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Trip Report Our June week in Scotland - Edinburgh, Orkney, Ft William area, Glasgow

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I continued to travel for various reasons throughout the summer, so I am seriously delinquent on my trip reports. This is a great disservice to all of you who gave of your time to offer advice and answer questions. So, I will start with a first installment to force myself to get on with it! (and the trip reports now also needed on the Asia board for Thailand and Singapore).

With a couple of free days before a meeting and then a week of holiday with my husband between meetings, we planned our first trip to Scotland to be a blend of the typical first time tourist destinations with our personal interests. So, with the help of Fodorites,,,, and a few other sources we came up with our personalized tour via mostly public transportation with hotels chosen primarily for their transportation hub locations and many meals from grocery stores. All in all we had a great time despite the rain. We heard a lot about Mary, Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and William Wallace. We were soaked in the famous rainy weather while admiring the scenery. We saw people wearing kilts in everyday life. We ate haggis. We drank whisky. And we were welcomed by many friendly natives.

I arrived at EDI in the evening and found the Information Center folks very helpful. I easily found the Airlink bus. Once the bus dropped me on Waverly Bridge I understood what everyone meant by the hills, choosing a hotel that was up/down hill, as well as the mess of the tram construction. Taxis were waiting across the street, but I just needed to following the curving street uphill to North Bridge and then it was a straight shot on flat ground to the two different places I would stay: Kenneth Mackenzie university housing and Ten Hill Place hotel. My husband arrived jetlagged in the pouring rain a few days later. No taxis were waiting and he mistakenly turned down Market St and took an unwelcome tour of the lower part of the city before finding the hotel. Ten Hill Place was fine, but needs some deep cleaning of walls and furniture. Kenneth MacKenzie is worn, basic university housing with a great breakfast and a coin laundry.

A friend with a bad knee and I walked up the Royal Mile and visited the Castle and Gladstone’s Land. She had no problem with the walk and climbs up/down. We arrived before the castle opened and were at the front for the ticket window. When we left, there was a line. Our young tour guide made lots of mistakes. My friend’s audioguide was better. (She had rented one in case she could not understand the accent. English is her third language and she has decided that does not include Scottish.) The views were great, the castle OK. I’m a sucker for crown jewels.

We thought Gladstone’s Land was interesting because we like to learn how different classes of people lived through history. Also enjoyed just going down passages. I think the stone buildings and the topography give Edinburgh personality, distinction. We also rode the city bus to see Brittania at my friend’s request. Again, interesting, but not amazing. My only other tourist stop in the city was the National Museum where four of us met up to visit and casually tour. We each identified a few items of special interest and we inefficiently saw them while trying to make sense of the layout. I liked the odd assortment of the collection, but like most museums of its size, you can easily overload on the multitude of small items in some of the sections. We had several tasty pub meals (portions were very large).

I took a solo trip to Linlithgow via off-peak return ticket. I learned that the departure has to be off-peak, but return can be on any train. I love destinations where I can hop off the train and walk through a town to see the sights with alternatives in case I finish early or just an easy return if I decide to spend the day in one place. I passed a butcher, a baker, but no candlestick maker. I wandered through the castle ruins, up and down each tower (better than stairmaster), reading the informative boards. I had planned to walk around the loch for exercise, but it was populated by several groups of screaming children in sailboats and kayaks with a power boat circling them—so much for idyllic solitude, but still a lovely destination. I found the clean public toilet (remember to carry coins), then headed back to the station early to follow Plan B.

I purchased an off-peak return to Stirling and continued on. Arriving at the train station in Stirling I thought I would regret my decision—larger city with traffic, lines out the doors at McDonalds, etc. However, I persevered, found a bakery from which to buy a picnic lunch deal (meat pastry, drink, and dessert pastry--very healthy), and followed a walk around the city wall, then up to the castle for the tour. Again, I was rather disappointed in the tour guide. I had learned as much by looking at the info boards while waiting for the tour to start and didn't feel like it added to my experience, just inefficiently used up my time. The tapestries were especially interesting to me, though the workshop was not in operation. A walk downhill took me to the train back to Edinburgh and the reality of work for a few days.

It didn’t just rain in Edinburgh the rest of my visit, it poured. Crowded sidewalks with umbrellas, buses and cars splashing pedestrians, restaurants and coffee shops standing room only.

To give my husband a couple of nights in the same place upon arrival, we planned a day trip to St Andrews for Sunday. The train/bus trip was a breeze with a 15-minute wait for the bus or an immediate taxi ride from the station. After a short way on a tiny sidewalk along a busy street (Yikes!), we found our walking route that took us to the course, beach, castle, cathedral, and the other tourist highlights. We don’t golf, but we took photographs of ourselves to show golfer friends. We were halfway through town when my husband asked “Aren’t we going on the beach from Chariots of Fire?” I know he listens to me telling him about where we are visiting, but he doesn’t always share his expectations. So after a walk through the university, climb over the castle, wander through the cemetery, and a light lunch in a café, we retraced our steps to the beach before using the GPS to find the bus station. It was correct, but it was difficult to see the road and trust that it was the correct way (uphill) in time for the bus. Our options were to take the bus onward to the fishing villages and further walks or else retrace our path to Edinburgh. It was raining lightly in SA and my husband thought fishing villages would not be photogenic in steady rain, so we chose an early return. We hadn’t yet learned a seeming rule about the rain being proportionate to population. It was probably pure sunshine on the coast yet it was pouring when we reached Edinburgh. We decided we were wise to be leaving the city the next morning to fly to Kirkwall and my husband's only other requested destination--the Orkney Islands (next installment--less rain, fewer tourists, and driving on the left at least most of the time).

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    We were looking forward to Orkney too!

    A budget airline ride took us from EDI to Kirkwall. We checked one bag and carried on the rest. They weren't being exact about carryon size or weight, just eyeballing for gate checks on the small plane. The airport is tiny, but has great murals on the walls.

    Our flight time had changed and I forgot to adjust the rental car reservation, so the automatic transmission car was at the in-town location being cleaned. After finishing some paperwork and making sure the 1 or 2 other possible customers were gone, the clerk drove us to the shop so we wouldn't have to wait for the delivery (and he could go to lunch). We were let loose onto the left-hand side of the road in town, steering past the elderly man in the scooter chair on the sidewalk, waiting for the woman pushing a wheelchair through the crosswalk, through the roundabouts, and into the road where our B&B was located.

    The lack of house numbers resulted in us being cautious. We parked and I walked among the almost identical houses until I found the one with the proper name, Benmora. The hostess was extremely helpful, the room sufficient, the view great, and the breakfast outstanding.

    Using GPS and a map (belt and suspenders), we found a large grocery store where a clerk barely let us in the door before he wanted to help us find out picnic supplies.

    We had a plan to visit the sites with limited hours and timed entry first, then the rings in the evening, possibly a coastal walk. However, upon my first sighting of standing stones I sounded just like a child, "Stop! Stop! We have to get out." So we did, picking our way among the sheep and their droppings to see the Stenness stones. We missed the ranger walk at Ring of Brodgar, driving on to Skara Brae. While the nice lady at the ticket counter was deciding what pass or ticket would be best for us and taking our money, an onslaught of German tourists descended upon her from a bus. They were waving tickets, swarming both sides of the desk, threatening to overrun the quiet clerk. She repeatedly called for back-up--she really looked overwhelmed. A more experienced staffer came forward and told the group to calm down and file through in an orderly fashion. We decided it was a good time to take our picnic out to a table while the group started their tour. We enjoyed looking inside the recreated house, then at the real things. It piques the imagination to think of how it was discovered when sand shifted from a storm. We saw the upstairs of the landowner's house, but had to pass on the downstairs due to the tour group. The furnishings were quite distinctive. We elbowed our way out through the gift shop and ran for the car.

    We drove back to Maeshowe where we had made reservations over the phone, but they were not necessary. Our guide was fantastic, though I'd rather they didn't feel the need to entertain with corny jokes. The staff in the office were helpful too. I saw Sheila Fleet jewelry in the gift shop and quite liked it. My husband wanted to purchase something as my upcoming anniversary gift, but I saw that her shop was in Kirkwall so I asked him to wait and let me see the entire collection.

    We doubled back again (not far) to head to the Ring of Brodgar. On the tiny road (our third trip) as we rounded the curve by the construction equipment, a bicycle was ahead of us, so the cyclist moved further into the road away from the construction, my husband moved over too, only to see the cyclist was headed toward an oncoming car. Unfortunately, my husband's quick instincts were to move to the right and stop. I'm saying "No, no, left." He's getting ready to drive into the lake so the cyclist and the oncoming car can take the pavement, but he recovered back to the left and stopped. The cyclist looked shaken and the other driver wide-eyed, but the construction workers were unphased. We parked the car, walked up the hill and continued to be amazed. We strolled around, down to the unexcavated mound, watched birds, and generally chilled out after the exciting encounter on the road. We called it a day and headed back to Kirkwall for a pub dinner and stroll along the water. Great almost sunset at 10pm.

    Next morning, we drove over to Stromness, an interesting mix of historic and working town. We walked the streets that seemed to be filled with restoration work and watched working boats in the harbor, not doing much except looking. We returned the rental car in Kirkwall before visiting the ruins, the wireless museum and some shops. My husband was begging "no more ruins" after this. We probably would have been happier with a coastal walk. I ended up picking the same necklace at the jewelry shop that I had seen the day before and walked out with it around my neck :-) We shared a table at the packed Judith Glue cafe (great food) while it rained, then took a quick and cheap taxi ride back to the airport and our onward flight to Inverness. The B&B had been kind enough to hold our bags until we were ready to leave.

    We could see ourselves spending 2-3 days around the Orkneys. The distances, ferries, etc. do not lend themselves to quick tours.

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    We love sparsely populated, dramatic natural areas, so Orkney will remain on our list.

    At Inverness we learned not to trust the bus schedule. The airport-city bus was scheduled to leave while we were still waiting for the checked bag. We went to the info desk (with overhead schedule sign) to verify next bus and relative cost to taxi and saw the bus passing out front. So, we would wait for the next one given the price differential. The next bus pulled up, let everyone on and took off--probably 10 minutes ahead of schedule. So no way to predict or plan.

    We were headed to the main bus terminal to transfer to our long-distance bus to Fort William. Heeding the suggestion online to make reservations, I had purchased discounted tickets in advance. But with the changed flight schedule, we were again early. Catching the attendant at 4:55pm (she tried to close the window for the night with me standing there), she told me that we could just show our tickets for the later bus to the next driver and he would let us on. We found an open shop to buy a bottle of water to supplement our snacks and waited for the bus. As predicted, the driver just checked the date on the printout and took us on.

    The bus trip was long, but scenic. A short tour through Inverness, then out along Loch Ness and the chain of lochs to Fort William. It was prettier than I expected based on comments on this board. We were tired and happy not to be driving (husband even napped a bit), but the downside was we couldn't stop for views. The bus driver was safe and helpful to the tourists. He saw a couple with a daypack waiting at a viewpoint and stopped to see what was going on. Something about their luggage was on another bus; some bus was supposed to pick them up. The driver made some phone calls, saying that someone did not pick them up. We left them there, but he later flagged down the bus going in the opposite direction and got off to talk with the driver about what to do about the couple.

    We got off at the Fort William bus/train station, finally found the underpass, and headed to our hotel dodging street performers and skateboarders. We liked Fort William more than we expected based on the comments on this board. Too bad the busy road runs along the waterfront, but the rest just seemed like a typical working town. However, but the hotel (Best Western Imperial) was a real dump. The special low price the owner of the group of hotels offers shows you often get what you pay for. Still, if we weren't staying there I wouldn't have heard bagpipes wafting on the wind through the rain one night. Pretty good porridge, too.

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    Our reason for based in Fort William was to use the train north and south. The next day was fair, so we headed south to Corrour. This was on my "must-see" list--taking a train to a stop that has a hostel about 1 mile down a gravel road plus a sometimes open cafe/hostel at the platform. After that just trails on the moors. Perfect. The conductor told us to meet at the end of a specific car because only one door opens at Corrour.

    Two women who work at the hostel got off the train with us and proceeded to talk loudly nonstop as they walked to the hostel. First we went ahead, then we slowed and stopped to let them get out of earshot so we could enjoy the silence. We met maybe 4 other hikers as we headed toward and then around the lake. We had a plan A and a plan B. A was the long hike around the lake with the later train back to FW. B was to hike as long as we wanted along the lake, then turn back in time to catch the earlier train back. After 1-1.5 hours, I was ready to sit for picnic and enjoy the scenery though we did have to look a bit to pick a spot with a view. I didn't know about the forestry industry on the moor and how many trees were planted there.

    By the time we had eaten our lunch (purchased at the grocery in Fort William), rain clouds were on the horizon, so we decided to follow plan B and turn back. Sprinkles followed us, but the rain held off until we were back in FW. The women also followed us back to the train platform, but we just hung out on the back porch for some final quiet moments. The cafe/hostel had signs saying it was reopening soon....

    We boarded the train with the same conductor and we all returned to FW for a good, but large pub dinner. As we sat in the room with the window open to the rain, I heard bagpipes on the wind. Real? Imagination playing tricks? I pulled on my boots, raincoat and umbrella and took off following the sound. My husband had good enough sense to stay inside out of the rain. My search took me to the little square by the museum where the local school pipe and drum corp were putting on a public demonstration and passing the hat for donations. Those poor kids were standing in the rain in kilts plus ponchos playing their best. I hadn't brought my wallet or purse, so I returned to the room to get some cash, but by the time I returned they had packed it in and left. Did I imagine it?

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    We continued to prove our hypothesis that the intensity of rain in Scotland is proportional to the local population as we boarded the train toward the isles. We had 3 options: A ride to end of line, wander about Mallaig for lunch and return, B Morar and the white sand beaches seen in movie American Hero, or C Glenfinnan walk and/or Loch tour. The weather improved as we left the city behind so outdoor activities were a possibility. The mountainous scenery with lochs--Rannoch Moor was interesting, but this was pretty. My husband chose Morar and the beaches for our first stop.

    We stepped off into the tiny town and used walk instructions from walkinghighlands again to find a path between houses, through sheep fields, and into small white sand coves with dead small crabs. We climbed over some rocks, tested the chill water with my hand, and headed back to town. A great photo we got was of a large dog sitting on a box where he can just see over the fence to watch walkers like us or the few cars that pass down his lane. There is another path down stairs to the town's beach, but it is tiny. The large stretches of white sand are outside of town and this seemed another place where a car would be preferable. As we are more mountain than beach people, we weren't willing to walk along the road far enough to reach the large beaches. Instead we stopped at the local hotel and inquired about tea and scones. Breakfast was done and they don't do lunch, but they were willing to open the bar to serve tea and biscuits--lovely. After a relaxing break on what was becoming a slow trip for us, we crossed the road to wait for the bus and waved to the steam train engineer as he passed.

    The bus took us on a careening ride--white beaches, islands in clear view offshore, golfers waving as they climbed over a fence to retrieve a ball, a village lane with cars parked on both sides and people opening doors without regard for the bus barreling through. But we made it to Glenfinnan in one piece.

    We took the walk under the viaduct and continued up the valley until the rain threatened, then back to the visitors center. There was a fire going under the viaduct and construction work on the hillside, so we didn't climb up to the train station. We had a nice view of the viaduct from a hill with benches for that purpose. An easy walk along a road. We are really getting soft.

    The ladies at the cafe informed us that the food was prepared on site fresh each day, so we had to try their soup and baked goods. We sat outside and played with the sparrows who obviously had watched the movie "The Birds" too many times. If we stopped moving spoon, fork, or tea cup, a bird was at the table in less than 5 seconds with his family and friends close behind lined up on the railing trying to look menacing.

    With only light rain and an hour before the bus, we took the trail along the boardwalk and up the logging road. The route is well signposted with distances for various walking destinations yet the road had a sign saying "authorized personnel and vehicles only" from a forestry company. We ignored the warning and took a walk above the loch, seeing the sightseeing boat dock and the rain clouds move in.

    Shortly after the scheduled time a nondescript minibus appeared that we flagged down to check--yes it was the bus to Fort William; get on board and pay at the end. Road construction was playing havoc with the schedule and he wanted to keep moving.

    Back in the city, it took us awhile to make sense of the walking directions around the circle to get to the old fort, but we finally made it to the waterside, read the historical signs, watched some boats at work, etc.

    Each day as we went out and returned the sky cleared so we had good views of Ben Nevis from every direction. We didn't do everything I had listed as possibilities in Fort William--the waterfall walk at the head of the glen, the country dancing at a church, or the traditional music at the Ben Nevis. My husband tends to want to chill in the hotel room in the evening. We weren't interested in climbing Ben Nevis--as you can see, we were taking it easy on the hikes this trip.

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    Glencoe, Glen Coe, a source of great confusion to me as I planned this trip. Everyone said it was gorgeous, not to be missed, but you had to have a car. If we had one more day in the trip we wanted to rent a car for the day from Fort William, drive over to see the glen, maybe take a hike, etc. before taking the train to Glasgow. We didn't have that day, so we booked the bus from Fort William to Glasgow that would pass through the glen. A long, but scenic route.

    Once on the ground I understood. Glencoe village is down on the river. A tiny village that I think we would have enjoyed as an overnight if traveling by car. The bus stops here, but it is too far from the scenic part of the glen for walkers to use as a base unless taxis are available. Glencoe Visitor Centre is also along the bus route, but still below the star of the show. The glen itself--my husband said "This is better than anyplace we've been in the last few days." The dramatic mountains around the narrow valley was gorgeous! We are so glad we took the bus along this route rather than the more comfortable train back over the moor.

    A car would have been great to stop for views and perhaps a hike (though most I found required true climbing) if one could find a parking space. Every turnout and parking area looked packed at 9:00 on a Friday morning in the light rain. A place we would like to return to see again, perhaps with some sunlight?

    The bus took us along Loch Lomond, but by then I think we had seen enough lochs and hills that we thought, "nice" and husband napped until we reached the bustling bus station in Glasgow.

    We walked across the city center to our hotel (only up one unnecessary hill), the Hotel Indigo, highly recommended on Tripadvisor and a pleasant contrast to the BW Imperial with modern facilities, air conditioning, comfortable bed, great breakfast....

    My niece's office appeared to be about 1.5 miles from the hotel and the subway stations were out of the way, so of course we decided to walk and find lunch along the way. We did find a suitable middle eastern cafe that served great food as the rain started. Unfortunately, because we were back in a densely populated area, the rain did not stop and was accompanied by thunder and even some lightening. Because it could only be a few more blocks, my husband insisted we would get wetter waiting for a bus or taxi on the street rather than briskly walking in our rain duds + my umbrella (he does not use one), so we took off in the downpour for several blocks before taking refuge with others under a shop awning, then braving the last few blocks after my niece started texting that she didn't expect us to show because of the bad weather. We definitely tested the quick drying capabilities of my husband's hiking clothes that day.

    After the clouds parted we had a nice evening around University of Glasgow, the botanic garden, a restaurant in a converted church (an entree salad--I felt healthy again), and some neighborhood exploring with my niece who had only moved there two weeks before our arrival. We wisely used the subway to reduce the walk back to the hotel.

    Our morning in Glasgow was devoted to an architecture walk and a visit to the bag piping centre (how could I resist?). As an architecture fan, I enjoyed the mix of styles in Glasgow. I would like to spend another day or two there in the future to see even more. Plus, we did not make it to any museums. It had been a week and we were tiring of being tourists. My niece met us for lunch and then we basically started on onward journeys.

    Flying out from Glasgow was inconvenient--my husband would have to fly at 6am or so and have a long layover. He does not travel on commercial airlines well, so connections are not good for his disposition. I would fly out at noon, also connecting to get to Oslo late where I would have to catch a train, then get to my hotel and be ready to attend meetings first thing in the morning. So we booked what might seem odd--discounted direct train tickets to Manchester airport with overnight at the airport hotel where he could depart at 9am on a direct flight home and I could fly direct to OSL before noon, arriving in time for the train, hotel, and even dinner. However, when we walked into the train station in Glasgow about an hour before departure, CANCELLED was posted next to our train! We found a ticket counter (Virgin), figuring if it was the wrong place they could at least tell where/what to do. "Yes, the train is cancelled as far as Carlisle. Are you ready to leave now?" Yes, we are. "Then quickly go out these doors and get on that bus. It will take you to Carlisle (I think that was the place) where you can pick up a train to another city and then on to the airport." So much for our relaxing train trip direct to the airport. My niece ran ahead and we secured the last 2 seats on the next bus. It was a hot, crowded drive for several hours in the rain.

    At the station, we learned the problem was flooding on the tracks. Instead of taking the next train and making another connection, we opted to cool our heels in the station and wait for a direct train to the airport. Tickets were being honored on any train on the route that day.

    The Radisson Blu at the Manchester Airport was comfortable, if worn hotel. Indoor connection to both my husband's and my terminals. We checked out the terminals for the next day, then returned to the hotel weary from the unexpected complications in the travel plans and needing to pack for airline travel. There weren't many food options in the terminals, so we had to eat at the hotel. We had to wait for a table, then wait for service, then wait for food. We were exhausted by the time we made it back to the room and our last night in the UK.

    The location worked great the next morning, though we went into the terminals to find food. Unfortunately, the better selection was after passport and security and we were leaving from different terminals, so we settled for marginal food at a takeaway stand. After my husband was on his way, I was able to return to the room for a second cup of tea before checking out and getting on my own flight.

    I've already posted the Norway trip report--I took several days of vacation after the meeting there.

    We enjoyed our first visit to Scotland. I say first because usually after we visit a place, reasons come up for us to return. My niece will be living in Glasgow for at least 3 years, to that is a start. Plus, we know have a better idea of which areas we would like to spend more time in. Now, if we could just do something about that rain....

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    I've been busy so have had to read your trip reoport in short pieces. I really enjoyed it. I often stay at Rannoch Moor Station just down the road from Corrour. I'm guessing it was Loch Ossian you walked to and not Loch Treig ? I also find myself trying to out pace or fall behind other walkers as I enjoy the solitude. I've found there are usually fewer people about the earlier I go.

    I will be returning to Scotland this coming year and thinking about Glen Coe as it's been some time since I've been there. Nice to know how the buses operate.

    I was amused that you frequently found the tour guides wanting. I agree. The audios are usually better. I do considerable research before I go just so I can avoid such tours. FYI the reason for the corny jokes is to entertain those tourists ( the majority, I suppose) whose minds start to wander after three mintes of historical information.

    Very nice report and as they say in Scotland... Hasten ye back

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    Yes, we walked to/around Loch Ossian from Corrour. We love to dayhike, but decided to only take short walks on this trip and mix with sightseeing since there were so many places we wanted to see and real hiking can be exhausting.

    We agree with you on the hiking early tactic. Better chance of good weather as well as solitude. I reminded myself that these women were just walking to work having a chat, not out to hike in this remote location, so I just avoided them. My husband is not so patient and was about to either tell them to lower their voices or else break into a run to get away from the gossipy loud chatter.

    Glen Coe by bus was definitely a compromise--great view from the large windows, but no time on the ground. I think it would be possible to take a bus to a desired stopping off point and then flag down a later bus. They seemed pretty accommodating for pick up/drop off. However, the number of buses each day is very limited past the village of Glen Coe. Car hire is available in Fort William and taxi/tour services as well. I even toyed with the idea of using the hiker luggage transfer service to move our luggage from Fort William to Bridge of Orchy, take the bus to a stop in Glen Coe for hiking, then flag down a later bus on to be reunited with our luggage and next day take the train on to Glasgow. But the train schedules didn't accommodate and it seemed too complicated.

    I've occasionally enjoyed on-site and day-tour guides for the details or answers to questions. I am disappointed when all they can do is recite a script. Might as well use the audioguide or a book and move at my own pace instead of with the herd.

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