Winter Road Trip: The Scottish Highlands

It has become like routine for us now to escape at winter, to chase the snow, as we did very similar in past years when we were hopping through Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan in 2017, on an 8 country road trip in East Central Europe in 2016, and then there was Hunan, China in 2015. So now this year we are hopping across the water, and making the most of post-Brexit exchange rates, with a winter road trip in the Scottish highlands. Which I admit did not feel quite as exciting as other, given we expected somewhat similar culture and scenery to what we have shared before through Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, and Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast. And again we decided to travel during winter when there’s almost guaranteed to be snow in the Scottish Highlands, which otherwise is slim at best elsewhere in the UK and Ireland. As the Scottish Highlands are easily the best winter destination in the U.K. And after returning I can say for most of Europe. So again our road trip itinerary comes under “extreme sightseeing” as we travel ridiculous distances to photograph things, only to travel ridiculous distance back again. Only this time on a road trip, and of course in the snow. As before we have even arrived to Scottish shores we have a Yellow Weather Warning for blizzards and snow. which will arrive on our first morning. Anyway, the amazingness of the scenes throughout are shown in the video below. 

Crossing the Irish Sea

So our road trip sets out from our home base in Bangor, as we cross the Irish Sea to the Loch Ryan port of Cairnryan on the Eastern shore of Scotland. We do this by boat, obviously, on the Stenaline route opting for the earliest crossing at 07:30AM, meaning we were awake at 05:00AM. But this then gives us a full day for travel in Scotland, and by doing similar with a late return (19:30PM) on the Cairnryan to Belfast crossing, we more or less maximize our overall time in Scotland.

So I have probably covered this crossing around 10 times in my life, just not in the 10 years previous, meaning this was somewhat of a nostalgic journey. and I remember the journey and scenery from the Scottish side, as we take a right through an inlet after a white lighthouse, to find rugged coastlines, crashing waves, and it’s a bit like sightseeing from the comfort of our seats. But this comfort won’t last long, and the adventure begins, as we disembark at Loch Ryan Port about 4-miles out from Belfast City Centre.

As the 7-day winter road trip in the Scottish Highlands begins. But our first arrival becomes a bit anti-climatic, with grey skies and rain, as we veer past the outskirts of Glasgow, and reroute north towards the highlands of Scotland. Our first night is near Loch Lomond (nearby hotels here), where sightseeing is mostly from the car window on this day, with the rain.

Day 1: First Snow at Loch Lomond

The snow was almost guaranteed for the next morning, and I was a bit shitting myself at night, as I really didn’t know what to expect. Will it be heaped with snow, what about ice, will the gritters be out, and we were just a bit clueless about it all. So through the night I would wake every other hour to peer from the hotel window expecting the roads to be covered. But the snow doesn’t show until near 07:00AM, just when we assumed we were safe, and by the time we had finished our traditional Scottish Breakfast at the hotel (09:00AM) the streets were now covered. Although the gritters had already been out clearing the country roads by the time we set out. So we start again at Loch Lomond which we find is best to circle anti-clockwise, following the left lane closest to the lake, as many of the parking bays and views can only be accessed from this lane. We also found a lot of wildlife already, spotting both grouse and a deer prancing in the area, as well as two more deer which lay as roadkill by the curbside. That was a new for us. But undoubtedly the best views over Loch Lomond were found at the Inveruglas Pyramid (An Ceann Mòr) although the visibility wasn’t great due to the onslaught of snow.

The Detour to Glen Coe 

Our next destination on our road trip in the Scottish Highlands was Inveraray Castle, which is more of a stopover along our route to Oban on the west coast. But we never did quite make it this far, as we were turned back at the bridge before Cairndow (A83), by some unexpectedly friendly police. Apparently there was an accident up ahead. So this added another hour to the journey, which was probably closer to 2 hours given snowy condition, as we travel back again past Loch Lomond. But the drive was worth it, as this was our first sight of the snow drenched mountain scenery of the Scottish Highlands, which is just incredibly beautiful to look at. It’s surely like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere in the British Isles. So we were running later than expected, and Inverary Castle was long gone, but we do stop along the route to put our drone up for the first time on this Road Trip in the Scottish Highlands. So this was at  Saint Conan’s Kirk on Lake Awe which really looks awe-some (eeey!) from above. However the skies were increasingly darker by now, and our stop in Oban is short-lived, with only a short walk around the shores of Dunstaffnage Castle, before forwarding to the lakes of Glencoe (nearby hotels here), to find our hotel next to and overlooking the Ballachulish Bridge crossing at Loch Linnhe. 

The Hotel Routine

We had already reserved each night’s hotel stay before setting out, with 24 hour cancellation through, meaning if the itinerary goes tits up, we lose no more than one night’s stay. This also allowed us to find decent prices by booking in advance, and we paid between £38-£55 throughout the entire road trip in the Scottish Highlands (1 room, 2 people). And 4 of the 7 nights included free breakfast. We then soon found ourselves with a rather ordinary routine, starting the morning with big Scottish breakfasts, before sightseeing through the day until the next hotel checkin at around 04:00PM, just before dark. We would often arrive in time for Tipping Point each day, almost always certainly in time for the chase, and then we’d decide on what to eat by the time Eggheads comes on (TV is the same here). So I’ll share tonight’s digs, the Ballachulish Hotel, as would be the most expensive of our road trip in the Scottish Highlands (£55), and includes free breakfast, as well as tea, coffee and traditional Scottish shortbread in the room (as every hotel has). But we decided to make the most of this stay opting for grub at the restaurant, going for my first traditional haggis, neeps and tatties, which is a starter, but I knew Fanfan would otherwise struggle with her burger and chips. So we were both well fed, with a pint of Caledonian beer, for just around £20. Which is what we aim for foodwise each day. 

Amber Weather Alerts

When it comes to weather warnings, Yellow would be the lowest, with amber and red being progressively worse. But a Yellow Warning is still a warning, and there is danger, and the detour from today proved this. But watching the news later in the hotel room, apparently the alert had been upgraded to amber while we were out on the road. So the main stories on Scottish News Channels were of “Snow Disruption” sharing the crashes and road closures which happened through the day. They also told of more to come, advising people to reconsider their daily commutes, and warned to only drive if necessary. And this included the coastal and more amiable parts of the south. Yet here we are with a 7-day itinerary road trip in the highlands of Scotland. Driving very long distances the coldest parts of Scotland. However we had already completed half a day in amber, so, meh. But this continues again the next morning with “Blizzard Misery” as the transport secretary apologized for people being stuck in traffic overnight on the N74 between England and Scotland. And more amber alerts are to come. At this point I do my best to avoid watching the news. Otherwise the new morning seemed fine, and while there were heavy winds, the snow was no worse than the night before. 

Day 2: Glencoe to Loch Tay

We started this morning with various scenic spots around Glencoe, like Glencoe Visitor Centre (below top), before crossing over the highlands, from east to west. And this drive from Glencoe is just truly majestic, with its wild expansive mountain scenes, that set them apart from our past road trips in the alps of Europe. And while Switzerland, for example, is no doubt stunning, it also feels somewhat compact to me, and the better views are only found on rather pricy cable car and train rides. But here we can drive for hours through various viewpoints and attractions (below left), as we pass the house from James Bond: Skyfall (apparently) and watch as wild dear gamble through the vast white scenery. But we then leave the motorway (A82 onto A85) towards an adorable wee town called Killin (which Fanfan really wants to return too). Then it is when we approach Loch Tay that the roads become like country lanes, completely empty of traffic, and the only faint tracks in front of us are on the opposite. So for the next 20 miles we were driving pretty much on the wrong side of the road, as we would likely be stuck in the snow otherwise. But we do cross over again, and we allow no more than 5 cars to from the opposite direction, in roughly 1 hour, and 4 of them were road maintenance and emergency vehicles. So this route was a bit terrifying with heavy snowfall, but it’s a bit like watching horror movies, where it’s exciting at the same. So when we finally arrive to safety at Kenmore, we go traight off track again to Loch Tummel and catch some amazing views from Queen’s View (below right), before calling it a night with haggis suppers in our guesthouse room near Pitlochry (nearby hotels here). 

Day 3: Cairngorms and Aviemore

This morning started quite terribly when the car windows would keep freezing every time I deiced them. So I was going round in circles with my deicer spray. Then I tried to reverse from my parking space, only the wheels just kept spinning on ice. So after about 5 minutes, and with the help of two hotel folk, the car reverses from the space, only now it feels like driving with the hand brake on. As if something was pulling back on the, and I’m guessing it was pretty much frozen underneath, so I circled around in the area until it finally thawed. So next we would be travelling north to Aviemore, through the Cairngorms National Park, but we decided against the wilder side via Balmoral Castle, and kept safe instead on the motorway (A9) to Aviemore. Although the views still are magnificent, with the never-ending mountain snows, and occasional hordes of reindeer, which I never even knew existed here. So Aviemore and the surrounding Cairngorms are just beautiful (nearby hotels here), with snow topped pine trees, frozen lakes, and serene walks in thick snows. Loch Morlich definitely a highlight here. Then we took a drive up to the base station of the Mountain Railway which is just hiving with skiers at this time of the year. But we otherwise decided against both the train journey, given we’ve seen so many similar in Europe, as well as skiing, given we sucked last time when skiing in the north of China. Although cross-country skiing looked fun in the lakeside forests, and I realise my biggest regret on this road trip, was not bringing a sleigh. We then stayed in the town of Grantown of Spey, which still had Christmas decorations up, and I finally had a white Christmas, near a month after Christmas.

Day 4: Loch Ness and Glen Shiel

The next morning we are back on the move as we cross from west to east again, and from Aviemore to the Isle of Skye. Which was a journey I wasn’t overly excited for, simply because I didn’t want to leave Aviemore so soon. But we start out regardless at 9:00AM travelling past Loch Ness where we first stop at the City of Inverness for a photo or two at the Inverness Castle. It maybe the capital of the Scottish Highlands, but it’s also small and easy to navigate. We then stop for the obligatory visit to Loch Ness, at Urquhart Castle (below, top), and I am fairly sure we captured video of the Loch Ness monster (video up at top). The day then turned out to be the best so far, at least when it comes to road trip scenery, as the scenes towards Skye and Lochalsh (A87) were out of this world. Seriously. I have seen nothing like it before. So this was at Loch Cluanie, through to Glen Shiel, where there is just layer upon layer of snow, peppered all along with herds of wild deer. However there are very few places to stop along this route in winter, and when I found a parking bay to turn back to photograph a deer, we found ourselves tracking back a good 10 miles with only other turn at The Cluanie Inn and filling station. Where opposite two middle-aged men were taking selfies next to a massive snow penis which they had sculpted outside their house. It even had pine branch pubes and everything. Welcome to Scotland. We then continue towards the Isle of Skye, with a stop at Eilean Donan Castle, before crossing the Skye Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to reach the island (Isle of Skye hotels here). 

An Island Escape

Tonight our hotel (Greshornish House Hotel) is found roughly 1 mile down a winding single lane dirt track, covered with ice, and snow so high on the parting that it scraped ominously against the chassis of the car. Not to forget the regular blockades of wandering sheep. God knows what we would do if a car came from the opposite direction. Therefore the relief on reaching the hotel car park was phenomenal, where tonight we would stay in a lakeside manor, miles away from anywhere, with no phone reception, barely working wi-fi, and the chance of catching the northern lights (although we never did). Inside the rooms of the manor are all open to the guests, with roaring fires, board games, a snooker room, and a whisky bar. Which is how I have always envisioned my travels in Scotland, miles away from the world, with romantic rustic comforts, and of course lots of whisky. We are also on the Isle of Skye, home to the iconic peat smoked single malt Talisker, and we passed signposts to the distillery just 8 miles from our route. But I had otherwise been overdoing alcohol during Christmas in Northern Ireland, and we have a lot of driving on this itinerary, so whisky was on a back seat on this visit. I do however check the whisky list, only to find lesser know Talisker blends, one aged in sherry casks, and missing the peat smoke notes synonymous with the Scottish Isles. And the other was just too expensive. So I concede that this is 100% not my Scotland whisky tour. Instead we enjoyed a bottle of wine together in the bedroom, and made the most of the other experiences. 

Day 5: Isle of Skye

After scraping and rattling out from the hotel lane, we are again out to explore the Isle of Skye, although we really should have given more time here again, as it did seem rushed, as with most of this trip, but it was hard to enjoy the scenery with the long journey north planned ahead. Again the Isle of Skye is very mountainous, and it is still covered thick with snow, despite its coastal location. And we now felt as far away from anything as possible, and many of the roads through the hilly scenery were just one lane, with signposts for a “Passing Place” to give way to the oncoming traffic. If there ever is any. But you can always see cars for miles to come, as the horizon is otherwise empty, bar what seems to be never-ending sheep (below left). So we visit the scenic sights, including Sligachan Bridge (below right), before travelling back down south again, via Loch Cluanie (A87), and again past some unforgettable and dreamlike views. I love this part of Scotland. But it is also completely off any tourist trail, and other than the Cluanie Inn and filling station, I am near certain there is no accommodation for many miles. But we manage to find a slightly open viewpoint on the turn south along the A82, where we pull the car in, to then find ourselves in snow right up to our bits. So again we sent the drone up for footage over Loch Loyne (below bottom) for astounding views from above. Before continuing to our hotel in Fort William (nearby hotels here).

Our Unhealthy Diet

A lot of my excitement in travel is for the food, but Scottish food is really not so different to Northern Irish cuisine, meaning there really is nothing new on our to-eat list. But I do always get excited for chip shops, and haggis, which what much of Scotland is all about. So each night we would always search for the closest chip shop to the hotel, and if there are none in the vicinity, we would either make do begrudgingly pay hotel restaurant prices, or make do with snacks or instant noodles. And the same goes for breakfasts, and when not included in the hotel booking, we would have the free coffees and shortbread in the guestrooms, then look for snacks later through the day. And we did fill the car before setting out with biscuits, crisps, chocolates, and beers of course, so we never really missed any meal. Although our diets really were not great. But it isn’t until Fort William when we are both introduced to Wetherspoons which are just ridiculously cheap. And Fanfan ordered nachos, chicken wings, battered king prawns and a pitcher of Long-Island Ice Tea, to go with her 8-ounce sirloin steak, and my special haggis burger for the upcoming Burn’s Night celebrations.

Day 6: Disaster in Fort William

We are again set to leave the next morning, only I turn the ignition, and nothing. Not even a chundle. As a sudden dread sets in. With a little relief as well given we are sat next to a city center hotel in Fort William. Had it been the Isle of Skye we would surely be screwed. By fortune we also have free 24 hour breakdown service for the car, through my mum’s bank account. So I phoned them up, and near failed the identification questions, when asked my mum’s birth date, which I only grasped on the 3rd try (to be fair it was the year I was stuck on). And they organize a local breakdown mechanic within the hour, which I am told is very luck, as it normally takes much longer. But it is still 09:00AM at this time. So I know almost with certainty that things are dire, and expecting the worst, I run through the scenarios of scrapping the car. The mechanic costs, paying for new hotels, and travel to the pier at Cairnryan. Can we still board as foot passengers? Or would it be easier to just fly out from Glasgow or Edinburgh. But there’s also the luggage, which we’d need to dump, as we can’t carry a car load. We’ll have to buy the family a new car. The entire situation was dire, so we were well chuffed when the recovery mechanic attached the jump leads, and the car came back to life. Apparently the battery was just dead. But I only had one try at turning the key, so I was too scared to turn off the engine until the next hotel, just in case it didn’t start again. And there were still a good four hours, with stops in between, until we reach the seaside town of Broughty Ferry, Dundee (nearby hotels here).

A Slippery Slope South

Our reason for staying in Fort William was to visit the now ridiculously famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, known from the Harry Potter movies and the scenes of from the Hogwarts Express (we had also been on the train at London’s Harry Potter Studios). But Fanfan must go it alone here, as I am left behind with the car, with the engine still running. So I at least made the most of this time by putting the drone up in the car park. Next our journey was to be north-west towards Saint Andrews (A889), and what was expected to be easier with light snow, but strong winds forecast, but proved more troublesome as the heavy snows heaped through the fields, trees and surroundings from the night before, are picked up by heavy winds and blown onto the roads around us. So visibility is pretty much zero at times, and what little traffic there was either pulled in, or drove under 10mph with the hazard lights on. Apart from brave Mazda driver who passed us and pathed away before ending up in a ditch. So it took a tailback of around 6 cars band together, and about half an hour of pushing, to finally get him back on the road again. A Woman in a Range Rover then tracked through the snow a couple of times to give a path for us in crap cars. And this was somewhat inspiring to me, as I always expected to be left at the roadside if similar happened to me. Anyway, we arrived to our hotel in Broughty Ferry (nearby hotels here) without once losing the ignition, and arrived to news of “Chaos at Nevis Range”, where we had passed, with 6 mile tailbacks. Along with the M8 M74 M77 M80.

Day 7: The Finish Line

We had been running on luck so far on this road trip, but all luck must come to an end, as the next morning we again go to start the car, and the battery had gone again. So the recovery trucks are back out to jump-start it, only this time the engine does nothing but splutter. The roadside mechanic then looks it over and, of probably many problems, there was oil leaking into the fuel pipes, or something. And the accumulating bills now looked way more than scrapping the car, where the cost of staying in hotels for it to be fixed alone would likely be more than the value of the car. As it was almost guaranteed to be days, or weeks. Only by slight fluke did the tow mechanic find a local car shop willing to drop his current work to check the car over, before dropping us to a nearby Sainsburys, where again we look at our options. But apparently scrapping cars isn’t so easy, and more so given we didn’t have the v5C papers proving ownership etc. And apparently we can’t just dump it at the side of the road. So we wait the call from the mechanic, and the potential bill ahead. Where the machanic tells us he’s ordered in and replaced the battery, and the car is good to go. And seriously the heroes of this road trip are the recovery driver (that looks like “Darryl” of the Walking Dead) at “TG Simpson (Ninewells Garage)” and Steve Clenaghan Auto Centre. And so we make one last dash to Saint Andrews (nearby hotels here), before a 4 hour stretch to the finish line at Cairnryan. Only we didn’t factor in the rush hour traffic through central Glasgow on this route, meaning it was touch and go at the end, arriving as the last car to board at the harbour. That was one hell of a week.

How Much it all Cost?

All the best stuff was of course free on this road trip through the Scottish Highlands, like the scenery and snow. And we in fact spent £0 on tourist attractions or museums along the way. Although there was maybe a quid or two on parking. Therefore the only costs for us came in hotels, eating and petrol. And per night we were paying less than £50 on average, which for 7 nights that is £350. Then there was the food for two people, averaging at around £25 pound per day, so that’s £175, although some days were cheaper than others. Overall the petrol/diesel costs were around £100. Otherwise I will ignore the Irish crossing, as this is likely irrelevant to those starting out from airports or the mainland. We did arrive from a lesser travelled route. So all-in-all the week-long winter road trip in the Scottish Highlands came to under £625 (£350+£100+£175). But was it worth the money? Well we once paid similar on train and cable car passes alone in Switzerland, for 5 days, before the hotels and daily eats. But I really should stop comparing Scotland to the highest peaks of Europe, as they really are both completely different experiences. However as far as road trips I can think of few better in the world.

Our Road Trip Tradition

Broken down cars on road trips is somewhat a tradition in our family, and it happened almost annually in my childhood, like the time we spent a week in Bournemouth while a mechanic scoured the world for a part to fix our Yugo, from Yugoslavia. Given the car and even country no longer existed at the time. Then I continued family tradition when my Ford Fiesta’s engine blew late at night in the French Pyrenees, and I ended up paying £150 for it to be towed and scrapped in the nearest city of Perpignan. But otherwise I have faith in further adventures in this car, dubbed the toaster, which to date has journeyed through 10 plus European countries, despite being written off twice. Some Swiss guy even smashed into the back of it with his bike at Lake Geneva. However just days after returning from our winter road trip in the Scottish Highlands, the battery died again, only this time there was not even enough power for the key fob to open the central locking. And the only door which had a keyhole was the passenger side, which had been replaced after another car smashed into it (the first time it was written off). So the key wouldn’t work. And this time breakdown cover didn’t work, as it didn’t include “home start”, so a mechanic friend helped to remove the grill, and unscrew the bonnet latch, to reach the battery again. And I now have a good fortnight to have an electrical mechanic look at it before our next road trip begins. Fingers crossed.

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