“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!”
- Sir Walter Scott, from ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ Canto VI
After a two week stint in the Scottish highlands, the profound nationalism resonating within Sir Walter Scott’s writing finally made sense to me. For those unfamiliar with his work, Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was a Scottish novelist, poet, biographer, and historian and is most renowned as the inventor of the historical novel. His creativity is not unique by Scottish standards: the Scots have contributed significantly to global innovation and has been a thriving center of learning and education for centuries.
I’ve always had a fascination with Scotland — the people, the history, the beauty of the landscapes. I wanted to share my love for Scotland with my family, so I set out on planning a two-week adventure through the Scottish Highlands, with five days culminating in Edinburgh. I had visited Edinburgh twice before but hadn’t seen much of Scotland beyond the big city. Traveling with my husband and two children (aged 5 and 8), I needed to plan a trip that worked for the whole family. It needed to:
- Give us a taste of Scottish culture
- Allow us to immerse in the natural beauty of the country
- Provided ample time outdoors
- Be attractive to both kids and adults
Our final itinerary covered 14 days and 15 nights. Rather than give day by day, I’ll focus on the main four places we based ourselves and what we did from there.
Oban and the Hebrides (4 nights, 3 days)
Oban is known as Scotland’s gateway to the Hebrides, which are the beautiful Scottish Islands that spread out into the Atlantic off the west coast of Scotland. These islands are volcanic in origin, and their beauty is what inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (of which Fingal’s cave was a specific point of inspiration). The nautical town of Oban was the perfect place to base ourselves for the first leg of our trip.
From here we were able to:
- Do a short hike to McCaig’s Tower
- Visit and Tour the Oban Distillery
- Visit Dunllolie Castle, home to clan McDougall
- Drive out to Inveraray to visit the Castle of the Duke of Argyll. (Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise married into this family. The infamous Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada was named after her.)
- Eat fresh seafood at the Green Seafood Hut (not to be missed)
- Take a tour of the Inner Hebrides. We took the Three Island Tour, we traveled by ferry to Mull, drove across Mull to take another boat to the island of Iona, and then took another boat to visit Staffa to see Fingal’s cave and come face to face with the puffins nesting there.
- Visit the ruins of Dunstaffage Castle.
We stayed at 3 Oban — a three-bedroom flat on the second floor of an apartment building in the heart of the city. We were just a 5-minute walk from the ferry terminal, and a 7-minute walk into the center of town, where we had dinner every night.
There are more things to do, and it’s a matter of how much you want to see. In Oban, don’t miss McCaig’s tower, a boat trip out to Iona (and a visit to the ruins of Iona Abbey), and Fingal’s Cave on Staffa.
Here are a few restaurants we highly recommend in Oban.
- La Dolce Vita — The perfect place for breakfast. Hot meals and take away available. Our son particularly enjoyed their bacon breakfast rolls.
- Gelato Burger — Affordable, kid-friendly burger joint with vegetarian options.
- Cuan Mor — Excellent Scottish pub with moderately priced dinner and a children’s menu.
- Green Seafood Hut — Freshly caught seafood prepared right before your eyes and well known for the hot scallops, fried in garlic and butter, their crab sandwiches, and mussels.
- Norie’s — No visit to Oban is complete without a proper fish and chips, and Norie’s is one of the most popular.
Isle of Skye (3 nights, 2 days)
There are probably few places in Scotland that are more storied than the Isle of Skye, but after spending three nights on this island, it easy to understand why. With rolling pastures meeting sand-swept beaches and craggy gorges, Skye has a topography like none other you’ve seen. It’s stunning, and I am not sure any other place like it exists on earth. The Isle of Skye’s aura is augmented by its romanticized history: this is the island Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed to dressing as Betty Burke, Flora McDonald’s maid, and escaped from Scotland for France after his loss at the Battle of Culloden.
We only had two full days here, and if I could do it again, I would have easily added at least one more day. There is so much to see and do on Skye if you love nature and history. On our drive here, we stopped in Glencoe, and Glenfinnan Viaduct. We took the car ferry from Mallaig to Armadale to reach Skye.
Things to do:
- Dedicate one day to driving (and hiking) the Trotternish Penninsula. We stopped to hike up and down Old Man of Storr (2.5 hours round trip) and then made several other scenic stops including a quick drive into the Quiraing (lots of extensive hiking available), Lealt Falls, Kilt Rock, the Museum of Island Life, and the Flora McDonald Monument. We ended the day with two hours at Fairy Glen.
- Hike the Fairy Pools.
- Visit Talisker Distillery.
- Explore Dunvegan Castle and Gardens (home of the McCleod clan).
- Local Staffin dinosaur museum.
If we had more than two full days, we would have spent much more time hiking and exploring. The local dinosaur museum was a treat for our son, who dreams of being a paleontologist. The island has many pre-historic finds, including several fossils, and even fossilized footprints. If you like hiking and being outdoors, I’d easily recommend four days on Skye. We were not able to see some of the other parts of the island, nor visit towns like Broadford (known for its food), or Armadale castle (home of the McDonald clan).
We stayed at Taigh Mhuirne, a three-bedroom home in a housing subdivision just a 10-minute walk from the center of Portree. This was, by far, our most favorite accommodation during our stay in Scotland. It was a beautiful home, with a washer and dryer for clothes, and a fully equipped functioning kitchen. It had an inviting backyard with a patch of grass, and a picnic table so we could eat outside. The living room was spacious, and the bedrooms had comfortable beds with fluffy comforters. With two bathrooms upstairs and half bath downstairs, getting ready was easy each morning. And perhaps best of all, there was a children’s playground across the street, so our kids played there every evening and made local neighborhood friends.
Since our house was just a block from the Co-op, we ate at home two nights. However, the food scene on the Isle of Skye is well known for it’s local, and high-class cuisine. There are several Michelin starred restaurants on the island, but we didn’t go to them. We stuck with the three restaurants below (all recommended):
- The Granary — for breakfast coffee, cakes, and takeaways.
- The Caroy House — for a delicious, Scottish inspired fare and delectable desserts including Cranachan cheesecake.
- The Oyster Shed — fresh oysters and seafood, prepared onsite.
Inverness and Orkney (3 nights, 2 days)
Despite being the capital of the highlands, there wasn’t that much to do in Inverness itself. The Inverness Castle, while visible, isn’t open for tourists. The town itself has several tasty places to eat and sits on a beautiful river. The home we rented was a two-bedroom home, Little House by the Ness, and was situated just across the street from the river. It was a 7-minute walk each morning across the bridge to the center of the town.
The owners of the home went out of their way to make us comfortable. We had a Sky TV powered set, several DVDs to choose from, and toys and games for the kids. The kitchen had all new appliances, and the washer/dryer combo was one of the most sophisticated that I’ve seen. They also left us several snacks and goodies, including a fresh quart of milk and cereals, so we did not have to rush out to the grocery as soon as we arrived.
We did have dinner at a few cute places, including:
- The Waterfront - an award-winning pub, just two houses over from our house.
- The Black Isle Bar and Brewery — yummy pizza and drinks.
Conveniently, our drive from Isle of Skye to Inverness took us right past Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness — so we were able to make a stop to break up the journey. To make the best use of our time in Inverness, we planned a one day trip to Orkney, and then spend the second day visiting Culloden and Speyside.
The trip to Orkney was grueling but completely worth it. We left on a bus from Inverness Bus Station at 7:15 am and made it to John O’Groats around 10:15 am. On the way, we drove through the Sutherland and Caithness, which was some of the most beautiful scenery I’d seen during the trip (yes, possibly even rivaling the Isle of Skye). We saw the cute town of Wick, once home to Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island fame), with the world’s shortest street. We took the ferry to Orkney and boarded a bus for a tour.
On Orkney, we visited:
- St. Magnus Cathedral
- Scapa Flow, and the Churchill Barriers
- Italian Chapel
- Ring of Brodgnar
- Skara Brae (a 5,000-year-old, well preserved neolithic site)
And there was still so much more to see that we did not see. In hindsight, I wished we had planned to spend the night on Orkney (or maybe even two nights). The visit felt rushed, and there was so much more we wanted to see and some time to enjoy the beauty of the islands would have been worth it. I had never been that far north before, and the unique history of the islands (were under Norwegian control until the mid-1200s, and Scapa Flow has been a crucial part of Britain’s military strategy since WWI) made them an exciting place to explore.
The next day we headed out to Speyside and visited Culloden Battlefield along the way (do not miss this). In Speyside, there are several distilleries to visit. The most prominent and well-known town in the area is Dufftown, close to the Glenfiddich distillery. Glenlivet is also not too far away. McCallan is popular, but since they upgraded their facility and facade to be very modern, the waitlist for a tour or a visit is two months long. Book before you go. Enroute to Dufftown, you’ll pass the town of Elgin, which is known for its Cathedral ruins (very similar to what you’ll find at St. Andrews).
Many people spend the night in Dufftown and then continue to Aberdeenshire or Balmoral the next day. Since we were traveling with children and wanted to avoid an additional night’s stay in new accommodation, we drove back to Inverness.
Edinburgh (5 nights, 4 days)
Our time in Edinburgh was perhaps the most anticipated of our trip. On the drive down, we stopped at Balmoral. The royal family is in residence from August, but they weren’t there yet, so the palace grounds were open to visitors. We were only able to see one room within the palace itself as it’s still used as a royal residence. While the grounds were beautiful and it was a welcome stop, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of their way to stop at Balmoral. It makes a nice stop if it’s convenient, but otherwise, there are plenty of other things to see.
In Edinburgh, we stayed in a two-bedroom loft across the street from the Queens Park on Queens Street, just a stone’s throw from St. Andrews Square and the National Scottish Portrait Gallery. The loft was an old Georgian building, so the plumbing was a little funky, and there was no elevator, so we climbed over 70 stairs each day to reach our top floor apartment. But it was beautiful and well-appointed, and also had two bathrooms.
We spent one day outside of Edinburgh, visiting Stirling Castle and Doune Castle (of Monty Python and Outlander fame), and highly recommend both. The history and events that have happened at Stirling leave you feeling like you’re on hallowed ground and it’s worth the trip. Sadly, Argyll’s Lodging was closed on the day of our visit. Doune Castle is well preserved and has a wonderful audio tour, with an Outlander specific track for those who are interested.
Around Edinburgh, we visited:
- Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Abbey Ruins
- The Queen’s Gallery
- Saw the Scottish Parliament from the outside (you can go in)
- Edinburgh Castle
- The Surgeon’s Museum
- The National Museum of Scotland (highly, highly recommended for anyone with children!)
- The Scottish National Portrait Gallery
We also spent a lot of time eating, and there are too many places to eat so I’ll call out our favorite. London’s restaurant chain Dishoom opened it’s a first non-London outpost in Edinburgh in 2016, and it’s been a smashing, crowded success ever since. We had several dinners and breakfasts there. After nearly two weeks of pub food and frozen co-op meals, a few freshly cooked Indian meals were just what we needed.
The end of our vacation was difficult. What was nearly a year of planning came to an end in only two weeks, and we had so many more places within Scotland that we did not see:
- Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
- Rosalyn Chappel
- Melrose & the Borders
- Loch Leven Castle
- Dunfermline Castle
- St. Andrews
- The Shetland Islands
- and more…
We’ll need to come back to see them all.
If you’re planning to road trip through Scotland with children, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Several distilleries don’t allow children under 8 to go on tours due to fumes/vapors in the distilling process.
- Scotland has a lot of one-lane roads with passing places, especially in the highlands. Drive carefully.
- Get insurance when you rent a car. In Scotland, you drive on the left, and the roads can be narrow and windy. Better safe than sorry.
- Parking can be hard — try to find out the situation in places you’re going ahead of time to make sure you’ve got a place to park. Get to popular hiking trails early in the morning or late in the evening.
- Pretty much everything is open 10 am to 5 pm, and most things are not open late. Plan your days accordingly.
- Most Castles or historical points of interest offer children’s quizzes. These can be fun, but they may be distracting, especially if your kids need you to help them complete them.
- Think about where you are sure to visit and then get the Scotland Explorer Pass or join the National Trust for Scotland.
If you want to see more pictures from our adventure, search #ravifamilyvacation2019 in Instagram.
Here is a map of our route.