This is a popular weekend getaway for many who live in Scotland as hill walking and outdoor activities within Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park are quite abundant. This is a quick day trip from Edinburgh or Glasgow that I definitely would not miss. Being from Utah with 5 National Parks, and frequently visiting Oregon, the beauty of this place is riveting at worst, and soul-crushingly beautiful at best.
There are activities for everyone at every level, from horse back riding, rock climbing, camping, hill walking, steam boat rides, jet ski rentals, kayak rentals, canoes, forestry preserves, memorials, castles and so much more!
I have a personal tie to this area in that of my ancestors, the MacFarlenes. My Great Grandmother was a MacFarlene, and my Scottish ancestry dates all the way back to the 16th century with the Mackenzies.
Loch Lomond has special place in my heart, not just because of how beautiful it is, but because my ancestors history, and the former family seat being located in this area. The MacFarlenes weren’t a very popular lot with those in Scotland, as they were known as cattle thieves. They were so good at stealing cattle in fact, that the moon is now called the MacFarlene Lantern.
Anyone I told about my ancestry as a MacFarlene got a mischievous grin on their face, and said, “Ohhhh, your one of those”. I wasn’t so proud of being a part of that type of reaction, but insanely proud of the area my family comes from. While the male line of chiefs in the MacFarlene failed in 1886, there is still remnants of their rich history here.
In the middle of Loch Lomond on the North end of the Loch is a tiny island, Vow. This is where they would take the stolen cattle and keep them safely nestled within the natural defense of the Loch. Being only 328 feet (100meters) wide, and covered in trees it was a fantastic hiding place.
The MacFarlanes had to make their home in Loch Lomond, due to their loyalty to the Bonnie Prince Charlie and their former Clan Seat in Inveruglaus being destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s Army.
The new family seat remained at Arrochar on Loch Long and the Island I Vow castle was inhabited up until 1724.
Loch Lomond Attractions
Castles in Loch Lomond Area
Dumbarton, Buchanan and Balloch these are the three castles within the area that tought a big historical impact on Scotlands History.
Near the Clyde Estuary between to mountain peaks, one which is called Wallace’s Seat. This is the castle has been used as a Roman outpost, Stuart kings ruling castle, and from where Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France at the age of five.
This impressive fortress dates back to the 1200’s, when the threat from Norway was coming to an end due to the Treaty of Perth (1266). This threat was quickly replaced by the threat from England.
What remains of this historical place, is a small four story stone castle, with stone entryways and a beautiful view over Loch Lomond.
This a unique castle near Loch Lomond as it is partially ruined, it is free to visit, looks like something Rapunzel would be found in, and there are no hovering tourists to fight for a photo.
Owned by the Buchanan family from 1231 to 1682, until James Graham bought the land. The house remained intact until a fire destroyed it in 1850 (makes me think of a Wuthering Heights ordeal). It was eventually rebuilt, and then abandoned in 1925, reused as a hospital during World War II, housed the deputy of Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess who tried to negotiate with the UK but was immediately captured.
The Castle, although left in a derelict condition, is still worthwhile to visit. I wouldn’t recommend venturing inside as the flooring can be unsteady and dangerous with trees growing inside the building.
This castle also dates from the 1200’s and is the historic home of the Earls of Lennox. The building was eventually abandoned as they did not feel it was in a secure enough location.
In 1652 the castle and its grounds were sold to Sir John Colquhoun of Luss. A new Balloch Castle was built, utilizing the old stones from the previous castle, and the moat and mound from the old castle is all that remains. It is a gorgeous home. It eventually ended up being purchased by Glasgow Corporation in 1914, hoping that it would encourage people to use the tramcars to this area.
Trossachs National Park
Trossachs just refers to a Bonnie place, that really encompasses what the whole of the Highlands are into one tiny place. This area is so beautiful, that Sir Walter Scott wrote his poem – The Lady of the Lake (1810) about this place.
There are hiking trails and mountains you can summit all over this park (see below), but if you want a more relaxed exploring pace – take a cruise. There are over thirty different islands within Loch Lomond, if you get your binoculars you may see some Wallabies! They are very similar to squirrels, so don’t get confused when you see one.
You can also take a jet ski tour, kayak, or canoe to explore the lake on a sunny day in May. There are races that occur year round throughout the park, as well as Triathalons and swim meets.
Try a Distillary in Loch Lomond:
In 1840 brothers John and James Grant applied for a distillery license. These brothers created one of the first distilleries in Scotland.
By the 1900s A legendary inventor, socializer, and traveler, “The Major”, was fascinated by new ideas and wasn’t afraid to explore them. Glen Grant was the first distillery to have electric light, and he introduced the tall slender sills and purifiers which created the fresh malty flavor and the clear color that defines the whiskey industry to this day. Glen Grant is still one of the biggest selling Single Malts in the world.
Be sure to stop by and see how this revered and carefully crafted drink has made such a historical impact on Scotland even to this day.
Where single malt whiskey is king! This Distillery has been in producing Whiskey since 1867, while the recipe has been handed down over the centuries – this is one place that you don’t want to skip over.
**The Scottish roads in this area have sharp turns, and are often narrow. Please do not drink and drive, respect the country and drink responsibly. There are plenty of places to stay the night so you can enjoy yourself.**
Mountains and Hill Walking in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park
In the USA we call it hiking, in Scotland they call it Hill Walking. It is always best to check out the hiking conditions, and the land itself. Scotland is unique in that it doesn’t have a lot of trees per se; but it does have a lot of moss that cover holes you could easily step in and break your leg. So the best site I found to utilize when planning your trip there is the Walk Highlands website. They will have guiding available, offer gear rental, gps rental and give specific pointers on safety in each area or mountain you try and summit.
What I really love about Scotland is that they also have a group who is specifically dedicated to protecting those who enjoy being outdoors. So for the more long in the tooth folks (or the elderly) check out Ramblers for some fantastic hiking suggestions.
Mountains or Munros
With over 21 mountains or munros in the park that are above 3,000 feet, the highest being Ben More – there are plenty of mountains to summit here.
Ben more, or as the locals call is, A’ Bheinn Mhòr, meaning “the great mountain” is the highest peak in Trossachs National Park. What is unique about the mountains in Scotland is their rugged, and unforgiving slopes. Ben More is no exception, rising 3,281 feet in 2.5 miles, which makes for a classic physical challenge for those looking to summit the 21 mountains in the Loch Lomond area.
The best way to approach this is by the Benmore Farm on A85, be sure to follow the path, until you get to the Northwest ridge. Follow that up unitl you reach the summit. The Northeast ridge could provide an alternative path to the summit, as it is said to be craggier and less steep.
Ben A’an is one of the most popular miniature mountains amongst Scotland’s bigger giants. It lies at the heart of the Trossachs, and once you ascend you are in a strategic location to see much of the surrounding Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond.
They have recently improved the path leading to the summit, which is approximately 2.5 miles, and well worth the effort to go just for the view.
Enjoy iconic views of sparkling lochs, wooded hills, and rugged mountains in some of these fantastic forest parks located within Trossachs National Park and close to Loch Lomond. There are hiking trails, horseback riding, and steamboats available to ride on the loch.
First and foremost, wherever you may camp in the world- be sure to check if there are rules for wild, BLM, or off grid camping as each country will want to ensure the beauty of the location to last for generations. Scottish take a lot of pride in their land, and are especially protective of the heritage for their children. If you go camping in Loch Lomond, be sure you respectfully pitch your tent or park van at each location.
Visiting Scotland for the second time in less than two years allowed me to delve a little more into the adventures available. One of the more interesting road trips that locals are taking more often is along the NC500 Coastline. I wasn’t able to complete the entire road trip of the Upper Scottish Highlands, but definitely would love to return to complete this trip in its entirety. Here is what to see on the NC500 Coastline in Scotland should you venture to do as locals do, and take this road trip in the most beautiful country I have seen.
Inverness for Easy of Arrival and a Starting Point with History
While Inverness isn’t technically part of the NC500 coastline road trip, it is a good starting point. This characteristically charming town has an airport, rental cars, Airbnb’s and all the amenities that you may need to start your journey.
The Scottish Highlands are known for their over abundance of Bed & Breakfasts, as a supplemental income for the aging population. Should you find yourself staying in one, you are sure to have the classic Scottish breakfast of ham, eggs, black pudding, beans, and rice.
When starting in Inverness, be sure to stop by Culloden – an integral part of the Scottish History and basis of which the popular show Outlander has driven hoards of Kilt loving fans to this off the beaten path place. A short drive away you will find Clava Cairns, where you learn of the Standing stones and Scottish folklore traditions. The last stop of this day should be Inverness Castle before making the one hour thirty minute drive out to Dunrobin.
Dunrobin a Unique French Chateau
There is a small stretch of houses surrounding the French Chateau inspired Dunrobin Castle. Be transported to France in this Disney like Scottish Castle, where you will learn of its colorful history and warm hospitality.
It started as a single great tower in the 14th century then expanded in the late 18th century to how it looks today. Undergoing transformations with each Lord that occupied it, including becoming a boy’s school and a Naval hospital.
If you are more into animals, gardens and nature, then take a stroll out back where a falconry display will thrill you with delight. Here you will see some of the most magnificent birds of prey in the whole of Scotland including a Great Owl, Golden Eagle, and a variety of Falcons.
Whaligoe Steps the History of the Locals
When driving the NC500 north, there is a unique place called the Whaligoe steps. For those who love history of the locals, this is commonly where fishing boats would dock. Fish were cured here, and hauled up the steps.
The main sources of food for the locals in this part of Scotland in the 17th century was from barley, oats, beans, and peas. Some other foods such as kale and porridge were also eaten during this time period. When the Vikings came in the 8th century fishing became a major source of protein for locals. They needed their cows and sheep for milk, and wool – both essential to survival in the bitter winds of winter.
Ale, cheese, butter were considered to be niceties for gatherings and festivals. Meat, wines, and quality beers were saved for the occasional luxury or to impress clans, or visitors.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle for the unique location of these ruins
Perched on the edge of a cliff. these castle ruins are far more unique than any other ruins I have visited. Sinclair Girnigoe Castle that was built with an internal dry moat for added protection, a private entrance from the sea if they were surrounded. This castle withstood several sieges until finally succumbing to British forces after the Battle for Culloden.
If you do visit, be sure to climb down to the secret shore that helps protect the castle even more. This area is filled with black rocks, a white sandy beach, and the bluest, cleanest waters I have seen.
John O’Groats (aka At World’s End)
Visiting John O’Groats stirred the Viking DNA within me, and made me want to jump in a boat and explore the vast ocean in the midst of the storm before me.
You can also visit several other islands from this location. There is a luxury hotel here called Natural Retreats, that is so Instagrammable I cannot believe it hasn’t been visited more often. There is a sign that you have to stand in front of, turn around twice and lay a kiss on it. It is good luck for your future travels, just like throwing a quarter over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain in Italy. This is to guarantee your return to Scotland, wishing for things at Land’s End. The Edge of the world.
The oncoming storm was absolutely stunning to witness here, with the roiling ocean beyond. I did not envy those who were boarding ships to visit the other Islands.
Be sure to read about the odd statue/art installment that represents how strong the ocean currents are in this area. Where the current is said to move boulders up to 500 lbs through this area.
Dunscasby Head Stacks for the hike
This hike can take up to 45 minutes to complete. It is not a difficult hike, and provides a quiet calming landscape next to beautiful ocean views. The Dunscansby Head Stacks are a few rock formations just off the coast of Northern Scottish Highlands that are a right of passage to hike to for all those that travel the NC500 coastline.
Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey for history
This was the property of Queen Mother Queen Elizabeth from 1952 to 1996 until she gifted it over to a Trust to take care of. Originally built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness for his son William Sinclair. William was visiting his older brother John at Castle Girnigoe, where he had been imprisioned for quite some time and revealed to William he was planning an escape. William forbade it and planned to tell his father, so John ended up killing him.
The castle went to his third sone George Sinclair of Mey. The Castle became the seat of the Earls of Caithness for the next 100 years. The fifteenth earl died at age 30 without family or children of his own. Eventually the castle was sold to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1952.
RSPB Dunnet Head Coastline Views & Sea Birds
Here you will find a nature reserve, a lighthouse, puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes (birds that live in this protected area).
It is a grassland on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. In the spring you might see the sea birds courting, summer the chicks are born and the parents are frantically gathering food, and the fall the birds have migrated leaving a cool yet peaceful calm to those wishing to take in the remote and beautiful beauty of the Scottish Coastline.
Thurso for the Rural Scottish Feeling
This is the Northern most town of the United Kingdom. It was one of the most important Norse fishing ports, and still retains its charming rural Scottish feeling. Including Old St Peters Church that dates back to 1125.
With the powerful ocean swells coming into Thurso, it is known for it’s excellent surfing and ocean kayaking adventures. There are international surfing championship events regularly. There is also an annual raft race hosted by the North Coast Branch of Coastguard Association.
Durness for Smoo Cave
After doing some surfing in Thurso, head to Durness for a round of golf that could be challenging for you given the ocean winds. The Beaches here could rival those in the carribean because of the pristine blue (although cold) waters.
If you don’t like to have cold feet, then head to Cnocbreac where there are the remains of two parallel turf dykes of Neolithic origin. It amazes me when modern technology fails constantly, yet the engineering feats of those thousands of years before still stand today.
If you want a truly unique experience, head to Smoo Cave. This is by far the main attraction of the area. It is an ocean cave, used by the Norse, Viking and clear back to the Mesolithic era as a place of hiding. The site is protected and can only be entered (due to safety reasons) if guided. The cave is quite large, with a fresh water waterfall dropping into the cave at nearly 66 feet high (20 metres).
Plan to stay a few days at the SYHA Hostel, or the campgrounds situated above the beach. The Hostel is converted army barracks that are perfect for protection from wind and help keep in the warmth.
If you plan your trip carefully, you could also visit the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival, a celebration of music, poetry, theatre and other cultural activities. John Lennon and Yoko Ono would take their summer vacations here with their children.
Scourie for the Fish
Fishing here is quite popular due to all the fresh water lochs in this area. While the official population is only 132 people, there are several Bed and Breakfasts open throughout the year here. There are camping spots available here, but only during the spring/summer and fall.
If you stay in Scourie, be sure to pop on over to the Handa nature reserve for all my fellow bird watching enthusiasts. You will see more puffins, skuas, guillemots and razorbills that you could count.
Ullapool for the Unique Festivals
This is where the Northern Atlantic Drift passes, and creates warmer temperatures throughout the year. You also see palm trees, well techically they are New Zealand cabbage trees, but are often mistaken as palm trees.
It is oddly paired as a major herring port as well. So be sure to grab some pickled herring while you are there.
If you plan it right, you can also take part in the book festival. It is a unique cultural event, as there are writers throughout the world that come to this festival to share their writings in both English and Gaelic.
If reading isn’t your thing, then try October, when the Ullapool Guitar Festival takes place. There is also the Loopallu Festival that is a major regional annual event.
Dingwall for Dingwall Castle
This town holds a very old clan castle, dating back to the 12th century. It belonged to the Clan Mackay. It was once the largest castle north of Stirling Castle, but only the Dovecote remains.
While it is a quaint town, with little to see in the way of ancient history. It is your last stop before heading back to Inverness or down to the Isle of Skye. So be sure to grab something warm to drink, fill up the car with gas (or petrol) and go home with memories to last a lifetime.
As Always….Happy Travels….Happy Tales… See YOU on the Flip Side.
Be sure to find a rental car that you are familiar with as the roads winding and long. If you are used to driving a manual transmission, there are very few manual transmissions in the U.K. to rent, so rent your car early. Automatic transmissions are plentiful to rent, so you can wait for a good deal or sale to rent one.
It is also a good idea to ask for a GPS for the car for back up should you not have cellphone service. For the truly remote areas, use the GPS to get close, then Google Maps with GPS coordinates to find the exact location.
Taking a road trip in Scotland is still one of my favorite things I have done while traveling. One of the highlights on this road trip was racing from Portree on the Isle of Skye to Neist Point Lighthouse.
Driving to Neist Point from Portree takes around one hour to drive. The roads to Neist Point Lighthouse felt like I was on a rural race car track, or a Scottish Mario cart. Winding frantically through the Isle of Skye countryside, racing the sunset, honking for the tiny lambs frolicking to a fro across the road with green hills as far as you could see. There were no cautionary signs like the states, and you don’t dare try to blaze your own trail because large pockets of moss hide the pitfalls and potholes. I was so determined to see this place though, no one died, and I stayed within the respective speed limits (insert cough).
Choose Your Path
We reached the small parking lot, and there was a dilapidated looking shack with a wooden beam blocking any drivers from attempting to drive to the Neist Point Outlook.
From here you can either veer left to take the steep concrete path towards the lighthouse. Proceed with caution in a rainstorm as the stairs can get quite slick. Also remember the rule of hiking, where you hike down to, you must be able to hike up from.
Veering to the right after you pass the former toll booth is the path we decided to take, as it leads you to an outcropping with a perfect view of the sweeping cliffs near the lighthouse with all of the birds that nest on its stony pillars.
The Hike to the cliffs is easy, I completed it in flip flop sandals. I would, however, recommend that you wear something that covers your whole foot with a warm windbreaker. The cold ocean winds can penetrate into you, so it takes hours for you to warm up after waiting for the sun to set and the lighthouse to turn on.
More Than Just A Photo
Waiting for the sun to set, it was fascinating to watch the other people on the edge of these cliffs. There was a sense of community, kindness, professional photographers perfecting their evening shots. After running around all over the Scottish Highlands seeing the sights, it was nice to arrive here at nine o’clock at night. The sun slowly changes the landscape and cliffs from the Golden Hour to the brilliant reds, oranges, pinks. The birds on the cliff face, slow their flight and settle into their nests.
A hush falls over the crowd, and the lighthouse comes to life. The light beams out over the vast ocean, guiding the ships to harbor as it has traditionally done since the early 1900’s.
Unique Wildlife Near Neist Point
While I’m not a bird watching type, I am fascinated by birds in flight and there were plenty here to become entranced by. The cliffs near the lighthouse were teeming with sea-birds frolicking in the ocean winds blasting the coast. The most common sea birds in this area are gannets, black guillemots, razor bills and shags.
It isn’t just birds who find the frigid waters near this coastline pleasant. Whales , dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks are commonly seen migrating around this area, and are frequented by brave scuba divers.
Fishing around the Isle of Skye is how most of the people in this area supplement their income during the off season. Just in this area, there are fourteen different species of fish that can be caught in Moonen Bay.
Claim to Fame and Future Plans for Neist Point
Neist Point was used for a number of scenes in the movie Breaking The Waves in 1996, starring Emily Watson.
It was also featured in 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, filmed on the headland at Neist in October 2012.
In 2013 there was talk of opening a small souvenir shop near Neist point, it was approved, but because of the relaxed nature of the Scottish Highlands – the building process has not happened yet.
Situated on the cliffs of Caithness stood the main castles of the powerful Sinclair family for over 300 yrs. This 14th-century building was built upon by the Sinclair family for nearly 200 years. Then the wicked 5th Earl George Sinclair was constantly bickering with his neighbors the Clan Gun. This eventually led to an attack that lasted as a 12-day siege attempt until they finally withdrew. The Earl was forced to flee Sinclair Grinigoe Castle because of the mounting debts he had accumulated.
British Invasion of Sinclair Girnigoe Castle
In 1651 Oliver Cromwell (an English Lord) moved in with his men resulting in massive damage to the castle from all the skirmishes and squabbles between the English regiment and the local clans.
The English troops were run out of the castle, and the 6th Earl sold the castle to Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy. George Sinclair claimed the castle should have been passed to him, so he went in with a band of loyalist and removed all furniture, flooring, doors and the roof.
The Last Battle
The last battle over the castle right was at Altimarlach where the Campbells emerged triumphant. In 1681 the Sinclairs regained the Earldom after which the castle fell into disrepair. The battering of the waves and ocean wind took the castle down stone by stone. Parts of the castle have since fallen into the sea.
A Sinclair family charity has taken over on rebuilding the castle to it’s former glory which is ongoing and arduous. Located on the narrow peninsula of Sinclair Bay and the North Sea is the only castle in Scotland listed on the World Monuments Fund list as one of the 100 most endangered heritage sites in the world.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle Structure Navigation
There is a stony passage that you walk into the main courtyard of the buildings. There was was a drawbridge over a once internal dry moat of the tower house. This tower house rises three stories from the bottom, you can find the remains of the tower house on the east side of the courtyard.
If you follow the remnants of the buildings to the edge of the cliff face, you will find a windows with a view of the sea beyond. There is also a stony staircase that descends to a secure area that was used to enter the castle, but yet protected from direct enemy fire (also called a sally point).
The stories of this castle say that the Sinclair portion of the castle, was built for the beautification, and the Girnigoe portion was built for the fortification and strength of the castle. The Girnigoe portion is considered the Tower House, the West gate and the chimney stack are considered the Sinclair portion. While some historians dispute that there was ever two different castles built, it has been called Castle Sinclair Girnigoe for the last 300 years despite a parliamentary declaration it should just be called Castle Sinclair.
The main buildings that you see today are under preservation and reconstruction, but the original tower was built around the 15th-century. Be sure to take a photo of the plaque that deems this so, and what historians base the dating of the castle off of.
The rocks themselves are built from red sand stone rock and Cathiness slate, giving it a beautiful complimentary coloring to the green grasses surrounding it.
The most unique part of this castle is that it is the only castle in Scotland that is listed on the World Monuments Fund. This deems this castle as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.
The Rocky Cove
The Sea inlet Goe, is a Norse word meaning a rocky inlet. When you approach the castle, it is not immediately visible, but creates a natural barricade to entering the castle.
Walking near the inlet is not safe, so please don’t attempt it as it is a far drop onto the rocky ground below. Looking down into the inlet, you see that it is covered in perfectly rounded black rocks with a beautifully contrasting white beach at the bottom. I imagined it was the perfect area for docking rowboats from the storms that frequent this area of Scotland.
Where is Sinclair Girnigoe Castle Located?
The castle is separated from the mainland by an arm of the sea known as goe, a norse word meaning cave. There is a dry moat on one side which allows for a drawbridge, and added protection for the castle from mainland attacks.
Sinclair Girnigoe Castle GPS coordinates, 58°28’33.0″N 3°03’29.0″W, were extremely helpful when making our way there. If you have AT&T you won’t get great service in this corner of the world, but those with T-mobile do get better service so using google maps is an option. Another option is to download the google map onto your phone for this area, to be able to use it offline.
This is surely not a castle to be missed while traveling the NC500. I know that visiting every castle in the UK can be not only daunting, but by the end tiresome. This is one that is quite unique due to being on the edge of the northern most point of the UK and it is easy to imagine how life would have been in the castle. So when you visit Scotland be sure to slip this castle into your itinerary.
How to Get to Sinclair Girnigoe Castle
Take the road north of Wick headed towards Noss Head. Park at the large parking area before the Noss Head Lighthouse and follow the sign post to the castle along the path.
It is about a 15-20 minute walk along a gated road to the castle itself. The castle ruins seem safe and stable as long as you do not cross the safety ropes, lines, or gates.
There are some signs at the castle itself with historical information. There no signs that point to the castle. So utilizing the GPS coordinates above is a great way to navigate there.
Founded in 1203 by Alexander the II of Scotland, this is the oldest surviving benedictine monastery still used for its original purpose. With a steady and repetitive schedule, the Monks that live here have well established it as a place of peace and refuge. To get here it requires a long walk from the car park down a paved path. The sun breaks through the trees, revealing mossy forest floor, while the rustling leaves provide a natural symphony of peace. As you approach the Abbey, the bells will chime out that it is time for prayer, and are just the beginning of your journey. Rounding the corner, you will enter the Abbey through a small wooden door that puts you directly into the grand apse. Here there is the history laid out in a timeline you get lost in, doors quietly close and open into the main chapel. Following one of the monks into the chapel, you sit down as they quietly read prayers and contemplate your journey not just through Scotland, but of your life. It is hard not to reflect on these things, as a sense of fortitude, peace, love, and devotion rings through to the soul accompanying those bells above. Once the bells end, the rumbling chorus of the men in full-length white robes begins. The monks sing quite hymns, with unwritten gentle harmony resulting from the contribution of the many different voices joined together. Of all the choirs you will hear, this will be the most uniquely reverent and soul moving – no matter what religious affiliation you are from.
Traveler Tip: If you join during one of these sessions, be sure to stand up when the monks leave the chapel as a sign of respect. I didn’t know you were supposed to do this as I was sitting in the front row and felt extremely foolish afterward.
Originally a wooden fortification, the Spynie Palace was once home to the Bishops of Moray. There are very few visitors to this corner of the world, but well worth the visit for its picturesque surroundings and to witness one of the tallest surviving great towers in Scotland. A wooden shack serves as the ticket counter, with a man that looks like the grandfather that would sneak you cookies behind your grandmother’s back.
With a gleam in his eye, he gives you a ticket, instructs you on a bit of the history of the Palace in a calm and measured way. Then sends you on your way to explore the historic building. Surprisingly the grounds are well kept with gently rolling slopes of grass, where a moat once was. The surrounding trees and towers provide ample shade, perfect for a picnic and to bask in the Scottish Sun in May. This would be a perfect place for a picnic, so much so that a picnic table sits just outside this 13th century stone fortification.
For the more adventurous and physically capable, ascend the stairs up the six stories of David’s tower. Peer down into the floors below, where giant fireplaces take up 5 spans of a wall where I imagine Mary Queen of Scots would have warmed herself during the 18 months she was imprisoned here. The intrigue surrounding her imprisonment and rumors of Lord Bothwell fleeing here as well is a story well worth reading about. After the quadricep burning climb of the six flights of winding stairs, you emerge on the top of the tower with 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside.
While I wasn’t personally able to visit this Castle, I would recommend it to all those who love ruins and a bit of history. This motte-and-bailey castle built in 1140, yes that’s right….1140! At that time it was one of the most secure fortifications in Scotland, a place where its occupants and tenants would have sought refuge from raiding parties, Vikings and the like. Surprisingly the castle remained occupied up until the 17th century. After the death of the 2nd Lord Duffus in 1705, the castle became unsuitable for living and was abandoned.
Touring the grounds you may see a filled in moat, the tower that partially sunk into the land itself toppling over and becoming a perfect spot for the visual trick of pretending as if you are attempting to put the castle back upright. Despite being in ruins now, Duffus Castle has picturesque surroundings and a landscape that makes it easy to imagine the surrounding area as it would have been so long ago.
Why is Elign Cathedral a must see Cathedral?
As I was looking at the best Castles in Scotland, I came across a cathedral that reminded me of those in France. It is called Elgin Cathedral and was considered the Candle of the North in its day. Yet despite being in ruins now, it still has a very romantic feel to it – and is worth the visit if just for the view. It wasn’t the history that intrigued me per se on this one, it was the activity in a 12th-century cathedral that intrigued me. This is one of the few remaining 12th-century cathedrals, and the only one in Scotland that you can still climb to the top of the Belltower as the Monks would have.
I stopped counting how many steps once my quadriceps muscles started to claw their way out of my leg. By the time you get done with Scotland, you will be able to kick a soccer ball to the moon by how many stairs you are going to climb. Once you get to the top, past all the hanging chains to keep out the pigeons and birds laying nests in the towers. You emerge onto an expansive steel platform, the wind whips your hair and makes your eyes water a bit – but all the effort is worth the view that greets you. It made me understand why religious places, typically the tallest buildings in the towns of the 12th-17th centuries had bell towers. If I was a monk, the bell tower with a view like this would make me feel close to God.
The History of Elgin Cathedral
Originally consecrated in 1224, burnt down in 1270, the building doubled in size and the aisles and choir nave was added. Bishop Alexander Bur declared Elgin Cathedral the ornament of the realm, the delight of foreigners, and an object of praise in foreign lands. In 1390, Earl Alexander Stewart the “Wolf of Badenoch,” brought an army of Highlanders to burn the cathedral and town of Elgin. This was in retaliation for being excommunicated for adultery. Then in 1402, Lord Alexander Macdonald plundered the cathedral. It lost its roof shortly after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, and in 1711 its central tower fell after hundreds of years of neglect and pillaging of booty and stones. But the cathedral’s fortunes began to change when it became a visitor attraction in the early 1900s and was adopted by the Historic Scotland Foundation.
Self-Guided Tour of Elgin Cathedral
I would suggest starting at the west end, with the 1270 AD square towers and intricate window above the entrance to the Cathedral. Turn and look at the coat of arms of Bishop Dunbar (1422-35), this is located high on the gable. Wander through the graves and see just how old some of them are, contain your excitement for this next bit….you are literally standing among history. Walk into the octagonal chapter house where the clergy of this church used to meet.
Explore the different tombs, here you will find graves of crusader knights, and the tallest grave in Scotland, standing 5 meters high. Play ‘Where’s Waldo’ and try to spot the Pictish Falconry image, a very rare site (hint: it is in the St Giles Parish Church area). The Guided tours run daily at 10.30am and 2.30pm (available Mon 9 Apr to Sun 30 Sept)
The Final Verdict
Elgin isn’t as face paced as nearby Inverness or even Edinburgh to be sure, but it is perfect for those seeking refuge from the rat race of life. Visiting Elign will make you feel as if you have been transported back to the 17th-century village life, provide views of the surrounding areas that give you the real experience of the culture that is Scotland, and allow you some downtime to connect with locals, or just a leisurely stop along your road trip through Scotland. As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales and see you on the Flip Side.
Coordinates 57.6095° N, 6.1738° W – Parking available – Easy hiking rating This sparkling feathery, but steady, waterfall drops 180 feet (55m) gracefully onto the smooth ocean-battered rocks below. Fed by a freshwater lake called Loch Mealt, it ensures that no matter the time of year, it is heartily fed, just like the Scottish locals on the Isle of Skye. This particular waterfall is often confused with Lealt Falls, but they are very different. It is also one of the few waterfalls that retained its Gaelic name (the Scottish Highlander Language), Cread an Fheilidh. The sheer cliffs are made of tall Basalt columns. These columns have a very hexagonal like shape, that in sequence make it appear like the pleats in a Scottish Kilt.
Coordinates 57.4484° N, 6.5901° W, There is Parking available but the quite a hike to the castle.
Just above the tree line, you see the castle ramparts competing for the view of the tourists that flock to see this stony fortress on the Isle of Skye. The stones are cold and unapologetic to the winds and loch waves that tend to batter it during storms, but warm and welcoming to the outlander’s that come as tourists to see it’s beauty. this ancient house has survived for the last 800 years with Chief of the McLeod’s and boasts to be the oldest and most continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. Stay in the Garden Cottage, take a trip to see the seals, wander the walled gardens and this ancient clan seat residing within the walls of Dunvegan Castle. See how life is lived in the Scottish Highlands.
Coordinates 57.2500° N, 6.2833° W, there are pull-offs on the side of the road to take photos – just mind the traffic. Not many toilet facilities along the roadways unless you stop at a hotel.
The craggy Cuillin Hills are the most challenging hiking areas in Scotland. The forlorn grey ruggedness of the tops seems out of place in the lush greenery that surrounds these mountains. To really know Glen Brittle, I suggest reading these books by a well-known explorer W.H. Murray. By the end you will feel you have traveled there yourself, and/or also help you prepare for your own trip to the true outdoors paradise that is the Scottish Highlands.
No matter where you stop to take your photos, your camera will feast on visual delicacies that are sure to enthrall your friends at home and fill your heart with warmth. Waterfalls will dance among the rocks in this place, teasing the fairies believed to frolick in these parts. The Sligachan Hotel is strategically placed for those daring to summit these mountains. The Sligachan Bridge is full of Folklore, and one of the most photographic places of the Cuillins. For those who like a more laid-back feel, try MacKenzie’s Peak Home – a cozy place to truly soak in the Scottish pride and hospitality whilst overlooking the loch with your cuppa tea in hand.
There are campsites available in Glen Brittle, should you choose to brave the Scottish weather. It is about 10-15 Scottish Pounds per night, and a cafe is also available in the campground. I would advise those who would like to attempt climbing the Cuillin Mountains to do so with an experienced guide. These hills are not for the inexperienced as moss can frequently hide the pitfalls, holes, broken earth etc…
Coordinates 57.5010° N, 6.6372° W; Parking- a 25-minute walk from the carpark, Rating easy walk
This low lying pearly beach is a 10-minute drive from Dunvegan Castle. It requires you to walk and hike for about 25 minutes from the car park along a farm path. These farm paths to the uniquely secluded photography treasure troves are quite common throughout Scotland. If you have your dog with you, remember to keep it on a leash as you will encounter sheep, cattle, and an occasional bull depending on the season. The best time to visit is when the tide is halfway in as this gives the area a very tropical like setting, even if the weather doesn’t match the view. Scottish summers in May and September will give you the best weather, according to locals this is the when all the chores, vacations, and whatnot get done. The beach itself isn’t a typical sandy beach, it is full of bleached Red Coralline seaweed that looks like Coral. There is so much of it on the shores that it truly looks like a pearly paradise. If you are feeling adventurous, visit when there is a low tide, and visit the island just off the coast and see the Lampay beach as well.
Coordinates 57.5650° N, 6.1552° W, Parking is available for about 20 cars or so, Rating easy to difficult depending on upper view vs lower view. The Upper view of Lealt Falls is quite easy to get to. You walk up a small hill, then towards Lealt Gorge. Once you get to the gorge, you have to turn around and look back toward the car park and you will see the Upper Lealt Falls.
If you follow the edge of the gorge, you will notice a very steep area that follows a path down to the bottom of the gorge. If you take this path, please keep in mind that this is a remote area. Be sure you have traveler’s insurance, or that your own insurance covers you. Taking this path towards the south side of the gorge will spit you out at the Lealt River, which is easy to cross at low tides. If you go during high tides, you will have to get wet and swim around the corner back towards the gorge to see the lower falls.
Coordinates 57.6824° N, 6.3396° W, Parking is available at the start of the trail- but is limited, Rating: Easy Guarded by the sheer cliffs surrounding this point, is the iron age, Duntulum Castle. I will warn you that the castle itself has fallen into ruin, and is fragmented at best. But to be able to peer into the cellar of the original McLeod Castle.
The Castle fell into the hands of the McDonalds, who after a nursemaid dropped the son of the clan chief from the great keep onto the stony rocks below – the castle was abandoned. It is said that the nurse still wanders the ruins, along with Hugh MacDonald attempted to kill the clan chief and was starved to death in the dungeon of Duntulm. There are parts of the castle that have dropped into the sea below, so do not go near the edges lest you end up like the clan chief’s son. Be sure to pay tribute to the MacArthur’s at their cairn (the rounded pillar of stones); who are the hereditary clan of this area from the MacDonalds. The views of the ocean and the surrounding countryside make this well worth the visit.
Neist Point and Lighthouse:
Coordinates 57.4235° N, 6.7883° W, Parking is available but fills up quickly at all times of the day, Rating: easy hike to the lighthouse, but can get steep
This is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Scotland and is still in good working order. While it is grand to say that you hiked to the lighthouse, the real money shots are on the cliffs just to the right of the lighthouse peninsula. If you go during the day, you can do both the hike, and be able to capture the sheer cliff faces that surround the lighthouse while birds play among the crags.
We had a rental car and decided to make the trip from Portree, it was a harrowing ride for my roommate as I raced the setting sun on the rough roads to the Lighthouse. I was in sandals and neither one of us had a coat. The ground was soggy, muddy, and almost ate my sandal trying to get to the cliffs. We mad it just in time to see the sunset make the lighthouse and cliffs glow in the array of beautifully untainted colors unique to the Isle of Skye.
Traveler Tip & Photographer Tip: Wear a coat, good shoes, and bring a blanket for good measure. You will also need your long telephoto lens and a tripod to capture a good shot that isn’t too grainy. Keep your ISO low, and hopefully, you will get the perfect shot of this beautiful landscape.
Skye Museum of Island Life:
Coordinates 57.6603° N, 6.3689° W, Parking is available and plentiful This was the most fascinating and authentic parts of the trip to the Isle of Skye for me. I visited both the Skye Museum of Island Life, as well as the Highlander Folk Museum in Newtonmore. If you have the time, I would spend a 1/2 day at the Highlander Folk Museum, it is not on the Isle of Skye so I won’t talk much about it here – but I do prefer the Highlander Folk Museum over the Skye Museum of Island Life. The Highlander Museum walks you from the Modern age, through the woods (literally) and into the 1700s. It was also the museum where the popular show Outlander was shot.
If you only plan on visiting the Isle of Skye or have limited time, then I would certainly stop by the Skye Museum of Island Life. They have huts here that you can explore what it was like to live in the 1700s as a villager. How they kept their animals warm against the harsh and unforgiving Scottish winds, as well as how they kept their roofs to stay down during the torrent of gales that would sweep the land. There is a small shop there, that may seem overpriced- but many of those items are locally made instead of being shipped from China. So support the locals as tourism is a major source of their income that lasts them through the winter.
Old Man of Stoor:
Coordinates 57.5071° N, 6.1831° W, Parking is off the side of the road just before the trailhead – get there as soon as the sun comes up or you will not find a spot to park Rating: Moderate with a 2280 feet (691 meters) ascent
This 5-mile (8.1km) trail starts off very mild, then you crest the first ridge that makes you break a sweat and you will see the stairway to heaven. Yep, you read that right, it is the longest set of stairs on a hike I had ever seen. My reaction to it was to first think of the Led Zepplin song Stairway to Heaven, then immediately followed with a few expletives and denial that I had to ascend them & subsequently renamed the song stairway from Hell.
Be sure you know how to navigate the trail, I did not know how, and once I got close to the Old Man of Storr I ended up scrambling up shale – yep, hiking poles and all splayed out and knocking the ground around me as I was determined to touch the old man. I realize that sounds very dirty, but it was just that comical of a scene that it is the only way I can think of to describe it.
It was worth the effort and determination, up the stairway of Hell, nearly falling down the shale strewn hills to reach the top and spend a few quiet moments with the Old man. On my pant ripping way down from my perch, I was greeted by an outdoor savvy European female who was suppressing a grin and a giggle as she showed me the proper course back down the hill. Despite feeling the fool, I accomplished my goal and held my head high as I stuffed my holy gloves in my pack and the wind caught the hole in my pants to help me back down this breathtakingly beautiful mountain.
I still feel a sense of awe at the views I was able to quietly drink in on that mountain, it suffused my soul and helped repair some of the damage circumstances back home had caused.
Kensaleyre Standing Stones
Location: A87, Uig, Isle of Skye, Highlands and Islands, Scotland
Rising 5 feet 8 inches high (1.5 meters) from the edge of a cliff, are the Kensaleyre Standing Stones. While the reasons for standing stones is still a mystery and highly debated, these particular stones are associated with the legend of Fingal. Have you heard of Fingal’s Cave? If not be sure to check out my journey to Fingal’s Cave, and the legend of the giant Fingal at war with a rival giant in Ireland. It is said that Fingal used these stones as a prop to hang his stew pot from to cook a deer whole. There is another theory that these stones were used as a way to mark the direction to something. The theory is that there were three stones that made a row, running NNW to SSE, making up the Eyre Alignment. There are also a few remains of Burial Cairns near these stones you can visit as well. These burial Cairns were such an important part of the religious and cultural practices of the ancient highlands before Christianity came to the area. Be sure to read my post on the Burial Cairns of Scotland.
Quaraing Loop vs Quaraing Pass
Coordinates: 57°39’02.0″N 6°16’40.4″W (far) 57°38’18.8″N 6°16’19.4″W Difficulty Level: Moderate, Parking is available, but it is a popular trail
The trail is not too bad the whole way up to the pass. If you do the Loop, it will take you all the way out to a beautiful view of a lake with the ocean in the background. The Quaraing Pass takes about 1-2 hours depending on your physical prowess. The Quaraing Loop takes about 4 hours to complete in it’s entirety.
The trail is getting more and more popular to tourists, but I felt it wasn’t ‘chaos’ as some other websites put it – it only required a few hugs along the narrow path. If you fell off the path, you would just roll for a long long time down the mossy covered hills.
The most popular parts of this trail are the Needle, a rock formation that appears from land slipping. The Keep, which looks like a rock formation resembling a medieval keep. Table rock which looks like a table coming up out of the valley. Interestingly enough, this area was previously used by the Clans to conceal cattle from the Viking Raiders. The name Quairang also comes from the old Norse word ‘Kví Rand’, which means “Round Fold”.
There are not a whole lot of restroom facilities available on Skye, but just find a rock to hide behind and take a whirl. If you make a poop pie, please be a gem and cover it with some moss or pack it out.
Coordinates: 57°15’01.6″N 6°15’30.0″W – Parking is available, Rating Easy Said to be the place where Fairies bath, due to pure and pristine waters that allow you to see all the way down to each moss-covered rock in the turquoise waters. These pools have become so popular in the last few years that it is nearly impossible to get a photo without another person in it, unless you visit early in the morning, or late in the evening in the offseason (March-early May, or Late Fall).
To get to the trailhead it is about a 30-minute drive from Portree. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the sign reading ‘Glumagan Na Sithichean’ this is the Gaelic sign, but it also has smaller writing saying Fairy Pools. The trail itself is on an open plain and can take anywhere from 45 min to 1.5 hrs, while the trail back out can take (on some reports) up to 2 hours; but it is only a 1.49mile (2.4km) trail. The increased length of hiking for such a short trail is due to the slippery ground, and complete exposure to the elements when hiking. Once you reach the fairy pools, those brave enough can jump into the frigid waters. Many dares have been attempted here among the locals, but just remember that you are exposed to the elements on the way back to your car.
Coordinates: 57°34’56.6″N 6°19’30.1″W- Parking enough for 10-15 cars – Rating Easy On the West side of Trotternish at Balnacnoc (which means – the village or township in the hills) above Uig, is the Fairy Glen. Growing in popularity over the last few years due to social media sharing of this otherworldly glen, it is now a major tourist attraction when visiting the Isle of Skye. First made popular by the writings of famed author Hugh Miller who wrote about the Glen as a:
‘natural connection…between wild scenes and wild legends; and some of the traditions connected with this romantic and solitary dell illustrate this remark. Till a comparatively late period, it was known at many a winter fireside as a favourite haunt of the fairies…I have conversed with an old woman…who, when a very little girl, had seen myriads of them dancing as the sun was setting on the further edge of the dell…’ (Miller, 1835)
As you drive to this secluded location, you get a sense of trespassing on someone’s property and miss the turn to get to the parking lot a few times if you aren’t careful. Once you get to the carpark, if there aren’t many people there, you could easily find yourself lost among the hills with the sheep giving you disdainful looks of contempt for trekking on their feeding grounds. Not that I would know how that feels personally as I know exactly where I’m going, and have no handicaps in knowing which way is indeed North….ahem. Once you have hiked about 15 minutes, you will see a large rock jutting out of the ground with a flat top. It looks very out of place against the surrounding rolling hills. This is a basalt column, that looks like the ruins of a castle, so has thus been named Castle Ewan. So don’t get your panties in a twist about tourists ruining the ruins by climbing on them like I did. They aren’t actually castle ruins, its a big flat-topped rock covered in green moss.
If you were to hike behind Castle Ewan, there is a small cave where rumors spread that if you press coins into the cracks as an offering to the fairies it will bring you good luck. There is another tour guide that will tell you, to bring a blade of grass instead of the coin around the stone circle (newly laid out for tourists) and lay it at the center as an offering to the faeries. Then proceed to walk backward out of that stone circle, your wish will be granted. It seems ridiculous, so I asked him why would he tell them to do that. In good ole Scottish humor, he said, ‘Why not? They think they are getting involved in the cultural folklore. It gives me a good chuckle, and they enjoy it – so why not’. He was right…why not? So I proceeded to pick myself a blade of grass, thought of my wish, put the blade of grass down on the growing nest, and clumsily walked backward out of the circle. When I neared the end though, I got a good clapping and vocal drum roll from three handsome looking French men. The guide was right, good chuckles all around and now I can pretend that someday my wish will be granted 😉
The locals on Skye have repeatedly removed the stone spirals in an attempt to keep the Glen in its natural state, but with the growing number of visitors, the effort has been stopped. The coins that the visitors leave behind are often eaten by the sheep in the area, which then gets stuck in their throats and ends up killing them. So if you should visit the Fairy Glen, buy some flowers, get some hay woven into a star or something that won’t kill the local wildlife. We hope that all visitors would respect the country code. To visit & enjoy, but not make adjustments and certainly not leave anything behind, even if you think it may give you good luck.
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The Final Verdict:
The Isle of Skye has plenty to see and offer for at least a week’s worth of exploring if not two. You will have to rent a car, should you want to visit all these locations as most tour companies won’t take you to each of these sites specifically. I have been to Scotland and the Isle of Skye twice now and still have yet to see everything I wanted to see while there. The land is vast, beautiful, unforgiving, wild, and a natural visual feast for the eyes. So should wish to be inspired by beauty, mystified by Folklore, and warmed by Scottish Hospitality…then the Isle of Skye should be your next trip.
While it says it is only a four-hour drive to get there, the roads in Scotland are not always the friendliest. I don’t mean the drivers are rude, what I mean is the roads have loads of potholes. There are also narrow passes where only one car can pass at a time and wind around all the lochs and mountain passes.
If this isn’t bad enough, for my American driving friends, you have to drive on the left side of the road which is completely discombobulating. It takes a lot of concentration when trying to make turns, or navigate the roundabouts. While the scenery is stunning along the way, the closer you get to the parks, the more your views are blocked off by trees and underbrush.
It’s fun to think about how the Scottish Highlander men would hide in that underbrush and in the trees from the British. If you haven’t seen the show Outlander, you should, it paints a realistic picture of what life was like in the Highlands. I even did the Outlander Self-Guided Tour while I was in Scotland. It was my first time visiting a country and purposefully visiting shooting locations for TV shows, and movies. Did you know what Eilean Donan was featured in several movies? Here are a few it has been featured in:
Bonnie Prince Charlie starring David Niven (1948)
The Master of Ballantrae starring Errol Flynn (1953)
The New Avengers (1976)
Loch Ness (1996)
James Bond – The World is Not Enough (1999)
BBC One Television Identity (1997 – 2002)
There is about a good 45-minute stretch of road, however, that is quite barren and VERY boring. For those of you who know that stretch of road between St. George Utah and Las Vegas…..its almost as boring as that is…..YAWN. After a long drive, you round the corner by the shrinking lake, you can see Eilean Donan Castle.
Parking and Tourists:
There is plenty of parking for all to partake in this iconic castle. That means that about 8 buses can fit in this place, and the hoards pour onto the walkway to the castle. There are bathrooms available once you get there, they are clean and heated, but very small for the number of people there. A guard sits in his small wooden hut, looking quite sullenly at all the tourists coming in. Stop and talk to him, he is quite nice and warmly welcomes the conversation. I can’t imagine how boring it must be to sit there day after day, I would like the company as well.
Buying the tickets:
You must buy your ticket in the strategically placed, and very overpriced gift shop. The only thing I bought was a pin to prove I had been there, that cost about 3.99 pounds……yep…..see what I mean. Tickets to get into the castle are Adults £7.50 , Family (2 Adults + 3 Children Age 5-15) £20.00 Visit the Eilean Donan Website for opening times, closing times and group discounts.
The Grounds and the Views:
The views of the Castle from the Parking lot are some of the best photos you are going to get of the castle. The roads are too busy to stop on the way to the castle, and the pull-outs that are available are heavily saturated with tourists with the same ideas. I visited Eilean Donan about 3 years ago for the first time, and it was busy. There were several areas in Scotland on this that I felt were swarming with tourists compared to when I was last there, this castle was one of them. There was a waterfall on the way to Eilean Donan that was so crowded, we couldn’t turn our car around, and had to back out into the busy road to get out of the parking area. It was so crowded we ended up just leaving, muttering that it wasn’t even worth the hassle of trying to fight everyone to see the waterfall. Maybe this is what set the tone for the visit to Eilean Donan, but I distinctly remember feeling this same way the first time I visited the castle. The only reason I was coming back here, was because my roommate Bree had not seen it, and was truly looking forward to it. We are both of Scottish descent and I felt it would be wrong to veto her getting to form her own opinion about the place.
The History of the Castle:
Some say that this castle was named for an Irish Bishop Donan who came and established a community here. Others say there were no houses or fortifications built on Donan Island until the 13th century to protect the area from Viking raiders. It has the perfect location for a defensive position and controlled the main water gateway to other areas of the Scottish Highlands. It has changed significantly over the centuries but was primarily used as a defensive fortification.
It was so widely known as an indestructible stronghold that it played a role in the Jacobite rebellions, which ultimately led to its ruin and destruction. I won’t get into the details here, but the fortification was lost to the British, and the castle laid in ruins for over 200 years. It wasn’t until 1911 that the island was bought by Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap along with his friend (another Macrae), who spent the next 20 years rebuilding the castle.
The Macrae’s are now the rightful owners of the castle, and much of what you see today is due to their efforts. While the history is important, there was barely a shell left for the Macrae’s to build from…..so while it looks like an ancient fortification, it is in fact, quite new compared to other castles in Scotland.
The Castle Itself:
There are tiny balconies, cute little rooms for visitors, bathrooms, and the dining room filled with all the Macrae’s most cherished memorabilia. You are not allowed to take photos within the castle, so I don’t have much to show you in that respect. You get to wander through a few rooms that look like normal rooms to me.
The best part is the dining hall, with stag heads, family crests, and royal trinkets in glass boxes along the sides of the walls. There is castle staff to watch your every move, and there is nowhere to sit. So with how many people who swarm into this place, it makes it a little difficult to get around. As you make your way outside, you can see the tiny ramparts where the men would have defended the walls – ya have to turn sideways and squeeze through in order to make it.
I cursed a little as I could not figure out how burly broad-shouldered men in uniform, with guns, were able to maneuver around these small spaces. If you wander out back, you will see the patio where many a bonnie bride is wed and take their cherished photos. The views from the back of the Castle are really quite lovely, and kind of saved this from being a complete bust for me personally.
After all of this, I hope it paints a clearer picture for you of what to expect when visiting Eilean Donan Castle. While it has been featured in several movies, is often shown as the centerpiece for many Scottish marketing schemes…..I just don’t think the drive is worth it. If you are driving near the area, stop and take a few photos, but don’t pay the money to go in, when you can get just as good, if not better photos from the parking lot.
You pay about $10 to go and walk around a home, essentially, that was built in 1932. There are older houses in my hometown to be honest. If you think I just have a sour attitude about it, just ask my friend, even she said it wasn’t really worth it. Luckily, we were just passing through as we were going to see Cawdor Castle that has ties to Macbeth and a thorn tree in the basement; Dunrobin Castle a French-built Chateau in the Northern Highlands on the NC 500; the Fairy Glen, Sligachan Bridge, the Devils Pulpit, and Culloden field. I feel these are the places that truly represent the Scottish Spirit, teach visitors the legends and folklore of old, and give you a much better sense of what medieval life was like with the history deeply intertwined within them.
Where to Stay Near Eilean Donan
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It had to be here! I knew I was looking for a random white hotel at on the right side. I was concentrating so hard, trying to remember the name that was just out of reach. The rental car sailed over a hill, and around the corner and BAM there it was! Sligachan Hotel, no wonder I didn’t remember the name (I’m terrible with names). We waited for a spot, as many tourists wanted to partake in the photo op atop the picturesque bridge. If you’re parking at the hotel I would obviously advise you not to be too cheeky and at least have a coffee as you’re using their parking facilities. You would be surprised how much a Scottish Highlander knows about the local area, and where to find those hidden gems.
THE MYTH OF WATERS
Now let me tell you the tale of the enchanted waters that runs below Sligachan Bridge. Long ago, in a town not so far away, lived a great warrior woman of Scotland. Her name was Scáthach. She was a beast of a woman, one that you wouldn’t want to rival in any Scottish Highland games – but would want in front of you in battle.
Tales of her bravery and strength spread across the Northern Isles and lands. The Irish warrior, Cúchulainn, was known in his country as the strongest, smartest, fastest warrior and knew in order to maintain the coveted reputation he had to put an end to these rumors of Scáthach being able to beat him. He set sail immediately, arriving on Skye he ran into a trainee of Scáthach and demanded that her mistress should come and face him.
The crowds gathered as she emerged, the fire of pride shown in both of their eyes. Everyone held their breath as these two warriors charged each other and when they struck their first blows, the earth shook the petals off of all the flowers in the surrounding valley. The children reached for their mothers, the horses bucked and neighed in fright. Animals ran for cover, and the men took an uneasy step back as the ferociousness increased. They were too evenly matched, neither one of them was willing to give in — it was to be a fight to the death.
Scáthachs daughter ran, crying with worry and not wanting anyone to see that her weakness was the love for her mother. She fled to the river, she couldn’t bear to see her mother die and pled to the angels and fairies to save her. What she didn’t know, is that water is a gateway between the faerie world and ours. Her sorrow was so intense, combined with the battle not far away reached the ears of the faeries.
They came to Scáthachs daughter, gently collecting her tears and poured them into the water as an offering to the Faerie Queen. Her tears, being full of love, moved the faeries and granted her wish. They asked her to wash her face in the river, and the faerie’s knowledge rushed into her of how she could stop the battle and save her Mother. Gathering the most fragrant herbs and nuts, the loving daughter threw her bounty into the fire. The delectable scents rose with the white smoke, caught by the wind, the scents wafted into the noses of the warriors.
The ferociousness of the battle began to dwindle, as the stomach pangs of both the warriors won over their determination. At a brief pause in weapons clashing, a break in the battle was agreed upon and both warriors laid down their weapons to head to where the delicious meal surely awaited them both. Scáthachs daughter had craftily prepared a meal worthy of these legendary warriors. As Cúchulainn ate, awareness dawned on both of the warriors they were in fact under the roof of Scáthachs.
As was the custom in all the northern lands, when you dine under a roof – you are the guest and are compelled to do not harm to the guest, the host or anyone within. It is said that because of the beauty of Scáthachs daughter, and her tears of love being poured into the river. Any who are brave enough to dip their face into the waters beneath Sligachan Bridge, you will be granted eternal beauty.
How to Approach the Gateway to the Faeries:
To do this the right way, you must give yourself over wholly to the process. You must believe that there is magic in Scotland and approach the river full of love for yourself and those who you travel with. The way to the water requires a bit of skill, as you must climb over rocks and crags being careful not to slip and taint the waters with blood and pain. Once you reach the waters, it isn’t just a matter of ‘washing your face’, you cannot use your hands. You must get on your hands and knees, just as Scáthachs daughter did when she begged for her mother to be saved. Think of someone other than yourself and pour love into your heart for them.
Make sure that your heart is full of love, as you dip your face into the waters beneath Sligachan Bridge and hold it there for seven seconds. Every gift has a sacrifice, and the faeries need to know that you are committed in love and earnestness. After the seven seconds, remove your face with your eyes closed. Do not wipe away the water, but let it dry naturally. Say a quick thanks to the faeries for their kindness and reminding you of what is truly important in life. If your heart is sincere, you may just be granted eternal beauty. Now the question remains, what is eternal beauty to you?
Address: Baluachraig PA31 8QG, UK The Kilmartin standing Stones are about a 45-minute drive outside of Oban. The drive takes you along a very picturesque coastline, winding through farms and into an expansive field with 6-8 foot standing stones. Within the immediate six-mile radius, you can find 350 ancient monuments. Monuments include standing stones, a henge monument, numerous cists, and a ‘linear cemetery’ comprising five burial cairns.
When you approach these massive standing stones, you will immediately notice the geometric pattern, linear in nature, and despite the distance, it is perfectly aligned. Keep this in mind as we explore some of the other ancient structures.
This Cairn was one of my favorite Cairn’s to visit in Scotland. You park about a mile away with an elevation gain of 50-100 feet. The walk is on private property, the trail is boggy and at one point you will need to walk across a wooden walkway to continue on the trail due to the amount of water.
As you make your way along the trail, you will come upon a barbed wire fence. The owners have lovingly placed a set of wooden steps on either side for people to climb over. Please do not agitate the livestock as you approach the cairn, don’t ruin it for everyone else.
The Cairn is at the top of a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. A perfect place for the sun to hit the Cairn. It is a round chambered structure with two forecourts that face North and South. Once you enter the Cairn, it is about 10 feet long (3.3m). The cairn itself is about 7 feet in height (2.25m). The cairn was discovered and excavated in 1866, where seven sets of remains were found in the forecourt and more cremated remains were found in the main chamber.
Nearest town: Inverness Latitude: 57° 28′ 25.21″ N Longitude: -4° 04′ 27.66″ W These well preserved Bronze Age cemetery complex of passage graves; ring cairns, kerb cairns and standing stones in a beautiful setting. Clava Cairns or the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Bulnuaran of Clava is a group of three Bronze Age cairns located near Inverness. A hugely significant and exceptionally well preserved prehistoric site, Clava Cairns is a fantastic example of the distant history of Highland Scotland, dating back about 4,000 years.
The cemetery was used in two periods. At around 2000 BC a row of large cairns was built, three of which can still be seen today. A thousand years later the cemetery was reused and new burials were placed in some of the existing cairns and three smaller monuments were built including a ‘kerb cairn’. Traces of a smaller cemetery can also be seen at Milton of Clava, a short distance up the valley to the west. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava extended along a gravel terrace raised above the River Nairn.
Excavations have found evidence for farming on the site before any of these monuments were built. The settlement was directly replaced by the cairns and it even seems possible that some of the material used to build them had been taken from demolished houses. If you look closely you may even find the ring-and-cup marks symbolizing and unknown tripartite god or the Triple-Goddess of the Maiden-Matron-Crone.
This Goddess is a number of the Celtic myths and legends – in the Wiccan and Neopaganism she is thought of as the ‘Great Goddess’. Three signifies balance and stability. The first stage is maiden, the second stage is matron or mother, and the last stage is known as the crone. These different stages are often portrayed by the moon and the different phases of the moon as well as colors.
What is the meaning of the Cairns for that time period?
We are born into maidenhood, and when our innocence is lost, this is when we have gained our sexuality transforming us into the matron. Pomegranates (from the tales of Persephone being raped by Hades, losing her innocence and then fed Pomegranates to be trapped in the underworld with him) are symbolized by color.
First, the seeds are white, then age to red, then when dried are black. These are the colors of the three goddesses’ of the world: Maiden, Matron, and Crone. Demeter is the Mother Goddess and Matron. Persephone is the Spring Goddess and is offered gifts. Hectate is the crone, she is the one that carried the torch for the maiden as she evolved into the mature Persephone, Queen of the Dead, and also the Queen of life’s rebirth in the spring. Hectate is considered to be the guide to the souls through maidenhood to womanhood. Hectate stands at the doorways quietly awaiting the soulful cries of the innocent, to help light their way.
A winding tunnel where one had to crawl, sometimes on their stomach to reach the burial chambers represents the further journey through life and these phases. Flecks of cremated bone were found on some of the surfaces inside the tombs and was the final resting place for only a select few. The outside of the cairns showed there was evidence of quartz, a white stone that when the body was cremated would have glowed, combined with the suns reflection.
When the winter sun sets, the entrances align with the position of the setting sun. Think of the symbolism of that – white snow surrounding a charred interior of black, with the sunlight guiding the way of the deceased to the underworld. I’m sure there was some sort of red involved in the ritual to complete the maiden-matron-crone, but I didn’t find anything conclusive that would have suggested this.
I like to speculate that maybe they were buried with some sort of red fruit, or there was an animal sacrificed – but this is just Scottish History according to Janiel, which could have me skewered by the locals for even speculating such history. Scotland is full of magic, and otherworldly creatures were often believed in, so I don’t think it is too far-fetched to speculate such things. I would like to think that the symbolism means, but the significance of this is still highly debated among scholars.
Should you find yourself on the NC500 Coastline, be sure to make a few stops along the way starting in Inverness and seeing Clava Cairns, Wick and Cairn O’Get. This is an important part of the ancient history of Scotland. Take a walk around the standing stones, the Cairns and imagine and speculate what the religious meanings must have been for these ancient people.
Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and See you on the Flip Side.