After more than three months in lockdown, Scotland finally lifted their five mile travel limit at the beginning of July.
Naturally, the first day we could go out, we went straight out to nature, and subsequently spent four weekends in a row roaring our way around some of Scotland’s hidden gems and underrated sites.
If I’ve learned anything over the past few months, it’s that we should never take our freedom for granted. For most of this year, I have had no idea when I’ll even next be allowed to see my parents again, and indeed when I would be able to go anywhere in this beautiful country (the less said about going abroad, the better!).
So as soon as restrictions were lifted, with hardly any deaths in Scotland in June so we genuinely felt safe going out (unlike England, which lifted restrictions while they still had 500 deaths a day, but I digress), we immediately started making plans.
Weekend #1 – the Trossachs
The first weekend, the day after restrictions were lifted, we just decided to go to a drive and see where we’d end up. I wanted to head somewhere that wouldn’t be too busy, and we thought that while many people would be flocking to Loch Lomond on the first weekend of freeeeeeedom, the Trossachs (which are part of the same national park) would be a safer bet for getting away from the crowds.
In actual fact, I was pretty shocked by just HOW quiet it was!
Though that may have partly been because it was raining.
Me? I was so happy to get out that I didn’t even care about the rain!
We headed up past Stirling, through the pretty town of Callendar with a quick pit stop where we realised we would need to pay for parking with coins which we didn’t have, and made our way into the national park to hit up some lochs. (One day we will stop in Callendar because it looks gorgeous!)
We took a detour to Killin to check out the Falls Of Dochart – while they’re not your classic tall waterfall, they were raging rapids in the rain, and Killin itself was rather picturesque.
We could have continued along Loch Tay, but instead we opted for an easier route back to Edinburgh, so we turned back and drove along the length of Loch Earn – where the sun decided to come out!
It ended up being a long old drive but it just felt great to be back out – and even better, explore a few places I’d never been before!
Weekend #2 – the Black Isle and the Cairngorms
This was probably our busiest weekend – we drove up to Nairn, a small town near Inverness, after work on the Friday to stay in my parents’ holiday home. In the end, we barely spent any time actually in Nairn, because on Saturday, we headed up to the Black Isle for the day.
The Black Isle is not actually an island – more a peninsula jutting out north of the Inverness bridge. I’ve driven across the edge of it countless times on journeys to and from Orkney, but this was the first time I’d ever come off the road to explore what the Black Isle actually has to offer.
Our main stop was Rosemarkie, featuring one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins – Chanonry Point. The drive to the point is quite fun – you drive through the middle of a golf course!
And then, disaster: there were no spaces in the car park at the point. Except one, which was blocked off by a massive great motorhome that literally stretched out across the entire width of the car park. We somehow managed to reverse into the space, avoiding the motorhome by inches, but I don’t think they were very impressed that we had blocked their way out!
After a quick jaunt to the point and no dolphins in sight, I realised I’d left my mask in the car and we headed back to pick it up. The motorhome was very apprehensively doing a 240-point turn trying to get out without hitting our car. To be honest, I had no sympathy considering the sign clearly stated no vehicles above about half of their length – and common sense, of which they clearly had none, dictates that this was NOT a suitable place for them to park – but I was slightly worried that our car would be destroyed in the process.
I won’t get into a massive rant about campervans in this post, but Scotland has been having a LOT of issues with them in the past month, and not even just in places where the infrastructure can’t cope with them. It’s really not hard to be respectful, and there are plenty of good campervan users that have good etiquette so I have zero issues with them as a whole (plus I’m not gonna lie, I love #vanlife).
Anyway, if you do visit Rosemarkie in an oversized campervan, there is parking in the village itself and as we were about to find out, the point is a very pleasant walk away from the village.
The walk took us just over half an hour along the gorgeous stretch of beach, and by the time we got to the village, we were quite ready to eat. At this point, no restaurants or tourist attractions were open yet, but takeaway shops and outdoor establishments were.
Rather than eating at the popular Beach Cafe, which at that point was only serving pastries and cakes, we opted for a more substantial offering at nearby Crofters. After all, this is the first meal we’d had outside of our house since February! So we decided to go all out and went for fish & chips (I treated myself to scampi!).
It was well laid out with enough space for everyone to walk between tables without getting too close, hand sanitiser by the “entrance”, and of course obligatory seagulls trying to steal our chips.
It was so nice to be out again, almost feeling normal!
As we walked back to the point (I took many, many photos of bees!) we could see a much larger crowd of people there than there had been before. And suddenly – movement in the water!
We were too far away at this point to really see the dolphins, but we started running to get there! As we got closer, my heart sank because the two dolphins we could see were moving further and further away.
But then we looked over the other side of the point – and there was another whole pod!
Anyway, this is a reminder that I need a zoom lens for my camera, because my photos are lacking. But of course photos aren’t everything and I really enjoyed watching them splash around in the water, playing and leaping for their audience!
After our excitement watching the dolphins, we decided to drive to the end of the Black Isle, hitting up the last town of Cromarty. Cromarty seemed surprisingly nice, but we didn’t really stop there for a defining visit.
We had passed an incredible field of flowers on the way though, and of course I had to stop off for photos on the way back!
I had no idea what they were, but apparently they’re phacelia (or blue/purple tansy). Absolutely gorgeous with that backdrop, especially!
We headed back south the next day, and normally when we’re driving south from Inverness, we drive straight down the A9 on the direct route to Edinburgh. This time, we had no commitments and no time restraints – and so we had decided to drive down the “other” side of the Cairngorms national park, which meant traversing a tumultuous mountain road.
First up, though, I wanted to take a detour to Aviemore and visit Loch Morlich, which I had never even heard of until the past couple of years – yet it’s right there! (Sort of.)
We got there just in time for lunch, and we’d packed a picnic to enjoy with the view.
Nestled amongst the mountains of the Cairngorms, Loch Morlich boasts the highest beach in the UK, and although there’s a larger beach at the end of the loch, it was pretty packed and we were quite happy with this smaller one.
But Aviemore is in the wrong direction for the route we were taking, so after sitting around long enough to actually get sun burned (!), we took off back the way we came to drive down the other side of the national park.
I’m not exaggerating – but the drive is insane!
One minute, it feels like you’re saying goodbye to the mountains, and suddenly…
BAM! You’re amongst them.
This is a really fun drive, and definitely one that you need to dedicate some time to because it’s not one you can whizz through. Ash is still a learner driver and he chose to take the wheel today, and well, he had a few panic moments! I thought it was brilliant though.
That said, I am not surprised in the slightest that we saw more motorbikes than cars. There are even loads of signs for motorbikes everywhere. This would be a motorcyclist’s dream.
We decided to stop off at Balmoral Castle, although it wasn’t open to the public yet. But as we walked up to the gates, two people (tourists) were coming out and they opened the gate from the inside.
And so we walked in.
And quickly realised that we, er, weren’t supposed to be there. This is the Queen’s holiday home in Scotland, and while it was clear from the lack of guards that she wasn’t in, it was also clear that the gate had been locked for a reason. We were the only people there.
Anyway, I took some nice photos while Ash hid in the trees – he was convinced the army were going to come out and arrest us LOL – and we swiftly took our leave.
We also made a quick stop in Braemar to have a look around, and discovered a charming little village that we immediately resolved to come back to.
(Not pictured: there were also bikers everywhere.)
From Braemar, it was more stunning scenery, including a place we decided we really needed to come back to and camp at some point. (Spoiler: that was last weekend’s adventure!)
I have to admit, the entire drive was absolutely stunning but by the end of the miles of winding mountain roads, I was feeling pretty sick! I’m not in a hurry to do it again, but it’s totally worth doing if you have time to fit it into a trip! Altogether, I think it took us around 5 hours including stops. Not a short afternoon, that’s for sure.
Anyway, it was a brilliant weekend but I’ll tell you what – after months of doing virtually nothing, I was absolutely knackered!
Weekend #3 – coastal villages in Fife
After a whistle stop in the adorable town of Culross earlier this year, we decided we really needed to see more of Fife.
We ended up leaving quite late in the day (around lunchtime) so we decided to skip Culross, which is to the left of the Forth Bridge, and come off to the right to head along Fife’s famed coast towards St Andrews (side note: we went to St Andrews last year and LOVED it, but we didn’t make it there on this trip).
Our first stop was almost Aberdour, a gorgeous little village that seemed to ooze character the second our car passed the welcome sign. Unfortunately, I think it probably is a very gorgeous village.
Because it was packed.
We gave up trying to find a parking space, spotted another car park on the way out, presumably for the beach, and promptly turned around again when we saw that the OVERFLOW for the car park was a full field of several hundred cars. Even if we could park, it was not going to be an enjoyable experience, and I refuse to jostle amongst hundreds of people in a pandemic.
So, Aberdour is on the “next time” list.
Instead, our first stop was Burntisland, which is more of a town than a village, but it’s set on a cute little beach and there’s a nice short walk you can do to look out across the Firth to Edinburgh.
It kept threatening to rain, but it held off as we drove towards our next villages.
Next was my favourite village of all!
St Monans! Like Culross, St Monans is really colourful (in fact, I’d wager more colourful) and I absolutely loved wandering around and finding new buildings to take photos of.
Next up was nearby Pittenweem, which was equally colourful but a bit more of a bustling port village. Lots of fishermen were heading out on their boats to catch shrimp just as we pulled up. We even spotted a seal in the harbour!
One thing I was interested in seeing in Pittenweem was St Fillan’s Cave – you can go to a nearby shop to get a key, but as the day was getting on, we figured the shop was probably shut.
We did go up to it and peer inside though. I thought it was going to be a cave by the sea – but it’s actually right in the middle of the town, just in an alley!
A really God damn pictuesque alley, obviously, seeing as all these Fife villages are apparently so cute that you just wanna pick them up and put them in your pocket.
We did take a wander along the harbour front, and I had to treat myself to an ice cream, even though we were having dinner in the next town!
I mean, how can you not when the shop front is this cute?
Anyway, it was on to Anstruther, and Ash’s most anticipated stop of the day.
You see, Anstruther is rather well known in these parts of Scotland, because there’s a fish and chip shop that wins every single award in the UK. Award-winning fish & chip shops are all over Scotland – but this one? Anstruther Fish Bar seems to pack a punch above the rest of those.
And so, of course, there was a queue all the way up the alley next to the shop. And then all the way up the road behind that. With social distancing, we figured the queue probably looked worse than it was, and when we eventually found the back of it, people were saying it would be about an hour. For most places, I would not wait an hour. For a place that consistently wins awards? Yeah, just this once, why not?
The couple in front of us had driven all the way from Edinburgh (an hour and a half’s drive) just for the chippy. Nobody was complaining about the queue because they all knew it was worth it. That’s when you know it’s gonna be good.
Anyway, we ended up being in that damn queue for OVER TWO EFFING HOURS. Even with only serving one group at a time, I don’t understand how it took that long. We heard one of the girls serving telling someone than pre-Covid times, they’ve been known to have three hour queues. THREE. HOURS. For fish and chips!
So was it good? I’m gonna say the chips aren’t the best I’ve ever had. But the fish? I don’t normally even get fish & chips but this was DELICIOUS! They use a secret recipe for the batter, and I don’t know what they do to it to make it as crispy as it is. Soggy batter? Not from these guys! Just crisp, crisp, crisp.
Was it worth the two hour wait? Oh God, I don’t know. It was really, really good but I’m a little traumatised from queuing for that long.
We were absolutely knackered by the end of the day, but it had been a really good one! In fact, I’m going to be writing a separate post about these villages because they are fantastic to explore and well worth a visit!
(Obviously I have about 50 photos of St Monans too – I didn’t even mention the WELLY BOOT GARDEN that I found, as if it could get any MORE adorable – so apart from anything else they need a home on here somewhere. And also you guys REALLY need to see Culross.)
Weekend #4 – camping and castles in Aberdeenshire
We’ve been jonesing for a camping trip for ages.
We were planning to go to the west coast somewhere, but the weather was looking pretty terrible, so with a quick weather check elsewhere, we decided to go back to that lovely spot we saw by Braemar (weekend #2)!
Once again, the drive absolutely blew me away, although from this direction, I was thankful that we didn’t have to do too much of it before arriving at our wonderful weekend spot.
I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this little part of Scotland.
In the morning, we headed into Braemar and decided we would treat ourselves to breakfast at Gordon’s Tearoom – our first indoor meal since things had opened again!
Plus, while we could have had a proper camping breakfast, it felt good to be supporting a small business that has been suffering over the past few months. The café was actually full, and bikers (of course) kept coming in to order coffees and cakes.
It was the first time since this all started that I felt like things were normal. The only difference was that staff were wearing masks, and we had to give them our name and number. Big bloody deal, right? I can’t believe people are making a fuss over this stuff.
Instead of driving back through the mountains, we decided to head east through Ballater (another very pretty town!) to some of Aberdeenshire’s best castles.
We stopped off at Disney-like Craigievar a few months ago, just as it was getting dark, and I got some lovely sunset shots of it in the snow. This time, we caught it in the sun which meant the colours of the castle popped in a way they didn’t quite last time. And with a castle like this, you WANT to see the colour!
Many National Trust properties aren’t actually open yet, and although the car park was open with a sign telling us to enjoy the grounds for free while the castle was closed, there was a big barrier across the driveway into the castle. So first of all, we winded our way around to take some shots through the trees, but it soon became obvious that the barrier was there to stop cars driving up to it; not people!
So I’m really glad that we got to see it up close – my favourite castle? Definitely one of!
We missed Fraser Castle last time, and I didn’t realise just how close it is to Craigievar, so I wasn’t about to make that mistake this time!
I know the photo doesn’t look it – but Fraser Castle was WAY busier than Craigievar! The car park was almost full and the tea room in the courtyard was packed with families. Yet from this side (arguably the much more photogenic side)? Crickets.
And what a beautiful castle it is! This is one I’d like to see on the inside once it’s back open, too.
From here, we had a couple of different options, and I decided to look to see just how out of the way it would be to hit up another famous castle that I’ve been meaning to visit for years.
Turns out, it was actually the quickest route to drive over to the coast and back down the main road!
And so it was the perfect excuse to visit Dunnottar Castle, one of Scotland’s most iconic castle and severely overlooked by me.
Out of the three, this was by FAR the busiest, and it took a while to get photos without crowds (it also took a while to get parked). It was a sweltering day, so not too surprising that everyone was flocking to beautiful places on the coast.
Again, I’ll be writing more about our Aberdeenshire adventure, so there are plenty more photos to come!
This weekend, we have done absolutely nothing.
And I know we did absolutely nothing for months on end, but it really has felt quite nice after four crazy weekends in a row.
And, because we’ve been doing nothing, that means I’ve planned a rather big adventure for next weekend! I’ll give you a clue: I thought a day trip to an island would be nice and relaxing. Anyway, I started researching what we could do there, and naturally I’ve gone ahead and booked a jam-packed trip to four islands instead. Ash shook his head in exasperation.
(Curious? Check out my social media!)
How have you guys been doing? How are things looking where you are? Have you been managing to explore locally over the past few weeks?