dragger” (to quote a review) and we couldn’t have been more pleasantly-surprised. We were warmly welcomed by a lovely older woman and her son, shown exactly where we could pitch up for the night and shown to all the essential facilities. The reviews couldn’t have been further from the truth!
It’s just worth bearing in mind that sometimes it’s better to follow your nose and not be put off by what you read online.
Day 8: Loch Lomand – Edinburgh
Driving Time: 1 hour
Due to the fact that we had put in such effort to get as near to Edinburgh as possible, without compromising the scenic surroundings, we were able to have a cruisy morning. Van audit complete, we were back on the road towards Edinburgh with some final-stage motorway driving to ease the journey.
As I say, it took me 34 years to get to Scotland but it won’t take me 34 to return. We’ve decided to view this as a reconnaissance mission for our next trip. We squeezed a hell of a lot in to 7 / 8 days, but there is still more to do as we need to finish off the Islay distilleries, and complete the North 500 Route. The weather is hostile and changeable, the roads can be tricky to drive, the midges will eat you alive if you’re not careful and there is not a hope of a sun tan…but a trip to Scotland was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding holidays we’ve taken in years. It can cost you as much or as little as you want, you can do as little or as much driving, but I strongly suggest that you add Scotland to your wishlist.
Tamara is the self-proclaimed Unqualified Blogger. She is a freelance Copywriter and Marketing Communications / Brand Strategist and Creative Generalist. She is available for speech writing, tattoo conventions and karaoke parties or would love to work with you on your latest marketing or creative challenges. Stay in touch on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or Contact her directly.