There’s always been someone who’s recommended Scotland to me at some point. I’ve visited Edinburgh and it’s the prettiest city – but you’ll understand why, in previous years, I’ve used my annual leave to explore the sunny beaches of Croatia, rather than to travel up north for a cooler climate.
However, Aneas O’Hara is on hand to show us Scotland’s hidden beauty. Even before COVID-19 and a preference for most to travel within their country, his company, Away From the Ordinary, was on-hand to take care of everything. So all that’s left to do is fully embrace what Scotland has to offer. And it has so much. Now it just so happened that I chose to use the current situation to explore more of the UK, with Scotland being number one on my list. Kindly designing me a trip for both East and West side of the Highlands, Away From the Ordinary showed me the extraordinary sights of Scotland’s countryside and I encourage you to seek out the same trip advice.
East of the Highlands
Glenfeshie Estate is my home for the weekend and the property is stunning. A luxury cottage with staff on-hand to bring me literally heart-warming delights such as local whisky or hot chocolate. Impressive staircases lead to rooms with four-poster beds, adorned with locally-crafted tartan and every room as a roaring fire crackling away. The epitome of a cosy stay. I already know I will not want to leave.
A trip to Clava Cairn initially inflicts excitement due to references to Outlander but we soon fully absorb the 4000-year-old history of three well-preserved cairns. Constructed in the Bronze Age, this site was used by local communities as burial grounds and for rituals. A theatrical performance at Culloden House from a local in full costume follows, as we are educated on the Jacobite risings, aiming to restore James VII of Scotland and James II of England to his thrones.
The aim is to leave Scotland with fond memories. What better way to secure this opinion than to show us the local cuisine. Although dishes such as haggis and mince and tatties and even Glenfeshie’s home-farmed venison were all delicious, the dish you must travel to Scotland for is Cullen skink. Oh what a treat for my tastebuds this was. A thick soup filled with smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and leeks. Heaven. Especially on a cold, snowy day.
Opulence could not be more appropriately defined than by the following scenario: swapping a thirty-minute-drive to Braemar, for a private helicopter ride. Stunning views across a gorgeous mountainous landscape had us arrive at The Fife Arms, where I toured the grounds. Gorgeous artwork graced the halls, with Louise Bourgeois’ Spider sitting outside and Picasso and Lucien Freud in the foyer. Completely unsurprising, given the collaboration with art gallery pros, Hauser & Wirth.
I was originally tentative about embarking on the Land Rover Experience – not much driving done in London, it has to be said – the team in the Dunkeld office were both reassuring and great fun. Driving skills have definitely developed and I was definitely immersed in the full capabilities of these 4×4 vehicles on the acres of countryside terrain.
Now, this is Scotland. The Highlands. No visit would be complete without a whisky distillery tour. But how to choose? This is where Away From the Ordinary truly excel. You might think you’re a whisky lover but Ballindalloch, Scotland’s first single estate distillery, is waiting four more years to nail the taste of their product. Whilst it is no match for rivals such as Glenfiddich, the distillery’s commitment to tradition has earned it Craft Producer of the Year 2018. With bespoke tours and eight years’ dedication before bottling any of their whisky, the waiting list to purchase is long but I suspect it is worth it.
Is West Best?
The Isle of Skye might seem at the ends of the earth but a) it’s not, there’s much further and more remote parts of Scotland if you’re checking a map – and yes, I checked the map – and b) who cares, it’s too beautiful to skip. Trust me. Also make sure to book your ferry ticket in advance as it’s a small space with not much room for many cars. That being said, there’s two options to get there: the ferry and driving further up and across the Skye Bridge. I’d recommend doing one each way to experience the views and sights on both routes.
Old Man of Storr is a popular hike in the Isle of Skye. The map at the car park will lie to you and tell you it’s a moderate hike – do not be deceived. It’s more like moderate plus; a fact we established after asking the opinions of many a seasoned hiker (so it wasn’t just the puffing, out-of-breath out-loud thoughts of two urban beans). Once you get to what you think is the top, sit down for a second, drink some water and slap some sense into yourself or whatever motivational speech that will ensure you keep going to the very top. It’s no moderate hike but it’s most definitely worth it.
Skye is a series of castles and all are worth a visit – if not for their current or remaining architecture, but for the stunning views that surround where they are situated. Duntulm, Dunscaith and Dunvegan Castles are all worth a pitstop, with the former just offering ruins perched on a cliff edge and the latter being the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. Though not a castle, Fairy Glen is well worth a visit; a small but exceptionally cute grassy area full of moss-covered trees and hills. It’s sights like this that make Scotland and, more specifically, the Isle of Skye, a fantastic place to visit on a staycation road trip in the current situation as so much of what you’ll want to do is outside – and free. Niest Point Lighthouse is an excellent spot to watch the sunset – bring snacks, bring hot chocolate and have a wonderful evening.
It’s never been more important to book restaurants, thanks to COVID-19, but even more so in the Isle of Skye. It’s worth noting that, right now, most restaurants won’t accommodate you just for drinks either. The Cuillin Hills Hotel offers a gorgeous view of Portree, a quaint little harbour town, if you’re looking for just the spot that will take care of you for dinner and an overnight stay. The dinner menu offers traditional Scottish dishes such as Cullen Skink but also incorporates the local produce and trust me when I say you need to order the scallops and the langoustines. The seafood in this part of Scotland is exemplary, given that the waters are so cold and choppy, and it’s really not to be missed. Failing that, the venison steak was a delicious and flavoursome option, while vegetarians are also well-catered for with dishes such as chargrilled broccoli, roasted cauliflower and poached beetroot leading to a full and satisfied stomach. Staying overnight allows you to enjoy breakfast and/or lunch overlooking Loch Portree, with crisp blue views (weather permitting!)
The Isle of Skye may be small but there’s a lot of ground to cover and time should definitely be set aside to visit the SligachanOld Bridge which was built over supposedly enchanted waters, as legend has it. In the quickest synopsis ever, the greatest warrior woman of Scotland, Scáthach, was challenged to a fight by her Irish counterpart, Cúchulainn. The battle went on until Scáthach’s daughter, who could not bear to see her mother be potentially killed, received help from the faeries and after washing her face with the river water, was filled with knowledge on how to save her mother. She gathered herbs and nuts and cooked a meal back at her home, with the smell distracting the warriors from their fight. Cúchulainn, now a guest of Scáthach’s, could no longer see her as his enemy. The leged of Sligachan states that those who dip their face into the river water will be granted eternal beauty. We’re talking Scotland in autumn here and while I’m more than happy to pose for a photo in a completely unsuitable dress, dunking my head in freezing cold water was not on my agenda. Please let me know if anyone goes and tries this, however.
After a morning of legend-learning, it was time for lunch and Away From the Ordinary came through once again with the recommendations. Strongly encouraging me to dine at Edinbane Lodge, I had high hopes for my three course lunch. Another menu that boasts excellent vegetarian options that even a meat-eater might crave, we feasted upon grilled leek and Shetland cod (a must-order for those that eat fish as, again, the waters in Shetland are home to fish with a bit more fat on them) to start our meal. Mains consisted of a delicious gnocchi plate featuring hazelnuts and grilled hake with creamed polenta – both divine and plates were practically licked clean. The eponymous choux bun and 70 per cent dark chocolate cremeux were the chosen ones for dessert and what a finisher they were. Let me tell you, everyone raves about The Three Chimneys as the place to eat and stay in Skye – and, truth be told, I didn’t get the chance to go to compare – but put Edinbane Lodge right up there alongside it as it’s definitely not one to miss.
I’ve seen Scotland. I’ve seen parts that only a local and aficionado could show me. A trip to Scotland is recommended, a trip organised by Away From the Ordinary is necessary.
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