The delights of eighteen hours of sunlight are just that – seemingly endless daylight. The con is being roused by the sun at 4:30AM. Maybe I’m a bird. Dark skies put me right to sleep, but, when that sun rises – I’m ready for that worm. Or rather coffee. Goals for day two of the highlands road trip was driving from Inverness to Skye on the northern A832. On the way back visit Eilean Donan and return on the A87. Six to seven hours driving time leaves me with about eleven hours to hike, drool over castles, and get caught in a deluge at least once.
I set out at 6AM for the gas station number one rule of road tripping: never run out of gas fill up on the quarter tank mark. I picked up Red Bull and sandwich supplies from the local grocery store. Number two rule of road tripping don’t let yourself become hangry. Scotland’s narrow one-track roads don’t support road rage induced jackass behavior.
The first leg of the trip on the A832 required concentration. The landscape was stunning, but, there were too few places to stop along the one land roads. There was also a surprising amount of traffic so, it would have been impolite to pull off in a passing track. That is a sure fire way to immerse in the art of Scottish creative swearing. Plus, I was beelining for the Fairy Pools. If I arrived early enough, I could avoid the hordes of other people who want to catch a fairy by the tutu. There was plenty of signage to lead you to the trailhead once you crossed the Isle of Sky bridge. The descent into the misty valley is about ¾ of a mile. It’s a bit steep, be sure you have proper footwear. You can view the River Brittle cutting through the vast field from the trailhead but, you must hike down to the vein to feel the magic. Once you cross a series of streams and stepping stones the reward is pristine water and cerulean waterfalls tumbling into deep basalt caldrons. No fairies, but, the path lead on into a wilderness zone. Obviously, I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and was keen on a visible rock scramble. The looming mountains in the backdrop are the Black Cuillins. The gunmetal, basalt cliffs are entrancing. In the blink of an eye, I was transported into a Tolkien landscape.
Next on the docket was Eilean Donan! Brooding over the tidal island caught in a Loch trifecta is the infamous Eilean Donan castle. The Gaelic word Loch means lake – in case you were wondering. The castle sits in the middle of where Loch Duich, Long, and Alsh meet. In the early 14th century, the land was a stronghold for Clan Mackenzie. Following the first Jacobite uprising and the Battle of Glen Shiel (1715), Eilean Donan was essentially leveled. The castle was restored in the early 1900’s and has appeared in advertisements and movies ever since including a Pierce Brosnan incarnation of James Bond. Eilean Donan is iconic to Scotland. Truth time: taking pictures outside of the castle was probably the best part. Entrance into Eilean Donan seemed a little steep for what it was. Of course, it’s all preference. The rooms were filled with artifacts and notes on Scottish history but, I had absorbed the information from other locations. If this is not your first Scottish rodeo, snap pictures, eat lunch and move on.
Another great stretch of land was the twining valley of Glen Shiel. The foot of the Five Sisters mountain range is a tiny pull off with a trailhead leading up to Sgurr nan Spainteach (The Peak of the Spaniards). You will miss it. Luckily, I had the highway to myself so I just flipped it in reverse. The hill walk was the site of The Battle of Glen Shiel which ended the first Jacobite uprising and sealed the demise of Eilean Donan. Here Highland clans and a frigate of Spanish soldiers engaged the English army by ambushing them from the sheer hills. Their battlefield advantage ultimately failed them due to lack of arms and provisions. The hike up the hill was exciting and set the glutes on fire. The ferns were as tall as hip height in a few spots – quite the experience. At the top of the ridge is a remaining stone barricade and a few lichen covered structures.
Just when you thought I was done. I made one last stop. Back in Culloden is an ancient burial ground called the Clava Cairns and standing stones. There are three bronze age tombs surrounded by 8-10 standing stones. It’s a great area to read or absorb nature. There are trees you can sit under. The roots even provide comfortable seats.
The stones are the alleged inspiration for Craigh Na Dun from the Outlander series. However, Craigh Na Dun is purely fictional. No time traveling for the Travel Scout. Although, that would inspire a wicked niche blog, though, right?
Alas, I returned to my camper van and promptly went to sleep. It would be another 6AM rally for me. Again eighteen hours of daylight – I’ll be damned it I wasted them.
Be sure to check out my other action-packed road trips through the highlands:
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
The drive from Glasgow to Inverness is roughly 300km and three hours depending on congestion taking place the one-track roads. I suggest running the A9 from Glasgow through Glencoe and Fort William. I took a detour to reach Kilchurn Castle but, back tracked to drive through Glencoe. Everyone I spoke with urged the track. Excellent advice. The track was windy, misty and wild. The weather was a little drizzly but, when in Scotland if it isn’t raining – it’s about to.
Stop number one was the ruined Kilchurn Castle which was once a stronghold for Clan Campbell. Now forgive me – I don’t have a lick of Scottish in me or knowledge of the clan structure, but, clan Campbell seemed to be powerful in their time. Various incarnations of the Dukes of Argyll owned castles all over the surrounding areas. The hike into the ruin was short but wet. I made it beyond the walls just before a deluge.
Quick history lesson – The five-story giant had been in use since the 15th century but, fell into ruin before the 1800’s. During the first Jacobite uprising Kilchurn served as a militia stronghold. In the mid 1700’s the castle tower was struck by lightning. Parts of the fallen turret can still be seen in the inner courtyard. The castle was completely abandoned when the roof was torn off in a violent storm.
Kilchurn castle in the mist and gloom looks quite ominous. As it should, there are several legends featuring the likes of an eel monster, haunting and witches. Ghostly cries and children playing have all been reported occurrences as well as a general feeling of being unwelcome. I can’t say I had that experience – maybe I was too busy trying to stay dry!
The detour only took me thirty minutes out of the way. Onward to Fort William! I had one goal in Fort William which was to at least set foot on Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Britain at 1,345m above sea level. Rain and time constraints had me move on rather prematurely, but, I enjoyed stretching my legs nonetheless.
I couldn’t go north and not peer into the murky waters of Loch Ness. To be honest Loch Ness was mostly underwhelming, not just because I didn’t spot Nessie. I just didn’t get any feeling from it. With that said photography opportunity was on point.
Let me first say that my plan was to camp. I was hoping to rent a tent, sleeping bag, and maybe a hot plate. I had no such luck. However, thanks to AirBNB I found a 1970’s baby blue camper van. It was adorable and the family who owned it were just as awesome. The camper van was a saving grace as I stayed much warmer than I would have in a tent. Scotland is cold people. I’m going to refer you to: 8 Outfits I Wore in the Arctic for some layering and outdoor dressing tips!
Once I settled into my new digs I decided to take a walk in the moors. A moor is a track of land that is a grassland or savanna biome with low growing shrubs and poor-quality soil. The moors in Scotland are terribly permeable and are soaked through creating bogs. Victorian stories always warn of the dangers lurking in a moor. I understand now. They are frigid and riddled with sinkholes. Approaching a moor in the daylight is daunting, let alone trying to hike one in the night.
Less than a mile from my van was Culloden Battlefield. The Battle of Culloden was fought between the English and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army. The campaign was to restore a Stuart king to the throne as per the divine right to rule theory. The battle marked the end of the Jacobite uprising in 1746. As a result of the loss the English wiped out the Clan culture as retribution. More than eighteen hundred men died on both sides in less than an hour. Fifteen hundred of them being from the Jacobite side. The English only suffered three hundred casualties.
The battlefield was a heavy place. Much akin to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. It was certainly spooky visiting at dusk – completely alone. What made the field so unnerving was the bog hissing and cracking from saturation. The soil smelled like wet, rotting leaves in autumn. I always feel a certain amount of electricity on a battlefield no matter how long ago it is. Nature never forgets. Culloden is no exemption.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Blah, blah, blah I fell in love with the Highlands. Blah, blah, blah, wanderlust. Blah, blah, blah the most beautiful place I have ever been. I’ll save you the sentiment and get right to the juicy bits:
In all seriousness, it took one road trip to Inverness to spark a healthy obsession with all things tartan. I stayed in a baby blue 1970’s Volkswagen camper van in my AirBNB host’s backyard. The property was backed right up to Culloden Moor. I was all set to hunt down all of the filming locations from Outlander only to discover it was mostly shot in or around Glasgow and Edinburgh. Ugh. Well, there was always Eilean Donan and the Glencoe route from various incarnations of James Bond. I’d have to pretend that my KIA was an Aston Martin – a girl can fantasize, right? Regardless, Inverness is the perfect jump-off point to visit several major attractions in the Highlands. From the quiet city, you could plan several hundred combinations of road trips – I only had time for three. I regret not spending the entire week but, even so, I would have barely scratched the surface. Each road trip deserves its own post so, as I gather my thoughts on each of the three days I spent in the Highlands here are some teasers:
There are so many castles to visit! Most of the ruined ones are free. I prefer the ruined ones. There is usually a good walk involved and less people around. You can really feel the old vibes.
There are hardly any straight shot highways. Be prepared for two-lane roads that snake their way through the countryside.
This was hiker heaven. Keep watch for places to pull off as they are not immediately identified. They don’t call me K-Turn Kate for nuthin’.
Two Words: Fairy Pool.
I’m endlessly fascinated by ancient structures. There are hundreds of places that showcase ancient architecture and a glimpse into the past.
I’m going to talk endlessly about the Falcons at Dunrobin castle and how one day I will become a falconry expert myself. These amazing birds of prey were orphaned or injured but, taken in by the conservatory. They are trained to hunt pheasants, rabbits and other small game by the aviary expert Andy Hughes. It’s really cool to see someone who loves their animals. I have much respect for that.
The heaviest place, Culloden Battlefield.
Enjoy! There are more pictures and stories to come.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Stirling is a little town known as the Gateway to the Highlands. The ancient town used to be the stopping point for merchants in the medieval times as they traded between northern and southern Scotland. Stirling is the perfect day trip and far less crowded than Edinburgh or Glasgow. The streets will mostly be empty and you may have the entire castle to yourself – yep, a castle to yourself. Here are some more history packed reasons to visit historical Stirling:
Stirling is possibly best known for a famous battle between the Scots and English during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Despite being severely outnumbered, William Wallace lead the Scottish army to victory in 1297 and fought off the English. Today you can visit the memorial dedicated to Wallace. William Wallace sounds familiar? He is the very man who inspired the movie Braveheart.
The Church of the Holy Rude is a medieval parish founded in 1129 making it the second oldest establishment in the city. A leader of the Reformation John Knox preached the sermon for the coronation of James VI the king who would commission an English translation of the Bible. This would be the Bible we know today.
James was crowned king at such a young age because Mary Queen of Scots was being tried for an alleged plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. If the assassination attempt were successful Mary Queen of Scots would reign over Scotland, Ireland, and England. Mary tried for treason lost her head.
According to legend. A band of Vikings had their eyes set on land later to be Stirling and occupied by a small group of Celtic villagers. They planned to attack in the dead of night but, upon hearing a pack of howling wolves they decided to retreat. To this day the wolf has been the symbol of Stirling! Here I thought they were just team Stark for the iron throne…
Much like Edinburgh castle, Stirling castle sits high on a hill watching over the town below. Here is your chance to have some alone time with a Scottish castle. I visited on a Thursday and was pleasantly surprised to only run into maybe two hundred other travelers at the max. You have the option to join a free tour or wander about. I’m sure you know that I picked the latter. I even ventured into the underground barracks completely alone. Maybe? It certainly was dark and creepy. Be sure to walk the castle walls, check out the tapestry museum, and visit the royal chambers. Most of the displays are not original but, it seems the curators have taken special care to ensure an authentic experience!
Scotland’s national animal is the Unicorn. Naturally, the enemy of the lion which is a symbol of England.
Get snap happy. Stirling is terribly photogenic. Stroll along the castle walls to gain a 360 dragon’s eye view of the entire town. I don’t need to say much, the pictures speak for themselves:
This lodge was built in the 17th century and was home to members of high society at that time. Be sure to visit the castle first – admission into the lavish townhouse is granted with a castle ticket!
Mar’s Wark or rather the remnants of a lodge from the 1560’s. The location is nothing particularly outstanding but, is in the care of Scotland’s historical society. The ruins are worth taking a peek as you visit the Church of the Holy Rude or the cemetery located behind the lodge. The front of the mansion has interesting stonework.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Stepping out of Waverly Station the true grandeur of Edinburgh greets you. Crowded yes, but the deeper you get into the city tourists fall away. The first stop on the Edinburgh list was the castle dominating the ancient skyline. Anthropologists suggest that the surrounding area dubbed Castle Rock had been occupied since 900 BC. The first structure, St. Margaret’s Chapel was built in 1130 AD. This chapel can still be visited today! Edinburgh Castle has been visited and sometimes sieged by the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, and influential Jacobites during the uprising including Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.
If you are a history buff, into military memorabilia and peering longingly over stone walls *raises hand* be prepared to start drooling *wipes away drool*.
The castle was being prepared for the Military Tattoo in August. A tradition since the 1950’s that celebrates and honors various military bands. Approaching the castle, I was a little puzzled by the garish, blue bleachers then the reason became clear.
The castle has several stops that showcase the U.K.’s extensive military history ranging from medieval times to present. Be sure to take a stroll through the dungeons for a glimpse into the dank conditions.
Get a birds-eye view of Edinburgh in full. Take in the cities green spaces and spot landmarks. From one side you can see right out to the North Sea. The opposite side you can see all the way out to Arthur’s Seat. Over the castle walls offer excellent opportunities to capture the moody-ness of Scottish weather.
In a ruined tower be sure to salute to the four-legged military members. One trait I have noticed about the Scots is their love for animals – the oldest headstone goes back to the 1840’s. It reminds us that our canine comrades are just as important to the national defense as humans are. Whereas you can’t go down to the green be sure to peer over the wall to view the memorial.
The one o’clock cannon goes off at – you guessed it 13:00. Trust me you will know when it’s close to time as the crowd gathers. Not your thing? Now is a good time to try and get some shots with fewer people surrounding everything.
Mons Meg: Another cannon noted for its behemoth firing range. The cannon can shoot over two miles. It was given to James II by the Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1490.
No pictures allowed, however, be sure to visit the Royal apartments and the crown room. Here you will also find the Stone of Destiny. The stone is an ancient symbol of monarchy and has made an appearance at all coronations since 1296.
If you are questioning whether to visit the castle or not. VISIT. Yes, the lines can be long. Yes, its crowded as all get out. Go early or go late. The visit is worth the hassle. I should also mention that Castle Rock was a former active volcano. Need I say more? Click here for 8 Reasons to Get Down With Braveheart in Stirling for more Scotland!
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
There is a song called ‘Chocolate’ by Snow Patrol. Song writer Gary Lightbody references a moment in life when you can feel yourself living. It’s a strange sensation when you have this outer body experience. As you fade into thought, absorbing the moment, the world slows down and you can feel your own presence on earth. It’s just you and the blood in your veins. I don’t recall if there is even a word for this feeling.
Feeling alive happened in Glasgow. After panicking of course. What was I planning to do in Scotland for six weeks? I’ve been in transit since April but, this is my longest stay by far. For real though, what was I thinking? I booked a flat outside of Glasgow -with a roommate I’d never met. I’m not the kind of girl to curl up into the fetal position but maybe it was hormones. Maybe I missed home. Maybe I was finally feeling lonely. There were countless ‘maybes’ making my chest feel tight and my skin crawl.
Later that evening after settling into my new digs, that feeling I described struck: I was doing everything I had ever set out to do. I’m living like a local, managing my blog, and having fantastic adventures. Since I started scribbling at two years old, three things have been true about me: I like pizza, I like cats and I want to go on an adventure. I’m not exaggerating – that is a direct quote from five-year-old Kate’s Lisa Frank diary.
Our visions are often our biggest fears. Subconsciously we find ways to avoid accomplishing our goals. Dreading the unknown caused me to question what I was doing when I was accomplishing everything I desired. Silly brain. Finding a route in life isn’t cut and dry. There are detours. Sometimes an overwhelming amount of detours. I always reference my mom when it comes to making dreams realities, she wanted to live in Arizona since she was a girl. Our family has been entwined into the farmlands of Pennsylvania since before the American Revolution. Yet, she saved every copy of Arizona Highways. Years passed, she married my father and raised my brother and I. When our family fell apart in 2010 she made the decision to jump. She packed her belongings and hired a moving van headed straight for Arizona. Years later she understands that this was her detoured path to the vision she had as a girl. What I’m trying to convey is: don’t agonize over the right or wrong of your decisions. Carpe Diem! If dreams are not sought out we are doomed drone on and may never experience feeling alive. It doesn’t matter the situation if you have a vision – work for it.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Go to the Blue Lagoon they said, it would be relaxing they said. We have all seen images of those ladies strolling around the eco-friendly paths of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. How badly we all want to be those wanderlusty goddesses. “You can too!” urges their Instagram posts. Inner me said “one day that will be me, oh yes”. I dreamed of the day I would proudly wear my silica mask! Nothing would have made me happier than to float in the pristine magical wonderland, wine in hand and wearing a tiny bikini that would magically fit.
“You were in Iceland last April, right?”
“There is no blog about the Blue Lagoon?”
It was 7AM. My friends and I were making our way to the resort. Giddy awaiting our turn for the wanderluster’s dream come true. Our tickets were purchased for 8AM – early is better, I promised. My white knuckles on the steering wheel were distracting me from fear that the car, fully loaded with four adults and four luggage bags would be blown to Oz. This can’t be good, I forgot my ruby pumps. The parking pad was virtually empty. The hellish journey to the Blue Lagoon began when we opened the car doors and were brutally attacked by the wind. Attacked like it wanted our wallets. On the count of three my friends and I made a mad-dash to the first building we saw.
The warmth of the lobby was promising. It put us at ease.
After changing and showering off as per the rules, we hung out towels on the rungs provided by the spa and made our way to the deck. This was it, we were going to soak in the Blue Lagoon! We decided to bring one phone for pictures because there was one waterproof cover. Logic. As we followed the glass tunnel leading out to the open water, the same fierce wind greeted us only this time it was raining. The rain drops felt like furious icicle daggers cutting right into our cheeks. Who pissed off Elsa? Let it go!
Maybe there was shelter somewhere? We were in the Blue Lagoon dammit, we were going to have a damn good time. The struggle to the silica bar was like trying out for Deadliest Catch. Waves which picked up from the wind slapped us around like Christian Grey would a submissive. The water was warm in patches, which meant that some patches were freezing. Standing up was regrettable too, fearing our nips would fall off. I was stuck in this weird crab crawl trying to move as fast as I could, not leaving the water and not losing my contacts in the salty surf.
There was a sheltered spot a long way into the lagoon. Other travelers were huddled in the same shallow corner too. There was a weird mutual bonding over the hell we had just endured. Majority of the other survivors were sitting on the rock seats in a little ball, trying to keep their ears warm. Was this what it was like to battle the White Walkers north of the wall? A group of Canadians bravely offered to show us where the bar was. I was getting my free beer dammit.
I had to hold the Solo cup with two hands. The wind was that fierce. It was then we decided we were done – so done.
We crossed the high seas one last time only to find our towels had been stolen.
It’s not the fault of anyone, just sheer, dumb luck. Our experience at the Blue Lagoon was not ideal, not relaxing, and not an experience I would care to have again. With that said, I will NEVER forget those two hours of hell despite having no pictures. It’s all firmly cemented into my head.
See?! Travel is not always glamour, puppies and existential epiphanies. Sometimes it straight up sucks – even in the most beautiful place on earth.
Want to read about some good times in Iceland? Check out:
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate