A friend of mine just messaged me, asking if four days is enough to see the Scottish Highlands. Edinburgh, Inverness, Fort William, and Glencoe are the areas she's especially interested in visiting.
My answer: YES! Four days is the perfect amount of time for a lovely driving tour around the Scottish Highlands. I know, because Andy and I just did exactly that, and it was spectacular!
Of course, you could spent forever in the Scottish Highlands and it would be spectacular, but for those of us who have real-life schedules to keep, four days is a great starting point.
Andy and I have a take-no-prisoners, we'll-rest-when-we're-dead sort of approach for trips like this. We wake up early, go until dark, and then crash into a pub at the end of the day with our heads spinning full of glorious, beautiful, wonderful things.
Day One: Edinburgh to Inverness
Cullross Village, Carrbridge, Clava Cairns, Glennfinnan Viaduct, Culloden Moor **Our flight arrived in Edinburgh at 7 a.m.**
We felt quite literary on this day, as our sight-seeing included a trifecta of Outlander-inspired destinations and a Harry Potter train bridge.
Even if you're not an Outlander fan, Culross Village is a wonderful first stop, a well-preserved piece of the past, where you can wander cobblestone streets and alleys, and explore the grounds of Culross Abbey.
As we drove north, we took time for a short detour to Carrbridge, where the eponymous bridge has spanned the River Carr for 300 years.
Next we stopped to see the standing stones at Clava Cairns, and the nearby Glennfinnon Viaduct, made famous as the bridge in the Harry Potter movies.
Our final stop before Inverness was Culloden Moor, site of the final battle of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. In less than an hour on this open field, the highland clans lost not only the war but also their entire way of life.
We spent the night at the Glenmoriston Townhouse Hotel, on the banks of the River Ness, and had the most glorious dinner at the Hilton Village Chip Shop in Inverness. It was not a glamorous dinner; in fact, we ate in the car. But it exactly what we'd wanted to find: the local chippy with a line out the door. Fish and chips perfection.
Day Two: Inverness to Isle of Skye to Glencoe
Loch Ness, Castle Uruquhart, Eileen Donan Castle, Fairy Pools, Fairy Glen, Lealt Falls
**This is a VERY ambitious day, and if you don't want to run quite this hard, leave out the Isle of Skye, and choose some other excursions along Loch Ness on your way to Glencoe**
Leaving Inverness, the road follows the long, long length of Loch Ness. We left Inverness so early that it was still dark, resulting in a wonderfully gloomy and atmospheric drive along the loch. We were sure we saw Nessie several times.
Crossing the bridge to the Isle of Skye, we stopped to view Eileen Donan Castle, and to greet our first Highland Cows.
Here's what I learned: don't touch the cows. They don't like it, and they will whack you with their horns to let you know.
True confession: we came to Skye because I saw a picture of the Fairy Pools on Pinterest. I had been told by friends that Skye was a must, but the Fairy Pools photo is what convinced me that the extra long drive was worth it.
Turns out, the Fairy Pools are like someone you met on match.com: they may be perfectly nice, but they look absolutely nothing like their online photographs.
Apparently, many visitors have trouble recognizing the Fairy Pools from what they've seen online, because a fair way up the track there's a sign that essentially says, "You've seen them. Turn around and go back."
At the Fairy Pools, though, we met up with a family who gave us our hot tip of the day. We absolutely HAD to go to the Fairy Glen, they said. So off we went. And it was magic: terraced hillocks, rocks to climb, stone circles, and a little waterfall with a red-berried rowan tree.
We spent the night in Glencoe at the heavenly Heatherlea Glencoe Bed & Breakfast. Helen and Jo have comfortable rooms, a fabulous garden, and a delicious cooked-to-order breakfast.
Day Three: Glencoe to Edinburgh
Glencoe Moor, Three Lochs Drive, Castle Doune, Stirling Castle, Midhope Castle
The drive from Glencoe to Edinburgh was everything I ever thought the Highlands would be: majestic mountains, windswept moors, placid lochs, crumbling castles.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand, swarms of midges that let you get just far enough away from your car, then attack with bloodthirsty intent. If you wonder why nobody lives up here, the midges provide a clue.
We couldn't get enough of the still, beautiful lochs, so we took an extra detour along Three Lochs Forest Drive.
Our favorite castle visit of the day: Castle Doune, which plays host to many film crews. As you explore, you can sing along with Monte Python's knights of Spamalot, le sigh over Jamie and Claire's first meeting in Outlander, and roam the great hall of Winterfell from Game of Thrones.
We also stopped in at Stirling Castle, where we had the chance to enjoy a brief moment as Lord and Lady Bruner.
Our final stop before returning to Edinbugh was Midhope Castle, the film site for Lallybroch in Outlander. We had to drive a bit out of the way for this, but I'll never regret that I was able to stand in the same doorway as Jamie Fraser. Never.
Day Four: Edinburgh
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle, Royal Mile, Elephant House, National Museum of Scotland, Scottish Parliament, Calton Hill/Arthur's Seat
**Our flight departed Edinburgh at 10 p.m. of Day Four**
On the night of Day Three, we stayed at Old Town Chambers, in Advocate's Close, just off the Royal Mile. It was a pretty fabulous location, down this alley, picturesque in the extreme and central to everything in Old Town.
We did all the things you're supposed to do in Old Town Edinburgh: ate in a pub in Grassmarket; visited St. Giles Church, Edinburgh Castle and the National Museum of Scotland; visited the Scottish National Parliament building and sat in on a bit of a session; climbed Calton hill to view Arthur's Seat; and wrapped it all up with afternoon tea at The Elephant House, where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.
And so, to the question of whether you can do Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands in four days, the answer is a resounding YES--and if you're super ambitious (like we were!) you can even see a wee bit of the Isle of Skye as well.
Believe me when I say that you will sleep well on the flight home.
Travel Note: A Word to the Wise on Car Rental
We flew into Edinburgh, where we rented a car for our drive into the Highlands. On our way back to Edinburgh on Day 3, we dropped our car at the airport and took the train into the city, where we stayed overnight and spent the next day exploring the city. We were very pleased with our decision to be without the car in Edinburgh, as we stayed in a hotel on the Royal Mile and walked everywhere we wanted to go, and saved ourselves a day's rental in good frugal Scottish tradition.