If you visit Glasgow or Edinburgh, you’ll find several tour companies advertising excursions to the Scottish Highlands. While I was in Glasgow, I wanted to see the Highlands but was not crazy about the idea of renting a car and navigating the winding highways while driving on an unfamiliar side of the road. Public transportation is not ideal for sightseeing in this area of the country, so I opted for a day tour.
I knew I wanted to see the incredible green hills of Glencoe, so I chose the highly-rated “Loch Ness, Glencoe & The Highlands” tour by Timberbush Tours. If you’re in Scotland during the summertime, do your best to book your Highland tour in advance. I had to do quite a bit of searching to find an opening for one person on a day tour.
When the day for my tour arrived, I was excited and praying for a clear day. I found the tour bus and grabbed one of the last seats available, which happened to be in the front seat to the left of the driver with a nice scenic view.
Our excellent driver and tour guide, Stephen, narrated during our journey and played a variety of traditional and modern music by Scottish artists. Because of weather patterns in the Highlands, Stephen drove in the opposite direction of the tour’s usual route to avoid running into rain at the key sites, and our first stop was the town of Pitlochry. This picturesque little village had some cute shops and cafes. We had just enough time to grab lunch to go and take a quick look around before hopping back on the bus. I stopped into an adorable little coffee shop and ordered a cup of my favorite caffeinated drink to accompany me on the ride.
We continued along our route through the Grampian Moutains, enjoying beautiful views and Stephen’s stories about Scottish history.
We arrived in Inverness, a popular city to use as a base for exploring the Highlands. Inverness is not a lovely city, but it is centrally located. I had previously considered spending a few days there and exploring the Highlands on my own, but all the affordable accommodation was fully booked during my mid-July visit. Again, it’s a good idea to plan ahead in the summertime! Luckily, the day tour turned out to be the perfect alternative for me.
From Inverness, we we able to visit Loch Ness, stopping at the visitor center and then boarding the “Loch Ness by Jacobite” ferry boat for a cruise to Urquhart Castle.
The sky was beginning to turn gray as we got onto the boat, and most of us climbed to the top deck for a seat with a view of the loch. Shortly after we left the dock, the skies suddenly turned angry and pelted us with bitter wind and a misty light rain. I had brought a rain coat along with me, so I put up my hood and braved the weather while most others ran downstairs to the safety of the enclosed lower dock. I just didn’t want to miss a moment of the ride!
It was as though we’d just traveled beneath an unhappy cloud, because the weather quickly changed again into beautiful sunshine as we came within sight of the ruins of Urquhart Castle, perched on the edge of Loch Ness. All of the passengers reappeared on the top deck to capture the impressive views of the castle from the water.
Once the boat docked, we had plenty of time to explore the castle ruins and nearby visitor center. The weather really could not have been more perfect. The views of the castle and surrounding Loch Ness were absolutely breathtaking. After climbing to each vantage point, wandering around the ruins and reading all of the signs explaining the history of each area of the castle, I climbed the hill to the visitor center (and couldn’t resist taking a few more photos from there!).
The Urquhart Castle visitor center is modern and interesting, with a small museum that features a number of artifacts found at the castle and explains roles of the people who lived and worked at the castle in its heyday. The highlight of the visitor center, however, is a short movie shown on a big screen in a theater room. The movie explains the castle’s colorful and violent history during its 500 years as a medieval fortress. At the end of the film, the screen goes into the ceiling and the curtain opens to reveal a huge panoramic window with a stunning view of Urquhart Castle today.
The tour bus picked us up outside the castle visitor center, and we were off. We stopped in the town of Fort Augustus, and drove along the Caledonian Canal. We also saw Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and stopped at Fort William, located on the shore of Loch Linnhe. We also turned off the main road and stopped to see Scotland’s iconic Highland cattle. Stephen fed them chunks of cheese so they would come to the fence to greet us. They’re absolutely adorable with that long red hair covering their eyes, but I’m not sure how they can see where they’re going!
We eventually reached the majestic Glencoe, which may have been my favorite part of the tour. Apart from its magical beauty, Glencoe is infamous for being the site of the 1692 massacre of the McDonald clan. During the massacre, 38 members of the McDonald clan living in Glencoe were killed by a group of 120 men under the command of the Campbell clan leader. The story is particularly chilling because the murders had stayed with and accepted the hospitality of the McDonalds for two weeks before carrying out the massacre. This terrible event has been memorialized through traditional songs and countless stories. Today, more than 300 years later, the Glencoe massacre remains a sore spot for Scottish people, and differing opinions exist about what “really” happened and why.
In spite of its gruesome history, Glencoe is truly amazing. My camera just couldn’t capture all the incredible shades of green covering these undulating mountains. It’s an incredible place you’ll just have to see and experience for yourself.
After taking in the mysterious beauty of Glencoe, we traveled the length of Loch Lomond before reaching a beautiful lookout point as dusk was just beginning to creep into the sky. Looking out over the stunning views, I had one of those “I can’t believe I’m here” moments, and I had to catch my breath. What a glorious place, and how lucky I am to see this.
As we boarded the bus and made our way back to Glasgow, I reflected on all the incredible beauty I had seen and all the history that had happened there as our tour guide continued his Scottish music soundtrack. To me, the tour was worth every penny, and it’s one of the travel experiences I’ll always remember. What an incredible day!