When I close my eyes and think of the Scottish Highlands, a dream-like place unfolds before me. Mists roll down the mountainsides and over languid lochs, hiding the monsters and mussels lurking in the mysterious depths. Whispers from ancient Celtic villages carry on the breeze and rustle through fields of heather. Powerful birds of prey fly overhead, golden eagles soaring through the skies, weaving between tall, primordial pines.
And when I open them? Well, my dreams become a reality. Or at least they did this week!
I packed up my bags, jumped in the car and made my way to Argyll and The Isles on the West coast of Scotland, an incredibly diverse area of land and islands, interspersed with expansive glittering lochs and lush temperate rainforests and dotted with ancient monuments.
In this blog, I’ll be sharing with you my favourite parts of our trip, from swimming with seals under the shadow of a castle to eating fresh oysters, sustainably harvested from Loch Fyne. I'll also be detailing our exact itinerary, including locations so you can plan your next Scottish adventure.
If you're a lover of dramatic, romantic landscapes, the Scottish Highlands and Islands are the one for you. Every winding road carved into the towering hills will lead you through mystical woodland, past the soft, gentle water of the lochs, lapping against shining shells and over stone bridges, stolen straight from a fairy tale.
There are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the landscape, like foraging, hiking and wild swimming! Take yourself off on a self-led adventure, or get in touch with one of the many wonderful outdoor practitioners that can be found in the highlands. If you're not used to swimming in cold water, the lochs might be a little overwhelming! But luckily for you, the wonderful Bekah, based in Oban, (Bekahs Oban Wild Swimming) is a certified open-water swimming coach and will guide you in for the most scenic of dips. We went in at Loch Nell and I was so happy to have stayed in for a whole 15 minutes, I definitely couldn't have done it without Bekah.
There is plenty of incredible wild food in the Argyll & The Isles and I can't think of anything better than a day spent picking herbs and berries for tea. If you'd love to hunt for edible mushrooms and seaweed but you're not sure where to start, Christine and Graham will be able to help (Whitehouse Foraging).
Of course, you don't have to throw yourself in at the deep end. Some of the most amazing scenery we saw simply from the car window. One of our favourite views was at the Rest And Be Thankful viewpoint, an old military road leading to the top of a valley, where the words 'rest and be thankful' were carved into a rock, to remind travellers of old to slow down and enjoy the view.
Photos: Rainbow over Loch Fyne, the Rest and be Thankful viewpoint and approaching Inveraray
locally sourced food & DRINK
No holiday destination is complete without plenty of delicious food and drink options and the Highlands and Islands never fail to deliver. It's not just that the food we had was delicious, it's that so much of it was locally sourced and seasonal!
Our favourite food destination was Loch Fyne Oyster Bar which served up the most delicious seafood, sustainably farmed in the loch which it sits beside. In the 1970s local man, Johnny Noble and Marine Biologist Andy Lane started the Loch Fyne Oyster Farm and later the oyster bar and restaurant were established. To slurp lemony oysters from their shells while gazing across the stunning loch they came from is an ultimate luxury which made me feel so lucky to be in Argyll and The Isles.
Whatever budget you're working with, there are plenty of wonderful pubs and restaurants to keep you well fed on your travels. At Loch Melfort, on the upper end of the scale, you'll enjoy fine dining dishes, perfectly put together with wonderfully balanced flavours and delightful precision. If you're looking for something a little easier on the pocket, The George in Inveraray serves up some wonderful, hearty and traditional dishes by a log fire. (Both locations also offer wonderful hotel rooms too, for a special occasion, check out the Library room at the George!)
Photos: Oysters and langoustines from Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and dinner from Loch Melfort Hotel
It wasn't just the food that blew us away, but the drinks too, right down to a simple glass of water! In many parts of Argyll we were surprised to run the taps and see light brown water running from them. We were even more surprised when we were served this slightly strange water alongside our dinner! After a little digging, we found out that the mainline water grid doesn't supply some parts of the Argyll and The Isles, so the locals filter the water running from fresh springs themselves. It goes through thorough sand filtering and UV filtering, avoiding all chemicals which might harm the environment and the people. This leaves you with a naturally coloured, delicious glass of water!
We also visited Fyne Ales Brewery and were met by the wonderful manager, Stewart, who poured us a pint and told us all about how their ales are made with water fresh from the mountain. Brewer Pawel then chatted to us about which wild botanicals are used alongside the hops and finally farmer Stu drove us down to the fields to feed his deer the spent grain from the beer making process!
Photos: Enjoying a beer at Fyne Ales Brewery and meeting the deer that enjoy the spent hops. Naturally filtered water from Loch Melfort Hotel.
The Highlands and the Islands have the most incredible history and plenty of its relics remain for us to rediscover! The first settlers arrived in Scotland 14,000 years ago and left little impact on the land. But as farming blossomed in the Highlands permanent stone settlements, burial sites and even stone circles began to appear. Monuments from these very early days, through the bronze, iron, and medieval age are usually a rare sight. The abundance of them in the Highlands and Islands is a very special thing and gives us a wonderful way to learn about the history of Scotland.
As soon as you get into Argyll and The Isles you'll drive past crumbling castles nestled in the hills. Crawford Castle ruins are a perfect example of this, with only 3 stone walls partially remaining. It sits on top of a small hill, in an agricultural field, easily accessible through a swing gate. Features like windows and a cellar can still be explored and a cavernous circular hole in the Eastern wall leads to the most breathtaking views.
Another of our favourite places to visit was Kilmartin Glen, an incredible area with over 350 ancient monuments within a 6km radius. Kilmartin village has a cafe, pub and museum (unfortunately, the museum was closed when we visited, but it will reopen in 2023 after refurbishment). The walk we took started in the village and led us past 5 cairns, or Celtic burial sites and ended at a stone circle which perfectly aligns with the midwinter sun. The walk is so well signposted, you're sure to learn plenty about each stop on the walk, and you can even venture into some of the ancient graves!
The last ancient monument we visited was Dunadd Fort, the home to Gaelic Kings who held power in this part of Scotland during the Iron Age. We literally walked in the footsteps of these Kings, stepping over the carving of a size 8 footprint that, it's believed, was used in ancient crowning ceremonies. You can also see why they chose this spot for a hill fort!
Photos: Exploring Crawford Castle, walking the cairns walk in Kilmartin Glen and finally walking in the footsteps of Kings at Dunadd Fort.
Perfect places to stay
The weather in Scotland can be wild and changeable, so it's quite likely you'll be caught out in a rainstorm at least once! But when you know there's a hot dinner, a log fire and a soft bed waiting for you when you get 'home' at the end of the day, it really just adds to the beauty of the whole adventure!
We were blown away by the Scottish hospitality we experienced. The people were warm and welcoming and whether we were booked into a hotel or a bed and breakfast, we were treated like treasured guests. It's also incredible just how many luxurious castle hotels lining the lochs there are and for such a reasonable price.
Although everywhere we stayed was wonderful, Stonefield Castle and Killean Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast really stood out for us. Stonefield castle was a surprisingly affordable, totally luxurious castle with the most beautiful views out over the loch. It had a wonderfully grand feel about the place, with a mahogany wood whisky bar and huge family portraits hanging in the halls (the woman who once owned the castle painted over her ex-husband with a tree in one of them! You can just about see his eyes peering out from behind the trunk.)
Killean Farmhouse was the most homely and warm place we had the pleasure of staying in. We were greeted by a friendly local couple and shown to a communal lounge with a large log fire, squishy armchairs and plenty of good books! Our room was perfectly cosy and we were served up delicious vegan breakfast in the morning!
Photos: The view from the breakfast room at Stonefield Castle, Stonefield Castle and the cosy log fire at Killean Farmhouse B&B
The highlight of our entire trip? Meeting the animals that call Argyll and The Isles their home! In the morning after our stay at Stonefield castle, we took our paddleboard out onto Loch Fyne and were greeted by a couple of friendly seals! They stared at us from the water through Labrador eyes and as they became more comfortable, sidled up to the boards and splashed about in the water. We also dived down below the surface and found crabs and starfish of all shapes and sizes!
We also went on an incredible walk with Marc Pickering, (@lochgmarcp) a local forester and photographer with an impressive knowledge of the local area, to see an area in which beavers have been re-introduced to. Although we didn't see any beavers at Loch Coille-Bharr, we saw plenty of beaver lodges (dens made of sticks, accessed by beavers through tunnels of water), dams and logs which were in the process of being felled! There's also a great visitors centre where you can learn about the lives of the beavers!
Photos: Plenty of friendly crabs at the bottom of Loch Fyne, while seals splash around on the surface! A log in the process of being felled by beavers.
highlands and islands ITINERARY
Our suggested itinerary is fairly full on! We love to travel slowly and get to know and see as much of a small area as possible. We think you'll come away from this trip with a really good knowledge and understanding of what makes the place so special! This particular trip is one I would save for a special occasion! Some of the food options are quite pricey but SO worth it.
Day 1: Arriving at Loch Fyne and getting to know the area!
12.00 - Visit the Rest And Be Thankful
Then make the 12-minute drive to Cairndow
1pm - Lunch at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar
You could also visit the Caindow information centre, just to the right of the oyster bar, which has a wonderful collection of memoirs from past and present villagers.
3pm - Visit the Fyne Ales Brewery (book yourself in for a tour if you want to see the deer!)
Make the 14-minute drive to Inveraray and spend a few hours before dinner exploring the town. You could pop into imposing Inveraray Castle, the historic Inveraray Jail or just out of town, Auchindrain Township
7pm - Have dinner at the George pub
Sleep - There are plenty of places to stay in Inveraray! We made an 8 minute drive to Killean Farmhouse bed and breakfast which we highly recommend.
Day 2: Beavers, Brambles and Bimbles!
In the morning, head to Barnluasgan car park Lochgilphead PA31 8PF and take one of the many wildlife walks around Loch Coille-Bharr to see the home of the beavers. Find more information on the walks here.
11.00 - Take a walk around a unique wetland that's home to wild beavers
Make the 13 minute drive to Tayvallich inn in Lochgilphead
1pm - Lunch at Tayvallich_inn
Make a 14 minute drive to Keills Chapel, Lochgilphead PA31 8PQ
1pm - Visit Keills Chapel and admire ancient carved stones and a gothic church
Make a 53 minute drive to Stonefield Castle
7pm - Have dinner at Stonefield Castle
Sleep - Double rooms are available at the castle from £65 a night and the views at breakfast are wonderful.
Day 3: History & Hiking Day!
Enjoy a slow morning eating breakfast in the castle and taking a short walk down to the loch. Look out for seals and take a swim if you fancy it! Then make a 25-minute drive to Kilmartin Glen for a day of historical hiking (you might want to make a packed lunch today, or you could get lunch at the pub or cafe in Kilmartin).
12pm - 4pm - Visit any of the amazing 350 historic monuments that are within a 6km radius of Kilmartin and check out the museum (currently closed, will reopen in 2023).
We took the Kilmartin Glen walk through 5 ancient cairns and a stone circle (1 hour total) then walked to Dunadd Fort to walk in the footsteps of the kings and see ancient stone carvings (45 minutes) and back again. The walks are well signposted and have plenty of information on the monuments.
Make the 20 minute drive to Loch Melfort
6pm - Dinner at Loch Melfort
Sleep - Double rooms are available at Loch melfort with the most incredible views of the loch
Day 4: Wild Swimming and one last wonder!
Have a leisurely morning and take a walk around Loch Melfort before making a 30 minute drive to Loch Nell
12pm - Take a swim at Loch Nell (if you haven't done much cold water swimming, book a session with Bekah Oban Wild Swimming)
Afternoon: This one's up to you! Some options are:
Head to Oban and get a Ferry over to Kerrera island, discover the ruins of the Gylen Castle
Have lunch at the Tigh and Truish and walk along the shore line
Make your way home and visit Crawford Castle on the way
Delivered by High Life Highland, on behalf of The Highland Council, in partnership with VisitScotland. With thanks to our funders: Inverness and Highland City Region Deal, European Regional Development Fund, Scottish Government, NatureScot and Highlands and Islands Enterprise