Taking the High Road through Scotland
Last year, we were drawn to visiting Scotland, an island full of rugged landscape and boisterous people. Tee up for an unforgettable trip by joining us on our adventure through top food experiences, a tumultuous history, and breathtaking scenery.
Lodging in Edinburgh
We stayed 2 nights in Edinburgh at Old Town Chamber apartments located conveniently in downtown. These comfy apartments are an ideal place to recoup after a long flight.
Saddle up for The Hairy Coo Tour
Even if you’re jetlagged, this highly entertaining and educational tour will keep you wide awake. In fact, the whole tour is donation-based! You’ll load up on a cushy bus ride in downtown Edinburgh, and the guide proudly shares Scottish history along the way.
One of the day’s highlights was seeing and feeding the cartoonish, Hairy Coos, the stocky, shaggy-haired, horned cows. Rarely harvested for meat these days, they are protected as the Highlands’ favorite critters.
The historical part of the tour is focused on the real “Braveheart” story of William Wallace, a heroic, figure in the 1200s. You’ll stop at his monument, which is perched on a hilltop overlooking the town of Stirling and the castle. William Wallace was a knight who bravely led a ragtag army of clans-people in a battle for Scottish independence. Also a fun stop, was the “Monty Python Castle” locally known as Doune Castle in Glen.
Appetizing Day in Fife
For the rest of the trip, renting a car is essential for getting around Scotland. Be forewarned because the roads are shoulderless and narrow, plus driving on the left side of the road takes a bit of an adjustment. It’s about an 1 ½ hour drive from Edinburgh to Fife, so you’ll need to get an early start for a very full day. Look for a series of small stone cottages where your tour guide awaits!
Foodie guide, Chris Trotter, gave us an artisan, delicious tour through the charming towns and local farms with jaw-dropping views at every turn. Chris has an impressive background having worked in 5 star hotels, as an instructor, restaurant owner, and is an author of several veggie-themed cookbooks. Most of the day was spent shopping for fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. We even picked up some cooking tips from Chef Trotter.
Our first task was selecting a massive lobster in Crail, a small fishing village where locals eagerly wait for fishing boats to arrive. For lunch, we ordered and devoured the best sea bass we’ve ever eaten from East Pier in St. Monance. Make sure to head up to the 2nd floor for views of the North Sea.
Artisan Chocolate and Cheese
The day became richer with a stop at Pittenweem Chocolate Company. We ordered their heavenly spiced hot chocolate, hot (70%) dark chocolate, chocolate cake, and their signature, gluten-free brownies. Afterwards, we went to St Andrews Cheese Company to sample their award-winning cheeses: Cheddar, Cheshire, and Blue.
As the day whittled away, we went back to Chris’s house and began preparing pan-seared lamb, homemade salsa (not the spicy kind), sauteed kale, fresh mayonnaise with smoked sea salt, steamed lobster, and baked bread from scratch. It was a food coma day of epic proportions!
Chris’s Cooking Tip
Our takeaway cooking tip was pat dry meat, poultry or fish with a paper towel because it keeps the moisture inside the meat so it can cook up right away.
Tee Time in St. Andrews
About 30 miles away from Edinburgh on the east coast of Fife is St. Andrews. High on a cliff is the scenic wonder of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Walk through the 12th century ruins and cemetery, and look for the grave of the first golfer, Robert Morris.
Nearly 500 years old, The St. Andrews Golf Club is the birthplace of golf and has the oldest golf course in the world. If you are a skilled amatuer golfer, you can apply one year in advance to play on this exclusive golf course. Peruse the museum to learn about the history and traditions.
Less than an hour’s drive from St. Andrews, and about a 3 hour’s drive to Inverness, is the scenic Angus Coastal walk. We walked back and forth on an easy trail for a few miles on top of reddish Sandstone cliffs. The rocky landscape is exquisitely sculpted by the turbulent sea. We then headed to Inverness for a two night’s stay.
Dressed as a clansman in a kilt, our manly guide met us at our hotel in Inverness. We were driven by van on a Higlanders tour through the most colorful yet brutal parts of Scottish history.
Our first stop was at 4,000 year old, Neolithic burial chambers of Clava Cairn. These piles of rock represent the doorway from the physical world to the spiritual one. You’ll walk through a tunnel where prominent families buried their dead and human sacrifices were performed. For Outlander fans, look for the “Split Stone” where Claire Randall accidentally time-travelled from post World War II into the throes of the 18th century Jacobite rebellions.
Culloden Visitor Center
The Visitor Center has an interactive exhibit that weaves the story of this 1746 infamous battle. On opposing walls down a long corridor, are 2 different perspectives: the Jacobite (mainly Scots), a small band of clansmen versus the Redcoats, a meticulously, organized army. With a 360 degree screen, watch the reenactment of the battle where you are placed smack dab in the middle of these 2 sides. Outside the Visitor Center, is a morbid reminder of the casualties including a cemetery filled with mass graves as far as the eye can see!
After reliving the civil war battle of Culloden, we worked up an appetite. Offering a full array of fresh comfort food, Storehouse at Foulis, a large cafeteria-style dining hall, delivers a homey ambiance filled with a tasty selection of Scottish food.
We stopped at the beautiful Castle Leoch, which was the home of Clan Mackenzie. We could feel the chills up our spines at Beauly Priory, the Clan Fraser cemetery; it was built in 1530 on an abbey from the early 1200s.
Falls of Rogie
We took a short hike to the Falls of Rogie and walked across a suspension bridge above the blackwater river.
To experience the spirit of Scotland, we went on a self-guided tour of the nearly 200 year old Glen Ord Distillery. As most people probably already know, Scotch is Scotland’s speciality Whiskey. This award-winning single malt whiskey distillery uses copper pots to further improve the taste.
We wafted their 12, 15, and 18 year old Scotch; the flavor develops in color and personality as it ages. We learned the art of Whiskey tasting starts with a sniff (inhale slowly) several times with a break in between. For a smoother taste, take a sip, and add small amounts of water. After a long exhausting day, we headed back to Inverness.
This castle is an idyllic gateway to the Isle of Skye. It is surrounded by 3 Lochs (lakes), and is one of Scotland’s most famous and most visited castles. It was built in the late 13th century and held by the Kenneth Mackenzie clan. As you walk through the nooks and crannies, view the antique furnished bedrooms, banquet rooms, kitchen, and gaze at the stunning reflections off the lochs beneath the castle; it is definition of enchantment.
Lunch in Portree
Parking can be challenging in the touristy town of Portree. Park in the residential neighborhoods and walk a few blocks to town. Our favorite place to eat was the Granary Coffeeshop, a local and touristy spot. With it’s homestyle cooking and massive dessert selection, you’re guaranteed to burn off those calories on your next activity!
The most famous hike in the Isle of Skye is the Old Man of Storr. Follow the main trail to the spires known as the Old Man and climb over the fence. Not only will you lose the trail, but also the hordes of hikers. Veer left to get to the peak to reach “The Table” (Plateau). There will be a bit of rock scrambling. Make sure to look for the sheep on or near the “The Table.” Try to stay on the grassy parts uphill/downhill because it’s less slippery.
Your reward awaits (assuming it’s clear skies) with panoramic views of the sea and the islands of Raasay and Rona. Head back the same way you went up, and make a side trip to the coolest sea waterfall in the Isle of Skye (read below).
Resembling a Kilt, this roaring waterfall hits with a thrusting force into the Sound of Raasay. Park in the lot and walk to the cliff’s edge for this spectacular view.
Hotel Flodigarry, is quite a drive at the northeast part of the Isle of Skye. It is a boutique, intimate hotel overlooking the sea below. Like an old mansion, it is filled with antique collectables (old record players and piano). The dinner was exquisite with lots to choose.
The Quiraing and Old Man of Storr were our 2 favorite hikes in Scotland. It’s a short, windy, steep drive from Hotel Flodigarry to the parking lot.
You’ll see a trail from the parking lot, and it’s about a 3-4 hour loop. We went counter clockwise but most of the hikers go clockwise. When you see the trail split off, bare right, go over the fence, and head straight uphill to “the table” or plateau. On a clear day, you can get stunning views of ranches, green hills, rock pinnacles, Loch Snizort, and the Sound of Raasay.
Our last destination in the Isle of Skye was the famed Fairy Pools, a popular walk that is about 1½ miles long. There are no bathrooms in the parking lot or along the way. Wear your bathing suit and bring a towel for a dip in the refreshing, cold water holes near the path.
We exited the Isle of Skye on a scenic car ferry ride to the busy port town of Mallaig where we spent the night.
Exploring More of the Highlands
As recreational golfers, we wanted to play for a few hours on a 9-hole course. Set in one of the most beautiful parts of the West Highlands of Scotland (just north of Arisaig/Inverness-shire), we found a local gem that is the most westerly course in the U.K.
It was so off the beaten path, that we had trouble understanding the accents of the locals. We later found out that it is a tough course for beginners resulting in many lost golf balls.
About 35 minutes drive away from Traig Golf Course is the famous Glenfinnan Viaducts. Park in the lot and follow the well-marked path for an hour steep hike that will give you superb views of Loch Shiel. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll recognize the 21 archways along the way! Afterwards, we drove about 25 minutes to Ben Nevis and stayed overnight.
Peaking at Ben Nevis
After eating a large breakfast at the hotel, we went into town to purchase some food and snacks for an all day hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the U.K (over 4,400 feet). Be prepared for poor weather conditions, so wear sturdy hiking boots, use poles (helpful), have rain gear (including pants), gaiters (optional), beanie, gloves, and hat.
Once we got to the parking lot, we realized that we were in for a treacherous hike. The day we decided to hike Ben Nevis happened to be by far the most crowded place on our trip.
Even on a clear day, this would be a difficult hike. It’s a back/forth hike about 5-7 hours long and it is mostly pathed with stoney steps (slippery up and downhill). It proved to be quite challenging in wet weather. We lost all visibility within the last 1.5 miles to the top, and experienced whiteout conditions with extremely high winds.
The conditions were so poor that you could literally walk near or off a cliff at the top. A helpful hint is if you find yourself in these conditions, you should wait to see hikers heading in/out and follow them to get off the peak safely. When you get to the top, look for ruins of an old observatory.
A Royal Stop on the Way Back to Edinburgh
About a 2 hour drive away from Glencoe (a worthy stop we didn’t have time for), is Scotland’s biggest tourist attraction, Stirling Castle. Over the centuries, the castle has changed hands many times, and this is where the Scots fought many of their battles against the British. Whoever controlled Stirling ended up ruling Scotland.
Because of its size and history, we recommend joining a 45 minute tour to get the most out of your visit. Afterwards, we drove an hour to Edinburgh.
Eating and Exploring through Edinburgh
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland was once an extinct volcano and is also the financial capital of Europe. See below for some of our recommendations of where to eat and explore.
Urbanangel was our favorite breakfast in Scotland and with its casual atmosphere, we powered up for the day with french toast and eggs benedict.
Maison Bleue offers a comfortable setting, unique interior, and intimate style dining that showcases North African, French, and Scottish fusion. We fueled up on tasty Tagine Chicken and Fondue with homemade bread and crackers.
Buzzworthy Coffee Stop
We liked Fortitude Coffee Bar so much that we brought some coffee beans to take home with us!
A Nontraditional and Traditional Dinner
Tucked away in a park was the finest restaurant on our trip, The Gardner’s Cottage. With its elbow to elbow, family-style dining, they produce a nightly, 6 courses of bite-sized appetizers focusing on a local, seasonal menu. You won’t get in without a reservation, so book well ahead of your trip!
The Witchery, located just outside of Edinburgh Castle, is one of the most well-known restaurants in Scotland. This bewitching establishment serves traditional Scottish food.
Bursting into the craft beer scene is Scotland’s independently owned BrewDog. They are known for experimental flavors, including the world’s most alcoholic (55% abv) and expensive beer. Ask the staff to see this world-record-breaking beer that is encased in a taxidermied weasel?!
Get to Edinburgh Castle early to beat the hordes of tourists. Like the Tower of London, this has a dark and sinister vibe; there is no better example than when you visit the prisoners’ chamber. You can visualize the prisoners’ dank sleeping quarters, what they ate, and how they entertained themselves. Also, visit the royal family’s living quarters and pop in for a free Whiskey tasting.
A bit of a distance from downtown Edinburgh, is the Queen of England’s residence in Scotland. It’s a visual diary of her lineage from past to present starting with the first Queen Elizabeth. Each room is filled with artifacts and portraits giving you a feel for what life was like through the ages.
In the 5th century, the first documented visitors to Scotland were the Romans who were greeted by blue naked men. Even today, travelers get embroiled in the sordid history of the triumphs and tragedies of this rugged island destination.