After spending an entire 1 day in Edinburgh, I knew a couple of things:
- I love Scotland
- I don’t know when I’ll be back, and want to make the absolute most of my very limited time here in this country
With that in mind, I was a little more flexible with the budget if it meant experiencing as much of the country as possible. Before even leaving for my semester abroad, I booked a tour that goes all around Scotland, stopping at some of its most famous sights like Loch Ness and Glen Coe.
Considering the tour lasts around 10 hours, it prompted an early morning, and so I left my hostel, and by some miracle, got walking in the right direction towards the meeting place for Rabbie’s Highland Tours.
Oh I almost forgot to update on the hostel experience! I didn’t get much sleep what with people returning from pub crawls and stumbling around all night. I’m not going to say that part was fun, but that was about what I’d expected when we booked our bunks in a 16-person room. Other than that, though, the beds were comfy and warm, and I felt safe there so I’d say that overall, Castle Rock hostel is the way to go for budget lodging in Edinburgh. Plus, a little sleepiness is nothing that an en route coffee from Pret can’t fix!
Morning hike up Calton Hill
On the way to the Rabbie’s tour meeting point, I passed by a graveyard that resembled Greyfriars Kirkyard. Taking a detour, I walked along the quiet paths and enjoyed the quiet morning here. Despite being completely alone, I was surprised to not feel nervous or anything as I normally would in a haunted place like this.
While in the graveyard, I noticed a nearby hill with some monuments on top, and since there was still about an hour before the tour was set to meet (I didn’t expect to have not gotten lost by this point), I decided to hike up there to see what it was all about.
Thankfully, the path leading up to the hill has a few placards, where I learned that this is Calton Hill.
The hike up Calton hill was… some great excercise to say the least. By the time I reached the top, the cold morning air had my lungs burning. Though it’s the lesser known of Edinburgh’s climbable hills, the views of the city from the top are perfect, made even better by the early-rising sun.
On the flat summit, there are a couple of monuments scattered about. One of which is the National Monument. It was supposed to look like the Parthenon, but was never quite finished.
The tower that had originally brought me up here is the Horatio Nelson monument, and a rotunda overlooking the edge is the Dugard Stewert monument.
In the middle of Calton hill, I settled at the foot of the Napoleonic war memorial to bask in the morning glow falling over Edinburgh. Evidently, this is a very popular spot to take pictures, because there were at least a dozen photographers up there with me, all with tripods and professional cameras. I tried to get chatty but their silence made it clear they were on the clock. My bad, they probably found me very annoying.
Full of gratitude for such a serendipitous excursion, I made my way back down the hill to meet with the tour group.
Hopping Aboard the Rabbie’s Tour
If you’re laughing about the company name “Rabbie’s” for its closeness to “rabies”, don’t worry, I am too.
Rabbie’s is one of the many, MANY tour companies offering a 1-day whirlwind tour of the Scottish highlands and beyond out of Edinburgh, and wanting to make the most of my very limited time in Scotland, this seemed like the best way to do it!
As it turns out, I accidentally booked a tour with a different company than my 3 friends. So I was a little nervous about going on my own, but I worried for not! Rabbie’s was awesome.
Once our tour group of about 12 all gathered ’round, our fearless leader Eric shepherded us into the big van. I’m a generally quiet person, but on the road, Eric was determined to have us get to know each other. It was cool to hear about where everyone was from and where they were going, and in a crazy twist of coincidence, there was even a guy from Missouri. It was a little shell-shocking too, is the world really that small?
When it was my turn to introduce myself, Eric excitedly asked if I had Scottish ancestry, citing my red(ish) wavy hair. I told the truth, which is that mine’s Irish, but he told me that it was okay, because the two nations are neighbors, so I was basically Scottish. Well, okay! I’ll take it.
Luckily, I ended up with a window seat in the van, and got to take in the Scottish countryside as we left the city. Fun fact: there are no billboards allowed in Scotland, and I was pleasantly shocked at how nice that was. It gave the scenery a timeless feeling.
Our first stop on the Rabbie’s tour was to a small village called Pitlochry. Eric explained that walking around here would be a great way to get a feel for what life is like in the smaller villages of Scotland. He also recommended giving the whisky ice cream a try. Of course, I obliged.
Since the tour moves quickly, I spent the last of our remaining minutes here just walking down the street. It was chilly with low hanging clouds, but thankfully not raining (yet). We got lucky yesterday with sun, but from what I’m hearing, this is the “authentic Scottish weather” and so I’m just happy to absorb it like osmosis.
We weren’t here for very long, but overall, Pitlochry is a lovely, quiet place great for shopping and having a peaceful time. It’s also surrounded my the mountainous green highlands, making it a glorious place to just be.
The Scottish Highlands
Hopping back in the van to approach our next destination, the road started to weave through the Scottish Highlands. I’ve never seen scenery like this. Rolling, mountainous hills made all the more giant by the low cloud cover, and each green mountain has what looks like veins of lighter green running through them, making the whole landscape feel alive.
Every once in awhile, I could see flocks of sheep running up and down the mountain, I believe that some are even wild. Passing one flock, Eric chose that point to tell us how haggis is made.
The weather kept oscillating between heavy rain and brief patches of sunlight, when the sun did come out it would cast golden or rainbow light over the highlands. Honestly, just looking out the window and taking in the landscape was one of my favorite parts of the tour.
Our next stop appeared to me smack dab in the middle of the Highlands- not another building in sight.
Hopping out of the van and approaching the Dalwhinnie Distillery, just one whiff of the malting whisky could tell you immediately what was being distilled there- Scotch whisky has a scent of pure coziness. The interior of Dalwhinnie Distillery is fairly small, most of it is taken up by the products for sale, all of which were way too expensive for me (sorry mom and dad, I couldn’t get you a souvenir from here!)(Also I just remembered that I was 19- too young to bring home alc in the US). However, the walls have some exhibits that show the distilling process, which was nice to read while the established adults shopped.
Loch Ness!! The search for Nessie
Traveling further and further north, I could feel us approaching one of the highlights of the tour, Loch Ness!
When booking with Rabbie’s, I made sure Loch Ness was one of the stops on the tour because: 1) I love the Scooby Doo movie about the Loch Ness monster, and 2) I’d been joking about ‘noodling the Loch Ness monster like a catfish’ with my friends for months now, and had to follow through on that promise.
On the way, us tour groupies discussed whether or not we believe in the Loch Ness monster, and what we think it is. Apparently, a lot of people think that Nessie is a species of dinosaur that has managed to survive relatively undiscovered. Eric told us that there are massive underground cave systems that scientists can’t get to that could be a haven for megafauna, and you know what? That actually kind of convinced me to wonder.
Predictably, chilly rain was pelting the town of Fort Augustus, where Loch Ness is located. A couple of the folks on the tour opted to wait in a cafe, but I was determined and made the short hike to the lakeshore. The path was clearly marked, and before I knew it, found myself standing at what is arguably the world’s most legendary lake.
True to its reputation, Loch Ness is mysterious feeling-inducing. Surrounded on all sides by towering green mountains and covered in fog, it’s easy to imagine how this mysterious place inspired legends of a scaly monster. While admiring the scenery and scanning the water for signs of life, I didn’t see any creature outright. However, the water in Loch Ness moves so strangely. It roils, churns, and bubbles seemingly on its own, with no sensible pattern. I let my imagination fill in the gaps for what creatures could be causing the ripples. At the end, I did stick my hand in the water so I could tell my friends that there was a genuine noodling attempt, and the water is so cold!
I had so much fun letting the mystery of Loch Ness envelop me, and its absolutely worth the effort to get up to this part of Scotland.
I also feel like it’s worth mentioning that there are boat tours that go out onto the lake, but they are not included in most tours from Edinburgh, and cost about 20 or 30 euros. While I’m sure that it is a fantastic experience and really increase your chances of spotting Nessie, I don’t feel like I missed out by not taking the boat trip, enjoying the views from the shore was more than enough to make me happy. Actually, boats weren’t even running when we visited- boat tours of Loch Ness are cancelled for rain and winds, which in Northern Scotland, is a lot of the time. Plan accordingly if this is a must-do for you because apparently, the highland tour my friends went on skipped driving to Loch Ness entirely because of the weather.
Still having about a half hour left before hopping back into the Rabbies van, I decided to explore the village surrounding Loch Ness- Fort Augustus.
The area of Fort Augustus immediately adjacent to the loch consists of just a couple of streets, not too difficult to walk up and down. However, it had really started to rain at this point, and as I trudged up the street, my umbrella struggled to not turn inside out in the gusts. Eventually, I ducked into a cozy cashmere store. If you’re like me and didn’t know what cashmere was, it’s a fancy type of fabric made of 100% sheep’s wool. And it’s sooooooo soft! It’s also quite pricey for the good stuff, but I was content to gently feel the material and chat with the storekeeper (hence, my brief knowledge on cashmere).
Eventually, I left again to brave the elements. As I trudged up the main street, one man in a kilt threw open his door, kindly remarking, “looks like you’re gonna bloo away!” before shutting the door again. That particularly fond memory is one of my favorites from Scotland.
Also in the center of town, are a set of interconnecting canals meant to help small boats pass through. No boats were traveling through this weather, but it was neat to see them regardless.
No trip to Scotland would be complete without visiting a medieval Scottish Lord’s castle!
Enter, the Inverlochy Castle.
Built in the 13th century by Lord Comyn, and virtually unchanged since then, it has since fallen into ruin. Still, the framework of the castle still stands, and we were allowed to walk around wherever we liked uninhibited. I was surprised by just how few rules there were about where you could walk, some of us walked part way up a stone spiral staircase before it just drops off, but didn’t do any climbing around besides that for fear of falling or breaking something.
There are also plaques scattered throughout which helps you get an idea of which room was which, and what each was used for.
If the highlands are described as the crown of Scotland, then Glen Coe is surely the crown jewel.
Though the highlands rolling, verdant hills can be seen throughout, the mighty cliffs of Glen Coe elude an ancienctness like no place I’ve been before. Virtually untouched by man, it’s hard to describe the feeling induced while driving through this wild terrain. The open plains region exudes a completely different, but still otherworldly energy. I’ve never seen anywhere like it.
In one particularly mountainous area, we stopped at a visitors center where we had some time to wander around the small museum or hike one of the surrounding trails.
Torn as to what to do, I made my way through the museum, scanning the exhibits as quickly as possible before setting out on a short hike to take in the magnificent mountain ranges surrounding us.
After leaving the visitors center, we stopped at a couple of different lookout points to take in as much of Glen Coe as possible. It was borderline sleeting, and so at some points, I was the only one leaving the van to get a look, but you’d best believe I wasn’t gonna miss a single second.
Falls of Douchart
Within the boundaries of Glen Coe is an absolutely lovely little village called Killin. While driving through the area, we stopped just before a stone bridge to check out the rushing waters of the Falls of Douchart. It’s one of those waterfalls that is not steep at all, but the water moves so quickly that its white rapids designate it as a “Falls”. Feel free to correct me, I’m not super knowledgeable on waterfall designation.
Flowing down the mountainside and bashing against black boulders, the Falls of Douchart were a quiet and gorgeous sight, I’m glad we stopped here. I also got a picture with Erik!
On the way back to Edinburgh, we made another stop for a bathroom break, and rarely have I attended a bathroom break this scenic:
Loch Lubnaig is a small, quiet lake nestled in the highlands. Apart from a couple of families camping, we were the only people here. The thick cloud cover made it kind of dark, but standing on the pebbly lakeshore and pondering like some kind of Ernest Hemingway character, I think that Loch Lubnaig is actually more beautiful than the larger Loch Ness. Obviously, both have their merits, I’m no loch-hater!
Our final stop on the tour was Doune Castle.
Unlike Inverlochy Castle, Doune Castle is in great condition. We were able to see just how massive these medieval castles could get. Doune Castle was strategically built on a hill to make a sneaky invasion way more difficult. We couldn’t go inside since we got there after hours but were able to see most of the exterior by walking around the perimeter.
Our tour group also took a picture in front of the wall, how sweet is that?
Just outside of Edinburgh, there is a sculpture of 3 massive horse heads.
Rabbie’s Tour of the Scottish Highlands: My Verdict
As someone visiting Scotland with little time and even less money, the value of the Rabbie’s highlands tour was out of this world!
At +7 hours long, Erik packed as much into our day as possible, and I love how much of Scotland we got to see because of it. It was also a good mix of big, famous sights like Glen Coe and Loch Ness, and quiet places off the beaten path. From what my friends told me, their tour company also had a full, exciting day, although they missed Loch Ness for the weather.
That would probably be the only con to these tours- many of them seem to switch up the itinerary depending on traffic and weather conditions. Doune Castle, for example, was a last minute decision, though it was a good one, it proved there’s no really solid intinerary when you set out. This tour structure ended up working out just fine for my group, but I would’ve been so upset if we’d had to miss Loch Ness.
As a whole, Scotland is full of natural beauty outside its big cities- the highlands seem to tower through the whole country, and although I only mentioned Glen Coe, the highlands encompass national park after national park. There’s a bit of something for everyone on these tours, whether you’re a nature lover, a shopper, a foodie, or a history buff. I’d totally recommend a whirlwind day tour of the highlands if you’re short on time while in Scotland!
Well, that should be all of the Scotland post! Unless I decide to make one about our kind of wacky last morning at the hostel, that one’s still up on the air.
See ya, Love ya,
Where did she come from? Edinburgh, Scotland Where is she going (next)? Pembrokeshire, Wales