What Scotland lacks in size, it more than makes up for it with its raw, natural beauty. Whether it’s the sprawling pine forests, heather-filled glens or dreamy mountain peaks, you’ll always find a reason to fall head over heels in love with this place!
The sheer amount of areas to see and explore means that if you want to truly experience Scotland, you have to take it slow. Hire a car, hop on a bike (motorised or otherwise) and cruise at your own pace – after all, in a country this pretty the journey is a joy in itself! But how often is it that we have 2 weeks or more to spend driving around? Not all that likely when you’re busy working! If you only have, say, one or two nights in Edinburgh in the middle of a busy itinerary and are still pining for the Highlands, then there are several companies that offer day tours up north.
So, if you’re a first timer and you’re tight when it comes to time, day trips are a great option – you don’t have to worry about planning and you can afford to have one or two (or three…) drams along the way without having to decide which one of you is the designated driver. I had a wee adventure in Edinburgh myself (2 nights) and decided last-minute to book one of these tours, just to give it a go. I admit, I’m very partial to a good whisky – hence why I went for the Loch Ness, Glencoe, Highlands & Whisky Tour offered by Ness Buss, the only tour that goes all the way up to Loch Ness and gives you time to get behind the scenes at a distillery. It was a given!
Before I go on about what we saw on the road, let’s talk a little about the tour itself. For the 12 hour journey, the price came to £49 per person. This isn’t including small extras such as the guided tour at the distillery or the short cruise along Loch Ness – these cost £8/£10 and £13 per person respectively. But it certainly was money well spent! All you need to bring with you is a day’s spending money, a waterproof jacket (you never know…), a bottle of water and some comfy shoes! I was even provided with a little packed lunch as well which was lovely.
The bus will have departed Edinburgh by 8am, so you’ll be picked up from your departure point a little earlier than that. There were 4 places meeting points across the city. I opted to get on at the first stop over at Leith – while you do have to be there a little earlier (7:30am), it does come with the advantage of having the best choice of seats. The bus arrived right on schedule, and since I was the only solo traveller on the tour, our driver even let me go shotgun at the front!
Stirling & the Deanston Distillery
After a quick drive through Edinburgh picking up the rest of the travellers along the way, it wasn’t long until we were on the road, travelling on the M9 towards our first stop, the Deanston Distillery in Doune. Though the scenery along the beginning of the motorway wasn’t anything super special, we did pass some interesting sights along the way. To the left of the motorway we were able to catch glimpses of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. We even drove past the famous Kelpies, massive statues that were dedicated to horses and their role in agriculture and industry throughout Scotland’s history.
A little later on, the viewers were slowly starting to get hillier and hillier, and soon enough we passed Stirling, the first real mountains coming into view in the distance. By this point the weather was slowly starting to get stormy – clouds were already starting to wisp around the hill tops and the Wallace Monument looked very impressive perched up on its hill.
The distillery at Doune is in a lovely location by the waters of the River Teith, which served as a historic boundary to the Highlands. After an interesting tour and explanation of the distilling process, we had time for a quick bite to eat at the café before the real fun began! It’s law in Scotland that no alcohol can be served before 10am, so as soon as it was time, the guide popped his head round the door and called us all over for the tasting. For a tenner I got to try two different whiskies, a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old. Not a bad way to start the day…
Loch Lomond & the Trossachs
The whisky certainly perked me up by this point! When we left Doune we were really starting to get into the true Highlands now. We drove on through the village of Callander, nestled in lush pine-fringed valleys on the outskirts of the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. We saw the first of many lochs we’d see along the way – Loch Lùbnaig. It may be a little on the smaller side compared to others, but it was a perfect introduction to the Highlands proper. The 5km-long loch slowly curved its way around the valley, hence the name (lùbnaig being theScottish Gaelic for “crooked”). Either side is flanked by mountains and every now and then you’d get glimpses of the wicked views as you navigate the winding roads. The fog and mist made it even more beautiful!
We briefly passed the head of Loch Earn before heading along Glen Ogle, a narrow valley with hiking paths left behind by shepherds and lots of tiny streams flowing down the sides, and we cruised along the A82 up past Tyndrum before leaving the national park to the north.
Once we passed Bridge of Orchy, the glens suddenly widened up. Forests became more sparse and the landscapes more exposed. We made a brief stop at a viewpoint overlooking Loch Tulla, the “low-lying water” as the tour guide explained. In the distance, the peaks of the Black Mount Range looked very moody. We enjoyed a few moments of peace and quiet before the rain came in again – we were soon headed over the hills for our next stop.
We got back on the A82, up and over the hill, and as we got to the top we entered a glen that was absolutely huge – and completely empty. Almost like a lunar landscape, the guide said. Just clusters of wild heather, grass, and the odd lonely cottage tucked up against some pines for shelter. Eventually I saw two ranges of craggy mountains leading into a deep and narrow valley. They looked almost black in the distance – the weather had mostly been grey and dull, but now the rain was really bucketing down and clouds were swirling all around the rock faces. As soon as I saw them, I knew exactly where we were.
Out of all of the places in the Highlands you can drive through, Glencoe is one place that really does stay with you – not just because of the scenery, but because of the atmosphere. The guide explained that its nickname, the Valley of Tears, had two meanings. After rainfall, lots of streams and brooks come to life and create gorgeous little waterfalls, almost as if the peaks themselves were weeping. And of course this quiet, pristine corner of Scotland was also home to one of the bloodiest events in Scottish history. You can’t help but feel very small.
The Great Glen
As reluctant as I was to leave Glen Coe, we still had just over half of the tour to go! As you come out of the glen you eventually reach the banks of Loch Leven, where we crossed the bridge at Ballachulish and headed inland along Loch Linnhe. One great thing about the Highlands is the way the weather brings out all sorts of colours on the mountains and hills – a break in the clouds in the distance would light up patches of the hills, showing different shades of browns, oranges, greens and splashes of purple.
We passed through Fort William as the so-called Great Glen opened up to our left. We would’ve seen the peak of Ben Nevis too if the weather was a little clearer, but our guide said there are only a few days in the year when it isn’t hidden by clouds! We passed Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, following the Caledonian Canal to our next port of call.
Fort Augustus & Loch Ness
It was an easy cruise along the road to the lovely village of Fort Augustus, huddled up at the westernmost end of Loch Ness. There were all sorts of cute cottages, gift shops and a gorgeous monastery that had been converted into luxury accommodation, and the village pier serves as the starting point of a lot of cruises along the loch itself. Here’s a little tip from me though – since the village is so small and several tour companies stop off here, you can imagine that it does get a little busy sometimes! So, to escape the crowds, be sure to head towards the monastery or the Boathouse restaurant. From there, follow shores of the loch away from the canal. You’ll find tiny little pebbly beaches where you can enjoy great views of the valley – the perfect picnic spot in my opinion. The waves were so gentle that they hardly made a sound! Just remember about the midgies if you’re going in summer!
After our lunch stop at Fort Augustus, we went back on ourselves along the Great Glen before turning off at Spean Bridge, where we stopped off at the Commando Memorial – a great place to soak up views of the Ben Nevis range.
The Cairngorms National Park
After Glen Coe, the Cairngorms were another place that really knocks your socks off. It’s the largest national park in Scotland and definitely the most remote and rugged of them all. If you love scenic drives, this is one of the best in the whole of the UK. If you ever come here, then be sure to stop off at the Pattack Falls. The layby looks pretty inconspicuous and the falls themselves are a bit small, but if you take the steeper path up the cliff you’ll see a narrow, rocky gorge carved by the river. The forest and nature all around made lovely little place to stop off at and enjoy the peace and quiet.
We joined the A9 and slowly drove back down south towards Edinburgh. And believe me when I say this road is probably one of the most spectacular in Scotland. The sheer remoteness and size of the mountains makes it a real feast for the eyes! You’ll pass Dalwhinnie, which is a tiny little village with cottages huddled up against the elements. You’ll easily spot the distinctive spires of the Dalwhinnie Distillery (which, by the way, produces excellent whiskies!). It’s the highest distillery in the world, situated at a whopping 1,154 feet above sea level. If you ever have the time, be sure to stop off here to try a dram, or even spend the night in the village if you love your hiking. There’s lots of hill-walking and munros to conquer in the Cairngorms, making it pretty much heaven for any and all outdoorsy types.
Pitlochhry, Perthshire & the Forth Bridge
We eventually came out of the Cairngorms at the lush hills of Perthshire, stopping off briefly at the little town of Pitlochry for some snacks and coffee before setting off on the homeward stretch of the journey. The village itself is pretty small, but there’s lots of lovely houses and pretty streets that makes it a nice place to see if you’re driving that way anyway -and it’s great for picking up a few gifts for the folks back home too. The A9 would take us right back to Edinburgh, so we stuck to the route to make up for a bit of lost time, taking us past Perth and Scone, where the famous Stone of Destiny came from. Perthshire is another lovely place to be mind you! Not as mountainous as the Highlands a little further north, but the valleys and forests were great to drive through.
As one last final bit of sightseeing before reaching Edinburgh again we crossed the Firth of Forth – we had a full view of the legendary Forth Bridge and Queensferry way down below! An amazing end to a long but stupidly fun day out – though I have to admit I was starting to look forward to cosying up in bed by this point…
I arrived back at my hotel in Edinburgh at around 9pm – a tiny bit behind later than the tour guide originally wanted, but that was hardly something I could complain about! He even went out of his way to drop me off close to my hostel I was staying at along Leith Walk. In the space of around 13 hours we had driven around 300 miles and saw some of Scotland’s most famous sights – all in one day!
Now, I still don’t think that you can compare this to a true road trip around the country at all. But – and this is a big but – if you want to get a really good sense of what it’s like up in the Highlands and you only have the one spare day, then this is a really good option for you, especially if you don’t really know what to plan into an itinerary. The tour guide charmed the pants off of everyone and was telling us all sorts of facts and stories along the way – and yes, there was a sing-a-long to the Proclaimers!The extra special touch to an already amazing tour we were on. :)
So there you have it! Tiring work doing all that exploring mind you, but for the views alone it was so, so so worth it! Definitely check out Ness Buss Tours if this is sounding like your cup of tea – they offer different itineraries such as the Highland Lochs, Stirling & Whisky tour as well as a 3-day trip to the Isle of Skye.