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A Different Scottish Itinerary - lots to see east and north

For a different kind of Scotland trip, give the West (or wet?) Highlands a miss and head east-ish and north. Fishing villages, great seafood, whiskies - and it's still pretty rugged. Go all the way to Orkney if time permits. 

A Different Scottish Itinerary

When it comes to planning your own travel itinerary in Scotland remotely, it’s usual to have minor doubts and uncertainties. Especially if you are trying to assemble a slightly different Scottish itinerary. Here’s piece of correspondence that shows this quite well.

We were asked to look over a friend’s trip. (NB Obviously, we can’t do this for everyone. Well, not for free anyway…) Our friend - travelling with three others - had been to Scotland before and had decided this time to avoid some of the tourism hot-spots in the west and head east and north. (Equally rewarding and possibly drier!)

Note also that the company of four was travelling in early June - not quite high season - but even then there were difficulties in booking and not all first choices were available.

We’ve pulled out the relevant bits of the correspondence and added comments. We think this is one of the best Scottish itineraries for independent travellers who want to see other aspects of Scotland aside from the main Highland tourist destinations.

NB: OUR SUGGESTIONS/TIPS AND ADVICE ARE BELOW, ALONG WITH OUR FRIEND'S QUESTIONS IN "QUOTES"

Giving the Wet Highlands a miss! 

June 1st arrival in Scotland

 The 'auld grey toun' of St Andrews. Quintessential east coast Scotland. (Though possibly atypically posh.)

The 'auld grey toun' of St Andrews. Quintessential east coast Scotland. (Though possibly atypically posh.)

“We fly into Edinburgh, rent car and drive to St Andrews area for one night. Our fellow-travelers opted for Kilconquhar Castle for the novelty; otherwise, we are in B&B and AirBnB/vacation rentals the remainder of the trip.”

About the route - suggest you drive to your Fife accommodation directly - St Andrews is 11 miles north of your overnight stop (takes 23 mins to drive). This assumes your flight arrives quite early in the morning?

A quick bite to eat in and near St Andrews

A nice lunch venue is The Adamson in South Street. Fish and chips? - Cromars or Tailend. Fancy visiting a pub? Try The Criterion in South Street or The Central Bar in Market Street.

Anstruther - Fish and Chip restaurant on shore front. 

Coffee Shop at the St Andrews Cheese Company (closes 4.30pm - cakes galore plus gifts - on a dairy farm)

(And for fine - very fine - dining, there's always The Peat Inn.)

Suggested Fife route map here with a few other places mentioned. Ideas only - don’t think you can do it all! If you need a walk, then I suggest West Sands St Andrews.

June 2nd/3rd

Just noticed that before departure you could visit the St Andrews Farmers’ Market, on the first Saturday of every month <June 2nd> from 9am to 1pm at the North Car Park on Argyle Street.  Chat to friendly locals, sample local foods, perhaps buy some handmade gifts - eg Caurnie Soaps are lovely. They should be there.

“Next is two nights at Strathallan B&B in Grantown on Spey.”

North by the Highland Road - the A9

That's 131 miles - 2hrs 49 - via main A9 highway. Here is another Google Map with some suggestions of possible places to see en route to Grantown on Spey.

 Dunkeld Cathedral

Dunkeld Cathedral

For instance, Dunkeld is a neat and attractive large village with quaint shops and a ruined cathedral next to the River Tay (park in the main car park at far end of village - toilets are here too - you can then stroll round to cathedral then back along the main street and shops as a nice wee circuit). We like Palmerston’s Cafe in Main Street (lovely scones and homemade jam - but a busy place) Other cafes are available!

 The River Tay flowing through Dunkeld.

The River Tay flowing through Dunkeld.

Alternatively, a just a few moments further on the main road from Dunkeld the woodlands and river scenery at The Hermitage is a nice place to walk. 

“Finding places we want to stay that have two rooms has been a real challenge.  I spent hours looking at all sorts of places in Aviemore, Boat of Garten and all areas in between until I pulled up Google Maps and found that the closest appealing lodging that popped up (in Grantown) was not so far from Rothiemurchus/Aviemore and has its own walking paths right there.  We can drive or make the most of what's nearby, yes?..There were some options in Aviemore (even TripAdvisor's "#1 B&B but that area seems so touristy) and a mediocre vacation house in Carrbridge but nothing that makes you excited to go according to photos. I looked at the Angus area, too, as an alternative to Aviemore area, but Saturday arrival is a tough one country-wide in June - as the whole weekend is booked at the places I fancied.”

First of all, good choice. Grantown-on-Spey is a bit quieter than Aviemore - a bit more authentic you could say. Yet it's within easy reach of the Speyside attractions and walks. 

Eat: The Craig Bar - in Grantown-on-Spey. Not eaten here but friends who walked The Speyside Way last year went here - very simple - good beer and whisky and gourmet pies (cash only). Your B&B lady can advise you on other good places to eat too of course!

Discovering Speyside

June 3rd - some suggestions for what to see and do.

 There is an extensive path network around the pinewoods on the lower slopes of the Cairngorms in Speyside. This path is near An Lochan Uaine - the green lochan enar Glenmore Lodge.

There is an extensive path network around the pinewoods on the lower slopes of the Cairngorms in Speyside. This path is near An Lochan Uaine - the green lochan enar Glenmore Lodge.

June 4th/5th

"Next is up to Cullen (found a nice vacation cottage there) or Buckie (two B&Bs looked nice; I need to choose).  Two nights ought to allow distillery visit on the way there; lovely walks next day."

Lots of ideas on this map - we have listed just four distilleries but more are available!

(We like Cragganmore - a little tucked away from the others - it is best to book Cragganmore in advance)

Ballindalloch Castle is lovely and has a great wee tearoom with amazing cakes - lovely herbaceous borders - a real family home too.

3 Bags Wool in Aberlour may interest you, as you are a knitter! The Spey Larder nearby sells deli food, wine & whiskies.

Staying with the yarn theme, Knockando Woolmill is lovely and historic - see the weaving sheds plus  the exhibition and other historic buildings -  (nice cafe here too but small - delicious hot chocolate plus soups etc and yarn and lovely woven goods for sale too!)

Eat - The Craigellachie Hotel - (their pub is called The Copper Dog) - their whisky bar is called The Quaich - founded in 1893, is the world’s leading whisky bar. It houses over 900 single-malt whiskies from across the globe. So you may have to check this out at least! It's in Craigellachie - just a few miles north of Aberlour.

Exploring by the Moray Coast

June 5th

 To be honest, this isn't a summer picture at all. It's a blue February day from the path up the Bin Hill of Cullen, looking west over the town of Buckie, along the narrowing Moray Firth. As usual, the narrow coastal strip catches the sun. There's a lot of snowy hills 'way far off in the west...

To be honest, this isn't a summer picture at all. It's a blue February day from the path up the Bin Hill of Cullen, looking west over the town of Buckie, along the narrowing Moray Firth. As usual, the narrow coastal strip catches the sun. There's a lot of snowy hills 'way far off in the west...

Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay - a long shingle shore with views across the Firth. Good birding place. Dolphins are a possibility (I'd put it no higher than that!) 

Walk - Bin of Cullen - a good hill walk with great views of the coast from the top. The best starting point is to the south of the hill. See Ordnance Survey Landranger Series ref 492633. Sheet 29. (Link goes to Amazon.)

 It's a grand morning in June. The Moray Firth is calm, the hills across the Firth are hazy and blue, the gorse flowers smell like coconut and only a weird coastal path indicator (on right) jars slightly. (Och, maybe you like it...) This is the coastal path section between the villages of Portknockie, to the east and (pictured distantly here) Findochty.

It's a grand morning in June. The Moray Firth is calm, the hills across the Firth are hazy and blue, the gorse flowers smell like coconut and only a weird coastal path indicator (on right) jars slightly. (Och, maybe you like it...) This is the coastal path section between the villages of Portknockie, to the east and (pictured distantly here) Findochty.

Walks - Cullen Bay and Portknockie circuit. Lovely fresh and breezy coastal walk - starting from either end, it's out by the old railway trackbed and back by the beach, or vice versa!

 Look out for Scotland's helpful brown 'thistle signs'.

Look out for Scotland's helpful brown 'thistle signs'.

Eat - Bijou by the Sea at Portessie, on the east end of Buckie (try the great Cullen Skink soup) -or head west to Gordon Castle Walled Garden Cafe on the edge of the village of Fochabers ( enter via gate houses at the west end of the village - the Google map is wrong!) The Brown tourist signs point the way - ditto on soup and the rest!

Rockpool Cafe in Cullen has a good reputation. Plus there are lots of antique shops in Cullen - if you enjoy browsing!

 Cullen - the seatown with beach and railway viaduct walk in distance. Portknockie on the skyline.

Cullen - the seatown with beach and railway viaduct walk in distance. Portknockie on the skyline.

Also, in nearby Buckie - we ate at the Bengal Brasserie for the first time recently - very tasty curries and great service . Traditional fish and chips - The Fry Inn - in East Church Street, Buckie - take-away or sit in. 

Here's a Google map of possible Moray meanderings as mentioned here.

 Sunset over Cullen harbour in June. The local landmark of the Bow Fiddle Rock at nearby Portknockie is just left of the sun.

Sunset over Cullen harbour in June. The local landmark of the Bow Fiddle Rock at nearby Portknockie is just left of the sun.

Orkney Journey

June 6th

"...and time to head to Orkney for evening ferry via Black Isle, maybe?  There is some speculation that my far distant ancestors hailed from Cromarty.  My sister would love it if I visited; she's the genealogy researcher in the family.  And want to see Duncansby Head area on the way in, if time.  On the way out, if not."
 Cromarty street scene.&nbsp;

Cromarty street scene. 

You are going Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope, so it looks likes your ferry is at 1845hrs on June 6th.

If you drive from Cullen to Gills Bay via Cromarty (which is a lovely village to visit by the way) - and then, say, break the drive at Golspie or at the interesting village of Helmsdale - and take in Duncansby Head - it takes over 5 hrs! (not including breaks) - so leave early.

This is your route map for the north of Scotland

 The lighthouse at Duncansby Head. (The Stacks of Duncansby would have been pictured if I'd pointed the camera the other way.) The lighthouse dates from 1924, which is fairly late for a Scottish lighthouse. By this time it had dawned on everyone that lighthouses didn't actually need to be round - they could be square as well. It is said the design was changed so that furniture would fit into them more easily.&nbsp; Orkney fills the northern horizon and in between is the famous Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic waters battle with the North Sea.&nbsp;

The lighthouse at Duncansby Head. (The Stacks of Duncansby would have been pictured if I'd pointed the camera the other way.) The lighthouse dates from 1924, which is fairly late for a Scottish lighthouse. By this time it had dawned on everyone that lighthouses didn't actually need to be round - they could be square as well. It is said the design was changed so that furniture would fit into them more easily.  Orkney fills the northern horizon and in between is the famous Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic waters battle with the North Sea. 

Exploring Orkney

 You'll find this on the Stromness website. Nope, no idea what this is about. A sudden gust of wind?&nbsp;

You'll find this on the Stromness website. Nope, no idea what this is about. A sudden gust of wind? 

For Orkney information, there is plenty of advice on this Orkney visitors website. It does, however, contain one slightly disturbing image which we reproduce for you here. We think it's to warn people that it can be a very windy place. Or maybe they were just indulging the website designer. 

"A vacation cottage in Stromness.  Wow.  It was difficult to find a place in Orkney for 5 nights - I looked from 2 June - 12 June! The Foveran from your recommendations was fully booked.  Not a fan of hotels so much but looked at Standing Stones, and Smithfield had a few nights of the 5 we wanted.  Cantick Head Lighthouse vacation cottage required 3 nights - too long on Hoy for us. So, we're chancing the Stromness vacation house that has no reviews yet, which is why it was available probably.  New listing. But large enough town to find decent groceries and restaurants.  We hope."
 To protect the naval anchorage of Scapa Flow, the Churchill Barriers were created. End-on view of the barrier (on the left and carrying main road between St Margaret's Hope and Kirkwall) that joins Lamb Holm to Glims Holm, From where this picture was taken Lamb Holm is where the famous Italian Chapel is situated - you can't miss it.&nbsp; It was built by Italian POWs otherwise employed on the Churchill Barriers. Note also - centre of pic - the remains of the blockships sunk here to protect the channel before the barriers were built.&nbsp;

To protect the naval anchorage of Scapa Flow, the Churchill Barriers were created. End-on view of the barrier (on the left and carrying main road between St Margaret's Hope and Kirkwall) that joins Lamb Holm to Glims Holm, From where this picture was taken Lamb Holm is where the famous Italian Chapel is situated - you can't miss it.  It was built by Italian POWs otherwise employed on the Churchill Barriers. Note also - centre of pic - the remains of the blockships sunk here to protect the channel before the barriers were built. 

We love Stromness - yes it is small but you will find lots of nice individual shops (plus yarn, knitwear!!) , the museum is fascinating and the Pier Arts Centre is great too. Things to do in and around Stromness on that link. 

As you are self-catering, if you don't want to eat out every night then provisions are easy at supermarkets such as Tesco and Lidl in Kirkwall, or from Co-op shops in Kirkwall, Stromness and Dounby.

Eating out in Stromness?  For once (!) we're not going to point you to anywhere in particular (though we've had nice coffee and cake at Julia’s Bistro - Tripadvisor may help).

 Hey, this is a pretty ordinary Orkney shot, isn't it?&nbsp; Well, no, not if you're a birder and like owls. Here's a short-eared owl heading straight for the camera. Like the Outer Hebrides, Orkney is a  very birdy place  and you never know what's going to sail past. (You knew that short-eared owls hunt by day, didn't you?)

Hey, this is a pretty ordinary Orkney shot, isn't it?  Well, no, not if you're a birder and like owls. Here's a short-eared owl heading straight for the camera. Like the Outer Hebrides, Orkney is a very birdy place and you never know what's going to sail past. (You knew that short-eared owls hunt by day, didn't you?)

"In Orkney, (we hope to do) biking and walking and lots of neolithic/ancient sites!  Hoy is one day. Rousay another.  Two days for Mainland; maybe one of those to North Ronaldsay.  Looks like we won't need to car ferry between islands but can take/rent bikes and use that at the destinations?  The Archaeology tours look all booked but I don't suppose we need that anyway.  I'm assuming there are interpretive signs and maybe a book to buy?"

YES! Orkney is very well signposted. It has good roads too. And there are plenty of Orkney guidebooks to choose from. 

"Deciding how to get back to Gatwick which is just a little research comparing flights from Inverness, Edinburgh or Glasgow and the car return situation, etc.  You know the drill, I am sure! So, my basic question would be to ask if this seems comfortable enough - I know the day to Orkney will be long but should be sufficient?  

( Just leave early - see above) Not sure what the latest check-in time for Pentland Ferries is (can’t see it listed on their website) - we are  sure they will tell you when you book your crossing - but I guess 6pm latest!?

"And other than looking to see if the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass is worth it and checking to see how far in advance we might need to book the Orkney ferry from/to Gills Bay, I think we'll be set.  Oh, and buying the map you mention as I don't know whether to count on navigation on a phone always having coverage and paper is so much more satisfying to explore and plan with. Wow.  Does that sound a bit frantic?"  

Busy - but not frantic! It'll be a great trip.