2011 – Scotland Trip
We spent 11 days in Scotland seeing the sites and being tourists. We worked with McLean Scotland to put the trip together. They also provided us with a driver (the owner of the company, Paul).
Day 1 [ Arrive at Glasgow ]
I didn’t tell Melissa before we left that I had gotten us a Limo to take us to the airport and had paid a couple hundred dollars to get a last minute First Class upgrade. The limo pulled up in the driveway and I pushed Melissa to the door like we needed to leave soon. She called me a nerd and a dork and several other affectionate terms for doing crazy things she would never approve of. While in the O’Hare airport we thought we heard my name over the PA system a couple times but could never hear well enough to be sure. When we arrived at the gate, I heard my name over the PA system and headed to the ticket counter. They informed me the TSA had confiscated the 2 bottles of Rum I was bringing to give to Liz as a gift for doing all the hard work on our trip. Nothing I could do about it now. Otherwise, we had an uneventful trip from O’Hare to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Glasgow on US Airways.
We took a taxi from the Glasgow airport to the Millennium Hotel, at George Square. Essentially..it’s the middle of Glasgow. We had the day to ourselves to do whatever we wanted. Paul (our driver) would be joining us in the morning to begin the tour. The reminents of a hurricane was scheduled to hit Glasgow in the afternoon so we did a little shopping and site seeing before the rain and wind hit. Melissa wanted to buy some proper Hunter Wellies which we found a few blocks from the hotel. We headed over to a famous church afterwards and we were at the top of the Glasgow Acropolis looking at the centuries old tombstones when the brunt of the storm hit. We had great fun walking back to the hotel for a nap.
Day 2 [ Travel from Glasgow to Inveraray ]
First day of the road tour. Paul met as at the hotel promptly at 10.00am. We drove north along Lock Lomond to Tarbet where we stopped for a break to stretch the legs and Melissa and I purchased some smokey cheddar cheese, some local honey and some crackers. We had these for a snack in the hotel later in the evening. Very good!! We then went up a zig-zag road to the top of a mountain pass known as “rest and be thankful”. In the light mist the view wasn’t spectacular but it had a “scottish” charm to it. It was here that we got our first look at the gigantic pine forests that have been planted for paper all over Scotland. The scenery reminded us of the Sierra Mountains in California. Very beautiful. The entire day Paul was giving us the history of Clan Campbell according to Clan McLean. For the rest of the tour it was hilarious to hear Paul’s take on the history of the Campbell’s, every day he had a new story about how the Campbell’s were horrible people. We found out later in the day why he was talking about the Campbell’s. We stopped at the castle for Clan Campbell in Inverarary. Paul gave us a coupon so we wouldn’t have to “give any more of your money than you have to to the Campbell’s”. After our quick walk around of the castle, we drove the few minutes to Inverarary and checked into the George Hotel, Inverarary. This was the finest accommodation we would have the entire tour. Several other hotels were more expensive or “higher rated”, but we found the charm of this Pub/Hotel captivating.
We spent the rest of the late afternoon walking around the 10 or so shops in Inverarary, including the famous Loch Fyne Whisky shop. I picked up 2 mini bottles for tasting back at the hotel and Melissa purchased a bottle of their Whisky liqueur that she found surprisingly pleasant. Paul had mentioned a small art gallery/shop down a short alleyway so Melissa and I headed over to take a look. We found Paul in the shop browsing on the upper level. We are not exactly art collectors or connoisseurs by any means, but we found 3 water color pieces done by a local artist that we both thought were fantastic and would look great in the hallway of our house.
Day 3 [ Celtic history ]
Paul met us in the morning and told us that he had been talking with the local truck drivers and found out that the road we wanted to go on had been washed out and so he recommended we take a different route than he had previously planned. We would still be on the Kintyre peninsula and see 13th century history. We spent the rest of the day heading back in time. Paul took us down a one lane road, past a set of locks, to an old fishing port. Something we would never have even known about on our own. Well worth the extra hour. _This_ is what you pay for when you get a private driver/guide. We noticed that every morning Paul had been up much earlier than us and had been talking to folks in town to find out what roads were the best and adjusting the tour accordingly. He also took us to the only bridge over the Atlantic ocean. There’s nothing on the other side really, so we stopped for an Irn-Bru at a small pub. Paul told us that we would be heading to Oban in the morning to catch the ferry, but we would probably not have much time to walk around. So with several hours of the afternoon left, we headed back across the bridge and visited Oban. We took the opportunity to tour the Oban distillery. Not a bad tour, but nothing special. We also stopped at a local chocolate factory/shop that had wonderfully tasty treats. Paul recommended a pub to eat at just out of town so we had a nice meal and then headed back to Inverarary for the night.
Day 4 [ Isle ofMull ]
We headed from Inveraray to Oban to catch the ferry to the Isle of Mull. On the way Paul took us to a little church that if you didn’t know was there you would slip on past. It had the most amazing architecture of any church I have ever seen. Many churches are more spectacular, but the architectural features in this church are simply fantastic. It had been paid for by a local Chief who was later burried in a small crypt off the side. We continued on to Oban.
We visited a ruined fort before getting in line for the ferry. I had forgotten how much I love the ocean. The cool breeze in my face, the smell of salt and the back and forth of the ship. I could get use to living here. Paul informed us that the castle in the distance was “his” castle. Home to the chief of Clan McLean. We left the ferry and headed over to Duart Castle for a quick tour. On the way up to the castle, we got our first look at highland cattle. I made up my mind right there that if we ever achieve our dream of owning a farm I wanted highland cattle. And I’ve refused to even consider cattle until now.
Paul paid our entrance fee and told us “You’re not paying to visit my castle”. This was a true and proper castle. It had been restored by Clan McLean and the chief lived here for several months of the year. While on the roof looking out over the sound of Mull, we met the chief. He looked over and shouted a hello to Paul. He asked if we were McLean’s but Paul informed him no. He welcomed us anyway and Paul had a big smile on his face. We would later see a picture of this chief at the Palace of Holyroodhouse standing with the Queen. It was part of a gallery of about 15 pictures at the end of the tour. I literally said to Melissa “Holy crap…that’s the Chief we met a few days ago”.
On the way back from the Castle we stopped at our accomidation for the next few days, the Craignure Inn. We had been reserved one of the 3 rooms in the local pub. The pub down stairs is the only place open to eat after about 7:30pm unless you drive an hour to Tobermory. After checking in, we headed up to Tobermory, the biggest city on the island. I had heard about a fish and chips cart that was famous that I wanted to try and the town is home to the Tobermory distillery. We didn’t do a tour, but I did pick up another mini bottle for sampling. We both tried the fish and chips and I have to say….it really was the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. We headed back to the pub at Craignure Inn for dinner. We noticed several spectacular paintings on the wall. We asked one of the workers in the pub who had made them and she said the retired art teacher from the school in Tobermory. He lived a few miles up the road and had a private studio in his home, but he welcomed visitors. More about that later.
Day 5 [ Isle of Mull ]
With the weather holding off fairly well, we started the morning off with a plan to tour the entire Island. We headed north again along the coast, up past Tobermory. We spent several hours simply driving and looking at the changing scenery. Every turn my eyes were glued to the window. We ended up on the south western tip of Mull and boarded a small ferry to the island of Iona, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. After an hour or two on Iona touring the abbey we headed back to the ferry crossing. While we waited for a ferry, we watched a father and son row out to their anchored fishing boat and set to work. The weather was turning very bad, but they looked at home on the water. We met up with Paul on the other side of the ferry for our trip back to our Inn. This day was probably the best part of the entire trip. The barren moorlands and wind swept hills on the northern approaches of the Atlantic ocean are rugged and captivating. These are sturdy people that live here. But the land is beautiful and there is a peace that I could feel, even for the short time I was there. I fell in love with Mull. The little island captured my heart and I hope in the future I will be able to return, maybe for a lot longer. Oh yeah…before we got to the Inn we stopped at the home of the artist I mentioned earlier. The wife invited us into her house unannounced and offered us tea. (I thought they only did that in the movies!) She let us look around the house and she and her high school age daughter showed us the various paintings that might be for sale. His wife said he wasn’t home (he was on the mainland waiting for a ferry at Oban) but if we came back in the morning he would be there.
Day 6 [ Mull to Inverness ]
Before heading north a few miles to our ferry back to the mainland, we stopped at the home of John Archbold (the painter from earlier). He was an eccentric, full of life person and spent the next hour or so showing us all his works and bustling around his studio. My wife and I settled on a painting of the small bay on Iona where we had seen the father and son fisherman while waiting for our Ferry. It was instantly recognizable and something we could hang on our wall and remember our trip. John was ecstatic that he had sold a painting at 8:30 in the morning. He had sold 2 paintings the previous evening (after we had left) and mentioned this was his best 2 days ever. Paul offered to take a picture of the three of us that I plan on mounting and displaying next to the painting in our home. This was the first painting he had sold to Americans and made a note to update his website that he now had a painting in Chicago. We encouraged him to figure out how to have an exhibition in Chicago. We put the painting in the back of Paul’s car and off we went to the next ferry to Lochaline on the mainland. From here we drove up to Corran for an even smaller ferry at Loch Linnhe.
From here we visited another ruined castle and the memorial to the special forces of WWII that trained in the area. Then on to probably the most famous ruined castle in Scotland (Urquhart Castle) on the shore of Loch Ness. I did my best not to scowl at the tourists since I was one. Then off to the Columba Hotel in Inverness. We had a spectacular view of the castle out our bedroom window.
Day 7 [ Around Inverness ]
Paul picked us up in the morning and told us that tomorrow looked like a better chance of rain than today so he recommended we head north towards to visit a Carn Liath, a sort of bronze age fort. We then stopped and took a tour of Dunrobin Castle. Holy cow! It was never designed to be a defensible castle, but more a mansion. The building itself is frankly, not that impressive on the inside (although Melissa disagrees, the library was gorgeous with wood all around and the view of the gardens and ocean from each window was breathtaking)…though the history and artwork was very interesting. What is absolutely amazing is the formal gardens of the castle. Also, adjacent to the castle is a small building that houses what I can only describe as one of the most impressive collections of natural history artifacts. The building is no larger than a small garage, but would rival any of the natural history museums in America. Though smaller, the collection was far more impressive.
The rest of the day was spent looking and driving through beautiful scenery of the northern highlands.
We invited Paul to dinner with us in hopes of showing our gratitude for his fantastic job on our trip. He grudgingly agreed, but only if we allowed him to pay for the drinks. At dinner Paul proceeded to force Melissa and I to drink several bottles of wine, until his wine bill far exceeded our meal bill. So our plan backfired. But we otherwise spent several hours having a great time with a new friend.
Day 8 [ Around Inverness ]
Prior to going on this trip I had promised Melissa that this would not be a Whisky only trip. As you can tell from the previous 7 days, I only took a few occasions to visit a distillery when I really had no choice…they happened to be right in our way. But this day…this was going to be Whisky day. Paul took us to the heart of Scotch Whisky production, Speyside. First on our trip was a stop at the Speyside Cooperage for a quick tour. It was very impressive to see the guys breaking down and rebuilding barrels at break neck speed. They even had a baby barrel off to one side where tourist could try and put the staves inside the rings and have it stand up on its own. I failed on all attempts, until finally Melissa decided she couldn’t stand it anymore and took her turn next to me. She beat me easily on her first try…I never did finish.
We then stopped in at one of the mega distilleries, Glenfiddich. Their tour starts with one of the most impressive and artistic advertisements for a company I have ever seen. No more than a few words were spoken over a 10 minute period as they showed the history of the building of the distillery. As we left the small theater Melissa said, “just watching that made me want to drink whisky! And I don’t even like whisky.” Truly impressive. Oh..and they had a heather garden. I had to stop and get my picture taken.
Paul still had our painting from our time on Mull in the back of his car and he suggested we stop in Dufftown at a small whisky shop he liked and he thought there was a post office in the town. While Paul scouted for the post office I picked up a selection of mini whisky bottles to bring home and sample. Paul returned and told us that the post office would take our painting and they had packing material. We spent the next 30 minutes on the floor of the small post office wrapping the painting as best we could. (It arrived safely a few days after we returned home).
Earlier in the tour I had asked Paul if he could get us a tour of a large distillery and a small distillery so I could see the differences. We had seen the mega huge one, now on to Glen Moray…the small one. This was by far the best tour of the entire trip. The guide was particularly knowledgeable and was clearly passionate about what the distillery did. Unlike the tour guides at the other facilities who seemed to simply be reading a script developed by some guy in the back office. An interesting twist was the two casks that had see thru ends so you could see the difference in color from the difference in age. They also had 6 different casks to nose. Then when we returned to the gift shop we were permitted to sample from any or all of their range, including their 30 year old expression.
We returned back to our hotel and bid goodbye to Paul as this was the end of our time with him. If you ever need a tour company or guide in Scotland (or Ireland), we would not hesitate to recommend or use him again!
Day 9 [ Edinburgh ]
We spent a lazy morning getting packed up and walking over to the train depot in Inverness. We grabbed our train with limited hassle, and had a leisurely trip down to Edinburgh. I spent the majority of the trip reading a book/memoir on “crofting” in the Scottish Highlands and looking at the landscape going by. Yes, yes…the train had a food trolly like in the Harry Potter films. Melissa and I had a good laugh. We departed the train at Edinburgh and immediately felt like we had stepped into Union Station in Chicago. Very similar setup. I stopped at the information booth and asked about using our pre-paid ticket and best train to catch to go to Glasgow in a few days.
Instead of taking a taxi, Melissa and I decided to walk with our rolling luggage. I had already mapped out the hotel and knew it was only a few blocks away. Though Edinburgh is a hilly city, it was not difficult to travel from the train depot to our hotel on foot. I figured we would look like the odd tourist not using a taxi, but soon realized many tourists were walking. In fact, we arrived at our hotel (Royal Scots Club) at the same time as another couple dragging their luggage.
We spent the rest of the early evening scoping out the high street for tomorrow and bouncing in and out of the shops. We ended up eating in a back alley 4-star seafood restaurant (Wildfire) that I had heard about on the web. They happened to have Langostino on their specials, which I had been hoping to try since I can never find them in the US. Though well prepared (I figure), I found them under whelming. I finished with an excellent scottish cheese plate.
Day 10 [ Edinburgh ]
Today was our exploration day in Edinburgh. With rain in the forecast we quickly headed to the Palace of Hollyroodhouse. In the process, passing the new Scottish Parliament building…absolutely atrocious architecture (and I spent 3 years in the USC School of Architecture, you’d think I’d appreciate it). We paid our entry fee, grabbed our ear pieces and headed in as the rain began to fall. After entering the 2nd room of the tour we were approached by some kind of Public Relations person and asked if we would be interested in posing for “official” PR photos for the new Royal Collection website (under development). We said sure, signed a few forms and spent the next 20 minutes with them doing random poses in the various exhibits. If you end up seeing us on their website in the future, you’ll know why. The palace was impressive and well worth the time spent.
With light mist falling, we headed back up the High Street and encountered an antique map store, not something I’d ever seen before in the United States. Since we had no particular plans, we stopped in. Oh. My. Word. Good thing I don’t have a library and smoke pipes with a wolf hound at my feet…yet. They had some seriously beautiful maps. The rain began to fall in buckets so I attempted to kill a few more minutes and asked if they had any maps of the Isle of Mull. The owner of the shop came up out of the basement and took me over to one of the storage tables and began pulling out nautical charts. After going through about 60 charts, we found one of nearly all of Mull. An original British Navy chart of the western approaches to Mull including all of the area we had seen previously in our trip. I immediately fell in love and purchased it on the spot. I had it framed when we returned to the US and it hangs in my office. Every time I look at it I can remember each location and the time we spent on that beautiful Isle.
With the rain still falling, but lighter, we headed up the High Street and decided to take a detour to the National Museum of Scotland. Melissa had been complaining that all the history was getting messed up in her head and she needed something more structured. We got a little lost on the way there and ended up walking through the University of Edinburgh campus. I commented to Melissa on the schools significance in history and how it would have been interesting to have attended an international school of it’s caliber. That thought quickly faded as we became drowned rats. We scampered into the Museum and spent the next few hours delving back into history.
As late afternoon approached we headed back to the High Street to do a bit of nick-nack shopping. With the sun setting we decided to head back to our hotel and stop in at the Bank of Scotland museum and the National Galleries of Scotland on the way. The “museum on the mound” was small but informative and the national galleries were impressive. We headed back towards our hotel and ate at a Mexican restaurant we had seen the day before. Good food was had and we collapsed in our hotel room.
Day 11 [ Glasgow ]
Ramada Hotel, Glasgow Airport
Our train was not scheduled to leave for Glasgow until early afternoon so we headed back up to the High Street for lunch. Melissa wanted to make one more attempt at finding some small items for the kids before heading home. After lunch in one of the local pubs, we headed up the street to Edinburgh Castle, but decided to pass on entering due to the nearly $60 ($30 a piece) it would have cost. We killed a few more hours and then headed back to our hotel for our luggage. We walked back to the Edinburgh train station and got a little confused with their signage, but ended up on the right train. We stepped off the train in Glasgow (back where we first arrived in Glasgow city center) and grabbed a taxi for the hotel.
We spent the remaining few hours before dinner in our hotel room relaxing. With no other choice (other than to head back into town), we ate in the hotel restaurant and went to sleep.
Day 12 [ Fly Home ]
A 2 minute shuttle from the hotel to the airport and we were headed home. Not much to say about the trip home, other than realizing that First Class was not worth the extra money (Melissa disagrees, at least for the eastbound direction if you want to sleep). Coach class from Scotland, to the US East coast, is not painful or cramped. Pop for a Bose noise canceling head phone and you’ll be good to go.
Details of our trip included:
Adults sharing a double room on B&B basis in minimum 3 star accommodation (en suite).
11 nights accommodation – Upgraded in Inveraray and Edinburgh
10 fully cooked Scottish breakfasts
7 days with driver/guide(s), vehicle and fuel
ferry to Mull with car & passengers
ferry from Mull to mainland
trains from Inverness to Edinburgh & Edinburgh to Glasgow
Private Tour : £4720 / $7600 (conversion rate)
AirFare : $1825