From gritty cities to tiny island beaches, a whiskey-filled tour of the beauty of Scotland.
My sister Mary Claire and I share a love of travel and tea. So one night, probably after a few glasses of wine at my parents’, we were discussing the planning of our youngest brother’s wedding in Ireland. “You know, we should go travel Scotland while we’re on that side of the pond,” I suggested, dreaming of snug pubs and dramatic cliffs. She was of the same mind – wee villages and quaint tea rooms called us.
And so we agreed to meet up toward the end of my solo year-long trip in late June: sisters doing a little Scotland travel.
The best time to visit Scotland
This early-summer (late June into early July) timeframe was the best time for Scotland travel, too: the days were so long and the weather was excellent. Especially further north, we barely saw the night. We could come home from the pub at 11 pm and not need a street light.
It wasn’t our first international adventure together – that would be when we had both just graduated (her from high school and me from college) and we set off for a week in Ireland alone before meeting up with the rest of the family.
We still can’t believe our overprotective parents let the two of us jaunt off like that, but we had an incredible trip. We drank countless pots of tea and stayed in our first hostels and celebrated my first Bloomsday and roamed the countryside.
So eleven years later, we were ready to set off again. After a thorough scouring of everything Pinterest had to offer about how to travel Scotland on a budget, we had our nine days wrapped up and ready to roll.
Day 1: Arrival in Glasgow
Mary Claire flew in from Chicago, where she lives, and I walked over to our very central crash pad at Z Hotel from the great but out of the way hostel where I’d stayed the night after journeying in from the Isle of Man.
After settling in, we walked through the still soot-darkened Glasgow streets in the twilight glow to dinner at Ardnamurchan, a new twist on Scottish cuisine and a few beers. To ward off the gloomy chill (yes, even in June Scotland is not warm) we headed to the coziest wee pub The Pot Still. It was indeed wee but well-stocked, with shelves lined with every whisky you could imagine. I had one from Caol Ila that was aged in a Spanish port cask and it was heaven – a glowing combination of the fire from the whisky and a touch of sweetness from the port cask.
Day 2: Exploring Glasgow
After a bit of a lie-in for Mary Claire’s jet lag and my general sloth-like nature, we headed out to explore the city after a quick breakfast at our hotel. Our first stop was right around the corner: the Parliament buildings and their stately beauty. Also we learned how enamored with Nelson Mandela the city of Glasgow was, which gave them a new standing in our eyes.
Then we meandered under we reached the beauty of the Willow Tea Rooms – all Art Nouveau elegance and delicious strong tea. Is it afternoon tea if you have it at 11 am? Philosophical questions aside, this was a lovely afternoon tea in Glasgow – fluffy scones and perfect jam.
We headed then to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which was a great find. So much stunning art in general, and plenty of Scottish history to be found too. Who knew Jacobite glasses were a thing? Politics and glassware are an unlikely but lovely pairing.
Then after a tea stop in the museum cafe (yes, we’re addicts, don’t judge), we hit the Glasgow Botanic Gardens as the sun peeked its glowy head tentatively out of the clouds. We smelled the roses still dripping with rain and lost ourselves in a greenhouse that felt like a corner of a far-off tropical jungle.
Then we headed into the West End to find some shops and a cozy pub dedicated to the best Scottish sport: curling. It’s a fine sport clearly invented by Scots who were bored and drunk during an icy winter. Mary Claire and I have both curled before – we’re cool like that. So we sipped some local beer at the Curler’s Rest and sent selfies to our dad who got us into the sport.
Then we tried and failed to get a seat at the hip local pub The Ubiquitous Chip for dinner, so settled for the Innis & Gunn brewery instead which was lovely. And a final wee dram at the comfy and cozy Wee Pub, and we were off to bed. Glasgow was fine, we agreed, but more post-industrial than we had imagined and just a wee bit dreary.
We were looking forward to seeing what else Scotland had to offer. And we were about to be delighted.
Day 3: Off to the Outer Hebrides – the Isle of Barra
After another lovely breakfast at the hotel (who knew a sandwich with just (British) bacon could be so good?!), we hoisted our backpacks and headed around the corner to the train station to catch the West Highland Line train to Oban.
The ride started off dreary – thick dark clouds obscuring the hills, and no hot water left for tea for poor Mary Claire (I got tea because I am the older and also the needed of us). But soon, the clouds started to change from a thick monotonous mass into delicate layers, and the electric green of the hills and the deep dark of the valleys came into focus.
The West Highland Line is one of the most scenic train routes in the world (I know this because I am in love with reading the Man in Seat 61 guides to the most scenic train rides in the world, because I have too much free time) and we arrived smoothly in Oban for lunch.
We grabbed the most delicious hot smoked salmon sandwiches standing up by the water, and more tea before hopping onto our ferry to the Isle of Barra. It was four hours of blue beauty and passing green quiet islands, while we drank tea (more tea!) and napped and looked at the passing sea from the top deck in the sweet salty air.
Why were we going to one of the tiniest Outer Hebrides islands, a remote group of islands off Scotland? Well, in the 1860s our great-great-grandparents left the island to emigrate to Prince Edward Island in Canada. (This was an all-too-common occurrence back then, as life was hard and food was scarce.)
Bored at work one day in my corporate life, I googled the island to see exactly where 1/16th of me came from – and it was beautiful.
I mean, really. This is just like the Caribbean! Except I’m wearing a wool sweater in June, but otherwise pretty much exactly the same.
So we arrived to see the castle of the MacNeils of Barra (our ancestors! And the ancestors of a lot of the island, judging by cemeteries around – not a lot of genetic diversity here) floating in the bay. We checked into our cute bed and breakfast, each with a tiny room of our own, and headed out to the Castlebay Hotel for dinner with a view of the sea.
There are exactly two places to eat in Castlebay – and the other one was full for both nights. But fortunately the hotel was warm and welcoming, and the food was good and filling. Scottish food at this point wasn’t knocking our socks off (which was good because our feet would have been pretty chilly) but it was solid and satisfying.
Day 4: Beach Landings on Barra
After a great night’s sleep in our own little single beds at Tigh Na Mara B&B, Mary Claire and I had a hearty breakfast (smoked herring and poached eggs for me, which is frankly a lot of fish for breakfast) and headed out to the local shop to rent some bikes.
The Isle of Barra is only 14 miles around, so it seemed doable even with our lack of biking experience and on our slightly creaky bikes. (Also the lady who rented them to us had rescued a baby seal on the island that morning so we started off on a very cute note.)
So we set off unsteadily at first, but ten minutes in and we were cruising. We pedaled through the hills (so many hills), the flocks of sheep in the roads, the pale and blinding sun over the sea, until we got to the airport.
The airport on the Isle of Barra is tiny – the world’s smallest baggage claim (can fit 2 bags), a security check that’s just a guy peering over a table at you, and a very unusual runway. It’s a beach! The flight schedules vary depending on the tide. Also that’s not the most fascinating fact about the airport – though we did see some very cool landings and takeoffs there.
What is most interesting is that at least five locals on the island told us we had to go have tea and cake at the airport cafe. Never in my traveling life has anyone recommended airport food before. But it was about halfway into our biking, so we did as we were told. And they were not wrong – my gin & tonic cake and Mary Claire’s scone were incredible.
Fortified, we set back off on our increasingly sore asses and headed home. “Is this a golf course?” I asked at one point, as Mary Claire reminded me that golf was invented here and thus most of the country looks like a flawless golf course.
By the time we reached the Isle of Barra gin distillery, our quads were dead. But we made it up the slight incline back to Castlebay and collapsed on the picnic tables outside the Castlebay hotel pub in the sun. We drank a few recovery pints (it’s for the quads) and moved to the hotel for shepherd’s pie and Barra gin & tonics and then to our beds to collapse after a hot shower.
Day 5: Byebye, Barra
At 6 am, we rolled our weary quads out of bed and onto the only daily ferry off the Isle of Barra. We settled in with some tea and muffins, and headed back to Oban.
Once we got back, we emerged into the middle of a heatwave – record heat crippling Europe (115 degrees in France!). In Scotland, this translated to about 70 degrees and us stripping off our sweaters in the Oban Fish and Chip Shop while we stuffed ourselves with flaky haddock and mushy peas. We smelled every single soap at the Highland Soap Company and picked out souvenirs (I found a tiny honeysuckle one to brighten my future hostel showers), plus some tartan hair bows for our nieces.
Then it was time for the bus to Inverness for some real Highlands adventures. We had to connect in Fort William, and barely made it due to traffic, but we sprinted to our second coach and made it just in time. The buses themselves were quite nice and comfortable, and we saw a stag leaping in a dark mossy forest and countless snug bothys. I really do love buses.
We arrived in Inverness in a rain shower, trudging to the very cozy Bazpackers hostel (pod beds, man!) and hit up the corner pub for dinner and beers. Inverness is a strange mix of old and new – a tiny market town until recently, it’s now getting glossy and big. So we watched the sunset over a castle where Mary, Queen of Scots (one of our ultimate heroes) was imprisoned and then fought a big battle. Then we ate greasy lovely pub food on a cozy patio and nestled into our pods for the night.
Day 6: Highlands hijinks
We rose early from the comfy pods and headed out for a solid breakfast at the Rendezvous Cafe (mmm porridge, I am a boring bitch who LOVES oatmeal, what is wrong with me) and hopped on our Rabbies tour for the Black Isle. It’s not black and it’s not an island – it’s the peninsula above Inverness. But it’s lovely.
Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide took us all around. We went to the Saturday local market in his town, to ancient Pictish ruins and the cozy town of Cromarty and a little local brewery with a snuggly dog and a rhubarb sour beer that spoke to my heart.
Then we went on to a boat tour of the Firth of Forth – the bay outside Aberdeen. In the off-and-on rain, we both got to drive the boat (we are stellar skippers).
We were looking for dolphins, which were not to be found, but we did peep a few small and silent seals. I love them – their dark serious eyes that steal into your soul like selkies stole their pelts back to escape into the wild blue sea.
Sometimes I feel like a little selkie myself – slinking away into the wild free sea as everyone around me goes domestic in their snug cottages with their perfect children with their unwebbed feet. I felt in good company out there with my seal friends.
After, we drank our Black Isle brewery beers in the toasty common room of our hostel. The rain poured outside as we played Scrabble and waited for our laundry to finish. Then we sent ourselves out on a pilgrimage for food – searching in the rain for any place that could fit us. Inverness was surprisingly crowded that day – there was a Highlands bagpiping convention happening, so the streets were full of kilted teenage boys. Eventually, nestled in another pub, we ate stew and drank more single malt and stayed warm and cozy.
Day 7: Haggis we’ll go to Edinburgh now
We started our day with an adventure: haggis. We’d been determined to try it, and also terrified to try it. Sheep lungs and oatmeal! Yum. But we went back to Rendezvous Cafe before our train, and I ordered the full Scottish with some haggis. And it was… not terrible. Kind of like a loose meaty oatmeal. Meh. But I’d done it, and Mary Claire too! Now we’d really been to Scotland. So we went to church at the Inverness Cathedral and strolled the river Ness banks until it was time for our train.
We drank tea and napped and ate Cadbury chocolate on our crowded train – a time we were very glad to just have our small backpacks with us.
And then we arrived in the perfection that is Edinburgh. We ambled by the ridiculously large statue of Sir Walter Scott, through the ancient streets under the shadow of the castle to the cozy Castle Rock hostel. We hit the streets to see all the best JK Rowling spots – the cafe where she wrote, the graves where she found some of the unusual names she’d use in her books, all the Harry Potter-themed shops in the dark and twisty streets of the old town.
You could see how a curious mind like hers could invent a magical world in the other-worldly streets and skies of Edinburgh.
This is also how I fell in love with the city. Old and beautiful and gritty and skies that were somehow grey and clear at the same time – it was heaven. Add in all the bookstores and pubs and universities and palaces… I could live here (for about 3 months in the summer, and then the cold and dark would drive me out or make me a drunk). It also had the hottest guys I had seen so far in Scotland, because apparently Outlander is fiction.
So we wandered the old town until dinner, where we found everyone else had the same idea. We were out of luck at all the chic haunts we tried. Finally, we ended up at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society. Since we were the only customers in the place, we had lots of informative attention from our adorable Aussie bartender.
He went through all the options for our whisky flights – they do them by the different attributes of the whiskys instead of by distillery names, which they only tell you at the end of the flights. This is because every whisky they have there is from a single cask (not blended into other casks like single malt, or cut with grain alcohol like blended whiskys). I ate a plate of Scottish seafood and Mary Claire had a burger. Nestled in our cozy booth we learned more than we’d ever known about whisky. It was a perfect night of deeper knowledge after all our previous samples.
Day 8: Rabbies Returns
We slept well in our giant 16-bed hostel room after all that whisky. In the morning we were off on our second Rabbies Tour of Alnwick Castle and the Scottish-English border. Our guide, Gillian, was knowledgeable, friendly, and a fervent Scottish nationalist, which we loved. We stopped at a 12th century ruined abbey in the border lands, then walked across the Coldstream River into England.
Our next stop was the beautiful Alnwick Castle (pronounced Annick, because English people do not know what letters sound like). It was the setting for both much of Hogwarts in the early Harry Potter movies and Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey, and as Mary Claire and I are respectively huge fans of each franchise we had to see it. (They also filmed a lot of Transformers there, which is an interesting choice.)
It was lovely – massive and imposing, full of overstuffed and overly-ornate furniture which is my true decor love. And we couldn’t miss a few stuffed dogs (apparently the owners have real ones but they were away). My favorite dining room in Downton Abbey – all that green! – was there and we ate jacket potatoes in the cozy cafe.
But the real highlight was the gardens – a riot of color and every kind of rose imaginable. One of my current, extremely specific life goals is to have a garden with Anne Boleyn roses in it, spreading their prickly beauty over a corner of an artfully tangled plot.
We finally dragged ourselves back to the bus, settling in for a brief nap before we arrived back in Edinburgh. Refreshed, we headed to our dinner reservation at the Devil’s Advocate, which was one of our favorite meals of the trip. It was full of chic young Scots celebrating graduations or on their holidays, and we had great wine and farm-to-table food. Capped off with (of course) a wee dram, we headed home up the steep dark alley.
Day 9: Edinburgh Antics
On our last day of our adventure together, we woke up early and headed out into the city for tea and a full Scottish (again!) and porridge. Fortified, we walked to Holyrood Palace, where our eternal goddess Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned because they always trying to keep a strong lady down.
As we got nearer, children in fluffy dresses and women in fascinators started appearing. Turns out, the Queen uses Holyrood as her summer residence and she was currently in residence. And she was having a party, and did not invite us. In fact, she barred us from entering at all. One one of her lackeys suggested we go to the exhibit on Russian art, which was the only accessible part of the palace. We politely declined. We still hold a grudge.
But we recovered and went to walk up to Calton Hill, because we were suddenly out of plans. It turned out to be beautiful, and also David Hume took his thoughtful walks there so I was v into it. Philosophy lovers for life. We walked through a tiny museum about marine navigation at the top, which was surprisingly interesting.
Then we headed to a decadent and epic event – afternoon tea at the Balmoral. I had nothing to wear but my shiny silver leggings and a choice of either Tevas with socks or worn-out sneakers. It was not a glam look for the grande dame of hotels in Edinburgh. But I pushed through and Mary Claire reminded me that no one cares, and anyways I had my Fendi scarf.
So we snuggled into the couches in the grand foyer and watched, enraptured, as the tea boy performed our “pouring ceremony” which was just pouring our tea from super high up. It was so much more amazing than that sounds. Then we ate piles of tiny delicate sandwiches and haggis pastries and perfect lemon tarts and four pots of tea each. Turns out, after four pots of tea you feel like you can take on the world.
We took on Edinburgh Castle instead – a solid fortress with surprising beauty and a checkered and interesting history. With all the wars between England and Scotland, it was a solid mass of a castle built on a huge rock to withstand sieges. We read all the Mary Queen of Scots info we could get our hands on after the included walking tour took us around the main highlights, and felt a little closer to our name-sister.
Then we took on our greatest challenge yet – finding me a Scotch egg. Because we are in Scotland, I thought, this will be easy. I’ve had Scotch eggs all over England and developed a love for them. But nine days in, I still had not found one. We’d searched every menu in Edinburgh, and regrouped finally over some fries and cask ales in a little pub to do a thorough Google search for any leads. This is one of the many benefits of traveling with your sister – she will support you through irrational and obsessive food-related quests.
So finally we landed in the Innis & Gunn Taproom for some pretty good beers and a VERY satisfying Scotch egg. Apparently they’re not that popular anymore, which is crazy because bread crumbs and meat and runny egg is a combination made by a goddess.
For our final dinner, we parked ourselves at a pub and Mary Claire made me watch the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup. I was hooked. It moves so fast! I ate macaroni cheese (still not sure why the UK omits the “and”). We had our final wee dram and cheered the American women as they soared to victory. We had one last amble down the streets, dark with history and mysteries and the lives of people before us, and sunk into a deep sleep in our bunks.
The next morning, we were off on our separate ways early. Mary Claire had a 6 am flight back to Chicago. And I was off for an 8 am train to Newcastle-on-Tyne, where I started my walk across England along Hadrian’s wall.
Our top Scotland travel tips:
- Book your train and bus travel at least a week in advance – it’s much cheaper that way. The good times book up fast especially in the summer. I use Trainline as they make it easy to buy and usually have the same prices as the direct sites.
- Starting in Glasgow and ending in Edinburgh was perfect for us, since we found Edinburgh so charming and Glasgow less so. But Scotland is pretty small. You can take a bus from either city to the other quickly and easily if you’re trying to catch flights.
- Prepare for all kinds of weather. Even in the height of summer, we encountered chilly winds and rain in between bright sun and considerable humidity. Layers upon layers kept us comfortable, and were easy to fit in our backpacks with just one laundry stop in the middle.
- We highly recommend Rabbie’s Tours – they are affordable, very informative, and really fun. The local guides clearly love the places they take you, and it’s an easy and enjoyable way to see more of the country without having to drive.
Why we loved Scotland, and why you will too
Our nine days in Scotland were even more than we’d expected – those misty seas and a deeper connection to our heritage, a look into the soul of a fellow little selkie, endless teas and so many wee drams and a glimpse into another ancient and proud history.
If you’re looking for ideas for a girls‘ trip, you can’t beat Scotland for ease and friendliness and variety. Just make sure you have enough time to see it properly – nine days was the minimum we could have done a trip like this in. There’s so much to see in Scotland, it could take you months to explore every wee bothy and imposing crag. But nine days will give you a solid crack at a perfect Scottish itinerary.