Growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin, I didn’t know much about travel other than geography classes and books. I remember my older sister Kathy being in love with the Scottish Highlands, castles, kilts, bagpipes and all things Scotland. It was a dream destination for her, but as a country kid she might as well have wanted to go to the moon (despite Elon Musk).
Decades passed. A few years ago I asked her if she still had the dream of going to Scotland. She did, but couldn’t convince her Caribbean cruise friends to try another destination. Then I had an idea – maybe I could travel to Scotland with her. (Don’t think me too noble; after all, I volunteered to travel to Scotland!)
We booked an 8 day bus tour aptly named ‘Scottish Dream’ with CIE Tours, a company specializing in travel to the UK. The journey started in the bustling city of Glasgow in western Scotland, traveled on a horseshoe-shaped coach and ended in the capital, Edinburgh. I loved it, and here are a dozen reasons you might love it too.
1. Curious floating heads in a Glasgow museum
Along with traditional art in the 22 galleries at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, don’t miss out on the unusual hanging heads, created by artist Sophie Cave. Museum lighting highlights the emotional expressions – from joy to agony – on over 50 heads. It’s the kind of thing you can’t help but stare at, and it’s fascinating (and a little creepy) that some stare back!
2. Panoramic views on a boat trip on Loch Lomond
I’m not sure if we took the High Road or the Low Road to get to Loch Lomond but I can tell you the Scots drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road which made us glad we were on one instead Being a bus tour maneuvering these streets alone! We took a short boat trip on this classic lake (Scottish for lake) and although the day was cloudy and rainy our spirits were not dampened.
3. “Art in Arms” at Inveraray Castle
At our first castle in the Scottish Highlands, Inveraray Castle, I was struck by the ornate decoration in the foyer, which is a perfect balance of art and weaponry. The walls displayed a variety of weapons including rifles, war shields, spears and blades. If you venture in, watch out!
Pro tip: Lunch time in Inveraray? Go to Argyll Bar and if you’re lucky they serve fresh locally caught salmon. You’ll recognize it by the unpretentious sign: “Bar meals, lunch and dinner – served by attentive staff.”
4. Wander around the stunning Glenfinnan Monument
Erected in 1815, this imposing monument honors the fallen Jacobite clansmen who fought and died for Prince Charles Edward Stuart. If you have time, stretch your legs on a short climb up the hill at the Visitor Center for endless mountain views.
Pro tip: Tickets to climb the monument are available at the visitor center or online for a small fee.
5. The romantic gardens of Armadale Castle
After a short car ferry (or should I say a ‘huge coach’ ferry) we drove from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, and enjoyed a self-guided tour of the Clan Donald Centre in the ruins of Armadale Castle. The ruins and gardens were stately: flowers everywhere, walkways over bubbling brooks, ornamental gateways, trellises, archways and more.
Pro tip: After touring the Isle of Skye, Make a photo stop at the magnificent Eilean Donan Castle.
6. The deep, dark waters of Loch Ness
Ah, the Loch Ness Monster. Lore or legacy, who can say? Loch Ness is approximately 23 miles long and almost 800 feet deep. The weather was so idyllic the day we were there that I could see why Nessie wanted to live there forever. Kathy and I took a short walk to the lake and I loved this beautiful sign: “Like the heart, the true heart, however cold the world may be, the lake never freezes over.”
As for Nessie, sightings are guaranteed with a large statue outside the visitor center. Inside you can buy any size of Nessie stuffed animal imaginable!
7. Sink your fingers into the sheep shearing
I loved this sheep station near Pitlochry with its rolling green hills. A shepherd led a demonstration with 18 shepherd dogs under his command. Through a series of whistles and words, he would call each dog to work or to rest. They were obedient – and quick – when they rounded up sheep!
Only six people (including Kathy and I) on our tour of 38 “helped” the shepherd shear a sheep. Others were more interested in the next activity: feeding lambs from large “baby” bottles.
What I loved most here was the shepherd. As a local boy, he said he had always admired this working farm and that one day he wanted to be a shepherd here. How often do you hear someone say they’ve found their ideal job? His childhood dream job, fulfilled. Not unlike Kathy’s childhood dream of vacation, which came true. All of this made me happy.
Pro tip: When it’s time to rest your weary head in Pitlochry, feel like royalty for a night and stay at the magnificent Atholl Palace Hotel.
8. Photo op with the Blair Castle Bagpiper
Seen one castle, seen them all? Visiting this house, home of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, was again full of history, beauty and luxury. But I loved it, as we got off the bus we heard the unmistakable rumble of bagpipes, lass! After the tour, to my delight, we had a photo op with the bagpiper.
Pro Tip: If you travel through the Scottish Highlands from July to September you will see fields of heather (August is the month with the highest flowering and scents). When we traveled in October the heather fields had turned a rusty red but were still beautiful.
Pro tip: Looking for a unique Pitlochry souvenir? Heathergems create beautiful Scottish jewelery and gifts from natural stems of heather. They are the sole producers of this uniquely Scottish product in the world.
9. Bring some good cheer to Blair Athol Distillery
This distillery produces a Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky. According to our guide, when whiskey ages in casks, it releases a gas that turns tree trunks black. Apparently in Scottish Prohibition, die-hard Scots who still wanted their liquor set up distilleries in the woods. If the search authorities came across logs that were as black as night, they would know there was a smuggled distillery somewhere nearby! For us, our tour ended in the tasting room with a shot of whiskey all around.
10. A bird’s-eye view from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh is a city of contrasts, with wide streets and elegant mansions in the new part and narrow streets and medieval townhouses along the Royal Mile, the oldest part of the city. On our final castle tour, we ventured into Edinburgh Castle with its dramatic views of the city and Blackness Bay leading to the North Sea.
Pro tip: If you travel in August, don’t miss the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an elaborate ‘pomp and ceremony’ military performance showcasing music and cultural performances from around the world.
11. Try new foods and part with a few dollars
Eating out and shopping are common reasons to love a trip, and this one was no exception. Enjoy a hearty Scottish breakfast buffet with black pudding, porridge, fried eggs, crispy bacon, baked beans, hash browns, sausage, tattie scones (a type of potato pancake), mushrooms and roasted tomatoes. You might want to try haggis, but you might not. (Maybe it’s an acquired taste?)
As far as shopping goes, the lush tartan plaids are irresistible, and you’ll find them in everything from scarves to handbags to blazers and berets. Scotland’s national flower, the thistle, features on gifts of all kinds. Other goodies I bought were whiskey tea, whiskey flavored coffee and a bottle of Scotch Whiskey (hmmm…there’s a theme here).
12. Travel with someone special
Kathy and I hadn’t shared a room since we were kids about 50 years ago. I think sharing my sister’s childhood dream was almost as good as making one of your own. From a TV that mysteriously turned itself on one night in castle lodging (“I’m not afraid of no ghosts”), to a fascination with the shaggy yet adorable hairy Coo (a kind of Scottish ox) to arguing about it , who “gets the window” on the bus (some things never change), it was a trip that evoked unforgettable memories. For both of us, this trip was truly a Scottish dream.