An impromptu Scotland road trip presented fascinating nature, fairytale castles, stunning scenery, and even a bit of Harry Potter magic.
Our initial plans took us only to Edinburgh. However, Scotland captivated us and we had to see more. With blue skies and unseasonably delightful 24c (75f) degree temperatures in May, we were lucky.
Rather than taking direct routes, we often travelled along scenic routes.
We opted away from the popular North Coast 500 itinerary.
Here is our route from Edinburgh to Inverness to Cairnryan, where we boarded the vehicle ferry to Northern Ireland. Our overnight stays were in Edinburgh and in Inverness, where we based ourselves for two nights, and explored farther north,
Interactive Scotland Road Trip
The interactive map is divided into three sections (Edinburgh to Inverness, day trip north of Inverness, and Inverness to the ferry terminal in Cairnryan). Each can be individually selected by clicking the expand / collapse icon in the upper left corner of the map. All are initially active.
Getting to Edinburgh
We chose to start our Scotland road trip from Edinburgh, the country’s capital city. Getting to Edinburgh is easy, with options for flights, trains, or on the roads.
We started out from England, driving from London to Alnwick through the stunning British countryside and charming cities and towns. From the north, we seamlessly crossed over to Scotland and to the capital.
Alternatively, there are many flights into Edinburgh. We use Expedia to find the best deals whenever we fly.
Car hire (rental) for your Scotland road trip
Unless you are using your own vehicle, you will need to hire a car. We always rent from RentalCars. They offer a comprehensive list of multinational and local rental car agents, ratings on specific car types, and agency ratings. Importantly, they often have lower prices than going direct.
Whether you rent from them or not, it’s still the perfect place to begin your search. Click here to compare options and check availability at RentalCars.com
The first leg of our adventure was Edinburgh to Inverness, where we based ourselves for two nights.
Edinburgh – the starting point of our Scotland road trip
The Edinburgh Castle towers over the city, and all roads seem to lead up towards it. This medieval fortress was highlight of our visit.
A geographically small city by world comparison, Edinburgh packs a lot in.
We split our time between the stone buildings along narrow streets of the medieval Old Town and strolling by the gardens and neoclassical architecture of the lavish Georgian New Town area. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The one seemingly unusual feature that caught our attention multiple times, buildings seemed to have too many chimneys.
Suggested activities: Our top three recommendations:
- Take a tour of Edinburgh Castle and see the crown jewels, stunning city views, and other unique features like the prison, the country’s oldest building, and a canine cemetery. Reserve your tour here.
- Spend some time in the National Museum of Scotland and be sure to see Dolly, the world’s first successfully cloned sheep.
- If you ask me, number 3 would be the Saint Giles Cathedral, but if you ask our then-teen, it would be the Elephant Bar as it is where J.K. Rowling wrote portions of Harry Potter.
Scotland road trip segment 1: Edinburgh to Inverness
Beatrix Potter Garden
The enchanted Beatrix Potter Gardens in the town of Birnam was more than just a place to stretch our legs. Here, we found Peter Rabbit alongside many of the 19th-century author’s other characters. Fans of Beatrix Potter books, our girls were mesmerized by the fun.
Standing creekside, we watched an occasional salmon leap up from the water, seemingly taunting the nearby fly fisherman. The crystal clear water was complemented by the surrounding lush green fields and deep blue sky. It’s easy to see why Pitlochry is such a popular holiday destination.
After our picnic lunch, we headed to the Pitlochry fish ladders. These are a series of 34 pools with stepped-up water tunnels (ladders). They aid 5000+ salmon annually to cross the Pitlochry Dam and continue upstream to their spawning area. Lookout windows allow us to watch the fish as they enter the tunnels. A new Dam Visitor Centre opened in 2017.
Just six kilometres beyond Pitlochry is the fairytale-like Blair Castle, home to the prior Dukes and Earls of Atholl; although, the current Duke lives in South Africa. Photos were only allowed in the ballroom, where there is a giant dress-up bin for kids of all ages, along with what felt like hundreds of deer skulls on the walls.
Inverness (the main overnight stay on our Scotland road trip)
Based in Inverness, we were centrally located. While it was easy to travel to north Scotland or out to Loch Ness, in truth, we wished for more time to spend in this laid-back cosmopolitan city laced with history.
As the summer solstice approached, the long days kept it light well into the night. And the unseasonably warm weather extended into the evening, giving us what felt like extra time here. One night we stumbled upon a graveyard tour, while another night, we headed to a popular Irish pub called Hootananny featuring live music.
Where to stay in Inverness
Inverness is the ideal place to stay for this Scotland road trip itinerary. Our first day was an Edinburgh to Inverness road trip, while our second day did the loop north, returning to Inverness. If you are looking for a place to stay, we recommend:
- Best Western Inverness Palace Hotel & Spa
Located across the river from the Inverness Castle along the River Ness, it’s only a 5-minute walk to Inverness central city. This three-star option is rated “fabulous” by former guests. Pet-friendly, the hotel offers an indoor pool, restaurant, bar, parking, spa, and wellness centre. Check reviews and reserve your stay at the Best Western here.
- Culliss House B&B
Rated exceptional by guests, this charming bed and breakfast is more intimate than the Palace hotel. It is the friendly staff that seems to be mentioned most often in the positive reviews, although the delicious breakfast is also mentioned frequently. And, it’s walking distance to the central city. Check reviews and book your stay at Culliss House B&B here.
Scotland road trip segment 2: Inverness north to Dunrobin Castle and the Falls of Shin
As we headed even farther north, the magic of the Scottish highlands continued to captivate us.
Dunrobin Castle is one of the most northerly of the great houses in Scotland. It’s a stately 189 room home in Sutherland, in the Highland area of Scotland, and the family seat of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland.
There is also a museum featuring taxidermy animals shot by Dukes and Duchesses who once lived in the castle and included a giraffe, elephant, and many other animals. It also houses a collection of archaeological relics. Dunrobin Castle is open seasonally from April through October.
The gardens are a masterpiece on their own, created in the style of Versailles by the same architect who designed the Houses of Parliament. Dunrobin Castle has a daily falconry demonstration out in the garden, featuring golden eagles and peregrine falcons. Falconry is the ancient art of hunting with birds of prey.
Falls of Shin
After the castle, we headed west to the Falls of Shin, where the salmon leap up the waterfall for spawning. We only saw a few salmon jump and missed it on film. On the bright side, we found this video showing it clearly.
Falls of Shin is a bit off the beaten path (near the villages of Bonar Bridge and Lairg), but if it is May to October and a warm day, it is worth the effort.
Scotland road trip segment 3: Inverness south to Cairnryan
The final leg of our impromptu adventure brought us from Inverness to Cairnryan, where we boarded a ferry to Northern Ireland.
Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
We couldn’t go to Scotland without cruising on Loch Ness. “Loch” is Scottish for “lake” or “sea inlet.” Loch Ness is the largest body of fresh water in Britain and is known worldwide as home to Nessie, the legendary Loch Ness monster. (You can check the latest sightings here).
After a brief search for Nessie, we headed towards the 13th to 16th-century ruins of Urquhart Castle that sit along the shores of Loch Ness. Self-guided touring of the castle ruins is an optional add-on.
Fort Augustus Locks
We also stopped at Fort Augustus to see the staircase of five locks, which bring the boats up and downstream. They are part of the 29 locks along the Caledonian Canal, which runs 60 miles from the northeast to the southwest. The grassy area along the banks of the locks in this charming Scottish town offered another perfect picnic spot.
Fort William (Hogwarts Express stop)
The “Hogwarts Express” is an extremely popular Scottish Highlands tourist attraction. The train runs from Fort William to the north and back, but not on Sunday. Therefore, our attempt to meet the train as it returned to Fort William Station at 4 pm failed. Instead, we were given directions to the train yard where the Hogwarts Express spends its day off.
TIP: Reservations for Hogwarts Express often book up more than a month in advance. Therefore, we recommend buying your ticket as soon as you know your dates.
One long 13-hour day – This tour from Inverness passes and points out key film locations from all 8 Harry Potter movies as it makes its way to Fort William. Here, you will board the Hogwarts Express for a one-way journey. The return is via coach. Reserve your all-day adventure.
Another castle ruins to explore, this one close to Fort William. Inverlochy Castle was built in 1280 and survived the Wars of Independence (1296 to 1357).
We left Scotland on the car ferry to Belfast. Having rented a car in England, we took it onto the ferry with us, and then again when we came back to England. While it was easy, it would have been more economical to rent different cars on each island. (If we had done that, we would have returned to Edinburgh from Fort William, rather than heading to Cairnryan.)
Take a Scottish Highlands tour from Edinburgh
Short on time, or don’t want to be driving in Scotland? Check out this one-day tour from Edinburgh that will show you some spectacular Scotland scenery. It includes stops in several small villages, highland cows, Glencoe, and a cruise on Loch Ness with a stop at Urquhart Castle. Reserve your Loch Ness, Glencoe, & the Highlands tour from Edinburgh.
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What will be the highlight of your Scotland road trip?
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