After boarding the train in London at Kings Cross Station platform 9 3/4 we clickity clacked our way across a patchwork quilt of farms and villages. Church steeples poked their way out from behind hedgerows surrounded by boxy brick houses. We passed stunning seaside towns and undulating countryside. And after a very relaxing four hour journey (£34 per person) through England we finally arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland.
If I’d had a sense of nostalgia when I got off the plane at Heathrow, it was now Andrew’s turn. Many of his ancestors had originated in Scotland before making their own various individual journeys to end up in Australia as early settlers in the 1800’s.
Andrew managed to drag our heavy suitcases from the station, up the interestingly named steep steps of “Fleshmarket Close” and on to “Cockburn St”. Not sure what those street names relate to but it doesn’t sound good…
We emerged gasping for breath after the steep haul on to the Royal Mile and made our way to our very flash accommodation at the Radisson Hotel Royal Mile. Around NZD$300 per night the location was fabulous – right on the doorstep of the castle and really trendy rooms. And even better we were welcomed with a cool glass of gin and tonic ahhh luxury!
With the day rapidly drawing to an end, we decided to head out to get our bearings and find somewhere to eat. The Royal Mile runs along the ridge of a hill – with the castle at the top in a commanding position overlooking the surrounding area. You can buy just about anything you want on the Royal Mile so long as it is a tartan scarf… imagine 100 shops all selling the same scarves. They looked like they might have all been owned by the same company as all the signs, styles and prices were the same as well. Anyway clearly we had to buy one, so we spent ages deliberating and eventually found ‘the’ scarf.
Then it was off to find some haggis. We walked past a restaurant claiming to have the best haggis in town, so we went in, sat down and nervously ordered. Arcade Bar Haggis & Whisky House is a great place. Lovely atmosphere and even though I was a bit apprehensive about eating haggis, the meal was amazing. Andrew was keen to also gain an appreciation of whisky so he ordered a wee dram and we settled in for a pleasant evening – we are firm believers of the “when in Rome” philosophy, so with our tartan scarves, whisky and haggis experience under way we felt like our Scottish initiation was going well.
The following day it was off to visit Edinburgh Castle. If you order your tickets online you can save heaps of time queuing for a ticket. They also have free guided tours of the castle grounds and you get a great brief explanation of the complex and long history of Scotland. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times during the centuries.
Then we headed off to try and track down some Herriott history. An extra ‘t’ had been added to Andrew’s last name somewhere along the family line, but we managed to find a number of places named after George Herriot (1563-1624) a goldsmith to the Queen of Scotland and philanthropist – one of Andrew’s ancestors, including a few streets, a school, and even an old pub called Jingling Geordies that we’d walked past the day before.
That night we did one of the ‘free’ Edinburgh Ghost Tours. We wandered around the streets with our guide telling scary stories and we eventually ended up in a grave yard. You then tipped your guide at the end of the tour the amount you wanted to pay for the tour. A great concept and lots of fun. Then it was off to enjoy one of the many amazing restaurants down George IV Bridge St.
The next day we were off to pick up our rental car. We caught an Uber from our hotel to the city depot of Avis, where we had to buzz to be let in. A sign above the tellers head said something along the lines of “abuse of our staff will not be tolerated”. Hmm I wondered what that is all about?
About 30 minutes later I fully understood why the buzzer and sign were in place. The queue of people hadn’t moved and the assistants were still trying to upsell people to buy extra insurances they didn’t need and a tank of gas to avoid having to fill the car up when they dropped it off. Do people really actually think this is ever actually a good deal? It literally only takes 2 minutes to pick up a rental car in NZ! Anyway after a whole hour of faffing around and getting them to add all the scratched panels of the car to their damage report before we drove off – we were finally underway! It was only NZD$232.00 for a five day hire, so good value, but you could certainly lift your game Avis!
Our tour of Scotland
Thank heavens for Google Maps. We easily navigated our way out of town and in to the stunning Scottish countryside. First stop was Foxhall Lodge in Kirkliston, another former stomping ground for Andrew’s ancestors. Then on to Falkirk to see the wheel in action. This incredible piece of engineering replaces steps boats 24m between two canal systems. You could take a tourist boat ride if you wanted to experience it in action. Apparently it is so well balanced it only requires a tiny amount of power to run. Next time we come back we will have to charter a canal boat and go all the way through the canals as they look awesome!
We passed through the city of Stirling where it started to hose down with rain. We parked below the enormous memorial to William Wallace (aka Braveheart) and ate our M&S Sandwiches while admiring the damp view.
We sidled along the shores of stunning Loch Lomond, stopping briefly for a beer in the lovely village of Luss, but it was still pouring with rain so not overly appealing to get out and walk. The autumn colours were stunning as we drove through the Trossachs National Park. This whole area looks like a fantastic place to come and stop and stay a while and explore.
Sadly though we had to carry on, and the scenery changed dramatically again as we reached the Highlands. The spectacular bleak Glen Coe region is an incredible landscape.
The pouring rain created incredible silvery waterfalls on the mountainsides. We spotted keen hikers braving the wet conditions and off on an adventure in the distance.
Finally after a long day of driving we made it to the Ballachulish Hotel. I was keen to stay in quirky boutique hotels and we achieved that with varying levels of success. Lets just say that some hotels don’t exactly look like their photos online…
Anyway the Ballachulish Hotel is about 300 years old and Queen Victoria stayed here! It has a fantastic location right on the waterfront. There is a lovely bar and lounge area and a great restaurant. Our room was huge and fully of furniture to house an entire family. The floors all creaked and groaned as you walked along and I was absolutely sure I was going to see a ghost (but I didn’t). We had a lovely meal at the hotel, and then Andrew absolutely slaughtered me in a game of Scrabble by the roaring fire.
The next day was a bit less rainy, so we scooted back to Glen Coe for another look around before driving through to Fort William where we did a very expensive load of washing. With a huge wall of washers and dryers spinning merrily away we quickly calculated that the laundry owner was probably the richest person in town. We whipped back to the supermarket to get some sandwiches for lunch and some beer for later and after collecting our wet washing we carried on north towards the Isle of Skye.
Skye is connected to the mainland by a bridge, or you can also catch a small car ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. We chose to drive over the bridge and on through to our Air B&B The Boat House in Sconser. We had some lovely hosts and we quickly settled in to our lovely room overlooking the water before heading out for some dinner at the local pub.
A little ferry zipped back and forth from just beside our house over to a nearby island called Raasay. We ran out of time to get over there, but we promised one another that we must come back and sail in this stunning part of the world one day.
The following day we set off to explore as much of the Isle of Skye as we could. We started in pretty Portree where we found an average cup of coffee and muffin in the only cafe we could find that was open. We admired the colourful waterfront buildings and had a quick wander around the town before heading North.
The scenery in Skye is incredible, and we had a lovely brisk but clear day. We passed the Old Man of Storr an unusual rock formation on the hills high above. We would have loved to stop and do the walk but as we were on such limited time we had to sadly drive on past.
A little further north we stopped at Kilt Rock. The waterfall made a fabulous rainbow as we looked out over the edge. The carpark was packed with tourists – in October! I wondered what it must be like in the height of summer.
We stopped in to see a quaint museum in an old croft house packed with all sorts of interesting artifacts including 200 million year old dinosaur fossil footprints.
From there we cut West across the Trotternish Peninsula and entered a spectacular landscape called the Quairang. There is a two hour loop walking track you can do here. We stopped for a quick wander and to take some photos of the incredible views.
We ate our sandwiches overlooking the port of Uig, where ferries travel to and fro from the Western Islands. And then made a side trip off the main road to the Fairy Glen, an area of small unusual cone shaped hills which are natural but look fairy made.
Dunvegan Castle was our next stop. I was getting a bit of castle overdose, so we were keen for a quick wander around the garden, but with the £12 entry fee combined with the heavens opening in a torrential downpour, we opted out and went for a drive further up the road to get a glimpse of this impressive building overlooking the stunning loch.
We also had a date with a distillery. So we drove on to the Talisker Distillery. For £10 you can get a 45 minute tour behind the scenes in the distillery, with a detailed description of the whole process, followed by a tasting at the end. I tried my hardest but I still can’t drink whisky without pulling a grimacing face, so Andrew gladly savoured the rest of my glass.
Up the road from the distillery is the Oyster Shed. Sadly their restaurant was closed but we managed to buy some fresh slightly shucked oysters to take away and open ourselves when we were back at our Air B&B, which we washed down with a couple of beers. Delicious!
The good thing about staying in Air B&B’s is being able to get some advice from the locals. We were tossing up whether to do a boat trip in Skye or on Loch Ness. Our hosts recommended we take a Misty Isle boat tour from Elgol to Loch Coruisk, they called ahead and booked us on a 9am departure, so we got up early, packed up the car and said our goodbyes before driving down the narrow winding roads towards the South Western side of the island.
When we arrived we were surprised to find that we were the only people on the boat trip. This was pretty special! We jumped aboard the boat and chugged out in to the mist. Ahhh it was great to be on a boat again! Our guide James pointed out some of the nearby islands. The boat gradually approached an inlet surrounded by steep black cliffs, and gradually navigated in to a protected position behind a reef studded with sleepy seals. We disembarked and were left to go and explore by ourselves with instructions on what time to be back at the boat.
We squelched our way along the track, scrambling up and down rocks. I wished I’d brought my tramping boots. As we slowly climbed and sidled our way along we eventually came across a gorgeous loch surrounded by steep mountains all around. Not another human in sight. We spotted some deer footprints and then found the deer they belonged to. It didn’t seem to mind being photographed either!
It started pouring down as we made our way back to the boat. Thankfully James had the kettle on and we warmed up with tea and biscuits while we waited for the rain to subside and then chug back towards Elgol. In hindsight that boat trip was one of the highlights of our whole trip.
On the road back we pulled over alongside Loch Slappin and scrambled down the hill towards a pile of rocks on the waters edge. This was another of Andrew’s ancestor’s former homes. The crofters were sadly cleared from the land in the 1800’s and some ended up in Australia and you can read all about that in this book – Hell Ship. It was incredible to be able to walk around the site of their home and imagine what life must have been like back then in this remote part of the world.
Skye had been brilliant. While our mutual ancestral roots may be in the United Kingdom, the dramatic landscapes had reminded us of home – New Zealand.
We drove on towards Loch Ness. Eyes peeled for the monster which sadly did not appear. We stopped for a walk among the ruins of Urquhart Castle, admiring the views of Loch Ness, and thankful that we’d decided on the Skye boat trip instead. Boats zigzagged all over the Loch, rapidly disgorging their loads of tourists at the castle wharf.
It is possible to sail all the way through Scotland from East to West (or vice versa) using the Caledonian Canal. An impressive lock and canal system connecting Inverness via Loch Ness to Fort William on the Western side. Another thing for the bucket list!
We arrived in Inverness and found The Glen Mhor Hotel right on the riverfront, with good car parking and a short stroll in to town. We mooched in to town and struggled to find a restaurant that could take us in for dinner – on a Tuesday night! We eventually found a fabulous pizza place and had a great feed and excellent service.
Its fair to say that after the fabulous scenery of Skye, the Eastern side of Scotland wasn’t quite as spectacular. We drove on to Aberdeen, stopping off along the way at sleepy seaside towns with lovely golden sandy beaches which were lovely, but perhaps we just had a bit of travel fatigue. I certainly had something and it wasn’t good, and by the time we got to Aberdeen I felt like I wanted to throw up.
The stale air in the room at the Carmelite Hotel, and the rowdy bar patrons on the street below didn’t help me feel any better. I went to bed and Andrew ventured off alone in search of food, eventually settling on a bar meal downstairs.
I felt slightly better the next morning, and we had a walk around the impressive granite buildings of Aberdeen before checking out of the hotel and headed for Edinburgh.
We stopped off along the way to see ancient Pict relics. The Pict people inhabited Scotland way back in the Iron Age and it is incredible that some of their stone artworks can still be found dotted around the countryside.
Another detour took us to Edzell Castle – another ancient family home of the Lindsay family – Andrew’s mother’s ancestors. The castle was closed for the winter, so we sadly missed out on seeing this impressive building and gardens. It had been an incredible journey to be able to visit all these places depicting Andrew’s family history, and we were really thankful for all the work Andrew’s Aunt Barb and his father had put in to all their research making our pilgrimage so much easier.
We made a detour to St Andrews on the way and had a lovely afternoon checking out the famous golf course and enjoying the atmosphere of this pretty town. The cathedral ruins were especially spectacular.
We spent our final night in Edinburgh at the Ibis Edinburgh Park. Just 10 minutes drive from the airport with free parking. They had a very basic food menu available, and with not much in the way of other restaurants in this commercial precinct, we opted to eat there and have an early night as I still wasn’t feeling 100%.
And we had a plane to catch the next day… tummy bugs and plane rides do not go well together.
A week in Scotland had felt like a bit of a whirlwind. We had covered a lot of ground but probably not allowed ourselves as much time as we should have – like in Skye for example.
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