Navigating the Scottish Highlands by Car

A peek at one of the beautiful Cairngorm Mountains in the Scottish Highlands. Kaelie Piscitello Photos
A peek at Carn an Tuirc, a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. Kaelie Piscitello Photos

The Great Scottish Highland Road Trip

By Kaelie Piscitello

Walking through a cliff on the coastline of Aberdeen.
Walking through a cliff on the coastline of Aberdeen.

The Scottish Highlands are a breed of mountains utterly different from anything I have seen before.

As a New England native, I’m used to hiking through wooded areas where it’s easy to get lost. I have acquired a taste of wildlife that consists of snakes, birds, and the occasional herd of deer or rabbits.

In contrast, farmland comprises most of Scotland and I encountered very few trees there, so in some ways, it felt harder to get lost.

Don’t get me wrong, I still was in the middle of nowhere, but I felt like I could always see my car while hiking, so it was okay.

Despite this, the Highlands feel wilder than the hills at home, and though they stand as beautiful hills, they struck me as not a place not to mess with.

My boyfriend and I decided to plan a two-week road trip from London to Scotland in May. We first stopped in Manchester, where we walked around, enjoyed the food in Chinatown, and relaxed. When I stopped in a coffee shop near my hotel, the barista increased my enthusiasm for the trip by promising, “Scotland is everything they say it is and more.”

Our Jumping Off Point

The beautiful gardens leading to Machar's Cathedral in Seaton Park.
The beautiful gardens leading to Machar’s Cathedral in Seaton Park.

My boyfriend and I decided to stay in Aberdeen as our starting point for the Highlands due to its close location to the Cairngorms.

I spent my first day in Aberdeen exploring the city and relaxing in Seaton Park. Seaton Park contains many interesting touches, including Machar’s Cathedral, a secret garden, and abandoned old homes.

It was a great place to catch up on reading and enjoy a picnic lunch.

The next day, I took a day trip to Stonehaven, the home of Dunnottar Castle.

Aberdeenshire is full of castles, but I decided to go to Dunnottar Castle because of its proximity to my accommodation and its position near the coast.

The tiny town of Stonehaven has many exciting restaurants and shops, and I enjoyed a delicious ice cream sundae from Bucket and Spade.

After my ice cream, I took the 30-minute scenic walking route to Dunnottar Castle from Stonehaven, The path I wandered through stretched out by the ocean, and I ran into many sheep and gorgeous cliff views during my walk.

Dunnottar Castle was a stunning medieval castle located on a cliff separated from the mainland by a set of stairs with fascinating histories about its previous owners. I loved the reclusive feel the ruins emanated and felt like I was truly stepping back in time.

The Scottish Coos and Nessie

Dunnotar Castle
Dunnotar Castle

I always felt drawn to the legend of the Loch Ness monster, so despite the three-hour drive from our hotel, my boyfriend and I decided to pay Nessie a visit.

My boyfriend and I drove through the Cairngorms on the way, and it was one of the prettiest drives I have ever sat through. Purple flowers peppered the rolling hills, and I passed by more kinds of cows than I ever knew existed.

After a few days in the High Lands, I was starting to become confused. All the Scottish tourist information promises fluffy red cows, or “coos,” all over the place; however, I hadn’t seen one.

My boyfriend and I found one small patch of them at the western edge of the Cairngorms before heading into Inverness; however, the famous cows are harder to find than people might think.

The beautiful animals had the promised cute faces and shaggy bangs, but clearly were not as interested in me as I was in them as they kept a safe distance from me.

A view of Loch Ness from one of the surrounding Scottish Highlands.
A view of Loch Ness from one of the surrounding Scottish Highlands.

When I finally arrived at Loch Ness, my boyfriend and I hunted the outer border for a place to explore.

Initially, we thought we would explore some off-the-beaten-path parts of the lake; however, we found it challenging to park in non-visitor spots. So, we ended up at one of the most touristy towns in Loch Ness, Fort Augustus.

The main thing to do in Fort Augustus is take a “Nessie cruise,” and its population of Fort Augustus lingers around 600 people. My boyfriend and I groaned as we endured many puns about “monstrous” parking, hotels, gift shops, and streets throughout the tiny village.

Despite the tourist vibe, my boyfriend and I enjoyed a lovely tea at a coffee shop, complete with scones. My boyfriend and I also explored the loch in our own way as we found a trail leading up a small hill and giving a great view of the southern part.

A rare crop of scottish coos
A rare crop of scottish coos

Loch Ness was much bigger than I expected, and I think if a monster did live there, it wouldn’t sit out on the shore where the other tourists and I were.

If anything, it lives far out in the depths of the loch which is why no one has found it.

A Treacherous Hike in the Cairngorms

On our final day in Aberdeenshire, my boyfriend and I decided to take a day-long hike in the Cairngorms.

We were lucky to have beautiful weather up until then and decided to take a moderately challenging walk up Cairn an Tuirc.

I found the first hour and a half of the hike the most difficult as it all went up a steep incline.

However, once I was at the top, I couldn’t hear anything but my voice. The peace was a surreal and moving experience that instantly made the last two-hour climb worth it.

The first bit of our decline was more manageable than our ascent, and I think the rest of it would have continued to feel that way had it not started downpouring. My boyfriend and I spent the next two hours hiking through beating hail and wind with our feet sloshing in the growing puddles in our “waterproof” hiking boots.

I did manage to make it back to the car safely (it’s hard to get lost when you can see your car from every point of the mountain), but I felt exhausted. My snack was now inedible, and all I could do was hope for the hour-and-a-half drive back to the hotel to feel short.

Despite my adventure, I still had a happy ending to my Scottish adventure in a pub with lots of hot food and hard cider.

The view from the top of one of the Cairngorms i climbed.
The view from the top of one of the Cairngorms i climbed.
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