Rugged, rolling hills, covered in green grasses and interspersed stone; a gentle meadow surrounded by scraggly trees and an ancient stone wall; an old cottage perched upon the shores of a shallow fjord, light pouring from its windows and a small stream of smoke trickling from a stone chimney atop. Cold. Hidden. Magical. It’s funny to me that I had such an established notion of what the Scottish Highlands would be like. I suppose that this is because of all of the movies that I’ve seen that were shot there.
The first film I remember seeing from this area is the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, viewed at the ripe young age of 11. The film heavily uses Doune Castle, Castle Stalker, and the Glen Coe area. As I grew, so too did Harry Potter and with him, 8 films, each using Scotland in some way. Most significantly, Hogwarts was generally located on the cliffs above Loch Shiel, near Glenfinnan (where the Glenfinnan Viaduct was used for the famous Hogwarts Express bridge shots). Throw more establishing shots at Loch Eilt and Glen Coe and you have a franchise! Even as an adult, when I watched the stunning and brilliant James Bond film Skyfall, I was captivated by the third act’s eponymous Bond family estate in—again—Glen Coe.
It was my love of film and of history which drew me to the Scottish Highlands. But as I covered in my previous, day one entry from our Highlands road trip, the visit wasn’t quite shaping up to be picture perfect. Still, I awoke on our second day with a renewed sense of adventure. We joined the family in our lodge’s dining room for breakfast and, with a more realistic sense of the area, began to make amendments to the day’s itinerary. The goal was to carve out a more lean, relaxing schedule—and coffee opposite of Loch Ness, as the sun rose, was a fantastic start.
Upon check-out, we each tossed our luggage into the rental van and took turns signing the Guest Book. Once gathered, my father started the van.
With one final look at the beautiful, old hunting lodge we called home for a single night, it was back to the road. We passed through Fort Augustus, a small town at the southern tip of Loch Ness, and then continued on through old farmland. We passed Loch Oich and Loch Lochy before rolling into Fort William, the last city before the Great Glen sinks into the sea.
As I mentioned, with the wisdom of our drive from the day before, we understood that we would need to make sacrifices. Fort William is originally where we would have turned for Glenfinnan, where we could get more history and our Harry Potter landmark fix. But, we cancelled this 50-70 minute detour to stay comfortably on track.
Instead, within 40 minutes we arrived at a cinematic landmark of a different sort. As our road weaved around a bend, we could see the lonely Castle Stalker perched on an island in the bay before us. For those familiar with the silly and fantastic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the third act brings characters Arthur and Bedevere to this very castle and sets up for a final battle sequence where—well, just watch the film.
Instead of stopping for a closer look, we passed the Castle Stalker and kept charging down the coast. Thirty minutes later, we were pulling into the coastal town of Oban. Despite our return to sea level, the bitter cold led to something we weren’t entirely prepared for: more snow!
Once parked, we signed up for a tour of the local whisky distillery but had nearly 90 minutes to kill before the tour would step off. As much as the town appeared ripe for exploring, it was far too cold to casually hang out in the elements. We grabbed lunch at a small cafe across from the distillery and then chased that meal by indulging our sweet tooth down the street at the Oban Chocolate Factory.
This local chocolate shop offered precisely what we needed: a warm, indoor harbor, the heat of a homemade hot chocolate, and a few chocolate truffles to boot. Like the pub we grubbed in the day before, it was in these moments that I found myself finally relaxing.
Soon, it was time for our tour. We returned to the Oban Distillery and gathered with our fellow tour-goers in an upstairs lobby. There, we were asked to disable all cell phones and cameras for fear of an electrical spark in the flammable, alcohol-rich environment; who knows if such a risk is real or not, but I’m a rule follower, so you’ll find no photos of the tour here!
The next 75 minutes took us through various presentations and explanations of the whisky production process. It concluded with a few drams of whisky, including one young and undiluted siphon directly from a barrel. It was educational and delicious, even catching the interest of my non-whiskey drinking parents.
We concluded the tour, naturally, in the gift shop. I regret not picking up a bottle but have recently learned that I could buy Oban Scotch at Costco, so I’m less perturbed.
I know for a fact that there was more to see in Oban; the city was worth a solid day’s visit. But, as is the case in each of these sprint-paced expeditions, it was time to advance. We returned to the van and prepared for our next drive.
For all of the compromises we made, there came a point where we needed to make one further: Glen Coe. In addition to being the location of a variety of historic events and cinematic settings, the hilly valley was where I was hoping to partake in the romantic pastime of hillwalking; basically, go for a hike. Though the detour would have only taken an additional 45 minutes, it would have required another hour or so to get any sense of the place. And since hiking was just a “me thing”, it made sense to cut it in favor of something the whole family would appreciate.
As a side note, I would get to “hill walk” upon our return to Edinburgh, an experience I found to be pretty miserable in the cold! But I digress—
Since I didn’t know the truth about snowy-hiking yet, cutting Glen Coe felt like a great loss and soured my mood as we continued through snowy and wet driving conditions.
But as it was becoming clear that we would actually make our final destination, my spirit was improved. A little bit of sunlight through the parted clouds didn’t hurt either.
We hurried up to the castle entry and flashed our Historic Scotland passes. The staff warned us of the imminent closure but they were happy to let us explore in the remaining time. They gave us complimentary audio tour devices that featured the charming narration of Terry Jones, a member of the Month Python troupe. With headphones on, we set off into the lower castle chambers, featuring exhibits on the castle’s various TV and movie appearances.
As we began to climb into the castle tower, we got a distinctly different feel than earlier at Stirling. Barren and unpolished, wandering around Doune Castle felt like true archeological exploration. Discovering the use of the different rooms was exciting and fascinating. For example, when I found a seat with a centered-hole in it, precariously perched 50 feet above the ground, I knew its purpose without the need for narration—I knew I had to take advantage!
By the end of our visit, each of us left really feeling like we got what we wanted from the experience. The castle, 600 years old, felt ancient and yet, the well-kept ruins tied so closely to a film I love, that it felt strangely modern and tangible. I suppose, in a way, that’s precisely why I found myself in love with the whole of the Scottish Highlands.
We strolled from the castle as the staff closed the large, wooden doors behind us. We had the courtyard entirely to ourselves and we took a few last photos before returning to the car.
It was just 40 minutes of driving from Doune to the Edinburgh Airport where we were to drop off the rental van—half the distance from Oban but just one-quarter of the time, thanks to the high-speed motorways not otherwise afforded in the formidable highland geography.
We dropped off the van and then took the 30 minute tram ride into town. Along the way, as the grassy plains gradually turned to paved city streets, we reflected on the previous two days. The Scottish Highlands were not what we expected and yet everything that we did. The area is scenery dense and but took what felt like ages to get from one place to another. And these hills were a pain to navigate and yet brilliant, in their own way.
I personally cannot wait to return.
Thanks for reading this second installment of our drive through the Scottish Highlands!—I’m sorry that it took a bit longer to post than I expected! For more photos from our second day in the Highlands, check out the gallery below!