Scotland was a country I had spent many a moment daydreaming about. With Jen’s father being from Edinburgh, I have been surrounded by stories of his homeland for many years, but had never quite got so far as visiting for myself.
But that moment arrived for me on a recent journey with Travelmarvel. I joined their 9-day Edinburgh, the Highlands and Islands great rail journey in May – an adventure that took us from the capital of Edinburgh, through the Highlands in the west of the country via some of the most incredible rail experiences on the planet!
Of course, the train journeys were a highlight themselves. But Scotland has so much to offer and from culture to cuisine, castles to local characters, and we were treated to a completely immersive experience I will never forget.
You can catch the full experience on air on Network 10 and WIN (Australia) from August 24!
Without further ado, here are my absolute highlights of the Highlands…
I loved Edinburgh. It is a town steeped in tradition, easy to get around and beautiful to the eye. We arrived a couple of days prior to the tour beginning and used our time to explore this amazing city. We were also lucky enough to be joined by a local guide Ken, who has been showing his city to visitors for over 25 years.
We began at Edinburgh Castle which looms over the city, perched strategically on a mighty rock called Castle Hill. It is one of the oldest fortified places in Europe and has served as a royal residence, a fortress, a prison and a military garrison. It’s little wonder that these days, it is one of the most famous attractions in the world.
It was incredible to walk through and get a feel for it’s history; we were literally walking in the footsteps of kings and queens before us, and Ken brought all of the history alive with his stories and passion.
I must say I didn’t think that I would love wearing a kilt prior to trying one on… But Howie Nicholsby from 21st Century Kilts was the perfect person to turn it into a priceless memory. Howie is bringing the kilt into the 21st century and having dressed some of the most famous men in the world, from Richard Branson to Lenny Kravitz, I felt I was in good hands. Somehow, wearing a kilt has a certain effect and I found myself doing my own version of the highland fling…
After a couple of days in Edinburgh, it was time to join our group for our adventure into the Highlands…
2. The West Highland Line
Our first rail journey began at Edinburgh Waverley rail station. Our group gathered on the platform, anticipating the experience ahead – we had been told this was one of the most beautiful journey’s in the country.
Travelling by train is something I am a huge advocate of. Many rail lines are built through landscapes that cars simply cannot reach and all you have to do on board is sit back, and watch the view unfold out of your window (you can also stretch your legs whenever you like!).
From Glasgow, the train ventures into the ‘wild’ west of Scotland deep into the Highlands. Mountains, heathered moors, lochs and valleys all start to reveal themselves and you find yourself gaping at scenery you have only ever seen in pictures. There was no doubt as to where we were – the landscapes before us were undeniably ‘Scottish’.
Our journey took us to Fort William, where we were to stay for a few days in the nearby village of Ballachulish. Our accommodation at the Isles of Glencoe hotel couldn’t have been more picturesque – on the banks of Loch Leven. Our free time over the following days allowed us to explore a bit of the surrounding countryside – spectacular and dramatic to say the least.
3. Duart Castle
Our adventure would take us to several of Scotland’s most famous castles and first on the agenda was Duart Castle.
Located on the Isle of Mull, it was a scenic ferry ride from the delightful fishing town of Oban (which has a great distillery by the way!) over to the island and as we approached, we spotted the castle and couldn’t help but notice the strategic location it occupied on the shore. Perfect for watching and spotting the enemy approaching back in the day!
The castle dates back to the 13th century and has been the seat of clan Maclean throughout. It had fallen into ruin but was refurbished from 1911 and today, is not only the home of Sir Lachlan Maclean, but also opens its doors to visitors.
A highlight was definitely meeting Sir Lachlan himself; it’s hard to get your head around living in your own castle and it was incredible to see such tradition still living on in Scotland.
4. The Jacobite Steam Train
Many people travel to Scotland for this one experience alone! The Jacobite steam train journey is one of the most famous around – and made even more renowned by its appearance in several Harry Potter films! Anyone remember the scene of the Hogwarts Express travelling over that spectacular viaduct, taking Harry, Ron, and Hermione to Hogwarts? That was the Jacobite train travelling over Glenfinnan Viaduct!
We were not just treated to this same experience, we also got to travel separately to Glenfinnan that same day and explore the historical area. It was the site of the Jacobite uprising and a proud monument stands tall in memory. And watching the Jacobite cross the viaduct from the ground is just as thrilling as being on board.
5. Loch Ness
We have all heard of this famous body of water. Not just for its beauty, but for the legendary ‘creature’ that is said to lurk in it’s depths!
We were all on the lookout for ‘Nessy’ as we boarded our scenic cruise on the loch, the largest in volume in the British Isles thanks to its incredible depth. The skipper’s son actually said he had seen the famous monster, and we knew there were numerous other sightings, but Nessy stayed quiet the day we were there and we were left forever wondering…
6. Urquhart Castle
On the shores of Loch Ness stands another mighty fortress. Urquhart Castle is another impressive and dramatic castle full of history and stories that are hard to get your head around. With over 1000 years of history, this castle has seen more drama than almost any other site in Scotland, when control of the castle passed back and forth between the Scottish and English.
One of Scotland’s largest castles, it was eventually blown up during the Jacobite uprisings and left in ruin until visitors like us started coming to discover it. I felt like I was stepping back in time as I passed through, imagining huge banquets in the Great Hall, or the dungeons which imprisoned famous legends of the day. What I would give to have been a fly on the wall back then!
7. The Kyle Line rail journey
I might have mentioned that the Highlands boasts some of the best scenic rail journeys of anywhere and the Kyle Line, from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, didn’t disappoint.
Travelling out to the coast, in the shadow of mountains, beside deep lochs and through quaint villages, our eyes barely left the windows.
8. Eilean Donan Castle
You simply don’t tire of the castles in Scotland – they almost seem to try and outdo each other and each had its own distinct features and feel.
Eilean Donan is perhaps one of the most famous – you will have seen it in an iconic image of Scotland at some point in your life. Faced with the imposing fortress in real life feels like you have just stepped into a movie (and it has featured in many!). It is set against a background of the beautiful Highland mountains, perched on an island at the intersection of three great lochs.
Imagining the scenes that have played out here over hundreds of years is quite simply mindboggling.
9. Return to Edinburgh – by rail of course!
Over a few hours, our Travelmarvel group enjoyed one last journey together. By rail back to Edinburgh from Inverness, we watched Scotland unfold from north to south and reflected together on the memories of our whole experience.
But of course, this is Scotland, and it is only right that we ended the tour in a traditional Scottish way – with haggis and bagpipes of course! Master piper Jim joined us for dinner in Edinburgh on our last night, sharing many a story and singing Auld Lang Syne as a group. And with a standing ovation, we farewelled our time in Scotland and the priceless experience it had been.
Have you been to Scotland? If so, do you have any highlights of the Highlands? Tell us in the comments!