You know her as Nessie and the first image of her ever captured caught the imaginations of dreamers and scientists, children and adults, and everyone in between. And even as the world learned that image was a hoax, it was too convincing—too many people wants to believe. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster, pulled straight from Scottish folklore, captivates minds with tales of a dinosaur-like prehistoric aquatic creature that has survived millennium at the bottom of Loch Ness. I had ample time before I needed to arrive in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, so I planned a multi-day stop to Fort Augustus, a small city situated in the heart of Scotland and home to the long and legendary lake holding Nessie’s secrets.
It’s not so much that I believe that Nessie exists, truthfully I only knew her from pop culture references in movies. But any story that generates that much intrigue deserves a closer look! Just as I love learning about myths, spirituality, and local legends in any place I travel, I wanted to dig deeper. I grew up on Celtic mythology from my dad, and thought it would be fun to learn more about Gaelic mythology and it’s influences on modern Scotland.
Plus, I wanted another reason to take some epic hikes and walks through the Scottish countryside after my Old Man of Storr hike was so memorable. From the Isle of Skye, I took a bus to Fort Augustus with a plan to hike, walk, and simply relax by the lake on a Nessie-spotting mission. The locals have an affectionate indulgence for the Nessie legend—after all, she brings in tourist dollars—and the woman at my fantastic hostel, Morag’s Lodge, mapped out several hiking routes in and around Fort Augustus. Many of these hiking routes offered ample vistas over Loch Ness (which literally means Lake Ness).
The Myth & Mystery of Nessie
The lake itself is big at 23 miles long, but it’s a mere one mile across, which is an intriguing shape and arguably made the Nessie hunting harder over the years since it was such an expansive distance. Several towns dot the shores and they are tiny and lovely spots afternoon Nessie-spotting picnics. I embraced the “Nessie-ness” of the area as a way to entertain myself. As a solo traveler, I was hiked and walked along most day, and Nessie provided me with of food-for-thought as I studied the placid ripples on the surface of the lake.
Now, no shade on any Cryptozoologists reading this (they search for legitimate evidence of legendary and mythical animals, think: Big Foot, Nessie, Yeti, etc), but most scientists now agree that Nessie is a modern-day myth. Using modern technology in 2003, a BBC-sponsored expedition extensively canvassed the entire lake using sonar technology and found no evidence of anything the size and scale of Nessie. Even so though, dreamers and skeptics persist—plus, the well-read scientist Robert Rines contends that Nessie may have died only recently as a result of global warming!
With such a pervasive myth around her, I was far from the only tourist on the shores of Loch Ness hoping to feel a piece of the legend.
Evolution of the Loch Ness Monster Myth
Nessie-themed cruises are a popular attraction in Fort Augustus, and many backpackers and families take the small boats onto the lake for an afternoon of sunshine (or rain). I didn’t take a cruise this time around because I had quite enjoyed my other hikes int eh Scottish countryside. Plus, boats aren’t my thing. Instead, the local tourist information office shared a wealth of information with me about how the myth has evolved since it reached a fever pitch in the 1930s.
The first sighing of a large monster in the area actually dates as far as the sixth century, but water beasts myths were actually a common thing back then—they were very popular in Celtic folklore! So, those accounts are even less credible than the video footage, photos, and sightings that have come forth in the last 70+ years. Basically, despite the best technology offered today, there is a whole lot of speculation and very little proof. The scientific community has indulged the myth by using extensive sonar testing equipment on the lake floor—not once, but multiple times over the decades. And although some sightings contend that Nessie resembles the prehistoric plesiosaurs, paleontologists say that not only did the lake’s formation not overlap with the time period the animal lived, but that its anatomy and cold-blooded status would make the lake an impossible habitat.
Suffice to say, I loved seeing first hand the place that launched so many myths—a lake so dark and vast that it gave way to a myth as persistent and beloved as Nessie. Even though the bulk of the scientific and global community agree that Nessie is likely a myth, there’s something thrilling about a new shadowy photo taken and shared online. I want to believe. :)
But thankfully, even in a town built around such a potent legend, Loch Ness offers a lot more to do and see, so I will soon share how I spent my days on Loch Ness!
Rent a car: Driving a rental car is the most popular way to explore the Scottish Highlands. Many backpackers are willing to pool resources to share rentals for a day of exploring.
What to wear: The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.
The scent of Scotland changes as damp rains roll across the land. Throughout the small city of Portree, located on the Isle of Skye, the earthy smell of grass and the fresh scent of wet flowers dominates the air, overriding the powerful scent of deep-frying fish and chips. When the rains come, the town becomes a collage of smells mingling together, pulled on a current of mist.
After having spent rainy days exploring Stirling, and with plans to head to other places in the Highlands, I had hopes that the sun would peek through the clouds during my time on the Isle of Skye, the most easily visited of the Hebridean Islands. Instead, the fickle August weather in Scotland brought a dampness that alternated between whimsical droplets tickling your face to huge, fat, plops slowly drifting downward.
In my every story of Scotland, rain features prominently. Native Scots are quite blasé about the rain, but as a traveler, well, it’s good to know that it’s not an exaggeration! It really does rain. But I was relieved to see that it merely added new dimensions to my trip, and there were plenty of things to do in Portree (and indeed every Scottish city that I visited) that were enjoyable in the rain.
Hiking Near Portree
There are two beautiful walks and hikes around Portree that make for a short couple of hours and very little advance organization of transport. The other hikes are listed next, those are ones that are further afield but still easy day trips from Portree. Although I waited a few days before hiking (I had hoped the rain would abate), eventually I set out anyway and ended up thoroughly enjoying it all.
The Old Man of Storr
The most iconic walk in Scotland is likely this two hour hike to the top of a hillside holding towering volcanic rocks. Since the trailhead is just seven miles from town, it’s the most accessible hike for backpackers, not just those with rental cars. I absolutely adored hiking The Old Man of Storr and the sweeping views from the top are among my favorite memories from this region. Although it was misting a bit when I left town on the bus, the fickle weather changed a lot in the handful of hours it took me to get there, hike it, have lunch, and return. So, even if it’s raining, know that you might just see the clouds part once you’re actually on Trotternish Peninsula and enjoying the landscape. It can be quite muddy in the rain, so only know that you’ll want waterproof boots and a rain jacket, too. My post on the Old Man of Storr covers everything you should know to make it enjoyable and safe.
Portree Harbor Walk
This short walk lasts just an hour and is doable from Portree itself. I stayed at the Portree Youth Hostel, and the owner drew me a map (because, yeah, I have a track record of getting lost!), and then kicked me out of the cozy common room to slosh around in the mud and explore the island. If you’re heading out on this walk, you’ll surely find the path pretty easily from the harbor, but I recommend asking your guesthouse for recommendations on which paths are likely clear and less muddy at the time of year you’re visiting.
The walk parallels Portree Harbor for a while and then loops around the coast to the spot where small ships chug around the corner to take refuge in the harbor. The paths branch off into varying length walks and since I am useless as a navigator (I knew I should have been a girl scout!), I took the longest walk possible which ended in a steep uphill climb with a few last sweeping views of the ocean before cutting across cow pastures and taking in the hairy Highland cows!
These long-haired cows are an ancient breed of cattle that evolved in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Seeing these was a real highlight of my time on the island as they are just picture perfect. This walk is also remarkable in that it gives you a lot of time near the harbor and many changes to spot the Sea Eagle, the largest bird of prey in Britain.
Hiking Around the Isle of Skye (Rain or Shine)
Portree is the main town on the Isle of Skye and the place from which most people organize their time on the island. There are definitely other accommodations on the island, but to stay there you would need a car for sure. That said, it’s a small island and you can easily see or do any of these hikes no matter where you were staying—some will just take more legwork if you’re using public buses. Here are some of the best ones on the Trotternish and around. While there are more, I aimed to list the ones that are best accessible by both car and bus.
This is a challenging 6.8km hike that is popular with photographers because has stunning views over the area and offers a nice diversity of landscape throughout the hike. It takes up to four hours if you go at a slow pace and stop for photos. Although you could attempt to navigate here on public transport, you’re likely better using the one shuttle transfer service in town if you want to make this happen. Or use your car as it’s quite easy to stop for views here, even if you don’t take the hike. More on how to find and navigate the hike here and this is a pretty post about a family who did part of the walk before turning back on account of the weather.
Rubha nam Brathairean (Brother’s Point)
Technically, you’ll probably not make it here unless you’ve rented a car, or if you’re adept at, and comfortable with, hitchhiking, then you can get there that way. That said, I am told it’s one of the better hikes as it’s less well known but has gorgeous views. Oh! And it has dinosaur prints at low tide. You’ll encounter far fewer tourists here than on the Old Man of Storr hike, and it’s pretty views for days. This page details the best way to undertake this hike, which is about 3km round trip from the road south of Staffin. As an added bonus, the Glenview Hotel has vegetarian (and non-vegetarian) food!
Explore the Fairy Pools & Talisker Distillery
These two options are nearby enough to each other that if you’re sans car, then you can visit via the shuttle. There are no public routes to the Fairy Pools, however, and really you won’t want to visit on a rainy day—they are at their aquamarine prettiest in the sunshine when you might also take a quick dip if you’ve remembered your swimsuit. The pools are a series of waterfalls and are quite stunning if you’re lucky to visit in good weather. In poor weather, however, just head to the Talisker Distillery.
The Talisker Distilerry is the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye, and has a picturesque setting on the Loch Harport, with sweeping views of the Cuillins. Book the tasting tour in advance so you can enjoy the history and explanation of the single-malt whiskeys its famous for producing. It’s pretty much the perfect way to spend a rainy day on the Isle of Skye.
Wandering Around Wentworth Street
Even in the rain, Portree town itself has a lot to keep you entertained. Remember, locals live here year-round, so there are plenty of cozy pubs and cute boutiques. For a great vegetarian lunch, head to Isle of Skye Baking Co, and for tasty coffee and good vibes you can pass a rainy afternoon just hanging out in Cafe Arriba—this place is a go-to spot for vegetarians in Portree since it has an extensive selection of tasty eats.
Quick Tips: Planning Your Trip to Portree
Where to Stay
The Portree Youth Hostel is the best budget option in town—book well ahead during high season, however, as all of Portree fills up quickly! The Oronsay B&B is particularly nice for those on a mid-range budget.
Rent a Car
Driving a rental car is the most popular way to explore the island and it’s exceedingly easy to hire one from one of the shops in town. If you really want to see the different hiking spots, then even a backpacker should consider a single day rental as the day tour and shuttle costs really add up. Many of the backpackers pooled resources at the hostel and shared rentals for a day of exploring.
What to Wear
No matter the hike, wear layers even if the sun is shining when you leave Portree. The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland as a whole, but on the hillsides as well. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.
Weak sunlight peeped from behind the smoke-gray clouds and I surmised that today, like everyday for the past four days, was another classic Scottish day—damp and cold. Although I had hoped for perfect weather when I tackled one of the most famous hikes on the Trotternish Peninsula, the northeast area of the Isle of Skye, the time had come to suck it up and hike The Old Man of Storr anyway.
The sunny photos I had seen of the Isle of Skye truly made it appear one of the most gorgeous regions of Scotland, and although I didn’t have those views as I explored Portree, even in the rain it was atmospheric and pretty. Taking advice from those who had finished the hike in the previous day, I opted for layers—jacket, scarf, and raincoat—and my sturdy hiking boots, even though it was mid-August and seemingly could be warmer if the sun ever appeared. Then I headed to the bus stop to catch one of the four daily buses heading out that way, hoping the entire time for just a few sunny minutes when I got to the top—after hiking through the Himalayas in Nepal and seeing the peaks only for a tiny glimpse, I learned that I just need a bit of views and vibes to make the struggle of a steep hike worthwhile.
Hiking the Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr is a signature sight not only on the Isle of Skye, but it’s one of the top walks in Scotland. Rocky, jagged pinnacles (these are the Storr) jut into the sky from the hilly land on the Trotternish Ridge. These are ancient volcanic plugs (magma derived gabbro) from the Tertiary period that have eroded over time, likely because of an ancient landslide. If all of that sounds bizarre, that’s exactly why this hike is so popular, the landscape is otherworldly!
Hiking to the top is relatively short considering the height you gain, and although it’s classed as medium difficulty, it’s really quite steep at the end, and then compounded by vast swaths of mud that even the well-maintained trail can’t help you avoid. I imagine there’s no time of year when it’s truly dry—does Scotland ever see enough sun to dry out the mud? Other travelers and the hostel owner indicate that it is, in fact, always muddy. I was grateful for my hiking boots, but it was the gray rocks peeping from the mud that kept me from sinking calf-deep into the trail as I carefully made my way up the nearly 700 meters, to the sweeping panoramic views from the top of The Old Man of Storr.
As I hiked, the weather seemed confused. It was damp and overcast, until it wasn’t. The sun would creep from behind the cloud cover, warming the land and forcing me to continually mess with my layers. The finicky weather also encouraged me to I pushing myself so I would reach the top while there was still intermittent sunshine illuminating the shimmering blue lakes in the Sound of Raasay and across the Isle of Skye.
The view from the top was incredible.
I picked a sloped spot just off of the trail and pulled out the lunch I had packed. It was peaceful up there. The poor weather meant it was less crowded than some had reported, and I was content to enjoy the bleating sheep munching on grass nearby.
Reinvigorated by food, I tacked the final 100 meter ascent to the base of the Old Man of Storr. This path is even steeper than what came before, but it’s the final push. I could not have timed it better, because although I had enjoyed the muted sunlight that had filtered through during my hike, a dark fog rolled over the land within mere minutes. Fingers of fog claimed each of the jutting peaks one by one, my fellow hikers disappeared from sight, and the world became dark and almost eerie.
It was seriously neat. The woman at the tourist information office in Portree had recommended this as a hike ideal in any weather, and she was right. The view of the Sound of Raasay is gorgeous, and you have views across the Isle of Skye. It’s absolutely something I think everyone hopes for on the hike, but it was also special to see the Storr through dense fog—it felt like I had entered the set of a Hollywood thriller.
Although I could hear disembodied voices meters away, they were muted and distant. A lovely quiet settled over The Storr.
I sat in the calm fog until the chill forced me hike back down the hillside.
Once I got back to the base of the hill, the forest cocooned me in its mossy green world as the damp permeated every breath and heartbeat. I made quick work of the forest trail—maybe too quick. The midges struck as I waited for the bus, and they were as intense as advertised by locals. These wigged, mosquito-like insects travel in clouds and they tried to infiltrate my nose, mouth, and ears, so I spent the long wait with my scarf completely around my face.
As I settled into the warm and midge-free bus, I watched the misty gray fog deepen and settle onto the hillside. The information woman was right—The Storr are beautiful and strange in any weather!
Quick Tips: Plan Your Hike to the Old Man of Storr
What to Wear on the Hike
Wear layers even if the sun is shining when you leave Portree. The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland as a whole, but on the Isle of Skye’s drafty hillsides as well. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella that I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.
What to Bring to the Storr
Although the weather may make a picnic lunch impossible, I deeply enjoyed sitting and snacking when the weather cleared and I had uninterrupted views of the Sound of Raasay. Consider packing one, especially if you’re taking the bus option since you are at the whims of public transport and it will take a bit longer round-trip than those with cars or shuttles.
When to Hike to the Old Man of Storr
The hike busiest in high season between 10am and 4pm. If you have a rental car, it’s very easy to avoid these times and it’s highly recommended that you go either early or late. Note that the weather changes quickly during the hike, so you may face sunshine, rain, mist, etc. Lots of the hikers will leave once it starts raining—if you’re well prepared then you can usually wait out bad weather. If you’re keen on sunrise and sunset views, although the rainy mists mean there are no guarantees, the potential photos are spectacular. This photographer shares her tips on making that happen.
How to Get to the The Old Man of Storr
Located just seven miles north of Portree, you have three options:
Bus number 57 leaves from Portree throughout the day (generally 7am to about 5pm, but with abbreviated hours Sunday and Thursday). It drops you at the parking lot at the base of the hike. There are four return buses as well—check the seasonal timetable before leaving for the hike.
If you’re driving, the carpark is on the A855 and will surely be full unless you’re there early or late—note that you can park your car in the grass along the road.
Go Skye runs a seasonal shuttle service from Portree—it fills quickly, so book well ahead of time in high season. The fare is £10.00 each way to the Storr, and Go Skye has reasonable prices to the Fairy Pools and Quiraing as well.
Plan Hiking Your Route
You’ll see the Old Man of Storr hike on the Isle of Skye listed as either 3.8 or 4.5 kilometers, and it all depends on if you take the slightly longer route on the way back down—you should! It’s not noticeably more difficult, just 20 minutes longer. In good weather, those 20 minutes are memorable. Either route is easily achieved in under two hours and every hiker starts at the trailhead (pinpointed here). It’s a well-marked path up through a forest (veer left when the path forks half-way up) and then up to the Storr as you ascend 288m. On the way back down, veer to the left instead of retracing your footsteps so that you come down via that fork in the road that you did not take! (Note: Do not hike around the back of the Storr, this route is unsafe with potential rockfall. That said, there is actually another more difficult hike to the summit of the Storr. It’s 719m at the summit and is best suited to experienced hikers—it’s outlined here.)
Kids are out of school, businesses across Europe are closed, and flights are packed elbow-to-elbow. Ah, it must be August in the United Kingdom. I arrived in the UK in the late summer, and this is a rough time of year to plan a trip to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Although it’s a beautiful time to visit, it’s also stressful for budget backpacking, or budget travel in general. Because my yearlong trip was only lightly planned, I learned the hard way that you have to be on your game if you plan travel around the England, Scotland, and Ireland on a backpacker budget.
It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work!
You see, tourists from the United States and from all over Europe head to Scotland from July through September; this means cheap accommodation is booked quickly, and tours and food all come at a high premium. Although I had my trusty Lonely Planet Great Britain, which had some budget tips, it only halfway works when you’re backpacking quickly during high season. Many sights in London and elsewhere are free—you can visit all the museums, and you can hike in the Lake District without spending a penny. But accommodation and transport prices are brutal if you’re not prepared, and for this reason you really need to plan your trip ahead of time if you’re traveling in the summer high season in England and Scotland, even if you usually like to wing it!
There five key points are ones I wish I had known before planning my time in the United Kingdom during the summer. These are the five essential tips for budget travel across my two months in England, Scotland, and Ireland—they not only saved me money, but made it possible to find transport and affordable food everyday, and somewhere to sleep every night.
1. Book your accommodation ahead of time.
I’m definitely a fan of spontaneous travel and rarely do I fully book my trips advance. When I land in a new place, my MO is usually to book the first two nights of accommodation. The rest? I leave that up to whim, luck, and the advice of other travels. For traveling in England and Scotland during high season, however, that style of travel is extremely difficult. Budget accommodation is booked up, particularly on the weekends.
What’s more, even the cheapie beds are expensive. Some hostels and budget hotels in London raise the prices on the weekends. The only way can find affordable places to sleep is through a bit of advance planning. For me, as an American, every price is exchanged from my home currency into the dominating pounds sterling. If you’re traveling on a low budget, the difference of a few pounds extra stacks up quickly. When I first arrived in the United Kingdom., lack of pre-booking meant I ate up a three-day budget in one heartbeat. All because I had to float myself in an expensive city for a few days until the a nearby budget hotel had openings.
All of the usual hostel sites work for pre-booking. I usually use Booking.com or a hostel booking website. And I find that advance planning on Airbnb can net you truly great deals if you’re traveling in a group or as a family.
Also consider local listing like the Scottish Independent Hostels site—it has heaps of highly tailored local information, as well as local accommodation. If booking ahead of time feels too restrictive and you still want to be spontaneous, consider just booking your accommodation for Friday and Saturday nights. For traveling families, hostels are still a great choice, by the way. Independent hostels especially are family-friendly. Staying in a private room as a family not only costs less for the room, but your family saves money by cooking occasional meals (making breakfast at the hostel is one of the best ways to save money in your food budget!).
2. Plan your transportation well!
Why Use Buses in the England, Scotland & Ireland?
While trains are faster to be sure, buses are a great way to plan a budget trip in both England and Scotland. The UK train system is both extensive and expensive. Seriously expensive. Buses, on the other hand, offer rock-bottom seats if you book in advance, as low as 1 GBP between cities. I never booked months in advance, so my seats were around 10 GBP—still an absolute bargain considering a similar train ride cost upwards of 60 GBP.
The United Kingdom has a lot of bus options. Megabus is the cheapest by far. It’s also perfectly good if it run betweens the cities you’re visiting. But note that Megabus has limited routes and runs between mostly just the major cities in Scotland and England. CityLink is more expensive but still cheaper than the trains.
When Trains are a Good Option
Traveline Scotland was incredibly helpful in planning my route from one city to another. The website gives precise directions and timetables for taking public transport, and you can even select whether you want to include walking, buses, trains, and metro. Rome2Rio also has a good bead on all the different options if you’re planning to travel between two very difficult destinations.
If you have the budget, or if you simply prefer the trains, use the National Rail site to plan your UK train travel. It’s imperative that you book online, however, and book a month in advance if possible. If you don’t, the peak pricing can cost double or triple at the ticket counter.
Rental Cars, Uber, & More
If you’re really going to do it right, then a rental car would probably be most ideal. This is actually a cost-effective option if you are traveling with friends. The cost of splitting a rental will equal out when split among you. If you’re solo, you can have that same experience by booking one of the hop-on, hop-off buses that travel around Scotland, specifically, so that travelers can admire the Highlands.
And although the United Kingdom rightly has a fantastic reputation for public transportation, you should always download Uber onto your phone and have that option ready if you find yourself in need of quick transport elsewhere locally. While it’s not as budget as the tube, it’s nearly always a better price than the local taxi cabs.
For my own travels, I used a combination of all three of these when planning my own route around England, Scotland, and Ireland. I trained from London to the Lake District, then I took the public bus to the Isle of Skye and onward across the Highlands to Loch Ness and then to Edinburgh. From there, I took a £20 flight to Dublin and rented a car for three weeks. To help offset the expense, I picked up other backpackers at the hostels in Cork and Dingle and they chipped in for gas since they didn’t have to buy a bus fare.
3. Make a plan for daily your meals.
Nearly all hostels and Airbnbs have kitchens—and they are often surprisingly well stocked! With that in mind, I highly recommend cooking your own dinner at least a couple of times a week. Head to the nearest Tesco Lotus (it’s the most reasonable of the UK’s grocery stores). I found the easiest options for a good mix of eating out and eating in was to cook breakfast and often lunch. Pick up some fruit, yogurt, and muesli. Then you could even do sandwiches for lunch, or plan to eat while you’re out exploring and cook pasta and veggies for dinner.
It’s also possible to eat affordably in the UK. Head to the pubs for the daily special; this is a great option for lunch or dinner as the specials run at a time of day where you can often use the meal as either one. I used this budget hack from London to Edinburgh, and I always found something tasty and hearty offered at the pubs. As a vegetarian, eating out is a hard in some countries. But UK pubs always have vegetarian options, even if it sometimes lacks much imagination beyond glorified pasta. For this reason, I actually enjoyed cooking for myself, at least when I backpacked through the tinier British and Scottish towns.
Also, budget travelers should look for ethnic restaurants. In London, there are many Asian and African restaurants where you can find a meal for perhaps £6. Or if you eat meat, fish and chips and kebabs are plentiful.
4. Carry an umbrella.
It rains, it pours. In short: the United Kingdom is wet. You’re shrugging right now and thinking, “Huh, of course it’s wet, this girl is crazy to recommend this as a tip.” It’s even wetter than you imagine. Budget travelers need the right packing list: poncho, a rain cover for their packs, and a rain jacket. As a budget travel tip, this comes into play because you will be out in the elements waiting for public transport. Although the big cities have covered bus stops, there’s little chance you will find covered ones in the Scottish highlands. I met some travelers who had abandoned their travel plans because they had spent hours standing in the rain and were either sick or just plain tired. Plan ahead and you’ll be more flexible and happy as you crisscross England, Scotland, and Ireland!
5. Plan to spend more.
One of the beautiful things about exchange rates is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. From the time that I started planning my RTW trip to the time I arrived, the exchange rate from the US Dollar to Pound Sterling fluctuated nearly 50 cents on the dollar. I spent a lot more money than I had initially planned when plotting my trip across England, Scotland, and Ireland. I also had a cushion in my world travel budget, and that meant that I was able to still enjoy my time and not spend the entire visit pinching pennies too closely. Plan for a budget trip in the UK, but then add a cushion in case you go over-budget.
Think of it in terms of the range of fluctuation. In Asia, when the exchange rate fluctuates it makes on a tiny impact on the amount you end up spending on accommodation. In the UK, however, a change of 20 cents easily means $4 more a night just for accommodation. Stretch that across several weeks and you could be grossly over budget going into the rest of your travels.
Speaking of money, American travelers who don’t have a chip in their credit card should add their card to Apple Pay or the Android equivalent. All across Europe, the credit card machines are most effective with wifi-chipped cards, which most U.S. cards don’t feature. The hack around these is to use your phone—there are nights now when I leave my home in Barcelona with only my cell phone, knowing every single bar and restaurant accepts Apple Pay. It will make your time in England, Scotland, and Ireland much simpler if you travel with the right credit cards.
The United Kingdom is gorgeous—I do not regret for a second adding this place onto my itinerary for my RTW trip. It might have been, however, a poor choice as a budget traveler. I decided to visit the UK solely to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. I had visited England during college and only remembered hemorrhaging money. I did better this time around, but I could have also stayed longer in other areas without the huge expenses associated with traveling the UK.
In the long run, it might have made more sense to save the United Kingdom for an isolated trip in the future, rather than a part of my round the world trip itinerary. Planning England and Scotland as an independent/shorter trip it would have been less of a financial strain. Without the worry about my budget holding out until the end, I might have more readily enjoyed a few more pints along the way. That being said, I learned a lot and will be back. Budget backpacking has a learning curve, but there are ways and resources and even budget backpacking books and budgeting guides to help.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot: This is a fascinating and gripping read about one man’s journey. Robert shares his adventures as he walks from the chalk downs of England up to the Scottish northwest, as well as journeys in Palestine, Spain, and the Himalayas.
Notes from a Small Island: In this book Bill Bryson writes about his life and adventures after moving to Britain in 1973. A fun read that will have you searching for flight deals to the UK.
Lonely Planet Great Britain: I have tried all of the different guidebook brands, I continue to use the Lonely Planet even as my travels grow beyond backpacking. It’s laid out better than other guidebooks and it has the most thorough budget transportation sections to and from cities—this was essential planning a trip to the the tiny towns in Scotland.
The weather in England and Scotland was incredible for the week I traveled the region: sunny and blue skies. Now, it was also cold, and I have a limited life-span in cold weather, but I encountered little rain for days on end.
The rain came for me with a vengeance and I learned that using public transportation in rainy countries makes the entire travel process a lot less comfortable. Now, to be fair, the trains and buses are a step up from some transportation this past year on the road. I bumped around in the back of tuk-tuks in Thailand, passed entire days on the rickety trains of India, took interminably long rides on Greyhound Australia, and generally felt every mile of this long journey. But heavy rains take a toll on the fun of backpacking, it’s just a fact.
During my second week in the UK, the dark gray sky opened up into a steady downpour for days on end. That first day, I was slated to leave Stirling, Scotland and move to the Isle of Skye. All of this would be well and fine except for two things: 1) my beloved backpack’srain cover had mysteriously disappeared when I picked up my bag from the conveyer belt in Mumbai airport, and I have never purchased another, and 2) my jacket is a knock-off North Face that I bought in Nepal for a whopping US $11 right before my trek in the Himalayas.
Lesson learned: you get what you paid for when you buy knockoff in Nepal. My raincoat had worked perfectly well in the light misting rains I encountered while exploring Slovenia and Czech Republic. It did not fare quite so well when solid, pelting raindrops penetrated the faux-Gortex shell, seeping into my clothes. When I head to Central America next year, I will pack a real rain coat!
Anyhow, there I am standing at the door to my hostel (Willy Wallace Backpackers) and dreading the short to the bus station. With the 50 pounds strapped to my back I had no choice but to trot-skip there, and even at that semi-clipped pace, I arrived soaked to the bone and shivering.
Blech. Not a great start to an all-day bus-ride—roughly seven hours—to the largest city on the Isle of Skye, Portree, where I had to peel several my wet layers from my wrinkled skin and allow the clothes to air-dry for hours.
I will also take this opportunity to expound on just why I stayed in Portree out of all of the gorgeous little towns on the Isle of Skye—Scotland, in August, is tourist-tastic. Seriously and insanely touristy. I had planned to mosey my way up through Scotland booking hostels as I went and luxuriating in towns that struck my fancy.
In actuality, once I arrived in London I was slapped in the face with the harsh reality that I would be lucky to even find a bed some nights.
All of the Scotland hostels in the classic backpacker cities (Oban, Fort William, etc) were fully booked on the weekends. Like totally booked up, no options left on the weekends. That’s actually why I ended up in Stirling for three days—it was the only hostel I could find over the weekend on short notice.
The same mostly held true for the Isle of Skye, all of the hostels were booked up. I ran into a bit of luck at the Portree Independent Hostel—I phoned and they had some cancellations during the week.
I’m so thankful that I was able to stay on Skye for several days—if you move too fast while traveling Scotland then you miss the chance to catch the cities in good weather! It was steadily raining on Skye when I arrived but it cleared up for parts of the subsequent days, so I was able to bus around the Isle and get in some good hiking!
Quick Tips: Traveling Scotland in the Summer
Accommodation: I cannot emphasize this enough, book your Isle of Skye accommodation in advance if you are visiting the England and Scotland during the summer high season. Now that things like Airbnb exist, you might get a bit luckier if you wait, but I wouldn’t count on it. Also, as bonus for ALA readers, use this link to receive a discount on your first booking at Booking.com.
Transport: Some bus stops in the Scottish highlands are nothing more than a sign on the side of the road, no actual cover. These buses will get you where you you need to go, but it will be rough on cold, wet days. If you plan to hitchhike around the country, be doubly prepared for rain.
Backpacking solo through England and Scotland these past weeks has been a revelation. Although I have loved so much of my time this past year on the road, the pace of my travels really changed once I started traveling through the UK. I wandered through the Lake District and reveled in seeing the scenery that inspired some of the greatest prose to come out of England. And now it’s time to embrace my love for movies as I visit Stirling, Scotland, home to the William Wallace Monument.
I am one of those people, the ones who can parrot movie quotes and slip movie references into almost any conversation. So when I arrived at my hostel in Stirling, it was all I could do to tone down the Mel Gibson impressions from Braveheart. And although the William Wallace Monument, which honors his historic battles that took place throughout history right in this region, there were a number of other enjoyable things to do in Stirling to pass the time. I could have explored Stirling as a day trip from Edinburgh, and that was my initial plan, but accommodation during the August high season forced me to juggle things and I decided to spend three days in Stirling—which is plenty! You can absolutely see all of Stirling’s highlights in a long weekend.
A Brief History of Stirling, Scotland
The large river that runs through Stirling was historically a key part of William Wallace’s strategy for defeating the British during the battles of the Wars of Scottish Independence, even though his men were greatly outnumbered. Added to that, as you can see when you arrive, the countryside is wide, rolling, and moderately flat—this surely gave the Scots a bit of an advantage in the battles, too.
Once the capital of Scotland, Stirling was pivotal in every way to not only the country’s national identity, but to its fight agains the British across time. William Wallace may have fought one of the more famous battles in Stirling, but in 1314 Robert the Bruce also triumphed over the English on this land at nearby Bannockburn.
The flat countryside belies the truth, that Stirling—both then and now—was the most pivotal “Gateway To The Highlands,” as it is known. Located on an extinct volcanic crag, Stirling proved itself an impregnable position and a true gatekeeper to the Scottish highlands.
Today, it’s evident in every way that this city has deep history. It feels old. The buildings are just precisely and exactly what you would expect from a city that has seen countless battles, destruction, and overthrows. Mottled gray stone rises up from the Old Town city center and gives way to Stirling Castle. Meanwhile, cobbled paths connect the small, winding streets of Old Town.
Things to Do in Stirling: Old Town
The newer portion of Stirling lacks charm. And although this was where I found space at a local hostel (since I sadly waited to book my August trip until the last minute), I hoofed it up the hill to Old Town whenever possible so I could get lost in the history.
Church of the Holy Rude: Dating to the 1400s, this is the second oldest building in Stirling and it’s just beautiful. Entrance into the church is free, but one of my favorite parts was exploring the beautiful graveyard.
Old Town Jail: The staff here are just lovely and delight in sharing the history and highlights, which date back to 1847. It also offers great views of the city.
Darnley Coffee House: Not far from the castle, this place is just wonderful and reliably serves great vegetarian/vegan food, as well as many other things! Perfect and highly recommended lunch spot.
The Smithy: Great Scottish pub-style food if that’s more your style than vegan soup and sandwiches. Closes by 4:30pm, so ideal for lunch as you walk down from the castle.
Wander the streets! It’s a historic area and charming, you can window shop and relax as you soak in the vibe.
Touring the William Wallace Monument
The William Wallace Monument is visible from several places in the city, and it’s likely you haven’t missed it in the distance as you explored the city, or on your drive into town. It’s well worth the trip to the monument to explore it up close. Buses head to the monument for several pounds and it’s dead simple to grab one. In true backpacker style, however, I opted for the free transportation that my feet provided.
I hoofed it up to the monument and made it in just 25 minutes from the city-center. It was a relatively easy walk, but it completely parallels the trafficky roads and that was unpleasant—I had been hoping for a stroll through the pastures and surrounding land, but, still nothing to complain about since it was side-walked most of the way!
The ragged-peaked monument is huge and dominates the skyline as you approach. It’s perched on the top of a hill, Abbey Craig, and affords you full 360 views of the surrounding land, which I show off in the video below. The tower views alone are worth the trip out there!
The hill is rumored to have likely been the very spot where Wallace commanded his famous attack and defeat of the British in the late 1200’s because he could see for miles and miles around the hill, giving him a clear strategic advantage.
You have to pay to enter the monument and reach the top of the tower, but it’s affordable and gives you access to a number of small exhibits on the way up (as well as a free and relatively boring audio tour). There are no time limits, so you can also just relax at the top and enjoy the views across the green plains, admiring Stirling Castle from afar.
Visiting Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle has a long history in Scotland and it’s interesting that although there has long been a castle in this location, it was actually disassembled several times throughout history so that it could not be held by the enemy forces. Like the rest of Stirling, this castle played a pivotal role in Scottish history—Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned here!
The steep, craggy cliffs on three sides of Castle Hill set the stage for what turned out to be my favorite castle visit in Scotland. Different aspects of the castle date to different time periods and it all spans from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
Although I didn’t take a formal guided tour, I eavesdropped on several and learned a lot of neat tidbits—if I ever return I would actually pay for a guide to share the rich history. One of the coolest features, and my favorite aspect of it all, was the hammer beam roof. This roof was reconstructed and doesn’t use a single nail, screw, glue, or other substance. Wooden pegs and expert craftsmanship hold the ceiling together. Pretty neat. :)
Video Tour of Stirling, Scotland
I tried to break up my three days in Stirling to occupy as much time as possible, but the highlights are easily accomplished in just a day or two. With more time, there are some lovely walks into the countryside, like the Darn Walk, which takes just an hour or two at a slow wander and you might just spot some of those iconic (and seriously cute) hairy cows!