Hairy coos, castles, and whisky - Summertime Highlands loop

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July 3rd 2009
Published: July 26th 2009
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Scottish HighlandsScottish HighlandsScottish Highlands

Thistles, mountains, and rain. (The view towards Ben Nevis from Neptune's staircase)
As our Friday afternoon flight touches down, we’re feeling excited about being in Edinburgh again. It’s our first visit back since getting engaged here in November and also in an hour or so we’ll be meeting up with James and Kylie for three day’s travel around the highlands. Can’t wait...

From the airport, the double decker bus takes us into the city centre and from its terminus at Waverley train station we head up into the old town towards our backpackers. Thinking that we know what we’re doing, we take a “short cut” and end up lugging our backpacks up what is probably the biggest staircase in the city! Luckily, the massive uphill hike takes us straight to the Royal Mile and from there it’s fairly easy going until we make it to the backpackers.

We check in, dump our luggage, and meet up with James and Kylie. The backpackers is no place for a proper catchup so we walk around the corner to find a good pub where we spend the next couple of hours trying different ales, getting updated on their trip around Europe so far and planning our next three days of travel. Before the last drinks bell rings, we finish the night in style with a round of single malts (you know, when in Rome...).

Consequently Saturday starts a little bit slow, but we tuck into breakfast before heading off to pick up the hire car and hit the road. From Edinburgh we head north across the Forth road bridge which as far as bridges go is quite impressive, but not quite as impressive as the rail bridge to our right. The rail bridge, referred to as simply the Forth Bridge, is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering and it’s understandable why this mighty structure (even if it is a little over engineered) is shown on some special edition One Pound coins.

On reaching the northern side of the Firth of Forth we take a left off the motorway onto the Fife coastal road. We head East, passing through small seaside villages, past small farms and after about 30 minutes or so we arrive at the quiet fishing village of Kinghorn.

Kinghorn is a significant stop for James and Lachlan as it was from here that their family left for Australia as free settlers in the 1850s. We park the car in the beach car park and stroll down the hill to the Parish Church. It’s out of hours so the church itself is closed, but we wander through the grounds searching the headstones in the graveyard for any potential family connections. James finds one that might be but the date on the headstone is late 1800s so it’s obviously not a direct ancestor. From the church we walk along the waterfront parade where we stop and enjoy a cup of tea and cake at the ‘Wee Shope‘ near the lifeboat station. It’s nice to be taking in the view by the beach and although we’re enjoying just chilling out we still have plenty of driving to do so we head back to the car and hit the road again.

The next stop along our coastal route is the small village of East Wemyss. It’s another important village for James and Lachlan’s family history, so we stop for a short walk along the sea front to see the caves which gives the village its name (Wemyss is derived from the Gaelic word for cave).

Now feeling in touch with our Scottish roots it’s time to head north. It takes us about
Glamis castleGlamis castleGlamis castle

Indeed what an entrance...
45 minutes to get from the shores of the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Tay and the journey takes us through beautiful farming country dotted with small villages. Dundee signals our exit from Fifeshire after which we promptly find ourselves lost.

A few correct turns later and we’re headed north again - our intended direction Glamis Castle. Much to our surprise it doesn’t really take us that long to reach the village of the same name and feeling hungry we follow the signs of food to the local pub for a late lunch. Lachlan orders venison pie and Ariana, who figures that seeing as we’re in the county of Angus, orders the beef pie.

With bulging bellies we resist the urge have a little nap and from the pub its only a couple of hundred metres later that we enter through a grand stone archway and into the grounds of Glamis Castle.

And what an entrance it is!

The mile long road to the castle slopes gently downhill, its entire length lined by huge equispaced Oak trees. Behind the Oak trees the fields, which look more like lawns, are filled with slashed summer grass
Hairy coo!Hairy coo!Hairy coo!

Grounds of Glamis Castle.
laying drying, waiting to be bailed or collected for silage.

With such an impressive entrance we can’t help but to stop for a look around. After parking the car the first thing that grabs our attention is not the massive turreted castle (which was the setting for Shakespear’s Macbeth and childhood home of the Queen Mother) but the nearby paddock of Hairy coos! Look James, hairy coos!

It’s James and Kylie’s first time to see Scottish highland cattle up close so we start our tour of the castle grounds by walking around their paddock to get a better look at them. We spot our first highland bull and in amongst his herd of cows there’s a couple of energetic balls of matted fur and fuzz which are new season calves, “ahhh so cute!”

As we walk around the edge of the paddock we take a look at our map and notice that we’re on one of the recommended garden walks so we continue on past the highland cattle. Just as we’re about to cross a small stone bridge over a stream a little furry creature bounds across the handrail and up the nearest tree. A red squirrel!
Bumble beeBumble beeBumble bee

Air traffic control had cleared him for pollen collection.
All through southern and middle England the introduced grey squirrels have all but taken over, so even though we’ve been in the UK for more than two years this is the first native red we’ve seen. And a dignified little creature he was too.

So hairy coos, red squirrels, we wonder what next?

We keep walking around through Glamis Castle‘s gardens and spot quite a few rabbits, half a dozen pheasants, but no more squirrels. After about two hours or so we end up looping back to the car and with the castle closing for the day we figure we’d better get moving.

Back on the road we head north east towards our destination for the night, the small fishing village of Stonehaven.

We’re not too far south of Stonehaven and even though its 7pm the sun is out in full and there’s not a cloud in sight. With the weather being so good we decide that we should pack in another castle for the day and we pull off the highway to check out Dunottar Castle.

Leaving the car park we take the small track down towards the sea and we soon enough spot
Dunotter castleDunotter castleDunotter castle

Yeah try and break into there!
the castle. Perched on a rocky outcrop with the North sea pounding the cliffs on three sides, Dunottar castle is in a great spot. It’s amazing to learn from our guidebook that the castle did actually change hands throughout its life - how on earth did anyone manage to storm it? We ponder this as we sit on the grassed headlands overlooking the castle, enjoying the view and warm afternoon sunshine.

From Dunotter the drive to Stonehaven only takes a few minutes and we park up outside our B&B, which is ideally situated on the old harbour. At one of the local pubs for dinner we figure that seeing that we’re on the coast it seems like a good chance to order some seafood. James orders lamb but he suffers the same case of menu envy as Lachlan and Ariana when Kylie’s plate of King Scallops is bought out. They’re absolutely massive!

Sunday morning we’re loading the backpacks into the hire car (who knew you could fit so many Aussie Black Wolf backpacks into the boot of a Peugeot 308!?) when we ask the elderly gentleman who runs the B&B what he thinks we should see today. He recommends following the road out west, going for a walk at Loch Muick, and then going to the Royal Lochnager distillery before heading on our way north. Sounds good to us.

From Stonehaven we follow the Dee river upstream as it heads back into the bulking Cairngorms. After a couple of hours driving, just when we’re wondering whether we had taken a wrong turn (given the size of the road that we’re now following), we spot the sign to Loch Muick. We take the left turn onto a windy single lane road which takes us through some rugged wooded grazing country before we cross a stock grid and suddenly all the trees are gone - in front of us is a valley covered in heather.

A couple of miles further on we arrive at a car park where we pull up, grab a water bottle, and head off down the path towards Loch Muick. Once we’re out of sight of the visitors centre we look down into the valley a spot a big buck red deer standing up to his chest in the stream spraying water everywhere as he throws his head about. On the banks of the stream is a massive herd of more than 30 red deer.

We try to get a bit closer to take a few photos but they are still a long way away and they’re watching us intently. We retreat to the track to observe the herd, when we see a small group of about eight split off and start trotting up the hillside towards us. Cool, here they come...

We find a good spot on a rock to sit and watch. The small group of deer stop short of the track and wait to pick their moment to cross between the steady stream of walkers arriving from the car park. Like a pedestrian crossing a busy road the deer pick their chance and sprint - passing at a canter over the track, past us, up the hillside and soon enough they disappear from sight altogether.

With no more deer to watch we continue along the track following it uphill for a kilometre or two. By the time we reach the top of the ridge we’ve got great views over Loch Muick below and the valley (glen) behind us. It feels like a great achievement. As Lachlan and James
Red DeerRed DeerRed Deer

Loch Muick
attempt to re-fill the water bottle from the stream of peat filtered water running down the hillside we notice the dark clouds moving in and decide we’d best be heading for the car.

Leaving Loch Muick by the same road we came in we take a left following the signs to Balmoral Castle.

It’s not much further down the road when we see the signs to Royal Lochnager distillery and so, as planned, we pull in for a look. Apparently the tours run on the hour every hour. Unfortunately we’re 10 minutes too late so we ask for a tasting instead. The staff are happy to help and accompanied by an explanation of what we’re supposed to smell and taste, we each try a Royal Lochnager malt. It’s very smooth, but according to Lachlan, not exactly his style.

After the distillery we pass the entrance to Balmoral Castle (but we can’t see the castle or Charlie anywhere) and continue to Ballater for a bite of lunch. Just as we do, the sky opens. Conveniently by the time we’re finished eating the rain has eased up and as the pub where we stopped is a bit rough, we’re happy to be back on the road again.

From Ballater the route north takes us through beautiful highlands scenery with hillsides full of heather, hardly any trees, and plenty of sheep.

In the late afternoon, just south of Inverness we turn off heading east and a little further on, down a small one lane road, we pull into our farmstay B&B.

After throwing our bags in our rooms we ask the owners whether it’s OK if we go for a walk through their farm. The answer is yes, and we enjoy a stroll through their front paddock which is holding some young highland steers. At the bottom of the paddock, in a thicket of bramble bushes, we startle a roe deer who was sleeping only a few metres in front us. It takes off and although we go in search, we eventually give up and return the way we came. Back at the B&B we get changed and walk 10 minutes up the road, past a couple of sheep fields to the local pub. We enjoy another great meal before we call it a night. It’s around 10:00pm as we walk home and the low sun has
More Coos!More Coos!More Coos!

Farmstay B&B, near Culloden battlefield.
flooded the surrounding sheep paddocks and barley fields in a stunning golden light.

We start Monday with a big breakfast at the B&B before driving literally round the corner to the Culloden battlefield - significant, as it is here where the last battle on British soil was fought in 1745. The low cloud sitting on the surrounding hilltops coupled with the early morning quietness makes it feel quite sombre and it feels like someone should be playing the last post.

From Culloden we jump back in the car and travel through Inverness and along Loch Ness. With James and Kylie keeping a close eye out for Nessie we travel the entire length of the Loch, pausing occasionally for a closer look and some photos. However, despite our keenest efforts, ney a monster is to be seen.

After Loch Ness, we pass by Loch Oich then Loch Lochy. At this point we pull off the highway in search of a lock (yes, lock, not loch). Finding the lock it disappoints us a little that the Scots resisted temptation and called it ‘Gairlochy Top Lock’ - we were actually hoping for a photo of Lachlan at Loch Lochy Lock. Oh well, not to be...

Our next stop is at the Commando monument before we turn off to take a windy narrow little back road towards Fort William. The road takes us above the Caledonian Canal and we get some fantastic views of Ben Nevis - Britain’s tallest mountain. Even though it’s mid summer we can still see patches of snow on Ben Nevis’ steep side and Kylie is most impressed. Snow!

Just before we arrive in Fort William we stop at Neptune’s staircase - a series of eight continuous locks which allows boats to transverse the 19.5 metres of height change in the Caledonian Canal. An impressive sight, but given it’s length it’s hard to take in all at once to get a real sense of scale. We find out later an interesting side fact which was that Neptune’s staircase was designed by Thomas Telford the same engineer that designed the Pontcysylte aqueduct that we saw in North East Wales with Sal last year.

Anyway we continue onto and through Fort William and as we do the rain starts to pour. We had planned to go for a walk at Glencoe, but given the weather conditions
Commando MonumentCommando MonumentCommando Monument

Near Fort William
we give it a miss and continue following the road down Scotland’s western coastline.

Our guidebook doesn’t give Oban much of a wrap but as we arrive into the town centre, set around the busy working harbour, we are all presently surprised. It is quite a pretty little town and much different in look and feel to the coastal villages that we’d visited on the east coast on Saturday. When we spot the distillery, we know where in the town we need to be and pull over to park.

Walking into the distillery we quickly find out that the tours appear to be on a similar sort of schedule as Royal Lochnager, so again we miss the tour. But having driven to Oban especially to visit the distillery, Ariana requests a tasting for us and the young bloke behind the counter is more than happy to oblige. To improve our Whiskey knowledge he not only gives us a generous taster of Oban (highlands style malt), but also a taster of a super smoky Islay malt and a 12 year old rare Speyside.

Unfortunately for James he is on the next driving shift so he only gets a small taster of each, but even so the decision is unanimous that the Speyside malt is the clear winner.

It’s mid afternoon and we’ve still got a long way still to drive, so after leaving the distillery we hit the road again. We continue heading along the coast south until we reach Loch Fyne where we turn to follow its shores eastward. What we’re looking for is the Loch Fyne restaurant.

In Nottingham, there’s a great seafood restaurant called Loch Fyne. It’s a franchise, as most things are in the UK, and the franchise all started from an oyster bar on the shores of Loch Fyne in Scotland. So in seafood terms with Scottish being a euphemism for quality we can’t pass up the chance to visit the place where it all started.

So we pass through Inveraray and at the very end of Loch Fyne we arrive just after 6pm to find the famed oyster bar, restaurant, shop and roadside stall. There are no other buildings around to note and the green hills descend into the loch - the low rain clouds are keeping the temperature down and it feels oh so Scottish. Given the time
Stirling castleStirling castleStirling castle

Robert the Bruce keeps an eye out south... to his left the Wallace monument.
we head into the restaurant for dinner. James and Kylie stick to their theme of Scallops and Lachlan and Ariana order Salmon. Well worth the drive.

Leaving Loch Fyne we bid farewell to the coast as the highway takes us into the hills on the eastern side of the Loch Lomand national park. Being early evening on a Monday night the road is fairly empty and we enjoy the views as we climb into the mountains. The sun even makes an appearance and stays with us filling the glens and lochs that we pass through in a warm light. It never ceases to amaze us how beautiful Scotland is.

It isn’t too long after leaving the hills of Loch Lomand National Park behind that we get into Bridge of Allan, just north of Stirling. We find our Hotel, which is on the main street and check in. The hotel has a Ye Olde Worlde feel about it which we like, and as it’s late we crash out.

Tuesday morning, after breakfast, we check out and drive back to Edinburgh airport. We take a few detours as we pass through the confusingly signed Stirling, but fortunately make it

Nothing quite says Europe in summer like it.
to the airport in time to drop James and Kylie off for their flight to Krakow. Even though James and Kylie have headed off, we’ve still got the car for another seven hours, so where should we go?

A 45 minute drive takes us back to Stirling and we find ourselves driving up the cobblestone road leading to the famed Castle. Apparently it has always been of strategic significance and it is said that he who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.

From the top we enjoy checking out the views - especially those over towards the Wallace monument, which gives us an idea for what we should do next...

So back into the car, we drive the long way around to the Wallace monument where from the top of the wooded hill we’re greeted with views almost as good as the castle where we’d just come from.

We’ve still got a few hours left with the car, and now having seen what we wanted in Stirling we consult our guidebook for something else worthwhile - but close. The winner is one of Scotland’s best preserved 14th century castles which is just a bit north west of Bridge of Allan. So we drive past the hotel where we stayed last night and continue up the highway before pulling into a narrow one lane road which takes us a few hundred metres to the entrance of Doune Castle. Not feeling the need to head indoors, we walk a loop of the castle before jumping back in the car to head off to our last stop of the day - the Falkirk Wheel.

The Falkirk Wheel was a building project undertaken by the British government to mark the turn of the millennium. Work had previously been done to rejuvenate two of central Scotland’s main canals but with the series of locks that once joined them defunct, the two canals were not linked. The Falkirk Wheel was built to provide this link an once again join Edinburgh and Glasgow by canal.

Before arriving, Ariana was sceptical, but as we walk across a bridge over the approaching canal and towards the wheel she concedes “Wow, that’s amazing - how on earth does it work?” We grab some lunch and sit waiting and watching as a boat enters into the lower ‘bucket’ and the great contraption rotates to lift the boat up to the top canal - all right above Ariana’s head! It’s a shame that we didn’t have an extra hour to spare as we would have lied to take a canal boat ride through the wheel ourselves, but it is awesome to see up close nonetheless.

With the excitement over, we jump back into the hire car and head back to Edinburgh to drop it off. In our four days with the car we have managed to clock up more than 700 miles, all of them full of amazing sights and fun experiences.

Our third trip to Scotland has been great fun and we get the feeling that it won’t be our last. It was of course made all the better to have been able to share it with James and Kylie.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


11th August 2009

Wot a wheel
Great read. Hard to see the people on Falkirk wheel, Must be BIG. We saw the "staircase locks" at 50km/h. Great photos yet again.
30th August 2009

hey that sounds like the trip we had

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