My Top Scottish Travel Experiences of 2017
Ah, there’s nothing like the turn of the year to start re-thinking your life, and your waistline. I’m a self-confessed critic of ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ and the likelihood of failure that comes with them. Forming new habits and lifestyle changes takes time and willpower, far beyond the month of January. That said, realising where change is needed, and setting positive intentions, is a good place to start.
For me, I’d like to eat less meat and sugary, processed foods. I’d like to improve my writing and photography skills, and become a more positive and mindful person. I plan to experience more of Scotland than any other year before, and to pursue my dream lifestyle and routine; more on the latter will be revealed in coming months.
Aye, you could say I have my work cut out for me!
There have been chunks of 2017 I would rather forget, but it’s important to have a #nofilter recollection of events. Once the balance has been restored, the bad only heightens your gratitude of the good. As for your mistakes, simply view them as lessons in nightmare-ish clothing. I feel more resilient, motivated, and inspired than ever before, and that is all thanks to shit-storms, twists of fate, and my impulse to travel.
Amidst the chaos, and metaphorical ‘riding on an upside-down rollercoaster without being strapped in properly’, my desire to explore Scotland has never wavered. Travelling this wee country – and inspiring others to do the same – is my passion, and my purpose.
Since I’m feeling more reflective and sentimental than usual, for the first time on the blog, I’ve decided to round-up my favourite Scottish travel experiences from 2017. Looking back like this has made me really appreciate how much I’ve seen, done and experienced. I feel like a very lucky lass.
Here they are, the moments that define me, and remind me why I started this blog. They are focused around the three things I love the most; the Scottish Islands, food, and scenery. I hope that some of these highlights will feature in your travel resolutions for 2018!
Top Overall Achievement.
#30before30 Islands Challenge
The sun had dipped, the wind had picked up, and we were absolutely hysterical at my attempts to get a decent ‘jumping photo’ at Bosta Beach on Great Bernera. I was giddy with excited and achievement – I had just completed my ‘thirty before thirty’ islands challenge!
The Scottish Islands are my favourite place on the planet. Every year, my internal island-hopometer has reached increasingly high levels, and after a quick tally during the summer, I realised my island count was over twenty-five. Then, the wee lightbulb appeared above my head…
My thirtieth birthday was in December, so I decided to set myself a challenge to have visited thirty islands before this milestone. I had limited time and annual leave to do it, but I was determined. Luckily I’d already booked six days on the Isle of Harris for October, and with some brain-aching study of maps and ferry timetables, I devised a plan to visit Scalpay, Berneray, North Uist and Great Bernera as well.
I was successful in my mission, and the response I received on social media was amazing. It has further cemented my love for the islands, and inspired to me to keep working my way around them. I already have a shiny new wish-list for 2018! This leads on nicely to my favourite Scottish Islands from 2017.
Favourite Scottish Islands.
Isle of Harris
Harris is often promoted through images of immaculately idyllic beaches, and despite having visited Lewis – the north of the island – more than once, I had never ventured south to experience it for myself. From the moment we arrived, Harris was an absolute show-stopper!
I was mesmerised by the imposing peaks of North Harris; most were bathed in an atmosphere cloak of darkness, while others were lit by stray beams of light which had escaped through the thick, moody clouds. The completely contrasting south-west coast served up beaches every bit as dreamy as the photos suggest. Seilebost really stole my heart – I could’ve stood looking at it all day. The ever-popular Luskentyre beach was equally as stunning; diagonal rain, wind or shine.
The real surprises for me were the east coast’s otherworldly appearance and the deliciously high-standard of food on offer; I can highly recommend The Anchorage in Leverburgh, and Croft 36 in Northton. Waking up each morning to the Golden Road’s lunar-like landscape is not something I could ever tire of. The fact I was converted to gin at the Isle of Harris Distillery was a special bonus too.
Isle of Stroma
The abandoned Isle of Stroma sits in the Pentland Firth at the north of Scotland, and can be seen from the ferry which travels between St Gill’s Bay (near John O’ Groats) and Orkney, as well as from the mainland. It once boasted a thriving community of over three-hundred people, however the last remaining family vacated the island in 1962. I read a newspaper article about it and knew I had to visit. The trouble was, I had no idea how to get there.
In July, I booked a random trip two-night to John O’ Groats with some air miles and Airbnb credit, and since Stroma was nearby, I trawled the internet for details on how to visit. The Simpson family – who now own the island and use it for farming – used to offer day trips for visitors, but there was no recent record of this, or any contact details. I really wasn’t getting anywhere, but I was still confident I’d find a way.
In a twist of fate, on the first night of my visit to John O’ Groats, I met Willie Simpson in the pub. He didn’t offer trips to Stroma anymore, but offered to take us a “one off” on his rusty fishing boat. HAPPY DAYS! The island was even more eerie and intriguing than I imagined. Some of the mud-filled ruined crofts still had single items of furniture, while the phone box in front of the church was just screaming out to be photographed. Not only was this a highlight of 2017, it was one of my most memorable adventures ever!
Favourite Scottish Walks.
Autumn is my favourite season, and it would not be complete without a visit to Perthshire, AKA ‘Big Tree Country’. Towards the end of October I did the twelve-mile circular walk to Killiecrankie and back from Pitlochry; including a picnic-break and photo stop, the walk took about five hours. I’ve done numerous walks in and around Dunkeld, Pitlochry and Aberfeldy, and this one is the top of the pops.
The trees were a tapestry of vibrant reds, burnt oranges, yellows and greens. The stillness of the lochs and rivers cast a reflection of the autumnal loveliness, providing a double-whammy of scenery to marvel upon. The corridor of trees and dramatic formation of the gorge along the Pass of Killiecrankie was so insanely beautiful, it’s difficult to put into words. Watching the bungee jumpers freefall from the Garry Bridge made me want to do it again!
Dun I, Iona.
Iona is such a special place. It evokes a sense of calm and tranquillity unlike anywhere I’ve been. During my visit in August, I decided to see the island from a new perspective – from above. The highest point on Iona – Dun I – is just a baby in the grand scheme of Scottish hills, sitting at a little over one-hundred metres. It’s not too steep, arduous or time consuming; little effort for maximum reward.
I had the summit, and panorama of views, all to myself. I could see the mountains of Mull, the silhouette of Staffa, and the stunning beaches at the north of the island. From this advantageous position, I spied a beach I hadn’t yet graced, just off to the west.
Rather than follow the path back down, and walk the long but sensible way round, I decided to go rogue and take a “shortcut” directly over a boggy field. When I arrived at said beach, I was severely mud-splashed and had been caught for what felt like ages (probably thirty seconds) in a barbed wire fence. That’ll teach me!
Favourite Scottish Dining Experiences.
Ballintaggart Farm, Grandtully.
Strangers and friends sat side-by-side at a candlelit banqueting-style dining table, to enjoy a multi-course set menu of local, seasonal delicacies. It was the month of March and we were guests at a ‘Feast Night’ on a farm in a small Perthshire village. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the experience, but I had a feeling it would be a memorable one. Little did I know it was to become one of my best dining experiences EVER.
Farm owners Chris & Rachel are social-dining enthusiasts, and the most hospitable of hosts. Rachel’s background is in PR, while Chris has trained as a chef at the Gardeners Cottage in Edinburgh and Leith’s School of Food & Wine in London. They moved to Ballintaggart Farm in Grandtully with their three children to embark on this wildly successful new venture.
The food was beyond fantastic; meticulously presented, interesting and totally delicious. My taste buds didn’t know what had hit them! Some of the courses were served on sharing plates, purposefully designed to encourage interaction with fellow guests. The experience was truly unique, and I cannot recommend it enough to fellow foodies. I liked it so much, I bought a voucher for the Feast Night and overnight stay as a gift for one of my best friend’s weddings.
Etive Restaurant, Taynuilt.
Yet another one of my top dining experiences EVER was in 2017. This time I was on Scotland’s west coast at the Taynuilt Hotel, a converted coaching inn. John McNulty, Chef Patron and all-round wizard of the culinary world, has created an immensely satisfying dining experience for locals and visitors alike. John is a seriously passionate and creative young chef. I mean, tasting the smoked venison and salmon is one thing, but seeing the DIY smoker in the hotel’s back garden is quite another!
Enjoying the amuse-bouche from the comfort of an armchair in front of the open fire really does set the scene for the experience ahead. Shetland Squid, Loin of Perthshire Roe Deer, the BEST selection of cheeses, and homemade sweets were to follow. General Manager & Head Sommelier David Lapsley looked after us throughout the meal, made sure we knew exactly what we were eating, and delivered a genuinely warm and unscripted service. A truly special and flawless experience.
Something a Bit Different
Up Helly Aa, Shetland
How to summarise Up Helly Aa? It’s a Viking fire festival, and it’s absolutely, brilliantly off-the-scale BONKERS. Unique in every sense of the word, the annual island tradition celebrates Shetland’s Norse heritage with parades, processions, and live music in venues across Lerwick. The festival is the perfect incentive for the island community to come out of their cozy homes in the middle of winter to get involved in the fiery fun, and embark on a good old knees-up.
The main Jarl Squad of Viking-clad locals is headed-up by the Guiser Jarl; who has served a fifteen-year apprenticeship in the squad to earn the privilege for just one year. The squad design their own costumes, and the Viking galley (boat) takes three months to build, and just thirty minutes to burn! There are roaring Vikings, all-night parties, dozens of squads in eclectic fancy dress, and toe-tapping tunes in the packed pubs. This was such a memorable start to 2017, and is one of my top travel experiences to date.
Wild Camping, Banffshire.
I’d been camping at festivals before, but wild camping was something totally new to me. My friend had agreed to take us on a road trip to the Banffshire Coast, so that I could visit Crovie and its neighbouring towns, after seeing pictures of their coastal cuteness on social media. It is a quite a distance to get there and back from Edinburgh in one day, and my friend is a super-keen camper, so we decided to make it an overnight adventure.
I’m not the most practical of people, which is probably why I’ve never attempted wild camping before. I would likely turn up with an array of useless items, while forgetting the important essentials. Luckily for me, my friend had it absolutely covered.
We village-hopped along the coast, stopping at Cullen, Portsoy, Crovie and Pennan. We met some local paragliders on our walk down into Crovie, and I fell in love with peaceful Pennan; home to the red telephone box from the film Local Hero. After that, we just had to find our perfect camping spot. We wanted somewhere scenic and secluded near the sea, and before long we really hit the jackpot – we found Cullykhan Bay. Absolutely stunning, with a grassy verge near the water to pitch the tent, and the remnants of a previous campfire to save us starting from scratch.
Climbing into my sleeping bag – belly full of melted marshmallows – I had a hot water bottle at my feet, and a double-duvet over the top (thanks Jenna!). I sank into a peaceful slumber to the soundtrack of lapping waves, and woke up to the sun shining over the sea, and onto the village of Pennan further down the coast. Talk about good for the soul!
PHEW. What a year that was!
What were YOUR highlights of 2017?
I would like to thank you all SO much for following along on my adventures, and for your lovely comments and emails throughout the year.
There will be plenty more where that came from in 2018. Watch this space…