Last weekend, I spontaneously decided to jet off to my favorite place in the world – Scotland. I hopped a bus to Belfast, and then a puddle-hopper to Inverness. Though the air was still brisk, the sky was blue and the wild gorse was blooming. Spring had come to the highlands.
Since I had spent my last trip to Scotland in the hubs of Glasgow and Edinburgh, I was excited to spend more time exploring the nature and history of the highlands. It was a short trip, so I opted not to rent a car, but rather decided to get out of Inverness with my favourite tour guides in the UK.
I left Inverness early Sunday morning on a day trip with Rabbie’s Tours. Our itinerary included monster hunting at Loch Ness, a visit to the iconic Eilean Donan Castle, and a glorious six hours exploring the highlights of the Isle of Skye.
We were blessed with clear skies all day, something that our tour guide believed was a Scottish miracle. She told us not to be fooled – the weather in Scotland is rainy more oft than not and can change in the blink of an eye. But the skies stayed clear for us, apart from a small drizzle during lunch in Portree. It was Easter Sunday, so maybe it was a miracle after all.
Our first stop was an overlook of the legendary Loch Ness. We stopped at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, sitting on its banks. The castle had been destroyed in the 17th century so that it couldn’t be used by Jacobite forces, but even in ruin there is a serenity to Urquhart at sunrise.
Of course, it isn’t the castle that makes Loch Ness famous, but rather the myth of what may be lurking in the waters. Because Loch Ness sits in a chasm in the Earth’s crust, there is no gradual decline into the lake’s depths. Instead, it is a sharp drop down – at its deepest point, a whole 750 feet. The peat in the land turns the waters black, and visibility in Loch Ness reaches as far as a mere foot in front of you. I found both facts chilling. Though the legend of Nessie can seem quite silly, it is easy to see why some people believed there to be something down in those depths. Something could be lurking just below you, but you wouldn’t be able to see it.
Fun fact: the first recorded Nessie sighting dates back to 565, when Saint Colomba recounted an attack by a beast in the water. Nessie generally disappeared from records then, until in 1933 the most famous (and debunked) photograph of Nessie was taken. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be seeing Nessie.
Of course, Nessie has today become less the feared monster and more an adorable creature of folly. But you can visit and decide for yourself what you believe – just keep your eyes peeled for anything unusual in the water! Just remember that Loch Ness is, ultimately, just a lake. No need to spend more than an hour or two at most here! I found our panoramic pit-stop to be sufficient enough – though many recommend taking a boat cruise around the lake.
Eilean Donan Castle
The history of Eilean Donan is not what you’d expect. Eilean Donan, which literally translates to isle of Donan, is a small tidal island that sits where Lochs Duich, Long, and Alsh meet. The castle was first founded in the 13th century, and was a stronghold for the Clans Mackenzie and Macrae. Their involvement in the Jacobite cause, however, led to the British destroying the castle in 1719.
It then lay in ruin for nearly 200 years until John Macrae-Gilstrap purchased the island in 1911 and began to renovate, because his American wife wanted to live in a castle. Tbh, same. It was completed in 1932.
Yes, you read that correctly. The most iconic castle in Scotland – the one that every tour company markets and the one you’ll find on a thousand postcards – is a fake. Over 2,000 castles in Scotland, and this is the one everyone comes to see.
But it is stunning! The bridge! The waters! The mountains of Skye looming in the distance! So don’t let the history deter you. Eilean Donan is absolutely worth the visit. I personally opted not to pay to go inside as the ambiance reflects a twentieth century residence and not the authentic one you may expect. The view from the bridge was stunning enough.
Shop jacket, jeans, and boots. Apart from kilts, Barbour jackets are the uniform of the highlands (just look at that tartan detail!) – and I highly recommend packing a good pair of wellies for exploring as it can get quite muddy!
Driving the Highlands
From Eilean Donan we made our way towards Skye. There are no words for the beauty of the highlands. It’s like there’s a new masterpiece of nature beyond every curve in the road. The waters were as still as glass and the hills were still peaked in snow. Even our guide pulled off the road once or twice for a photo op, noting again that “it never looks like this.” I guess we just got lucky.
The Isle of Skye
Crossing the Skye Bridge
The Skye Bridge is the main route onto the island, carrying visitors over the sea to Skye – a phrase from the Skye Boat Song that our guide played as we drove across. The song is about Bonnie Prince Charlie in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion and the Battle of Culloden, as he fled disguised as a woman alongside Flora MacDonald to the Isle of Skye, where he caught passage on a French ship. Although most people today know it better as the Outlander theme song, where the words have been replaced with those from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem.
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone, say could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day over the sea to Skye.
The Skye Bridge crosses Loch Alsh from the mainland’s village Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin on the island’s east coast. A ferry service traditionally carried people to and from the island until the bridge opened in 1995 to ease traffic and increase tourism.
Sligachan and the Black Cuillin Mountains
Driving along the island’s east coast, we paused in a village called Sligachan to take in the view of the Black Cuillin peaks. This mountain range stretches across Skye. The Red Cuillinn lie to the east of Glen Sligachan, while the main ridge of volcanic black hills, known as the Black Cuillin, look like something from Mordor.
We continued on, stopping in colorful Portree for lunch as an afternoon shower rolled in over the hills. In the distance, the Old Man of Storr disappeared into the fog. With nearly two hours to explore here, I grabbed a sandwich from one of the charming cafes and headed to the Lump.
My guide had recommended the Lump, a rather unfortunately named Portree secret. It’s a hidden park that isn’t on any tour guides. Follow the signs for the hospital. When you reach the medical center, take the path to the left and up the wooded hill. There’s a small tower at the top that you can climb for panoramic views over the bay. I climbed back down and made my way across the park and sat on edge of a cliff looking back towards the Black Cuillin.
After lunch, I made my way back down the Lump into town to peruse shops touting craft goods and souvenirs. I bought some vintage postcards of the Isle of Skye before sitting to listen to a young boy in full kilted garb play the bagpipes in the main square.
Portree is the largest village on the island, and guesthouse vacancy is booked for months in advance. It’s easy to see why, though, looking at the colorful facades of the buildings on the bay.
The Old Man of Storr
Fairies have long played a prevalent role on the Isle of Skye. But in Celtic folklore, fairies are not Tinker Bell. They are cunning, sly, and generally wicked. It isn’t surprising, in the highlands, that most sights in the highlands have a fairy tale behind it.
The Old Man of Storr is one of the most iconic spots on the isle. Science will tell you the odd rock formation has to do with mountainous erosion etcetera etcetera. But Scottish legend will tell you than there was once an old man and his wife who climbed the hill every day. One day, as they grew old, his wife told him to continue without her as she couldn’t make it anymore. Depressed, the old man thought of how they were growing old, and one of them would one day die before the other. In the midst of these thoughts, a fairy appeared. He offered the old man a way to stay together with his wife forever. The man eagerly agreed. And just like that, the fairy turned them into stone.
The larger rock is the Old Man of Storr, and the shorter one his wife. And if there’s one thing that you’ll learn when visiting the highlands, it’s that every story or legend generally has a sad ending.
In the northwest of Scotland lies a region known as Torridon. With a small population, it is one of the great wildernesses left in Scotland. But that’s a tour for another day. For now, we’ll appreciate the view overlooking Torridon from the Isle of Skye. The sea was so blue!
Another famous Skye landmark, Kilt Rock is a 90 m tall vertical basalt sea cliff. It earns its name from the pattern of the pleated columns, which are said to resemble the tartan on a kilt. From the viewpoint, the cliff sits to the north behind Mealt Waterfall – a 60 m tall cascade that free-falls to the Sound of Raasay below. The south coast is equally stunning, with its rocky shore curving towards the horizon.
Our last stop on Skye was a region known as the Quiraing. I personally prefer to call it something reminiscent of paradise. Green fields covered in heather sprawl under cliffs. Herds of sheep graze in the distance, running away when someone gets too close. Babbling streams run through the glen. Our guide led us to a spot unpopulated by other tourists. I wished we had more time. I wished I could capture a moment perfectly in my mind and carry it with me forever. This place was isolated, calm, serene. Everything I’d pictured the highlands to be in one sprawling field surrounded by rolling hills.
From the Quiraing, we made our way back down the coast to Kyleakin. Here, we stopped for the chance to taste the local whisky and say farewell to Skye.
Castle Maol towers over the village, although one of the walls was destroyed just last month by a lightning strike. It was the seat of Clan Mackinnon, and legend has it that in 900 the clan chief married a Norse princess who rather infamously earned the nickname ‘Saucy Mary’. Naturally, the pub in town carries the same name.
Since we didn’t make it to the famous Tallisker distillery this trip to Skye, many tried their whisky. But most of us opted to try drambuie – a scotch whisky mixed with honey, herbs, and spices. Legend has it that it was a recipe invented by Bonnie Prince Charlie himself. When Captain MacKinnon offered Charles sanctuary on Skye, he rewarded him with the recipe.
We took a different route back to Inverness from Skye. It was equally scenic, climbing through to the north through a region known as Wester Ross (no, not Westeros) before looping back down to Inverness. Of course, we couldn’t resist a pause to say hello to some highland cattle, or hairy coos. Talk about hair goals, am I right?
One panoramic viewpoint overlooked a cluster of mountain peaks known as the Five Sisters. These, naturally, had a rather depressing myth behind them too. Something about five sisters who convinced a witch to turn them into mountains to maintain their youth until five Irish princes who never actually existed came for them. If anyone knows any Scottish tales with a happy ending, please, by all means, send them my way.
We returned to Inverness after a long twelve hours and many many miles. It was a perfect taste of the highlands for those who don’t have the time or resources to rent a car. I fell more in love with Scotland than I already was (I wasn’t sure that was possible) and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to explore more of the north with Rabbie’s Tours soon.
Where’s your favorite place in Scotland?
Check out my tour vlog below!