Easter 2017, I accepted a job that became the quirkiest and most enviable I’ve ever had. The most life affirming, wanderlust-fulfilling opportunity to head out into the wilds of Scotland in the most wonderfully unique driver’s seat of a Highland ‘CooVan’.
My knowledge of Scotland expanded vastly whilst achieving our team goal to visit as many corners of the country as possible, including the nooks and crannies. The ever-changing nature of the role boosted my happiness and healed my soul through life chats, belly laughing and a great deal of learning. And I even got to meet some of the most wonderful human beings: ‘CooVisors’ who are now CooPals, locals and tourists.
We saw the country from a ‘road-tripper’s perspective whilst representing Scotland (and gingers everywhere). A year and a bit on, I’ve been mulling over the season we had. Here are some of my top tips for an incredible adventure.
Some definitions before I begin:
Our four very cute Coos: Hamish, Morag, Heather and Archie.
The people delivering the banter and spreading the love for all things Scottish and all things tourism.
Heilan’ Coo (Highland Cow):
A beautiful hairy coo found in the wilderness of the Scottish countryside… friendly, hardy and SO cute (a CooVisor definition).
A word I’ve made up to describe my CooVisor colleagues, who are now friends.
Nooks and Crannies:
The remote villages and hamlets of Scotland.
Enjoyable conversation which may lead to a belly laugh!
1. Get to know the locals
Everywhere you go, be it a village, a big city, an island or a pub, don’t be afraid to chat to the locals. From the bartender pulling your pint to the local ceilidh band, everyone has their very own top tips and ideas for your trip in Scotland. Sometimes they will lead you to the time of your life, to the most wonderful view you have ever experienced… and sometimes they might just leave you wondering what is was they actually said (you’ll hear many lovely accents across Scotland). And who knows, you might be invited for a dram and then hit up the most rip-roaring ceilidh in town.
Full disclosure, this man is my Great-Uncle Jeck. I visited him with CooVan Morag, on our way to Orkney at his home in the village of Reay, Caithness. He has lived in Reay most of his life and knows every piece of gossip and every bit of history (and joke) you might need to know. He will definitely have a dram at the ready for you, too.
2. Venture off the beaten track
We’re fortunate enough to have awe-inspiring scenery along one-way tracks and on the main roads of Scotland. Take some extra time to tune into a local radio station and drive the winding roads through forests and alongside beaches and lochs. You’ll pass by villages and farmhouses seemingly in the middle of nowhere! A local’s hint: instead of driving by the coast en-route to Thurso (NC500), go through the village of Helmsdale and take the hour long single-track road all the way north to the ocean. We spotted majestic stags, sheep and coos along this beautiful road, known locally as ‘The Strath’. Mind your way though, there are a few tricky bends and even a trainline running alongside the road. Find your road trip!
3. Paddle in the oceans
Now, when it’s sunny in Scotland, it’s really sunny, so get your sun cream out and take your shoes off (even when it’s a wee bit overcast) and enjoy the most wonderful beaches in the world. I’m not saying that the water will be warm, but you will rack up those Instagram ‘likes’ from your pictures of white-sand-tropical-blue beaches. My CooPal and I were lucky enough to go on a week-long trip to the Outer Hebrides. From Stornoway on Lewis, we drove southwards to Harris, then on to North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. The weather was beautiful, the people were charmingly lovely, the food was incredible, and the beaches closely resembled the Caribbean. Since then my mission in life has been to visit as many Scottish beaches as I can and continue to write in the sand.
4. Say hello to the iCentres
Scotland is full of local knowledge and what better place to soak up new ideas, wonderful accents and cute gifts for your friends than the local iCentre? They can be found in the cities and towns around Scotland. Pictured below is the VisitScotland iCentre in Fort William, the proud hosts of The Royal National Mod Festival last October. A CooPal and myself attended the festival with Archie the CooVan. We ceilidh-ed, sang some classic Scottish tunes and were welcomed into the heart of the festival. It was truly lovely. The festival teaches and inspires the Gaelic language through competitions, ceilidhs, fun and lots of learning. This year it’s taking place in Dunoon from 12 – 20 October.
5. Take in some traditional music
You can catch a gig and hear some great bands all over Scotland – small venues and massive venues, we have them – you’re bound get hooked on the beat. Inveraray Castle (pictured) is the venue for The Best of the West Festival (BowFest): an annual Scottish music festival in beautiful Argyll. Whilst speaking to tourists in the daytime, we were invited to the festival in the evening and of course, we went along to soak up the atmosphere and vibe of the music. The hustle and bustle of the venue was enchanting, with folks singing along to Trad music and Scottish bands in the grounds. And to get even more uniquely Scottish, the hotel where we were staying were hosting a ceilidh band and a few BowFest music fans. When we retired for the evening we were met at the door by the romantic sounds of Scottish classics, like ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’ and ‘My Love is like a Red, Red Rose’. We felt lucky to have been a part of such community spirit, something you’ll likely find along the way on your Scottish adventure. BowFest 2018: Inveraray Castle, 7 – 9 September.
6. Find your favourite castles
We have many categories of castles – ruined, stately, castles with turrets, big castles, castles with gardens, dramatic castles… the list goes on. Each one is brimming with beauty and intriguing tales of the legendary heroes and villains throughout Scottish history. As CooVisors, we went to many castles in many regions of Scotland, each with their unique quirks and great scones to choose from (my next blog topic?!). See as many as possible, learn about the stories and why they were built and immerse yourself in their charm. A particular favourite was Dunnottar Castle, a coastal fortress which inspired ‘Brave’. It boasts one of the most dramatic views of Scotland and on a blustery winter’s day it will awaken your senses and inspire your imagination! Another beautiful one drastically contrasts Dunnottar: Dunrobin Castle. This castle lives in the north and boasts beautiful sea vistas and even a sandy beach on its doorstep.
7. Take in some ‘roads less travelled’ attractions
When you think about an old abandoned prison, you probably think of a 50s building with cells and a bit of boring history. Not Peterhead Prison. I have to admit, when my CooPal and I pulled up at the gates of HMP Peterhead one August morning, I thought I’d be bored by old prison artefacts, beds and sloppy porridge, but what we found was quite different. *I even get chills thinking about this story*. The prison has some eerie human history living in its walls and housed some of the worst offenders in Britain at the time. The (now) museum tells tales of hostage situations and dirty protests whilst painting a picture of ‘life inside’ through the decades. It’s truly terrifying and I have to admit, I basically ran through the old prison because I was spooked by the chilling atmosphere and ghost-like presence.
8. Pop by those nooks and crannies
I could write lists upon lists of these lovely wee places in Scotland. Some of my favourite live on the Moray coast and I’d recommend letting the wind blow through your hair at each one and letting that new-found sense of awe take over. On this coast you’ll find towns responsible for inventing Cullen Skink (Cullen); towns you might recognise from Hollywood movies (the 2017 version of ‘Whisky Galore’ was shot in Portsoy) and towns that are just downright charming (Banff and Lossiemouth to name just two). I got to fulfil a dream of mine and visit Pennan, the village that features in one of my favourite films, ‘Local Hero’. This sense of wanderlust and ‘bucket list’ ticking should be a road tripping must for everyone.
9. Embrace the ever-changing weather
Yes, it can be mad. Yes, you might have just topped up your sun cream to have it washed off by the rain and yes you might end up abandoning the weather forecast app since it changes every five minutes, but it’s absolutely part and parcel of the Scotland ride. So, be ready for it and embrace it! Winds were high and the rain was falling on the ferry crossing to Arran for us one June morning, but that certainly didn’t dampen our spirits!
10. Breathe deeply
Whilst CooVanning I learned to live in the moment and not sweat the small stuff, and I say the same to you. Whilst in Scotland, enjoy the freedom of stopping for that photo and taking that daft Boomerang. Yes, you might look a little bit silly, but really, we’re all wishing we were you. Road-tripping around this beautiful wee country, wiping the sand off your feet, discovering the roads less travelled and living your ‘best life’. My number one lesson? Soak it all up and let your senses embrace every new feeling, smell, taste, view, sound and mind-set Scotland has to offer. Bring your spontaneity, your wanderlust and your smile! Scotland is bursting with love, generosity, warmth and humour if you visit with an open heart, mind and soul.
Haste Ye Back!