Into the Scottish Highlands

eilean donan castle

We spent four days in the lovely Speyside area of the Scottish Highlands. Not quite as mountainous as better-known areas of the Highlands, Speyside features rolling hills and open plains, as well as, of course, the River Spey, which gives the area both its name and its distinct whisky characteristics.

Day One

We stopped at Eilean Donan Castle on our way back to mainland Scotland from the Isle of Skye. Located just over the Skye Bridge in Kyle of Lochalsh, the castle sits on a small island where three lochs meet and is accessible by a small footbridge. There’s no denying how Instagrammable this place is; if you’ve seen any photos of Scotland, some of them were almost certainly of Eilean Donan. Our recommendation: visit the castle to take photos and enjoy the gorgeous setting, but don’t spend the time or money to go in it. It was incredibly crowded with way more people than the castle could hold. We also weren’t blown away by the interior. The displays were more focused on the present day family and how they use the castle, rather than its history. But there’s no denying that view!

eilean donan castle

Our original plans had included a stop in Drumnadrochit (“drum-na-DROCH-it”) to spend some time exploring Loch Ness, but Eilean Donan and the driving had taken longer than expected and we still had a ways to go before reaching Speyside. We decided to take a day trip a few days later instead (luckily we had a free day built into the itinerary).

We arrived at Speybank B&B, a comfortable guest house overlooking the village of Craigellachie (“crah-GAL-akey”), late in the afternoon, then wandered down into the village for dinner at the Highlander Inn.

Day Two

I woke up feeling a bit queasy but went down to breakfast with Alex. After a bit of food in my stomach, I started to feel better so we set out for the Walker’s Shortbread Factory in the neighboring village of Aberlour (“AB-er-lauer”). As someone who grew up eating Walker’s Shortbread, this was incredibly exciting!

Aberlour was holding its Highland Games that day so we walked over to the village park by the River Spey to enjoy an afternoon of Highland dance competitions, track and field events, and piping.

Unfortunately, my recovery had been short-lived and I started feeling very sick, very quickly and had to go back to the B&B after about an hour (which meant we didn’t get to see the Haggis Throwing competition!). I spent the rest of the day in bed while Alex went for a verrry long walk along the River Spey from Craigeallachie to Aberlour and back and spent the evening at The Quaich, a world-renowned whisky bar located in the Craigellachie Hotel.

Day Three

I woke up feeling much better and after breakfast we set off through the Cairngorms National Parkfor Drumnadrochit, a small town situated on the shores of Loch Ness that’s also home to the Urquhart Castle ruins. Anything Loch Ness Monster-related likely features Drumnadrochit, Urquhart Castle, or both.

urquhart castle

Urquhart was a really fun castle. It was destroyed by its owners in the 18th century so the Jacobites couldn’t use it during the Rising. Beyond that, not much is known about the castle and its long history, so there’s a lot of speculation around what the various parts of the castle were used for, adding to its mystique and uniqueness. There was also a guy dressed as an 18th-century Highlander talking to visitors about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Jacobite weapons which was pretty interesting.

urquhart castle

We also went to the Loch Ness Center & Exhibition about two miles up the road from Urquhart Castle, but wouldn’t recommend you spend your time or money here. While there was some interesting information and history on the Loch Ness Monster legend, it was very video-based and not interactive; you move as a group from dark room to dark room, standing and watching a new video in each one. The exhibition ended in a display room with Loch Ness Monster newspaper articles, photos, and so on. However, it wasn’t very crowded which was a nice change.

On our way back to Craigellachie, we stopped at Culloden Battlefield, the windswept moor where the Jacobites made their final stand and one of my must-dos. We opted not to go to into the visitor center but took a long walk around the moor, seeing the Graves of the Clans, the Memorial Cairn, and the flags marking the Jacobite and Redcoat positions during the battle. The National Trust of Scotland is currently working to restore the moor’s topography, plants, and wildlife to its 1746 state.

Back in Craigellachie, we checked into the Craigellachie Lodge, a beautiful old mansion tucked along a narrow, tree-lined country road. We had dinner at Copper Dog, located just down the hill in the Craigellachie Hotel.

Day Four

It was finally whisky day! Another thing on our must-do list was to take a tour of the Speyside whisky region. After sorting through a lot of companies, options, and price tags, we settled on a private, full-day experience with Speyside Whisky Tours. We spent the day with Toby Wingfield-Digby, chauffeur, tour guide, and whisky connoisseur. Toby seemed to know everyone at every distillery and was quite the character – so be prepared for a unique, interactive, and highly memorable experience.

It wasn’t cheap but it was well-worth it and we would absolutely do it again. The 10-hour tour in a Range Rover Vogue cost £400 (though if you had more than two people, it would be £150 each) and did not include the tasting/tour fees at the distilleries. However, Speyside Whisky Tours made all the bookings for us. We HIGHLY recommend you take advantage of Toby’s expertise and hire Speyside Whisky Tours for your Speyside whisky experience!

We wound down from our amazing day with another dinner at Copper Dog then put our new whisky knowledge to the test with a couple of drams at The Quaich. The next morning, we got on the road for a final night in Edinburgh.

Next: A Speyside Whisky Tour