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A Road Trip through the Scottish Highlands

A Road Trip through the Scottish Highlands

After binging the series Outlander on Netflix, I was ready to go Craigh na Dun and transport myself to the 18th century explore the Scottish Highlands for myself! I had guessed that this trip would be full of entrancing scenery, stunning landscapes, and loads of pubs with cosy fires, but I had no idea how truly incredible the Highlands would turn out to be. Truthfully, much of the trip reminded me of my road trip around Iceland, which I suppose does make some geographic sense.

I spent about a week driving a circle around Edinburgh and Inverness over the New Year, and absolutely loved every snowy and rainy minute. If you’re planning to do the same, you could easily spend a few more days than I did to really have time to see everything, but a week is just enough time to get a good taste of what the Scottish Highlands has to offer.

Map Itinerary of Scottish Road Trip
My road trip itinerary. Green pins are places I stayed overnight, blue pins are key site-seeing destinations. A full itinerary can be found at the end of this post!

Days 1-2 (Edinburgh to Loch Lomond)

On days 1 and 2, we arrived in Edinburgh, picked up our rental car, and headed towards Loch Lomond, which is just north of Glasgow. This ended up being the perfect first stop for our trip in the Highlands, as the landscapes on our drive were stunning and it wasn’t too far so we had plenty of time to stop for photos. We were a bit unlucky [read: incredibly lucky] that it had just snowed, so I had an excuse to drive super slow to admire the views.

Misty landscape in Scotland

I chose to stay at a small bed and breakfast called the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha. The rooms were great, the staff were super friendly, and both breakfast and dinner were delicious. The only down-side to this particular hotel, especially in the winter, is the distance from any town or village. The next morning, we headed off just after sunrise (around 9 am!) to Fort William by way of Luss. Luss is a village just on the other side of Loch Lomond from Balmaha, and it was all that I could have possibly imagined from a quaint Scottish village. If I were to do this trip again, I would probably find a hotel in Luss. A night or two in the village would really hit the spot on a relaxing Scottish holiday. I spent a few hours here wandering the small streets, admiring the cottages, and taking in the view of Loch Lomond from the pier, wishing that I could have stayed for a week to sip hot chocolate.

A cottage in Luss, Scotland

We planned to visit Glenfinnan before checking in to our hotel in Fort William, but this plan turned out to be a little ambitious, especially given the weather and road conditions. Additionally, the drive between Loch Lomond and Fort William is one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken! We were taking the A82 essentially the entire way there, so we drove right through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, as well as the mountains surrounding the Glencoe valley. The higher in altitude we went and the further north we drove, the more snow flurries we were experiencing. Once we made it near the Three Sisters mountains just south of Fort William, we were stopping every mile for photos.

Misty view of the three sisters mountains in Scotland

In the end, we didn’t make it to Glenfinnan on day 2 with absolutely no regrets. With this kind of drive through such stunning scenery, you really need to give yourself some extra time to take it all in (and battle the snow, should you be so fortunate). If you’re visiting Scotland in the summer, you would certainly have time to check out Glenfinnan. There’s a monument there where the Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have started the Jacobite rebellion, as well as the Glenfinnan Viaduct which Harry Potter fans will recognize as the train route to Hogwarts. You can climb up the Glenfinnan monument for incredible views of the area, and visit the visitor’s center to learn more about the Jacobite Rebellion in the mid-18th century.

Day 3-4 (Fort William to Inverness)

At the end of day 2, we checked in to our bed & breakfast in Fort William, The Willows. We stayed in the Anex, a room separated from the main house, and I would highly recommend it- the owners and their pets were lovely as well! After departing from Fort William on the morning of day 3, we headed towards the Isle of Skye for an ambitious day of driving in still wintery weather. We managed to find some more stunning scenery amidst the lochs on the way to Skye, so of course we were frequently stopping for photos.

Overlooking mountains in the Scottish Highlands

When driving to the Isle of Skye, you have to take a pit stop at the Eilean Donan Castle, which is just a few minutes’ drive from the Skye Bridge. This castle is one of Scotland’s most famous, and was once the home of Clan Mackenzie from the 13th century. It was destroyed during the Jacobite rebellion fighting, but was once again refurbished to its original plans in the 20th century, making it an ideal location to soak up the history and beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

A view of Eilean Donan Castle

Our destination of the day, the Isle of Skye, certainly did not disappoint. I was surprised at how developed the island was, as I imagined it to be fairly remote and uninhabited. In actuality, there are a couple of cute towns in addition to the absolutely incredible landscapes. We drove up to Portree and back, but you could easily spend an entire day there, or even a night! The town of Portree itself is very quaint with brightly colored buildings lining the waterfront.

A view of the harbor in Portree, Scotland

One of my favorite parts about visiting the Isle of Skye, however, was finally having the chance to come face to face with the famous highland cows. These beauties are native to the Scottish Highlands, and have a magnificent shaggy coat, making them an iconic piece of the Scottish landscape. They can be seen across the Scottish Highlands among the sheep, but I found a herd of them on the Isle of Skye, and they were excellent models.

Scottish Highland Cow

After departing from the Isle of Skye, we made the trek towards Inverness where we would stay for the next two nights. Instead of staying in the city center of Inverness, we opted to stay on a farm outside of the city (about 15 minutes by car) for a more relaxing experience. I chose Leanach Farm, which is only minutes away from the Culloden Battlefield, and is set amid absolutely outstanding scenery. The family that owns it is amazing, the breakfast is good, and the rooms worked well for us, so I would certainly recommend a stay there.

Day 4-5 (Inverness & Loch Ness)

We booked to stay for two nights in Inverness because there is a ton to see and do in the area, and we happened to be staying there for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Because Hogmanay is one of the biggest holidays in Scotland, many things closed from January 1-2 or 3, but there was still plenty to see and do in the area of Inverness. First and foremost, Loch Ness was on our agenda. It’s hard to travel to Scotland anywhere outside of Edinburgh and miss visiting Loch Ness; it’s situated right in between Fort William and Inverness, and is easily one of the most beautiful places that I visited while in the Scottish Highlands. On the banks of Loch Ness, you’ll find the Urquhart Castle. This castle dates to 6th century, and although it was destroyed during the Jacobite Risings, it is a stunning place to visit for both a bit of Scottish history, as well as views over the loch.

Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness

When visiting Loch Ness, I highly recommend that you drive in a loop around the entire loch. At one end, you have Inverness, and at the other you have Fort Augustus. If you’re leaving from Inverness, I recommend driving first to Urquhart Castle, and then around towards Fort Augustus and back up the other side. There are other lochs surround Loch Ness that are smaller and just as tranquil. In fact, on these small roads that wind through lochs and valleys, you’ll find some of the most incredible scenery that the Scottish Highlands have to offer.

Loch in Scottish Highlands

On your way back up towards Inverness, you might also want to stop at Dores Beach, which is on the northern tip of the loch. We happened to catch part of the sunset from this spot, and it was really breathtaking. It also seems like very much a local’s spot- we even witnessed the beginnings of the 2018 polar bear dive!

We tried to take advantage of the one truly sunny day that we had in Scotland, so after a loop around Loch Ness, and a stop at Dores Beach, we continued back towards our B&B for a visit to the Culloden Battlefield. This is the spot where in 1746, the last fighting of the Jacobite uprising occurred. In just a few minutes, hundreds of Jacobites died fighting the British army, effectively ending the war. Now, the battlefield is a preserved site with markers for each clan from which men died fighting, as well as some information about the battle itself spread throughout the memorial. Despite the fact that the Culloden Battlefield is really just a beautiful and serene place, it was easy to feel the weight of the history that happened in that field. There is a visitor’s center on site which will give you more information about the battle, uprising, and the significance that it had to Scottish history.

Culloden Battlefield in the Scottish Highlands

Day 6-7 (Aberdeen to Edinburgh)

At the end of our journey, we decided to make a stop in Aberdeen, which is about halfway between Inverness and Edinburgh (roughly). This is the part of the trip that I wish we’d extended by a day or two, as we’re really only in Aberdeen for the night. We opted to stay in a hotel just outside of the city center in Aberdeen called the MacDonald Norwood Hall Hotel. This is an historic building with cosy fire places, dark wood accents, and loads of charm, I highly recommend a visit here if you’re planning to stay in Aberdeen.

In between Inverness and Aberdeen, there are loads of castles to explore. I recommend the Elgin Cathedral, which is about an hour outside of Inverness on the A96 towards Aberdeen. This is actually a ruined cathedral (not castle), but the architecture is absolutely beautiful and worth a visit. Past Elgin, there is the Huntly Castle, which is a ruined castle hidden in a forest also along the A96. There are actually so many castles in Aberdeenshire, that there is a castle trail running through the area- reason enough to book an extra day or two to explore!

Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire

Day 8 (Edinburgh & South Queensferry)

On our last day in Scotland, we spent the night at a great Airbnb in the New Town of Edinbugh (use this code for $34 off your first trip!). This location was perfect, as it was a quick walk to the center part of the city. We didn’t stay in Edinburgh too long on this trip, however, as our sights were set on seeing the surrounding area. Our hope was to visit the Hopetoun House, one of the most beautiful estates in Scotland, but unfortunately it is closed in the winter.

Lucky for us, Hopetoun House is just outside one of the most quaint port villages I’ve ever seen! South Queensferry is a history port town with stunning architecture, cute pubs and cafés, and lovely views of the famous three bridges of South Queensferry. In the summer, there are festivals in the town and loads going on, but it was lovely to take a stroll through the streets in the winter. We also indulged in afternoon tea at The Little Bakery, which I would highly recommend as it was absolutely delicious. I look forward to making a return to South Queensferry, and perhaps even staying the night!

South Queensferry, Scotland

My road trip around the Scottish Highlands was easily one of my favorite travel experiences to date. I’d traveled to Edinburgh and Stirling prior to this trip, but having the opportunity to visit some of the more remote parts of the country was truly incredible. It became very clear to me throughout our journey that a trip to the Scottish Highlands is a very different experience in the summer and winter. In the winter, some activities, particularly castles and other estates, are closed for visitors, so if you’re planning a trip in the colder months, plan ahead for what you want to see and be sure to double check what will be open to visit. Additionally, if you’re visiting in winter, keep in mind that daylight is fairly limited (especially in the north!), so your time management skills will be key. Conversely, in the summer, you’ll have more daylight than you’ll know what to do with, leaving you even more time to soak up the Scottish magic! I can’t wait to head back to the Scottish Highlands to check out more of this incredible country.

My Scottish Highlands Itinerary

Day 1: Edinburgh to Loch Lomond (approx. 78 miles/125 km)

  • Stop and stay in Luss

Day 2: Loch Lomond to Fort William (approx. 76 miles/122 km)

  • Stop in Glencoe and Glennfinan

Day 3: Fort William to Isle of Skye to Inverness (approx. 220 miles/354 km)

  • Stop at Eilean Donon Castle

Day 4 and 5: Inverness

  • Visit Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
  • Visit Culloden Battlefield

Day 6: Inverness to Aberdeen (approx. 105 miles/169 km)

  • Check out the Scottish Castle Trail*, including Elgin Cathedral and Huntly Castle

Day 7: Aberdeen to Edinburgh (approx. 128 miles/206 km)

  • Continue on the Scottish Castle Trail*!

Day 8 and 9: Edinburgh and South Queensferry

  • Visit to Hopetoun House* (and Midhope Castle- the filming location for Lallybroch in the series Outlander!)

*Denotes sites that are closed or partially closed in the winter season. Double check visiting hours and seasons before planning to visit.

Scottish Highlands Road trip

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