We’d bought the books and skimmed the blogs but, true to form, we’d done very little research on Scotland before we set off from Suffolk for what was likely to be one of the last times. We had no idea what we were doing, to the extent that both of us were under the impression that a glen was a body of water and it was only upon reading about some glens in Lonely Planet that we realised this could not be the case and googled it. In our defence, we’d also googled the North Coast 500 and we knew the route… vaguely. As in, if we hit the sea we would know that we’d taken a wrong right turn. But that was it. All of our good intentions for serious planning had fallen by the wayside. This time at least, we had a decent excuse, or a dreadful excuse, depending on your point of view; once we’d slept off the journey back from Buenos Aires and done 100kg of laundry, we had focussed exclusively on two things: buying clothes that didn’t look as though we’d worn them non-stop for the past two years and job hunting. With CVs written and wardrobes restocked, we had the pleasure of getting back on the road, via Go Outdoors, James’s happy place.
The car was filled to bursting when we set off, we had packed more stuff for two weeks in Scotland than we had for the past 18 months combined. We were also 100% correct to do this; it’s May, Scotland is chilly in May and that’s if you’re lucky, you need to pack for four seasons every single day and if we have learnt anything in the past two years it’s that you DO NOT want to be cold… ever. So, we set off, we had one night of luxury and home comforts in Bunny, seeing some of our favourite (little) people and then it was time to hit the tent again. Caro had decided that our camping situation in Patagonia was far from ideal so we were now equipped with a four-man tent with a separate bedroom and large indoor living space, thick air-mattresses, real pillows and sleeping pods (they are like sleeping bags but half the size again for people who prefer not to have to sleep like a corpse.)
Our initial plan had been to make it into Scotland on day one, but after 5 hours of driving we decided to call it a day and camped just outside Carlisle. As we’d never pitched the tent before, we thought it was probably a good idea to set up camp early, just in case there were any issues. Fortunately, there were none and an excellent dinner of bacon and eggs made for a perfect first night on the road.
The next morning we took a slight detour to go and see Hadrian’s Wall; it was only 14 miles away and James loves a World Heritage Site. The section that we visited was Banks East Turret, which we chose purely on the basis that it was nearby and free.
Should you happen to visit, the drive there is beautiful and there is also a very sweet bench a short way along the road between the turret and Lanercost Priory.
Finally, it was time to cross into Scotland where, somewhat ridiculously, Caro had never been before.
We’d vaguely planned to get to Inverness but were just going to play it by ear. The rest of the morning was taken up by driving and appreciating the gradual changing scenery and increasing number of sheep. Our first stop for the day was Doune Castle, famous for being a set in both Outlander and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As with all historical sites that we have visited, there were renovations ongoing, but this did little to detract from the beauty of the castle.
We took advantage of the free audio guide, voiced by Terry Gilliam, and took ourselves for a tour of the Castle; the kitchen, guest apartment and Duchess’s hall were particular highlights as well as the spectacular views from the windows.
They played up the Python just the right amount.
There was nowhere for us to cobble together our lunch so we pushed on down the road to Dunblane where we had our typical sandwich in a carpark.
As soon as you hear Dunblane, you think of one of two things: the horrific school shooting, and Andy Murray. With this in mind we hadn’t given much thought to what the town would look like and were therefore pleasantly surprised to find that it is very pretty town with a stunning cathedral at its centre. Our stop there was a lovely unplanned bonus in the day.
After lunch, we set our sights north again towards the Cairngorms and the Rothiemurchus estate. There was a short walk around Loch an Eileen and we could think of no better way to end the day than to stretch our legs around the lake and among the beautiful Scots pine forest. It was teaming with bird life and gave Caro a chance to start playing with her new bird book.
That night we knocked back a cracking G and T from our Christmas present mugs.
It was minus one when we woke up the next morning. It doesn’t matter how good your sleeping bag is, you are going to feel minus one when you get out of it anyway and we were both reluctant to leave the warmth and comfort. Fortunately we are both greedy so in a choice between being warm and breakfast, breakfast won hands down. It was only our second time packing up the tent so we still hadn’t perfected the skill. This meant that there was a fair bit of cursing and the need to lie on the tent to get all of the air out of it.
We managed finally and set off on day two, another pretty full day of exploring. We’d talked ourselves out of visiting Inverness within about 15 minutes of being on the road. As regular readers will know, we aren’t big fans of visiting cities, particularly not as part of a larger trip. There are some notable exceptions (Hanoi, we miss you!) and we’ve had some great city breaks previously, but as a general rule we prefer to stay away. There wasn’t anything particularly in Lonely Planet that screamed out to us, so we by-passed the town and made straight for Loch Ness. We drove the whole way around the lake and we did it clockwise, supposedly counter-clockwise is more beautiful but we had far less traffic in our direction and it was still absolutely stunning.
We’d been in Scotland more than 24 hours and hadn’t been to a pub. This was simply unacceptable so we stopped for lunch at the Dores Inn, right on the edge of the loch.
It was a beautiful day, there were dogs everywhere and we were in a pub beer garden, it was heaven. They also had wifi so we were able to get some admin done whilst we waited for our fish and chips to arrive.
A short distance down the road we stopped at Falls of Foyers, thinking that a leg stretch would be a good idea. We have seen a huge number of waterfalls on our trip, but these did not disappoint.
We had some absolutely stunning views as we made our way around the loch.
At the southern end of Loch Ness is Fort Augustus where the Caledonian Canal meets the loch and a marvellous 5 step lock staircase. James loves a bit of quirky engineering and was keen to have a look. We timed it perfectly, a boat was making its way through when we arrived.
We decided to head to the Black Isle to camp, ahead of kicking off our North Coast 500 adventure. It is a beautiful area and definitely worth an explore, especially the Black Isle brewery where we stopped for a quick tasting and to pick up some supplies for the road. The beer is excellent, James particularly enjoyed the Rye IPA and the Yellowhammer.
We camped for the night at Fortrose Bay in a campsite overlooking Moray Firth. There is a pod of dolphins living in the area, but we weren’t lucky enough to see them on our evening stroll.