Growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin, I didn’t know much about travel apart from geography classes and books. I remember my older sister Kathy being enamored with the Scottish Highlands, castles, kilts, bagpipes, and all things Scotland. It was a dream destination for her, but as a country kid, she might as well have wanted to go to the moon (Elon Musk, notwithstanding).
Decades passed. A few years ago, I asked her if she still had the dream to go to Scotland. She did but couldn’t convince her Caribbean cruise friends to try a different destination. An idea occurred to me — maybe I could travel to Scotland with her. (Don’t think me too noble; after all, I was volunteering to travel to Scotland!)
We booked an 8-day bus tour, fittingly called “Scottish Dream,” with CIE Tours, a company that specializes in United Kingdom travel. The trip started in the bustling city of Glasgow in western Scotland, traveled by coach bus in a horseshoe shape, and ended in the capital city of Edinburgh. I loved it, and here are a dozen reasons you might love it, too.
1. Curious Floating Heads In A Glasgow Museum
In addition to traditional art at the 22 galleries of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, you can’t miss the unusual Hanging Heads, created by artist Sophie Cave. Museum lighting highlights the emotional expressions — everything from joy to agony — on some 50+ heads. It’s the kind of thing you can’t help but stare at, and it’s fascinating (and a bit creepy) that some stare back!
2. Panoramic Views On A Loch Lomond Cruise
I’m not sure if we took the high road or low road to get to Loch Lomond, but I can tell you that the Scots drive on the “wrong” side of the road, which made us glad to be on a bus tour instead of maneuvering those roads on our own! We took a short boat cruise on this classic loch (Scottish for lake), and although the day was cloudy and rainy, our spirits couldn’t be dampened.
3. “Weapons Made Art” At Inveraray Castle
In our first castle in the Scottish Highlands, Inveraray Castle, I was struck by the elaborate décor in the foyer, which strikes a perfect balance of art and weaponry. The walls showcased an array of weapons, including guns, war shields, spears, and blades. Those who dare to enter, take heed!
Pro Tip: Lunchtime in Inveraray? Head to the Argyll Bar and if you’re lucky, they’ll be serving up fresh, locally caught salmon. You’ll know it by the unpretentious sign: “Bar meals, lunches and suppers – served by attentive staff.”
4. Hike Around The Stunning Glenfinnan Monument
Erected in 1815, this stately monument honors the fallen Jacobite clansmen who battled and died in the cause of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. If you have time, stretch your legs on a short climb up the hill at the visitor center to take in endless mountain views.
Pro Tip: Tickets to climb the monument are available for a small fee at the visitor center or online.
5. The Romantic Gardens Of Armadale Castle
After a short car ferry (or should I say an “enormous touring bus” ferry), ride from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, part of the Inner Hebrides archipelagos off the western coast of Scotland, we enjoyed a self-guided tour of the Clan Donald Centre at the Armadale Castle ruins. The ruins and gardens were stately: flowers everywhere, footbridges over bubbling streams, decorative gates, trellises, archways, and more.
Pro Tip: After touring the Isle of Skye, make a photo stop at the magnificent Eilean Donan Castle.
6. The Deep Dark Waters Of Loch Ness
Ah, the Loch Ness Monster. Lore or legacy, who can say? Loch Ness is about 23 miles long and has a depth of nearly 800 feet. The weather was so idyllic the day we were there, I could see why Nessie would want to live there forever. Kathy and I took a short walk to the lake, and I loved this beautiful sign: “Like the heart, the true heart, however cold the world might be, the loch never freezes.”
As for Nessie, sightings are guaranteed with a large statue outside the visitor center. Inside, you can purchase every size of stuffed animal Nessie imaginable!
7. Sink Your Fingers Into Sheep Shearing
I loved this sheep farm near Pitlochry, with its rolling, verdant hills. A shepherd led a demonstration with 18 sheepdogs at his command. Through a series of whistles and words, he called each dog to work or to rest. They were obedient — and fast — as they rounded up sheep!
Only six people (including Kathy and me) on our tour of 38 “helped” the shepherd shear a sheep. Others were more interested in the next activity: feeding lambs from large-sized “baby” bottles.
What I loved most here was the shepherd. A local boy, he said he’d always admired this working farm and wanted, one day, to be a shepherd here. How often do you hear someone say they’ve landed their ideal job? His boyhood dream job, fulfilled. Not unlike Kathy’s childhood dream vacation, being fulfilled. It all made me glad.
Pro Tip: When it’s time to rest your weary head in Pitlochry, feel like a king or queen for a night and stay at the glorious Atholl Palace Hotel.
8. Photo Op With The Blair Castle Bagpiper
Seen one castle, seen ‘em all? The tour of this one, home to the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, was again full of history, beauty, and luxury. But I loved that when we stepped off the bus, we heard the unmistakable skirl of bagpipes, lassie! After the tour, to my delight, we had a photo op with the bagpiper.
Pro Tip: If you travel the Scottish Highlands from July to September, you’ll see fields of heather (August is the peak month for flowering and fragrance). By October, when we traveled, the heather fields had turned a rusty red but were still lovely.
Pro Tip: Looking for a unique souvenir in Pitlochry? Heathergems makes beautiful Scottish jewelry and giftware from natural heather stems. They are the only manufacturers of this one-of-a-kind Scottish product in the world.
9. Get In Good Spirits At Blair Athol Distillery
This distillery makes a Highland single malt Scotch whisky. According to our guide, when whisky is aged in barrels, it releases a gas that blackens tree trunks. Apparently in the Scottish prohibition, stubborn Scots who still wanted their booze set up distilleries in the woods. When searching authorities happened upon some black-as-night tree trunks, they’d know there was a bootlegged distillery somewhere nearby! For us, our tour ended in the tasting room with a shot of whisky all around.
10. A Bird’s-Eye View From The Ramparts Of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh is a city of contrasts, with wide streets and elegant mansions in the new section and narrow lanes and medieval townhouses along the Royal Mile, the oldest part of the city. On our last castle tour, we ventured inside Edinburgh Castle with its dramatic views of the city and Blackness Bay, leading out to the North Sea.
Pro Tip: If you are traveling in August, don’t miss the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an elaborate “pomp and ceremony” military performance that showcases music and cultural acts from around the world.
11. Try New Foods And Part With A Few Euros
Food and shopping are common reasons to love a trip, and this one was no exception. Enjoy a hearty Scottish breakfast buffet with black pudding, porridge, fried eggs, crispy bacon, baked beans, hash browns, sausages, tattie scones (sort of a potato pancake), mushrooms, and fried tomatoes. You might want to try haggis, but then again, you might not. (Perhaps it’s an acquired taste?)
As for shopping, the rich tartan plaids are irresistible, and you’ll find them in everything from scarves to purses to blazers to berets. Scotland’s national flower, the thistle, can be found on gifts of all kinds. Other treasures I purchased included whisky tea, whisky-flavored coffee, and a bottle of Scotch whisky (hmmm … there’s a theme here).
12. Travel With Someone Special
Kathy and I hadn’t roomed together since we were kids, some 50 years ago. I think sharing my sister’s childhood dream vacation was almost as good as taking one of my own. From a TV that mysteriously turned on by itself one night in a castle lodging (“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”) to a fascination with the shaggy but adorable hairy coo (Scottish cattle of sorts) to arguing over who “gets the window” on the bus (some things never change), it was a trip that created unforgettable memories. For both of us, this trip truly was a Scottish dream.