Road trip Scotland: Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Skye, Oban and Mull
On the fourth day of our eight night trip up the west coast of Scotland, the kids put it to their mum and I that we could maybe go on a package holiday next year.
“We’ve never been on a package holiday”, they reasoned.
Greece, maybe, or Turkey...“dad?”
There we were sitting around a stone campfire in a sun dappled woodland clearing, toasting marshmallows, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, with a crystal clear river bubbling by a few metres away, settling our stomachs after a venison bolognaise.
For me, you can’t get much closer to heaven.
Okay, so the midges were biting and we’d just pulled the third tick out of my daughter’s leg, and the kids were on washing up duty, hence the “anything but this” vibe but really, a package holiday?
I’d “packaged” this holiday for us hadn’t I, I countered.
Routes, locations, accommodation, sites of special interest, meals, equipment, ferry crossings, walks...
Hours of work. Just call me Thomas Cook kids.
They were right though, we’d never been on a “package holiday” together as a family.
Instead, in their relatively short lifespan we’d forced them to take a train journey with us from Milan to Naples via Venice, Rome, Florence and Pompeii.
They’d been unfortunate enough to have to join us on a three week road trip across the west of Canada from Calgary to Vancouver Island via Banff, Nelson, Hope, Vancouver, Victoria, Tofino and Parksville.
Their unjust treatment more and more ingrained with every trip to the Pembrokeshire and Jurassic Coasts, The Cotswolds, The Lake District, Northumberland, and Yorkshire Dales.
Maybe, I said. Or maybe I just thought it.
That fourth night - camped up at The Red Squirrel Campsite in Glencoe - the weather was gorgeous, but it hadn’t always been so.
Our adventure started four days earlier and three hours from home up the M6, the M74 and the A82 - on the shores of Loch Lomond.
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park recently introduced camping bye-laws to help minimise the environmental impact of the large volume of people seeking wild camping experiences on this particular loch.
You can apply for a camping permit (it cost us £3 for a night), giving you access to designated camping spots along the loch side.
I chose a beach pitch at Inveruglas, north of Tarbet, and, having the kids, it was nice to know where we’d be sleeping that night.
This was our launch point for travelling to Skye the next day.
It was wet, and forecast to get wetter, and my last minute decision to buy a £5 tarpaulin from Wickes paid off.
We managed to string it up between four trees, sloped down at the back of us, so we could enjoy a BBQ, campfire and an, albeit soggy, natter until it went dark, with unobstructed views of the lake before us.
It was still wet the next morning, so we unceremoniously and sleepily packed up and crammed the tent and all the other wet stuff into the car’s roof box and retreated to the Inveruglas Visitor Centre where hot coffee and bacon sandwiches beckoned.
This experience - a bit like a full day’s work before 8am - may have triggered the package holiday request.
But onwards into a new day, and back onto the A82 via Crianlarich, and on to the A85 via Dalmally, Connel, and along Loch Linnhe to North Ballaculish and then Fort William, where we stopped for fuel, food and gear from the handy Aldi, Home Bargains and Marks and Spencer combo.
On again via Loch Lochy, with a stop for lunch at Loch Garry on the A87, past Loch Cluanie and Loch Duich all the way to the Kyle of Lochalshe, and on to the Skye Bridge in low cloud, but no rain.
It was exciting to be on Skye - joined to the mainland via the bridge and yet another world entirely.
The cloud clung low as we continued along the A87 to Portree, up to Borve and then west towards Dunvegan, where we finally reached our destination - The Camping and Caravanning Club Site at Edinbane - at around 3.30pm.
It’s a fair trek that, but the leisurely pace, relatively little traffic and stunning vistas makes it just as much a part of the experience as the destination.
The site overlooks Loch Greshornish, which connects to the Atlantic, meaning the Loch is tidal and has a coastal feel and smell, with plenty of shells and crabs scattered along the Loch side, an unusual and interesting sight after camping on the inland beach at Loch Lomond the night before.
The staff at the site were kind, down to earth and informative and let us dry our tent in their boiler room after the absolute thrashing it took on Loch Lomond.
The £5 tarp soon dried off in the fairly windy conditions, which also had the added bonus of keeping the midges off!
We stayed in a camping pod for two nights (£60 per night).
It was an old school pod and wouldn’t (no matter how we tried it) accommodate a double and two single airbeds.
No electric lights provided either, but there was a plug socket, and a hardstanding and picnic table outside.
The next day the clouds lifted and the sun shone, and we set off early, stopping in Port Righ (Portree), which has a lovely harbour visited by cruise liners, a strange sight to see on this quiet and rugged coastline.
We were heading to The Old Man of Storr, a spiky, plunging mountain range overlooking the isles of Rona and Raasay and the peaks beyond.
I’d wanted to visit this natural phenomenon after seeing it in the film Prometheus.
It’s a good climb and remarkable geology unlike anything I’ve seen before.
It’s a magnificent walk and the kids did it easily.
An absolute must for anyone visiting Skye and the views all the way up are simply stunning.
We ate a picnic in the sunshine next to our car by the road, and then later we drove north, stopping in Staffin Bay.
Here the tide was in so we didn’t managed to see the dinosaur footprints on the beach the staff at the Visitor Information Centre in Portree had told us about, but a stunning drive nonetheless.
We then cut through the Quiraing, a 30km landslip that is still moving. Not an easy road to navigate given it is single track with passing places and quite steep, but all that fades behind the stunning and unique scenery.
Eventually we dropped down into the port town of Uig (ferries to Harris and Tarbert) and parked in the free car park to visit the Isle of Skye Brewing Co and grab a cup of coffee from the cafe across the road.
I, and an American chap, were both looking for the IPA. But none were forthcoming.
I left with a porter and a blonde, but the American chap caught me outside and gave me “one of the last two” IPAs he bought which had been found behind the counter.
Can’t argue with that, even when I attempted to.
We ate at the Edinbane Inn that night, a busy little spot with good food and good beer, and then with bellies full we watched the sun set over over Loch Greshornish.
It stayed light until 11.15pm. The colours bled and seeped through the entire spectrum as the light slowly faded.
A wonderful experience.
Leaving the next day, we stopped off at the popular Fairy Pools, via the west coast roads of the island, passing through Dunvegan (we didn’t have time to visit the castle), Struan, Drynoch, and Carbost, the location of the Talisker Distillery.
A single track road takes you to a car park which costs £5 for the day, within easy reach of the Fairy Pools walk.
These pools, falls, and gushes meander down from the imposing triangular peaks of the Black Cuille range - with their spiky tops and huge drops.
From here we took the road to Sligachan, and then back to the Skye Bridge, where we were treated to sunshine and stunning views over the small islands of the Inner Sound and down into Loch Alsh.
Back onto the now familiar roads towards Fort William (another food and fuel pitstop) and then to the Red Squirrel Campsite at Glencoe where we take up the package holiday conversation again.
As described earlier, The Red Squirrel Campsite – a perfect little spot at the eastern end of Glencoe village, surrounded by softer, bulkier mountains than the spikes of Skye and bounded by a stone strewn river.
The man on reception took our £29 for the night and looked down, looking up again when we were still there touting for more instruction and saying “that’s you” with that famed Scottish welcome.
You could camp “anywhere” which was exciting but aggravated the decision maker in me looking for the perfect spot.
We settled on a little grass glade in the trees with a stone fire pit a few metres from the river.
The sun shone blissfully here.
We walked out back along the road to find the site where they filmed Hagrid’s Hut in Harry Potter, found it, and also found the Clachaig Inn, a little gem of a pub and hotel with great ales, a kids’ park and 300 years of history.
The “no hawkers and no Campbells” sign still on reception an initially serious but now gentle reminder of the Glencoe massacre of 1692.
The kids swam in the river and played football until late as we kept the fire burning against the midges.
The next morning we packed up the tent for the final time and headed for Glen Etive, a 30 minute drive out of Glencoe.
It was recommended by a friend who had lived in Oban, our next destination, and accessed via a single track road with passing places that snakes through a stunning, purple-flower-strewn, dear grazing valley amongst the mountains.
We cooked up a bacon and egg butty out of the back of the car as we watched the mostly European vehicles pass by.
D, NL, B, FR, but very little GB.
It felt very continental here.
Then on to Oban, along Loch Etive, and into comparative civilisation again.
Here we had rented a three bed apartment with a balcony overlooking the harbour.
A little bit of luxury after four nights in the comparative “wilderness”.
I say this loosely as we had met people back from a week’s wild camping on Harris and other more isolated islands, and we were fully aware that we were still very much entry level tourists of the Highlands and islands. “Noobs”, as my son would say.
Oban is a gorgeous, bustling coastal town with a transient feel due to its stature as the gateway to many of the islands.
You could sit on the dock of the bay and watch the ships come in, then watch them roll away again, all day.
We had pre-booked tickets on the Calmac ferry to Mull (Oban to Craignure) for the next day, £49 for a car and four passengers.
This ferry had in fact been delayed by more than two hours.
They called me in a chance period of mobile reception at The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe the previous day to re-arrange, throwing our plans into confusion because of the cancellation of the return journey as well.
We eventually ended up with a 12.20pm sailing out and a 9.15pm sailing back.
Less time than we’d planned and a late sailing back, but that, effectively was Calmac’s final offer.
I was given a form to fill out to claim some money back.
Still haven’t filled it out.
We arrived at Craignure in damp, overcast conditions and followed the road up the east of the island to Tobermory, aka Balamory, as the kids show would have it.
What’s the story?
Wouldn’t you like to know.
Colourful houses, a great little cafe called The Scullery which does Cullen Skink (creamy haddock, potato and leek broth) with a toasted sandwich for £7.
Add in some cola ice cream floats and you’ve got yourself a delicious lunch there.
Then there’s the Mishnish hotel and pub, named after that part of the island, a cosy, thick walled, wood panelled hostelry that does plenty of good drops.
There’s a whisky distillery, museum of Mull, loads of craft shops and an aquarium too.
The Macgochans pub on the far side of the harbour had caught fire in the early hours the week before, the flames spotted by a fisherman in the harbour.
The roof is completely gone.
The rain became heavier and after stopping to buy some fudge from the Tobermory Handmade Chocolate shop, we ran back to the car and made our way to Calgary Bay via Dervaig, on the north east side of the island.
It’s famed for its white sand and art trail, and precious little else. It really is a gorgeous, secluded spot.
We sneaked a short walk and reminisced about its Canadian namesake before the weather came in again.
And it really came in.
The drive back via Burg and Ballygown to Craignure was in thick fog and rain.
We saw nothing except the occasional “town sign” that revealed one or two houses and a few roadside sheep at most.
We tried to imagine how difficult it must be to live out there and how little you’d be able to rely on the system at large.
The weather makes all the difference, and we’d love to have spent more time exploring Mull.
We waited at The Craignure Inn, a few metres from the ferry terminal, for our ride back to the mainland.
We had one more full day and night in Oban but the rain wasn’t letting up, so we spent the morning at the town’s swimming pool (which has a water slide), and then the early afternoon at the independent cinema, The Oban Phoenix, which was showing The Secret Life of Pets 2.
I was initially dubious (especially seeing the throngs of people bustling into the Oban Distillary just down the road) but the film was actually hilarious, and the staff at The Phoenix were great.
Later that afternoon, after a quick trip back to the apartment, we donned waterproof trousers and coats, bought some extra brollies, and headed out, determined to enjoy Oban’s harbour on our last day.
I bought a bottle of 14-year-old single malt from the Oban Distillery for later, and we walked up to McCaig’s Tower, the folly faux coliseum which overlooks the town and the harbour.
The ships came in and out, and the view is stunning despite the grey shroud it was wearing.
It was a damp end to our trip, but we reasoned we got the best of the weather out in the tent and camping pods.
We realised that you need to spend a good bit of time in Scotland, especially on the west coast, to understand it doesn’t “rain all the time” as many would have it.
We saw that part of the country in all of its guises and were glad for it.
We saw and experienced just a tiny fraction of what the west coast Highlands and Islands have to offer, and we know full well we’ll be back before long.
For us, there was something irresistable going on, and I now understand why friends and acquaintances disappear for weeks in the caravan.
We may have to squeeze in a “package holiday” first, but this little taste has left us with a thirst for more Scottish adventures.