Self-Drive Scotland: A Tale of Many Castles

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Current Location: Edinburgh, Inverness, Fort William, Stirling, and assorted locations throughout the Scottish Highlands

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We had gotten halfway up the muddy, craggy hillside of King Arthur’s Seat when it hit me: there wasn’t a skyscraper to be seen on the horizon. In contrast to other global cities that we have visited , the view from the top of the small mountain lets you take in Edinburgh better than anywhere else in the city (save maybe the castle). We didn’t choose to stay up there too long because it was getting dark, but we had passed a ruined church of some kind just off the path, on a more remote face of the mountain. You could almost feel the ghosts inhabiting the ruins of the place, the history that all of the masonry had seen, and the growth of the metropolis happening at its feet. The degree of sentiment that the pile of stones put off, coupled with the beautiful view from halfway up the mountain makes King Arthur’s Seat a thing that you shouldn’t miss.

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Of course, while we were there, it rained all the time, and there were pretty profound gusts of wind. Many of the mountainous areas were still covered in ice and snow. Tourist season was supposed to start in a few weeks, which means that the areas we elected to travel were less crowded and less expensive. That also means many of the amenities (restaurants, places to stay, gas stations) were not available to us as we made our way across the country. It occasionally reminded me of the landscapes of Paris, Texas–wide expanses, little human activity.

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We appreciated the vastness and the quiet and the freedom to drive ourselves most of all. I definitely believe we saw more than we would have on any guided tour.

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Unlike in Ireland, renting a car in Scotland is incredibly simple and relatively inexpensive (no exorbitant insurance costs for foreigners). However, it is a bit trickier to find an affordable rate if you can’t drive anything other than automatic transmission. Driving on the opposite side of the road is really scary at first–honestly I felt like no one should have trusted me to do that without a follow-up driving test–but eventually feels like a brain-strengthening challenge.

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We began our journey in Edinburgh, one of my favorite and most underrated cities in Europe, before driving north to Inverness (the gateway to the Highlands) and beyond. We began our drive by hitting the highlights like Culloden Moor, Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, Ruthven Barracks, and the small town of Pitlochry- visit Blair Atholl Distillery if you’re ever here- before making our way towards Skye. We recommend stopping in the little town of Drumnadrochit for a bite before heading out to these attractions. We ate one of my favorite meals of the trip here at Cafe Eighty2, which was incredibly cozy and had tons of vegetarian/vegan options (yes, that meal in the photo is 100% veg).

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Perhaps the most serendipitous part of our trip was visiting Eileen Donan Castle, a small fort on a tidal island where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh) in the western Highlands. Without realizing which castle it was, we saw a sign for Eileen Donan when we were were driving past on a particularly rainy day and needed a break. We were between stopping for lunch somewhere and taking an hour to explore yet another random, remote castle. We went with the castle. The place had a rich history, having been restored and maintained by the family following World War One. The inside even has a small museum! As we made our way to the main hall, where members of the family took audiences with guests, we saw a family tree. When K was doing some genealogy work a few years ago, he thought he remembered a few surnames from the ornate embroidery we saw on the wall.

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After returning from Skye, our first stop was naturally the Glenfinnen Viaduct and Monument. The monument was erected in 1815, in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died in the cause of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The Viaduct can be seen from overtop the monument and is most famous for transporting the train to Hogwarts! Although we did not get a chance to ride the train (they do offer tours), the view from the monument is quite magnificent.

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Of course, we also drove through Glencoe and saw the “Three Sisters,” also known as the Bidean nam Bian. These mountains are right off of A82 and there are multiple trails to hike and scenic vistas right off the roadway. You can even see Scotland’s most photographed mountain, Buachaille Etive Mor. Honestly, with little effort this splendor was one of the easiest places to navigate in all of the Highlands. We also visited Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park (free to enter) on our way to Fort William and were treated to some stunning waterfall views.

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Another one of our favorite castles was Doune Castle, otherwise known as Castle Leoch from Outlander! Doune Castle is a medieval stronghold originally built in the 13th century in central Scotland. It has been the site of numerous other films and television shows including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Game of Thrones. The exterior structure is magnificent but the inside of the castle is castle largely in ruins. However, there is still a guided audio tour partially narrated by Sam Heughan. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Outlander, so this was a huge treat for me!

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The countryside is dotted with lovely little B&Bs, which we discovered were often cheaper per night at a higher quality than hostels. And they include food! We finished off our trip at the most adorable one in Stirling called Forth Guest House (you can find it here), where we were treated to a full Scottish breakfast, made exactly to our specifications. The proprietors Jim and Isobel were the friendliest people we’ve ever met and they took great care of us on our final night.

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It wouldn’t be a trip to Scotland, however, if we didn’t recommend some booze. Of course, you’re expecting that we talk up some expensive scotch. Of course, we managed to make our way to some distilleries (our favorite being Talisker, as mentioned in the previous post). However, the most astounding thing we tried was fraoch–a heather ale based on an ancient recipe. Our batch was from Williams Brothers, but a cursory search on the internet seems to suggest that you could make it at home just as easily.

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All in all, the trip was tremendous and we were able to fit so much in to such a short period of time. Although, we did not get a chance to give the North Coast 500 a whirl, so we’re coming back for you Scotland.

In other news, we’re releasing K’s first drone video tomorrow, so stay tuned! Sorry for the lengthy hiatus, and expect some more frequent updates for our summer travels.

Thanks for reading,

<3, V & K

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