Scotland ’17

Well, Scotland was a 7-day expedition in March ’17, this time accompanied by my brother Bojč. It’s been ages since we’ve had some quality time together, so this was a perfect opportunity – especially since it coincided with the Scotland-Slovenia Football World Championship qualifier. Seemed almost rude not to go :)

Getting to Glasgow was a lot easier (and cheaper) than we had expected – we flew Easyjet from Ljubljana to Stansted and from there with Ryanair to Glasgow – in total, the return journey came to just 85 € per person. Excellent!

Day 1

Both legs of the flight were pretty uneventful, with the 4-hour layover in Stansted just enough to grab some lunch and finalize our plans for the day. On approach to Glasgow, we were a bit concerned when we noticed snow-covered hills to the north – exactly where we were supposed to drive to that evening. The lady at the Hertz rental booth (we had booked a Corsa through AutoEurope) shared our worries and generously offered the first surprise of the trip – a free upgrade to a Nissan Qashqai (top-of-the-line Tekna trim, list price around 30k €). Thanks again, Jackie!

 

Keys in hand, we went to check the car – we must have been the second ever to rent it since it had just 700 miles on the odometer. It even had that new car smell. Light was quickly fading, so we got on the road and turned north towards Fort William, our stop for the first night. Driving on the left always takes a while to get used to, but it really helped to be in a bigger car with all the driving aids (lane assist, blind spot detection etc.). We passed Loch Lomond and found ourselves in the Highlands – there was a few inches of snow on the surrounding landscape, but the roads were thankfully clear. Sadly, it was already dark when we passed through Glen Coe, a beautiful valley descending down towards the west coast.

We successfully reached Fort William and checked into the Cruachan Hotel, a crazy-looking mansion (which turned out to be just a pretty facade, as the rest of the building was a boring block of concrete). A quick talk about our plans for the next day and we soon fell asleep on our first night in the Scottish Highlands.

 

Day 2

We woke up to find the car had completely frozen overnight –  a clear sign we were in the North. After breakfast and a quick defrost, we were soon on our way towards Inverness, where our next sleepover would be. Our first stop was a few kilometres north of Fort William at the Nevis Range Mountain Resort, better known as a regular stop on the Mountain Bike Downhill World Cup circuit.

 

Ben Nevis, UK’s highest mountain, was hiding in the clouds, but we got a good look at the rest of the resort which was quite a bit bigger than expected.

We turned right at Spean Bridge to avoid the Great Glen route (we planned on driving it on our way back) and went toward Aviemore, passing Loch Laggan, part of a giant hydroelectric project from the 1920’s. Since we had time to burn, we followed the signs for Cairngorm Mountain Railway and soon found ourselves at the foothill of another ski resort in the middle of a snow storm. We shrugged, put on all the clothes we had and boarded the train. A brief journey later, we were at the top of a 1100-metre mountain in proper winter conditions with people casually skiing in 60+ kph winds. Since the mountain is completely barren, wooden fencing had to be erected along the ski slopes to prevent the wind from blowing away all the snow. Quite a sight.

 

Going down, we stopped at an abandoned part of the ski resort, with remains of a chairlift which actually seemed to be in a pretty decent location (googling the events later revealed that its closure was quite controversial, as the resort lost a lot of skiable area, especially in the later season). Well, at least decaying ski lifts reminded us of home. :)

 

We stopped at Loch Morlich on our drive down, a sinister lake (I imagine it’s quite busy in the summer) with a great mountain backdrop.

 

An hour later, we arrived in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. We parked by the river just outside the city centre and went wandering around. We found a decent place to grab a bite called Filling Station (minus points for refusing to cook the burger to medium rare, apparently health regulations require them to overcook the meat. Unbelievable.).

With plenty of daylight left, we strolled west towards the locks on the Caledonian Canal, a waterway connecting Inverness and Fort William through a complex series of locks and interconnecting lakes. I doubt it’s still much in use though, since its size makes it suitable only for smaller vessels and we never saw a single boat on the lakes (other than tourist ones on Loch Ness).

We passed St Andrew’s Cathedral on our way back to the car and drove to our place for the night – cozy Druid House in the suburbs. Watching the evening news was quite a shock when we learned of that day’s attacks in Westminster, and we couldn’t help but wonder what the increased airport security would be like on our way back.

 

 

Day 3 – Road to Skye

Business as usual – a hearty breakfast and a quick jump in the car. We went northeast along the coast to check out Fort George, a huge fortress from the Jacobite era which is still used by the British Army. Amazing piece of history, especially if you’ve been watching Outlander. :D

 

 

We were definitely excited for the next leg of the trip, since our next destination was the Isle of Skye. We passed Loch Ness and of course we had to stop at its visitors centre, which provided a pretty decent history lesson in exploration of the lake. Surprisingly few “Nessie is real!!!1” exclamations.

Just up the road from Drumnadrochit is Urquhart Castle, situated on a small hill overlooking the lake. It had a turbulent history which ended when its owners got fed up with constant raids and decided to abandon the castle by blowing up the whole damn thing. Fortunately, a lot of the castle has been preserved, along with the huge Grant Tower which housed the living quarters.

 

We continued past Fort Augustus and Invergarry, stopping at Aberchalder to check out the amazing Bridge of Oich, a fascinating suspension bridge. It’s hard to believe this tiny bridge once carried all the main road traffic until 1932.

The road past Loch Garry is breathtaking, especially when climbing over the hills and passing Loch Loyne below. A bit later we noticed a huge dam on our left and of course we had to check it out – it turns out it’s called Cluanie Dam and fortunately the fence was unlocked, so we did a bit of trespassing and got onto the dam itself. The water was perfectly calm with an impeccable reflection of the mountain on the other side – it was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen.

 

We stopped at Glen Shiel next, a beautiful valley and the scene of a famous battle in the 18th century. We climbed the nearby hill to find a better viewpoint (getting ankle deep in mud in the process, wearing only skate shoes), only to witness two stags casually passing under us, not even 20 metres away. My long lens had naturally stayed in the car, so the cropped 50 mm view makes it a nice challenge to find the camouflaged deer in the photo below. :)

 

Moving on, past the fascinating Eilean Donan Castle (we saw a few buses on the parking lot so we didn’t bother) through Kyle of Lochalsh and we found ourselves driving over the huge Skye Bridge. The approach ramp is a lot steeper than it looks – I was glad we were in a rental car since mine would have struggled quite a bit to get to the top. And just like that, we were officially on Skye!

Soon we arrived in Broadford, found a petrol station and continued to Portree with a full tank. The road hugged the coastline, with hills (more jagged than we’ve seen on the mainland) ever present on the opposite side. We stopped in Portree for a quick dinner and, as night fell, continued towards our Tor View B&B with a bonkers location on a hill overlooking the Portree Bay. Our host, Murdo, proved as incredible as the house location itself, giving us great tips on how to spend our next days on the island and, as we found out the next morning, he brings breakfast to your room so you can enjoy it while looking at one of the best views on Skye. Thanks, Murdo!

Day 4

There was a long day ahead of us, so we said goodbye to Murdo and his dog Poppy – first stop was to the north at the Old Man of Storr, a crazy rock formation with an excellent view from the top. Clouds were laying low as we ascended the trail and we could barely see the rocks – fortunately the weather slowly cleared as we reached the top of the rocks and we had a clear view to the east with Isle of Raasay in the background.

 

Next stop was Kilt Rock just off the main road – a nice viewpoint with cliffs and a huge waterfall. Great for birdwatching, we were told (neither of us cares much for birds, anyway, so we moved on).

 

A few miles ahead, we turned left and climbed into the hills till we reached a big car park and set our foot into Martian country – the Quiraing. It truly is mind-blowing, even in late March when spring isn’t yet in full effect – I imagine it’s even more surreal in April or May. A must-see! We trekked for about two hours in high winds which was quite exhausting. The views were worth every moment of it though.

 

Top tip – the Quiraing’s best features are just a 20-minute walk from the car park, no need to go further.

 

 

Continuing past Kilmaluag (the norhern tip of Skye), through Uig and turned west towards Dunvegan. Since Easter marks the official season start, Dunvegan Castle was sadly still closed, so we went a bit further along the Dunvegan Bay and found a colony of seals (or sea lions, I can’t tell them apart) sunbathing on a nearby island. We were soon spotted and a few of them got a bit closer as they checked us out. Since neither of us had seen a seal outside of a zoo before, it was mesmerizing.

 

We then embarked on an epic quest of finding a grocery store to stock up on supplies for the night (while realizing Google doesn’t know much about local grocery stores in the remote areas of Skye – who would have guessed?!), driving around for a good hour until realizing we had passed one in Dunvegan at the very start. Shit happens :)

 

Driving towards the very western edge of the isle, we passed Glendale and Milovaig till we reached Neist Point. This is arguably one of the most beautiful places on Skye – a small peninsula with sheer vertical cliffs on one side and a large lighthouse on its very tip. We went down the footpath past the remains of a small cable car (probably used to bring supplies to the lighthouse) and walked to the lighthouse. There are a few cabins next to the tower itself, and once upon a time they were even used as a B&B (what an experience that must have been!). Nowadays though, it stands abandoned, with mattresses and furniture still inside the cabins. We explored around, finding the remains of a huge fog horn and even a concrete footpath (with a pipeline alongside) to the shore, where the crumbling remains of a dock and a loading crane silently speak of better times when the lighthouse was still manned and boats were used to bring the supplies (probably oil for the light, other stuff was usually brought in over land).

 

As the light faded, we went up the cliffs to find a nice view of the lighthouse and the cliffs and managed to snap some long exposure photos. Not an easy task without a tripod and accompanied by freezing winds. We didn’t have a place booked for the night, but there was a cunning plan on our minds. We simply reclined the car seats and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in the middle of nowhere – no humans around for miles. Incredible.

I woke up in the middle of the night and went for a quick walk around – no light pollution whatsoever meant that the sky was full of stars and there was a whitish glow along the horizon (we read somewhere later that aurora borealis in northern Scotland usually looks white, so that might’ve been it). I’ve never seen anything like it.

That night, we probably had the best accommodation in all of Skye. :)

 

Day 5

We woke up to an amazing sight – right in front of us was a rocky hill rising straight from the sea, pinky skies behind it, with clouds forming behind its peak as the wind blew across it. It was freezing outside (high winds didn’t help much), but we were fine inside the car with seat heating turned to the max, so we simply laid back and enjoyed the view.

 

It was time to go – we were supposed to return to Glasgow by nightfall, but there was no chance we would be taking the direct route. We left Neist Point and drove to Talisker Bay – a beautiful beach basking in the morning light, full of sheep and rabbits. And no human in sight. Nirvana.

 

We then continued south along the coast to stop at Glenbrittle and its Fairy Pools, an amazing sight at the foot of the Cuillin mountains (if the name Danny MacAskill doesn’t ring a bell, take a look at this).

 

Soon we were back on the main road, thus completing a round trip of nothern Skye. At Broadford we turned right once again and took a scenic route to the little fishing village of Elgol as the road came to end. Excellent views of the Cuillin. We had a lunch break in Broadford – incredible fish and chips at the Waterfront, they definitely had that homemade vibe.

 

Long drive up ahead since we had to be back in Glasgow that evening, but we decided to take the long way round. Tracing our steps almost back to Fort William, but we took a left at Spean Bridge (like we did when going to Inverness) and went east. We were soon past Perth (and thus out of the Highlands). Passing Stirling, we left the motorway to stop at Falkirk and checked the modern version of water locks – the Falkirk Wheel. Of course the visitors centre was closed by the time we got there, but the gate was still open so we could stroll around the canal as we watched in awe. A true engineering marvel – I wish I could see it in action one day. Time to leave for Glasgow then – we jumped back on the motorway and returned the car back at the airport (we wouldn’t need it anymore since we would stay in Glasgow), and a quick bus ride later (I can highly recommend the 500 line – Airport Express) we found ourselves in central Glasgow in front of our hotel.

 

David, an ex-colleague of Bojč, is a Scotsman and had moved back to UK a few months earlier, so he agreed to come to Glasgow for the weekend (with his Slovenian girlfriend) and we met them at a pub just outside the centre. A band called Dodgy Ground was providing the entertainment as we got familiar with the local drinking scene – Tennents is a pretty decent beer and not too expensive, so we quickly agreed on that, and almost every bar we visited had a “Malt of the Month” promotion for around £ 2.50 – it was excellent every time, and we never even bothered to ask what it was. I was definitely liking this country.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves in a communist themed club called The Bloc, and around 3.30 AM we finally managed to call it a night.

 

Day 6

Match day! We woke up slightly hungover and in need of some greasy food to calm the stomach, so we stumbled to the nearest Subway. There we experienced a slight language barrier – the girl behind the counter was definitely a local and she spoke in something that definitely wasn’t English.  She had to repeat everything three times before we figured out what she was asking us. Fun.

We met David in Mateja at the fan base for Slovenian supporters (set up in an Irish bar in downtown Glasgow – we enjoyed the irony) and were pleased to see that David didn’t look that well either. :) We soon got fed up with accordion music and drunk Slovenians, so we took a cab towards the stadium, found a place to eat, and met some of David’s football friends at a nearby pub.

The kick-off time was nearing, so Bojč and I left early for the stadium and soon found ourselves in a steady stream of football fans. At least we knew we were going the right way. The sound of bagpipes was blasting from the stadium and could be heard long before we caught our first glimpse of Hampden Park, Scotland’s national stadium. There were 700 Slovenian supporters stuffed in a tiny sector high in the corner which was more than we had expected, but the Scots clearly don’t appreciate Sunday evening match times – by kickoff, the stadium was barely half-full. The match itself was far from interesting, with both teams content in taking a 0-0 tie from the early minutes until Scotland scored right before the end. At least David was happy …

 

Day 7

Last full day in Scotland. We still had to buy some whisky so we found The Good Spirits store – knowledgeable staff, decent prices and huge choice of liquor. I treated myself to the Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 57 (a lot of whisky for 55 Euros or so) and of course I’m drinking it as I’m writing this post.

Time to check out the public transportation for a change, so we boarded the train to Stirling. There we found a bus to the Wallace Monument and refreshed our facts on William Wallace (which, as with anyone who’s seen Braveheart, are quite distorted). The monument itself is definitely worth the money, with great exhibitions and an amazing view of Stirling from the top deck.

 

We saw the huge Stirling Castle overlooking the town from the monument, so we headed there next. The complex is enormous, and even though some of it was being renovated for the upcoming season, it took us a few hours to get around. Probably the most fascinating exhibition are the Unicorn Tapestries – an epic undertaking to reverse-engineer and recreate seven huge tapestries from the 1500s that once decorated the Queen’s Inner Hall (originals are now kept at the Met in New York). Worth a visit.

 

We then took a train to Edinburgh for a quick walk around – no time to get to the castle, so we went past the Scott Monument to the St Mary’s Cathedral, went for a pint and boarded the train back to Glasgow. We were planning on eating big that night, as we had picked the Butchershop to go for a couple of steaks. The late hour sadly meant we were left starving as the kitchen had closed barely minutes before. :( Oh well, just another reason to come back one day.

 

Final words

All in all, Scotland was a revelation! Not completely unlike Ireland, only with proper mountains. The roads are a bit better, especially single-lane ones – in Ireland they are lined with low stone walls which make passing quite challenging, while Scottish roads have lots of designated overtaking points.

We were pleasantly surprised by kind people everywhere we went, and we were blown away by their politeness and constant apologizing, even when it was clearly us who were at fault or in the way. Scotland must be the Canada of Europe.

Skye is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and the night spent on Neist Point was the highlight of the trip that I’ll never forget.

 

I’m definitely going back!

*Special thanks to Bojč for letting me use some of his photos!