BY LISA SANDS
Like most people, I have a long list of places I’d like to visit. While Scotland had always been on my radar, it was nowhere near the top of my list of places to go next. So, when I was asked to join 25 AAA travel agents on a tour of Scotland, of course I was excited to go, but I never dreamed how much I would enjoy that magnificent country. Looking back, I’m really surprised that Scotland wasn’t a higher priority for me. After all, I’m an avid reader of historical fiction, and my favorite book series is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, set primarily in the Scottish Highlands. I’ve read everything by British authors Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory, feasting on their stories of royal intrigue and the strong (though sometimes doomed) female characters who shaped the British monarchy, including the tragic tale of Mary, Queen of Scots. And the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster has been my secret fascination since I was a child. Indeed, Scotland really should have been higher on my list.
Our group of travel agents was hosted by CIE Tours, a company that’s been bringing vacationers to Ireland, the United Kingdom and parts of Europe for nearly 90 years. After completing pre-trip coursework to become certifi ed CIE Scotland specialists, we met in Glasgow for an eight-day sprint around the country on CIE’s Scottish Dreams tour. It was late September, and most of the heather shrubs had withered to a purple dusting hidden in the nooks and crannies of towering emerald mountains. We enjoyed partly sunny, cool days as we ventured to Scotland’s best-known towns: starting in Glasgow and then on to Fort William and the southern edge of the Isle of Skye; along the forested banks of Loch Ness (but no sightings of the beast) and through Inverness to the charming town of Pitlochry; to St. Andrews and, finally, historic Edinburgh.
Our CIE tour director, Regine, and motorcoach driver, Mickey, were straight out of Central Casting. She, like a tiny Gaelic red-haired fairy, introduced us to amazing sights through interesting narrative as we fl itted from town to town; and he, like a brawny knight protecting his clan, steered our trusty ride along country roads with a sure hand. CIE escorted tours include coaches equipped with Wi-Fi, guided sightseeing, daily breakfasts and many dinners. We stayed in five hotels in seven nights, including a manor house that once welcomed Charlie Chaplin and a quaint mountain lodge on the banks of a peaceful loch.
The Scottish Highlands. While the coach meandered along twisting roads that skirted mirror-like rivers reflecting craggy peaks and vast blue sky, our group enjoyed tales of famed Scottish kings and Jacobite warriors as well as commentary on Highland life today. We visited a working farm to learn how farmers train dogs to herd sheep. On a morning cruise along Loch Lomond with the sun breaking through the light fog, we saw hikers in the hills taking advantage of the fair weather—a popular pastime for both locals and visitors.
Small towns with authentic charm.We dined in village pubs, shopped for local specialties and learned about the process of making single-malt whisky (including a wee dram for tasting). Favorite stops included the bustling university town of St. Andrews, where we explored the ruins of a cathedral dating from 1158, and Pitlochry, where Heathergems are made (this one-of-a-kind jewelry is handcrafted from heather fl owers that are compressed, fi red and then turned into colorful stone).
Castles of Scotland. With many still in use by nobility and their descendants, Scotland’s castles are remarkably well preserved. Two notable examples are Inveraray Castle, home of the 13th Duke of Argyle (its magnificent entranceway, decked out in bayonets, dirks and all manner of weaponry, was used for filming scenes from Downton Abbey), and Glamis Castle, dating from the 14th century and ancestral home to the Queen Mum, where family portraits painted more than a century ago demonstrate that the same furnishings and artwork are still in the same place. A must visit: Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace, dating from 1500 and the official Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II. The £15 admission (about $19 at press time) includes a self-paced interactive tour with a headset and mini iPad incorporating virtual reality and audio commentary from today’s monarchy. You can see the bed where Mary, Queen of Scots, slept and the bloodstained wooden floor where her personal secretary was murdered in 1566. The palace also exhibits the wedding attire of Prince Harry and Duchess Megan Markel.
Culloden Battlefield. In 1745, the Jacobite uprising was crushed in a decisive 45-minute battle that ended the Scottish clan system and their dreams of restoring a Catholic king. The visitors center at Culloden Battlefield includes artifacts, live interpreters and a 360-degree “immersion theater” where you’ll find yourself in the center of the battlefield facing both armies as they engage in the conflict. Then, walk the spongy peat battlefield, and note the clan markers, the final resting place of more than 1,500 warriors.
An escorted tour of Scotland is an efficient way to see the country in a short amount of time. Our agents recommend adding a day before the escorted trip to explore Glasgow and two days afterward to delve into Edinburgh. You’ll feel as if you stepped into a Dickens’ novel as you wander the alleys of Edinburgh, and if you stay in the right hotel, you won’t need transportation in this easy-to-navigate city. The Royal Mile—from the fortress of Edinburgh Castle straight down to Holyrood Palace—features shopping, unique dining and loads of history.
Go in August for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a pageant of music and dance complete with bagpipers in full regalia and international military bands on parade at Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade. Reserved seating is necessary, and most tour operators include the tattoo in their package prices. Or, avoid the summer crowds by visiting during Hogmanay, one of the world’s largest outdoor winter celebrations, held between New Year’s Eve and January 2.Read more articles