With our September trip to Canada cancelled (thanks Covid...) we went looking for some rugged wilderness that didn't require a flight, and found it in the remote beauty of the Scottish Highlands.
From the Cairngorms National Park to Loch Ness, stunning hikes, historic castles and battlefields and a whiskey tasting tour, here is our epic 7 day road trip through the Scottish Highlands.
We started the trip with a bang but challenging ourselves to climb the 2nd largest peak in the UK, Ben Macdui. Only 30m shorter than touristy Ben Nevis, we hardly saw a soul on the paths which made for a much nicer climbing experience!
It's about an 11 mile round trip up and down, and took us about 6 hours. Pack lots of high energy/protein snacks (peanuts, jerky), water, chocolate and lunch, as well as layers and waterproofs. While the car park might be sunny, you climb above the cloud line which became very cold and damp! We carried waterproof trousers and coats in our backpacks that we put on before we walked into the drizzly cloud, which helped keep us warm, plus a microfleece and warm hat. Hiking boots will also help support your ankles as you climb!
Loch Ness is so deep that you could fit the entire world's population in it 3 times... who knows what might be hiding in the depths?
Today we rested our legs with a less walk-y, more tourist-y day . It's an easy hour and a half drive from Grantown on Spey to Loch Ness - keep and eye out for red squirrels en route! We stopped to see the Falls of Foyers, a pretty waterfall that's a steep but short walk down from the road.
There are a couple of boat companies that offer boat trips on the loch. We went with Cruise Loch Ness who operate from the picturesque village of Fort Augustus. It has a radar screen that you can watch as you head out on the water, in case it picks up signs of any mysterious creatures down in the deep dark water... Our boat definitely picked up something which was intriguing. We couldn't help but wonder if the same footage on the radar screen is used for each trip, but it's more fun to suspend disbelief. Until proven otherwise, that was definitely Nessie!
Fort Augustus is halfway between Inverness and Fort William on the 60 mile long Caledonian Canal, and has an impressive staircase-like system of 5 locks. We grabbed a Highland ice cream and wandered along them before heading back to the lochside to enjoy the beautiful views.
After driving around the west side of the Loch, past the impressive ruins of Urqhart Castle, we reached the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. They have a really cool exhibition using state-of-the-art multimedia about the geological history of the Loch, and the myths surrounding its famous resident, the Loch Ness Monster. The gift shop sells anything you could ever want with Nessie on it.
If you're following the itinerary so far, we hope you brought your wetsuit, because after spending the day on and around the Loch, it's time for you to get IN it! In all seriousness, the water temperature never really gets above 5 degrees, so we would recommend wearing a wetsuit and staying close to shore. A lot of the loch is inaccessible from the road because of high rocky walls, so keep driving, park in Dores, round past Inverness, and enter the water safely and easily from Loch Ness Beach.
That evening back in Grantown on Spey, we treated ourselves to a warming fish and chip supper from the fantastic Royal Fish Bar and a wee dram in the Ben Mhor hotel bar.
Time for another hike, this time around stunning Loch an Eilein in the Cairngorms National Park. This truly felt like what we imagined Canada to look like - the towering pine trees of Rothiemurchus forest reflected perfectly in the dark glassy surface of the loch. We extended the route by also walking around nearby Loch Gamhna and following finger posts along walking trails in the forest before looping back round to Loch an Eilein carpark.
We saw bullfinches, woodpeckers and red squirrels, and the scenery was just breath taking. The hike was nice and long, but largely flat, so not as taxing as Ben Macdui.
We started the day with a hearty breakfast at the Grantown diner and takeaway. We recommend the breakfast hash - diced potatoes fried with black pudding, Cairngorms bacon and onions, topped with a fried egg and LOTS of cheese. Sooo good!
We spent the morning at Zip Trek Park Aviemore, a series of exhilarating high wires through beautiful pine forest. We had a great time whizzing through the trees, sometimes at great heights! Sadly it was too windy to do the last wire, which is 500m long but much more exposed as it is over open land rather than forest. This means in anything but totally calm weather it's a no go due to health and safety. Disappointing, but the other 12 wires were so much fun.
That afternoon we went on a scenic road trip taking in Culloden battlefield (free to visit, the visitor centre/exhibition has an entry fee), Cawdor Castle (of Macbeth fame) and ending up at blustery, beautiful Nairn Beach. Having won a Scotland Best Beach Award for 23 years in a row, Nairn Beach has golden sand at one end, and rockpools at the other.
From here it's an easy half hour drive back to Grantown on Spey, where we spent the evening playing pool and enjoying the fire in the local pub, the Claymore Bar.
Today we did a full lap of Cairngorms National Park.
We booked a guided tour and tasting at the Dalwhinnie Distillery which was VERY high on David's Scottish bucketlist. The tour took us around the stills and barrel stores of the distillery and taught us all about the process of making whiskey, before returning to the bar lounge where we enjoyed 4 different whiskeys, each with a complimentary chocolate. Brilliant! As Emma was the designated driver, we were very impressed that they provided little bottles for her to put her whiskey measures in to takeaway. This meant she could taste them with everyone else but still drive safely.
After Dalwhinnie, we drove around the southern most reaches of the Cairngorms through some astonishing mountain scenery, to the village of Braemar. It has the 14th century ruins of Kindrochit castle, a Highland Games exhibition centre (currently closed due to Covid) and the grand Fife Arms Hotel, and just outside of the village is Braemar Castle. Compact and square, it's currently closed to the public, but is worth pulling over in the free carpark and looking at the outside. Once it reopens, it has 12 furnished rooms full of historic artefacts, so if you're visiting in a post covid future, definitely go in!
15 minutes up the road is the Queen's holiday home, Balmoral. We looked in the gift shop and at the front gates, but time permitting you can book a guided tour if the Royals aren't there.
Continue up and round Cairngorms National park to Grantown on Spey to complete the loop!
Top tip... download some Bond themes and play them loud as you drive through the jawdropping scenery - this is Skyfall country after all!
Today we packed up our hotel room, left Grantown on Spey, and drove south to the village of Balhama on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Situated in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, the other one of Svotland's two national parks, the car peak here serves at the trailhead for Conic Hill - a steep climb but the views from the top are astonishing. Below you lies Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain, with a herd of Highland Cattle (or Coos) in the foreground. About as Scottish as it gets!
Loch Lomond is very beautiful, but it felt more touristy, more like Lake Windemere. The 3 hours drive south meant that we had left some of the wild and ruggedness of the norther Highlands behind, and we missed that a bit. It was also SO MUCH BUSIER!! It almost felt pre-pandemic levels of tourists, where as the Cairngorms were very quiet.
We spent the night back over the border in England at Carlisle Travelodge, cheap and cheerful, perfect for breaking the journey on the long drive south.
From Carlisle we drove to Birdoswald Roman Fort, the impressive 1900 years old remains of a Roman fort and the longest remaining stretch of Hadrian's Wall that you can see. Run by English Heritage, there is an entry fee (about £9) and at the moment you need to book in advance in order to visit. The small museum/visitor centre gives a good history of the site, and the fort is very easy to walk around.
We spent some time walking beside Hadrian's Wall which was in amazingly good condition and stretched on and on. We had no idea such long chunks of it still existed!
As we drove on to Steel Rigg carpark in Henshaw, Northumberland, we kept seeing sections of wall and grassy bank evidence of it out of the car window. Amazing to think that it once stretched across the entire country! From Steel Rigg carpark, you can follow paths (occasionally very steep) to Sycamore Gap, apparently the most photographed tree in the UK. This beautiful single oak tree, standing by itself beside Hadrian's Wall in a dramatic swoop of the landscape, is better known as the Robin Hood Tree, after being featured in the 1991 Kevin Costner movie, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
You might recognise the tree from the scene where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman walk along the wall, past the oak, on their way to Nottingham from the South Coast. This always makes us laugh, because the walk from the south all the way up to Northumberland and then back down to Nottingham is a massive detour! Ah film making...
And that ends our itinerary!
For our Scottish road trip, we stayed in Grantown on Spey for 6 nights at Ben Mhor Hotel, a cosy guesthouse in the gateway town of the Cairngorms National Park. It has a bar with a roaring fire, free parking and a very good Thai restaurant! Grantown on Spey is a fab traditional Scottish town, with grey stone buildings, a local bakery that makes award winning pies and a brilliant pub with a fire and pool tables.
We'd also love to recommend the cosy Little Puffin restaurant, walking distance from the hotel, which served delicious local food and had a great range of local ales. We ate their twice and loved both visits.
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