When you have the French Riviera just a train ride away, why would you choose Scotland for your summer vacation? That’s what most of my fellow Parisians heading for the beach were probably wondering when I shared my own holiday plans. Sure, they might have thought it sounded quirky, but they weren’t convinced. And to tell you the truth, neither was I. Sun worshipping all day isn’t quite my thing, but could two weeks in a camper van, driving around one of the rainiest countries in the world be a little too quirky? Here’s the thing: Scotland is the place you choose when the idea of another summer spent doing the same damn thing as everyone else starts to lose its appeal. It’s the place overlooked by glossy brochures that you choose when you realise Scotland has landscapes that look like they’re from another planet and that you quite like the idea of escaping to another, very beautiful planet. It’s the place you choose when time travel, cultural oddities and mysterious beauty sounds more up your alley than beach balls and piña coladas. As for the weather? Save the sun burn for another time.
Due to popular demand, I’m sharing my Scotland travel journal with you. It might not be the absolute perfect travel itinerary, but I’d say I got pretty damn close..
Getting ready to roll
We fly into Edinburgh airport and head straight to pick up our camper van outside of town. We’re renting a VW California– which my other half assured me is the tricked out modern version of the old VW hippie camper (I wanted the original vintage model, but in hindsight, I’m very glad he made the decision to go 21st century on this one). We rented our VW California through a family-run business, Aston Leisure. We loved our van so much we gave it her own nickname (and there are some things I need to keep private). If camping isn’t your thing, be aware that in “high season”, booking B&B’s ahead of time is an absolute must. In a country with more sheep than people, incidentally, Scotland is also lacking enough hotel rooms.
Our goal is to drive around the country in an anti-clockwise direction and see its most beautiful and bizarre sights in under two weeks. We’ve been warned about the dreaded midges (Scotland’s summer mosquito) and we stock up on repellant (more on this later).
Fresh lobster rolls & quaint fishing villages…
The Kingdom of Fife (which lives up to its fairytale name) has a coast dotted with fishing villages, just an hour and a half North out of Edinburgh.
With most of the day lost to the overseas travel, we stop in Elie, which has the sandiest beach and a sophisticated friendly pub with terrace views over the bay called the The Ship Inn. We stock up on our camping groceries at the local family-run mini market, Elie Deli and bring a bottle of wine to the beach for the sunset and watch the local dogs play on their evening walk. We’ve parked the camper where the sand of Elie Beach meets a quiet residential road and decide that’s good enough for a first night. Campfires in the wilderness will come later.
After a morning on the beach, we hop a few villages north to Crail for an early lunch. Peaceful, unspoilt, frozen in time and home to The Lobster Hut (Reilly Shellfish). It is exactly what the name suggests, a hut on the old fishermen’s harbour, serving fresh lobsters of your picking– either a whole cooked one for £11 or even more reasonably priced rolls. They freshly dressed crab too. It’s open from noon to 4pm except Mondays. Take your takeaway sea treasure round to the scenic Crail Coastal Path Viewpoint and find a bench.
Wish we’d had time for: 1) Scotland’s Secret Bunker, a 24,000 square foot underground government HQ built during the Cold War. 2) The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Pennan: a picturesque one-street village lined with white cottages and lobster baskets.
Wes Anderson’s Scotland
Back on the road between Perth and Dundee, we make stops at the Rait Antique’s Centre followed by a snack at the roadside Horn Milk Bar, a bit of an time capsule of cafeteria kitsch on the A90.
We take the most beautiful route headed into the Cairngorms National Park, an old military road through a lush green valley (A93) and find ourselves in the picturesque town of Braemar, not far from Balmoral castle, the summer home of the Royal Family. A local tells me the Queen can often been seen driving herself around the town, walking into the little stores while everyone minds their own business.
Ps. Find this very Wes Anderson location (pictured above) hiding behind the main Glenshee Road near the Bothy Braemar teahouse.
We settle our camper on the Mar Lodge Estate outside town near a cinematic Victorian bridge over the River Dee.
Noted nearby accommodation: The Invercauld Arms Hotel
The Great Outdoors
The Cairngorms feels a bit like Yosemite National Park in California. It’s a hiker’s and climber’s paradise, neither of which I am, but that doesn’t take away any of the enjoyment of driving through it and finding little stops to appreciate the great outdoors. We decide to pause at Loch An Eileen, with its ruined castle on an island in the middle of the lake.
Lunch is taken in Boat of Garten, a lonely little town where an old steam railway passes through. We decide against the local pub and go for a little restaurant down the road called Anderson’s Restaurant, which is perfectly charming. Later, we stock up for supplies and a barbecue at the supermarket in Aviemore and headed to our camping spot for the night, which is well worth trying to find.
We were very secluded, next to a river, primely positioned for the sunset with plenty of firewood around. It was a perfect evening with our freshly-caught fish and jacket potatoes grilled on the campfire followed by a dessert of perfectly burnt marshmallows.
A note on the Midges: The following morning we had a rude awakening– our first encounter with the dreaded midges. It’s true they come in swarms and you’ll be caught off guard if you don’t know what conditions they like. If it’s sunny and windy (as it had been the previous evening), enjoy a midge-free camping experience. Like mosquitos, a camp fire is a great repellant. If there is no wind and you’re near water or it’s damp from the early morning rain, expect a swarm of midges lurking nearby, most active in the early morning and early evening. You can lather on the special midge repellant (sold everywhere) and brave it, or just pack up on move on. And so we do, very quickly.
Nessie meets Nessy
Whizzing past Inverness, our first point of call on Loch Ness is the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, with its yellow submarine parked outside– an improbable contraption used by hippie scientists in the seventies to search for Nessie. The exhibition is set inside an old Victorian House, sponsored by a wealthy guy who believed in the myth of the Loch Ness monster. Don’t take it too seriously, it’s not very long of a visit and gives you a fun introduction to the mystery of the Loch.
Lunch is at the historic Dores Inn next to a pebble beach where you’ll find the Nessie Hunter. Twenty-six years ago, Steve Feltham gave up his girlfriend, his house and his job to dedicate his life to solving the Loch Ness mystery. He’s lived in this camper, a converted old mobile library, running his Nessie-Sery Indepent Research Centre on Dores Beach ever since. Say hello, he won’t bite.
Ready for a shower but not yet willing to give in to a hotel, we reserve a spot at the highly recommended Loch Ness Shores Camp site and benefit from the hot showers and campsite amenities.
Noted nearby Accommodation: Glenmoriston Arms Hotel.
Wish we’d had time for: Strathpeffer, a nostalgic Victorian spa town in the Highlands packed with architectural follies and faded grandeur.
North of the Wall
We aiming to reach the most northerly point of Great Britain and join the iconic NC500, a beautiful road that will take you right round the highlands, often referred to as Scotland’s Route 66. By lunch, we get as far as Thurso, a once bustling fishing town no doubt, now rather forgotten. We find the welcoming and quirky Blue Door Diner, playing on the Route 66 American diner theme.
Dunnet Head, the most northely point, is half an hour up the coast and offers dramatic cliffs and one of Scotland’s finest beaches, Dunnet Bay. That’s the thing about the North– it has some incredible beaches. Turquoise ones that you could mistake for Caribbean waters. And they’re all yours (more on them Day 7).
Driving west through isolated and remote villages of the North, we come to the tiny community of Skerray, where wild horses live on the beach and the disused bus stop has been turned into a greenhouse. The wind isn’t strong enough so we decide to cozy up inside the van for the night to avoid the midges and park next to the 14th century ruins of Castle Varrich in Tongue.
Still on the North Coast, travelling west through Durness, the morning drive on the NC500 takes us through lunar landscapes and hamlets that leave you wondering how they survive. The iconic red British phonebox shows up at the most unexpected roadside spots. Smoo Cave (above left) is worth a quick stop even just to see it’s impressive entrance hidden down at the beach.
As we reach the tip of the west coast, we take a chance on a roadside promising a seafood lunch at the end of a winding road. We know the gamble has paid off when we step inside the cozy Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant in the remote seaside hamlet of Tarbet, the sort of place you can imagine a fisherman’s wife lovingly running while he’s out catching fresh crab. They’re very proud of the fact that Chef Rick Stein once passed through and gave their hidden gem his stamp of approval. .
Next we reach the pretty port of Ullapool with its white-washed houses along the harbour. We give into the allure of a pint at the atmospheric old Ferry Boat Inn and watch the comings and goings of the town from the window. We’re now in a part of the Northern Highlands called Wester Ross. Game of Thrones comparisons will of course continue through the Highlands. We settle with our camper outside of Ullapool between two fields in the green pastures of Inverbroom Estate, a Victorian shooting lodge that rents out handsome white-washed cottages by the week. No campfire tonight to avoid bothering any landlords.
Noted nearby accommodation: There are plenty of hotel, B&B and hostel options in Ullapool, just book ahead.
The Scottish Caribbean
The following morning is spent beach hopping down the West Coast, discovering all the turquoise waters and crisp white sands the Northern Highlands have to offer. Stops include a beach hamlet at Oldshoremore, a waterfall beach at Clashnessie and two empty Caribbean beaches at Gruinard Bay and my personal favourite, Mellon Udrigle.
You can find them all listed on this Google map with all my locations in this guide.
Into the Wild
By lunch time, at the end of a windy single track road, we’ve made it to Torridon, a National Trust park tucked away in a beautiful corner of the Highlands with a remote but happy village at the centre. They have a great general store which also serves as the local café and they make a mean Haggis and cheese toasty. Pick up some of their fluffy bread from the store too, it will be great for sandwich picnics later on.
Down the road, we find one of the tiniest museums we’ve ever seen, but now counted among our all time favourites. The Torridon Deer Museum can be found at the end of a long driveway, which you should travel by foot, because there’s a very good chance you’ll have an up close & personal encounter with a couple of deer roaming around in the bushes. You can get very close and they’ll just stare back at you, unafraid. Waiting at the end of the path is an entire field of deer that will come right up to the fence and let you pet them. It’s a bit of a giddy childhood moment.
Inside the little Deer Museum, a white-washed cottage marked by a picture of a deer on the door, you’ll find a charming cabinet of curiosities filled with antlers, fascinating specimens, old photographs and truly interesting little facts about deer.
The unmanned museum is dedicated to the old ranger who looked over the estate and its animals. It’s a must-see. (Free, but a small donation is suggested).
On our way to find our camping spot for the evening, we stop in at the pub of Torridon Inn, an unexpectedly chic gastro pub connected to the luxury manor hotel next door. We drive up the hill to find a camping spot overlooking the loch and luck out with a magnificent viewpoint all to ourselves with plenty of room to put out the chairs, table and make a camp fire.
Over the hills, a technicolor rainbow appears on one side (rainbows are definitely a thing in Scotland) and on the other side you could mistake the landscape for lush African plains. Needless to say it is a very good night.
Noted nearby accommodation: The Torridon Inn & Hotel.
We’re back at the Torridon Inn for breakfast before heading off towards Applecross, rumoured to have one of the most dramatic views in the country. They weren’t wrong. The route is called Bealach Na Bà (way of the cattle)– and what a perilous journey that must have been for them. Also known as the A896, it’s the third highest motor road in the UK and the longest continuous climb, originally built in 1822 if you can believe it and comes complete with hairpin bends and sheer drops when you look over the road’s edge. The road is more than often impassable in winter and not recommended for learner drivers– both of which you are informed of by hazard warning signs. But it’s all worth it for that magnificent view of the river snaking down the valley from the top. It makes for a fantastic photo.
We’re rewarded for our bravery at the cozy Applecross Inn, nestled in a delightfully remote seaside village where you can see the hills of the Isle of Skye in the distance.
If you haven’t tried Haggis yet, this is the place. It’s bustling and jovial during high season, owed to its high quality local seafood and venison. Enjoy the afternoon in what feels like an island retreat. We should have stayed the night but the inn has no room. In need of a hot shower, we move on to the Lochcarron Hotel, the only place in the area with a room. A little run-down and nothing to write home about but this family run hotel and pub couldn’t have been more friendly (including the two black Labradors).
On our way to the famed Isle of Skye, we stop off in a little village called Plockton with its bright mustard yellow seaweed covering the beach and picture-perfect cottages along the bay. Plockton is oddly very proud of its palm trees (yes it has palm trees) that line the waterfront, fancying itself as a bit of a beach town and the Plockton Hotel has an outdoor terrace bar with string lights and something of an unlikely LA vibe. If we had the time we would have stayed the night in this idyllic little Scottish beach town. But alas, we’ve had Skye drilled into our heads as a must-see destination, so we make our way via the Skye Crossing (A87), a series of bridges that takes us from the mainland to the Island of Eilean Bàn to and finally to Skye.
All of a sudden, we notice more cars on the road than we have on the entire trip thus far. Portree (above), the island’s main town, although charming, is overflowing with visitors and we’re starting to think we might have come to Skye at the wrong time. But we decide to keep driving, heading North to where they found some dinosaur footprints on the beach in the 1980s. There’s a little dinosaur museum next to the beach in an old thatched cottage called the Staffin Museum that’s worth popping your head into, but do not miss the Museum of Island Life further north in Kilmuir.
A preserved hamlet of 18th century thatches cottages, this time travel museum helps you imagine what life would have been like for the residents of these croft houses over a hundred years ago.
Heading up to the most northerly tip of the island on the A855 , we explore an abandoned hotel next to the ruins of Duntulm Castle. Duntulm Castle Hotel hasn’t been closed for more than a decade (they’ve left their accounts in an open shed at the back), but we can’t work out why a hotel with such a stunning location by the sea couldn’t stay afloat, or at least have been bought and reopened within a few months. The island is already lacking enough accommodation (the island is completely full the weekend we visit).
By now, on the North Western coast, Skye is growing on us as we get further and further away from the crowds. The island does have a beautifully diverse landscape that we hadn’t yet seen in Scotland– a patchwork of sparkling lochs, jagged mountains and strange and enchanting miniature conical hills– best seen at Fairy Glen, south of Uig (signposted Sheader and Balnaknock).
We settle in Stein for dinner, a remote sun trap village on the island home to Stein Inn, an 18th century pub and hotel (the oldest inn on Skye) with a beer garden perfect for sunset dinners. Make sure you order the fresh fish & chips– the best we’ve had so far. For something a little more sophisticated, the village also has the Loch bay Seafood Restaurant that only serves things that can swim in the sea of live in a shell. You’ll have to book well ahead though, same goes with the much-talked about Three Chimneys (UK’s restaurant of the year 2018), a romantic gourmet restaurant and five-star boutique hotel.
We find a spot that welcomes camper vans overlooking the sea just outside of Stein.
In the morning, we explore this little finger of the island further. We quite like it and drive around imaginary holiday house hunting through the villages of Dunhallin, Halistra and Geary and Gillen. It’s a very special corner of Skye and there are some seriously nice homes to imagine yourself retiring in.
Then it’s time to split up for the day. My other half has found himself a ghillie to take him out for a day of salmon fishing on the river Snizort. Derek is the gillie, a wise and kind fisherman who lives in his little cottage by the river, eating and breathing salmon all year long. You can call him on 01470 532297.
Meanwhile, I’m headed for the Fairy Pools, a natural waterfall phenomenon in Glen Brittle with vivid blue and green pools alluding to the supernatural. You have to be a good walker and willing to jump stones to cross over streams.
For something a little less sporty after a picnic lunch by the pools, I make my way to Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the MacLeod Clan, a luxurious and highly civilised respite from the wild terrains of Skye. The Victorian walled garden is particularly lovely.
We left the island of Skye before evening to get ahead on the map and stopped for dinner and a nightcap at the welcoming and cozy Invergarry Hotel.
Wish we’d had time for: The Giant Angus MacAskill Museum– an oddity attraction set inside a restored Highland Croft, dedicated to the island’s former 7’9″ giant, Angus MacAskill. You’ll find everything from his giant chair to his giant socks to his giant coffin, lovingly curated by a living relative.
Harry Potter’s Scotland
Early to rise, we set off for Glenfinnan, a place for steam train enthusiasts and of course, Harry Potter fans. Home to the famous railway viaduct that features in the films, this bridge still carries the Jacobite Steam Train from one side of the valley to the other, stopping in at Glenfinnan Station which also houses a fascinating little museum. But do not visit this place without climbing aboard the Glenfinnan Diner Car in the station’s back lot, a perfect stop for breakfast. Converted from a 1950s railway carriage, there’s also a sleeping car you can stay in overnight.
Seafood Capital of Scotland
Next up we’re in Oban, for the sole reason of visiting a little green shack next to the ferry terminal– affectionately known as The Green Shack. Dwarfed by the surrounding industrial scenery of the busy fishing port, this is a no-frills foodie pilgrimage where you can choose from the fresh seafood on display and ask them to cook for you in garlic butter. Order the scallops, the dressed crab and the prawn sandwich. An unlikely heaven in a bustling unapologetic seaport.
A Tiny Off-Grid Island – No Ferry Needed
We wanted to see one of the really off-grid islands of Scotland without having to go half way to Iceland on a ferry. In fact we didn’t want to have to deal with ferry timetable at all. Easdale Island was the perfect compromise. The smallest permanently-inhabited island of the inner Hebrides just off the coast of Oban, you’ll feel like you’ve landed on another planet. You can reach it by driving to Seil Island, connected by an old bridge from the mainland, where you’ll find the Tigh an Truish, meaning the “House of Trousers”, an 18th century inn which sold trousers to the kilt-wearing Scotsman who would not be welcome on the mainland in their tartan skirts. In an effort to repress rebellious Jacobites in the 18th and 19th century, much of the Gaelic culture was repressed and ultimately destroyed. Keep going to the settlement on the far side of Seil called Ellenabeich with white-washed cottages that used to house the slate workers. By the water, you’ll find a 12 seater motorboat going back and forth to Easdale island. There’s even a button to push in the waiting room hut to call the boat back over. A quick two-minute zip over the water and you’re on Easdale, a tight-knit island community whose population once fell to just seven old-timers in 1950. Today it has 48 residents, a village of slate-workers cottages, a community hall, one restaurant and a charming little folk museum which helps you understand the history of the island as the centre of Scotland’s slate production once upon a time, as hard as it is to believe. The seven quarries once employed over 500 island residents until the industry collapsed in 1881 when the sea broke into the main quarry. Take the suggested path around the island and discover the otherworldly scene of abandoned slate quarries and derelict buildings against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. There is slate everywhere and funnily enough, the island is actually home to an annual World Stone-Skimming Championship. Once you’ve seen all there is to see, head back over in the motorboat to Seil and stop in at the pub, The Oyster Bar, where you’re likely to start a conversation with one of the friendly talkative locals.
We settle by a river on the mainland with a campfire and a field of sheep to keep us company. Find our spot here.
Honest Boxes & the World’s Tiniest Cake Shop in a Phonebooth
Throughout our road trip, we’ve been coming across Scotland’s cherished honesty boxes, essentially little self-service shops by the roadside that rely on passersby being honest enough to put the correct change in the box in exchange for things like eggs and firewood etc. But one honesty box I happened upon in the region of Argyll & Bute is most certainly worth seeking out. Cakes in the Call Box is a tiny autonomous cake shop operating out of a disused red British phone box by the roadside of a countryside hamlet. Friends Bron and Holly gave the iconic but decommissioned red phonebox a make-over and began stocking it with their delicious cakes and brownies. A wonderfully charming experience well worth the stop. Opening times posted on the Facebook page.
As we’re nearing towards the end of our road trip, we enter Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, famous for its ‘bonnie banks’, a long-time favourite of Glasgow weekenders within easy reach of the city. Driving through reminds me of upstate New York and we stop to admire some particularly scenery around the silky waters of Loch Awe. Lunch is in Killin, a lovely village with the Falls of Dochart tumbling through the centre. The inn at the side of the bridge has a good twist on traditional Scottish pub food with drippy candles and old wooded tables with a roaring fire on cold days. Check out the little island in the middle of the falls, home to an ancient burial ground the local clan.
After a visit to what claims to be Rob Roy’s grave in the small village of Balquhidder, we head to our much-anticipated hotel for the night, one of Scotland’s oldest and most atmospheric (and apparently most haunted) pubs, The Drover’s Inn. Inside it’s basically a taxidermy museum, filled to the ceilings with stuffed wildlife, from grizzly bears, two-headed lambs and even a shark hanging in the dining room. The only room available is the luxury jacuzzi room, which is very reasonably priced for such a huge room at £120 during high season. The jacuzzi is the size of a double bed and sits under an antique bed canopy, surrounded by tartan carpet. We can report no ghost sightings, only a great night’s sleep (after a hearty steak & ale pie).
The morning of Day 12 was spent exploring a real sleeping beauty castle, abandoned and hiding away in a forest in the highlands. Discover it with me here.
Lunch is at Beach Tree Inn, a funny little restaurant in the middle of a friendly petting zoo with Shetland ponies, goats and exotic birds.
We realised we had yet to visit a whisky distillery, which is a bit of a crime in Scotland and we just so happened to be near one of the country’s most beautiful– Glengoyne. Continuously in operation since its founding in 1833, this is exactly what you picture when you think of a historic Highlands distillery. Using the same buildings and machinery they did a hundred years ago, you can take a tour led by friendly guides wearing tartan pants and get a free glass of whisky– or two depending which tour package you pay for. Whiskey distillery done.
We camped here with a fire by a small loch in Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.
Notes nearby Accommodation: Macdonald Forest Hills Hotel & Spa.
Don’t forget the Lowlands
Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Southern Scotland as nothing more than something to drive through on your way to the Highlands. It’s actually one of the most peaceful and beautiful corners of Scotland during high season and is hiding some real gems. Case in point: St. Abbs, a sweet little fishing village with its one and only café serving delicious local seafood straight from the fisherman’s trap. Make a stop in the slightly busier fishing town of Eyemouth and meet the three resident seals who live in the harbour waiting for fish scraps you can buy from a seafood hut. There’s also the smart town of Melrose, home to the fabulous abbey ruins and Walkerburn, an eerie old mill town practically frozen in time and the delightful castle and gardens of Traquair House. All three run along the river Tweed and can be quickly visited with in a morning or afternoon.
Scotland vs Provence
Our last memory of Scotland is a happy accident and possibly our most beautiful. Driving back towards Edinburgh we discover Scotland’s heather fields, giving Provence’s lavender fields a run for their money. Endless fields of purple hues, contrasting with the forest greens, reminding you how well the two colours go together.
Best viewed in August in the Moorfoot Hills on the B709, which is where we camped for our last night, by the purple and green roadside.
Find all the locations in this guide marked on my Don’t be a Tourist in Scotland Map.