Castles and Lochs in the Highlands

It’s been a busy week as family has been in town. I met everyone in Edinburgh this past weekend because I got a Gianni and Laura on this trip and, obviously, they had to see Edinburgh.

Like the last trip, we also planned a trip out to the Scottish Highlands. There’s something otherwordly about the Highlands. This time, we opted for a castle tour rather than a trip all the way out to Loch Ness. That trip, while beautiful, was an exhausting day.

We got up early for our 8 am departure. We got to the meeting point and Clan Garbagnati took over the back of the bus. Once the whole group loaded into the bus, our tour guide explained the itinerary for the day and we departed from Edinburgh.

Our first stop was actually just outside of Edinburgh to see the three bridges at the Firth of Forth. As our tour guide noted, each of these bridges were built in a different century.

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After our photo stop, we continued our exit from the Edinburgh area for about an hour to our first castle, Doune Castle. We passed this one during the other Highlands trip. Yes, this is a historical castle, but it was also the filming location of many important shows and movies, including Outlaw King, Outlander, and (perhaps most importantly) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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The difference between the last trip and this one is that I have seen all of the seasons of Outlander available to me on Netflix right now since then, so I got to nerd out on some of the Outlander trivia during the trip. Actually, as silly as parts of the show are, I now know a lot of information about the Jacobite uprising. Probably more collective Scottish history than I got from watching Reign. In any case, other than being the filming site of Castle Leoch from the the show, we also saw Claire’s escape hatch from season one while we waited for the castle to open.

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The ticket price to Doune Castle includes an audio guide. The audio guide has the historical information, information about the filming of Holy Grail and a whole separate audio track for Outlander, narrated by the Sam Hueghan (the actor who plays Jamie Fraser). Anyway, the castle was pretty cool in that it was very stereotypically castle-esque (is that a thing?). We even saw what was at some point the bathroom of Mary Queen of Scots. We were the last ones on the bus, though, as is our usual story.

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From Doune Castle, we officially crossed over into the Scottish Highlands and drove for a while before we made a pit stop and food stop at Loch Lubnaigh. It was supposed to be a quick stop, but everyone ended up ordering hot breakfast sandwiches (the whole tour, not just us).

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We also saw someone swimming across the loch, which was mind blowing given how cold it was in the Higlands.

After loading up into the car, we drove for quite some time towards Kilchurn Castle. The castle is a ruined castle sitting on the edge of a loch that looks like it’s an island. I believe it even was at some point. Given the wet weather, we had a bit of a muddy hike out to the castle. After that point, we got to explore the outside of the castle for a little while. It was unfortunately not open, but it was still fun to walk around. It was probably my favorite of the castles of the day.

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After hiking back to the bus, we had a thirty-ish minute drive to Inverary for our lunch stop. This included a very brief stop to see Inverary Castle along the way. While the castle is open to tourists in the summer, it is closed for the winter for reparation and because people actually live there, so we just saw the outside.

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We stopped in Inverary for lunch. Our guide recommended one restaurant, but it was crowded, so we went to a different one. Of course, the restaurant we went with was painfully slow, so we barely made it to the bus on time. Everyone else apparently had some great food like scallops. Our food wasn’t bad, we just had to scarf it down at lightning speed so that we could make the bus.

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From Inverary, we made our way into the mountains for a little while for a stop called Rest and Be Thankful. I actually assumed that this was one of those roadside restrooms and cafes, but it actually held some historical significance as the place that people would stop on the way up and down the mountains.

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After another hour, we hit Loch Lommond for our last major stop before heading out of the Highlands. I’m pretty sure we visited Loch Lommond last time we did our Highlands tour. If it was, it wasn’t the same part of the loch. I walked along the shores of the loch for a while and watched in horror as another batch of tourists were harassing an enormous swan. I walkeed all the way out to a church in the town, but then got lost on my way back. I delayed our bus a little bit.

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We had a long drive back from the Highlands, during which time most people (myself included) fell asleep. I woke up for our brief photo stop at Stirling Castle before falling back asleep until waking up to an exchange between the tour guide and one of the other tour attendees regarding the historical accuracy of Reign. Come on, no one was pretending that show was accurate.

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We made our way back to Edinburgh a little before 7, where gave Gianni and Laura a brief evening city tour. More on that in my next post. All in all, our second day trip into the Scottish Highlands was a lot of fun. As I’ve said before, there’s something about that area that’s just very special and it was fun to have the time to explore (or at least see) different castles throughout the day.

Edinburgh, Pt. 2

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We had to switch hotels on our third day in Edinburgh, so while we were able to sleep in more than we had the day of our Loch Ness trip, we didn’t really get to sleep in that much. We threw all of our stuff together from one place and stored our stuff with the next place. Surprisingly, the whole process was mostly painless.

I had set us up on a walking tour in the afternoon, so we had the rest of the morning to kill from there. We hopped around between potential brunch spots before we ended up near the university and at this diner-style restaurant near the university called Mums. The food was good, but the most important part was the quality time I got to spend with my family.

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Between the hunt for a restaurant and the food itself, we didn’t actually have much time before our tour started, so we went to the meeting place and started the tour. On the tour, we walked around the old town and learned more about the city. One important thing we learned was that we were quite literally down the street from the Edinburgh Castle, which we had not yet visited at that time. Surprisingly, there was not too much overlap between the tours even if we did learn the origin of the term “shit-faced” for the third time in just over twenty-four hours. The tour was good, but had we done it again, probably would have had us do the castle for the first part of the day. We didn’t actually have time to go into the castle and probably should have. Oh well.

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The tour ended right around the time when we could check into hotel number two, so we spent quite some time doing that before somehow managing to drag everyone back out. Umma and Mia went to do some shopping, so Chris and I ran into St. Giles Cathedral, which we had learned earlier in the day is not actually a cathedral despite the name. The church was pretty, especially the Thistle Chapel where you can see an angel playing a bagpipe. For future reference, you have to get a permit to take photos inside the cathedral. I didn’t know that, but we didn’t get in trouble because the place was about to close. I ended up donating some money because I felt guilty, though.

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We met up with everyone back outside and finally made our way up to Edinburgh Castle. Almost. We found out along the way that the Scotch Whiskey Experience was still open despite the fact that we had been told earlier in the day that it closed at 2 pm. We ran inside to see if we could get tickets and then with the twenty minute wait finally made it up to Edinburgh Castle. It was dark and we just bought tickets for a whiskey experience, so clearly had no expectation that it was open and we’d be able to get inside, but it’s still a pretty epic castle.

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(By the way, those last two photos were taken within like ten minutes of each other.)

We then lined up for the Scotch Whisky Experience. Now, I’m not sure what we expected from this experience. We knew some level of whisky tasting would be involved and this was certainly something on my Edinburgh bucket list, but weren’t really sure what the rest of the “experience” would be. It was actually quite fun. You start off in a ride of all things, where a ghost walks you through the process of making whisky (a spirit teaching you about spirits, get it?). It was cute, but our tour guide earlier in the day hyped many more puns than we got. Either that or the puns were way above our head.

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After the ride, they bring you to a video where they walk you through the different scotch regions of Scotland. They use a scratch and sniff card to walk you guide you through the flavor profiles that you can expect from each of those regions. From there, you get a history of blended malts before you get to choose the whisky you want to taste.

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With five of us, you would have thought that we would have each gotten a different one, our group doubled up on Speyside and no one tried the Lowland or blend. I got Campbeltown, but Mia’s Highland was the best of the bunch, IMO. You get to try your whisky in a room with an enormous whisky collection (I think the biggest scotch whisky collection or something?). It was a bit much, but also pretty and kind of awesome. The tour ends after that point. You can buy more whisky and obviously end in a gift shop. The bonus is you get to keep the cup.

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After that, we ran around looking for a place to eat before ending up at a pub. I got some fish and chips and pretended that I tried to use my newly minted scotch whisky knowledge to order some whisky. On the upside, I was able to order the drink that time around. On our first night, I was almost not served alcohol because I could not find ID to prove my age (#humblebrag?). Chris also tried to help an Italian couple order their food. We still aren’t sure if he actually succeeded. After dinner, we called it a night because we had an early wake up call for flights home the next morning.

Other things I missed about our trip to Edinburgh:

  • We did see the Elephant House (which is famously the cafe that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter). We actually almost ate dinner there one night, but the menu didn’t look that exciting.
  • If it wasn’t forty pounds, I absolutely would have bought one of the many Harris Tweed dog coats that we saw at the stores around town. Also, they had dog kilts, which killed me.
  • The embarrassing Lost fan in me kept calling the philosopher Desmond and not David Hume.
  • We had a relatively short layover in London Heathrow on the way back to Basel. Despite the fact that we did not have much time there, we somehow managed to fit in lunch at Wagamama because James is strangely obsessed with that place.

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So, I’ve said this a million times, but I really liked Edinburgh. The town was beautiful, full of some great stories, and just all around fun.

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Loch Ness and the Scottish Highlands

I met up with family in Edinburgh and we are now back in Basel. I adored Edinburgh. It is such a beautiful city full of great history. We’ll get back to Edinburgh later, though, because we are going to start with our day trip through the Scottish Highlands to Loch Ness.

Now, if you know anything about the geography of Scotland, you would know that a day trip to Loch Ness from Ediburgh is quite literally a day trip. Our tour left at 8 am and didn’t get back until after 8. It was a long day.

We left early morning on Sunday morning to meet with our tour group, Rabbies, and load up into our bus.

We were quite proud of the fact that we were out on time and made it to the meeting place before 8. It didn’t mean that we weren’t the last people on the bus, but we did make it on time. From there, we left Edinburgh and took off on our very long day trip.

Now, there were two things that made the trip pleasant. The first was that we had many stops and breaks along the way. Many were just pit stops or photo ops, but we had at least one longer stop for food. More importantly, our tour guide, James, was very entertaining. Our drive was sprinkled with a lot of history and culture about Scotland and the Highlands. Among other things, I learned that there was a lot more historical accuracy to the show Reign than I expected (although absolutely zero is a low bar). Also, we learned that most of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed at Castle Doune (as well as Outlander and the unaired pilot of Game of Thrones).

We didn’t stop at the castle, though. Maybe another time. We did stop in this small town, Callandar, where we stopped to some delicious meat pies.

We crossed over to the Highlands almost immediately after leaving the town and stopped shortly after at Loch Lubnaig, our first loch of the day.

We made a few more stops on our way through the Highlands to take in the scenery. It was beautiful, as was the lighting throughout the day.

The best photo spots, however, were our stops through Glencoe. Glencoe was very cold and windy, but absolutely beautiful.

From Glencoe, it was another hour and a half of driving before we got to Fort Augustus near Loch Ness. The drive was long, but filled with interesting stories and snippets of Scottish music, so it wasn’t too bad. We did eventually make it to Fort Augustus and had about an hour to spend there. We opted against the Loch Ness boat tour (no Nessie hunting) and instead spend almost all of the time we spent shopping at a small gift shop (in fairness, they had an exhibit about the canal) and eating. It wasn’t until about ten to 3 (our meeting time) that we thought that maybe it would be good to take pictures of Loch Ness. On the upside, we weren’t the last group back to the bus.

Also, when walking to Loch Ness, Mia slipped and almost fell into the canal. She didn’t, so we not only were unable to see Nessie, but we missed a very prime opportunity for a Kelpie spotting.

In any case, Fort Augustus was a cute town. We had fun exploring (and eating) during our short stay.

We made a few stops on the way back. The best was to watch the sunset by a WWI memorial.

There were a few more stops along the way, including a pit stop and an extended coffee break at a very cute down about an hour outside of Edinburgh. A lot of the ride was in the dark, which made for a good nap.

We made it back to Edinburgh around 8. It was a long day, made even longer by the fact that we followed it up with dinner and a ghost tour. It was a fun day though and I’m glad we had a chance to do a very short tour of the Highlands.