Some of the greatest experiences I had were on day trips and weekend trips in Scotland while I studied abroad in Edinburgh. The truth is, when you’re in school abroad it can be really hard to go to some other country every weekend when you have homework and exams to come back to every week. I felt that a good compromise was taking shorter trips within Scotland because there were so many beautiful places to see that were only £5-£10 bus or train rides away.
One of my favorite day trips was one to St. Andrews. It was about an hour and a half north of Edinburgh by bus and right on the east coast of Scotland. It is a pretty small town, but its biggest draws are its cathedral ruins and the castle ruins right next to it. My favorite part was actually walking through the University of St. Andrews. It is the third oldest university in the world right along the ocean and absolutely gorgeous. The town had so much personality with its tiny streets with ivy and moss growing all over the little cobblestone houses. Even as a city girl, if I could have applied to college all over again, I would have applied to St. Andrews and gone in a heartbeat. I was that in love with it. Another big draw was its Fish n’ Chip shop called Cromars, which was voted the best in Scotland. And they deserved their title! Overall, this town was the perfect size to spend a day and not feel like you missed anything and definitely worth the visit!
Stirling was another worthwhile stop in Scotland about a 45 minute train ride from Edinburgh and cost about £4.50. It is home to Stirling Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots spent a lot of her adolescent life. Aside from Edinburgh Castle, it is one of the most impressive sites in Scotland and has some of the best preserved architecture and artifacts from the 1500s. Other than that, it is a very quaint city with a shopping mall and a really great walking path in a forest behind the castle where you can see really beautiful wood carving pieces created by a local artist. Stirling is also the area where William Wallace had his famous victory over the English. Braveheart, anyone? There is a monument dedicated to him on the spot that he was supposedly standing when the battle was won and it can be seen from anywhere in the city. But the main reason I wanted to go to Stirling because it was very close to Doune Castle which was in a small town called Doune just outside of the city. Because I’m a major movie buff, I needed to go to the castle where they filmed episodes of Outlander, Game of Thrones, and scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I couldn’t pass it up! However, being in a small town means limited transportation. We were able to find one bus that goes to the town every hour and cost £8. Meaning it cost more than our train ride. But I was so dedicated to seeing it that I didn’t care. We were able to find our way and it was so beautiful. My inner fangirl was really hard to control. One piece of advice I have if you’re planning to visit any Scottish castles is to make plans to see it earlier in the day rather than later. Most of the historical sites in Scotland start to close around 4 pm in the fall and winter because it gets dark a lot earlier. And most of the smaller castles, like Doune Castle, are very well-preserved but do not have electricity. Luckily, we made it in time and were able to take a look around. Another piece of advice would be to wear comfortable shoes. These castles have lots and lots of narrow stair cases that go on forever. So you may be aching by the end of the day, but it’s worth it!
This day trip was more personal and not one you’re going to find on recommended locations to visit. I went to Dalry, because it’s actually where my family’s castle is. My last name, Blair, is actually Scottish (and means ‘field’ in Gaelic just FYI). When I heard about my ancestry before my trip, I decided to look into the family history and it turned out my family had a castle in the southwestern part of Scotland that was still in use. It was built in the 1100’s and was owned by the Blair family until 1970 — giving it the record for castle being inhabited by one family for the longest time in Scotland. Go, Clan Blair! So I decided to go see the castle when my parents came to visit me and it was so surreal. We weren’t able to go inside because it’s a private residence owned by a member of Parliament, but it has a walking trail across its 250 acres that takes you right in front of the castle. So we still got to see it!
Bonus: Here’s a photo of me and my parents in front of the castle when I asked them to channel their inner Downton Abbey.
Isle of Skye
This is a trip that I cannot say enough good things about. I was able to get this trip through an organization called Viva La Edinburgh which hosts events for all of the college students in the city. They had day trips and weekend trips almost every weekend. And this Isle of Skye trip was the most popular out of all of them. Isle of Skye is an island off the northwestern coast of mainland Scotland and known for its stunning scenery and rock formations. Scottish legends also say that it’s home to the fairies that live in grassy mounds on the land and in the fairy pools around the island. The trip cost about £130 (about $200), which is pricey but it covered our completely guided tour from Friday to Sunday along with the highly-rated hostels we stayed in. Our group actually lucked out, because the Viva La Edinburgh representative we were supposed to have couldn’t come on the trip and our tour guide decided to create his own itinerary and add some stops so we could see his favorite spots in the Highlands. We were able to see places like Invermoriston, where J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan in his summer home in the middle of a forest. It was especially beautiful because all of the leaves had changed color for fall and it was like something out of a fairytale. We also stopped at Eilean Donan Castle which was built in the 13th century on the northwestern coast of Scotland. It is the most photographed Scottish castle and was used to shoot scenes from James Bond’s Skyfall and Dr. No.
When finally reaching Isle of Skye, we went straight to its most famous site called, The Old Man of Storr. It is a rock formation which, legend says, represents the Old Man’s fingers sticking out of the ground. This is another place to bring comfortable shoes, because it takes 45 minutes to hike up to the rock formation. We also experienced Scottish weather to its full potential that day because it went from raining, to windy, to sunny, to hailing all in the two hours we spent hiking. When the weather cleared up, we were able to see some other breath-taking sites around the island. I absolutely loved this trip and would do it again in a heartbeat.
This was the first weekend trip I took when I got to Scotland. And of course, the main reason I wanted to go was because it was part of the Outlander series. Right outside of Inverness, there is Culloden Battlefield. It’s where the famous battle between the Scottish and the English during the Jacobite Uprising of 1743 took place and is huge part of Outlander. I got a chance to walk around the battlefield and see all of the headstones of the clans that died in the bloodiest battle in Scottish history. Also, there was a standing stone site about a 30 minute walk from the battlefield called Clava Cairns that I really wanted to see. You don’t get to see 4,000 year old sites every day. As far as the town itself, it was very small and a lot of its stores closed around 6 pm. However, since it was my first weekend in Scotland, I decided to catch up on my sleep to get used to the time difference. The next day, I went to visit the famous Loch Ness. It’s a must-see location when you’re in the Scottish Highlands and is a beautiful location, but it is exactly what it’s called. A lake. You can take a boat ride out on the lake for £8 and listen to information about the lake and/or go see the ruins of Urquhart Castle on the bank of Loch Ness. I highly recommend both! Especially because there’s not much else to do there.
This is only a few of the locations to have short trips around Scotland. Which ones sound the most fun to you? Let me know in the comments!