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My main reason for wanting to go on a Scotland road trip was Outlander. There – I said it! But if you have read the books or watched the series, you will know that is a damn good reason, albeit one a little embarrassing to come from a fully grown adult.
What or whom I was expecting to find is a story for another day, but I liked the idea of misty Highlands, men in kilts and finally becoming a whisky connoisseur if only to warm up because really who goes on a road trip in Scotland in November?
Someone who was in between Bali and South Africa apparently and in need of a good reason to bring her cashmere jerseys out of hibernation. So I set off not too optimistic I would find my personal Jamie, but was looking forward to taking a selfie with a baby Highland Cow, find Nessie, and get a smokey whiskey voice. I will tell you now that only one of these things actually happened.
Since I had never been and had limited time and couldn’t do the whole North Coast 500 (good reason to come back), I decided on a 5 day Scotland itinerary by car that was easily manageable for one person driving and would allow for some highlights I have been wanting to see: Edinburgh, Inverness – because, duh – Outlander!, Loch Ness and some Scottish Highlands scenery.
2017 was Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage & Archaeology, but honestly, each year should be Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage & Archaeology – there is just so much to see and discover. In hindsight, a 5 day Scotland itinerary wasn’t quite enough. But I can take only so much November weather and needed to start somewhere with my Scotland road trip.
A road trip in Scotland is lots of fun and roads are easy to navigate if you don’t get caught in snow (the first bits had melted just before I arrived!) and you don’t mind driving on the left. When planning a trip to Scotland I luckily had some assistance. That was just as well because when I asked the PR girl from Visit Scotland whether I needed a GPS or could just drive straight on, she laughed at me. Scotland is remote but roads are not as scarce as I thought they would be. Get a GPS or learn how to read a map!
5 Day Scotland Itinerary
Here is a map with all the stops for a 5 day Scotland itinerary:
Leith & Edinburgh
When asking where to go in Scotland you cannot miss Edinburgh. I started in Edinburgh or rather in Leith, the harbor area, which has a particular charm and is home to Malmaison, my hotel for the night. As you may know, I have a thing for odd hotels, having slept in a former prison before. Now I can add an old sailor’s home to my list – back in the day that was their home when getting on shore.
After checking in I didn’t do much except for taking a little stroll and to eat my first fish ‘n chips. Honestly, I needed all my strength to keep warm. Toto, we aren’t in Bali anymore!
Alas, I apparently was the only one – blue skies seem to imply summer for Scots and I was the only one wearing a scarf, a hat and a few layers.
Stirling & Perthshire
My first stop on my Scotland road trip itinerary was Stirling Castle. Have I mentioned that I am a history nerd? Yes indeed, so I was happy that my itinerary would have me see plenty of those.
Admittedly I was even more excited to get lost just before the castle and to end up seeing my first herd of Highland Cows. While Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s most impressive and historically important castles, the cows were my personal highlight of the day.
If you are interested in the historical locations and sights too, I recommend you get yourself a Scotland Explorer Pass which gives you discount in many places and is already saves you money if you plan to visit more than two castles.
From Stirling Castle, I drove on to Pitlochry and checked into my “hotel” for the night, the Atholl Palace Hotel. I may or may not have mentioned that I not only wanted to see castles and palaces, but maybe also sleep in one and my wish was granted.
I was interested to find out that Atholl Palace which opened in 1878 has always been a hotel or rather a spa location since its beginning. Because the surroundings are just that stunning locals and foreigners alike were keen to come here for a holiday even in the 19th century. That unfortunately also meant there were no palace ghosts, a real downside for anything that old if you ask me.
While the outside is super impressive, I thought the rooms were a bit dated and the service a bit lackluster, maybe due to a big wedding they were hosting. Fortunately, that meant plenty of men in kilts which made more than up for it.
Mind you, I didn’t spend much time in my room but made my way to the Blair Athol Distillery close by (Pitlochry is tiny so you can walk and leave the car!) – whisky tasting is a must on any Scotland itinerary!
Tours will walk you through the distillery and you learn all about whisky making, why some whiskies are smokey and others aren’t, what the angel’s share is, and how much money you could spend on a bottle if you were filthy rich. And of course, you get to taste a little. Unfortunately for me, I realized once again: good whisky is wasted on me. I am so sorry, Scotland!
With that sad realization, I was happy to learn that Scotland also has a blooming gin industry these days and many restaurants and bars will offer great new versions with specialty tonics. If you want to try my personal favorite over a great bowl of pasta head to Fern Cottage and order a Strathearn Heather Rose.
Aberdeenshire & Castle Trail
Due to the wedding, the breakfast service was a bit overwhelmed the next morning and so I decided to get snacks from the petrol station and head off to the next castle: Dunnottar Castle.
Nestled on a cliff overlooking the North Sea Coast it is quite spectacular. Even more spectacular is taking the scenic route via the Pass of Ballater to get there. It will take you an extra hour but is well worth it because here you get the Scottish Highland views you came for. After all, driving needs to be part of any road trip and luckily the roads in Scotland are well maintained.
The weather was exactly what I needed it to be.
You want a bit of mist and clouds when you go on a road trip in Scotland and this is exactly what I got minus the snow which had come down just a week prior. In case you wonder what the poles on the side of the road are – they are markings for you not to get lost if you get caught in a blizzard. I was grateful I didn’t have to test their usefulness.
Wrap up when you visit Dunnottar Castle – it is as ancient as they come with its rock foundation dating to 440 million years ago and the ruins you can visit today are a bit drafty.
Dunnottar has played an important part in Scottish history from being a medieval fortress to a strategic vantage point during the Jacobite risings. thief holes with no windows (which scared me more than alleged ghosts). Check the weather forecast before you go, while you want a few clouds for added drama in your pictures, the castle does close for safety when the weather is too inhospitable.
If you want more, there is plenty of other castles in the area. It is not called Castle Trail for nothing. I was castled out and went straight to Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and to my home for the night: Lys-Na-Greyne. Aboyne is a little village and to be honest not much to write home about except that the surrounding nature is absolutely stunning.
However, Lys-Na-Greyne is worth alone a detour. It is a little luxury guesthouse with six rooms, run by charming Gary and Joyce, and everything a guesthouse should be. That includes its very own fascinating history of alleged royals and a beautiful Irish Gallic name which translates to “Meadow of the Sun”.
This is also the one and only place where I ate haggis for breakfast and am proud to say: I liked it.
I was super excited for the next day as I was finally going to see Inverness and the Culloden Battlefield I had read so much about (and not only in Outlander, I would like to add!) – another must do on any Scotland road trip itinerary.
The Battlefield today has an amazing museum to it, telling the whole story of the Jacobite rising and Bonnie Prince Charles that culminated here. There is a mini movie theater with the final battle, weaponry that you can touch, and a really interesting audio walk through the actual battlefield.
While I appreciate how the history is being presented here and brought to life, I find it important to remember that the location is the actual place where people fought and died, not a Disney make-belief.
I will admit that I was horribly disappointed by Inverness. Considering that it is meant to be a honeymoon destination in Outlander I expected a lot more charm. Then again, maybe the tristesse was a premonition that she disappears and ends up with another man…(and also I learned later that the scenes in the series weren’t even filmed in Inverness).
In hindsight, I wouldn’t return to Inverness in a hurry except as a base to travel from. There is an airport and it makes exploring the Scottish Highlands easier as well as being a perfect base to visit Culloden and of course, Loch Ness.
Loch Ness & Edinburgh
And what kind of Scotland tours would be perfect without trying to find Nessie?
I must admit that while I quite like the idea of diving with sharks, nothing would have gotten me on one of those ‘find Nessie’ boats. Unlike my friend Kathi who apparently had an amazing time (find out here if she got lucky) I admit that is a bit weird but I preferred to stay put at Urquhart Castle from where you have amazing views over the Loch (and can tick yet another castle of your list).
I do believe Loch Ness needs to be on any first timers Scotland itinerary though I was surprised to find that a) it looks a lot more like a river (it is 37km long!) and b) none of the gift shops sells Nessie-shaped gummi bears. The latter was a real bummer and I would appreciate if that can be changed for my next visit. Who doesn’t want Nessie-shaped gummi bears?!
From Loch Ness, I headed back to Edinburgh with a short stop at Killicrankie. I have recently become obsessed with Queen Victoria thanks to the new ITV series ‘Victoria’ and so I was happy to hear that she and Albert loved Scotland.
They both liked that Pass of Killicrankie so much that upon her visit in 1844 Victoria wrote in her journal: “I cannot describe how beautiful it is. Albert was in perfect ecstasies.”
If it is fit for a queen, it is definitely worth a tiny detour for all of us mere mortals.
While I loved the Highlands and my entire little Scotland road trip, it was only back in Edinburgh when I fell in love. There is something quite magical about the city. Something warm, despite the cold, something wonderfully open and welcoming, despite it being far away from the rest of the world.
I spent my last day just wandering first in sunshine and then in icy rain and just enjoying the sights and the atmosphere. And it was when I was waiting for my tram to take me to the airport and I was drenched in liquid gold from the sunset that I realized that shit, now I have another one of those countries on my list – one I want to go back to over and over again.
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