Part two of our Scottish adventure started with the most anxiety filled of destinations, the rental car agency. After taking the return tram to the airport from Edinburgh, we picked up our car and started making our way to the Highlands. Our time driving through Scotland had begun. It wasn’t the first time we’d driven internationally but it would be the first time driving on the left side of the road. Little did I know when picking up the rental car that which side of the road we were driving on was the easy part.
Our first stop was the Kelpies in Falkirk which are the world’s largest equine sculptures. This stop was extremely close to the airport and it was nice to have a short initial jaunt on the road before stopping to catch our breath. After parking and walking towards Helix Park, the Kelpies started to rise up in the distance. Kelpies are shape-changing aquatic spirits that typically take the form of a horse. The Kelpies were impressive and unique but other than a few walking paths around the sculptures there wasn’t much to do as we were there extremely early in the day. But, it was a nice photo opportunity and I did get to eat ice cream for breakfast given nothing else was open so the day was off to a good start.
Cairngorm Reindeer Herd
On our way to Inverness we stopped to spend some time with the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. From beautiful, intricately designed metal kelpies to flesh and blood reindeer our introduction to the Highlands was headed all uphill as we went to meet Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer. I had taken the center’s online instructions to not be late seriously so we were the first from our tour to arrive. After checking in, we headed around to the welcome center towards the back which had a small enclosed paddock where an engaging volunteer was educating visitors on their herd. A few of the herd were visiting the paddock although we were assured they get to run free too.
Finally, it was time for our hike. We drove up the road about a mile to the designated meeting spot where other excited tourists waited by their vehicles. Exactly at the start time, the Reindeer Centre vehicle showed up and three passengers got out including the lovely volunteer who had been teaching the attentive crowds just a half hour earlier.
After brief introductions and a promise that the hardest part of the hike was crossing the busy road to get across to the fields, we headed out. They were right about the challenge of crossing the road especially as I was still getting up to speed with the whole right-left-right reverse viewing aspect but we did make it safely across.
It was a fairly easy trail with a beautiful river vista almost as soon as we got across the road. We made our way towards the hillside in a steadily moving line until we reached the entrance gates where we stopped briefly to get instructions on how to interact with the herd. From there, we continued along a wooden path that zigzagged through the open field and climbed higher into the hills. As the reindeer saw us making our way up, many headed over and casually joined our line of people taking their place in the single file line and walking in unison with the group as we finished our trek to the top of the hill.
As we arrived to our final hillside destination, enticed by the bags of food our guides had carried up with them, the rest of the herd started casually heading in our direction. The guides had also brought a bottle of milk as one of the younger herd members had lost his mom and needed to be hand fed. The guide had barely finished explaining the situation to us when the little guy came over and sucked down the bottle within a few seconds.
“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to take pictures.” the guides kept reinforcing to us as we looked around at the ever growing herd heading towards our little tour group. The caretakers keep the herd at around 150 total as they find that is the healthiest number. If the count gets too high, they relocate some reindeer to other homes which was useful clarifying information as some of our group thought “keeping the herd” meant “culling the herd”.
We learned that the reindeer grow a new set of antlers every year. One young reindeer had an expansive set of antlers that seemed too heavy for his small head. They were so large that it seemed impossible that they had grown in within the last six months. The males start growing the antlers in the spring and then lose them before winter. Female reindeer grow antlers too but keep them through the winter until their calves are born in the spring. The antlers are covered in velvet when growing but then they shed the velvet leaving just the bone. A few reindeer had bloody antlers that looked to be in tatters but that was just the shedding of the velvet as the antlers transition to the bone underneath.
“Who’s ready to feed the reindeer?” the guides asked as they offered up handfuls of grain to each of us to use to coax the friendly reindeer over for a little snack. I know with certain animals you need to be careful and use an open hand so they don’t bite but the reindeer were so gentle that I could barely feel them as they ate the grain from my cupped hands.
It was so wonderful to see these beautiful animals in the wild but, sadly, it was time to say goodbye although the guides were amazing and stayed as long as the guests wanted to visit with their new reindeer friends but we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to Inverness.
We always pack our hiking gear when we travel so after reaching Inverness and dropping our luggage at the Heathmount Hotel, we headed out for our first hike in Scotland. It was a short hike to Rogie Falls but with a nice waterfall payoff at the end. As we stared intently at the waterfall, random salmon would suddenly appear and leap upstream against the falls. Some seemed to have a better sense of direction than others. A few of the fish seemed to be immediately pushed back down by the water almost as soon as they jumped. It was mesmerizing to try to catch the quick flash of salmon as they made their determined leaps against the strong current. While fun, we were tired and hungry after our full day exploring and driving to the Highlands so it was time to head back in town to grab dinner before calling it a night.
Our overly packed itinerary would prove to be a challenge on our second day driving through the Highlands so we had to cut a few things out as the day progressed but it did provide full immersion into driving in Scotland. Essentially, driving was like a stressful game of Mario Kart. It helps to have a second passenger in the car who says “stay left” every ten minutes. At least that was my interpretation. I’m not sure my husband who did the majority of the driving saw the same value in the regular, consistent reminders from my side of the rental car.
We started our loop through the Highlands with a stop at the Clava Cairns, a Bronze Age cemetery. This site is often associated with the television series Outlander although the stones that Claire touches in the series were actually made of styrofoam. Still, I wasn’t taking any chances and while I enjoyed walking around and taking in the immense history of the stones, I did not touch any of them because:
- there was no ethereal music playing; and
- there’s really no good reason to go back to 1700s Scotland.
While, I didn’t touch the stones at the Clava Cairns, I did find Jamie or at least the Clan Fraser marker at our next stop, the Culloden Battlefield. The museum walks you through the history of the battle of Culloden. As you weave through the various rooms, one side of the room provides artifacts and information from the Jacobite perspective while the other side gives information from the Government’s viewpoint.
We went on a guided tour of the battlefield with a museum guide once we were done viewing the exhibits. While it was a large tour group, the guide was engaging and a wonderful storyteller. My husband really enjoyed going through the museum and exploring this area so we ended up spending more time here.
Our third stop was a bit of a challenge to find but I was determined to dip my toes in the North Sea so we persevered and made it to Findhorn Beach. We only stayed long enough for some photos but it was wonderful to breath the sea air. Being from Maine, I’m always drawn to the sea and love to be near it.
Bow Fiddle Rock
After leaving the beach, we trekked to the north-eastern coast of Scotland near Portknockie to see a beautiful natural sea arch: Bow Fiddle Rock. There were no parking lots or signs directing us to the rock. This was not a touristy spot. It was just a place to go and admire mother nature. We parked on a side street in the small town and trekked across an open field towards the ocean. As we came to the end of the field, we spotted a slightly worn path that went down the side of the cliff to the edge of the water which we used to navigate down to a small, enclosed rocky beach where we were able to view the arch from various angels.
We were behind schedule so had to skip a few stops as we had a reservation for our first whiskey tasting and we didn’t want to be late. We were on our way to GlenDronach Distillery. Our gas gauge was nearing empty and we discovered that the drive from Portknockie to GlenDronach had exactly zero gas stations along the way making it a stressful ride but fortunately we made it to the Whiskey tasting in time which was, of course, the priority. And, we had enough gas to get to a station once we left the distillery.
After a tour of the distillery where we learned the history, we entered their tasting room for a chocolate truffle and whiskey paired tasting. Their single malt whiskey is know for their sherry cask maturation. We were able to taste three whiskies from their core range. As this point, I took over the driving since my husband is the whiskey connoisseur in our family. If you are the designated driver, you can ask for a driver’s kit and they give you little bottles to take the tasting whiskey home. I really love that this was offered at all the whiskey tastings we did throughout our trip. It’s a great idea! The whiskey tour was interesting and well done. Plus, did I mention it included chocolate? I did not need to take those to go!
Our tour guide had worked at GlenDronach for many years and really knew her stuff. She even got stuck at the distillery overnight during a particularly bad snow storm and had some fun stories to share from that experience. Not a bad place to be snowbound!
Old Packhorse Bridge
Our final stop was the Old Packhorse Bridge in the Cairngorms National Park which is the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands. After an initial misstep with the GPS bringing us to a different, although lovely, stone bridge, we made it to the more well known one. In fairness, my husband didn’t realize there was more than one packhorse bridge so he just keyed in the bridge without the town information. It was a nice, if somewhat confusing, detour as I knew the bridge should be easy to spot and it didn’t seem to be anywhere we looked.
After realizing our error we course corrected and found the more photographed bridge. While the bridge is incredibly beautiful, it’s located just off the side of a busy road with the town all around it so while it looks to be in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually not.
The picture on the left is THE “Old Packhorse Bridge”. The picture on the right is another packhorse bridge which while not as dramatic was still quite pretty. In fairness, our GPS was on point and did take us to a packhorse bridge.
After a full day exploring the Highlands, we returned to the hotel and walked down to Inverness to Black Isle Brewing Company for some creative, delicious wood-fired pizzas and craft beer. Their sour beer wasn’t super tart but it was very drinkable. It was a relaxing meal and a great way to unwind.
We ended our day at the Hootananny, a local, live-music venue not far from the restaurant. We listened to accordion player and vocalist Calum MacPhail who was fantastic. He played a lot of Irish music.
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to Loch Ness so we headed to the lake on our final day in the Highlands. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has staying power although my most recent exposure was by way of Scooby–Doo! and the Loch Ness Monster. My girls were big fans.
We had booked a high speed boat tour of the loch with Beastie Boats. I was immediately struck by how wild and undeveloped the area was and with the heavy fog encompassing the lake while we were there it gave it an even eerier quality which really suited it. The twenty three mile loch had cliffs bordering one side at least for the part of the lake that we explored. We also learned that it is incredibly deep in spots. It’s not a swimming lake.
We stopped to enjoy views of the Urquhart Castle ruins from the lake. Urquhard Castle is technically a royal castle as Robert the Bruce stayed there back in the day according to our tour guide. Otherwise, there was not that much to see on the lake. And, not surprisingly, no nessie sightings.
Maybe I’ll have better luck back in Maine. A few years ago we had a snake incident near the Presumpscot River in Westbrook and for months we had “wessie” sightings. Monster lore runs deep.
Next up: Hiking our way around the Isle of Skye one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.