I live with my family in Edinburgh and in the years when we can afford a summer holiday we usually leave Scotland and head towards warmer climes, which is a real shame! This year myself, my husband and our two daughters (aged 2 and 11) took a 16 day road trip around this amazing country, we drove just shy of 2000 miles. We were nervous about the trip, the confines of driving can make things quite intense, our youngest daughter gets car sick and some of the places we chose to go to were pretty remote.
It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.
I am so grateful to have spent this time with my family exploring the incredible country that we live in. It wasn't cheap, there were points where we almost murdered each other and in typical Scottish summer fashion, it rained a bunch. It was entirely worth it. I wrote a rough guide to surviving a long road trip with kids. You can read it here.
Out first port of call was Glenelg. Not only the sole UK place name to be a palindrome but it's also twinned with Glenelg on Mars. Nerd heaven.
We arrived in the evening after a 5.5 hour drive from Edinburgh (not including breaks). We were all still getting used to the road trip vibes and were quite stressed and very tired. We made the mistake of not having any food with us. The nearest Supermarket to Glenelg is actually on Skye and an hour's drive away. The local stores closed really early (be warned this happens a lot in rural and remote places!) and we finally found a store in Balmacara which was pretty decent and had one of the most extensive health food and 'free from' sections I've ever seen outside of a city!
Armed with a night's worth of snacks we made our way through Ratagan to our cottage which was in the glen. It was misty so visibility was very poor but we made a mental note to drive back this way the next day to take in the views we figured we were missing.
The next day we woke to sun and clear skies and we set out to explore. The area around Glenelg is packed with things to do and see. Personally, I love a good Broch and Glenelg has two in close proximity to one another. The first (and largest) Dun Telve stands 10 metres high and we absolutely loved exploring it plus it's in an incredibly beautiful and lush area. Loads of midges though!
On the way back from the brochs towards Glenelg village, if you look carefully on your left hand side, you will see or hear a waterfall. It's pretty gorgeous but there is no clear path and we did not come equipped to walk the short but squelchy distance (20 minutes) over the river and fields. You'll need wellies and a hiking backpack for little ones but it would be well worth it.
In the adorable Glenelg village there is a very cute shop. It's basic but will do for essentials. We were hungry so ate at The Glenelg Inn which was fantastic! Super friendly staff, welcoming to kids, really lovely surroundings and very reasonably priced and delicious food. Highly, highly recommend to all. A wee gem of a place.
Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach and looked over to Skye, which you could easily mistake for another part of the mainland, it's so close!
Afterwards we drove up towards Ratagan again to see the views and we were not disappointed. There is a viewpoint with loads of parking that looks out over The Five Sisters. Go see it! This image does not do it justice, the scale is almost totally lost here and it is a vast landscape.
We were planning to drive to Skye the next day but we heard about the Kylerhea Ferry that leaves from just outside Glenelg. It takes about 3 minutes to do the crossing.
Once you're on Skye the road leads uphill immediately. The views from the top are panoramic and the journey into the interior really gives you a sense of what to expect from Skye. I think the Kylerhea Ferry is an amazing way to travel to Skye, especially for first time visitors. Although not cheap at £15 for a car with 4 passengers, it's so convenient and so pretty that I would recommend it to anyone. They also have an amazing ferry dog and who doesn't want to hang out with a legit ferry dog at least once in their life?
We had a few hours on Skye before we caught our ferry to Harris. We have been to Skye before so didn't feel immense pressure to do mad exploring. We took a leisurely drive up to Broadford where there is a Co-op Supermarket that stocks everything you could need. We did a grocery shop there as we were arriving in Harris late and didn't know what the food situation would be. We were already learning the ways of rural life.
We then headed to The Quiraing which is a must visit if you are in Skye. We stopped there for a picnic lunch as the weather was gorgeous and enjoyed 100% visibility views over the Island. We then walked part of the hiking trail and it was amazing. The toddler hiking backpack had been left in the car so we couldn't complete the trail as it got quite steep. We did manage 2/3 of it no problem with a 2 year old walking alongside us.
You can drive over the Quiraing to Uig in 20 minutes. It's a stunning shortcut and we arrived in plenty of time so we headed to the top of the island to look out over The Outer Hebrides where we were going for the very first time. travelling with your family is great any time but going somewhere for the first time together is really special.
The ferry crossing was beautiful, we had calm seas and clear views and the hour and a half flew by. It cost £45 for the four of us plus the car which I think is pretty reasonable.
We arrived in Tarbert in Harris which is a tiny place with a couple of small shops (that were closed) and an amazing distillery. I cannot tell you how delicious Harris Gin is and if there exists a more beautiful bottle, let me know.
Our Airbnb was in Lewis so we drove the 40 minutes from Tarbert to Achmore. Something that surprised me, probably out of ignorance and a little bit because I grew up dealing with shitty roads, is how good the roads are on the islands. Easy driving if you can handle passing places.
Achmore is the only inland settlement in Harris and Lewis and I wasn't sure what to expect. Lewis is a very rocky place, no trees or greenery to speak of really and it looks quite lunar, certainly otherworldly. The view from our cottage was incredible and changed all the time. The light, the clouds, the mist made it look different from hour to hour. Again, the scale in this image is not representative at all. Those hills are huge and the vista is vast but you can see the lunar-esque attributes of the land. It's completely quiet (hurt your ears quiet) and unbelievably relaxing to stare out over this place.
I was photographing a wedding in Harris so we had planned a week on the islands. The first day we were surprised by 20 degree heat and clear blue skies. Achmore is very close to The Callanish Stones so we headed there first. Another famous site that lived up to the hype completely. The history alone is enough to draw you in and the stones themselves are intriguing. They are made of Lewisian Gneiss which is one of the oldest forms of rock in the world (around 3.5 billion years old) and they are huge. We were lucky to be there at a relatively quiet time so got to enjoy these monoliths as they should be.
After Callanish we headed to find a beach. We had heard about the amazing beaches in the south of Harris (Luskentyre, Scarista) but not so much about the beaches of Lewis. We drove to the island of Great Bernera and to Bosta beach. This whole area is one of my favourite places that we saw on our travels. It's beautiful, pristine and remote. As we approached Bosta we didn't quite know what to expect but when we were greeted by fine white sand, crystalline turquoise water and a sheltered bay we knew we had hit the jackpot.
As if this paradise was not enough of a gift, as soon as we sat down a Golden Eagle flew over us. What a day!
After Bosta, we drove to Stornoway which is the largest town on the islands and has everything you need including a large supermarket. I am glad we stayed near Stornoway. There is a lot of driving required on a trip to the Outer Hebrides so it was nice to be able to get what we needed without it being a mission every time. The transition from the convenience of city living to the challenges of rural life was not complete yet. You know when you're standing in a supermarket saying 'How can they not have ground cloves?' over and over again, that the city has made you soft.
So far the trip was going really well. Everything had gone smoothly, we were all getting along pretty well and pretty much every day had been sunny and warm. I felt suspicious.
The next day when we woke to mist, horizontal rain, howling wind and grumpy family members (myself included) my suspicions withdrew. This was the summer holiday in Scotland that I had imagined. We bundled grumpy kids into the car and drove to the far south of Harris hoping we could outrun the rain. Nope. We could barely see in front of us but we enjoyed the vague impression of turquoise water and white sand.
We all donned our waterproofs and headed out onto the famous Luskentyre Beach. This is one of the most important parts of holidaying in Scotland. Prepare for all weather. Don't let rain (because it's going to rain) make you miss out on things. Get out there anyway.
For me this was one of my favourite experiences of our holiday. We were basically alone on the huge and beautiful beach. It looked like something from another planet, all sort of one colour, mist shifting over the sand and water. It was slightly hallucinogenic. I imagine the salt plains in Bolivia to look a bit like this.
We all came back to the car invigorated and we ended that day absolutely knackered but in the best possible way. I wish I felt like that at the end of every day.
The next day was the wedding I was photographing which was at the absolutely wonderful Scarista House. I couldn't be more in love with a hotel. The location is incredible, the staff are amazing and the food is the best. It's humble when it doesn't need to be. If you are in Harris you must go here! I couldn't have been given a more beautiful setting to photograph a wedding and I enjoyed every minute of working that day.
The drive back home that night was fantastic. Huge and dramatic skies. That's another thing I'd forgotten. It doesn't get dark overnight this far north during the summer and it's amazing to be out at midnight with the sun still low in the sky.
On one of our last days in the Outer Hebrides we decided to go to The Uists. We got the ferry from Leverburgh to Lochmaddy It was £30 for us all and the journey was an easy hour and we saw many amazing sea birds and seals. Also, have you ever seen a Puffin fly? If not, remedy that ASAP.
We had only 5 hours in The Uists and I wish it had been a hundred times that. The history is fascinating and it's absolutely stunning. There is a lot to see and a lot to do and we managed so little of it. Mostly we drove around stopping to look at things and to walk around. The time flew and we were genuinely really sad to travel back to Harris. We will be back Uist!
The ferry back to Harris was beautiful as the evening sun changed the landscape. We drove past Luskentrye again on our way to Lewis and we couldn't believe how different it looked. Behind all of that mist had been hills upon hills and crayola turquoise water. We stopped for a couple of hours and we all appreciated how lucky we were to be there in that moment. It's one of the most peaceful feelings I've ever had. I'll never forget it.
On our last day in Lewis we drove to The Butt of Lewis. Cue an hour of butt jokes in the car. By the adults.
The geology in Lewis is fascinating. My husband and I really enjoy learning about it and we heard the cliffs and stacks at The Butt of Lewis were really special. Lewisian Gneiss is one of the oldest forms of rock, around 3.5 billion years old and Lewis is almost entirely made from this rock type.
Nearby at Eoropaidh is the best play park I have ever seen. It's built into the dunes and has everything and for every age, adults included. It smells of the sea and wildflowers (it's surrounded by the machair) and we loved it there. Highly recommend a trip with kids. But 'Please respect the Sabbath' as a sign on the park gate says.
The next day we left for the mainland again, heading towards where I grew up!
Read about exploring Sutherland, Caithness and Assynt in Part 2!