Need help planning Scotland itinerary

Old Sep 6th, 2022, 07:40 PM
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Need help planning Scotland itinerary

Hello everyone,
My husband and I plan on visiting Scotland sometime in June 2023 (probably the early part of June). I am in the preliminary stages of planning and have not made any reservations. I am having difficulty planning this itinerary and trying to narrow down what to see, what are good bases and how many nights in each base. This is our first trip to Scotland. We will most likely have 15 or 16 nights on the ground. We are in our early to mid-70's. We are not in shape to do any heavy-duty hiking but we enjoy walks through beautiful countryside (preferably on flat ground. We like just about everything such as visiting villages, cities, pretty scenery (coastal and mountains), ethnic food, history museums, art museums, and wandering around neighborhoods and stopping for drinks. Also love ruins, especially ruins of castles, churches, and cathedrals. I love intact castles, etc. but especially love ruins. They are so evocative. My husband also loves whiskey so I know he would like to visit a distillery. We plan on renting a car. We prefer not to do 1 or 2 night stays but will do so if it's necessary and makes sense.

I have been reading trip reports and planning posts on this forum and the Lonely Planet Guidebook for Scotland. This is the very loose plan I have so far of what interests me but not sure if we have enough time to see everything on my list:
  • Fly into Edinburgh
  • Edinburgh - 3 or 4 nights
  • Stirling Castle - does it make sense to visit Stirling Castle as a daytrip from Edinburgh or as a stop along the way to somewhere else?
  • East Neuk coastal drive and stopping at fishing villages
  • St. Andrews - we are not golfers but the castle ruins and cathedral ruins sound wonderful
  • Balmoral Castle - considering that the public can only visit the ballroom, is Balmoral worth visiting?
  • Dunnotar Castle sounds fascinating but I'm not sure about the 200 steps to walk down and then back up again
  • Elgin Cathedral - this is a place I would love to see; according to my guidebook, it's "beautiful and evocative".
  • Inverness - base here for several nights. How many nights? - my wish list for this area is Urquhart Castle, perhaps a cruise to see dolphins or a cruise to Loch Ness; drive around Loch Ness (6 to 7 hour drive?)
  • Isle of Skye - base in Portree for 3 nights; visit Quiraing; Old Man of Storr; Fairy Glen; Dunvegan Castle & Gardens; Fairy Pools
  • Fort William, including a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train
  • Cairngorms National park - is it possible to drive through the park and see beautiful scenery without any heavy duty hiking?
  • It would be nice to visit Oban and Mull, but this might be too ambitious.
  • Want to visit a distillery and I am open to suggestions

I assume our airline tickets will be roundtrip from Boston to Edinburgh unless we do an open jaw, such as Boston to Edinburgh and then Glasgow back to Boston. Depends on prices. It might be nice to see Glasgow, too.

Where should we base in between Edinburgh and Inverness?
It seems that 1 and 2 night stays might make sense in some places. Am I right about this? What direction makes the most sense?
Is this rough itinerary too ambitious?

Thanking everyone in advance for any suggestions and help.
Karen





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Old Sep 6th, 2022, 08:32 PM
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"My husband also loves whiskey whisky so I know he would like to visit a distillery" . . . now that that's out of the way.

I'll address some of your questions:


• Stirling Castle - does it make sense to visit Stirling Castle as a daytrip from Edinburgh or as a stop along the way to somewhere else?

Since you plan few days in Edinburgh I wouldn't do Stirling as a day trip. It is on the route to other places you'll be seeing

• Balmoral Castle - considering that the public can only visit the ballroom, is Balmoral worth visiting?

Balmoral is fine -- its in lovely countryside. But as castles go it is far down the list. If you are super interested in QEII / the Royal Family it might be worth a visit. There are tons of other more scenic castles in Deeside - it ain't called the Castle Trail for nothin'

• Inverness - base here for several nights. How many nights? - my wish list for this area is Urquhart Castle, perhaps a cruise to see dolphins or a cruise to Loch Ness; drive around Loch Ness (6 to 7 hour drive?)

No, no, no (strong enough for you? ). Inverness is a wonderful place to live, and IF one is touring by public transport is a convenient location. BUT it is mainly the busy commercial center of the Highlands -- I wouldn't spend one night there if it was me (and I have stayed there more than once - know it well). Its a city with a nice river running through -- but with a car you could stay absolutely anywhere,

• Fort William, including a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train

This is a bit problematic. First Ft William itself is a nothing burger -- Staying in Glencoe or Ballachulish would be better. But the biggest problem is the train. In order to ride ther train essentially eats up more than a full day. The train travels from Ft William in the morning - gets to Mallaig about 12:30PM, you wait in Mallaig 90+ minutes, then you arrive back in Ft W. after 4PM. The scenery is great -- but the ride gets boring pretty fast. The Road to the Isles follows the exact same route . . . so better IMO would be to time your drive (either from Skye > Mallaig > Ft William or Ft William > Mallaig > Skye) so you are at Glenfinnan before the train passes. You can walk up to the viaduct and see the train crossing (which you can't really from inside the train), plus see the Memorial, etc.

Cairngorms National park - is it possible to drive through the park and see beautiful scenery without any heavy duty hiking?

You will pass through most of the park on the main north/south road (the A9) and on the route between Deeside and Inverness area/Speyside (a939) so one way or another you'll drive right through it - getting out of the car or not.

Want to visit a distillery and I am open to suggestions

There are great distilleries all over so once you pin down a basic itinerary we can help you pick one or two or more to visit. You also definitely want to hit the Whisky Centre near the Castle on the Royal Mile.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 04:25 AM
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Hi Karen, we have just returned from a 16 day trip to Scotland. We stayed in Grantown-on-Spey for 5 nights. This was a great base. I also second not staying in Inverness. We went to Elgin and the cathedral is stunning. We also went to Cawdor Castle and did a bit of the Whiskey Trail. The tour of the Speyside Cooperage is very good. We did hike in the park, walking from Boat of Garten to Aviemore and then taking the Speyside steam train back to Boat of Garten. It was a pretty long walk (9.5 km) for us but the trail is very flat and wide.
We had originally tried to incorporate the Glenfinnan viaduct train trip but, as Janis says, the logistics were an issue and we scrapped it. We drove the North Coast 500, starting in Ullapool and going clockwise. We had an amazing time. The west coast scenery is stunning. Have fun planning!
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 05:14 AM
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Janisj and Jackie44, thank you so much for your very helpful advice. I am finding this trip more difficult to plan because there is so much to see and do so it's difficult to narrow things down. We can't see everything, unfortunately. And I'm having a hard time figuring out what would be good bases. For me, it was easier to plan trips to Spain, Greece, France or Czech Republic.

So, we won't base in Inverness and I have taken Balmoral Castle and Fort William and the train ride out of the itinerary.

Jackie44, Grantown-on-Spey sounds like a great base! Can you give me a brief description of your itinerary? Where did you base and for how many nights? Where did you stay in Grantown-on-Spey? When you say you spent 16 days in Scotland, was that 16 nights? I always plan by nights.

Would Nairn also be a good base?
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 05:37 AM
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Whisky Trail ;-) I don't know why, given my terrible spelling, but it grates.

https://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/dis...istillery-map/
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 07:04 AM
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Originally Posted by KarenWoo View Post
Janisj and Jackie44, thank you so much for your very helpful advice. I am finding this trip more difficult to plan because there is so much to see and do so it's difficult to narrow things down. We can't see everything, unfortunately. And I'm having a hard time figuring out what would be good bases. For me, it was easier to plan trips to Spain, Greece, France or Czech Republic.

So, we won't base in Inverness and I have taken Balmoral Castle and Fort William and the train ride out of the itinerary.

Jackie44, Grantown-on-Spey sounds like a great base! Can you give me a brief description of your itinerary? Where did you base and for how many nights? Where did you stay in Grantown-on-Spey? When you say you spent 16 days in Scotland, was that 16 nights? I always plan by nights.

Would Nairn also be a good base?
Karen, here is our itinerary:
Glasgow 3 nights - mostly visiting family
Ullapool 4 nights - originally scheduled 3 but blew a tire on the way out and had to spend an extra night. It was no hardship at all. Watch out for potholes and sharp edges on the narrow roads
Scourie 1 night
Mey 2 nights - we stayed at the Granary Lodge on the grounds of the Castle of Mey (Queen Mother's residence in Scotland). Loved this place.
Grantown-on-Spey 5 nights - we stayed at the Firhall b&b. Best breakfasts ever! It was a great base for the areas that we were exploring
Glasgow 1 night before flying home

Nairn would be a fine base. It is bigger than Grantown and has more restaurants. We had dinner there at the One One Two cafe (tapas) and it was excellent. It is closer to Inverness so if that's the area you are interested in, it would be a good base. Elgin is larger still and is very nice also. We had a delicious lunch at Orrin restaurant in Elgin. I'm happy to answer questions so ask away.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 07:32 AM
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KarenWoo: Jackie44's itinerary covered terrific areas -- but bear in mind it is primarily the FAR north/northwest and Speyside plus visiting rels in Glasgow. It would be a wonderful trip . . . it was about as long as you are planning (16 days) and doesn't include things like Edinburgh, Fife, Skye, Stirling, Mull, Deeside, etc.

Scotland is a lot bigger than many assume - and often the travel is quite slow. You just need to prioritize the 3 or 4 areas (plus Edinburgh) you want to visit and just accept that you are going to miss 90% of the country.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 08:52 AM
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Like Janis says, Scotland feels a lot bigger than the maps would suggest, and travel times are usually much longer than Google shows them (a private beef.)

It's tempting to offer some kind of linear or loop itinerary, but at this stage I'm inclined just to make some comments and to let you do the legwork to see if these suggestions are amenable to YOU. Let me start by recommending you get comfortable using Undiscovered Scotland - an invaluable (how is that different from "valuable?") source for would-be visitors to Scotland and nearby parts of England. Undiscovered Scotland: Home Page

So thoughts and suggestions:

1. Castles and ruins. The "Royal Deeside" area and Aberdeenshire (as well as close by parts of Angus) is of course "castle country," and is well worth your time. Its proximity to all the booze production in the Speyside area is also a plus. However, I'd be loath to neglect offering an alternative that could be appended easily to your time in Edinburgh, either coming or going. The alternative is a loop (there I go) that crosses the English border and includes fishing villages, castles, ruined abbeys and priories, magnificent standing castles, places where history is so palpable as to be unreal, and which is beautiful as well. Here's the map, forgive me. https://goo.gl/maps/NuHpWJPLLUsxuuUT6 . This includes the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, accessible only at low tide, with its historic priory and wee castle, then magnificent Bamburgh Castle, set above the village soccer pitch or cricket ground, depending on the season. The view of Bamburgh Castle from both the land and ocean sides is heart-stopping. You'd then return toward Edinburgh via the Borders, with ruined abbeys in Kelso and Melrose, among other places, as well as a drive-by of impressive Neidpath Castle set above the River Tweed, and possibly a stop at Rosslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh. I've also included a tiny village (Etal) in Northumberland near the Scottish border that boasts a ruined wee castle as well as the Black Bull, the northernmost thatched pub in England.

2. Skye, Mull, Dalriada and whisky. Skye is beautiful. It has it all - mountain peaks, natural wonders, castles, rocky cliffs... And people. Lots of people, all of them trying to see the same half dozen things, and all of them parking their cars, caravans, and campervans along the roads and in the overtaxed parking areas. So okay, it's not Disney World or some kind of tourism apocalypse, but some feel that Skye's popularity is threatening the very things that make it popular in the first place. You'll probably have a great time there, but there are alternatives that you might want to consider. One obvious candidate is the Isle of Mull, reached by ferry from a few points on the Scottish mainland, mainly Oban. Mull is also a big Inner Hebridean island, with mountains, glens, beaches, attractive villages, castles, prehistoric sites... and also a couple of distilleries, and, importantly, a bit more room to breathe. On the whisky front, you might think about a ferry ride from Oban to Islay, if the peaty whisky that comes from that island is something your husband or you likes.

From Mull (or from Oban) you can visit Iona, the fabled island from which Christianity was spread across Scotland and northern England (for example by sending monks to Lindisfarne.) Or visit Staffa and Fingal's Cave, which inspired the likes of Felix Mendelssohn no less. Mull's main village, Tobermory, is about as picture-perfect as they come, and from a base in Oban for a couple of nights you could explore Glen Etive and Glen Coe, or Kilmartin Glen with its incredible collection of prehistoric sites, or visit ruined Kilchurn Castle or functioning Inveraray Castle, seat of Clan Campbell. (I have Macdonald DNA in me, and it irks me to recommend Campbell country, but it's so damned gorgeous...) Again, google (or use Undiscovered Scotland) the places on this map to see what I'm talking about. https://goo.gl/maps/JhAJxwBSeDdMrkYZ6


I'll stop here; you get what I'm talking about. I'd be looking for ways to limit, rather than expand on your plans, so that you have more time to get out of the car, even if it means you miss something. You're going to be planning your return the minute you land, so don't worry, it's not going anywhere.

Last edited by Gardyloo; Sep 7th, 2022 at 09:01 AM.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 09:21 AM
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Janisj and Bilboburger, I am from the US and I have always spelled whiskey with an "e". In fact, my husband's bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Whiskey is spelled with an "e". So I have been wondering why you both said the spelling with an "e" is incorrect. I looked up whisky/whiskey in my guidebook, and learned that Scotch whisky is spelled without an e, and that American and Irish whiskey is spelled with an e. Learned something new today.

Jackie44, thanks for your itinerary! Sounds wonderful. I didn't know where Ullapool was when you first mentioned it, and then looked at the map in my book, and we definitely don't have time to visit that area. I will research Grantown-on-Spey, Nairn, and Elgin as a possible base for the Inverness area.

Janisj, what are your thoughts on a good base for the Inverness area? The places I would like to visit are Elgin Cathedral, Urquhart Castle, drive around Loch Ness, perhaps a boat ride on Loch Ness, part of the Whisky Trail, and perhaps Cawdor Castle, Culloden Battlefield, and Fort George.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 10:14 AM
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"Janisj and Bilboburger, I am from the US and I have always spelled whiskey with an "e". In fact, my husband's bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Whiskey is spelled with an "e"

Well . . . Wild Turkey IS a whisk
ey. As is the Irish stuff. But Scottish whisky, whether a blend or single malt, is whisky (sans the 'e').

For a base near Inverness -- Nairn is lovely, or Beauly, or anywhere on the Black Isle like Rosemarkie Or a bit farther -- Grantown-on-Spey which is about 50-ish mins from Inverness but easily within commute distance of all the sites you listed and more.

But with a car you can stay in any village in the region -- sort of pick the property, not the town. If you find a B&B that blows you socks off, don't omit it because it isn't in a bigger town. And remember you'll never be driving at night (or in darkness anyway) since in June it will be daylight from about 0430 til close to 11PM.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 11:34 AM
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Gardyloo, I just noticed your detailed and helpful response. There is so much to see in Scotland and it all sounds beautiful. Of course, you have me more confused than ever! Oban and Mull sound wonderful, too, along with Kilmartin Glen.

I don't think we will visit southern Scotland or England on this trip. My husband and I were in London in the 1970's, and we have talked about visiting England, including London again, and then heading north to the Lake District and York, and that could be the perfect time to visit southern Scotland. I also hope that in the next year or two we can travel for a month or a bit longer. We have some constraints for next year that limits our time.

But I am very intrigued with your descriptions of Oban and Mull and surrounding area. Edinburgh, the Inverness area (with Elgin Cathedral, Urquhart Castle, etc.) and Isle of Skye are musts for us. I am now wondering if I should omit the East Neuk coastal drive area so that I can include Oban and Mull.

According to Google maps (I know they aren't always correct), the drive from Stirling Castle (a must for us) to Nairn is just about 3 hours. Is this doable? Could we visit Stirling Castle and then drive to Nairn in one day? We would omit the East Neuk coastal drive if we do this and possibly omit St. Andrews.

So a possible itinerary could be:

Edinburgh - 4 nights
Nairn (or another close by village) - 4 nights
Portree on Skye - 3 nights
Oban - 4 nights to include perhaps a day trip to Mull or an overnight on Mull
Edinburgh - 1 night to catch our flight home the next day (unless we fly home from Glasgow)

I want to thank everyone for their very helpful replies and advice. Keep it coming!


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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 11:36 AM
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Originally Posted by janisj View Post
"Janisj and Bilboburger, I am from the US and I have always spelled whiskey with an "e". In fact, my husband's bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Whiskey is spelled with an "e"

Well . . . Wild Turkey IS a whisk
ey. As is the Irish stuff. But Scottish whisky, whether a blend or single malt, is whisky (sans the 'e').

For a base near Inverness -- Nairn is lovely, or Beauly, or anywhere on the Black Isle like Rosemarkie Or a bit farther -- Grantown-on-Spey which is about 50-ish mins from Inverness but easily within commute distance of all the sites you listed and more.

But with a car you can stay in any village in the region -- sort of pick the property, not the town. If you find a B&B that blows you socks off, don't omit it because it isn't in a bigger town. And remember you'll never be driving at night (or in darkness anyway) since in June it will be daylight from about 0430 til close to 11PM.
Thanks for the reminder that we won't be driving in darkness. Makes me feel a lot better about driving on what I assume will be a lot of narrow roads and driving on the left. And choosing the accommodations first is good advice.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 11:43 AM
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For ruins you might want to modify your itinerary to include the Tweed valley to visit the ruined abbeys:

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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 12:07 PM
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Originally Posted by KarenWoo View Post
Gardyloo, I just noticed your detailed and helpful response. . . . But I am very intrigued with your descriptions of Oban and Mull and surrounding area. Edinburgh, the Inverness area (with Elgin Cathedral, Urquhart Castle, etc.) and Isle of Skye are musts for us. I am now wondering if I should omit the East Neuk coastal drive area so that I can include Oban and Mull.

According to Google maps (I know they aren't always correct), the drive from Stirling Castle (a must for us) to Nairn is just about 3 hours. Is this doable? Could we visit Stirling Castle and then drive to Nairn in one day? We would omit the East Neuk coastal drive if we do this and possibly omit St. Andrews.

So a possible itinerary could be:

Edinburgh - 4 nights
Nairn (or another close by village) - 4 nights
Portree on Skye - 3 nights
Oban - 4 nights to include perhaps a day trip to Mull or an overnight on Mull
Edinburgh - 1 night to catch our flight home the next day (unless we fly home from Glasgow)

I want to thank everyone for their very helpful replies and advice. Keep it coming!
I personally would not omit Fife/St Andrews. I personally would do Mull instead of Skye but it seems Skye is a must for you and early June is good because it will mitigate the crowds quite a bit -- British schools don't let out until mid to late July -- as long as you miss the half tern break (from around May 30 to June 3 or 4 - similar to our Memorial Day weekend but a bit longer). So after very early June through mid July there really aren't the summer crowds one would expect back home

To massage your itinerary a bit - (assuming in/out o EDI and 16 nights) something like:

Edinburgh - 4 nights
St Andrews or one of the East Newk fishing villages such as Crail. 2 nights
Ballater or somewhere else along Deeside 2 nights
Grantown-on Spey or Nairn or ?? 3 nights
Portree on Skye - 3 nights *
Callander or Stirling 2 nights **
Fly out of EDI but GLA would be just as easy.convenient

* Portree is the only actual town on Skye so has services/shops/restaurants/etc. so it would be fine. But I'd also kook at Sligachan insted of Portree Sligachan Hotel It is a stand alone hotel at a crossroads in just about the center of the island. The location makes touring around the island a lots more efficient time-wise.

** Unless your flight is very early AM no need to stay at EDI (or GLA) the last night. Callander is less than an hour's drive from EDI and about an hour from GLA. Stirling is less than 40 minutes from either EDI or GLA

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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 12:50 PM
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Karen, if I may jump in here for a moment, my husband and I visited Scotland in 2018, and janis j and gardyloo gave us excellent advice. We started out in Edinburgh for 4 days, went on to Callender, stopping at Stirling Castle on the way, and went on to other beautiful places. For the distillery part of our trip, we decided to stay at Highland Spirit B&B in Dufftown for 4 nights. I can highly recommend it. From Dufftown we spent a morning at Elgin Cathedral and an afternoon along the sersa. There were art studios open at that time, and one could visit during certain hours. We went to many studios and totally enjoyed ourselves another day. Eventually, as we made our way back to the airport, we drove through the Cairngorms and got out to walk around now and then, but we took our time. We are in our 70s now, fit for our age, but we pace ourselves. We stopped at St. Andrews on our last day and enjoyed the town itself and watching the golfers tee off on the course. We would go back in a heartbeat. I hope you have a wonderful time.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 02:26 PM
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Instead of 4 nights Nairn you might do 2 or 3 nights Elgin and 1 or 2 nights on Black Isle (Fortrose maybe). For distilleries, Aberlour near Elgin does a great tour and tasting that really goes into depth - - not just airbrushed glory, but nitty gritty about distilling (and scuttlebutt about other distilleries if you press for it) - - book in advance. Another sweet tour is Benromach in Forres, which was rebuilt by Gordon & McPhail (the classic Elgin whisky merchants) after being silent for many years, re-made in old-school style, meaning no computers, no automatization - - everything done by stillman's intuition. Nice sidelights after Elgin Cathedral ruins are the ruins of nearby Duffus castle; also the ancient Burghead Well. One really nice way to get to the area is to see the Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh, due north of Aberdeen, and take the beautiful coastal drive to Elgin (also: a fabulous book, wonderfully written, is The Lighthouse Stevensons, a stunning history of Scottish lighthouses as built by Robert Louis Stevenson's family - - he himself was too sickly to manage it, and became a writer).

Last edited by dfourh; Sep 7th, 2022 at 02:33 PM.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 05:24 PM
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If you really want ruins, you might want to modify your itinerary to visit the Tweed valley and its abbey ruins:

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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 06:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Michael View Post
For ruins you might want to modify your itinerary to include the Tweed valley to visit the ruined abbeys
Originally Posted by Michael View Post
If you really want ruins, you might want to modify your itinerary to visit the Tweed valley and its abbey ruins
The Borders are terrific -- and the Border Abbeys are lovely . . . but with Skye, Elgin, and whisky/whisky distilleries being priorities, the Borders really aren't a good fit. Maybe when/if they return and visit Northumberland they could do a foray into the adjacent Borders/St Abbs Head/Lindesfarne
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 06:47 PM
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Michael, thank you for your photos. They are awesome! Definitely an area we would like to visit on another trip. Janisj is right that we don't have the time on this trip. But as I mentioned upthread, we do want to re-visit London again some day, and want to include northern England, so that would be a good time to add on the Borders region of Scotland.
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Old Sep 7th, 2022, 06:54 PM
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Janisj, Fife and St. Andrews is back on the table! I read a blog about the best Scottish harbours and seaside towns to visit, and 4 places on the list are on the Fife Coast.
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