Necessary 2020 intro: this trip was one I did back in October 2019. Yes, I am only getting around to posting it now. Considering that no one can travel, no, it’s not the best time. But, if you’re like me and desperate to travel again, let this be your wistful, pin-for-later guide. Because really, the Scottish Highlands needs to be on your Travel Bucket List.
Now, on to the real post introduction…
Ahh, bonnie Scotland. This was a trip I dreamt about for years and years: one blissful week of traveling through the Scottish Highlands, soaking in the history, the scenery, the lore. As a young adult, I would plaster my walls in print-outs of Scottish castles, clipped from calendars I always got at Christmastime. I aspired to be a museum curator and archaeologist, focusing on Celtic history. I dreamt of marrying a man from the Celtic lands (I ended up marrying an Englishman, whoops). All this is to say: I was bloody excited for this birthday trip we took last October. And after years of yearning, did it all live up to my dreams? One succinct word: yes.
The reason I am sharing this trip to you in such detail? I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about our trip. Yes, perhaps more time would be useful. But honestly? The itinerary (and places we stayed) were pretty much perfect. So, if you have 6-7 days to spend in the Scottish Highlands, look no further than the itinerary below!
Things to know Before your Trip
- This is a very concise roadtrip. If you have more time, I’d suggest lingering in each place for longer, rather than rushing about as we did. However, if you’re short on time, a week is completely doable!
- Rent a car. This is vital, of course, for a roadtrip. But, more importantly, the driving itself is what makes this trip so worthwhile. The landscape is serene, mystical, magical, old. You want to be witness to it, and take your time stopping on the side of the road as and when the mood strikes you.
- Be careful of narrow roads. Most of the roads in rural Scotland are single-lane tracks. Yes, people will try to run you off the road (it happened to us — we got stuck in the mud. I fell in the mud. I still bloody loved this trip).
- Bring layers, waterproof shoes, a warm coat. The weather is unpredictable, going from sunny to rain to warm to cold in a matter of hours. I pretty much lived in stretchy jeans, a sweater, waterproof boots, and a throw-over-everything coat.
- Book Reservations. Especially if you plan on having Sunday lunch at a well-reviewed restaurant. In general, I always recommend reserving places in the UK to avoid missing out on your potential best meal yet.
Day One: Explore Inverness; Culloden Moor; The Cairngorms
Technically, your trip begins the night before, when you land for one night in Inverness (we landed on a Saturday night, flying from London to Inverness direct). Taxis are readily available at the airport, saving you a day of car hire cost. Stay at The Heathmount Hotel — a darling pub-with-rooms style hotel that’s surprisingly stylish and modern. On a cold Saturday night, the downstairs bar was that perfect busy-but-not-too-busy. Treat yourself to a well deserved gin & tonic; the supply a huge variety of local Scottish gins.
Morning: Explore Inverness
The next morning, enjoy a lovely stroll through Inverness city center, a short walk away from the Heathmount. This sleepy, beautiful town boasts stunning views of the River Ness. And, like seemingly every town, has a big, beautiful, boasting castle. We had a light breakfast of donuts (yay, America) from the cutest coffee shop Perk. After more strolling and stops in souvenir shops (hi, my name is Erin and I love Outlander), we picked up our rental car from Inverness Town Center and were on our merry way.
Lunch Stop //
It was Sunday afternoon for us, so we had booked in a Sunday roast at The Snow Goose Pub, a short drive from Inverness. This came highly recommended, and you know British Nick was all about getting that coveted Sunday Roast in. However, if you decide to stay in Inverness to eat, I’ve heard great things about Mustard Seed.
Afternoon: Culloden Moor; drive to Killiehuntly in the Cairngorm National Park
If you’re an Outlander fan (HANDS UP), this is a stop you cannot miss. Located not too far away from Inverness, Culloden Moor is the perfect first-stop to really immerse yourself into Scottish history. We went through the museum and walked the actual moor in about 2 hours — although a little rushed, I don’t feel like we missed anything. This is the famed site of the Jacobite Rebellion (probably the most famous one), so if you are remotely interested in history, this is a quintessential part of your Scottish Highlands roadtrip tour.
If you’re an Outlander fan… you know #JamieFraser4Ever
Drive to Killiehuntly from Culloden Moor: Approximately 1.5 hours //
It’s back on the road to your next accommodation — and quite possibly one of the nicest places you will ever stay — Killiehuntly Farmhouse, in the Cairngorm National Park. It takes about an hour to drive to Killiehuntly, so make sure you hit the road by about 4pm to ensure you can see the beauty of the drive. The Cairngorms are some of the most beautiful landscape of the region.
You reach Killiehuntly before dark; and boy, is it a sight to behold. This boutique gem of a hotel, nestled down a secluded road, is the farmhouse cottage that dreams are made of. The decor is modern minimal with farmhouse touches (i.e. ideal), and it feels the place you can while away not just the day, but your life.
If you can somehow increase your time in the Scottish highlands (and have the budget!), I’d recommend staying an extra night or two in Killiehuntly. Swoon.
Evening: Dinner at Killiehuntly
Part of your stay at Killiehuntly includes a gourmet, prepared-onsite, farm-to-table 3 course dinner, where you dine with the few fellow guests at the establishment. We were lucky to meet a couple from Germany and a couple of France — both whom we could imagine us remaining friends. We ate and drank the night away without ever having to leave the establishment.
Climb into the four-poster bed, nestle under the organic sheets, and sink into a blissful slumber.
Day Two: Explore the Cairngorms; Dalwhinnie Whisky Tasting; Drive to Fort Augustus / Loch Ness
View from your WINDOW at Killiehuntly Farm House
Morning: Explore the area around Killiehuntly and the Cairngorms
Despite the fact that you will be utterly forlorn to be checking out of Killiehuntly, you must. But only after a superb, farm-to-table breakfast prepared for you. However, before you hit the road, make sure to explore the beautiful woodlands surrounding Killiehuntly. We opted to do this instead of trying to find a hike in the Cairmgorms (although you could opt to do that instead).
Afternoon: A Sublime Whisky Tasting at the Dalwhinnie Distillery
(30 minute drive from Killiehuntly to Dalwhinnie Distillery)
Now, I will be frank: I do not like whisky. (I know, I know; What kind of explorer am i? I’ve tried and failed to like it). However, to help balance out our marriage, Nick is an avid whisky fan. Needless to say, we booked in a couple of distillery tours and tastings while in the Scottish Highlands. Of course, if you don’t like whisky, I’d skip this part and do more hiking and exploring of the Cairngorms.
However, if you’re at all interested in whisky or learning about an important cultural part of Scotland, I’d highly recommend a whisky distillery tour / tasting. It’s incredible to learn the history of it, see how they make it, and sample a smidge when you’re done. Nick booked us in for a tour and tasting at Dalwhinnie Distillery at 1pm, giving us the perfect amount of time to roam the forests and get to the distillery in time.
Lunch Stop: Caoldair Coffee and Craft Shop in Laggan //
After the whisky, you’ll be ready for something hearty to eat. We did a quick google and found the Caoldair Coffee and Craft Shop, the most adorable little shop selling sandwiches, soup, and drinks. We each had a bowl of homemade soup and browsed the local goods for sale.
Slow Drive to Fort Augustus (about 1.5 hours) //
After your whisky tasting (and a spot of lunch), it’s time to make the drive to Fort Augustus. The drive along here is beautiful, so make sure to do it slowly, taking time to gaze at the lochs you pass, the forests stretching on either side of the road. Fort Augustus is a great place to stop and settle, as it’s right on the edge of Loch Ness, making it the perfect 2-night stop for your tour.
Late Afternoon/Evening: Check into The Scriptorium; Explore Fort Augustus
While Killiehuntly wins my design-loving heart, The Scriptorium grabs my “I’m staying in a SCOTTISH ABBEY” historical-loving heart. This is probably one of the best AirBnBs we’ve ever stayed — and all you need to do is look at the listing to understand why. Beyond the amazing exteriors of the building, the apartment itself is spacious, modern, cozy, and exactly what you need for a 2 night’s stay. You also gain access to the building’s swimming pool and sauna (surrounded by old abbey stained glass windows), a delightful perk of the stay.
Walk through the woods surrounding the abbey and you can either get to the loch (Loch Ness!), or straight into the center of Fort Augustus. Grab a casual dinner at one of the eateries in town (we chose a pub). Otherwise, if you want something nicer, the Loch Ness Boathouse is right on the Abbey’s property and looks amazing.
Day 3: Explore Glencoe, Fort William, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Morning / Early Afternoon: Drive through Glencoe Valley; Stop for a Hike and Lunch
Have a quick breakfast at home, because this is going to be a long day. i.e. don’t do what we did — go get a panini for breakfast in town, which took AGES.
You then embark on a 1 hour 15 min scenic drive to Glencoe Valley, which has some of the most drastic, mountainous views of the entire highlands. It’s less about reaching a ‘destination,’ more about stopping on the side of the road and snapping 1 (100) photos of the breathtaking landscape. The main area you want to see is between Glencoe town and the Bridge of Orchy.
Fun side note: When I travel, I always start reading a (fiction) book that takes place in or around the destination we are seeing. If you are like me — and enjoy historical fiction — I highly, highly recommend reading the book Corrag by Susan Fletcher. It centers around the massacre of Glencoe but it actually a beautiful, harrowing tale told by believed-witch Corrag. It provides such a detailed, poetic view of the landscape that feels magical when you’re actually seeing it.
Walk (and Lunch) in Glencoe Valley //
It was such a sunny, lovely day that we decided to stop for a ‘hike’ (i.e. glorified walk). There are a few trails just nearby; we picked one and headed off into the woods. Because of the the delays (see note above and below), we were hungry for lunch while on our walk. Luckily, the trail stumbled out onto Clachaig Inn, the perfect pub for a bowl of soup and a pint.
What NOT to do: Drive all the way to Castle Stalker //
We had read some reviews that Castle Stalker was a cool, extra-castle stop on the Highlands tour. While it was definitely ‘a castle,’ it’s mostly ruins that are very far away. It ended up eating an hour of our day, which gave us less time in Fort William and Glencoe. I’d recommend skipping this stop out.
Alternative Plan: Lunch & A Stroll Around Fort William //
If you skip out Castle Stalker (and don’t spend 1,000 years getting a breakfast panini), you will have more time to spend in Fort William. Because of timing (it gets dark so early in this far north!), we didn’t have much time here. A regret we have, but is on the plan for next time!
Afternoon: Glenfinnan Viaduct for Harry Potter Views (30 min drive)
A scant half hour away from Fort William is the famed Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by the Harry Potter films (you can almost hear the Hogwarts Express while you gaze upon it!). As we were cutting it pretty fine with time, we didn’t stay here too long — just about 10 minutes to snap some photos and gaze at the never-ending views. But according to others, a 10-15 minute walk gets you to the underside of the viaduct.
Evening: Take a Swim at the Scriptorium / Dinner at Home
Is there anything better than an evening swim in an indoor pool, after a long day of driving? I think not. Head back to the Scriptorium and enjoy a relaxing evening in the abbey. There’s a Marks & Spencer grocery in Fort William, so pick up an easy dinner. You can also sign up to a specific pool slot in advance, which means you’ll get (nearly) solo pool time when you’re there, too.
Part two coming soon!
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