When you have guests visiting from abroad on their summer holiday, who want to see as much as possible in as little time as possible, you have to choose carefully, and be prepared to make some last-minute changes…
First thing was to hire a car that could take all of us plus our luggage. Usually, we drive about in a tiny, cheap little car in which you can hear and feel the engine. The hire car was big, modern and well-insulated, so we were deprived of two of our senses; instead an indicator on the dashboard lit up suggesting when to change gear. This was utterly useless and inappropriate when negotiating steep roads. (We also had to ask how to switch the damn thing on, never having encountered electronic keys before. The car hire staff told us that they’ve had people refuse to drive the new cars because they simply couldn’t get used to this.)
Day One: Edinburgh to Skye, via Loch Ness and Eilean Donan Castle
We picked up our guests and left Edinburgh about 6am. This allowed a quick sunrise stop at the three Forth Bridges (two and a half at that point) for photos, before heading up the A9 to Inverness for breakfast at 9.30am. The A9 has a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland and is currently being upgraded to a dual carriageway, with average-speed cameras on the way forcing people to drive slowly, even when it’s deserted. It just meant we had more time to explain the differences in Scottish accents.
After a leisurely drive down the west side of Loch Ness, we got to Eilean Donan castle on the Kyle of Lochalsh in time for lunch. Eilean Donan castle is perhaps best known to moviegoers as a location in Highlander (1986) and a brief glimpse in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough (1999).
By this time the wind and rain from an Atlantic storm was putting a dampener on things. We explained to our guests that this was typical Scottish summer weather and why we told them to bring clothes for all conditions.
By the time we crossed the Skye Bridge over the sea to Skye, there was nothing to see of Skye: low clouds, and rain that could barely be shifted off the windscreen. By the time we got to Uig it was 4pm. We were tired and ravenously hungry and there was nowhere open for food (not served unless it was lunchtime, dinnertime, or there was an imminent ferry sailing to the Outer Hebrides), except for a fast food van somewhere up a hill (the directions were vague).
We drove on to the Quiraing, along a single-track road. The car park with the best viewing point was packed with tour buses and campervans with sightseers and children wandering about. The next best place was down a steep, winding road.
As soon as I set off, a large German car swooped around the hairpin bend ahead, ignoring the passing place, and flashing its lights at me. The prospect of reversing up a steep hill towards a crowd of excitable small children didn’t thrill me, I couldn’t gesture through the tinted windows (who needs these in Scotland?!) to the driver to go back to the passing place, and the fucker kept nudging forwards and flashing his lights. I reversed uphill, to a protesting engine and an ominous burning smell until the other car had room to pass. I can only fervently hope the bastard’s car broke down on some potholed road miles from anywhere, up and down some towering mountainsides, in the middle of a storm after dark.
We had a short walk from a smaller car park further downhill, before driving on to Portree for food (finally! – it wasn’t the banquet I was hoping for, but when you’re hungry you’ll eat anything), and then to Broadford for a night in the local youth hostel (a first-time experience for one of our guests; possibly the last, too).
We’d spent over ten hours travelling. You’d better believe we slept well.
Day Two: Skye to Oban, via Glenfinnan and Glencoe
The storm blew itself out overnight, so we left Broadford just after 7am with the sun struggling through the clouds and clear views across choppy waters. We headed straight to Fort William for breakfast, where we managed to get into a hotel for a buffet breakfast.
We were a little late – it was after 9am – but we were able to stuff ourselves silly (and fleetingly feel sorry for the old lady staring at the empty buffet tray where, no matter how much she stared at it for twenty minutes, scrambled eggs failed to materialise).
The wind and rain made a reappearance. Our next stop was Glenfinnan Viaduct, as seen on the railway route taken by the Hogwart’s Express in the Harry Potter films. We were racing against time, because the steam train was due to cross it some time between 10.30am and 11am.
Unfortunately, we were held up by caravans and a filled car park, and got to the viewing point precisely five seconds afterwards. All we could see was a plume of smoke receding behind the trees, and a torrent of tourists in waterproof ponchos gingerly making their way back down. If I had telekinetic powers I would happily have set fire to every single one of them with my brain.
The big location we wanted to show our guests was Glencoe. We weren’t really heading in the right direction to see the best views of it, but we got out for a damp forest walk. By this point, our guests were maybe getting a little bit tired of tramping around the Scottish countryside in the cold and rain…
We headed to Oban, to find the local distillery tour was fully booked by people taking shelter from the rain. In my mind, every last one of them was fated to be staked out naked in a field full of tumescent Highland cattle. So we spent the afternoon in a restaurant eating and drinking instead.
Our original plan was to return to Edinburgh via Loch Lomond, but the weather forecast said we’d have yet more rain to look forward to. Our guests wanted to see the sun again. It’s amazing how sunshine becomes a distant memory in Scotland.
So after puzzling over the road atlas for a bit, we decided on a trip to Glenturret Distillery where -the forecast said – the weather might actually be summery…
Day Three: Oban to Edinburgh, via Crieff, Stirling and Falkirk
At 8am, we discovered that a filling hotel breakfast simply wasn’t going to be ready in time, so we had to make do with something light and snacky before heading off. On the up-side, the weather cleared as we headed east along the northern edge of the Trossachs to Crieff.
One of our guests was from South Korea and fascinated at the amount of gear-changing that took place going up and down each hill. She explained that back home all the cars had automatic transmission, and one could pass a driving test in a simulator. What was the advantage of using a gearstick? (This was a question I asked many times when I was learning to drive; I hated the damn thing, but I got used to it.) In the soundproof, vibration-proof modern car, it was a lot harder to come up with answers involving being able to gauge the state of the engine and having more control. We’re used to being able to drive by the seat of our pants instead of having to refer to dashboard indicators. I suspect that as cars become more computerised, they might as well all become automatics. But that’s just a random thought.
Glenturret Distillery makes one of the malts that goes into Famous Grouse, and – more importantly for us – offers tours of the distillery, explaining how to make malt whisky, step by step. So it was a pleasingly different start to the day (more relaxed!), and a chance to do some shopping.
The next stop was Stirling. By 1.30pm, the castle car park was chock-full, but we got to potter about on another tour for a couple of hours and head into town for a late lunch. We were all tired and glad the journey was just about over.
We made one last stop in Falkirk at 5pm, in time to catch the last rotation of the Falkirk Wheel for the day, and to get some late afternoon photos of the Kelpies. It was also a chance to introduce our guests to that classic British summertime treat, the Number 99 ice cream (they bore it stoically).
We got back to Edinburgh after 7pm. And bloody hell, were we glad to crash into bed! Our guests had a day in Edinburgh and a day in Glasgow to catch up on shopping before heading down to England. We like to think they saw about as much of Scotland as they’d need.
Hell, I think we’ve see as much of Scotland as most Scots need to see!