If you’re like me there’s nothing you enjoy more than hearing stories about other people’s vacations and looking at their photographs of the things they saw and did. Well, you’re in luck! I just got back from a 10 day trip to Scotland and over the next few weeks I’m going to go on about it in nauseating detail. And so that you can plan your life accordingly, I am going to first give you a sense of what to expect from these posts; a road map, if you will, or more in keeping with our trip experience, a bit of Sat Nav guidance (generally, but not always, accurate).
As you probably don’t recall (because you weren’t interested in the first place), when I first posted about the (then upcoming) trip on the blog and asked for recommendations on itineraries etc., I’d noted that this was not going to be a whisky-focused trip. This was a holiday with my family at the end of our three month-long sojourn in London and since neither my wife nor my young children drink whisky, and we wanted to do most things together, there was not much of me disappearing into distilleries by myself for hours on end. This I want to tell you is a very good thing when visiting Scotland, even for a deranged whisky drinker such as myself.
Scotland, you see, is a rather lovely country (well, maybe not every corner of Glasgow). And if, like me, you’re not likely to go back to Scotland over and over again, you really don’t want to spend most or even half of your time there inside distilleries. And I say this as someone who is not generally predisposed to gawping at nature or tramping around in it. I’m not, however, going to spend a lot of time in my trip reports acting like an agent for the Scottish tourism board. I will tell you now that there are far better things to do on Skye than to visit Talisker (and Talisker is not even the best reason to go to Carbost). I will tell you now that some of our best experiences were when we stopped by the roadside in random places and went off wandering down a hill or to the edge of a loch for an hour or two. And I will tell you now that even on Islay it’s best to use the distilleries as convenient coordinates for exploring the length and breadth of the island (they’e nicely distributed). The Warehouse Experience at Lagavulin under the tutelage of Pinkie Mcarthur was a highlight of my whisky career but I’m hard pressed to say that it beat walking alongside Machir Bay with my family, buffeted by high winds and slowly but surely soaked by an intermittent drizzle.
But as this is a whisky (and food) blog and not a travel blog, I’m not going to have any other posts on that (dominant) aspect of our trip. I will offer some trip planning advice based on our itinerary and experience in this post but after this my posts will focus on visits to distilleries (both tours and drive-bys) and on eating. I will tell you what our itinerary was and the few things I would change if I were to do it again; I will give you some recommendations that may make your life easier if you’re a first-time traveler to Scotland; and I will give you some warnings.
First, our itinerary. We took the train up from London to Glasgow and used Glasgow as a jumping off point. We’d originally planned to go to Edinburgh separately over a long weekend but due to some unexpected travel midway through the London sojourn this did not come to pass.
Day 1: London to Glasgow by train. Overnight in Glasgow. We stayed within easy reach of the station and also the branch of Thrifty from which we rented our car.
Day 2: Glasgow to Drumnadrochit. It’s not the longest drive—only about 3.5 hours end to end—but we gave it a full day. As it was a miserable rainy morning as we left Glasgow we decided to not stop at the Stirling castle-industrial complex (which is less than an hour from Glasgow) and to keep driving in the hope of outrunning the rain. This didn’t quite happen but based on descriptions of Stirling Castle I’m glad we skipped it. Especially as Blair Castle, where we actually stopped, turned out to be quite cool. Only passable food in the cafe but a substantial self-guided tour with a fun activity sheet for the kids that kept them engaged (plus the castle staff were great with the kids as we walked through). Only regret: purchasing a mini of the Atholl Highlander blended malt in the gift shop. Plus, thanks to the rain, we missed going to the gardens which are apparently very impressive. An hour or so later we stopped at Tomatin for about 20 minutes (more on this later this week). Then to Drumnadrochit where we stayed at the Loch Ness Inn for two nights.
Day 3: A cruise on Loch Ness in the morning which included a trip to Urquhart Castle. We lucked out with a rainless, occasionally sunny morning. The kids enjoyed the idea of being on Loch Ness and we all really enjoyed Urquhart Castle. After lunch we drove north to Cawdor Castle. This was a bit of a damp squib (in literal and figurative terms) and though we enjoyed their gardens we felt strongly that the better plan would have been to do an earlier Loch Ness/Urquhart Castle visit, have an early lunch and then hightail it to Skye and spend half a day more there. Instead we stayed one more night in Drumnadrochit and I had a slightly disappointing/anticlimactic visit to Fiddler’s.
Day 4: Leisurely drive to Skye with some random stops and walks along the way. It’s not a very long drive and we arrived (passing over the Skye Bridge) before lunchtime. We dropped our stuff off at the b&b (Hillview in Broadford) and drove up to Carbost, where we ate at the Oyster Shed. After that the older brat and I did the basic tour of Talisker (more on this too later in the week) while the missus and the younger brat got soaked on the jetty in front of the distillery. Some aimless but extremely pleasurable driving around the southern part of Skye after that as the afternoon turned sunny and clear (see the picture at the top of this post).
Day 5: A full day on Skye. We spent the morning up at the so-called Fairy Glen up past Uig. We lucked into an absolutely beautiful, sunny morning for a hike and had a lovely time. It started raining as we drove to Portree for lunch and kept on raining into the afternoon as we headed to Dunvegan Castle afterward. The castle tour was not very long but was enjoyable enough, as were the grounds (once the rain slowed to a light misting).
Day 6: Skye to Kennacraig to Islay. A leisurely drive down the coast to catch the evening ferry to Islay. I allocated eight hours to what was billed as a four and a half hour drive. This allowed us to stop at Oban for a relaxed lunch (and an unplanned visit to the distillery—which I had not realized was right in the center of town). Unfortunately, due to the rain we couldn’t really stop very much in the Glencoe area. Then to Tarbert where we idled an hour away along the loch and then to Kennacraig where we caught the last ferry to Port Askaig and then drove to our b&b (Allwynds, on the “high road” between Bowmore and Port Ellen). This was the first of four nights on Islay.
Day 7: Islay. I went to the Lagavulin Warehouse Experience in the morning. This runs for about an hour and if you go on one of the two days in the week that Iain “Pinkie” Mcarthur leads it then it will be one of the highlights of your whisky activities in Scotland. It will probably still be good on the other days but the experience for me was as much about Pinkie as it was about the excellent whiskies he poured for us. More on this next week. While I was at Lagavulin the missus and the kids tramped up the road to Ardbeg and back and had a great time doing it. They picked me up after and we drove up to see the Kildalton Cross. We then lunched at the Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg, which was surprisingly good—perhaps the best food we ate in Islay. We then drove across to Bowmore, wandered around the town a bit and did laundry at the McTaggart Leisure Centre right next to the distillery. Back to Port Ellen for a nice dinner at the Islay Hotel.
Day 8: Islay. I did the Laphroaig Distiller’s Wares tour in the morning. This runs two hours and comprises an in-depth tour of the distillery and an abbreviated warehouse cask tasting, at the end of which you get to hand bottle 250 ml from your favourite cask via a valinch (included in the price of the tour). While I was doing this the family tramped around some more, in the woods by Laphroaig and up to Lagavulin and back. We lunched again at Ardbeg and then tramped around the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle for a bit. Then we drove past Port Ellen to the Singing Sands beach where the kids had a grand time. I also spent some time at the cemetery alongside which dates from the mid-19th century. Then a drive across the island to Port Askaig and a drive-by visit to Caol Ila. From there a leisurely drive around Loch Indaal to Port Charlotte and back to Bowmore for a bad dinner at the Lochside Hotel. This might sound very busy but distances are not vast on Islay and it was a pretty leisurely afternoon.
Day 9: Islay. I did the basic Bowmore tour in the morning and the family kicked around the little “beach” alongside. Then we drove up the other side of Loch Indaal to Portnahaven with a quick stop at Bruichladdich along the way. It was a rainy morning and so the seals were barely visible bobbing in the bay. We saw out the rain at the Islay Natural History Trust in Port Charlotte. This is not a very impressive looking building and it’s not very large but we really liked it. Lots for the kids to see and do and we were immediately able to put names to the birds we’d been seeing on our drives and walks. Wish we’d done this on our first full day on Islay. Once the rain cleared we drove to Kilchoman and after a short walk around the distillery drove on further to Machir Bay which was just lovely. From there back to Port Askaig for another drive-by visit, this time at Bunnahabhain and then back to Port Ellen for dinner once again at the Islay Hotel.
Day 10: Islay to Kennacraig to Glasgow. We took the morning ferry from Port Ellen to Kennacraig and after a quick lunch in Tarbert drove back to Glasgow. The first half of the drive was grey and wet but it cleared as we got closer to Loch Lomond and thanks to slow-moving traffic we were able to enjoy the drive and get back to Glasgow before the Friday evening rush hour traffic kicked in. One more night in Glasgow and then we took the train back to London.
This turned out to be a pretty good itinerary, except that we spent too much time in Drumnadrochit that could have been better spent on Skye—we missed going to the Fairy Pools and further north from Uig. If I were doing this again I would cut Drumnadrochit down to one night and one morning and add a half day from there to Skye; I’d then add one more day on Skye and another on Islay (I don’t know that I’d add more distillery tours though). And I’d probably stop for lunch in Glencoe rather than Oban on the way to Kennacraig (our lunch in Oban, at Ee-Usk, was very nice but it was a nightmare finding parking).
Recommendations and Warnings
1. I really recommend driving. A lot of our favourite bits, as I said, came at unscheduled stops along the way and you can’t do that if you’re on a bus.
2. But if you’re going to drive you need to remember to book your car ahead of time, especially if you need an automatic transmission—most car rental agencies have very few of these. They will also cost twice as much as a manual transmission.
3. And if you’re driving and taking a ferry you really need to book your car in as soon as you’ve finalized your plans. We did this (thanks to the commenters who advised doing so!) and I can tell you that the ferries to and from Islay were jammed. We would not have got our car in if we’d just driven up airily expecting there to be room.
4. Having said that you should drive and that many of our best experiences came on our drives, I will also tell you that driving was also often highly stressful. It was easy going from Glasgow to Inverness but after that every highway was a single, narrow lane in either direction with no divider in between and traffic moving at 60 mph or higher. On parts of the A82 going south from Inverness and on Skye added spice comes from the possibility of driving into a loch or down a cliff if you overcorrect to the left while trying to avoid oncoming homicidal/suicidal traffic. I was glad that our itinerary changed so that we drove south from Skye to Kennacraig—going in the other direction would have put more of the ocean/loch to my left than I would have enjoyed. The highways often converge into single lanes at narrow bridges (“Oncoming traffic in the middle of the road” is my least favourite traffic sign) and in much of Islay and Skye narrow, single track roads in not very good condition and with more oncoming traffic than you would like are common.
5. Unless you are a rally driver or from a place where narrow roads are the norm this will, as I said, be stressful—especially when it is raining (which will happen most of the time) and when impatient drivers come up behind you (I have no idea how people navigate all this in the winter). Feel no compunction about driving at the speed at which you feel comfortable and safe. There will be numerous spots along the way to pull aside and let faster traffic through—you should use these. Of course, if you’re lucky you’ll come up behind slower drivers like me who you can follow without feeling any pressure of being the person leading a slow convoy. Silver-haired pensioners will occasionally pass you in tiny hatchbacks—wave at them as they go by and feel no shame.
6. Be aware that outside of the major population centers you’re not going to get much of a cellphone signal. It might occasionally be strong enough to make a call after a few tries but most of the time you will have no ability to make anything but emergency calls and no access to Google Maps etc. No matter what many, many people on the internet will tell you unasked about how wonderful it is to not have cellphone signal or internet access in Scotland, it is no fun being lost; and if we had stuck to our plan to use Google Maps on our phones we would have been fucked. Relatedly, perhaps because everyone seems to fall over themselves to proclaim the virtues of not having cellphone/internet access, no one seems to warn you about this.
7. Luckily for us we were randomly upgraded by Thrifty to a “premium” car, a Jaguar XE8 which came with an integrated satellite navigation system, or “Sat Nav” to use the parlance of the times. This decreased the stress of driving significantly as I didn’t have to add figuring out which exit to take from a roundabout etc. to all the other stresses of the highway (see above). It did once put us on a far funkier backcountry Skye road than I would have liked, and which was not necessary at all, but it also gave us the confidence that we were never going to be lost. If you’re renting check if your car comes with Sat Nav. If not, get one. At the very least get paper maps.
8. Don’t worry about the rain. Yes, there’ll be a lot of it but most days will have long patches that are rain-free and even sunny. Getting rained on is part of the experience. Do pack waterproof shoes (my sneakers were mostly water absorbent) and light jackets with hoods are far more useful than umbrellas—unless you like the idea of unexpected paragliding off a cliff.
9. It is also necessary to not take restaurants for granted. There are a lot of tourists in Scotland at all times and most small towns do not have enough restaurant seats to accommodate them all. We mostly got lucky because with the kids we ate early but were forced on one occasion to eat fish and chips from a truck. Not the end of the world but we’d already been eating rather heavy meals on that part of the trip and this was one deep fried meal too many. Make reservations—especially for dinner and if you want to eat after 6 pm. And remember, because of the whole cellphone signal thing you are probably not going to be able to call ahead from the road.
10. And at restaurants in small towns and in places like Islay and Skye remember that there will be no service charge added to your bill. Please tip generously, keeping in mind that in many places there’s not a lot of money to be made outside the high tourist season.
11. Finally, it’s very possible to enjoy Scotland deeply without drinking very much whisky while you’re there. Other than the pours on distillery tours I drank very little and didn’t feel deprived. Also, the local beers are quite good! Yes, there’s something romantic about drinking Talisker on Skye or an Islay whisky on Islay but the romance doesn’t increase if you have a lot more than one. It is, nonetheless, very important to have enough room in your luggage to bring many bottles back with you…
Okay, that’s it for now. I’m happy to say more in the comments about the hotels and b&b’s we stayed at and about driving times etc. The distilleries and the food will be covered in separate posts over the next few weeks. I do hope to go back to Scotland again—ideally once to go to Edinburgh and up the east coast to Speyside and Orkney and once to go to Springbank and back to Islay. When or if that will come to pass I have no idea but I am very grateful to have got the opportunity to at least visit this one time. Those of you who go often are very lucky indeed.