Nothing is more terrifying than dosing off in a car only to be jarred awake by the feeling of an oncoming truck heading straight toward your tiny, red Yaris. Thankfully we were meant to be cruising down the left-hand side of the road, and no, I wasn’t dosing off at the wheel I was merely sitting on the wrong side of the car as a passenger. These Canadian instincts are hard to shake off, even in the beautiful rolling hills and rusty landscape that is Scotland.
After weeks of searching car rental companies online, I finally found a decent deal for a driver under the age of 25 (I am 23) that was in the ballpark of my budget. Arnold Clark Car and Van Rentals in Edinburgh offered a four day rental for 208.00 pounds with a 12.00 pound a day surcharge for young drivers. I also found that travel insurance from a third-party is often lower than the insurance that the car company offers. I opted to use a third-party insurance company, this benefited my budget but as you keep reading you will notice that it also introduced a few other obstacles during my trip.
Arnold Clark Car and Van Rentals, Seafield location, seemed easy enough to commute to from downtown Edinburgh. I took one bus from Victoria Street near the Castle, to what google maps claimed was the address. After arriving, a nice gentleman informed me that I was in fact at the dealership and not the rental office. The gentleman did however, call the rental office and arrange for one of their employees to collect my travel companion and I from the wrong location one mile away. I was informed that this sort of miscommunication happened often, and this left me wondering why they haven’t done something to fix the bug on google maps.
Further complications ensued as the rental location was unprepared for our arrival and did not have our vehicle ready. After much delay we were then escorted 40 minutes during rush hour, behind schedule, to the airport where our vehicle was waiting. After a quick inspection we were finally on our way, only losing 2 hours of travel time. Settling for a budget car rental company had proven to offer some setbacks that might outweigh the money saved for some travelers. If you are on a strict schedule or have the means I would recommend opting for a more well-known, reliable car rental service to avoid these mishaps.
Finally, we were on the road, heading towards Glasgow, then north-west towards Inveraray Castle hitting impressive storms of rain and hail all along the way. Scotland in early October is a mixture of rain, windy hills, mountain peaks, sunshine and rusty grass plains.
The Castle was beautiful and the gardens were impeccably well kempt, the walk through the grounds was peaceful and worth the journey. To enter the castle it cost 10 pounds, 9 pounds as a student, and the only parking available is another 5 pounds and charged by the hour. This added a level of stress as we hastily made our way through the grounds to make it back to our vehicle before the car park enforcement could. If it is just a beautiful photo your looking for, I would recommend parking up the road and walking the driveway to the castle, from outside the grounds you can manage to take a nice photo and save a bit of cash in the process. I can’t advise if the if the tour through the castle was worth the admission as I did not go inside, I can however mention that the towers and gardens made me feel like a princess in a fairy tale. I can only imagine the interior made you feel as though you were looking over a magical kingdom.
The drive from Inveraray Castle to Glencoe was the perfect example for why road trips are so much better than the popular guided bus tours from Edinburgh to Isle of Skye. With a hostel booked in Fort Williams for the night we had the luxury of really taking in the drive ahead of us. We took our time stopping at roadside inlets, soaking in the picturesque views and occasionally meeting a travelling caravan or two for a chat and to play with their dog. This really rounded out the purpose of this amazing drive. Having your own time to stop and take some photos of The Three Sisters and watching the sun setting behind the peaks without a tour bus full of strangers waiting on you was really worth the hassle of a rental car.
Just as we thought we were home free, between Glencoe and Fort William we had an unfortunate ‘fender-bender’. The freshly dampened highway reflected the sunset into the eyes of commuters, and a truck behind us failed to stop and ran straight into our defenceless hatchback.
This brings me back to the insurance problems we had previously, because we had third-party insurance we had multiple anxieties for the next few days worrying if our insurance would cover this sort of accident. If we had purchased the insurance through the car company we would have more security that our own pocket money was safe. In the end we paid a deductable and had this refunded by our own insurance. Just something to think about if youre looking to save a few dollars like we were, is the added stress really worth a third-party insurance company when the disaster does end up happening?
We didn’t let this mishap slow us down, we kept driving on, after a quick stop at the local police station in Fort Williams to get an ‘okay’ that our vehicle was still lawfully okay to drive. The station had very nice and understandable staff and even taped up our damaged bumper in the process.
We ended up spending the next day hiking an incredibly windy Ben Nevis. So windy that I don’t think explaining how forceful this wind was can even do it justice. At the halfway mark the wind began to lift us off our feet and we decided that maybe it was time to turn back, afraid that we would be blown off the mountainside. The views for the halfway point were still incredibly peaceful despite the wind and only taking us 2.5 hours to reach, is definitely worth packing your hiking boots for. I would recommend checking conditions before you head up at their site.
Another addition to why hiring your own car is the best decision whilst in Scotland, the next day we decided at 7:00 am that we wanted to back track towards Glennfinnan Viaduct to watch the trains travel across. This is recognizable to any Harry Potter fans as the train route to Hogwarts in the films. A short 15 minute hike up the hill and we perched ourselves right above the viaduct and watched as the trains traveled across. There is a Harry Potter themed train you can book or if your lucky catch the schedule as it crosses the viaduct for that perfect photo.
After stopping for a coffee to warm up, we headed to Eilean Donan Castle. Even though it was still quite early in the day when we arrived, maybe 11:00 am, the grounds were already crawling with tourists eager to view the castle. If you are looking for that untouched, lonely feeling photo I would recommend aiming to be at the castle as early as 9:00 am. Check the schedule on their website if you are interested in crossing the bridge and touring the castle as opening hours change throughout the season.
Hands down the largest highlight of this day were the Fairy Pools, located at the foot of the Black Cuillins, near Glenbrittle. We parked at the designated car park and walked down the hill towards the pathways. I strongly recommend hiking boots, or sturdy footwear for this hike. Its is a hike and not a walk, after you leave the pathway towards the pools the ground is uneven and full of rocks, mud, slight climbs and other obstacles. We ended up being there during a slight flood , making crossing the River Brittle, a lot more challenging than we were expected. I was prepared in my hiking boots but I watched as other tourists had their sneakers and pant legs soaked in the icy water as they attempted to cross.
The walk is split into 3 stages and directions are given on their website. I would recommend carving out a huge chunk of your day, If not a full day and completing the walk. The bravest of souls even go swimming in the pools, I like to think I would have if it wasn’t the middle of October and already freezing cold outside.
We stayed the night in Portree and the next morning started our day with a lovely espresso from Café Arriba in town. This is a dog friendly café and that is high on my list of enjoyable breakfast locations when you get to relax alongside ‘mans best friend’. Today we had a long list of locations that we were dying to get to as it was our last road trip day before we had to return the rental car to Edinburgh the next day. All these locations we were about to have the greatest adventure visiting would not have been possible if we did not have our own vehicle.
Starting at the Old Man of Stor, we hiked to the top, climbing over massive boulders near the top and fighting against strong winds, this is another location were hiking footwear and outerwear are imperative. You never know when that downpour is going to unleash on you so always have a rain jacket ready. This is a must see location if you are up to the medium challenge. The view of the coast is indescribable.
Just a few minutes down the road is a roadside inlet where you can view the breathtaking Kilt Rock and Melt Falls and another stunning view of the coast.
After this there was a short 45 minute drive to The Quairing. As a part of the Trotternish Ridge it has been formed by a massive landslip which has created cliffs, hidden plateaus and protruding rocks along the pathway. The Quairing hike is a loop, that once you have completed, returns you pack to the car park. It covers a distance of 6.8 km and takes about 2 and a half hours to complete if you are taking your time and capturing breathtaking photos. To begin, you park mid ways up the foothill/mountain, careful of the high volumes of traffic on the tiny roads, and then hike along the side of the hill. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the views here. This is the ultimate destination for wonderful photography and a peaceful hiking experience. There are only a few small obstacles on this hike, crossing patches of the trail that break off because of streams of runoff creating small gorges. All of these are easy to hop over and there are ropes tied in for hand holds. On other patches of the hike there is light scrambling that is requires, however nothing the average hiker cannot handle. On the Isle of Skye this area is another one of my ‘must-see’ locations.
Lastly, we travelled another hour and a half to Neist Point Lighthouse. The car park is conveniently located at the top of the peninsula and there is a gravel pathway to follow to the lighthouse. This involves many steps on a long stair case and the entire walk takes about 45 minutes. The wind here can get very strong so be careful near the cliffs. For a great photo I would recommend as soon as you arrive from the car park turn right at the weather beaten shed and walk along the cliff for 5 minutes. From here you can see the entirety of the peninsula, there are sheep grazing along the cliffs and at the tip of the peninsula you can see a clear view of the lighthouse.
In my experiences I have dipped my foot into multiple modes of travel. I have the highest praise for road-trips. They offer adversity, triumph and self-discovery as you navigate your way through a foreign landscape. The most rewarding of all the landscapes to be discovering by car is the Isle of Skye and the Scottish Highlands.