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Scotland has so much to offer, from the city aspect to nature and rural areas. I had already been to Scotland for Hogmanay and to explore Edinburgh, but this time my aim was to explore its nature and the highlands with a particular quest to meet the hairy cows! And for an even closer to nature experience, we ended up renting a campervan as Scotland has an excellent campervan culture, so the following will also include where we stopped for each night. You can read more about my first campervan experience here: I live in a van for 11 days – what I wish I knew.
When researching for this trip to Scotland with nature in mind, I was spoiled for places to visit. We found several helpful sites with the most informative one being Visit Scotland as it displays several routes to follow all with attractions to go to. We had 11 days to fill between our flights, which both were from Edinburgh, so our road trip loop had to start and end there. All we know was that we wanted to go up north and to follow a part of the N500. We travelled in an anticlockwise manner as it worked better for us, but different sites confirmed that it does not make a difference which way you go. So, here is our full 11-day itinerary for you to follow or tweak, along with a map showing the route we took, some tips we found useful and my opinion on which places you should not miss. For a briefer photographic journey of the Scottish Highlands have a look at Why I loved the Highlight of Scotland – A Photographer’s Journey.
As we were to arrive in Edinburgh in the afternoon, we aimed to pick up the camper van and head as much North as possible through Cairngorms National Park. As we lost more daylight than anticipated setting up at the camper van at the rental offices, we did not manage to explore the park but stopped there for the night. This park would have been a great spot to explore, so an extra day would have been ideal for visiting here. If this is your first time in Scotland, this is where I suggest you also add at least a day to explore Falkirk before heading North, where you can visit the Kelpies and the Falkirk wheel. These two attractions were a highlight in my previous trip to Scotland.
The kelpies are a unique sight and a great photographic opportunity both during the day and lit up at night. The Falkirk wheel is a treat for all those that, like me, are mesmerised by technology and engineering. Besides being visually striking you can experience being lifted and rotated on a boat floating on water while being transported from one canal to another at different levels. Although this experience was unique, I appreciated this piece of engineering best when admiring it from the ground in front of it where you can see the wheel completing its rotation in a couple of minutes.
If you love whiskey or just enjoy the occasional scotch on the rocks, you cannot go to Scotland and not visit one of the number of distilleries they have. This time we visited the Glenfiddich Distillery as it was on our way. It was a pleasant visit, similar to other we have visited. We were able to see the process from fermentation to the distillation to storing in barrels, and of course ended with the tasting. Do keep in mind that the alcohol limit for those who are driving is rather low in Scotland, so be aware that it may be better to take your samples with you if you are driving.
From here we headed towards Bow fiddle rock which is a beautiful photographic opportunity. Bring your binoculars as it was also an excellent area to observe the birds that took over this rock and made it their home.
I am not a big fan of beaches, but on our way, we stopped at Nairn beach, a charming, peaceful beach. Apart from a couple of people walking the beach was deserted, which added to is beauty and peacefulness. Our last stop for the night was Inverness Islands, providing a pleasant, quiet walk at sunset. We spent this night near the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve overlooking the Kessock Bridge.
Our first destination today was quite near, as we drove over the Kessock Bridge to Fairy Glenn Waterfall. This gem is an easy 30 minutes hike to see the falls where you can get lost amid the trees and the sound of the waterfall.
There are other areas to hike beyond the waterfall if you have the time, but in our case, after enjoying the falls we headed towards Chanonry Point intending to see the dolphins. This spot was one of the places where luck has to play a role, as although I spend a good amount of time looking through my binoculars no dolphins made an appearance, cause of which I assumed was the weather. With our mild disappointment, we drove on to visit one of the ample castles that adorn the country of Scotland, being Dunrobin Castle. This castle looks like it got built straight out of a fairytale book, and also provides a good place for a walk.
Our last stop before setting camp was the Whaligoe Steps. As the name implies there are several steps here that you need to climb back up after enjoying the view, maybe not ideal for the last attraction of the day, and I suggest that you are prepared for midges as this was the only place they actually attacked us. This was the first night we spent at a campsite, and we found Wick Caravan and Campsite. It was a nice and cheap site with all the amenities we needed. They even lent us a longer cord to charge our van at no extra charge. Please note that we did not need to book any of our campsites, probably as we were not travelling in the peak season but do check if you are travelling in the middle of summer and keep in mind that the reception areas will usually close in the evening.
Today we headed even further north to John o’Groats and then Duncansby Head. The former is a charming location with multicolour buildings and the famous direction post, with the latter being a few minutes away and providing breathtaking views of the ocean. Rock formations around the coasts of Scotland are, in my opinion, what makes the coasts here interesting, and this is no exception. Here is also where the Duncansby lighthouse is located. The whole area is taken over by sheep, which roam to their heart’s content. Just look out for their droppings!
After we travelled to the point furthest North of Scotland being Dunnet Head, which is the furthest North I have ever been in the world, and there was cold and wind to prove it. Despite this, it was an ideal spot for birdwatching, so make sure to pack a pair of binoculars.
After lunch, the last stop was Smoo Cave, which in my opinion is worth a visit to see the cave formations. This time we found a spot near the caves to stop for the night.
The next morning we headed towards Clashnessie Falls. The first challenge here was to find an entrance to the path leading to the waterfalls as all entries were closed off by a gate. I am not used to gates that keep livestock at bay, therefore for me, a gate is to keep the humans out. But on the contrary, here gates can also be found in front of public paths, with a curtesy sign asking you to keep them closed. In the process of looking for an entrance, we found the following map of the area specifying the two paths leading to the waterfall, which is how we concluded that the paths where public. I am including it here to save you the trouble of figuring out the entrance when you get there.
We chose the blue route, which was a slight challenging but rewarding walk. Make sure you are wearing appropriate footwear to keep your footing as the path is rather ragged. A waterproof trousers would also be helpful as the path goes through tall grass at times. The red route had to diverge in the blue route by means of stepping stones across the river which must have been submerged in water as we did not see them along our walk. So although the red route may be easier, it may not get you as far as the blue one.
On our way south, we drove by Loch Assynt, which has a unique spot in which trees appear to be growing out of the water. This spot was a few minutes from the remains of Ardvreck Castle, beautifully surrounded by water. If you want to have a closer look at the castle, the water was only knee-deep as a tourist dared to cross over for a closer look. We ended the day at Ardmair Point Caravan & Camping Park in Ullapool as by this time we were low on supplies. The site was clean and spacious and also had a launderette, a bonus for us as we managed to wash and dry all our clothes by bedtime.
Today we drove to Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve for a short pleasant walk. In my research, I did find this leaflet explaining the trails and what one can spot on the way, but we ended up not following these paths as we had a time limit although I would have loved to spend a full day exploring. From here we drove to Reraig Forest. I found a number of websites recommending the Reraig Forest tour, but since we were not sure at what time we expected to arrive at the forest, we opted for a short walk on our own. To end the day we drove to the Isle of Skye to get a head start for the following day and parked in the carpark near the King Haakon bar.
Isle of Skye was one of my most looked forward destinations, and with all its interesting attractions we did not even manage to visit them all. We started heading North stopping at Blackhill Waterfall first for a brief stroll, then travelling to Portree being a charming colourful village, which is the capital town of Skye. This is ideal for exploring and stopping for lunch with multiple shops around. The last place North was the Mealt Falls and Kilt rock which are next to each other. Again this is a rock formation attraction, which although nice to see, has a limited viewpoint as the water is falling over the edge of a cliff.
Our next stop was Fairy Glen, and I have to admit that this was my favourite. Being a popular tourist attraction, when you get there you meet a number of people all heading to this spot, but after a brief walk all people are dispersed, and you are met with a vast green landscape formed by a landslip. Walking around with some imagination, you can understand why it is named after fairies. Walking here was beautiful, with a different view at the end of each path. One could have easily spent more time here exploring the areas, and we did spend more than we planned here, hence missing our last stop, which was the Fairy Pool. It looks like the fairies have a lot of property here. We had to skip the last stop as we still had some distance to cover to spend the night close to the viaduct in preparation for tomorrow.
Although I am not a particular Harry Potter fanatic, I am a train lover and I was eager to see the ‘Hogwarts Express’ or the Jacobite Steam Train go over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct. If you plan to go to see the train or even photograph it, I do suggest getting there early. The train goes over the bridge at 10:55, but parking could be a hassle, and it takes you at least 15 minutes to walk to a good spot. People do gather to see it, so it is also ideal to go early to find a good view point. Get ready with your camera or mobile because it does go by very quickly and the next time it goes by is in the afternoon at 15:00. If that wasn’t magical enough, we also managed to see a deer up close at this spot. We read later that there is a deer forest there so if you have some time to hike in these areas it may be possible to spot some more. It was fascinating how calm the animal seemed even with people taking a tone of photos of it.
After we spend an hour observing and photographing the deer, we passed through Fort William for lunch and travelled to Oban as we needed to be close to the harbour for our tour the next day. Oban is a lovely town, which I wish I had a few more hours to explore. It has several shops and restaurants, but the biggest downside here was that it is not really campervan-friendly and campervans and motorhomes were not allowed to be parked anywhere, plus all parking was restricted by time. We ended up sleeping at Roseview Camping and Caravan Park, which is a nice campsite close to the centre with all the utilities needed, including showers, toilets and launderette.
Embrace yourself; this is going to be a long one. Today was our only tour day. We booked a 12-hour tour to the islands with Staffa tours. Our first obstacle at 7 in the morning was finding parking as all areas where probating the parking of motorhomes and camper vans. With a boat to catch at 7:30, we threw caution to the wind and parked at a pre-paid parking with a sign prohibiting motor homes. Ours was small enough that we hoped would pass as a utility van (That was us positive thinking ignoring the fact that we had camper van stickers plastered all over the van). Paying the parking with change was another obstacle as we had used all our coins the previous night to do our laundry and all shops were still closed. After a very stressful 30 minutes, we managed to rustle up enough change, ran to the port and caught the boat by the skin of our teeth! Lesson 1: if you are opting for a boat tour from Oban, make sure you know where you can park your camper van or just take it with you on the ship, which we later discovered also transports vehicles. The boat ride was pleasant enough, and after around an hour, we stopped at the Isle of Mull.
A bus was waiting to take us to Tobermory, a further 40 minutes ride. From here we met a person from the Staffa tours which advised us that the seas were rough and that he is willing to refund anyone not willing to take the trip. The stubbornness in my brain refused to admit that we have come this far to miss the boat ride I was looking forward to, so we went, but boy, oh boy was the sea rough. The boat ride was about an hour and a half, but it felt much longer, with the waters being so rough that we barely managed to see anything along the way. Lesson 2: If you are no sailor, cut your losses, swallow your pride and ask for that refund! Stepping on Staffa at the end was a pleasant experience, but to our dismay, we only had around 15 minutes to explore the island, not enough time to even explore its famous caves.
The trip back was much nicer, and we did manage to see the caves from the boat, along with a number of birds and the odd seal waiting for the tide to go down. Once on Tobermory, the bus back was cancelled, and we had to wait around 2 hours in Tobermory, which although charming has only a few shops to keep you busy unless you want to visit the aquarium or distillery at an extra cost of course. Although I do recommend visiting the islands with a tour, I do not recommend the one we took. I would have appreciated the information about the rough seas and the refund option when collecting my tickets from the Staffa offices in the morning before I got all the way to Tobermory and would have liked more time to explore Staffa whilst less time in Tobermory. By the time we got back to Oban after another 2 hours travel from Tobermory, it was already dark and the shops had closed so we headed to Loch Etive for the night.
With the trip coming to an end today we stopped for a brief visit to Loch Lomond, and continued on our way to Glasgow. You can easily spend a day or two at Loch Lomond, and you can get some ideas of what to do or see from this site. But we opted to spend some city time today as we had never visited Glasgow and it was the first city we set eyes on after nine days in the countryside. Like any city, there are a number of attractions here, but with such a brief time I just enjoyed wandering and getting lost amongst the busy city life. If you go to a city with your camper van, do take note that as street parking is rather expensive, one might opt for a carpark, but most carparks have a 2m or 2.5m height limit which is even too low for our humble 3m camper van. We did find one outdoor carpark with no height limit, so have a look for those. Our last night in our camper van was spent at Seven Lochs Wetland Park, which although so close to a city it was beautifully filled with birds and swans that woke us up with their chirping on our last morning in Scotland.
On our last day, we wanted a briefly nostalgic visit to Edinburgh before our flight as we had already spent a week here on our previous trip. If this is your first time, I would suggest you add a couple of days to explore the city. You could look for attraction here, but from my previous trip, I would recommend visiting the Edinburgh Castle, which will take you back in time with its tour of the castle. I would also highly recommend the National Museum of Scotland where you could still see the famous cloned sheep, Dolly. Having said that, in my opinion there are many more exciting thing to explore here, with my inner child gleaming at all the interactive animal or technology-related installations. The Scottish National Gallery was another one of my favourites, where I could admire my first-ever Raphael paintings along with many more. And the best thing is that these latter two attractions are free to enter. Two more attractions, that although tourist-oriented, were still enjoyable where The Scottish Whisky Experience, which gives you an entertaining overview of whisky-making along with some tasting and a view into the world’s most extensive whisky collection and Camera Obscura, a fascinating museum filled with illusion along with the famous camera obscura illusion. Finally, just have a stroll along Princes Street and observe the busy city life and shops in contrast with the calmness of Princes Street Gardens.
That concludes my 11 day itinerary, which should give you a good start to plan your own. I have put the names of the places/attraction in bold to help you find them faster when researching.
What are your favourite places or attractions in Scotland? Anyone who lives or have been to Scotland; would you add any place that I may have missed?
You can also read about my experience living in a camper van here.