Refreshed and dry, with our kit organised and a slight hangover from excessive prosecco the night before, we set off from the hotel with Ali behind the wheel. That didn't last long – he played the ‘Birthday’ trump card to instead relax in the passenger seat taking pictures and eating my half of the snacks.
We were determined. This was the day we'd tackle the Old Man of Storr. Having driven the route the day before, I was able to relax and take in more of the scenery. Rocks and boulders of various sizes lined the road, with an occasional goat or cow standing out precariously on a ledge. We'd drive past houses, their closest neighbours at least a few miles away, with spectacular views across the hills and valleys. The road would dip down to pass by small lakes, or rise close to the cliff edge providing you with views of the sea crashing against the rocks below.
Finally, we reached the Old Man of Storr trailhead, making it beyond the car park. A gentle 30-to-40-minute walk (through some ever-pleasurable sideways rain) took us up and over the rolling hills that stretched to either side; the ocean behind us just visible through the haze of some low-lying cloud. Reaching the base of the first rocky formations, we took the stone trail that leads to the top, skirting around the equipment being used to make the trail more accessible, and to mitigate the erosion caused by hundreds and thousands of boots just like ours wearing away the grass and rock.
Reaching the top, we were the first and only ones up there, with the place to ourselves – the first ones to discover it ... that day. The winds were outrageously strong, and despite our best efforts we couldn't find anywhere sheltered enough for a cup of hot coffee that I'd lugged up with us. But the opportunity to feel like we were in the opening scenes of Prometheus was worth it, trying to discover any secret caves or markings on the otherworldly rock formations.
These impressive pieces of stone are enormous. Standing beneath them, craning your neck to look up at these jagged and course columns of rock towering above you, it's hard to believe that they've remained unsupported and upright all these years, made all the more ominous by the cloud cover almost obscuring them from view.
There are multiple narrow tracks that you can take around the site, like little Hobbit trails, with one more enticing one marked by a sign that said "Do Not Enter", the 'Not' mockingly stickered over. Though we didn't take that one: rules be rules. Instead, we climbed higher, intending to stand between two of the monstrous monoliths. The winds were so strong up there we had to stay on all fours, clinging to the ground as we peered down into the drop on the other side. It was a shame that we couldn't have experienced it with more ideal weather, but it still was an experience I wouldn't change; the high winds and battle with the elements only adding to the rugged sense of adventure.
After making short work of the descent down, passing other already bedraggled adventurers making their way up ("Yes, it's just around the corner" - a gentle white lie we've all been guilty of to encourage others) we bundled into the warm car, diving into the hot coffee and snacks. We had a long drive back across the Isle of Skye to the Glenfinnan Viaduct - because what trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to Glenfinnan Viaduct, a.k.a, the bit in Harry Potter where Harry falls out of Ron's car as they fly above the Hogwarts Express. Yes, it's a real place, Hogwarts Express and all.
The drive back was an opportunity to see everything we'd previously missed; the sun was shining and the clouds were just a thin layer in the sky rather than the overbearing mass we'd previously had accompanying us. We got to see a different side to the Isle of Skye, one where the sun glinted off the water, where you could see the stretch of coastline from the top of Skye Bridge. There's this incredible section where you're driving along the top of the hill line, with a stretch of woodland lying between you and the edge of the hill before the land plunges away to reveal the valley below. The road then taking you around some sharp turns back down to sea level.
Harry Potter and the Glenfinnan Viaduct
The viaduct is located close to Glenfinnan town right along the main road, where parking can be tricky. We found a spot opposite Saint Mary & Saint Finnan Catholic Church, strikingly posed in front of the mountains in the distance. From here you can walk down a short access road, and by Googling the timings of the train, position yourself above or below the bridge to get your best shot of the Hogwarts Express as it billows fake white steam into the air purely for your pleasure. Passengers wave enthusiastically at you from inside the cosy-looking carriages, "Anything from the trolley, dears?"
The morning's drive was long, on reflection too long, but being desperate to see the area we'd decided to spend the night camping in Glencoe. The drive from the viaduct on to Glencoe is spectacular, following the edge of Loch Eli as it takes you through the town of Fort William, and past the impressive mountain of Ben Nevis - unfortunately not to be tackled on this trip. Originally planning to spend time in Fort William, we quickly decided to continue on to the campsite to take advantage of having a full afternoon of dry weather.
What was undoubtedly the best, and arguably only, night of camping was our stay at Redsquirrel Campsite in Glencoe. This adorable campsite is nestled in the valley with views of the hills through the treeline, and located by a literal babbling brook, with each spot coming with its own designated stone fire circle. You're close enough to other campers that you almost feel part of this shared secret, hidden away in the forests of Glencoe, but far enough that you still get some privacy.
Paying as you drive through the entrance, the site conveniently offers you a bag of firewood to purchase, and so as the sun begins to set, little rosy red fires spring up around the campsite. It was this night that we finally had a chance to make use of all the camping gear provided through Wild Trax - gas stove, cooking pans, a table and chairs, and all the other little gadgets and accessories you wouldn't think to have packed yourself. We grilled some burgers, and cracked open beers that had all been chilling in the cool box that comes plugged into the car. The set up provided us with the perfect, stress-free experience camping, and was a spectacular last night in the Highlands.
As night fell, the inevitable car alarms started going off as people began to camp down for the night. Rookies, I thought. Until ours did - my god, the frantic scramble to find the car keys hidden somewhere in the tent box.
After a mortifyingly early start the next day - no doubt waking everyone at the campsite with the thunderous roar of the engine, gunning it between the tents to get out as quickly as possible - we headed for Glencoe Lochan for sunrise. It was set to be a dry, cloudy day, and the water was so still and undisturbed it formed a perfect reflection of the mountains above. The site offers a short walk, circling the small Loch. We were there and out again before the people sleeping in the cosy looking VW campervan in the car park had even risen.
Leaving Glencoe, bouncing through the little streets and past cute stone houses, we jumped back on the main road. It snakes its way past Loch Leven & Loch Eil and so we pulled in at the first opportunity - Linnhe Picnic Area - a tiny campsite right by the road providing phenomenal views across the loch to the undulating hills beyond. It was quiet, and no one else had yet emerged from their tents. The water was calm, the sky relatively clear - it was picture perfect, and shaping out to be what we'd later say was the best day of the trip.
We were driving further towards the Cairngorms, planning on doing a short walk right on the outskirts. The drive was beautiful, with a real mixture of terrain to keep you entertained. Part of the experience of being in Scotland is for sure the travel, and the unexpected bits of scenery you'll stumble across that reinvigorate you with awe.
We then stumbled across a complete gem of an unexpected, local find. Bouncing along the small country roads, winding our way through small hills and patches of woodland, we found a Scottish gin distillery, something we'd desperately wanted to do but didn't think we'd have time to fit in. After performing a very cumbersome 17-point turn (did I mention we were in a land rover?) we eventually took a steep access road off down to the huge plot of land containing this distillery - Daffy's Gin.
Parking up, watching the chickens wandering around freely we wondered whether we should even be here, conscious of the COVID restrictions still in place. But we were warmly welcomed inside by a young woman who was more than enthusiastic about getting us inside to try some of their gin. She ushered us into the bar, with bottles and bottles of gin and other spirits lined up on shelves, reflected at you by the mirrored wall. The tables and chairs were stacked up into the corners, but you could see that this would be a fun place to find yourself sharing drinks with the people you'd meet. You can even stay on-site in one of the rooms they rent out on AirBnb.
Over one, maybe one and a half, shots of gin - that's allowed whilst driving right? - we listened to the story of the creation of Daffy's gin, and who exactly the woman was on the label. Fun fact, it's the owner's wife, who was flown out to America and painted by the artist Robert McGinnis, known for his artwork for James Bond. This was such a brilliant find that I would recommend anyone take the detour through the incredibly picturesque countryside purely for a gin at Daffy's Gin Distillery.
Cairngorms National Park
Walking in the Cairngorms was simply unreal. It's the largest National Park in the UK, home to the ancient Caledonian forest which once covered Scotland. The trees are tall and dense, obscuring any view past a few feet; there's hardly any sound of wildlife, you could be anywhere, isolated from the rest of the world.
Driving to the little hamlet of Kincraig, over the tiny bridge across Loch Insh, you can get to a small access road taking you deep into the Cairngorms to a collection of lakes known as Uath Lochan. On a map, they almost create the shape of a bear paw. The access road was the closest we came to off-roading - a pot-holed dirt road that took us down into what felt like the bowels of the forest. The car park can be used for camping, with benches and stone circles for fires - it would be a special place to camp for the night.
We opted for the 'intermediate' path, advertised as rocky ground with a viewpoint across the small lakes - and it was spectacular. Following the path as it winds up through the forest, you're gently led up a hill to the viewpoint at the top, where you’re greeted by an enormous boulder. You can see for miles, with dense forest stretched out before you, and complete heavenly silence all around. Continuing on, the trail drops steeply back down, but through the trees on your left you have this immense drop off from the cliff edge, with the small lakes displayed below. This was without a doubt a highlight of the trip, and exactly what we'd come to the Highlands for: a chance to feel like you were out in the wild, a place untouched by civilisation.
Jumping back in the car, invigorated from the walk, we stocked up on snacks and decided to stop for lunch in Aviemore, on our way to Inverness. Aviemore was exactly as I'd pictured it: a little mountain town full of cafes, souvenir and outdoor equipment shops, both enticing you in and then putting you off at the outrageous prices. I wanted to give them all of my money, yet resisted. We did indulge with lunch at the Cairngorm hotel, but the experience was somewhat diminished by the plexiglass dividers that had been set up to separate tables. That being said, the suit of armour and other bits of history the hotel contained made it a place worth visiting, and the town itself is charming.
And then there we were; our last night; tired, but desperately wishing we could stay for even one more day. We'd booked our final night at the very fancy Kingsmills Hotel for a bit of TLC, and made the most of the lush hotel bar. I felt comfortable having ordered my Berri Breeze until we were joined at the table by two burly Scotsman. A somewhat fitting end to the adventures of two gay men in the rugged highlands of Scotland.