Edinburgh, Loch Ness & Scottish Highlands Tour

Edinburgh, Loch Ness & Scottish Highlands Tour

Majestical scenery, alluring wooded glens, beautiful fresh water lochs, snow capped mountains, welcoming Highland villages and inviting distilleries, all shrouded in that special blend of romantic Scottish history and folklore. Take a tour from Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh, with its stunning castle, narrow alleyways and richly furnished Royal Palace, and journey out into the breathtaking beauty of the Scottish Highlands, to the great lochs and glens, waterfalls and castle ruins. Visit historic Stirling, drive through William Wallace "Braveheart" country, spend time at mysterious Loch Ness and walk amongst the famous battlesites of Bannockburn and Culloden.

Starting in Edinburgh and its imposing castle, situated on an extinct volcano once active some 350 million years ago. You can easily conclude that the lay of the land was, at one time, far more violent than it is today. The castle itself sits on the plug of the old volcano and the tail where lava once spilled is now made up of The Royal Mile.

There are six park and ride bus services into the city plus the fast and frequent tram service from the airport. The first stop after the airport on the tram is the Park and Ride facility, it is known as Ingliston Park and Ride. Most bus services into Edinburgh will stop at Princes Street and/or Waverley Bridge. The tram stops on Princes Street, the city's main shopping thoroughfare and at St Andrew Square with its pleasant park punctuated by the 150ft (46m) high Melville Monument erected in 1821 to honour prominent Scottish politician, Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. A gentle walk from this area up the Royal Mile is recommended, finishing off at the castle. There is no parking available at the castle. If you do choose to drive into Edinburgh then parking is available at the foot of the Royal Mile at Holyrood Road or alternatively at Waverley railway station. From Princes Street walk down to Waverley Bridge and from Waverley Bridge or the station car park walk along Market Street and Jeffrey Street to the World's End pub then head left down the Royal Mile to the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse.

This is the official residence of the Queen when she is in Edinburgh and at other times it is open to the public for tours. Originally no more than a gatehouse or lodge for the adjacent Holyrood Abbey, over the centuries it began to replace Edinburgh Castle as the main royal home. Some of the older parts date from the time of Mary, Queen of Scots in the mid 16th century and later additions continue to the 1680s long after the Stuart Kings had moved south to London. The Abbey dates from 1128 and is now a ruin. Parliament met here and it was the scene of coronations. After the Scottish Reformation a new church was built nearby, Cannongate Kirk, and the Abbey began to be used privately as a royal church but was later abandoned. By 1768 it had become a ruin. Your admission price to the Palace will include the Abbey ruins and gardens.

Walking up the Royal Mile past the modern buildings of the Scottish Assembly or Parliament, one can also see the vast hill known as Arthur's Seat, 823ft (251m) high and a wonderful climb on a day of pleasant weather. You will pass Cannongate Kirk on your right and the Museum of Edinburgh on your left (admission free). You will see the World's End pub where the Netherbow Gate would have been, the old entrance to the city built into the Flodden Wall, the old city defences which still exist in certain parts around here. The father of the Scottish Reformation, the lengthy-bearded firebrand John Knox, is said to have lived in the old house on the right and the nostalgic Museum of Childhood can be seen on the left. This part of the Royal Mile is High Street and at the top is St Giles, the cathedral, or more correctly, the High Kirk. It is 12th century with a 15th century Crown spire. To the left of that is the comparatively quiet Parliament Square with the equestrian statue of Charles II in the centre. Scotland's Parliament met in buildings here until they voted to dissolve themselves in 1707 to form the Parliament of Great Britain and move themselves to London. The buildings received new facades in 1800 in the Neoclassical style to blend in with their surroundings.

Parliament Square would have initially been the churchyard of St Giles and this was paved over with tarmacadam just over a hundred years ago. It is now a car park for the law courts that now occupy these buildings.....but look at parking bay 23, it marks the possible burial plot of John Knox as the plaque sitting flatly on the ground will tell you. Well, unless it is obscured by a parked car!!

Ghost hunters may be interested in Mary King's Close which leads off the High Street northwards opposite St Giles. This heavily haunted street was blocked off and built over in the 18th century in order to create the Royal Exchange buildings. It has been uncovered and is a fine example of a 17th century Edinburgh residential alley. More general ghost tours leave at various intervals from outside St Giles by the old Mercat Cross.

At the crossroads at the top you can take a left turn on George IV Bridge and walk down to the magnificent National Museum of Scotland, seven floors of Scotland's history in a building packed with exhibits and free of charge to visit. You can also continue up the Royal Mile passing the entrance to the Writers Museum, located down a little alleyway or wynd, to a fascinating collection of artifacts and personal items associated with the great writers Rabbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

At the top of the Royal Mile as you walk up Lawnmarket you will arrive at the castle. You have walked most of Edinburgh's Old Town. But the New Town is also worth a visit. To the north of the castle the old Nor' Loch was drained, now the site of the railway station and Princes Street Gardens, and a new city built. A young 23 year old architect by the name of James Craig won a competition in 1767 to design the new buildings in a classical style and construction began soon after that. Examples of the works of Robert Adam and William Playfair can also be seen.

Also in the New Town is the National Portrait Gallery, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson in 1889 and linking both old and new towns themselves is a street called The Mound where one can find the National Gallery of Scotland itself. Both galleries are free of charge to visit.

Finally at the east end of Princes Street is the Scott Monument, a gothic structure dedicated to Sir Walter Scott with 287 narrow steps taking you to the viewpoint at the top. Further east you enter Waterloo Place with the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington on your left. Just a little further in one can see paths and steps on the left heading up to Calton Hill, a short climb with great views over the city and countryside plus the ocean and the Firth of Forth. The National Monument to those Scots who fell in the Napoleonic Wars can be seen here along with the monument to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Next door, the old city observatory is now a restaurant.

Looking out from Calton Hill you can see the distant docks at Leith. If you choose to drive down there or get a bus then you can visit the Ocean Terminal shopping mall and climb aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Queen's former floating palace used extensively on world tours, a studio replica of which featured in the TV series The Crown.

Leave Edinburgh westwards on the A8 through Haymarket and along the Corstorphine Road. Sometimes it can surprising that the city of Edinburgh has a population of over half a million inhabitants when the ocean and rugged hills seem to be just on the doorstep. Indeed, the city is hemmed in by the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills but it stretches out westwards and you will see evidence of this larger conurbation as you drive out of the capital. Notice the beautiful Donaldson School on the right. This spectacular building was set up as a school for deaf children and was designed by William Henry Playfair, opening in 1851. The national rugby ground, Murrayfield is to your left and you will pass the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo a little distance to your right as you leave the urban landscape behind you and head to the hills.

You won't get to the mountains straight away. There will be a journey through the lower lying lands of the central belt to drive through first. This is where most of Scotland's 6 million people actually live. Use the M9 motorway to head to the Highlands. Look out for Linlithgow Palace to your left. Often obscured by roadside trees, there is a quick glimpse of the Loch and the large empty ruin of a residence for the Stewart Kings. James V was born here in 1512 and his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots was born here in 1542. The Palace was destroyed on the orders of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland after his victory at Culloden in 1746, however by all accounts most of the building was in a decrepit state already. It is a worthy stop if you want to drop in and visit. Exit at Junction 3 and in the centre of Linlithgow turn right into Kirkgate for the castle car park. Children will love to run around the expanse of empty rooms and up and down the spiral staircases, and maybe the adults will as well. Of particular note is the rather ornate fountain in the courtyard. Created in 1538 the water is sourced from an underground stream but on special occasions had been adjusted to flow with wine. The spout is the King's crown, symbolic of his unwavering benevolence over his subjects.

As you drive towards Falkirk you will see evidence of industry, refineries, petro-chemical plants, distribution centres, but also those ever present mountains, the Ochill range, far off in the distance. Falkirk lies on the meeting point of two canals, the Union and the Forth and Clyde. Signs for the Falkirk Wheel will take visitors to a boat lift which takes traffic from one canal up to the other on a giant wheel. This is the world's only rotating boat lift, replacing the lock system that closed when the canals were abandoned in the 1930s. When they were restored this wonderful new system was introduced in 2002. You can even do a mini boat cruise that allows you to experience the wheel. Another attraction, visible on your left from the M9 are The Kelpies, a huge design by Andy Scott featuring two very large horses heads and dedicated to the mythical Kelpie creatures of Scottish folklore. They are the largest equine statues in the world.

Falkirk is the site of two battles, the first battle of Falkirk in 1298 was a loss for William Wallace at the hands of the English, accounts say he resigned his Guardianship of Scotland role after this defeat, the second battle was in 1746 and a victory for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites over the Government forces during the '45 rebellion.

A far more famous battle site will soon appear on the right as you approach Stirling. Marked by a tall white flagpole you will see the fields where the Battle of Bannockburn took place over 23rd and 24th June, 1314. A victory for Robert the Bruce over the much larger army of Edward II of England, a victory that lead to the Declaration of Arbroath and the Treaty of Edinburgh and Northampton which ratified and underlined Scotland as an independent country.

Just a little further on, look to your right again and you can see Stirling Castle, like the fortress in Edinburgh standing high on an extinct volcano, a huge rock of basalt. As the first place upstream on the River Forth that could be forded year around all trade and invading armies would pass through here. This elevated the importance of Stirling and from the 12th century it became one of Scotland's most essential fortifications. A lot of the castle dates from the 16th century when it became a royal palace for James V, his daughter Mary, Queen of Scots had her coronation here in 1542. You can exit for Stirling and drive right up to the castle where there is plenty of parking. Narrow cobblestone lanes will take you through the Old Town, to the top of the hill and to the car park and castle entrance. Nearby is the battle site of Stirling Bridge. This wooden bridge has long since vanished but on the 11th September 1297 the collapse of one of the earlier bridges here handed a victory to William Wallace and Andrew Moray as the English army under Edward I was split in two and the Scots were able to inflict heavy losses to the soldiers that had crossed the river, leaving the rest of the English army helpless on the other side. Although Moray died of his injuries not long after the battle, this did pave the way for Wallace to be knighted and become Guardian of Scotland singlehanded.

It is here where you will leave the M9 to take the smaller roads into the mountains. Join the A84, cross the River Forth and head towards Callander. The land around here is still used for growing wheat and barley as the elevation is little higher than sea level, after a few miles you will cross the River Teith, as you do so you can look downstream to your right and see a glimpse of Doune Castle. Drive through the village and turn right, head through the village centre and follow signs to the castle. This impressive tower house dates from the 13th century with additional fortifications and extentions by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany in the 14th century. By far the majority of visitors to arrive here are fans of Outlander, Game of Thrones and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all of which were partly filmed here!

Continue on the A84 towards Callander, the Gateway to the Highlands, pick up provisions from the little bakeries and coffee shops that line the main street then set out for the mountain roads as you start to climb higher following the River Teith which crashes over rapids and cascades over rocks to the left of the road as you approach beautiful Loch Lubnaig. Just before you get to the lochside you will pass the little cemetery of the McKinley clan on your left. Buried here are ancestors of the 25th President of the United States, William McKinley.

Loch Lubnaig means the crooked loch and it does have a gentle bend in the middle. The loch will be stretching out on your lefthand side and there are a number of turns that will take you to parking areas by its grassy banks. Each parking area will have height restrictions so check before you make that turn! This whole stretch of road with the water and the mountains is exceptionally attractive and photogenic and you can feel now that you are firmly in the Highlands of Scotland.

The A84 continues through Strathyre and along hillsides covered in larch, spruce and pine trees. These have been planted for the logging industry and are not native to Scotland in such vast amounts. They will be hauled away at some point for furniture and paper manufacturing, and this means the landscape and scenery is constantly changing as trees grow and others are felled.

At Lochearnhead the A85 joins from the east. You can see Loch Earn to your right in the distance and you will now be on the A85 heading westwards up into Glen Ogle. Most of these glens, or narrow valleys, take their name from the river that runs within them. Glen Ogle would have had a larger population than it does today. The Highland Clearances during the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw many crofters evicted from their homes and farms by landlords wanting to turn their estates over to more profitable sheep farming. It was a brutal, unforgiving time where many died of starvation and others left for a new life elsewhere, more often than not North America or Australia.

As you drive up the glen you may see one or two abandoned cottages, just ruins now, a bit of stone in the vague shape of a building, abandoned during the Clearances, and you will see this just about all over the Highlands. Also almost at the top of the glen on your left is the abandoned railway viaduct of the Callander to Oban railway line closed in 1965.

You will now pass Lix Toll and join Glen Dochart following the River Dochart upstream. However a diversion here by turning right on the A827 will take you down to the spectacular Falls Of Dochart, just a short detour but well worth it. Then back to Lix Toll and back on the A85 towards Crianlarich. You will pass alongside Loch Iubhair with a length of 1.3 miles (2.1km), translated as the Loch of Yew Trees or the Leper's Loch depending on who you talk to!!

Crianlarich announces itself with a view of the railway viaduct that spans the River Dochart as you head along the glen. An important railway junction since the 1890s, this small town also serves as the meeting of the road from the south, (that is the route from Glasgow), the road north which you will now join and the road from the east which you have just travelled on. In the local Gaelic language Crianlarich means the low pass.

You are now on the A82 heading to Tyndrum, a popular rest stop, where the Oban road branches off to your left heading west to the coast. However you will continue right into Glen Orchy, sharing the glen with the railway and the hikers on the West Highland Way using, at this point, an old military road built by General Wade to send the Government troops into the mountains. The idea was to put a quick stop to any Jacobite rebellions in the early 18th century. The West Highland Way is a 95 mile (154km) footpath from just north of Glasgow to the west coast, hikers use Tyndrum to pick up supplies or even stay overnight in its numerous hotels and B&Bs.

Continue past Loch Tulla on your left then climb up to Rannoch Moor. As you almost get to the crest of the hill there are parking spaces on your left. Stop here amongst other tourists arriving in cars and buses. Look back across Glen Orchy and Loch Tulla and take a photo. There is breathtaking scenery all around, even if it does get a little crowded with other road using tourists.

Continue up onto desolate Rannoch Moor, 50 square miles of lochs, peat bogs and marshes. The road literally 'floats' across the moor on a bed of reed. The views here are spectacular and there are a number of small roadside parking bays to pull into and take photographs. The main lochs here are Loch Rannoch and Loch Ba, with the latter one being nearest the road.

Continue through the Grampian mountain range towards Glen Coe which can be seen for a good few miles or so before you reach it. Here the road twists through a ravine then opens up to a stunning view of the whole area. There are more roadside parking bays but these often fill up in the more popular months. If the first two are full make your way to the foot of the glen, there is one final parking spot down there. 

The history of Glen Coe really centres on one infamous period. That of the massacre on the 13th February 1692. Members of the MacDonald clan who lived here in the glen were late signing an oath of allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary. For whatever reason the oath signing was delayed it was enough for the Earl of Argyll to send his redcoat troops on a journey here with the intention of making an example of them. However the real intent wasn't revealed initially, the inclement weather coupled with the hospitality of the MacDonald clan meant they were staying as guests for a number of nights before the redcoats rose early one morning and massacred the MacDonalds in their beds. Many of the troops were part of the rival Campbell clan with old scores to settle.

All in all, over 80 men, women and children died that morning. Glen Coe is known as the Weeping Glen.

Just before you arrive in Glen Coe village you will pass an area on your right where there is nothing to see. However, back in 2004 Warner Brothers spent millions building a set for the Harry Potter films. This was to become Hagrid's village in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but sadly it has all gone now.

You will now follow Loch Leven, the first of the sea lochs on this tour, salt water, with fishing boats, and connected to the ocean. Cross over the inlet just after Ballachulish and you will see the much larger Loch Linnhe on your left, you will also get a brief glimpse of the Corran Ferry taking cars and people over the water to Mull and Tobermory. You will continue on the A82 to Fort William.

Fort William lies at the south west tip of the Great Glen, a rift valley along a natural fault line cutting diagonally across the Scottish Highlands and heading north east for 62 miles (100km) to Inverness. The town takes its name from the fortress built here on Government orders to suppress Jacobite support and named in honour of King William III and later dedicated to William, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II. The town faces west to Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil whose waters meet here and the plethora of guest houses and hotels are often filled with climbers out to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, which is located nearby.

The town is really the local metropolis for Highland folk and, as a result, there are a lot of large warehouse size stores and supermarkets plus drive through food outlets. The main street is pleasant but the road takes you around the centre, passing on your left what little remains of the fort itself. A little further in is the Ben Nevin Distillery and the road heading off on your right up Glen Nevis to the mountain itself. However, it is worth pressing on, continuing up the A82 and following the Great Glen. The road detours a little into Glen Spean and through Spean Bridge crossing the River Spean on a bridge built by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. You will be seeing much of his work as you journey north east as the road through the Great Glen parallels the Caledonian Canal, another important work by Telford. Built as a military canal towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars it opened in 1822, long after the wars ended. It is 62 miles (100km) long, same length as the glen but less than half of it was in need of construction, the rest of the route utilises Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness.

As you leave Spean Bridge there is a chance to pull over to your left at the Commando Monument and look back to Ben Nevis at a height of 4,413ft (1345m), it's name in Gaelic meaning the mountain with its top in the clouds. You may be lucky and have a cloudless sky while you stop here.

Follow the Great Glen past deep Loch Lochy and the shallower Loch Oich, crossing the Caledonian Canal on frequent occasions, then onwards to Fort Augustus and the south west tip of Loch Ness. The largest body of water in the UK, it is 23 miles (37km) long and 744ft (227m) deep. It is allegedly home to a stange creature seen by many, photographed by some and talked about by just about everyone that visits here. A trick of the light, a large species of eel, wakes from a boat or even tree trunks? Or just maybe a creature or creatures that survived the Ice Age and continued to breed? Something that resembles a plesiosaur? Keep your eye out for something breaking the surface as you drive along the lochside.

Loch Ness is deep and has very steep sides. Consequently there are very few locations to just pull over and gaze over the water. One location that takes you down to the water's edge is Urquhart Castle. Its history goes back to the 6th century although the present castle was destroyed by its owners the Clan Grant in 1692 in order to keep the fortress from getting into the hands of their Jacobite enemies. The Grants had owned the castle since 1509 and most of the ruins would have dated from the building work done at this time. All of the castle is now in ruins although the north east tower is almost complete. If you choose to visit here then there is a cafe, gift shop and an 8 minute film about the history of the fortress, and of course, access to Loch Ness itself.

Continue along the A82 through Drumnadrochit where you will find two rival Loch Ness visitor centres and museums. A break here for monster fans and cryptozoologists is essential! The road will follow the loch and then the River Ness to Inverness itself where the Caledonian Canal meets the Moray Firth and ultimately the North Sea.

With a population of 65,000 Inverness, known as "the Capital of the Highlands", is the largest settlement in the Highland region. Its famous as the setting for the most popular of the Highland Games and as an overnight stop on the road northwards to Orkney and Shetland. Also its the nearest sizeable place for visitors to nearby Culloden where the last battle on British soil took place in April 1746 when the Jacobite army under Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the Government Army led by the Duke of Cumberland. The visitor centre and battlefield is just four miles south east of Inverness, follow the brown tourist signs off the A9 then onto the A96. As a small city it is attractive, but not outstanding, it has a castle built only in 1836 on the site of an earlier fortress and then there is the mighty River Ness sweeping through the centre of the city. Plenty of hotels,  shops and food outlets as one would expect from a place this size.

From here you will join the A9 for your journey south through the Cairngorm range of mountains. Cairn Gorm means blue/green stone hills which is how the landscape will look in a certain light as the A9 twists its way back down towards Edinburgh. There are a number of places one can slip off the A9 to see what towns and communities lie hidden off the main road. Aviemore, for example, can be accessed by taking the A95. This town is in the centre of ski country and during colder months the sight of visitors in all the latest ski wear walking down the main street is not unusual. The town itself is pleasant but can be busy all year around.

As you approach signs for Kingussie exit on the A86 then through the town turning left on the B970 to Ruthven Barracks. If you miss the turn you'll pass this spot on the A9 and marvel at this large ruin standing on a huge earth mound. If you want to visit it, then remember to take that earlier exit at Kingussie!

The Barracks were built on the King's orders after the failed Jacobite rising of 1715 and destroyed by Jacobites after their defeat at Culloden in 1746. The large three story building was constructed on the site of an earlier castle and the ruins are very impressive.

A little further along the A9 you will see signs for Dalwhinnie. You can exit right onto another of General Wade's military roads which predates the modern A9 as a thoroughfare across the Cairngorms. This smaller road will take you into the town of Dalwhinnie and to its famous whisky distillery, the highest distillery in Scotland open to the public. Founded in 1898 you can book a tour with a tasting and learn how this "water of life" is created. 

Back on the A9 you will soon reach the Pass of Drumochter and the highest point on this part of your journey. Just after the summit is reached you will descend into the Pass of Killiekrankie and then take the B8019 to the Queen's View. Upon a visit in 1866 Queen Victoria marvelled at this viewpoint above Loch Tummel and you can do the same, visiting its information and cafe at the same time. The view is indeed absolutely breathtaking. Once you return back to the A9 you can continue a few miles south then take the lefthand exit as the road bends to the right, this will take you into the pleasant town of Pitlochry. A delightful collection of grey stone houses with cafes and pubs along a lengthy main street. Scotland's smallest whisky distillery, Edradour, is located here and is open for public tours.

As the A9 continues southwards another stop can be made at the fine town of Dunkeld with its beautiful cathedral, links to the writer Beatrix Potter who spent holidays here, and the pleasant walks that can be had at The Hermitage which has a large parking area on the right just before the lefthand exit to Dunkeld. Exit right off the A9 and pull into the parking area at The Hermitage and enjoy a series of woodland and waterfall walks then continue into Dunkeld to visit the town, cathedral and River Tay.

Eventually you will end up at the edge of the city of Perth. From here you will join the M90 back towards Edinburgh. Just before you reach the capital you will need to cross the Firth of Forth. Three magnificent bridges cross the water here. Almost certainly you will use the Queensferry Crossing which opened in 2017 at a cost of £1.35 billion. It is a cable-stayed bridge and is used for regular traffic. There is no charge.

Next door is the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge built in 1965 to replace the old car ferry. This structure now carries just public transport, bicycles and taxis. But the most impressive of all is the original Forth Bridge designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and opened in 1890 for railway traffic. This cantilever bridge was one of the world's first major steel structures and still carries trains today.

Once on the south bank of the Forth estuary you will use the A90 to return to Edinburgh.