If you wait for someone else to say yes, you’ll never do it. Whatever it is. It could be as simple as trying a new restaurant or going to the movies. A friend of mine wanted to go to the Taylor Swift concert but wouldn’t buy the ticket because there’s only one available and she is mortified to not go with someone. If you tell yourself “I could never do that alone” then there’s a good chance you’ll never do it all.
I can’t risk that.
I can’t risk missing out on life. It’s kind of my thing. Blazing my own trail. I am sharing this to ignite a small fire in you. That you may toss fear to the wind and give up on pleasing everyone but yourself. You rarely will regret the times you said YES.
So that’s how I ended up hopping over a farmer’s fence and sloshing my way through a field of sheep to a castle in the Scottish Highlands.
Welcome to my great solo road trip.
Stop One: Edinburgh
Where better to start than the airport? This was as far as I had gone in my pre-planning: booking airfare. My whole goal was to show up and I could figure it out from there. The night before leaving, I found last-minute accommodations for my first two nights and reserved a car for later in the week.
In another twist of fate, I reconnected with a guy I had met three years prior in Jerusalem. My friend Chloe and I had befriended two Scottish men on a tour to the Dead Sea and loosely kept in touch since. I reached out to Ally to let him know I would be in his neck of the woods. He was eager to meet up with me in the city and took me to get some authentic haggis. It really wasn’t as gross as it sounds (google it, barf). I might have been solo travelling but at no point on this trip did I ever find myself feeling alone. Ally will come up again later.
Edinburgh was quickly one of my new favorite cities and easy to fall fast in love with. There’s a great blend of old and modern from timeless castles to upscale shopping.
Tips for Edinburgh
- Edinburgh Tram- This is a great travel option to get from the airport to downtown. Go ahead and get the round-trip ticket on this for just 9 pound. There is also a bus option from the airport, but I personally prefer a tram, especially with luggage. It runs every 15 minutes and gets to the city centre in 26 minutes.
- Tap Tap Cap- Part of what makes it such an easy city is the bus system. Tap Tap Cap enables you to simply tap your credit card at the entrance of a double decker and ride as much as you want the rest of the day, capped at the cost of one ride. The lines are simple to understand and run often.
- Hotel Kings Way Inn- In most circumstances, I don’t recommend staying in a hotel at any point in Scotland. The farm stays and inns are just too quaint to not enjoy. The Kings Way Inn was more like staying in someone’s house with your own room and bathroom. When I arrived, they told me that I was lucky to get a room that close to my stay as someone had canceled an hour prior to my booking. It was a darling place to start with such a nice couple and the best breakfast I had the whole trip- grilled cherry tomatoes on the vine.
- National Museum of Scotland- The real treasure of Scotland is not a jewel or a gem or a castle, it is Dolly the Sheep. The first cloned mammal in history was taxidermized and put on display here in Edinburgh. Unfortunately for her, they left a little turd dangling on her butt that still makes me mad to think about.
- Edinburgh Castle- It is not that impressive if I am being honest. There will be many more castles that delight you across the country, but this is a good introduction to Scotland’s history. Go out of obligation and purchase your tickets before you get there in the busy season. PRO TIP: Go to “Vennel” on your Google maps for the best photo down an alley with the castle in the background.
- St. James Quarter- I love some good European shopping and this is where you fill find a great department store. West of here runs George Street with many other common UK clothing brands.
- St. Gile’s Cathedral- Luckily I arrived on a Saturday so I made it to church on Sunday at this stunning, medieval cathedral. It wasn’t very busy but the choir and organist were phenomenal.
- Calton Hill- It’s only a small hike up so no matter how tired you are of walking the city, get to the top for the sunset. It is a beautiful view of the city.
Stop Two: Dublin, Ireland?
This was a bit of a detour from my original, intended trip. I booked airfare the day I arrived in Scotland for just a 24 hour stopover in Dublin after my first two days in Edinburgh. My company has an office based there and I was hoping to go meet my international coworkers. PRO TIP: I left my only suitcase at the Edinburgh Airport at a safe storage place called Luggage Point. I knew I did not want to tote my bag around Dublin or pay for it on the airplane. This was the first time I have used such a service and I am a changed woman. That is the way to go.
Aside from seeing my company office, I had a real fresh pint of Guinness at Grogan’s and stayed at Kilronan House with another check-in session of “wow you were so lucky to book this last minute, usually we are full.” Otherwise, I had just enough time to jog my way around the city, pretend to be a student at Trinity College, and get back on a plane.
Stop Three: Back in Edinburgh
By the time I returned to Edinburgh the next day, it was DARK DARK. I picked up my luggage and headed straight for Enterprise. Car rentals in Scotland are cheap (Only $280 for 8 days) and I knew that was my whole ticket to enjoying the Highlands. Unfortunately, I was hoping to practice my left-side-of-the-road driving in the daylight, but sometimes life hands you lemons on a dark roundabout.
Because of this, my goal was to only drive as far as I needed to get across the river from Edinburgh. I had just enough confidence to pull into a grocery store to get some drinks and snacks- Prawn Cocktail Pringles, anyone? Somehow I made it a whole 40 minutes from the airport, white knuckling on the average highway, which put me at the nastiest place I stayed the whole trip: The Green Hotel. This was nothing shy of the Shining. It was $46 for the night, the photos didn’t look too bad, and it was only one night, right? Horrifying. I felt like I was in a funeral parlor. The next morning, I shot straight out of there.
Stop Three: Blair Atholl, Balmoral Castle, and Loch Ness
The rough road trip idea I had in mind took me counterclockwise from Edinburgh because Balmoral is only open one day a week. The night before, an American coworker of mine messaged me to stop at Blair Castle. Little did I know, this castle belonged to his predecessor’s and his last name was plastered everywhere. It really was a unique castle- almost more of a medieval chateau- with an absurd taxidermy collection. But this was only the side castle to my main event.
All along, I had assumed the Queen was buried on the grounds of Balmoral, and in an admittedly grotesque thought, I was hoping to visit her entombment. The area was rainy but beautiful and I quickly realized there were no obvious signs of people mourning the Queen. Finally, I asked a local where she was, and the answer? Not here. She did, in fact, die at Balmoral, but she is buried at Windsor.
After receiving this sad update, I still had a three hour drive ahead of me to get to Loch Ness. This was when I really started falling in love with the driving. My theory is, if you are a good defensive driver in your home country, you will be fine on the other side of the road. If you are a hesitant driver, you are going to struggle. Not because they drive wild, but because you will second guess all of your decision making and throw other people off. Scotts are generally kind drivers and yield to oncoming traffic, but there is a lot of quick decision making. The rural areas only have room for one car at a time with many pull-offs. It takes a lot of paying attention to predict when cars are coming, almost like a constant game of chicken.
I loved it. I actually think I prefer driving on the other side. Now I miss it everyday.
Driving through the countryside was the general highlight of my trip. I grew to love my tiny car. It was the freedom to do whatever I wanted, including stopping to look at animals every 30 minutes. At times, there were so many sheep in the road that I had to sit parked, waiting for the farmers to clear them with their border collies. One of my favorite little pull-offs on the way to Loch Ness was a tiny hill with a gravestone at the top. I can’t imagine a more scenic place to be buried.
Stop Four: Loch Ness
There’s no other reason I chose Loch Ness than for the sake of dark tourism- and no, I never saw her. I couldn’t see much on the drive in but I had a great little accommodation at the Loch Ness Guest House. This would be a great place to go in the summer and actually get to enjoy lake activities. It was a balmy 35 or so when I was there.
Nessie may or may not be hiding in the lake, but the town of Fort Augustus on the south end leans into the lore just enough that it is fun without being cheesy. It is a very clean and safe area with a unique lock system to explore, adorned with cute gift shops. There wasn’t a lot left for me to do in this town so I grabbed breakfast the next day and headed on to some movie sights.
Side Stop Rec: Ben Nevis Lift- This was closed for seasonal maintenance when I was there unfortunately, but it looked amazing. I would highly recommend doing it.
Stop Five: Glenfinnan Viaduct
There are dozens of sights in Edinburgh for Harry Potter fanatics to seek out, but the countryside holds the stunning railway that transports the Hogwarts Express. I went at a time of year when I was the only person stopping to feel the magic (and post on Tik Tok). PRO TIP: Continue driving east of the Glenfinnan car park about a half mile and check out Saint Mary & Saint Finnan Church. This church offers one of the most stunning views of Loch Shiel. This was arguably better than looking at the railway.
Stop Six: Glencoe
This is the part in the trip where I started getting a little emotional. Driving through Glencoe is like nowhere else in the world. It was featured in James Bond Skyfall and it is immediately evident why. The scenery is breathtaking. The hills and valleys are lightly covered in fog and glow orange. Water streams down the mountainsides from the snow caps. PRO TIP: Park at the Three Sisters viewpoint, the Meeting of Three Waters, and the Loch Achtriochtan car park.
Stop Seven: Thanksgiving in Oban
There were a few other options for me at this point: go to Isle of Skye (at least a 2 day commitment), stay the night in Glencoe, or keeping moving. After a long day of driving, I pressed on to Oban that evening. Thanksgiving night. It was dark yet again when I arrived, so I checked into The Scot, one of the only two “hotels” I stayed in. It was very affordable and honestly so comfortable to stay in for a night.
The weather was rainy and I couldn’t see too much that evening so I walked to the Oban Inn for a pub dinner of pot pie with peas and carrots. This turned out to be the place to go. Two local women and a local fisherman joined me at my table, proving once again that I was never really alone on my solo trip.
The following day, I had silly hopes that the weather might be better and I could hop on a boat. This proved to be ridiculous when I walked outside in the pouring rain to discover that the water was so rough even the ferries weren’t running. My whole trip to Oban turned into “what am I supposed to do now?” Long story short, I mostly just got poured on. I did however take it as a chance to do a little bit of local shopping. The bakery in town had some of their beloved shortbread tins that featured colorful Highland Coos. Normally I don’t bring home souvenirs but these were perfect. I would have packed my suitcase full of these if I had the room.
I also discovered a very tasty little treat called Scottish Tablets. The best way to describe them is pecan pralines without the nuts. They melt in your mouth more so than fudge but have a buttery, rich consistency. Truly delightful.
I enjoyed a bag of these on my drive out of Oban toward the Claddich Inn. Every time I drove somewhere new, I thought “this gets better and better everywhere I turn.” Which brings us to Stop Eight.
Stop Eight: St. Conan’s Kirk
The sun was starting to set and even though I had about 30 minutes of driving left to get to the Inn, there were two more stops along my route that I had scoped out on Google maps. St. Conan’s Kirk seemed like just a small roadside church pull-off on the map but upon entering, it was a truly magical place. Since there were no tourists this time of year, I was the only person on the grounds. I have never seen a more magical church in my life.
As dramatic as possible, I felt every bit like a princess in this place. With the right imagination, the interior courtyard was the scene of Snow White’s wishing well. The chilly stone halls could have been the Beast’s Castle on a winter day. There were three marked entombments protected by the walls of the church that added to the intensity of this fantasy world. I walked the church, dreamily planning a wedding that I will probably never have.
The back terrace opened up to a large lake with one of the most spectacular views. I could picture it: a long dress blowing in the wind, watching the sun fall toward the water. The best place for a sunset.
Yet again, time was not on my side. As the view got prettier, I knew I was pressed to get to the Inn before it was totally dark. There was one last place I had to hit on the north side of this lake.
Kilchurn Castle used to be a little more accessible to travelers before it started crumbling away too much that they added a fence. I sprinted from my car to the fence to find it was already closed for the day. Not to be deterred from at least finding a view from another point on the lake, I drove around until I saw pull off.
As my luck would have it, the farmer of the fields that overlook the lake had created a little step entrance over his fence for people to have a few. They had even put down some pallets and rubber mats for a couple hundred yards to help with the swampy field conditions. I hopped over the fence and sloshed my way across the muddy mats and through the grazing sheep to at least get a nice view of this castle. This was a side quest that was more about the journey then the destination: it was a gorgeous view but dancing my way through this farmer’s field to avoid deep puddles and slipping in mud was the most memorable part.
In perfect timing, the sun was almost gone as I hopped back in my car to get to the Claddich Inn.
Stop Nine: Inverary
One of my main desires for going to Scotland was to do a farm stay. I tried to get one earlier in the week on the north end of Loch Ness but they cancelled on me day of. The Claddich Inn was my last chance to get up close and personal with some Highland Coos.
By the time I pulled in to their house, it was pitch black. It was also pouring rain and I could water roaring somewhere quite close but had no idea what was around me. The kindest wife greeted me at the door and showed me to my sweet little room. She was quite the homemaker and even had her own Scottish Tablets freshly made. I have to say- hers were the best.
Unfortunately, she notified me that the Highland Coos were not at this pasture with all the rain. They had been moved up the hillside. Once again, my prospect for cows was gone.
This was the first night where I felt a little lonely. It was only 5pm- too early to go to bed but too dark and rural to do anything. The wifi was bad, there was no phone connection, and the TV did not work. It was also the night of the USA vs England World Cup game. I decided that it would be an utter shame for an American to not grace a pub during this important time in sports history.
So I set aside my nighttime driving fears and drove 20 minutes to the closest town of Inverary. The first place I came across was the Inverary Inn. I figured they probably had TVs and surely someone would be watching soccer on them.
Sure enough, two chefs from another local hotel were off for the evening and watching the game. Being the loud, very American woman I am, I sat right down at their table and forced my friendship upon them. These men were Chefy Liam and Chef Jonesy- two lads about my age that 100% belong on a reality television show. They had the thickest, raunchy British accents and filled me in on all the hotel drama of how the other hotel workers hate their staff meals.
Not long after that, more hotel workers flowed in until we amassed a group of us, comparing the pronunciation of “water bottle” and hand rolling cigarettes. It was a sweet group that adopted me for the evening as one of them.
Then the novelty of the American really picked up when we walked over to the George for some live music. Not 90 seconds in, the guitarist goes “Hey! Are you American? Do you know Wagon Wheel?” Thus began my hoedown throwdown of starting the dance floor. The little Scottish women were quick to jump up with me, hold my hand, and dance around. What started as a lonely evening, turned into another great night.
Three months later, I still message regularly with the “nonchers.” (Hello Liam & Nathan!)
The next morning, I went down to breakfast with plans to ask my way into some cow action. The husband made me a delightful salmon breakfast with some of his wife’s homemade bread. Such a sweet man. He said normally their home is packed with reservations, but in this off season I was the only guest all week. I told him I had come specifically to get up close with some Highland Coos and he made a phone call to their neighbors to see if I could go to their barn.
Within 10 minutes, I was skipping my way up the lane and over the bridge above the rushing river with a big full heart to pet a coo. And pet a coo I did. I pet lots of coos. Baby coos, adult coos- all the coos. I was losing my mind. No coos compare to these coos, with their little ginger emo bangs and tiny horns. This was the point in my trip where I felt all my boxes had been checked and I could leave totally happy. But there was still a bit more to do!
Stop 10: Stirling
Remember my friend Ally who introduced me to haggis and kilts? Stirling is the area that he resided in and home to a slightly better castle than Edinburgh. I stayed in a room in someone’s home that I really enjoyed- I could have seen myself living in it short-term. It was very clean, had the best bathroom of the trip with a full countertop, and beautiful view of the Stirling Castle.
My first night in Stirling, Ally could not meet up but he had told me I would enjoy a Cedilidh- this is a traditional Scottish dance. I happened to find one going on in Dunblane and drove up to see if I could attend.
Upon arriving, they told me it was sold out. I was super bummed. Not going to lie, I even tried to pull the American card and say “are you suuuure I can’t get a ticket? I came an awful long way!” Nope. Not interested. This guy at the door of the community center could not care less.
Spoiler alert: it did not take long to find the silver lining here. Little did I know, I was not meant to go to the dance that night.
I pouted my way with little tears of rejection all the way around the corner to the closest pub. I ordered an Irn-Bru Soda and sat in a little booth. A couple of characters came in with missing teeth and thick accents. They were laughing and poking fun at each other- regular bar patrons. Then a little old lady came in and one of the men picked her fragile, petite body up and SWUNG HER AROUND. At this point, my eyes are bugging out of my head and I can’t help but laugh. These dudes are cracking me up.
We exchanged some words and as soon as this elderly woman caught wind of the American accent, she scooted in to the booth with me. Boy was she eager to tell me all about this sweet little town I had randomly come across of Dunblane, Scotland.
As she told me tidbits, she scooted closer and closer, with her right hand patting my leg and left one grabbing my arm. Her sweet questions turned to sad tales as she told me all about the 1996 Dunblane Massacre where a man had killed 15 kindergarteners and a teacher at the local elementary school. This incident shocked the world at a time and place where guns weren’t prevalent. She encouraged me to visit the local cemetery before I left so that I could see all of the children’s graves.
Oddly enough, one of the funny men at the bar was a local funeral home director and added to the story, as well. He said his wife one was a kindergartner there at the time and survived the shooting. This was a horrific incident that I was not familiar with and little did they know, was the kind of dark local tourism I care to uncover more on.
The next morning, I started my day at Dunblane Cemetery. There is a memorial garden section where all of the classmates are buried next to each other. It was an incredibly sobering place to visit and I couldn’t help but to shed tears over these tiny people who should still be here today, just a few years older than myself. Thank you to the town of Dunblane for engaging me in your history and continuing to keep the memory of these children alive around the world.
From there, I headed to Stirling Castle. While this one was better than Edinburgh, I still didn’t find the castles to be the most exciting parts of my trip in the least.
Ally was able to meetup for lunch downtown before heading off with friends. We took a nice walk around the Old Town Cemetery. In another interesting local twist, the funeral director I had met the previous night shared some secret information on the graves. Prior to his current role, he dug graves around Stirling Castle. These graves are multiple people deep, unlike the solo-occupants in the U.S. A generation after one person died, they dug in the same spot – just not quite as deep- for the next family member to go in. Personally, I think this is a great space-saving tactic but it does come with it’s problems. He said it was not uncommon to dig a little too deep!
Ally had to part ways that evening so I asked him for another recommendation for a pub in Dunblane after I enjoyed the locals so much the prior night. He sent me to his local watering hole, the Tappit Hen.
The Tappit Hen was initially a tough egg to crack. It was mostly older men at the bar and few others scattered around the room. Somehow, I started chatting up the bartender, Craig, and the patrons next to me about “picklebacks”- a shot of Jameson followed by a shot of pickle juice.
Their responses? “That’s DISGUSTIN’!”
So I ran around the corner to the local co-op, bought a jar of pickles, and challenged anyone willing to try them.
Thus began the second Scottish Reformation.
Little did any of us know how much this would blow up. I casually recorded their reactions and one by one, they shockingly admitted to enjoying them. The whole bar cheered every time the next person said “that’s not that bad!” A few days later, I posted the reactions on Tik Tok. It currently has over 3.8 million views and a lasting legacy in the town of Dunblane. People from all over Scotland have been messaging me that they too tried it after seeing the video. The bartender eventually came across the video. Other patrons and townees commented that they can’t believe “Andy is famous!” “Look at Tony!” “Danielle was on Tik Tok!” This special interaction is the gift that keeps on giving.
I could not have asked for a better final evening to such a wonderful trip. Scotland is truly the ideal solo- tripping country. Every place I went, the people were quick to include me. The only downside is that I now have so many more friends around the world who I may never see again!