My goodness, what a beginning. I can’t believe I’m beginning to draft this post on Saturday, given I left Boston on Thursday, and it really does not feel like enough time has passed for this to now be Saturday.
Day One: May 19
Today was mostly travel. I left Boston at around 6PM Friday evening, and we were due to land in Dublin (yes, Ireland, Aer Lingus was doing a Black Friday special where you got $100 off if you were flying to or through Dublin) around 4:50AM. I wanted to stay up for dinner–which was fantastic, I got vegetarian chili that actually had zucchini and corn in it, as well as a little sidecar of caprese!–which meant that I didn’t end up trying to sleep until about two hours into my flight. I got fourish hours of “sleep”, though they weren’t at all restful, and I was such a zombie when we landed in Dublin. I had an hour long layover, and then it was back in the air for an hour long flight to Edinburgh, which I definitely slept through the entire thing and only woke as the mountains were starting to make themselves visible on our descent.
After that, it was onto a twenty minute bus ride from the airport to downtown Edinburgh, and I’m doubly glad I took this because a) I took two bus rides in Inverness the second I got there, and I’ve never ridden public transportation via bus in Massachusetts, so that was good to learn right away, and b) the bus goes past Murrayfield Stadium, where I’m seeing Harry, and the stop in downtown Edinburgh is right near my Airbnb, so instead of paying through the nose for an Uber, I’m just going to take the bus for the concert.
Anywho, the bus drops off, like, a half mile from the train station, and there are just so many things I could say here. Clear signage so I knew where I was going, free public toilets inside of the train station, a whole freaking area where you can sit until it’s time to go, very helpful staff, and a super comfy seat where I 10000% slept the first 90 minutes of a four hour train ride, and let me tell you, I felt so much more like a person after that. (I’m noting all of these things because America could never.). The train ride to Inverness was beautiful, and every second of looking out the window made me fall in love more. It feels like when I landed in São Miguel and was like, well damn, now I have to live here.
I couldn’t check in to my Airbnb until 4PM, but I was able to drop off my bags early, thank heck, so I went to Zizzi’s for a very late lunch at around 2:30PM. This has happened twice now since I’ve arrived in Scotland, and I really wish the US would pick up on it–two hostesses have now asked me, before we’ve even left the front of the restaurant, if I have any allergens or dietary restrictions, and they’ve pointed out where the vegetarian meals are on the menu when I say that, or been sure to clarify that they can have anything made vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. Like, this shouldn’t be that novel, but my goodness, the strange looks I get sometimes when people are like, “But, just vegetables? Are you sure?” I got mushroom risotto and a passionfruit spritzer that was just absolutely divine. And then, because, thus far, everything has gone according to plan, even though there have been many, many plans in the first two days, my Airbnb host let me know that the flat was ready early! And, my goodness, but it’s adorable. The key is so damn easy to manage, hail Satan, because if I had to sit out on the stoop crying like I did for almost every single Airbnb in Portugal, I was going to get back on a flight and go home. The flat is huge, too. It’s got a living room, big bathroom, fully outfitted kitchen, and bedroom. It’s such a lovely little place to come back to after a long day.
I intended to get lunch and then immediately go to the Clootie Well, but I couldn’t for the life of me find my bag of ribbons when I was dropping off my bags, so I went back to the Airbnb, unpacked everything, found the ribbons hiding under my laptop, and begrudgingly put my shoes back on. Not really begrudgingly because I did want to go to the Clootie Well, and I felt like I did on my first day in Lisboa–after so many hours traveling, all I wanted to do was sleep, but it was still very early in the day, so I had to just get up and go until it was finally time for bed. Thus, I made the walk out to the bus terminal, which ended up being excellent because that’s where all of my tours are going to be picked up for my stay in Inverness, and it’s just a little under a mile from my Airbnb with very few turns, and most of walking along the River Ness.
And where Portugal was all about learning how to use a laundromat, Scotland, thus far, has been about learning to use public transportation via buses! I know both of those things sound silly, but they’re just never things I’ve had to do. The US is not a walkable place, for the most part, and taking a bus to a village to go rustle through a forest is certainly not something I could ever see happening in the US.
I did nearly get lost and almost accidentally trespassed trying to find the Clootie Well, but, eventually, after walking along a sketchy as heck byway, I finally spotted some ribbons hanging in the forest, and I dove in. Which, I’ve gotten this far before realizing I haven’t explained what a clootie well is. Clootie is Gaelic for “a piece of cloth”, and the well is just literally a well. The lore is that, if you dip your clootie in the well and then hang it on the tree branches, the Fae will grant your wish. I had ribbons for me, Erin, Sara, my parents, and my aunt in Florida, but, when I walked into the forest, there were way less clooties than I was expecting. Just Pinterest Clootie Well, and you’ll see what I mean. There were probably only ten, maybe fifteen, clooties tied up, and most of them were either dark material or just so faded from time that they weren’t really visible against the tree. I did walk a little into the forest to see if maybe there were just more elsewhere, but after a little time spent on the trails, I realized it was starting to get late, and I didn’t want to miss my bus back (ha, joke’s on me), so I quickly went back through the forest to the well, dipped my ribbons in the well, and hung them up together.
As it turns out, I did miss my bus, and I ended up spending an unexpected forty minutes just loitering at the bus stop in Munlochy, which was fine, but Munlochy is not a tourist spot, so there was literally nothing going on. Luckily, I’d brought my jacket with me, despite being hot all day, and it was a relief to put it on and finally head back into Inverness once the 6:20PM bus finally got there. Also, I’ve been noting times because I guess I didn’t realize how far north Scotland was? It’s got the same very strange hours of sun that places like Sweden does. The sunset was at 9:45PM, and the sunrise was at 4:30AM. Color me very confused, and also way less stressed now, because I kept thinking to myself while I was waiting for the 6:20PM bus that it was going to get dark, and I was going to be just lost out in a village somewhere with no way back to my Airbnb because I didn’t have cell service.
Eventually, I got back to Inverness and immediately made my way into town to get some food. This proved to be a little tricky because a lot of the spots on the River Ness are either seafood-forward (makes sense), or they’re just really heckin’ upscale for someone whose been wearing the same pants for two days straight and was still in a tank top. I ended up eating at Macnab’s, which felt very much like a gentleman’s club inside, and they served me what I think was an actual pound of pasta for mac n cheese, and then were so confused when I asked to take the rest to go.
All in all, day one in Inverness was pretty freaking great, and that’s literally all to do with good food, walking along the river, and breathing in that beautiful greenery.
Day Two: May 20
Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, Invermoriston, Fort Augustus, Falls of Foyers, Dores
When I set out to create the itinerary for this trip, I knew that, no matter what, I had to get to Loch Ness. It has been such a big part of my youth, the utter love and wonder that I feel for it, and I could do literally everything and not be happy if I wasn’t able to get to the loch. Apparently, though, my planning brain was in full psycho, and I made it the first day so that I definitely wouldn’t miss it.
I left at around 8:15AM in order to get to the railway station, where Timberbush Tours would be picking us up, and let me just say right away that I am so grateful that all of my tours this week are through Timberbush. I had such a fantastic time with the guides that I got today–and will have tomorrow!–and I just can’t wait to see what else I end up learning and seeing.
The drive up to Loch Ness was way faster than I thought it was going to be, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re a twenty-three mile long lake, and you take up nearly half of the country diagonally. We had a quick pause before we got too far out of Inverness, though, because one of the other people on the bus shouted, “COWS!” and our driver did a fast left turn to get us into a carpark so we could get out and go see the Highland cows. They were so freaking cute, and it just made me laugh that even the guides understood our excitement. (It was definitely an unofficial goal to get to see a Highland cow, so I was very happy.)
After that, it was off to Urquhart Castle, which I only just today discovered how to say because damn, what a weird word, so thank you to our guides for helping with that! We watched a quick eight-minute video that condensed one thousand years of history to bring us up to current times and the state of Urquhart, and they were so damn clever about the setting because, as the video was ending, and the screen was rolling up toward the ceiling, these huge curtains started to draw back so that we got a full bird’s eye view of Loch Ness & Urquhart Castle. It was honestly pretty magical.
We had forty-five minutes to explore the castle, and I set about getting finding every possible angle of Loch Ness and honestly just spending my time either closing my eyes and breathing or just staring in awe at the incredible world before me. I keep thinking about my time in Portugal, and how constantly stressed out I was in Lisboa, Porto, and Madeira. (I was never stressed on São Miguel, it remains one of my all-time favorite places ever.) A portion of that stress definitely had to do with traveling overseas for the first time and having to face a lot of brand new challenges, but a portion of it was also just the city and the noise and the stalking and the inappropriate men and the lack of greenery and the godsdamn hills. But when I tell you that we are all so very lucky that I have a return ticket? My dudes, ship me my cats. I’m never leaving. This country is beyond words.
Also, as you can see in the pictures just below, the European hair is back! Today’s temperature was about 59° with 76% humidity, and I am just thriving. My poor bloody nose is healing, my hair is wild, and I just could not stop taking these huge, soul-filling breaths. This weather is where I excel. Clouds with an occasional peek of sun, the breeze off the lake, and nothing more than a rain jacket. It’s positively delightful.
After Urquhart Castle, it was time to continue heading south toward Invermoriston, where we walked across a huge stone bridge that showed off the Invermoriston Falls, which is when I posted on my story “okay bye! I’m not coming home!” I don’t know what it was about these falls that captured my attention so much, but I could not look away from them. It’s got a very New Hampshire vibe to it, so maybe it was just that it felt familiar, but I think a lot of it was just the immense forest, the beautifully architecture of the bridges, and the rushing water. Okay, yeah, it reminds me of New Hampshire, it feels like I’m just off on a hike at home.
After the bridge, we crossed the street again toward a small trail walk that would lead us to another view of the falls, and, as I’m thinking about this forest, I’m realizing I forgot to talk about what happened in the Clootie Well forest! While I was wandering on the paths, a woodland flute just started playing out of nowhere. And listen, I’ve done a lot of research on faeries. I know that that’s a Fae trap. I walked toward it anyway. If I’m ever going to be swept away by the Fae, it’s going to be while wandering through the trees in the Scottish countryside with a backpack full of ribbons to dip in a well for good health. Obviously.
However, the flute did suddenly stop playing as I was starting to worry about the time, so it felt like a very gentle nudge from the Fae that I didn’t want to actually be falling for one of their traps, so I beat a quick getaway back toward the Clootie Well.
I know we’ve already talked about this, but it’s 9:20PM on Saturday evening while I’m writing this portion of the post, AND IT’S STILL LIGHT OUT. I’m so confused. An hour ago, I said to my mom that I was convinced it was 5PM, but I knew that couldn’t be the case since I was eating dinner at 5PM, but the sky was so godsdamn bright, and it was 8PM, and I am just so confused by this. I’m a little wary on keeping my curtains open again while I sleep because, when I woke up at 5AM this morning, ready to get out of bed thinking it was 7AM, only to discover the sun rose at freaking 4:30AM, I was a little bewildered. Alas, I really love waking with the sun, and I need to be up early tomorrow anyway.
Back to Invermoriston! I feel like this is the perfect time to talk about my very attainable goals while I’m in Scotland because I’ve accomplished one of them!!!
- Meet Harry Styles, and we fall in love. (I’m seeing him in concert at the end of the trip.)
- Meet Sam Heughan, and we fall in love. (These two are either/or, I’m not selfishly asking for both.)
- Find a dragon, thus discovering they were once real.
- Do what no one has done before, and prove the Loch Ness monster is real.
Shall we take a look at the sixth picture below? Because I’m pretty sure I found the head of an infant tree dragon, which are near cousins of Ents, and though it’s just a wee babe, it’s still proof!
I’d like to paint a picture for you. We’ve arrived at Fort Augustus, and our guides have pointed us toward The Moorings, which sits on the canal and had a veggie burger on their menu. Their main room was full, but it was such a nice day that I asked if I could sit outside. They definitely thought I was a little crazy, but, hey, I think they’re crazy, too, for putting a literal salad on my veggie burger. You think I’m kidding, but it was shredded iceberg lettuce, two honkin’ chunks of tomatoes, and cucumbers. I’ve never had cucumber on a burger before, and it was wonderful. It was also one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had. There were carrots in it! And it didn’t fall apart! I ate my lunch looking out at one of Ness’s tributaries, and there is just so much good in that sentence.
This is not the picture I’m trying to paint. After lunch, I stopped for gelato–raspberry swirl, and when she asked if I wanted raspberry syrup and whipped cream on top, I said, obviously, and she was like, I mean duh, and I topped that off with a lemon curd cannoli–before walking down the canal toward Loch Ness proper. If you’ve ever been to Pickering Wharf in Salem or some portions of the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary trails, it’s exactly that. There was a long gravel path that led down to a rocky beach where you could see the truly massive scope of Loch Ness. I took a seat on some of the bigger slab rocks piled together, where a bunch of other people were eating lunch, opened up my book, and started reading.
The sun was shining, I’d taken off my jacket (also, side note: please feast your eyes upon the very cute shirt that Sara made me for this day specifically), I was eating an apple while I was reading, one of my dream come true things to sightsee was before me, and, all of a sudden, there are bagpipes in the distance. It gets better, impossibly. Because I knew I had to go find the source, so I packed up my stuff and headed back down the canal only for, as I was getting close enough to want to record a bit, the musician started playing the Outlander theme song. (Please insert a very large pause here because what and how and are you even a little bit serious right now.) He was in full kilt regalia, and the last time I experienced something that perfect and magical was kayaking inside the caves on Ilhéu da Vila Franca do Campo and felt like I’d entered How to Train Your Dragon. There are so many things coming up that I’m going to feel this way about, but I know this one is going to stand out.
And then, well, it was time for some:
Just you wait until we get to the end of this trip, and the reel that I have planned is exactly what everyone else has been doing with this line, but oh, I’m going to love putting it together so much. I really did have a moment of this, though. We zigzagged our way up a mountain–I had to take a ginger chew because my stomach was going oh nooooo we hates it–and I honest to goodness almost cried when we stopped, and I was able to get out to see all of this. I feel like these really don’t do it any justice, either, because–just–wow. It was breathtaking. I am just in awe that the Highlands exist in our world, and they’re not a number one destination for every single person because–I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it–how can you not look at these ancient monuments and feel anything less than absolute wonder that we get to exist at the same time as them.
I’m going to continue to have very little words to be able to describe the mountains in the Highlands, and especially if they keep rolling out in style like they did today.
We started to wind down our day with two last stops. The first, at the Falls of Foyers, was quite a hike down and back up, and though the waterfall has definitely seen better days, it was still beautiful to see. We only spent a half hour here, though, before we were heading back north toward Dores, where we spent a little time on the beach. I asked one of our guides if the water was cold in Loch Ness, and he said about 45°, which made me laugh a little. Just a wee bit, I swear. But I went down to put my hand in, and while it was certainly no ocean around the Açores, which is practically tepid, it also wasn’t the Maine ocean that tries to give you hypothermia. I definitely could have willingly, maybe not comfortably, swam in Loch Ness. If there weren’t fish, and it wasn’t 700 feet deep, that is.
It started to rain while we were in Dores, so I snapped a quick picture of what I think is the most northerly point of the beginning of Loch Ness. The River Ness comes down through Inverness, briefly becomes Loch Dochfour, and then opens up right after Lochend, which our guides told us was considered the Caledonian Canal, so I think Dores is the beginning? Maybe? I don’t know. It was a beautiful place to get to see a truly picturesque view of Loch Ness, and though it had started raining, the clouds were misting over the mountains in the distance, and it was such a perfect way to end my first full day in the Highlands.
It’s now 10PM as I’m finishing up today’s portion of the post, and it’s only just started to get dark blue outside, though not quite navy. We got back a little early from the tour today around 4:40PM, and I’d done enough walking that I was already hungry for dinner, so I stopped at Escobar for a truly fantastic veggie enchilada–it had cauliflower!–, probably one of the best quesos I’ve ever had, and a strawberry puree & elderflower cordial mocktail, which was so weird, but so good. Portugal was desserts, but maybe Scotland is mocktails? Either way, I was back at my Airbnb around 6:30PM, and I’ve just been vibing ever since, which was definitely much needed, and particularly because tomorrow is an early day since we’re heading up to the most northern point on the mainland.
Day Three: May 21
Loch Fleet, Golspie, Dunrobin Castle, Dunbeath Harbor, Wick, John O’Groats, Brora
Before we get any further in this, I have to talk about my guides. I’m with Timberbush Tours all week, and I managed to get the same tour guides for the first two days–Sinclair & Kathleen. They’re the sweetest old married couple, and count your lucky stars if you get them because the sheer depth of knowledge that Sinclair has, and the absolute determination to stay on schedule that Kathleen has–that’s just a perfect match. She made sure that we saw everything that we could possibly see–I mean, look at that heading for today!–and he made sure that we were going to walk away from the day with a ton of information and so much joy. I am just so grateful to have been able to spend my first two days with them.
We started out at Loch Fleet, which was at low tide, but that worked out really well for us because we were hoping to see some seals. Sea lions? I’m not sure which, honestly, but there were a ton of them sunbathing, and Sinclair had three handheld binoculars and a tripod one that got super close. You can’t see them super well in the picture I took, so make sure to full screen these and zoom in because they’re so cute, and they really do look like puppies!
Listen, if you’d told me last year, or even several months ago, that I was going to pick a nature walk over exploring a castle, I definitely wouldn’t have believed you, but I think I may have out-castled myself a little in Portugal. Which is truly the most first world bougie thing ever for me to say, my goodness, I’ve out-castled myself, get a grip. But I really just didn’t want to look at some fussy king’s bedchamber when the possibility of wildflowers presented itself. And honestly? We got dropped off in downtown Golspie, which felt like a little hobbit town with the way that it had all these stone houses spotted across a winding river that had a trail through a neighborhood that eventually led up into the forest and left you out on the grounds of a castle. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Dunrobin Castle was still interesting to see from the outside, but I’m so happy that I chose walking through the forest instead. The bluebells were out in force, the gorse just brings me so much buttercup joy, and the birds were singing the whole way through. It was such a delight.
We stopped at Dunbeath Harbor for lunch, and I was a little nervous because there were maybe two restaurants, and we had to be quick about it, so we all went to Tasty Toes. The menu seemed like it only had seafood, and I stopped seafood about a year ago. It was difficult on the mainland of Portugal to eat vegetarian–surprisingly very easy in the Açores–but it hasn’t been an issue thus far in Scotland, and I was in for a lovely surprise. Truthfully, the cheese & tomato roll that I got had no business being as good as it was, but the combination of not having to eat seafood + sitting in the harbor with nothing but ocean for miles + the sun just beginning to come out, well. Lunch at Dunbeath was about as perfect as it gets, and the cheese & tomato roll really was excellent.
In another bout of I only halfway planned where I was going, I didn’t know that we were going to the Duncansby Stacks in Wick. Look. I know this sounds like nonsense. I’ve been planning this trip for over half a year, and every single detail has been thought out in meticulous detail, and you are exactly right. However. That meticulous detail was more about how the travel was happening and not where. Because I honest to goodness opened a map, opened all of the tours that GetYourGuide offers in Scotland, and picked ones that were going to go in every cardinal direction in the Highlands. Thus, I knew I was going to hit John O’Groats because it’s about as north as north gets–I learned today that the most northern point of Scotland is not, contrary to popular belief, John O’Groats, but Dunnet Head, which is not really that safe since there are no barriers anywhere, and is thus why John O’Groats often gets the title–I knew I was going to Eilean Donan Castle because it’s as far west as you can get before you hit the Hebrides, I knew I was going to the Cairngorms because I couldn’t find something that went all the way to Aberdeen, and I wanted more mountains, and I knew I was going to Glencoe because that’s the southern entrance to the Highlands.
And look, I’ve seen the Duncansby Stacks all over Instagram, but I already had my trip booked, and I figured–I don’t know. I don’t know what I figured! Color me pleasantly surprised when Sinclair let it out that we were headed not just to Wick, but to the Stacks. And, well. You probably know what’s coming.
How was I not meant to be thinking of exactly that??
When we started up through the moors, I didn’t think much of it. You can see the Stacks from a far distance, and they definitely look like they’re going to be incredible, but this was like kayaking in the caves around Ilhéu da Vila Franca do Campo, and I realize I’ve talked about that experience twice now in this post, but it’s something I can so fully bring myself back to, and both days in the Highlands have invoked that same feeling of utter awe and wonder. I just could not get over how truly magnificent the Stacks were. I set out excited about the possibility of puffins, and I’m just–how is this place real? No wonder Tolkien loved places like this. A far green country, indeed.
We only had an hour to wander around and take in the sights, but what I wouldn’t have given for a solid three hours here so I could walk along the whole ridge above the Stacks. It was fairly easy walking, too, except for that one steep as heck hill, and though I did reach the top of the first rise, I had to turn around and head back to the bus. Still, this was such a moment of feeling so unbelievably lucky that I get to be alive and witnessing this at the same time.
Our last real stop of the day was at John O’Groats, and I obviously had to get a picture at the famous sign. Somewhere in the middle of hiking around the land above the Stacks, I got wicked overheated and needed to take off both my jacket and sweater, so this knucklehead American got full New England on Scotland, and it was great. Yesterday was just a mayhem of colors, and today was walking around in a tank top in 51° sunshine just to confuse the hell out of everyone bundled up.
I had a truly lovely moment at the very edge of the dock on John O’Groats, pictured below with me just looking out to the sea. All you could see was ocean, ocean, and more ocean, dotted with the Orkney Islands all around, and the end of the dock (or beginning, whichever way you’re coming in or out) is far enough that you can’t hear the village behind you, and it’s just–I’m running out of ways to say incredible. I want to live here. I have never felt more at peace and more gentle in my life. Truly the only thing missing is my cats.
We did have another stop, though it was only twenty minutes, and it was just to get ice cream in Brora. We stopped at Capaldi’s, which is Scotland famous, and I had a scoop of strawberry and a scoop of lemon shortcake, and both were divine. I had a little nap on the bus on the way back since Inverness was still just under 90 minutes out, which meant we arrived back at about 6:30PM. I definitely could have gone out and gotten dinner, but I was so tired, and I knew I had leftover mac n cheese in my fridge, so I hoofed it on home–that was not meant to be a pun because we saw more Highland cows, but I guess it’s intentional now–crashed into bed, and really wished I had a piece of chocolate to finish out the night, so I may have to get dessert after dinner tomorrow, wherever that ends up being.
Now, when I was blogging about Portugal, I left whole cities together to break them up in a cohesive way, but the posts ended up being so long that they took ages to load, and I’ve already run out of room on one story highlight on Instagram for Inverness, so I’m splitting Inverness in half. When you read this, I will have already left Inverness, but I’ve still go two full days ahead of me, plus a day of travel, and you’ll be getting that second half while I’m in Skye. Until then, though, I hope I’ve been able to make you fall in love with this majestic country as much I have in such a short period of time.
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