A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – The Final Leg

This is the conclusion to my series documenting my road trip through Scotland’s remote rural areas. Start at the beginning (highlands), jump to part II (Skye), or see Part III (Ullapool to Durness). 

The crisp morning air made it difficult to drag myself out from beneath the mound of heavy down blankets the hostel had opted for in place of heaters. With a groan and a roll I pulled myself upright and then wormed my toes into my boots. It didn’t take long before I started to come back to life as I noticed that beyond the nearby windows, the weather looked pleasant. A revisit to Smoo Cave with its subterranean waterfall chamber had been one of the primary draws which had pulled me towards the northwestern tip of Scotland. With a yawn and a stretch, it was time to hurry down for one of the first cave tours of the day – all in the hope that I would beat out the inevitable flooding that came each afternoon as the Scottish summer rains dumped their load on to the rain-drenched hillsides of the rugged Scottish glens situated a few miles to the south. Inevitably, when the rains found their way to already damp creek beds it would quickly flood them and turn each into small rivers racing gleefully, like highland sprites, towards the coast.

A Cold Beach - Northern Scotland

The evening before had been uncharacteristically dry by the time I reached Smoo with naught but a gentle rain earlier in the afternoon. In the fading light of the late afternoon, I had paused to capture the beautiful colors and otherworldly visage of the waterfall from a wooden platform carefully constructed just inside the chamber long ago carved out by the falls’ hammering fists. Both that evening and the following morning found the falls relaxed, gentle, and calm. Nowhere near the raging torrent I’d encountered some years back during my first visit.  At that time, even to approach the railing left us with water in our eyes and our jackets soaked through.

The Portal to Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

To my delight there were only a couple of us waiting to commence the quick tour. With 4 GBP in hand I donned my hardhat and kept myself busy wandering the grand chamber that serves as the mouth to the cave. The chamber, carved by the sea, is a wondrous thing and the type of place that has shaped and inspired the greatest of stories through the millennia. From a dragon’s fossilized maw to a dark and treacherous home to trolls and sea sirens, Smoo Cave could easily serve as inspiration for it all.


It’s about 11:00PM Sunday evening here – and I’m just winding down from an incredible 3 day tour of the Isle of Skye and Scottish highlands. After arriving and meeting a few of the guys in my sleeping area we hit up the town and explored a bit.

Day 1: The first night a group of 4 of us formed up and headed down to the local Three sisters Pub which has a large outside area and was showing the Scotland-France soccer game. The pub was packed and the energy level was insane – after a lot of back and forth Scotland eventually scored which resulted in an explosion of activity and excitement…everyone was jumping up and down and shaking things, pints, and pint glasses fell to the ground left and right, and the whole crowd was jumping up and down in excitement. After things settled down a bit Scotland eventually won, 1 zip which led to another round of celebration. From there we explored a few other pubs, met a number of other travelers and eventually found our way back to the Hostel.

Day 2: I woke up fairly early, did some wash, got settled and set out to explore the town with Chris – one of the guys from the night before. We started with a 3 hour free walking tour of the city, which covered history, and was just a great general intro to the city. Edinburgh is really incredible, because as a capital city – it’s incredibly small and has a fantastic historic/old town. In addition to the old town and tenement buildings, the closest part of the new town was all built in the Victorian era at the same time on a master planned design. So it has an incredible classical uniformity, beautifully laid out pedestrian and motor oriented areas and a great standard look. When the tour ended we explored the city proper a bit, found a market, the bus station, the train station, and a number of other random stops before returning to the hostel, cooking dinner, socializing with a few randoms in the kitchen, then taking a quick snooz. About 10:00 we woke up and made our way down to what I hoped was going to be an active Salsa club. Unfortunately, it was a standard night and the turnout was poor – i’ll try again Monday (which is a designated salsa night). After leaving the salsa club – pretty much upon entry we walked around a bit more and sampled a few other random pubs. Unfortunately, while Edinburgh has a ton of natural beauty, it’s missing natural beauties. About to give up and call it a night, we stumbled into an odd Cafe/bar that had a great local crowd and was full of attractive, friendly girls. After an hour or two we called it a night – both having early mornings.

Day 3: I decided to do a 3 day Isle of Skye/Highland Tour to really get a good taste. The tour consisted of 10 people. Myself, Simon (our Driver/Tour Guide, 2 other Americans, A Tasmanian, A Hungarian, 3 People from Taiwan and 2 Germans. From Edinburgh we made our way straight into the country side. Our first stop was the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was born for coffee/tea and to introduce ourselves. From there we made our way to a historic battle field where Simon shared a mixture of folklore and history with us. After the battle field we meandered through the lowland country side – which included a brief stop to feed/see a harry island cow (had to throw tater and carrot slices at the fat thing to get it to come visit/eat some more). When we crossed into the highlands we made a quick stop to look at the country side/rolling mountains/talk about peat at which time Simon also pulled a bottle of single malt Scotch Whiskey from his pocket and explained what made it special, before teaching us a traditional toast and then passing the bottle around. The bottle of scotch followed us throughout the trip and served as a fun little tradition whenever we had stops that were exposed, especially cold, or rural and significant.

After our introduction to the Highlands we continued on making a few other stops to explore lochs, glens, or take pictures. Eventually we arrived at the valley of Glencoe made famous in songs and folk lore that recalls the massacre that occurred there. The place itself is incredible. A riveting valley with rich waterfalls and steep, graceful walls all around you. We parked and walked the 1/4 of a mile or so down to the river where we paused for more lore/history before making the way back up to the bus. When I get photos up – this is definitely one set you need to see. From Glencoe we continued along our way making a few other stops and eventually coming to a reconstructed version of an old castle. The castle sat out on a small island and was connected by a bridge. Rebuilt to spec in the early 1900s it was incredibly picturesque. As the sun set, and the golden rays of dusk started to reach out and embrace the castle we took a few photos, shivered from the cold northern wind and piled back in the bus. From there we had one final brief stop at a super market to pick up food for the evening and headed to the hostel. All the while the sunset was one of the most incredibly and gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was so incredible, as we wound down a 1 lane rural road we stopped to just take it in for about 15 minutes (the whole sunset lasted a good hour).

We reached the hostel which was a great little place, then started cooking – as part of the tour we all paid an additional £35 which included lodging, breakfast, and dinner. We BBQd Ribs, Hamburger, Sausage, and Chicken before all heading to the local (tiny) pub to meet some of the locals and reflect on the day.

Day 4: (The Isle of Skye) – The day was a blustery, cloudy, rainy day – one quite different than the day before. We left our main packs at the hostel (we’d return there again for the evening after making a circuit of skye) and piled into the van. The first 30 minutes or so was pretty quiet as everyone suffered through their respective hangovers and tried to figure out what exactly had happened the night before – but then shortly after that we all got back into touring mode. A good 20 minutes took us to the main bridge from the mainland into Skye and another 10 minutes later we stopped at a lookout that sat across from a huge, majestic, bald, sweeping mountain. At the foot of the mountain and all around us there were – what looked a bit like large ant hills made in the peat. There Simon told us about the folklore that claimed that each was a Fairy den and how the locals avoided harvesting peat from them out of respect. As the weather continued to deteriorate we piled back into the car and made our way further up the coast. After a few other fun stops for local lore, history, or fun photo shoots we came to a set of high cliffs that reminded me of a miniature version of the cliffs of moehr (Moore?) in Ireland – except, unlike those cliffs a waterfall shot out and off the down one side, spilling crystal blue water out and down the 200 or so feet to the rocky cliffs below. On the other end of the lookout we could see the sheer cliffs as they plunged into the sea.

We left the cliffs and made our way to one of the old ruler’s former castle. The castle was perched majestically on the side of a cliff overlooking a bay, with a large island. The spot we stopped initially gave us a great vantage point while Simon told us a bit of the history. From there though, several of us decided to brave the rain and howling winds and make the 10-15 minute walk the long way to the castle. It was well worth it. After arriving at the castle and exploring it briefly the others (who had stayed in the van and come around to walk out a shorter – straight but less interesting path) arrived as well. Hunkered down in a corner overlooking the bay Simon again recounted more of the Castle’s quirky history. As we made our way back down to the van we had to cross a stretch of exposed coastline. The wind was so fierce that you could lean halfway into it. The sheer power of it inflated your cheeks and stole the breath from your lungs as the soft rain stung your face. It was incredible! The energy, power and crispness. The castle behind us, cliff to the side of us, beautiful gray torn ocean out past us and highlands in front of us.

Drenched, cold, and excited we continued on a short way where we elected to stop at a small goods shop. Where we picked up sandwiches, hot pies, and drinks – before heading down to the coast where teh waves were crashing in. Huddled in the van we pulled up onto the dock and faced out into the wind and the bay while we ate our meals and watched the wind blow the rain past us. The sea and sky merged into one gray, glorious entity as the waves came crashing in onto the black rocks dotted with orange seaweed and kelp. After finishing lunch we continued along our way and eventually came to stop at a beautiful waterfall near the road. Behind the waterfall as a majestic backdrop was an incredible stone formation that looked like a spear or spire sticking up from the mountain. Again after a few photos, a lot of water, wind and rain, and a few people slipping and sliding on the wet grass/hill we paused with the waterfall crashing down beside us to listen to Simon recount the story of an old man (who later became the stone spire) and the brownie he helped.

From there we continued along the way – almost all 1 lane roads – surrounded by hundreds of waterfalls, awe inspiring highland mountains, beautiful lochs, and peat covered in blooming heather (a beautiful red/purple low bush) to what Simon called the fairy Glen. The glen was a beautiful little area with a climbable spire – about 100 feet up that offered an incredible view of the valley, loch etc. Just visible through the mist and fog across the valley were huge waterfalls. Meanwhile in the glen there were sheep everywhere, wild ferns, peat, old treas covered in green moss, small streams and a gorgeous waterfall. We explored the glen for a good 40 minutes. It reminded me of some of the opening scenes in the Lord of the Rings/the parts around Rivendell – only it was real, the rain was still falling but more of a light mist and with just a bit of wind.

From there we continued along and stopped for goods and a snack at one of the larger towns on Skye. We checked out an interesting Himalayan bizarre they were having, i grabbed some chips (fries) and then we headed home.

I’ve left bits out, and I’ll try and follow up when I have better internet access – needless to say though – it was incredible.

Day 5: The return – I’m out of time now but it was also a great day. Mixed weather we stopped at Loch Ness, an incredible canyon where there was a beautiful waterfall with jumping salmon and moss covered trees, the last battlefield ever fought on British soil and a quick scenic stop. I’ll have to continue later as I’m out of time. Hope to get photos up soon!