There are few things more “touristy” than riding around on a tour bus–it’s literally right there in the name. Touristy is the worst, I thought! So when I learned I was going to travel through the Scottish Highlands (generally, the country’s northwest region of mountains, valleys, and lakes) by tour bus, I was slightly skeptical–it didn’t exactly sound like the most original way to experience anything.
I was very, very wrong. Idiotically wrong.
But about three minutes into the bus ride as I stared out the window, I realized something important: I was very, very wrong. Idiotically wrong. The scenery was beautiful and untouched, with hills piled on top of each other, but there was something else to it entirely. Scotland by bus was… whimsical. Simple grassy slopes took on a magical, undulating form. It was like staring at a living being, more so than a place–the scenery looked like a character from a book. It looked like something only found in fairy tales or fantasy young adult novels I had read as a teenager. It didn’t take me long to see that the Highlands were special, and that it didn’t matter how I traveled through them. All that mattered was that I was there.
I was about to experience a slap in my bus-hating face.
Prologue: The Charioteer
We were to begin our trek from our hotel in Inverness and make our way east past Loch Ness, and then veer north towards Isle of Skye. It was a day-long excursion of a five-day trip (including Edinburgh and Glasgow, additionally), hosted by Brendan Vacations, the premier Ireland and Scotland destination expert.
Brendan is not like other tours–it’s much more personable. A local host meets travelers along their journeys to provide them with tips of what not to miss from a local perspective, as well as give them a deeper sense of the history and culture of where they are. They’re warm and welcoming, and will give you every piece of information you need for whatever it is you’d like to do on your trip. And then? They leave you to be on your way–alone, if that’s what you want. They’re helpful yet not invasive. Better yet, you’re completely in charge of your trip–they’re just there to show you the way.
INSIDER TIPBrendan Vacations offers fully-guided tour packages, private chauffeuring, and overall a personalized experienced–if you’re going to travel Scotland, this is the way to do it.
Our luxury bus seated 20 (though there were only six of us) with enormous five-foot tall windows that took up almost all of the entire side of the vehicle. It was immensely spacious. I was already impressed by this bus, which is a thought I hadn’t presupposed. Maybe this wasn’t going to be such a bad way to get around after all.
Chapter One: The Monster in the Loch
After an hour or so, we arrived at Loch Ness. But once we’d arrived, driving around the lake took a while. It stretches over 23 miles, and from my view from the window, it looked like it extended to the actual ends of the earth. The water was murky in places and sparkling in others–it had a general mystique vibe to it. I had one simple question: Where? Is? Nessie? Show me the monster!
Accounts of the Loch Ness monster date back to over a thousand years ago, and to this day, every credible piece of “evidence” alluding to its existence has been disproved. The first sighting was in 565 AD, where it was claimed that Nessie literally ate a farmer and then got pushed back into the sea by an Irish missionary. In 1933, the Inverness Courier reported that “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface” was seen by a Scottish couple–this sighting (hoax) piqued interest and Nessie became a treasure hunt for the media, with London newspapers sending journalists to Scotland in search of…well, nothing, as it turned out. Soon after, in 1934, a famous photograph (the “surgeon’s photo,” snapped by Colonel Robert Wilson) showed a dinosaur-like sea creature, causing everybody to believe it was a dinosaur that hadn’t gone extinct (this photograph was outed as a hoax in 1994). In the 1960s, British universities used sonar to search Loch Ness–they didn’t find a monster, but “large, moving underwater objects they could not explain” were, in fact, detected.
Okay, so finding Nessie wasn’t looking good based on this information, but, hey, I still had hope based on absolutely no facts. We pulled off to the side of the road, I stumbled out of the bus, and ran right up to the little stone wall that lined the waters. I scanned Loch Ness, searching for movement.
Okay, there wasn’t any movement, sure, but, I still believed she (Nessie) was there, somewhere. Even though every single “sighting” of Nessie has been disproved, the fact remains that the general dreaminess exuding from the Loch Ness area has certainly inspired many stories and tales, fantastical or otherwise. The combination of a long, murky body of water with shadowy castles in its backdrop is enough to make a person want there to be something hiding in the lake. Realistically is there a large, long-necked swimming monster lurking about down there? I don’t know. (Probably not.)
The Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition offers tour cruises of Loch Ness if you’d like to scan the waters in search of Nessie up close.
Chapter Two: The Ghost of Eilean Donan Castle
After getting back on the bus and traveling about 15 minutes or so, we arrived at the foot of Eilean Donan Castle, which is one of the most recognized images of Scotland (Highlander, anyone?) and is situated on an island directly at the point where three great lochs meet.
Upon deboarding, I heard the sounds of bagpipes, which seemed, at first, to be venting straight from the earth.
They weren’t, though. They were coming from this guy.
The castle is said to be haunted by a Spanish soldier.
The castle was the site of many raids and sieges, and at one point was essentially torn down to rubble until being rebuilt in the mid-1900s. It was originally built to defend the area from invading Vikings and was a fortress for the Jacobite rebellions in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is, overall, one of the most visited attractions in the Scottish Highlands (understandably–it’s incredibly scenic). Oh, and also, it’s said to be haunted by a Spanish soldier. I’m sorry, what? Right, so, here’s the deal: 46 Spanish soldiers were stationed at the castle when it was attacked by government boats during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1719. The ghost is said to be one of these soldiers who died on this day. People have claimed to see his ghost holding his own head in his arms on the grounds.
After briefly exploring many artifacts inside the castle, I had two options: get married in the Great Hall (eh, maybe next time), or hide from that ghost. Luckily, the castle had many little nooks, which provided great solitary spots to escape the crowds (and, presumably, the ghost).
Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess–bye, ghost) my hiding time was cut short. The bus was departing and it was time for the next thing, which was momentarily upsetting until I remembered that every stop the bus dropped us at was somehow even lovelier than the previous.
Chapter Three: A Brewery, a Bridge, and a Brownie
We left the castle and continued through the Isle of Skye, stopping at Sligachan, which was the location of a unique craft brewery, Cuillin Brewery, and also the most enchanting little bridge I’d ever seen, right smack in the middle of mountains and moorland.
The bridge looked quite familiar, because I’m quite sure I’ve seen it in my nightmares. The openings underneath it appeared completely black and it absolutely looked like something was waiting under there (a hobgoblin was my guess). This wasn’t out of the question–the Isle of Skye has plenty of myths and legends attached to it. According to traditional Scottish folklore, the formations of many of its landscapes were created by giants–the Old Man of Storr, a spiky rock formation on the isle, is said to be the thumb of a giant (the rest of him was buried by earth). A rivaling tale tells of how the same gigantic rock was chiseled by a little hobgoblin (called a Brownie), who was brokenhearted when he returned home to find out that his friends had died.
INSIDER TIPMy trip was smushed into several days, but usually Brendan Vacations gives travelers a lot longer to explore. Trips start at 6 days and extend up to 23.
That said, I didn’t find a hobgoblin of my own. There was nothing else here. There was the brewery. There was the bridge. There were hills, ponds, rocks, extending seemingly forever. It was completely quiet, and the only sound in existence was the wind. I sat on a rock and stared at it all for a while, feeling like I jumped into a fairy tale and fell out specifically right here, rather than having been dumped off by a tour bus–which, honestly, didn’t matter anymore. The bus was my ticket to magic, at this point.
Epilogue: Bus Windows, Phil Collins, and a Portal to Elsewhere
Feeling transcendental, I climbed back onto my magical tour bus and did the number one spiritual thing anyone can ever do: I scrunched up in a little ball, looked out the window, and listened to Phil Collins. The tour was ending, and somewhere along the line the bus had become comforting–I was with a group of people but could still stare out the window at the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and feel completely alone–it was just like reading a book. Heading home, my mind quieted as I stared at the villages scattered amongst the hills, making up my own stories.
I loved the dang bus at this point. I had assumed that tour bus travel meant it would be a very “touristy” experience–and I was very wrong. No matter how you travel throughout the Scottish Highlands, there’s absolutely no way it won’t be one of the most magical, incredible experiences you could ever hope to have.