Flew United LIT-ORD-EDI with no complications. Arrived Edinburgh Monday morning June 22nd ~0745, breezed through Immigration, got our bags, there was no one at Customs so we entered Scotland. Headed to the Hertz pick-up and loaded up in our Nissan Note. Programed the postal code for the Park ’N Ride close to Stirling Castle http://www.stirlingcastle.gov.uk/
and started the adventure. Let me say that getting the GPS was worth the extra money. We had maps and plans, but the GPS took most of the guess work out of the navigation. Now if we just knew what “she” means telling us to, “enter the roundabout and take the third exit…” How do roundabouts have exits? Once we figured out the exits were the roads leading off the roundabout it made more sense, but guessing when to start counting was a little tricky too.  I won’t get into the history of every castle, cathedral and ruin we visited, after all this is a trip report not a history lesson. After Stirling we headed to the Wallace Monument (William Wallace, you know, “Braveheart”). Climbed up the 244 very narrow, steep, spiral steps, there were three floors in between so you could stop and catch your breath and read about the monument and William Wallace. One of the rooms had his sword, all 1.67m or 5.5ft of it, impressive. On to the top for a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. Now back down…and on to Scone (Skoon) Palace. Didn’t go in this one, just looked at it, the gardens, the hedge star maze and some Highland cows. These cows have the shaggy hair over their eyes and some rather impressive horns, but seemed fairly docile. The hedge maze was a little Harry Potterish and hard to get out of, but after some wrong turns we got out, yea!! Off to Dunkeld to see the cathedral there. Couldn’t find it, how can you not find a cathedral? After flying all night and driving most of the day, it was time to abandon the search and move on to our first B&B in Pitlochry, Torrdarach House http://www.torrdarach.co.uk/
. We used www.scotlandmadeeasy.com
to plan our daily stops and book the B&Bs on the mainland, so all we had to do was show up, knock on the door and get shown to our room. Torrdarach House was the only B&B we stayed in that was licensed to sell alcohol, so we got some drinks and visited with Graeme. Asked for a dinner recommendation and he mentioned several options and we chose Victoria’s www.victorias-pitlochry.co.uk
about a ten minute walk. While we were eating the local bagpipe and drum band marched down the street out front, almost as if they knew it was our first night. After our meal we walked back a different way using a pedestrian suspension bridge over the River Tummel, along the opposite river bank up river to the dam and salmon ladder, walked over the dam and back “home”. Long day…
Up for breakfast ~0800, I had the Full Scottish breakfast; bacon, sausage, blood pudding, haggis, potato scone, eggs to order, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and baked beans!! This was after having some cold cereal and fruit. Jane went with the smoked salmon and cheesy scrambled eggs. Feel like a nap, but we have to find the “lost” cathedral. I guess after shaking a little jet lag we could think clearer and found it, http://www.dunkeldcathedral.org.uk/
After doing the appropriate amount of gawking and picture taking we hit the road to Blair Castle, http://www.blair-castle.co.uk/
couldn’t take pictures inside, so of course Jane wanted the guide book. This Castle had a lot of weaponry displayed in different formations all over the walls, different taxidermy specimens including Narwhal horns as stair bannister rails. Outside was a huge walled garden, Hercules Garden, with a statue of…Hercules outside. Time for lunch somewhere………..Now on to Dornoch and Dornach Cathedral, Royal Dornoch Golf course and Highfield House, http://www.highfieldhouse.co.uk/
This was our only glitch, I knocked on the door, and when it opened and I introduced myself saying we had reservations to stay the night, Ilsa looked at me and said, “Really?” The booking had gotten lost, but she had a room, I also contacted Marie at scotlandmadeeasy and it all worked out. Got settled and headed in to town for some cathedral seeing and onto the Royal Dornoch hotel for dinner. The restaurant looked out over the golf course to the North Sea. Also, being this far north even though it was close to 9PM, people were still playing. After dinner we tried to find Skibo Castle, the Carnegie Club, found where it is, but set too far off the road for even a glimpse. Oh well…back to Highfield House to scribe in the journal and sleep.
Opted for a reduced version of the Scottish breakfast this morning and skipped the haggis, blood pudding and baked beans, but had the rest. Visited with two couples there to golf and saw some red deer in the yard which upset Hugh (our host) to no end. They eat their flowers in the garden. Jane stuck with the salmon and eggs. After some gathering of our “stuff” we loaded up and continued north, today the Orkneys! First we stopped at the Castle of Mey, http://www.castleofmey.org.uk/castleofmey.cfm
This property was owned by the Queen Mother, she bought it in 1953 after the death of George VI. It was a very nice little castle and we enjoyed the tour detailing some of the daily activities of the Queen Mother. Time to head to Gills for the ferry http://www.pentlandferries.co.uk/
to St. Margaret’s Hope, took about an hour. Headed off to our home for the next six days, the Mill of Eyrland http://www.millofeyrland.co.uk/
But first we stopped at the Italian Chapel, http://www.visitscotland.com/en-us/info/see-do/the-italian-chapel-p253741
built during WWII by Italian POWs while they were building the Churchill Barriers, barriers between some of the small islands in Scapa Flow to keep German U-boats out since this was where the British Fleet anchored. The chapel was something that reminded them of home and gave them a place to worship. Next we went for a whisky distillery tour at the Highland Park Distillery http://highlandpark.co.uk/
est. 1798. Interesting tour and learned about peat firing the grain. Had a nice dram after the tour and got to keep the glass, which I used the rest of our vacation.  In the tasting room shop there was a 50yo bottle in a very nice box for only £11,500! Off to the Mill with a stop at the local store, Lidl, for some supplies. Found the Mill with relative ease just as Morag, our hostess, was pulling in from her day job. She was a smiling bundle of energy and seemed genuinely happy to meet us. She explained the workings of the Mill, keys to the house etc. and showed us to the Mill Burn room. Burn is the Gaelic word for stream, so the mill stream was just below our window!! Better than a sound machine to relax you. After a little decompression time (drinks in the room) we went to the Standing Stones Hotel http://www.standingstoneshotel.co.uk/
for dinner. Ate on the pub side as opposed to the restaurant side, food is the same, the difference is you place your order at the bar and pay, they don’t run tabs from the bar. Went with Fish ‘n Chips, huge slab of cod or haddock, and a mound of fries. Really more than one person should eat, but I persevered. An extra pint of Orkney IPA helped.  Back to the Mill to settle in for the next five days. Being so far north, 58.80 LAT the sun didn’t officially set until ~10:30, but it was twilight until well after 11PM, it never got “full” dark and the sun rose ~3:45AM, made for some interesting times.
Days Four and Five, Mainland Orkney
These two days were dedicated to seeing the different ruins, standing stones, cairns etc. We hired a guide, Helen Woodsford-Dean, http://www.spiritualorkney.co.uk/
to show and tell us the ins and outs of the different sites. Helen has a Masters in Archeology and was also well versed in the flora and fauna of the islands, plus she was a hoot to be around. It made our understanding of the progression from the Neolithic site at Skara Brae to the Iron Age sites more interesting. For instance, the reason there are only a few of the Standing Stone of Stennes left is because in the late 1880’s the owner of the land didn’t like all of the tourists coming around so he decided to dynamite them. Don’t remember what stopped him from destroying them all, but that’s just one of the many tidbits and folk lore she related to us. So from the standing stones we went to the Ring of Brodgar, very large ring, 26 stones (I think). Really too many places to mention. But one of the neatest was the Brough of Birsay. It is a tidal island with a causeway access at low tide that has the ruins of Pictish and Norse settlements, plus some stunning cliffs and sea stacks. The highlight was getting to see Puffins! Don’t remember where we had lunch, but I do remember the crab and rice soup was delicious. For dinner we went into Stromness to the Ferry Inn, http://www.ferryinn.com/
We decided to get soup or some other starter and then split a main course, simply because the portions was soo large!! Add a pint or two and maybe a whisky and you were stuffed.  The downside to the whiskys was the “shot” was only 25mL, not a full ounce (28mL).
Days Six-Eight, Mainland, Orkney
The next three days I spent diving the wrecks in Scapa Flow! http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com/wrecks/brummer/3d/
towards the end of WWI the German fleet was captured and held in Scapa Flow, due to some mis-communication during the peace talks, the German commander made plans to scuttle the entire fleet rather than let the British have it, so he did. Scapa Flow is in the book, “50 Places to Dive Before You Die”, so that was part of the interest in the Orkneys. I used a local dive shop, http://www.scapascuba.co.uk/
to book my dives and dive master (James is an Instructor) to guide and also Cullen the Dive Master. Besides myself there were two other divers in our group, all of us instructors. So James and Cullen didn’t have to do a lot of “hand holding” with us. The wrecks were amazing, from shallow (10-12m) blockships as check out shore dives to the 30m dives on the light cruisers. If you dry suit dive and don’t mind cold water consider these dives! The days I went out on the boat to dive, Jane would pick me up at the Ferry Inn, where I would wait with a pint and log my dives. While I was diving Jane went with Morag one day to feed her horses, on Sunday she went to services at St. Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall. She said the organ and choir sounded amazing in the huge space. On the last day she was with Helen again for a “girls crafty” day going to different shops and actually visiting with the craftsman. She met Andrew Appleby of the Harray Potter who is a world authority on Neolithic pottery making and actually makes some of his pottery in the Neolithic way and style. On our last night we went back into Stomness to the Stromnes hotel, http://www.stromnesshotel.com/
for dinner. Visited with some ladies from New Mexico and Virginia (college friends that travel together because their husbands don’t like travel). Back home to pack up to start the nomad trek back south.
By now we have the breakfast routine down, have a leisurely breakfast and visit one last time with Morag before heading out to catch the Northlink ferry, http://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/
from Stomness to Scrabster, just outside Thurso. This trip took ~1.5h, we went past the sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy. Not much else to see, would look for sea mammals but no joy. Spent most of the time in the lounge relaxing, and…having a pint! Plus some sandwiches and cake. As we pulled into port, snagged some complimentary water and began to make our way to Golspie and Dunrobin Castle, http://www.dunrobincastle.co.uk/
to see the castle and the falconry exhibit. The gardens and falcons were awesome, well worth the visit, then add on the castle and this was a highlight. We make our way to Nairn and Sandown House, http://www.sandownhouse.com/.
We are becoming masters of the B&B check-in process, get the keys, ask about a place to eat, etc. Liz offered us some beer and wine, so we rested and visited with her before setting out to her recommended restaurant, The Classroom in Nairn, http://www.theclassroombistro.com/
. This is where I had my first bowl of Cullen Skink, not lizard based  but a fish chowder. Skink refers to the potatoes and leeks and broth (I think) from the “old” days. It was hearty and filling. I broke the sharing rule and had a venison burger too, totally stuffed!! Ouch…Back to the room for the same, scribe, read, rest.
Again, the breakfast routine is very similar, since we were first of the guests down for breakfast, Liz let us look in the kitchen, all new and sparkling double Bosch ovens and dishwashers, hidden refrigerators and a huge range, impressive. After breakfast it was time for Culloden Moor, the battlefield where the Jacobite Rebellion was routed, massacred actually, by the British. It was informative to see the battlefield perspective and the exhibits in the visitor center. Onward to Inverness to see St. Andrews cathedral, do the usual gawking. Time to be headed toward Urquhart Castle, http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/propertyresults/propertyoverview.htm?PropID=PL_297
on the shores of Loch Ness. We did not see “Nessie”, but the views over the Loch were beautiful. Spent quite a while here, partly because it would rain on and off and we were trying to stay more dry than wet.  It was so sunny when we got out of the car we forgot the rule about the weather changing and left our rain coats in the car. After trouping from one tower to the next and climbing around, we loaded up and made our way to Barcaldine Castle, http://www.barcaldinecastle.co.uk/
~9mi outside Oban, overlooking Loch Creran. On the way we passed Castle Stalker, http://www.castlestalker.com/wp/
didn’t have time to make the tour, but it was just interesting the way it sat out in the Loch on that little island. Barcaldine Castle is a small castle, but just what we wanted. Ronnie showed us around and explained some of the history. We settled into the Breadalbane Room, huge four-poster bed and huge bathroom. Breakfast was down in the Greatroom. We were taking pictures and “snooping” around when we found a secret passage built into the paneling, Liz showed us another, cool, they have the narrow step stairs, she wouldn’t let us go in though. After breakfast and a few more pictures we headed off towards Oban. First we stopped at the ruins and gardens of Ardchattan Priory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ardchattan_Priory
more ruins, still nice though, and no one was there but us. Time to move onto Oban and McCaig’s Tower, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCaig%27s_Tower
an impressive coliseum looking edifice on a hill overlooking the town and harbor. Next up, Arduaine Garden, http://www.nts.org.uk/ArduaineGarden
on Loch Melfort. Very serene botanical garden set in the bowl of a hill sheltered from the winds coming from the Loch. Lots a trails meandering all over the place. We were fairly certain that some of the places covered in moss and ferns had fairies and little people scurrying around under them. It was that kind of place. I do remember eating lunch outside at the Loch Melfort hotel. The terrace overlooked the Loch and a field with the shaggy cows, Jane was in heaven. Next stop was the town of Kilmartin, known for the large valley with cairns and standing stones. We stopped at the Kilmartin museum, http://www.kilmartin.org/
to get our bearings and find out how to get to the easiest stones and cairns. A mile or so down the road we were told there was a car park and signs. So that’s where we went. It was amazing to see small groups of stones in the fields with sheep, and then over in the woods would be a cairn. We joked that the stones probably move around at night. Since it was just past the summer solstice the cairns had flowers on them. Last stop for the day was Inveraray Castle (Downton Abbey) http://www.inveraray-castle.com/
There are only so many adjectives to describe these places, so just assume that if I’m mentioning them they were all awesome, cool, neat, speech defying and I will move on. After the castle it was time to find Fascadail House in Arrochar, http://www.fascadail.com/
on the banks of Loch Long. Our room had a sitting room and view over the Loch. Check-in was the same, and after a shower and settling in, we put on our rain coats and walked down the road to the Village Inn for supper, http://www.villageinnarrochar.co.uk/village-inn/home/village-inn-arrochar.html
the hostess/manager would come check on us, she was funny and kept forgetting her glasses so she would borrow Jane’s.  End of another day, the “same” as all the rest. This will be our last night on the road, tomorrow we will head to St. Andrews to see THE golf course and then to Edinburgh for the last four days.
Off to St. Andrews today, but first we stopped at Doune Castle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doune_Castle
, this castle has been used for the movie, Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, and TV, Outlander and Game of Thrones. This was very castlely, for lack of a better word. On to the Port of Monteith to see the Inchmahome Priory on an island in Lake Monteith. Besides being a very old ruin, mid-1200s and visited by Robert the Bruce in 1308 it was also the place were a young Queen Mary I was housed for three weeks in 1547 to keep her safe. Riding the little boat into the lake was fun, saw an osprey on the way. The lake was evidently a good place for fly fisherman, as there were many of them in boats on the lake. I could never remember to ask someone to tell me the difference between a Loch and a Lake. Time to be getting on to St. Andrews…since it is close to time for this year’s British Open, there is a lot of activity around the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Found a place to park along North Street and stopped first for lunch at Rascal’s bar. It is a movie themed place with quotes from movies and posters everywhere. After lunch we walked to the golf course and took some pictures on the first tee, made our way up the seaside promenade towards the ruins of St. Andrews cathedral. The original building inside was 60m long with 20m high ceilings. As impressive as the ruins are, I can’t imagine what the whole structure must have looked like, even seeing an artist’s depiction couldn’t do it justice.
Time to head back to the Edinburgh airport and turn in the car, which was uneventful. Won’t need a car for the last days in Edinburgh. Caught the A100 bus into town, there is a stop about a block from our last B&B, Kew House, http://www.kewhouse.com/
Alan and Ian were our hosts. Same routine about check-in. We were too tired to really deal with going out to eat, so we walked down the street to the local Tesco express and picked up some cheese, crackers, salami and some drinks and walked back to just enjoy being still in the room and eating.
These last days were spent scratching the surface of things to see in Edinburgh. The first morning here was spent going to Roslyn Chapel (DaVinci Code). Truly amazing mason work inside the chapel, and it is not a very large chapel, made our way back into town and went to the Scottish National Museum for some fine art. I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately describe the abilities of the old masters to make wood or canvas to look so alive. Some of the vibrancy of the colors made the pictures look as if they were painted last week instead of hundreds of years ago!
Back to the room to clean up and head back out to the Haymarket pub for supper, it is part of a chain, but was in easy walking distance, http://www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/haymarketedinburgh/
since it was Saturday night it was quite lively! Back to the room to get ready for another day.
First thing today after breakfast was Edinburgh Castle, before it got too busy. That was a good plan, because it’s such a popular attraction, there were already lines to get in. One of the things we had from scotlandmadeeasy was the National Historic Pass. The pass gave you entrance to many castles, ruins etc. Since Edinburgh was one, we by-passed the lines waiting to buy tickets and got a small jump on that crowd. The castle is really more of a city fortress, with the actual castle part being just a small segment of the whole complex sitting at the top of castle hill. After the castle started back down the Royal Mile with all of the other tourists. Stopped in a café for some caffeine and sugar to revive us. Wandered around until lunchtime and stopped at the Royal McGregor Whisky Bar and Restaurant, http://www.royalmcgregor.co.uk/
The soup of the day was carrot and orange. Tasted mostly like carrots, I had the mussels. It clouded up and got cooler, then of course it started to rain (we were sitting outside) pulled on rain coats and one of the servers pulled down the awning, and then the rain stopped, less than 10’ total. Lunch done, we walked on down the Mile towards Holyrood Palace. Stopped in Canongate Kirk (church), this is the church the Queen goes to when in Edinburgh, and as it turned out she was there that week. The Union Jack was flying over the palace and it was closed. Fortunately she was leaving that day so we were able to come back the next day (which was the original plan). Caught the bus back “home”, it had started to rain again so we decide to just grab some sandwiches and stay in tonight.
It was a next to last night and we did a little sorting and packing so we wouldn’t have to scramble the last night. After two weeks things were all jumbled up and needed to be rearranged so the bags would hold everything, you know, souvenirs, guide books, stuff.  Last full day now, back to Holyrood Palace first thing. Walked back up the Mile and had lunch at Deacon Brodies Tavern and visited with a couple from New Zealand. Then walked up Calton Hill to see the Nelson Monument and the National Monument. The Robert Burns Monument was off to the side before you started up the main part of the hill. When we walked back down the hill there was a neighborhood pub that beckoned us to sit and rest and watch people, so we did. After a while it looked like more rain, so we started back to find the correct bus stop, walked through some of Princes Street Gardens and took some pictures of the Walter Scott Monument This was another monument you could climb, but we just didn’t have the energy anymore to tackle 266 steps, so we didn’t. Caught the bus back home to clean up for last supper, as Alan put it. Found a nice Indian restaurant for a change of pace, Katsuri, http://www.kasturi-ed.co.uk/
Jane had a nice hot vindaloo lamb dish and I had a not as hot shrimp dish with some basmati rice and nan, plus a Kingfisher beer. It was a good last night out. Back home to fine tune the packing and prepare mentally for the long trek home.
Last morning in Scotland, Since we had to leave before breakfast, Alan put some juice and ham croissants in our little refrigerator the night before so we would have something to eat. Caught the A100 bus back to the airport, checked our bags and went through security with no problems. Their security lines had a much smoother flow than our airports, you would be shown to a specific place parallel to the conveyor to get bins that were on a conveyor under the conveyor going to the scanner instead of waiting in a line for the person in front of you to load up. These lines dealt with 5-6 people at a time. Hard to explain without seeing it.
This was without a doubt one of our best trips ever. Travel was seamless, no in country problems, no one got sick, and the people were friendly. I didn’t feel the need to be hyper-vigilant in crowds like some of the places we have traveled. I know some of you will read this and think all we did was drive…which we did a lot of, but at the same time we saw a lot of beautiful scenery, could stop when we wanted to eat or look at something interesting. Gas was on average £1.20/liter, which is ~$7/gl, roughly. To exchange money, instead of going to a bank you went to the post office.