After spending a few days hiking in the Lake District in the England, we drove north to Scotland to continue our trip through the United Kingdom. Avoiding a stop in Gretna Green (the elopement capital of the UK), we drove north around Glasgow, past the beautiful Loch Lomond and Glencoe, and into the Highlands to our AirBnB just outside Fort William.
The Scottish Highlands
Fort William had been one of Trevor’s favorite places when he backpacked through the UK (in his younger years), and he’d once spent a week vacation in February here on a Scottish Winter Mountaineering course before he succumbed to the physical inactivity of the investment banking world. Unfortunately, the town itself is more run down than he remembered, although the surrounding scenery remains just as stunning. Fort William is also a great base to explore the Highlands, and allows for easy daytrips to the Isle of Skye, Inverness/Loch Ness, and Loch Lomond.
The original plan was for us to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. But with clouds and rain forecast, and Ben Nevis being quite dangerous if you lose visibility, we decided not to. Instead, our first day was spent hiking the North Face of Ben Nevis trail, which brings you up the valley under the sheer north face of Ben Nevis to a mountain rescue cabin. The hike started steep, but then leveled out while providing views back over Fort William with Ben Nevis towering above you.
Isle of Skye
The next day, we planned a trip to the Isle of Skye. Last time Trevor was there, it rained every day for a solid week, so we were lucky to have a beautiful, sunny day this time. To mix things up, we took the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye in the morning and explored the island all the way up to the north tip past Uig. The views all along the drive were breathtaking, and we got a good peek at the Old Man of Storr on the way back south. After a short scenic hike in Kyleakin, we took the Skye bridge back to the mainland and stopped at Eilean Donan Castle before returning to Fort William.
Our next day trip was to Inverness and Loch Ness. Despite keeping our eyes out, we didn’t spot the world famous monster, Nessie – we’re skeptical it really exists. 😉 On the way to Inverness, the big attraction is the ruins of Urquhart Castle, right on the shores of the Loch. True to the British goal of making things a little bit less convenient than necessary, the parking lot was tiny (picture a half dozen cars constantly circling between the one-lane parking area and the highway, hoping to find someone leaving), and the admission price was high. So we parked on the side of the road, took some pictures of the castle for free, and continued on our way.
Inverness itself is much bigger than Fort William, so it had more shopping and eating options. Many people use it as a base, but unfortunately it is a bit further out of the way and doesn’t have the same “highlands” feel as Fort William. With a great riverfront, and plenty of pedestrian streets, it’s definitely worth a day of exploring though. We highly recommend the Scotch & Rye restaurant, which had a great food and drink menu including some popcorn haggis!
On our last day in the Highlands, we hiked to the Steall Waterfall, which is one of the best short walks in Scotland. A short and easy hike through the scenic Nevis Gorge, the hardest part was getting to the starting point, down busy single lane roads. The waterfall was nice though!
We were lucky to get as much good weather as we did. The Highlands are notoriously rainy, so the fact we fit in several hikes and day trips without getting drenched was a big win in our books. The scenery is stunning, the people are friendly, and the haggis is plentiful – what more could you want?
After a 3 hour drive from Fort William, we arrived in Edinburgh. You can’t really see Scotland without checking out Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful cities in the UK.
We were lucky enough that Christine’s parents, who had been vacationing themselves in Ireland, flew into town to join us for a couple days of exploring, eating, and the not-so-occasional pint.
Our itinerary purposely got us to Edinburgh after the famous annual Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. The city was still busy, but nothing like it had been only a few days earlier.
The tourist centre of the city is based around the Royal Mile. Despite what Christine’s father may think, it’s not actually a street named the Royal Mile, but a series of streets connecting the royal palaces of Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle. The street is filled with souvenir shops, tartan/kilt shops, whisky bars, pubs, the occasional busker, and lots and lots of tourists. But it’s really a must see! We highly recommend the tour at Mary King’s Close for a glimpse into what it would have been like to live in Edinburgh as a local peasant in the 1600’s. Also recommended is The World’s End pub for surprisingly great food and beer (and NZ Sauvignon Blanc for Christine).
The Royal Mile leads you to the castle. Buy your tickets in advance to avoid the massive lines. The castle itself is expensive and crowded, but is another can’t-miss. The castle casts an imposing presence on the city, and from the walls you get great views as far as the Firth of Forth and Arthur’s Seat. Plus you get to see the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny as well as explore several other museums within the castle.
The only downside, as always in the UK, was the weather. Most of Scotland was cool and somewhat wet. But it’s the UK so what do you expect? Suck it up, buttercup!
From Edinburgh we caught the overnight train down to London for a last few days with relatives on the east coast of England before flying to Slovenia. We both were struck by how much the UK felt like home to both of us. It felt like a normal vacation – probably because we were visiting friends and family and staying in guesthouses rather than AirBnBs for the most part. It wasn’t as expensive as we expected (although nothing seems all that expensive after Iceland).
But we’re looking forward to getting back to our true backpacking ways, and chasing the warmer weather, in Slovenia.