This post may contain affiliate links and we may earn compensation when you click on the links at no additional cost to you.
Scotland’s national animal is a unicorn! Wouldn’t you want to visit a country that has unicorn statues abounding and has a unicorn on its coat of arms? Scotland has been associated with a unicorn since the 1300’s. A unicorn stood for purity, nobility, and masculinity and was the natural enemy of the lion (the symbol of England). Super cool!
We had 8 days to spend in Scotland, and I was told by every visitors guide that 8 days would never be enough to see more than Edinburgh and Glasgow. But, knowing that my kids are good travelers in the car, we set out to defy that advice, and boy am I glad we did. While Edinburgh is truly a city full of things to do, the highlands were the highlight of the trip for all of us.
We flew into Glasgow, spent the night in Oran, drove to Skye and spent the night there. From there, we drove to Aberdeen and stayed for 3 days, and then to Edinburgh. We picked up my brother who was studying in Aberdeen and took him along with us for the rest of the trip. (so if you wonder who the hairy guy is in the pictures, you will know). Keep reading to see how we were able to see Scotland in a week! (scroll to the end of the post to see the travel route we took)
If you don’t know the song Loch Lomond you can listen to it here. This traditional Scottish song is about the largest loch (or lake) in Scotland. We visited the very pretty town of Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond. As we rambled around the thatched village homes and down tiny lanes I looked out over the loch and thought of the lyrics to the well-known song and thought, “no wonder someone would write a song about this beautiful view.”
The awe inspiring valleys and mountains of Glencoe are a must do in my book. The views are overwhelingly majestic. I honestly don’t know enough good adjectives to do Glencoe justice. I will simply say, if I had to make a top 10 list of most spectacular views, Glencoe would be on that list.
Drive through or stop for a while and hike. You won’t be disappointed.
Plan on 1 hour to drive through, stopping at scenic overlooks or longer if you want to hike.
Isle of Skye
Skye was a highlight of our trip, and one that if we had a do over would give more time to. This island in the highlands is reached by ferry from the south or bridge from the east. The entire island is full of hidden and often deserted crags, valleys, and mountains.
Be on the lookout for highland cattle. They are so cute and furry.
Conical hills, spiral rock formations and upended trees will make you believe you really are in the land of fairies. Truly, this is one of the most amazing places any of us have ever been. The kids ran around a scrambled up hills for two hours and we only left because it was getting dark. Sheep dotted the steep hills and they were our only company while we visited. (Probably because it was March.) This is a great place for smaller kids to hike, as nothing is too strenuous.
Plan on an hour or two.
Old Man of Storrs-
If you love to hike and enjoy stunning vistas, this is for you. The rock formations at the top of this hike are the reason to make it to the top, but the scenery is beautiful enough to warrant a shorter hike. Be aware, the sign at the bottom shows the hike to only be a little over a kilometer, and after hiking for over a mile, I was nowhere near the top.
There is a parking lot at the bottom and good directions.
Plan 1-3 hours
Eilean Donan Castle-
Although this enchanting castle is not technically on the Isle of Skye it is just over the bridge in Kyle of Localsh. If you have been dreaming of Scotland and looking at travel photos, odds are, you have seen this castle. It is surrounded by 3 lochs with a long bridge connecting the mainland to the castle and makes for one of most beautiful scenes you will ever see.
In addition to being beautiful, Eilean Donan castle played a major role in the Jacobite uprising of the 1700’s. The tour is a great way to cement Scottish history in your mind. Your kids will love the foot bridge and running up and down the old stone steps inside the castle.
Plan on 1-2 hours.
We had trouble finding some of the things we wanted to see on Skye as there is not always great signage. Our GPS helped with some of it, but our cell service was spotty and so it wasn’t enough. If there is something you are dying to see, screenshot the directions before you go!
This meal was our favorite meal of the trip, and we ate here due to sheer laziness. We happened to be staying at the Uig hotel and were too tired to venture out for dinner. We got really lucky!
The thing we still talk about eating here was the cheese sampler platter. We tried local cheeses that were so different from anything we have tried before. My favorite was a lightly smoked cheddar that tasted like apples. I also highly recommend the smoked fish or the seafood pasta. We ended our meal with sticky toffee pudding and had to be rolled back to our room.
Aberdeen was a special stop for us because we got to meet up with my brother! He showed us around the University of Aberdeen (very charming) and took us on a walking tour of this city. Aberdeen is gray, and I am sure on a beautiful summer day is very beautiful, but in the drizzle and wind it felt to be made of its surroundings. On our second day there, my youngest son asked, “Could they paint at least one house yellow?” The story goes that Aberdeen was built from local granite that had a high concentration of mica. The result was to be stone that glittered in the sun. The problem is, Aberdeen is built in the highlands of Scotland. A region that gets 250 rainy days in a year.
Don’t let me turn you off! Aberdeen still has tons to offer including:
Botanical gardens at Duthie Park:
This indoor oasis is surrounded by the large grounds of Duthie Park. We saw lots of families on playgrounds, walking dogs, and generally enjoying the cold bracing winds of March. We opted for the warm humid interior that was jam packed with flowers, cacti, and plants from all over the world. It was truly beautiful, and I am a garden aficionado.
University of Aberdeen-
The historic part of the University of Aberdeen is called King’s College. It was founded in 1495 and incorporated into the University of Aberdeen much later. The campus is very walkable, and I would advise doing just that. Cobblestone streets and tiny alleyways make for a charming walk around. Make sure to peek into the chapel to look at the beautiful stained glass and let your kids pretend they are in a Harry Potter book. Your kids will love the unicorn statue in the courtyard.
Aberdeen has pubs on every corner, which is not that unusual for Scotland. What is unusual is that we went to a few of them. Being non-drinkers, pubs don’t hold a lot of appeal, but my brother promised us good food so we happily went to Old Blackfriars pub. My fish and chips were delicious, and the steak and guiness pie my husband had made me jealous. My little guy didn’t understand why we would take him to a bar. He kept saying, “There are probably drunkards here. I don’t know why you brought me here!” No matter how many times we told him that pubs were restaurants in most parts of the world he kept his incredulousness.
Tip -Be aware that most pubs don’t allow kids past 9pm. We ran into trouble one night, and it made it hard to find somewhere to eat.
Shopping in Aberdeen is a charming and easy experience. I decided I needed to actually buy a rain coat even though we had encountered no rain. I thought surely Scotland has millions of raincoats. We had many choices of shops in Aberdeen’s Union Square Mall. This is a very modern mall with lots of restaurant choices and a movie theater. I found a great rain coat plus way more things than I needed.
This was the castle I was waiting to see. I had looked at pictures, watched a drone video, and read all about Dunnator. We pulled up to visit it…. and it was closed for high winds! It was probably the biggest disappointment of the trip for me. Dunnator is an outdoor attraction as it is a castle in ruins on a cliff surrounded by the North Sea. A footbridge allows for visitors but apparently not in high winds.
If you go, take some good pictures and send me one will you?
In addition to Old Blackfriars pub, I would be remiss to not mention
The Bay Fish & Chips in Stonehaven-
The line for this place was out the door even at 2 pm. That always bodes well for any restaurant you want to try. Inside there is a very narrow place for a line where you order and walk down the line to pay. The smell of fresh fish greets you when you enter, and the line moves quickly and efficiently. I recommend the haddock and chips with tartar sauce. I was grateful that they also offered baked haddock for my son with celiac disease.
There is no room to eat inside but plenty of spots outside along the beach. The day we were there the wind was making waves crash over the cars in the parking lot, so we opted to eat in our car.
The story of the Loch Ness monster really captured my imagination as a child. I was completely convinced that he was real and as an adult, I’m half convinced. We couldn’t visit Scotland without at least a drive by this mythical lake. We decided to look for the Loch Ness monster at Urquhart castle. One of the most frustrating parts of a trip to Scotland in March, is so many castles are closed. Urquhart was undergoing some structural changes to their bridge and so it was closed as well. The visitors center was open, so we watched a movie about this castle on the banks of Loch Ness. We scanned the lake for about half an hour and then continued our drive. I’m sad to report that no sightings of the Loch Ness monster occurred.
Plan on 1-2 hours to visit Urquaht castle, or 10-30 minutes to look for the monster.
When I told people I was visiting Scotland, this was the recommendation I got over and over again. Seeing how so many castles we wanted to visit were closed, this became a priority to us. Stirling castle is arguably the most famous castle in Scotland and it was one of the most often used royal residences of the 15th and 16th centuries. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here and legends have connected it with King Arthur.
However, the story of the castle is that of James IV, James V and James VI of Scotland. They were responsible for most of the structures that remain today. Your tour will focus on them and give you a lot of historical information about their heydey in Stirling.
Stirling castle makes use of natural defenses by being built on a large crag. To get to Stirling you will drive up some pretty steep hills for quite a long time. There were a few times I thought our little rental car wouldn’t make it.
This castle has been lovingly restored and more restoration is under way. The most beautifully done part is the Great Hall. The intricate roof was reproduced and replaced and is a sight to behold. I also enjoyed the Chapel Royal, a church that was rebuilt to christen James VI son Henry. They are still restoring paintings from the walls at this time.
The tour guide we had here was excellent! I mean truly excellent! She spoke clearly, answered lots of questions, and truly made the tour a pleasureable learning experience.
Before you go:
Learn some history
If you are like me you knew about Mary Queen of Scots, you knew Scotland fought a lot with England, and knew not much else. Due to the historical nature of so many attractions, you will want to be in the know.
I highly recommend this one for adults and older teens. We read it aloud and even my younger ones were interested.
Rent an automatic car
For many of you, you will be driving on the opposite side of the road. Scotland has small lanes and generally no shoulder. Most rental cars we found were stick shift, and so we decided that wouldn’t be a problem as both my husband and I drive a stick. However, shifting gears is backwards too. We stalled so many times! Do yourself a favor, rent an automatic transmission.
Do you love Scottish Castles? Go in the spring!
Apparently all but the largest castles are closed in the winter. I can’t tell you how many times a website would say a castle was open and we would get there and it would be closed until April. We still managed to see plenty, but my husband is castle crazy and was super disappointed any time we couldn’t get into one.
Go in March or April if you don’t like crowds
We loved having the Isle of Skye almost to ourselves. Our hotels and Airbnb’s were a fraction of the cost that they were in May. Yes, it was a little windy and a little bit less green, but we relished in our aloneness. We were the only car at multiple stops in Glencoe. We truly felt like we were in a land of Giants and we were the only people who existed. In Fairy Glen we were the only people the entire time we were there. We had the whole place to run around, sing, and enjoy the landscape.
We began our route by flying into Glasgow. We stayed near Glasgow that night and then drove the next day and visited Loch Lomond, Luss, and Glencoe and then stayed the night in Oban. The next day we drove through Fort William on our way to the Isle of Skye. We spent most of that day exploring the Isle of Skye and as I mentioned I would have loved to have stayed another day there. We stayed the night in Uig on the Isle of Skye. The next day we visited Eileen Donan, Loch Ness, and Aberdeen. We stayed the next 2 nights in Aberdeen visiting the University, my brother, the botanical gardens,Dunnator and Stonehaven. The last 2 nights we stayed outside of Edinburgh and visited Stirling Castle, and all the Edinburgh attractions mentioned in my Edinburgh post.
Look for Edinburgh attractions in part 2
Like this article? Pin it for later!