The Hunt for Jamie Fraser: My Haggis Adventures 10 Day Compass Buster Tour in Scotland
Just like Ireland, I really wanted to visit Scotland in depth. I didn’t just want to pop into Edinburgh. As a huge fan of the books (and now series) Outlander, I yearned for the highlands!
But just like Ireland, I was in a bit of a predicament about how exactly to get there. Transport between cities was possible but a lot of the natural wonders of the highlands just aren’t easy to travel without a car.
So, I once again decided to hop on to an organised tour- one of the only ones of my whole trip. I chose the 10 day ‘Compass Buster’ tour with Haggis Adventures!
I absolutely loved this tour- we had two different guides/drivers for this trip and both of them were fun, informed and weren’t hesitant to share a beer or two with us. I met some incredible people and even got to pass my birthday with some new friends.
So here is all I got up to during my 11 days in the Scottish highlands!
We left bright and early from Edinburgh in a giant yellow bus which was self proclaimed ‘Wild and Sexy’. Our mode of transportation sure got us some strange looks from passer-by’s (including a very sombre funeral procession) and other tourists during the trip.
Our first day was all about the long drive up to Villapool to catch the ferry to Lewis and Harris. It was a big day of driving but it gave us lots of time to talk and get to know everyone on the bus.
Of course we made some stops along the way. The first was the village of Dunkeld, home to a pretty beautiful cathedral and our last stop before crossing from the Scottish lowlands into the Scottish highlands. It was also an opportunity for us to grab lunch for the bus.
Actually one of the things that was great about the tour was that we often bought lunch for the bus rather than stopping off at pubs. This was much better for my budget that was feeling a little sore after all of the pub meals in Ireland.
Our next detour was one of the places I was most looking forward to. As an avid fan of Outlander, I’ve studied up on the fight for Scottish independence during the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I’ve always been so fascinated with that story and I’m definitely still pro-Scottish independence. Thus I was beyond excited to visit the most important place for that history- the battlefield of Culloden- where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces were finally defeated.
It’s a sombre place, filled with cairns, stones and graves labelled with the names of the clans that fell on the battlefield. And the crappy weather blanketed the battlefield in a large layer of mist which added to the atmosphere of the place.
Our final proper stop of the day was Rogie Falls where we spotted wild salmon making their way upstream.
We finally arrived in Villapool and only had time for a quick pint at the pub before we were boarding our two hour ferry to Lewis and Harris. I’m not usually one for sea-sickness but the roughness of the seas meant that it wasn’t just me running for the toilet bowl.
We finally arrived in Stornoway, the main town on the island of Lewis. We were staying in a super cute B&B! Clearly Haggis Adventures cared a lot more about providing quality accommodation than Paddywagon in Ireland had.
The second day of the tour was my birthday! And we started it in the most perfect way with a visit to a Whisky Distillery on the island. The Abhainn Dearg ‘Reoriver’ Distillery is the most westerly legal distillery in Scotland- but I can’t say I was that enamoured with their product!
But the next stop of the day proved to be more rewarding. The nerdy Outlander fan in me was very excited about all of the standing stones we would be visiting on the tour. And the Callandish Standing Stones were my favourite stones of the day. When we arrived I was lamenting the freezing cold wind and the wet weather, but it actually made for some terrific photos. The misty rain added a layer of atmosphere to the superstitions of the circle.
After that it onwards to Dun Carloway-Broch. This old settlement was super fun to explore and crawl through.
I’m usually suspicious of old villages that are made into ‘tourist traps’. But I actually really liked the Gearrannnan Blackhouse Village- it was a glimpse of how the people of the area used to live. And the old-fashioned loom machine that a man was demonstrating on was incredible!
Our final stop of the day prompted more than a couple of puns and giggles. The Butt of Lewis is self-defining; it’s the bottom of the island of Lewis. The cliffsides around this area were breathtaking. It was our first real glimpse of how wild the natural landscape of Scotland could be.
All that was left to do after that was to head to the pub for some birthday beers! It was a great night although the open mic night had me pining for the musical talent that can only be found in the pubs in Ireland. Apparently it didn’t really extend to the island of Lewis.
Today was all about exploring Harris. The island of Lewis and Harris is actually only one piece of land but for some reason it is separated in name and boundaries. Therefore we crossed from Lewis to Harris by road, rather than by sea.
In terms of physical beauty- Harris clearly had Lewis beat. The view out the window of the bus as we drove along was just amazing. Harris is also home to Scotland’s most beautiful beach. Luskentyre beach often gets voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and it isn’t without merit.
This beach was a mix of sand dunes, green hills, jagged rocks, perfect shiny sand, and the wild sea. It’s just a pity that the weather in the highlands isn’t usually beach friendly! We ended up exploring rather than swimming (I didn’t much feel like hypothermia).
We spent the majority of the morning at the beach and even stopped for some birthday cake for the three people that had birthdays while on the tour!
Our final stop in Harris was the historic Rodel St Clements Church. I didn’t find it particularly beautiful in comparison to other churches or cathedrals I had visited. But what I did like about this spot was the view from the clifftop when we walked a little down the road.
We finished our day by catching yet another ferry to the island of Skye! And of the course the first thing we did was blast ‘The Skye Boat Song” through the bus! Maybe more than once. All of you Outlander fans will know what I’m talking about.
Skye is the most touristy spot in the Highlands- but goddamn is it beautiful! For me- it didn’t get more wild and sexy than Skye. Every stop we made during our day exploring Skye just bought more beautiful scenery.
It began with one of Skye’s most iconic places- the Old Man of Stor. Given the propensity for cloud cover and misty rain on the island, it’s not always visible especially from the road. The Old Man of Stor is a rock formation on a hill which is pretty formidable. You can hike up to it, although this isn’t something we did. We were able to see it pretty well through the passing clouds, but it never seemed to be clear enough for me to get a good shot.
Skye just kept bringing out the goods with the next place we visited- the Loch Fada Viewpoint gave us an amazing view along the coast. It was especially beautiful with the small amount of sun poking through the clouds. It created this awesome light! The Lealt Falls, a bit further up the coast were equally stunning.
But the highlight of the day for me was the Fairy Pools. Given the sheer amount of beautiful things on offer in Skye, every tour to the island is different. Our guide had asked if there was anything specific we wanted to see, and I’m incredibly happy that someone put in a recommendation for us to go the Fairy Pools. Although we were cursing the unknown person when we arrived to a sheet of heavy rain and lots of mad. Luckily, by the time we hiked up the muddy path to the pools themselves the rain had stopped. I went crazy taking photos of the beautiful pools. It was so scenic, especially with the mountain range in the background.
Our final stop on Skye was the Sligachan River where we all stuck our faces into the freezing cold water to protect our youthful good looks. The river was also the perfect spot to gaze up at the picturesque Cuillin Mountain Range.
After leaving Skye we had a long drive to Loch Ness where our tour would split. Our guide and those on a five day tour would depart the next day whilst those of us would head up to Orkney with a new bus, driver and guide.
But the drive certainly wasn’t boring. We stopped at the Eilean Donan Castle- the most famous castle in Scotland. We didn’t pay to go inside but it provided some great photo opportunities. But the highlight of the drive was when we spotted some Scottish Highlander Cows on the side of the road. ‘Hairy Coos!’ as we were obliged to call them are super super cute, especially when they are babies! I even managed a selfie.
Finally we arrived in Loch Ness, at Morags Lodge which is owned by Haggis Adventures. Whenever we passed through the lodge it was always a lot of fun. We had Chaggis for dinner- chicken stuffed with Haggis before participating in an awesome trivia night. My team emerged the victors and scored a bottle of cheap and relatively terrible champagne.
The beginning of day five was absolute hell- we had to be on the bus super early. And by super early I mean about 6am! It was terrible after a big night in the bar at the lodge. Luckily we had a long drive ahead which meant lots of bus sleeping time.
We finally ended up in John O’Groats. We had time to explore the cliffsides nearby and take a very touristy photo next to the sign that marks this as the most northern point of the British mainland.
But we were heading even more north than that, to the Orkney Isles. After one rough ferry ride, and another sleeping opportunity we finally arrived in the port town of St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney.
Our first stop in Orkney was also my favourite place on the isles; the Tomb of the Eagles. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the Stone Age and was discovered by a curious farmer on his land one day. It’s a chamber full of human remains and scientists posit that it was a place where sky burials took place. Human bodies were left out to be reclaimed by the earth by being eating by eagles. The bones were then stored in the chamber.
That curious farmer became so fascinated with this history that he dedicated the rest of his life to uncovering the secrets of the Tomb and the site and museum attached to it is still privately owned and operated by his daughters.
We started the day with another old site, this time the standing stones of the Ring of Brogar. I love Standing Stones, but the sunny blue sky had me wishing for the ambience of the misty day at the stones on Lewis and Harris.
It was then off for a quick visit to a beautiful coastline with lots of ragged edges and cliffs.
Orkeny is an incredibly historical place with many remains and ruins from the Neolithic period, more than 5000 years ago! As someone that loves history I’ve always enjoyed visiting Neolithic settlements, as the sheer age of them always blows my mind. The almost perfectly preserved stone age village of Skara Brae was no exception.
Given the need to preserve this site that dates back to 3200 and 2200 BCE, not all areas of the village are accessible. Most of the original buildings and rooms are still buried under the mounds of grass and dirt that helped to preserve them all these years. But they have been excavated so if you look in at different angels you and get a glimpse of how these people lived. There are even 5000 year old pieces of furniture to see.
Out of all the Neolithic settlements I have visited, this village was the best preserved and the one that looked the most lived in. It was very different from the Neolithic caves of Chios where only remnants of the old settlers are still available to see.
We had a BBQ lunch on the beach, with out guide buying disposable barbeques from Tescos for us to cook our sausages on. They worked fine, but the sheer waste of throwing the coals out later in the day had me wishing for the endless supply of public BBQs we have in Australia.
We ended our day almost the same way we begin it, with a visit to another coastline and some more cliffs. We had hoped to some birds a little more interesting than all the seagulls but unfortunately we were left disappointed.
This was another big travel day as we woke up at another atrociously early hour to head back to the mainland and back down to Loch Ness. Whilst there was a lot of driving, the highlight of the day was the stop at Dunrobin Castle.
I’ve visited a lot of castles, but found myself really enjoying the stop at Dunrobin. The grounds were beautiful and the highlight for me was the falcon show. Nearly ever castle in the United Kingdom offers a falcon show, and I’ve caught plenty of them. But the one at Dunrobin Castle was by far the best I’ve seen. I’m obsessed with owls and was beyond excited when it came flying straight past my face.
We also stopped at a clearance village, where we were able to witness the terrible conditions the Scottish people lived in after the failed Battle for independence and the removal of the clan system.
We finally arrived back in Fort Augustus and back to Morag’s Lodge where we all donned tartan for a real Scottish party. It was a very large night and one of my favourites of the trip. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t want to be staying at the lodge if I wasn’t partying down in the bar. We made a hell of a lot of noise.
Day 8- FREE DAY!
The geniuses at Haggis Adventures decided to factor in a whole day for us to do what we pleased. There were plenty of activities that we could book in advance, such as kayaking on the lake or hiring bicycles.
But it also gave us a chance to sleep in after a big night and a big day of driving the day before. It was the recharge that I think we all needed at that point in the trip.
I spent the morning sleeping in before heading down to the Loch for an hour long kayaking trip. The weather was uncharacteristically glorious and we had a great time exploring the Loch by boat. Luckily no monsters decided to show their faces!
We then spent the afternoon munching on fish and chips and exploring the quaint little town of Fort Augustus before just hanging out in the sun outside the Lodge. It was a perfect day!
Day 9- Oban
Our aim for Day 9 of the tour was to get from Fort Augustus on Loch Ness to Oban. But today was also the day for the most exciting activity of the trip, and one of the major reasons I had come to Scotland. I’m talking about riding the Jacobite Steam Train aka the Hogwarts Express!
All of us woke up with a feeling of utter excitement. I quickly put on my t-shirt from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and my Gryffindor Jumper from Harry Potter Studios so that I would be all dressed for the occasion.
The ride itself was amazing. Even if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, you’ll still appreciate the journey on an old steam train. The highlight was of course crossing the bridge now made famous from the films. I was very lucky to have a window seat and be able to hang my head and camera out the window. So I could take some shots of the train as it turned the corner and crossed the bridge.
After getting off the train to we drove back the way we had come and ended up back at the bridge. This is also the home of the Glenfinnan Monument, marking the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie started his claim for the English throne.
Our final stop of the day on the way to Oban was Glencoe. Most itineraries visit this place on the last day but our guide moved it to today as we had the time and it meant being able to have a sleep in the next morning. Glencoe was one of the most picturesque places we visited in Scotland and has been used in many films. But it’s also home to some pretty chilling history, most importantly the Glencoe Massacre of 1962 in which a whole clan was destroyed for being too late to sign a peace treaty.
We finished Day 9 in Oban, which was one of the best nights out of the whole trip. We attended a traditional ceilidh- where a band plays traditional music while teaching the audience how to partake in traditional dances. We had a blast and worked off a lot of beers participating in all of the dances!
Day 10- Stirling
On Day 10 we finally passed back into the Lowlands from the Highlands.
The first stop of the day was a small one but exciting for me given that I’m an Outlander Castle. Doune Castle has been used in both the Outlander Series and in Games of Thrones for on location filming. We didn’t have time to visit inside but it was great to walk around, even if it was freezing cold.
Our final stop of the day, and of our trip was the town of Stirling and the famous Wallace Monument. More than a little hangover, I struggled through the short climb to the top. But it was worth it for the views over Stirling and over to the Stirling Castle.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back in Edinburgh and the end of our tour. I had such an amazing time with everyone on the tour and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to experience Scotland.
It reminds me that while I love the freedom and price of independent travel, hopping onto an organised tour doesn’t make me the worst traveller in the world. In fact, it has only enhanced my travelling experience!