Fierce Beauty: Visiting Scotland, By Way of Iceland

visiting scotland

Admittedly, visiting Scotland had been a dream of mine since high school when I watched a re-run of the 1954 Gene Kelly movie, Brigadoon. I loved the Scottish accent, the plaids, and the craggy, rugged beauty of the land. My interest was further piqued by Chariots of Fire, Braveheart, and, of course, Diana Gabaldon’s addicting books (and now television) series, Outlander. And, while we were spending the time and money to go all the way to Scotland, why not stop off in Iceland for a wee visit?

My husband, ever-accommodating when it comes to a travel adventure, was all in. He was able to find flights from Washington, D.C., to Reykjavík, Iceland, then on to Edinburgh, Scotland (returning in reverse order) for much the same price as flying straight to Edinburgh. Even though July is the peak tourist season in both countries, we decided dealing with crowds while visiting Scotland would be worth warmer, less rainy weather.

Planning the Trip

When we plan a trip abroad, we do a lot of research by consulting various guidebooks such as Rick Steves and The Lonely Planet, the internet, and people we know who’ve been there. Fortunately, a friend of mine from Colorado who is a native Scot and who now lives back in Scotland on a farm not far from Dundee, proved to be an invaluable resource and wonderful hostess.

Having traveled to Europe a half a dozen times or more, I guarantee that a solid itinerary with room for flexibility is the absolute best way to get the most out of your vacation, especially if you’re traveling with people who have different personalities. I like a detailed plan, my husband is more spontaneous, but the three most important things to remember are book a place to stay in advance, know your transportation options, and prioritize your activities. By planning at least these basic components, you reduce stress and satisfy that Type A personality.

Visiting Iceland

The Golden Circle

Let me just say that thirteen days is not nearly enough time for even one of these countries, let alone two. But, the trip was invigorating and relaxing at the same time. We arrived at the Keflavik airport in Iceland about 7:00 in the morning ready to drive our rental car counter-clockwise along the Golden Circle, a popular tourist excursion that includes four major stops of geological and historical interest.

Driving the route can take anywhere from three to four hours if only stopping for a short period of time to visit each sight. There are several tour companies that offer excursions to the various attractions along the Golden Circle, but we wanted to drive ourselves so that we could spend as much or as little time at each as we liked. We thought, erroneously, that we would make it all the way around that day. As it turned out, we only got a little farther than our first stop, the Blue Lagoon, before succumbing to the perils of sleep deprivation.

The Blue Lagoon and Gullfoss

visiting scotland - iceland

The drive from Keflavik to the Blue Lagoon was through lava fields with steaming geysers in the distance and sink holes where we stopped to take photos. The Blue Lagoon is a man-made lagoon fed by the waters of the nearby geothermal plant. In this case, we did not research this well enough because in order to swim and partake of these geothermal waters, you have to book in advance. Basically, we were able to walk around the facility, take pictures, and in my case, wish that we had done our homework so I could be relaxing in the spa with some sparkling wine as my jet lag wore off. Next time I go to Iceland, this will be a priority.

visiting scotland - icelandWe continued eastward toward our B&B in Reykjavík. After a nice long nap and some dinner, we walked around the city, enjoying the daylight until we retired at midnight. The next day we drove the northern portion of the Golden Circle, taking in Gullfoss, a magnificent waterfall, Geysir, the spouting hot springs from which the English word “geyser” originates, and Thingvellir, the historical site of the Icelandic government.

Visiting Scotland

The next morning we flew to Edinburgh, agreeing that the land of fire and ice was in the running for a return visit. In Edinburgh, we stayed at the Dunedin Guesthouse, which was about a 30-minute walk from center city. It was nicely appointed, and had excellent breakfasts to sustain us on our daily excursions exploring the city. Most notably, we climbed Arthur’s Seat and walked the Royal Mile; we toured Edinburgh Castle and bought some Magnum scotch whisky cream liquor to have with breakfast; we rode the historically informative Hop On/Hop Off bus to walk the paths of the beautiful and relaxing Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden; and we viewed the extensive exhibits of the National Scottish Museum.

We managed to walk some more as we joined fictional Mr. Clart and Mr. McBain (two Scottish actors) on the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour where we were entertained by their witty argumentative banter and historical knowledge of some of Scotland’s literary greats – Burns, Stevenson, and Scott. The pub tour provided ample opportunity to not only sample different cask ales, but to interact with other travelers and Scottish locals for some very lively discussions about literature, accents, and Scottish women writers.

Rosslyn Chapel

Although we could have found many more historical and interesting sites to visit, we were out of time. We headed to Rosslyn Chapel in our rental car to contemplate the mysteries of the intricately sculptured and chiseled church made famous by Dan Brown’s novel. A note about the rental car: try not to pick up and drop off your rental car at two different places. We rented our car through Costco Travel at a really good price, except that price did not reflect getting the car at Waverly Station near the city center and returning it at the airport. We were charged about $100 more for that slick move when we just as easily could have taken the city bus out to the airport for about $12. But, the car was roomy, comfortable, and had GPS included, so we got to the chapel without delay.

Rosslyn Chapel had a modern visitor center as well as a humorous informative talk to help us understand what and where to look for the myths and mysteries hidden within. What I found most interesting is the extent of the conservation efforts that have turned a once mold and algae-infested interior into a remarkably ornate place of worship. Although the site was quite crowded, the coffee shop and grounds provided a lovely respite before we headed to St. Andrews.

St. Andrews

We put the Explorer Pass to good use by managing to get to St. Andrews Castle about 30 minutes before closing time. Kudos to the museum attendant who specifically came to find us about 15 minutes before closing to make sure we had been down to see the “mine and counter mine.” We hadn’t, so she took us to a tunnel cut through solid rock that was used during an attempted siege of the castle; the castle’s defenders successfully dug a counter mine to thwart the attackers.

Glamis Castle

visiting scotland

Continuing our somewhat counter-clockwise journey, we spent the next few days and nights with friends who grow barley in Forfar. We went to the Glamis Extravaganza, an antique auto show held annually on the grounds of Glamis Castle. While there, we toured the castle, which was the childhood home of the Queen Mum and is the current residence of the Earl of Strathmore and his family.

The castle has a display of royal robes and dresses worn by the Queen Mum, her daughters, and her parents at the coronation of her husband King George VI in 1937. They were absolutely stunning and are on loan to the exhibit until the end of October. Cars and coronations. Who could ask for a better way to spend a rainy day visiting Scotland?

And Then Whisky

Much as we wanted to visit longer, the highland distilleries were calling. We were looking forward to finding out how our friends’ high quality barley was transformed into a smooth, velvety amber liquid revered by foreigners and locals alike. The town of Pitlochry offered just that opportunity. We visited a small single malt distillery called Edradour, located on the banks of a small highland stream whose colorful history dates back to the fifteenth century.

We found the tour and tastings interesting and informative; I favor a heavily peated scotch whisky, as opposed to my husband’s taste for the smooth ten-year variety, even though the smell of it makes me think of my ancient bewhiskered aunts who drank their nightcaps as early as 11 a.m. We bought some single malt Scotch whisky on our way home; I’m sure we’ll have it for the next twenty years.

Inverness, Culloden, Loch Ness, and the Isle of Skye

On the first day we visited Culloden, the site of the last battle of the Jacobite 1745 uprising where about 1,500 Highlanders (and 300 British soldiers) were killed in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to take the British throne. From Culloden we traveled west for several hours to reach the Isle of Sky.

We stopped by chance at the Strathcarron Hotel. They offered their only entrée at the moment, soup. What we ended up with was a magical Scottish barley stew and complimentary brownie berry dessert; the chef himself came out to chat with us. He told us he had visited America often and he loves American optimism, the way we strive to solve our problems, and our work ethic. At that moment, I forgot about our current political climate and was proud to be an optimistic, hard working American.

visiting scotland
Author with Fairy Friend in the Fairy Glen

The Isle of Skye offered us much of the same mountainous, twisting roads but with views of the ocean along an impressive coastline as we looped the Tratternish Peninsula. In the town square of Portree, we happened upon the region’s bag pipers playing songs from their recent national competition. There performance made us more fully appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to make music from a sheep’s belly. We met fairies, sheep, and 80-year old hikers in The Fairy Glen, and we enjoyed seeing the crofters’ stone houses and the massive natural sculptures of basalt rock. The drive back to Inverness was long, but it was well worth the effort to see the incredible views and landscapes of Skye.

Inverness is a lovely town with a wonderful river walk along the River Ness as well as an abundance of places to shop and eat. We left in high hopes of seeing Nessie in the loch just down the road. What we hadn’t expected was how expansive Loch Ness is and that Nessie was, unfortunately for us and hundreds of other tourists, on holiday.

We did spend some time skipping stones into the loch and visiting Urquart Castle as the sun shined brightly off the water with nary a cloud in the sky. We continued our journey south, stopping briefly at Fort Augustus to see the canal and have a pint before we wound our way through Glencoe and back.

visiting scotlandWe were very impressed with the Greystones, a luxurious bed and breakfast perched high above the Oban harbor. We had delightful views of the harbor and town below and McCaig’s Tower above, and the room was exquisitely modern and restful. Our breakfast was truly Scottish with whisky-laced brown sugar porridge, black pudding, and haggis.

What I think I will remember most about this trip, besides the cold, bright, fierce beauty of both Iceland and Scotland, is that I’ve grown. My curiosity has been sparked by the Icelandic landscape that is so different from my own: how do the people make the most of their environment? What kinds of things do they worry about?  While visiting Scotland, I was fascinated by the history of the people and the interconnectedness of the Scottish with the British, despite a fierce independence of culture. I look forward to learning more about both countries and visiting Scotland and Iceland again.