My Top Scottish Travel Experiences of 2017

Scottish Travel Experiences

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!

Scottish Travel Experiences

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…

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Scalpay

Important caution before the Scalpay Bridge!

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Berneray

Isle of Berneray

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!

Scottish Travel Experiences - The Isle of Harris

Scottish Travel Experiences - The Isle of Harris

Luskentyre Beach

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - The Isle of Harris

Scottish Travel Experiences - The Isle of Harris Gin

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.

I flew from Edinburgh to Stornoway with Loganair (prices start from £140pp return) and stayed in a fab family room at the No. 5 Drinishader Hostel on the Golden Road   

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Stroma

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Stroma

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Stroma

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Stroma

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!

You can read the article which inspired my visit to Stroma on The Scotsman website 

Favourite Scottish Walks.

Killiecrankie, Perthshire.

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Killiecrankie Walk

Scottish Travel Experiences - Killiecrankie Walk

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!

Scottish Travel Experiences - Killiecrankie Walk

Scottish Travel Experiences - Killiecrankie Walk

Killiecrankie is a National Trust for Scotland site. Don’t forget to stop by the Soldier’s Leap, the Killiecrankie Visitor Centre and the picturesque Linn of Tummel.

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Dun I, Iona

Scottish Travel Experiences - Isle of Iona 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!

For full details on the correct walking route (no shortcuts or misadventures!) check out the Walk Highlands website. You can find the ferry timetable on the CalMac website.

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Ballintaggart Farm Feast Night

Scottish Travel Experiences - Ballintaggart Farm

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.

The ‘Feast Night’ experience costs £45pp. For more information and details on how to book for 2018, visit the Ballintaggart Farm website 

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!

Scottish Travel Experiences - Taynuilt Hotel

Scottish Travel Experiences - Taynuilt Hotel

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.

You can also stay at the Taynuilt Hotel in one of their newly refurbished bedrooms. You can read more about the hotel & dining on the website here

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Up Helly Aa, Shetland

Scottish Travel Experiences - Up Helly Aa, Shetland

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.

I went to Up Helly Aa on a Haggis Adventures tour and wrote about my experience in my blog post Up Helly Aa: The Hottest Party in Scotland

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.

Scottish Travel Experiences - Banffshire Coast Camping

Our perfect camping spot at Cullykhan Bay

Scottish Travel Experiences - Banffshire Coast Camping

The cliffside village of Crovie

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!

Scottish Travel Experiences - Banffshire Coast Camping

Our road trip route & camping spot

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…

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12 Comments

  • Debbie Boek says:

    I really enjoyed your post and look forward to checking out some the others. I’ll be visiting Scotland in the fall and am looking for as much information as I can get.

    • Kay says:

      Hi Debbie! Thanks very much – I’m glad you enjoyed it ☺️ That’s so exciting! How long are you visiting for, and what are your plans so far? I have lots of new posts in the pipeline so will hopefully be able to offer some inspiration. If there’s anything else I can help with, just let me know

  • Debbie Boek says:

    Thank you. I am really excited about it. I plan to go the third week of September for 8 days. There are certain places I definitely would like to see but, I’m loving these blogs with so much detail about places I hadn’t even considered. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your new ones.

    • Kay says:

      Eight days is a decent amount of time to get around! I would suggest doing a couple of days in the city, then heading off to some scenic locations. I really love the islands, and there are some which are easily accessible within your timeframe ☺️

  • Debbie Boek says:

    Thanks, I like your suggestion. As it gets closer, I’m going to put an actual itinerary together, once I decide where I want to go. I hope you don’t mind if I get your thoughts on that, once I know what I’m doing.

  • Alex says:

    I’m envious of your trip to Stroma! The photos look great. I wasn’t sure if I was about to have an opportunity to be taken to Scarp from Harris, but I think I was running out of time at that point so didn’t wait around. Harris is amazing anyway – I loved the beaches, mountains and galleries – so I wasn’t too bothered about missing out.

    I was planning a trip to Jura in March (of last year), but had a niggly knee injury so decided on the easier-going ground of the Northumberland coast instead – a rather awesome backup as I love castles and beaches. My 2017 travel highlight was Guedelon, the medieval-style castle under construction in France. It was like travelling back in time!

    • Kay says:

      Hi Alex! Thanks for your comment. I was definitely in my element when I managed to get over to Stroma. The weather was beautiful that day too, which was an added bonus. I would love to go to Scarp as well! I’m writing a blog about Harris at the moment. It’s taking me ages, as I really want to do it justice because I rate it so highly.

      Jura is also on my list. I had planned to go from Islay when I was there in 2016, but I ended up just using the 5 days to properly explore Islay. I just Googled Guedelon – it looks a film set! I can see why it was a highlight for you. You seem to pack in a good few adventures! What are you planning for this year?

  • Alex says:

    I spent about 20 hours (maybe more) on a blog post about the Outer Hebrides, so I get you there! It was worth it in the end as I did it justice according to the feedback I got. I don’t think you have to worry – I’ve read a couple of your posts this weekend and your passion definitely comes across.

    I’m not sure about this year yet. I was thinking about Iceland in the spring, but I’ve started a writing course that’s quite intense and I’m not sure if I’ll have time to plan what I was planning (and I’m really enjoying the writing). I’m lucky enough to only have to commit to short-term work at the moment, so I can be up and away almost any time if I feel like it, and I enjoy going to places on a whim. Iceland was my best whim ever (12 years ago) and I’ve wanted to go back ever since.

    I was planning Islay and Jura myself in 2016, but I was enjoying the Outer Hebrides so much, I spent much more time there than I thought I would, and ran out of time. Jura was the first island to get me excited about the Hebrides back in my teens – I thought I was saving the best till last, then didn’t get around to it.

    I was actually just replying to you on Twitter –
    https://twitter.com/TheChaoticScot/status/951915145873313793
    – but it’s easier here! I was thinking of looking for someone to walk Jura’s west coast with, so if you’re interested (or know anyone who might be) do let me know. 🙂

    A few years ago I mentioned I was thinking (I think about a lot of things don’t I?) about a camper van trip to Iceland and I’m pretty sure it was you who said you may be interested in joining me. I could be wrong, but seeing your Twitter post jogged my memory. I remember talking about long exposures. It would have been on a chat – maybe Twitter #travpics or #travchat. I’m not a big social media user so I tend to get in touch with people and just as quickly lose touch.

    I’d recommend Guedelon to anyone. Once it’s finished, there won’t be anything else like it in the world.

    And I forgot to mention Dun I after seeing it mentioned above. It was one of my favourite highest points in the Hebrides. I had the top to myself for an hour (the abbey was packed at this point) – I even passed a group resting on the way up, and they never made it to the top. I couldn’t believe what they were missing out on! The only sounds were occasional birds and the waves lapping on the coast below. Perfection.

  • Amanda says:

    I am loving your posts and gorgeous photos! We (me + my husband and 4 kids) are traveling to Scotland for 3 weeks in June for my 40th birthday. I can’t wait!!
    I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to pick an island/s to visit during our time there – everything looks so, so beautiful. Initially I was sure I wanted to stay on Harris, but now I have discovered Mull, and Arran which look amazing, then someone recommended Islay to me, and of course I’d love to visit Shetland and Orkney….my head is spinning…Too many lovely places to visit – it’s a good problem to have, I guess!

    • Kay says:

      Hi Amanda 🙂 Thanks for your lovely comment.
      That’s so exciting! 3 weeks is a great amount of time to explore.
      I feel your pain, there’s just so many amazing islands to choose from.
      For the ‘wow’ factor, I would go with Lewis & Harris.
      If you prefer somewhere smaller – with less driving – and loads to do, I would go with Arran.
      Islay is fantastic, but doesn’t have the dreamy Caribbean-style beaches like the Hebrides.
      Mull is a good option, as you could visit Iona and Staffa too! It’s close to the mainland as well.
      If I can help with your plans at all, drop me an email on hello@thechaoticscot.com
      Kay

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