When traveling, I try my best to maintain a flexible itinerary. When the necessity of advanced tickets and notoriously busy locales are on the menu, making plans is unavoidable. But in Scotland, a place where time seems irrelevant and the land is its own museum, "discovery travel" is my preferred mode.
The easiest way to define "discovery travel" is to relate it to writing.
Writers identify as either "plotters" or "discovery writers." A discovery writer has a general sense of where they are headed, but allows the story to lead them wherever it needs to go. This loose method of plotting may cause the writer to paint themselves into corners from time to time, but is a breeding ground for greater creativity. For example, in my YA fantasy novel, Nameless, I never intended for the story to evolve into a trilogy. New characters, new plot lines, and new conflicts added a richness to the story I never would have discovered had I stuck to the original outline. "What if?" became a vital question throughout my writing adventure.
Discovery travel in Scotland meant not always knowing where I was going to sleep that night. It meant talking to strangers around BnB breakfast tables asking for advice on what to do in the area. It meant trying new foods, driving on the left side of the road, and making a few beautiful wrong turns.
And I loved every minute of it.
Stop 1: Edinburgh
I rented a car and literally screamed trying to take that first round-about out of the airport. I'd post the video here, but have too much self-respect. :) With the car in the car park and the luggage out of the boot, my friends and I met our first Airbnb host of the trip in a quaint little apartment located right on the Royal Mile. We learned quickly just how difficult the Scottish brough was to translate and mostly just nodded when he made recommendations for our visit. I'm sure he thought us thick in the head. We loved the Rick Steves tour of the Mile and Edinburgh Castle--an experience filled with bagpipe, cannon fire, royal jewels, and fascinating history. I especially enjoyed learning more about Scotland and England's complicated past (and present). Like any respectable J.K. Rowling fan, I insisted we visit the Elephant Cafe where Rowling often wrote and wandered Greyfriars Cemetery and where many of the names for characters in Harry Potter were inspired. We hiked Arthur's Seat, a hilly rise above Palace of Holyroodhouse where royalty of old would hunt for deer and could look out over all of Edinburgh. We visited the Sir Walter Scott monument, ate meat pies and fish and chips, and toured the bowels of the old south bridge on the coldest midnight ghost tour I've ever experienced. (It's also the only midnight ghost tour I've ever experienced). Yes, it was scary, but learning about the body-snatchers of Edinburgh during a time when the university was paving trails in western medical advancement was crazy stuff. I still shiver when I think about it.
Stop 2: Sterling and Doune Castles
We took our time wandering the winding roads of Scotland on our way toward the lake district. Sterling Castle had all of the grandeur and VIEWS of a medieval fortress and Doune Castle (which was featured in Monty Python and Outlander) had the best audio tour, narrated by Monty Python's own Terry Jones. Hilarious and educational! We took afternoon tea at a quaint little shop called BlueBell.
Stop 3: Loch Katrine, Loch Lomond, and Trossachs Park
After all of the touring and bussle, the little place we rented on the banks of Loch Lomond was a perfect change of pace. We rented mountain bikes and rode the trails of Troussachs Park, the whole time envisioning Sir Walter Scott writing his iconic poem, Lady and the Lake. Caution: The front brakes of the european bicycle are on the right hand! Yes, there is a story there...
Stop 4: Ft. William and Glencoe into the Highlands
We rolled into Ft. William late in the evening, trusting that one of the dozens of bed and breakfast vacancy signs would still be alight. At many of our planned destinations, we found we could negotiate a good rate at the last minute, and that proved true in Ft. William. We walked William's solitary main street and found some incredible live music and hot chocolate in an underground pub. In the morning, some other guests recommended a waterfall hike that locals kept mum. The sign for "Danger of Death" at the trailhead had us shrugging and charging onward. Waterfalls, a suspension bridge, and when one of our party wanted to do a run down the mountain, past our car, and toward town, we didn't think twice. The problem: she had our car keys and we didn't have cell service. Solution: Our running friend remembered she had the keys before passing the car and put them in the gas tank. Problem: The gas tank locked after she did so. #facepalm
With some caveman enginuity, we were able to use sticks to click the unlock button on the key fob, but this bright idea didn't come until after a rainstorm spent sitting by the car. Phew!
Glencoe and the Highlands were otherworldly and put my imagination into a full tailspin as I considered days of old, warring clans, and rough living. We made friends with a bagpiper randomly stationed alongside the road, and pulled over to walk old cemeteries, and other ruins on the drive north toward Skye.
Stop 5: The Isle of Skye
Eilean Donan Castle, Fairy Glen, hiking Ole Man O'Storr, looking out at the waters that used to be navigated by viking ships and other threats, a lively pub, and live music in Portree made this stretch of the journey truly epic! This author lacks the words to describe the beauty, and even the pictures don't do it justice. #ameturephotographer #lifegoals
Stop 6: Oban, West of the Highlands and Gateway to the Isles
Oban was a pleasant accident. We knew we needed to be in Glasgow the following day, so we took a scenic route south through the western highlands, admiring decaying castles, more highland cows, and green rolling hills. We rolled into Oban late and found a lovely bed and breakfast. It's a quaint seaside town, with good shopping, and beautiful vibes.
Travel Tips for Scotland:
Be flexible! Give yourself the freedom to explore. Scotland deserves it!
Rent a car. There's too much to see off the beaten path to rely on trains, taxi, etc.
It will take you longer to get from point A to point B than you think! Every road is winding and narrow. Fifty miles in the US is the equivalent of 200 in Scotland when considering travel time.
The first week of May was chilly!!!! Pack layers and plan to buy a luxurious wool scarf when you get there.
Shortbread. We had millionaire bars every single day. It's basically a shortbread/caramel/chocolate number that will change your life.
It will rain. Every day. Pack a rain jacket that you really love, because you will wear it in every picture. :)
8 days gave us a good look at half the country. I think 12-14 would have be magical. I'd love to go back with my husband and golf the Old Course at St. Andrew and see more of the eastern side of the country on up toward Inverness. On a second trip, I would also give Edinburgh more than a 1.5 days. It deserves at least 2-3 alone.