Thinking back on Scotland, the thing I remember most is the rugged, untamed terrain, endless mountains, and climbing in worn-out sneakers up those mountains, attempting not to slip and fall off a cliff and kill myself. It was cold in Scotland, there was an endless breeze that had to be battled anytime I stepped outside. I remember hiking and feeling the cold sting of wind on my face, and feeling invigorated as I looked around on the peak, seeing nothing but gorgeous mountains. I felt alive and I had to begrudgingly admit to myself that yes, Scotland was just as beautiful as Ireland.
It sounds crazy, but I didn’t want to love Scotland as much as Ireland. I had completely fallen in love with the idea of Ireland, with its rolling green hills, quaint villages, shamrocks, leprechauns, and fairy tales. Ireland was whimsical and romantic, filled with fun-loving people who loved music and dancing. I had fallen for Ireland before even stepping foot in the country. Many, many people told me that Scotland was magnificent as well, and they enjoyed their time there just as much, if not more than when they were in Ireland. But, I didn’t listen to them. I was determined in my hard of hearts to enjoy Scotland, have fun with Scotland, but not to fall in love with Scotland.
But it happened anyway.
And I didn’t even expect it. Love comes slowly I guess. I can’t say exactly when it happened, but one thing is for certain, it happened in the Scottish Highlands, on a Haggis bus tour. Edinburgh and Glasgow were fine, but the real gem of Scotland are the Highlands. And, if you can get a legitimate Highlander to show you around the Highlands, you are in for a treat.
To explore Scotland more in depth, I opted for a three day Haggis Bus tour called Skye High, which featured trips to the Isle of Skye, Loch Ness, and the Scottish Highlands. And our guide, Joe, was a full blooded highlander, whose first language was Gaelic. His voice, to my tame ears sounded garbled, and rough, and I had to really focus if I wanted to understand a single word that he said. But after a few hours, I detected a wildness in his voice, a tough, gritty cadence that reminded me of something from hundreds of years in the past, and made me quite aware that the man who possessed such a voice was no stranger to hardship and hard work, the Scottish highlands and all of Scottish history.
Hearing this man weave Scottish stories and history, stomp around in huge boots up mountains while the rest of us younglings trailed behind him trying to keep up, and wearing a kilt with a Haggis t-shirt, made him the best possible guide that I could have ever hoped for. In any case, maybe this legitimate Highlander, quite a rare breed in Scotland these days, was the reason that I fell so hard for the country.
My favorite places in Scotland were actually pit stops. Yep, go figure. And they are not on the normal Haggis tour. Our tour guide took us to some fabulous little places along the road. And as a result, our tour group saw some pieces of Scotland that not many people get to see. Here is a glimpse into some of the most beautiful places in Scotland (in my humble opinion). Please note that the Haggis three day Skye High tour does leave from Edinburgh, but does not include tours of the city. I recommend staying for a few days once the tour ends to hang out with people from the tour and get a taste of the capital. Also, St. Andrews is not part of the Haggis tour, but many tour companies offer day trips to St. Andrews as well as various other places around Scotland.
The Edinburgh Royal Mile
I took so many free guided tours around Edinburgh that I could probably tell you most of the history of the entire city. But, suffice it to say, the Royal Mile today is packed with restaurants, shops, hostels, castles, old buildings, churches, statues, bagpipers, entertainers, and plenty of tourists.
It is a wonderful place to walk around. I also highly suggest wandering around the new part of Edinburgh, where you tend to find more locals, and the grass market which has many affordable food options and a great atmosphere for a drink.
Arthur’s Seat Hike in Edinburgh
Within walking distance of the royal mile there is a fabulous hike. It is not too challenging, and gives you a great view of the city from the top. If you’re an outdoors person, this hike is definitely for you.
My family loves golf. And I love the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. So, St. Andrews seemed like a logical choice for a day trip. The cemetery in St. Andrews is really nice, and the castle by the edge of the sea is whimsical. The town itself is tiny, but great for a day trip. Lots of little shops and restaurants to enjoy, as well as the pristine golf courses. Well worth it if you have the time.
Loch Ness, the home of Nessie. I had one crazy friend on tour who insisted she swim with the sea monster. I am all for jumping in bodies of water, but I was freezing and tired and the walk from our hostel to the lake was just too long. But I did enjoy a boat cruise on the loch looking for Nessie. Sadly, there were no sightings, but we did see a rainbow after some light showers.
Eileen Donan Castle
I wasn’t aware of the cult movie classic Highlander until my host Mom in Italy made me watch it. Anthony Hopkins is fantastic, as per usual, and I liked the quirkiness of the movie. The actual castle where Highlander was filmed is called the Eileen Donan Castle, and it is located in Scotland. The castle itself is very cool, the family who owns the castle actually lives in part of it, and hosts all sorts of weddings and birthday parties. It is not only a piece of history but a family home.
Of course the best part about the whole experience was when our Highlander guide, Joe, made us recreate the famous scene from Highlander on the bridge, complete with sound effects.
I wish I could remember all of the little pit stops we made on our tour. Highlander Joe would frequently say, “Well, we’re scheduled to stop at a small food station and refill the van, but how would you all like to go hike a mountain/see a magical river/ride a ski-lift/pet some deer instead?” Thankfully the group that I was a part of was more than willing to edit our itinerary, and as a result we saw and did some pretty fantastic things.
Perhaps my favorite pit stop was for lunch in the Highlands on the way to Loch Ness from Edinburgh. We started by grabbing bag lunches from a small restaurant at the base of the mountain. Then, we took ski-lifts a bit higher, before hiking a bit and settling down for lunch and some pretty amazing views. The Scottish mountains are not all that big, but they are magnificent. After the tour, Joe took us to a backpacking lodge and let us feed wild deer. Supposedly only Joe can make the deer come close enough to humans.
On another stop, Joe decided that we should complete a small hike. Joe’s idea of a small hike included me, exhausted after trudging up a steep incline for the better part of an hour, scrambling over rocks on all fours, attempting to pull my body up as bits of gravel cut into my legs. I will admit the view at the top was great, but the whole way up I was cursing Joe.
We stopped a few more times, once to dunk our heads into a magical river that supposedly gave you magical powers, another to view a Scottish Comando memorial, others just to look at nice castle on the side of the road.
Like every other place I’ve visited, it is impossible to fully appreciate a country through pictures and stories. No matter how hard bloggers and travelers try, you can’t capture the feeling that you get when you’re walking around another country. It is pointless to try and capture everything that you experience when you travel. When I returned home to Florida after my trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Scottish Highlands. I was ready to trade my bikini and sunscreen for a warm fleece and hiking boots. Alas, I probably will not return to Scotland for quite some time. The world is a big place, and I want to see more of it. But I am so thankful to Haggis tours for escorting me around their beautiful country. And, for Highlander Joe who truly is the best guide I could have asked for. Until next time.