Day 4 of our Scotland Road Trip takes in: Glencoe – Fort William – Glenfinnan Viaduct – The Cairngorm National Park – The Whisky Trail- The Glenlivet – Kildrummy Castle
A Scotland Road Trip is an experience like no other – especially when you travel in autumn. The fall foliage glows from gold to a deep red, there’s a chill in the air that doesn’t cause frostbite and everywhere offers a warming fireplace to sit by at the end of each day. The plans for day four of our road trip across Scotland will see us depart Glencoe and head to Fort William to see the famous Jacobite train, then on to Glenfinnan to watch it traverse the stunning viaduct as seen in Harry Potter movies, then through the wilderness of the southern highlands and Cairngorms National Park onto the start of the Whisky Trail, culminating in an evening in a hunting lodge at Kildrummy. Yes – that’s probably two days’ worth of experiences for most travelers, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Our Scotland Road Trip Continues…
Rising early, it’s a short drive from Glencoe along the grand Loch Leven towards Fort William. Fort William is a town known mainly for its network of locks that connect Lochy River and Loch Eil. Having visited here back in the 80s, not a lot has changed around the actual locks though the town is almost a city now.
Neptune’s Steps is the rather nautical name for the set of locks that raise and lower boats from the higher loch down over a series of gates. Today there’s no boats trying to get through but I definitely remember seeing a couple of them backed up in the past. It’s a process that can take quite a while.
The Jacobite steam train at Fort William
The other main appeal to visitors is an old steam train that runs out to the coast. Yes, steam trains are a novelty, but they’re a dime a dozen in the UK. What makes this one different if that it runs along the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the same track the Hogwart’s Express traversed in the Harry Potter movies. The Jacobite is hence marketed as a Hogwarts experience and the day trip includes touches from the movie like a snack cart that sells Harry Potter branded chocolate frogs. Many of the passengers have dressed for the occasion, with Hogwarts house scarves and uniforms or carrying stuffed toy versions of the owl, Hedwig. We manage to see the Jacobite up close at the Fort William station, where it’s loading excited passengers as the coal get the boiler to an ideal temperature for departure.
The Race to Glenfinnan Viaduct
Alas, we need to take the car and unfortunately ours doesn’t fly. Instead, we almost miss seeing the train cross the Viaduct after getting stuck at mile after mile of roadworks. It’s a mad dash from an illegal car park to catch just a glimpse of its thick cloud of black smoke as it crosses the Viaduct. If you don’t get caught up in roadworks, still plan to be there half an hour before the crossing. The traffic is insane and there’s barely any place to park. Most go for the vantage point a ten-minute climb above the visitor’s center but those in the know head down to the other side of the Viaduct and up above it for the optimum Hogwarts Express photo (with much less competition for a spot).
A Scotland Road Trip will make you take life at a slower pace
Road issues are a consistent theme when driving in Scotland. There is either roadworks, a crash or a breakdown causing major disruptions. Expect to be stuck for an hour behind a tractor as it casually trundles along the narrow drywall and hedgerows that appear on maps as major thoroughfares.
It is after stopping at a local tearoom where the road is blocked by a rolled semi-trailer truck where we spot a rare break in the traffic and make up for over an hour of lost time. At this point, the drive becomes truly stunning as the road weaves between patchwork fields and mountain climbs. We’re winding our way through the Cairngorms, one of Scotland’s most renowned wilderness areas.
Prepare to have your breath taken away
By now, we’ve adjusted to the Scottish pace, prompting those more impatient to overtake us while we soak in the grandeur. A change of tempo also means being open to stopping when we spot something interesting – like this old stone gatehouse to a manor. The Ardverikie Lodge is actually the front gate to the gloriously ostentatious estate that was first built in the 1800s. In its heyday, the sprawling hunting estate was spread over a 145,000 acre holding. It’s shrunk to a miserly 38,000 acres, complete with Ardverikie Manor, the setting for the BBC show, Monarch of the Glen.
And while it’s this stately folly that prompts us to pull over, it’s the sound of rushing water that entices further exploration. Hopping between mossy stones and through rough brush takes us to a sight well worth the leap of faith and potential slips. It’s a torrential waterfall gushing out from a narrow gorge where it meets the brackish waters of the River Pattack. The raw captures the power of nature at its best.
Stop and smell the fresh highland air
Another way to take it all in is to stop at the Creag Meagaidh nature reserve. As we’re well into autumn, the heather and bracken have turned a rusty orange to brown, but the hills are still alive with color. A range of tracks take hikers to the hills above and local streams where you can see plenty of wildlife. Apparently. We’re just happy to stretch our legs and admire the light show of a double rainbow (all the way across the sky).
For all the animals we haven’t seen at the stop, they all make an appearance as we trundle along the open roads. We pass deer, grouse and even what we think may have been a badger.
The Whisky Trail
The landscape evolves back to farmland as we reach closer or sea level again. We’re now just above the River Spey, a water course more known for what is produced around it – the original magic water, whisky. We have entered a mystical part of the distilling world known as the speyside. Within this region, some of Scotland’s most famous and loved Scotches are produced with labels that include Aberlour, Balvenie (our favourite), Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenfiddich and McCallan. We only have time for one stop on this whisky trail – The Glenlivet.
One of our favorite drops, The Glenlivet is a must-see for scotch whisky aficionados (note the spelling – it’s different to American bourbon whiskey). Unlike the peaty, smokiness of Oban and the island Scotches, the Speyside scotch whiskies are smoother and more pure in their flavor. We spend a good hour and a half learning about what makes it different (like the fact the water is still drawn from the original 18th Century source).
The Glenlivet Distillery is where one of the world’s best selling scotch whisky is produced.
Glenlivet, Ballindalloch AB37 9DB, UK
Winter (November – early March) closed
Summer (Mid March – Mid November) open
The tours cost 10 pounds per person and run for an hour and a quarter. You get your money’s worth with samples of cask ready (60%) scotch, a 15 year and an 18 year as well as a souvenir tasting glass. You have to be over 18 to go on the tours. Designated drivers can pay a little extra to take their tasting away.
For information or to make a group bookings of seven people of more please call + 44 1340 821720 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A Scotland Road Trip has to include the Highlands
Despite any urges to consume our sweet providence, we resist. Opting to take a quaint country road, the drive rapidly descends into an abyss of stress as we suddenly find ourselves at the highland’s top ski fields. The roads incline at such a gradient that the brakes and clutch are almost frying and so are our nerves. It’s pitch black outside and we are limited to what we can see with the high beams. A burning stench is seeping in via the air conditioning. The hire car is not liking this, and neither are we. We’ve been on tamer roller-coasters.
Back to Civilization
Finally, we hit the foothills which quickly morph into winding country roads. After the angst of the downhill run, we’re just happy to be back in civilization. We even find a village with a shop that’s still open.
After a long and challenging drive through the Highlands and the Cairngorms, we’ve never been gladder to see a hotel driveway. As if the universe is looking out for us, we’re greeted by a family of bunnies as we enter the gates of the stately Kildrummy Castle House, our accommodation for the evening. They play in the light of the car’s high beams before beating a hasty retreat into the undergrowth.
Thankfully it’s all been worth it as we enter the palatial former hunting lodge which will be our home for the night (if only it was ours for keeps!). After an elegant gourmet dinner, we enjoy a few beers and a dram of The Glenlivet by the fireplace. It’s a fitting finale for an epic day on the road.