If there was only one thing we were going to do on our honeymoon, it was visit the Highlands.
At least that’s what my husband said.
While we were on our way to Ireland.
It was the day before we were going to catch a plane from Edinburgh to Dublin when he tells me that he wanted to spend most of our time in Europe in Scotland.
I wish he had said this before we left Hawai‘i.
So I scrambled to change our flight, cancel our hotel stays in Western Ireland, and find last-minute accommodations in Edinburgh.
And despite the frantic rescheduling and the ensuing stress it caused, the decision to stay in Scotland turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.
For that, we’d have to thank the Highlands.
This historic region of Scotland north of Edinburgh — that area is referred to as the Lowlands — is sparsely populated, with stunning mountain ranges and picturesque lochs (lakes) dominating the landscape. The tallest mountain in the British Isles — Ben Nevis, which stands 4,409 feet above sea level — is located here, as does the infamous Loch Ness and its legendary inhabitant.
The Highlands also boast Britain’s largest national park, the 1,748-square-mile Cairngorms National Park, which accounts for 6 percent of the size of Scotland — and dozens of small villages and charming towns near glens, across islands and along coastlines.
It’s easy to get seduced by Scotland here.
A friend I met at a writers’ conference put me in touch with a tour operator that specializes in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. With more than 16 years of experience and an arsenal of knowledgable guides, Timberbush Tours is one of Scotland’s longest running tour operators, offering 1-, 2- and 3-day tours of this region.
We decided to jump on the two-day tour to the Highlands, which included a visit to a couple of castles, a few lochs, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct best known for its role in the “Harry Potter” films.
Tours run out of Edinburgh and Glasgow daily. We met outside the Ensign Ewart pub on Lawmarket (i.e.: the Royal Mile) at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The tour was full, so we settled into our seats on the air-conditioned bus for the long journey to the Highlands.
The great thing about any tours is that you can see a lot in a short amount of time. (And, especially in our case, we were led around by a hilarious, extremely knowledgeable guide named Marty who said things like, “That, over there, is Loch Lochy. We call it that because we ran out of names.”)
In our first day, we visited Stirling Castle (above, first), which dates back to the early 12th century and has long been considered one of the most important and historic castles in Scotland; drove past Doune Castle, a medieval stronghold used in the filming of the cult classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”; and walked around the National Wallace Monument, (above, last two) a tower commemorating the 13th-century Scottish hero Sir William Wallace. (Think “Braveheart.”)
Highland cattle are a Scottish breed of cattle with long horns and long, wavy coats in black, brindled, red, yellow or dun. They are stunning cows, for sure, and very iconic to the Highlands. And hand-feeding them was a thrill, to say the least.
We stopped at the woolen mill for a bit to eat lunch. I had Scottish pancakes (above) — which seems just like regular pancakes except these were thicker and smaller — and bacon (which isn’t at all like the bacon we have in the U.S.). It hit the spot, nonetheless, and after about an hour here, we were on our way to Glenfinnan.
Along the way, we crossed through Glen Coe, a volcanically formed glen that is known to offer one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Scotland. We stopped at the Three Sisters (above, first), three steeply-sided ridges that extend north into the glen.
We noticed a winding trail that cut across the landscape here (above, second). Turns out this is part of the West Highland Way, a 96-mile trail from Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. About 85,000 people use the path every year, with about 30,000 completing the entire trail. Needless to say, my husband quickly put this on his travel bucket list.
Next stop: Glenfinnan, a quaint village with a monument at the head of Loch Shiel erected in 1815 in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died here (above, fourth). We walked along a short path (above, first) to a lookout where you could see the loch in one diction and the Glenfinnan Viaduct (above, third) in the other. The bridge was made famous in the “Harry Potter” movies, when Hogwarts Express took the young wizards to school.
We spent some time wandering around the area around Loch Shiel. One path (above, first) took us through an area filled with dragonflies (above, second) and butterflies, flitting about. We walked through forests where we spotted Scots pines (above, third), a species of pine native to Europe that can grow up to 110 feet. The wood is used for pulp and sawn timber products.
Our final stop on the first day of the tour was Fort William, the second largest settlement in the Highlands with about 10,000 inhabitants and a major tourist town that attracts hikers, climbers, bikers and skiers.
We stayed at the Berkeley Guest House, a quaint bed-and-breakfast just off the main street. The original house was constructed in the late 1800s but has since been renovated into more modern accommodations. The owner, Norrie MacLean (above, second), grew up in the Western Isles of Scotland and had spent 23 years in Canada before buying this place in 1997 and opening it as a B&B. (His son bought the house next door and converted that into a bed-and-breakfast, too.)
“I moved back because I wanted to fish,” MacLean said, always a twinkle in his eyes. “But I’ve only fished once.”
We ended up eating at a nearby hotel — the pubs and restaurants in town were surprisingly packed, with wait times up to 40 minutes for a table! — and calling it an early night. We had a long day tomorrow — more riding around the countryside — and a Loch Ness monster to see!
Thank you to Timberbush Tours for taking us on this magical two-day adventure into the Highlands. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Europe!