What’s the difference between a Motorhome, Campervan & RV?

To many people, the terms motorhome, campervan and RV are interchangeable, though RV is generally thought of as an American word for a motorhome. In fact, there are key differences between the three, and it’s worth knowing what they are if you’re thinking of buying or hiring a rolling holiday home.

Small but Mighty Campervans

Campervans are the smallest of the three (though there’s huge variation in each category). They can be anything from a converted car like a Renault Kangoo or Citroen Berlingo to a large Transit-style van. The classic campervan is the VW bus, which has been taking families on holiday for over 50 years.

Campervan [credit Eleda 1 flickr]

Campervan [credit Eleda 1 flickr]

Some campervans have fixed-height roofs, which won’t do your back any good if you can’t stand up straight for your entire holiday. To overcome this, many smaller vans have pop-tops: expanding roofs which, in some cases, also give you extra bed space, but lack any sort of insulation. Others have their fixed roof permanently raised by a few inches, with room for insulation, making them warmer in cold weather and cooler in the heat, but slightly less aerodynamic.

Campervans have the advantage of being small and easy to drive and park, and they’re usually cheaper than motorhomes on fuel, parts, ferry charges, tolls, tax and insurance. They still use a standard size pitch at campsites, so you won’t make any savings there, but you will have more space to move around outside.

On the down-side, they can be quite cramped inside for more than a couple of adults, and there probably won’t be room for any bathroom facilities. That’s fine if you’re the latrine-digging, lick-and-a-promise-wash type of camper, but it has its limitations in the British weather, especially for a longer trip.

It’s worth remembering that, while you’re driving, all passengers must wear seat-belts in any of these vehicles, so make sure there are enough fixed seats with belts for all travellers. It’s also sensible to have all the seats facing either forwards or back: in the event of an accident, side-on whiplash is much worse than straight-on, and travelling sideways is more likely to cause car-sickness.

 

Luxury Coach-built Motorhomes at Motorhome Escapes

This is the style we rent out and sell at Motorhome Escapes. These are perfect for those looking for a more comfortable holiday. Moving up a notch from the campervan, low-profile coach-built motorhomes give enough room for a couple of people to be comfortable and will have all the facilities you need. Modern ones like ours keep the profile low by having a fixed double bed above the garage storage and electric drop-down beds above the lounge area. The wash-room will be a wet-room with a shower, and the toilet holding tank will be small, so you’ll have to pump it out frequently, but if you normally stay at campsites that isn’t a problem.

Spacious living area in a coach-built motorhome

Spacious living area in a coach-built motorhome

Small motorhomes allow you the freedom to wild camp without having to dig holes, they’re still quite easy to drive and there’ll be sensible amounts of storage space for holiday kit.

The models used by Motorhome Escapes have no rear door, so fitting a bike rack is easy, too, if you can’t get your bikes in the garage. Their low profile means better fuel economy than full-sized motorhomes can achieve. Creating the feel of a more open space, the driver seats are not separated from the main area of the motorhome, and can just be turned around when stopped to create more seats around the living area.

mo_thomson_motorhomeescapes07 640x426 - bike attached to back

Islay Motorhome (coach-built) from Motorhome Escapes, parked up to enjoy the view of Skye across the water. Bikes securely attached to the back. Credit: Mo Thomson

The next step up is the over-cab bed motorhome, with a small “cabin” over the top of the driver’s cab. We have these models available as well (we call them The Lewis), and they are very roomy with 5/6 berths. A small party of 2 people can travel in luxury in this motorhome, turning the back two beds into storage space, and shutting it away with internal doors. The cabin area over the top of the drivers cab can either provide extra storage space or fixed bed space. These larger models are less-aerodynamic than the low-profile versions but if you’re not keen on beds that come down from the ceiling, this might be a better choice for you.

Motorhome Escape Lewis Motorhome (coach-built) with overhead cabin area

Motorhome Escape Lewis Motorhome (coach-built) with overhead cabin area

 

Massive A-Class Motorhomes

Going up in size (and in price tag), A-class motorhomes are what most people picture when they hear the word “motorhome”. Big, sleek, with the driver’s cab integrated into the rest of the vehicle (unlike some smaller models), these behemoths are designed for the job, usually well-insulated, and with room for four or more people to be comfortable both during the day and at night.

Some A-class motorhomes come in under the 3.5 tonne driving licence limit, so you can drive them without taking another test. But they’re still big vehicles and you’ll need to keep that in mind when you’re driving one. Most weigh over 3.5 tonnes, and may need a third axle; however, power steering and electric gear-shifts mean you won’t come home looking like a body-builder!
The lighter the vehicle the better it is for fuel consumption, and the less likely you are to get bogged down on a grass pitch, but make sure your motorhome has sufficient payload for all the gear you want to take.

Burstner A Class Motorhome, which look more like an RV than amotorhome! (credit Hugh Trainer)

Burstner A Class Motorhome, which look more like an RV than amotorhome! (credit Hugh Trainer)

One advantage of the A-class motorhome is that the cab is integrated into the rest of the space, (which is not standard for all motorhomes but it is a feature in all Motorhome Escape vehicles) which means that you don’t have to go outside to get from the driving seat to the main living area. This is obviously great if it’s raining, and it’s often cited as good security – though most people won’t go camping anywhere they’d need to worry about that.

Some of the biggest A-class motorhomes have huge garages – big enough to live up to their names and fit a small car inside. Even without that, most have chunky enough engines to cope with towing a small car, allowing you the freedom to drive a much smaller vehicle once you get to your campsite.

A major drawback when you opt for this larger vehicle is that it can take a while to get used to driving it. When you consider that a car can easily fit into the garage area, it’s no surprise that an A-Class motorhome feels wide on the road, so make sure your driver is comfortable with the idea of this before setting off.

 

American-style Recreational Vehicles (RVs)

At the top of the pile, for price, size and luxury, are American-style RVs, some as big as a 52-seater coach and requiring a large-vehicle driving licence. These can be too big for the smaller Scottish roads, especially unpaved lanes and the single-track roads that characterise the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

They can also be too big for standard-size pitches, and some campsites and ferries may not accept them at all. Oh, and they’re very expensive on fuel, parts, tax and insurance: most of them run on petrol and can only manage 8-10 miles per gallon.

Luxury RV at the 2014 Hershey RV Show (Credit Wilson Hum on Flickr)

Luxury RV at the 2014 Hershey RV Show (Credit Wilson Hum on Flickr)

However, they do offer all the comforts of home – and more! They have oodles of storage and plenty of payload to cope, may have as many as ten berths (sleeping places), a proper kitchen and even a bath. Some have fitted washing machines, too! They’re all self-levelling when you reach your destination too, so there’s no need for spirit levels and levelling blocks.

The most luxurious versions have slide-out sections that expand your living space, but you’ll probably have to pay for two pitches to accommodate these. They may come with leather sofas, more than one wash-room, 48-inch TVs in the living space and the master bedroom (yes, there’s a master bedroom), probably even a cocktail cabinet.

There are smaller RVs: B-class are more the size of coach-built motorhomes and C-class ones come between A and B in size. They are all equipped for the comfort-loving American market, as homes from home, and even the C-class ones may not fit in your driveway. If you don’t need that level of luxury (and cost), stick with the European motorhome makers.

A coach-built motorhome from Motorhome Escapes comfortably handling the narrow roads of Scotland. Credit: Mo Thomson

A coach-built motorhome from Motorhome Escapes comfortably handling the narrow roads of Scotland. Credit: Mo Thomson

Like everything else, your choice of campervan, motorhome or RV is very personal. If you’re thinking of buying one, it’s worth hiring first to get an idea of what you like (and dislike) and how easy you find a large vehicle to drive, reverse and fit into tight driveways and narrow roads. There’s plenty of choice, so don’t rush. Get started with your next holiday using our Try Before You Buy service, where you can rent one of our motorhomes before buying, and if you want to purchase it after your trip, we will deduct the hire charges from the final sale price (up to 4 days rental price). Get in touch if you’d like to hear more.

It’s also worth considering that, if you’d only use it a few weeks a year, hiring a campervan, motorhome or RV might work out cheaper and more practical for you. You can hire to suit the size of your party, the roads you’ll be travelling, the kit you want to carry; and you won’t have to pay road tax or insurance for the 40-odd weeks of the year when the van is occupying your driveway!

Choose us for motorhome hire Scotland, and you’ll be travelling in comfort with our coach-built motorhomes, which are actually pleasant and manageable to drive; check out our motorhomes for hire to see which one is best suited to your needs, and just give us a call or email if you have any questions.

Winter Wildlife Watching in Scotland by Motorhome

Winter affects different people different ways: some just want to curl up in a ball and not come out ‘til spring, while others love the crisp air and want to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Scottish wildlife feels much the same: dormice and other small mammals will hibernate but many of the bigger animals will be out and about, and easier to spot than in summer because there’s less foliage in the way. So book a trip in one of our motorhomes, and get up close to a wide variety of Scottish Wildlife this winter season.

How to Spot Scottish Squirrels, Deer & Hare 

One small mammal that doesn’t hibernate is the red squirrel.  Britain’s native squirrels live in both broadleaved and coniferous woodlands. They store food for winter just underground and also in cracks in trees, and can often be seen retrieving it in good winter weather (they stay in their tree-top dreys if it’s inclement). If you see nut-shells lying around, it’s a safe bet there’s a squirrel living nearby.

Red Squirrel

January to March is the red squirrel mating season, so they’re often seen in pairs at this time. You’re most likely to see them in the Highlands, where the grey squirrel hasn’t yet pushed them out of their territory, but there are populations in the Scottish Borders and in Angus, Perthshire and the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. The best times to see them are early and late, rather than the middle of the day.

Red deer are usually easier to spot in winter than in summer as they move down from the high ground to lower areas where they’re more likely to find food. If you think “red deer”, “Highlands” is usually the area you connect with them, but they’re also found in the Galloway Red Deer Range and on the islands of Arran, Jura and Rum.

Red deer males, with their huge antler racks, are a spectacular sight. They’re also very noisy, especially in the early winter when they’re getting their harems sorted out. They’re active both day and night, as are the smaller varieties of deer found in the lowlands (mainly roe deer), so watch out when you’re driving in the dark.

If you want to get up close with deer who are used to humans, the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre offer daily walks up the hills to visit their free-ranging herds. If that’s too strenuous or impractical for you, you can visit and pet the reindeer (also known as caribou) in their paddocks at the centre, where there’s also a shop selling meat from the family’s rare-breeds farm alongside the reindeer souvenirs. The centre is closed  in January and the first half of February to allow the reindeer to recover from helping Santa at Christmas (and to breed).

scottish winter hare

 

Keep your eyes peeled up in the hills and you might spot a mountain hare. A leopard may not change its spots but a mountain hare can – or, at least, it gets a white winter coat quite different from its grey-brown summer one. If there’s snow, the winter coat camouflages the hare; if there isn’t, it makes them very vulnerable to predators and therefore even shyer and harder to spot than usual.

Scottish Bird Watching in Winter

Ptarmigan, which are members of the grouse family, also change their plumage to a wintry white. The best places to see both hares and ptarmigan are in the Cairngorms, normally quite high up the mountains. Both prefer areas remote from humans, so it’s a very lucky day when you see one.

Take your campervan or motorhome to the mountains; turn your eyes skywards to look for golden eagles, peregrine falcons and red kites hunting hare and other small prey; nearer the coast you may also see white-tailed sea eagles. Murmurations of starlings, wheeling in synchronised flight like a spotted veil, are a common sight around farmland, especially in the dusk. Less common birds to watch out for are Scottish (parrot) crossbills, redwings, waxwings, snow buntings, and fieldfares that migrate from Scandinavia for the winter.

pink footed goose

 

Scotland is a major destination for migrating geese and other birds that spend their summers in the Arctic. From September onwards great skeins of pink-foot, barnacle and greylag geese can be seen and heard in the skies, especially at dawn and dusk, as they move between roosting areas on the coast and feeding grounds inland. Many of them migrate even further south but several thousand remain in Scotland.

Great places to see geese in eastern Scotland include the Montrose Basin in Angus, Loch Leven in Perthshire, and the Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire. Further west, they can be found on the Solway Firth at Mersehead Nature Reserve and at Loch Gruinart on Islay. In the northern isles the best place to view them is North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory on Orkney.

Other waterfowl that over-winter in Scotland include oystercatchers with their distinctive long orange beaks, mute swans, redshank, eider ducks, shelducks and wigeon. You can watch them puddling in the mud and sand or diving to look for food at wildlife reserves, lochs and beaches all round the country.

grey seal scotland

 

Winter along Scotland’s coast can also offer sightings of common and grey seals (where there’s no fish farming, anyway) and harbour porpoises. Inland you might spot otter and also beaver, which have recently been re-introduced to three sites in Scotland and are doing well. You may even catch a glimpse of a darting turquoise kingfisher.

Staying Safe When  Wildlife Watching in the Scottish Hills

Winter wildlife watching requires you to remain still and quiet for extended periods; there’s much less cover to hide behind and snow or water may carry sound and scent further. Good binoculars or a telescope can allow you to observe from further away, with less chance of disturbing what you’re watching.

It can be a challenge to stay warm while you sit. Something waterproof and insulated to sit or lie on – an inflatable cushion or a small section of bedding-mat – makes a big difference to your comfort.

Dress in warm and waterproof layers – you may get hot climbing a hill but you’ll need to wrap up when you get to the top or you’ll chill very fast. Good waterproof footwear is vital, and don’t forget your gloves (preferably waterproof) and hat!

hill walking scotland

 

Dusk comes on surprisingly early – it’s often quite dark by 3.00pm in December in northern Scotland, especially if it’s cloudy. It’s sensible to carry a head-torch – hand torches are easy to drop and break if you trip in the dark, and a head-torch leaves your hands free and fits comfortably and securely under a woolly hat.

Take something to eat and a flask of hot drink, too. A mobile phone with GPS and a whistle are also sensible if you’re heading off the beaten track; a paper map (and the ability to read it) is a good backup if, as is quite common, there’s no mobile reception. A survival blanket takes up very little space in a backpack and weighs virtually nothing, but it could save you from hypothermia if you have an accident and can’t get back down the hill.

That may sound like doom and gloom, but it’s surprising how many people venture into the hills in winter with none of the kit and do have an accident – sprain an ankle, for example – or just get lost. You’ll be more comfortable, and stand a much better chance of reaching home safely, if you can stay warm and fed than if you can’t. These suggestions aren’t intended to deter you, but to help you get maximum enjoyment from your holiday. The great thing about travelling by campervan or motorhome to spot wildlife is that a modern motorhome provides all the comforts and warmth close by, with all the facilities you need to spend a cosy evening relaxing after a day out in the chill!

Winter wildlife watching in Scotland can be wonderful. Whatever’s on your must-see list – cheeky squirrels, majestic deer, fat seals or rowdy oystercatchers – stay safe and warm and you’ll go home with amazing memories and photos.

Winter Motorhome Holidays in Snowy Scotland

Snow in Scotland isn’t guaranteed – neither the 2015 winter nor the 2016 one produced much – but there’s already been some snow in 2017… so it’s looking good for those winter activities! Here are some ideas of what you could do on a midwinter campervan or motorhome holiday in Scotland.

Skiing and snow-boarding in Scotland, most winters, is a bit different from what you may be used to. For a start, you have to be good at finding the snow on a run and avoiding any uncovered rock and heather; and the snow tends to become icy very quickly, so you need good grip. They say that if you can ski in Scotland, you can ski anywhere.

Ski trip in Scotland

Ski trip in Scotland

Skiing on the Cairngorms Mountain Range

Scotland’s highest ski centre is at the top of the Cairngorms, at The Lecht, with 13 lifts. If there’s snow anywhere in Scotland, The Lecht will have it and there’ll be ski runs open. The car park is huge but get there early – it fills up fast on snowy weekends.

On the other side of the Cairngorms from The Lecht lies Aviemore, Scotland’s snow sports capital, situated just below the Cairngorms ski centre with its famous funicular railway; the only one in Scotland. The Cairngorms Ski Centre, Scotland’s largest, has 11 lifts and 38 runs, so it caters for skiers and boarders of all levels.

Cairngorms Ski Centre [credit - Chris Wood 1954]

Cairngorms Ski Centre [credit – Chris Wood 1954]

For serious cross-country skiers, there are two centres near Aviemore offering ski touring: Glenmore Lodge and the G2 Centre, which both offer all sorts of outdoor training courses and activities year-round.

There’s plenty to do around Aviemore if you don’t ski or snowboard or, indeed, if there’s no snow: wildlife safaris, mountain biking trails and sled-dog expeditions are available whether the countryside looks white or brown.

At the Outdoor Discovery centre at Coylumbridge, just south of Aviemore, there’s a small outdoor ice-skating rink (weather permitting – it’s a roller rink if the weather’s too warm) alongside the amazing tree walks, quad biking and other attractions for both kids and adults. They also run a ski school.

If you’re a curler, head to Carrbridge, a few miles north of Aviemore, where the club welcomes visiting players. It has a purpose-built curling pond with floodlights and plays outdoors whenever there’s enough frost – and Carrbridge has one of the best frost records in Scotland so if you can play outdoors anywhere, it’ll be there.

 

Indoor and Artificial Slope Skiing in Scotland

Skiing is also available at Glenshee, Glencoe and the Nevis range near Fort William, but they’re all lower than the Cairngorms and the snow is much less reliable. One place you’re guaranteed skiing on real snow is, somewhat unexpectedly, Braehead near Glasgow airport.

Indoor Skiing at Snow Factor is open all year round and has a 200m indoor slope with 1,700 tonnes of fresh powdery snow – no ice, no rocks, no heather, just perfect skiing and boarding conditions. There are two slopes (one for teaching), four ski lifts, an ice-climbing wall, an ice slide and sledging facilities, as well as a restaurant and bar, so you can spend all day there.

Skiing on an artifical slope year round at Aberdeen Snowsports [Credit - Alan Longmuir. Flickr]

Skiing on an artifical slope year round at Aberdeen Snowsports [Credit – Alan Longmuir. Flickr]

Scotland also offers plenty of artificial ski slopes: in the north, Aberdeen Snowsports, and Kingussie and Kincraig in the Cairngorm area all have them. Further south you’ll find them at Bearsden and in central Glasgow, on the Pentland Hills just south of Edinburgh (the longest artificial slope in Europe at Midlothian Snowsports Centre), and at Polmonthill near Falkirk, north of the capital lies Polmonthill Snowsports Centre. Alford Ski Centre in Aberdeenshire, Firpark Ski Centre in Tillicoultry and Newmilns Snow & Sports Complex in Ayrshire all offer snowtubing as well as skiing and snowboarding on their artificial snow.

 

Outdoor & Indoor Curling in Scotland during Winter

Curling originated in Scotland, using polished Scottish granite for the stones, and is still a very popular sport here. As well as outdoor ponds like the one at Carrbridge, there are at least six indoor rinks where you can curl all winter.

Curling stone on ice of a indoors rink

Curling stone on ice of a indoors rink

The main ones are Murrayfield in Edinburgh, right next to the rugby ground, which also has ice hockey and public skating sessions; Dumfries Ice Bowl, which offers a dedicated rink for skating and another for curling, as does Forfar Ice Rink in Angus; The Time Capsule at Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, which also has swimming pools and a kids’ play area; and Perth’s Dewar Centre and Dundee’s Ice Arena, which offer a mixture of skating, curling and (in Dundee) ice hockey.

 

Star-gazing in Scotland at ‘Dark Skies’ Sites

Skiing, curling and skating are all very well in daylight, but what do you do in the evenings on a winter holiday in Scotland, when night comes early and mornings don’t get light until after 8 am?  Well, those long dark nights make it the ideal place for star-gazing. There are designated “dark skies” sites but you’ll find that light pollution is low anywhere outside the major towns. Conveniently, a campervan or motorhome is a great way to get out into the country!

The first dark skies site to be designated was Galloway Forest Park, right down near Scotland’s south-west corner, and it’s still one of the best places to go. Very few people live nearby so there are no street lamps and only minimal house lights, and the Forestry Commission, which owns the Park, aims to keep it that way.

Stars above Galloway Forest Park [credit-Grant Morris Flickr]

Magnificent display of stars above Galloway Forest Park [credit-Grant Morris Flickr]

There are three visitor centres in the Park, with information points at all of them and at other sites, as well as the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory at Dalmellington. The Forestry Commission also lay on Dark Sky events with specially trained rangers to tell you what to look for where.

Other Dark Sky Discovery Sites can be found on Skye, in Assynt and Lochaber, along the west coast of Kintyre and on the Isle of Coll. If you don’t want to travel to remote places for your star-gazing, the Mills Observatory in Dundee, Britain’s first purpose-built public observatory, is open on weekdays until 10 pm; it also has a planetarium where you can learn about the stars and planets without getting cold or staying up late.

If you’ve ever wanted to see the Aurora Borealis (also known as the Northern Lights or, in Shetland, the Mirrie Dancers), Scotland is a great place to watch out for them. They can’t be guaranteed, of course, and you do need a clear night. The Lights have been seen from all over the country, even in Edinburgh, but the further north and further away from light pollution you go, the better your chances are. Aurora Watch UK have an app that alerts you if there’s geomagnetic activity, which is worth downloading to your phone so you’ll be ready to watch when the mirrie dancing starts.

 

Traditional Music & Folk Festivals in Scotland during Winter 

After all that outdoor activity, get in from the cold and the snow and warm up in a traditional Scottish pub, listening to traditional Scottish music with a glass of traditional Scottish beer and/or whisky in your hand (we’re big on tradition in Scotland!).

You can stumble across organised and impromptu sessions all over the place but there are pubs people travel miles to, just for the quality of the regular music evenings. One of these is the Taybank Hotel in Dunkeld, right at the foot of the bridge that joins the town to its twin across the river, Birnam. Dunkeld has other attractions to enjoy too – the ruined Cathedral and The Hermitage woods are just two – but they are best seen in daylight.

The Taybank Hotel has sessions several evenings a week, with nationally and internationally famous musicians playing alongside newbies and locals alike. Dunkeld is also home to the annual Niel Gow fiddle festival in March, which attracts fiddlers from all over the country and outside it.

The Highlands and Islands are full of pubs that serve up local music along with the pints and the drams. Shetland, particularly famous for its fiddlers, seems to have music festivals practically every week. Orkney, which has its own Folk Festival in May, Skye (Plockton in particular) and the Outer Hebrides, home of the Hebridean Celtic Festival, are also all renowned for their music and musicians.

Orkney Folk Festival [credit - Delaina Haslam Flickr]

Performers at Orkney Folk Festival, Scotland [credit – Delaina Haslam Flickr]

Ullapool, where the ferry from Lewis docks, is a melting pot for all these influences. The Ceilidh Place is the place, running regular sessions for locals and islanders – but stop at any pub and you’re likely to hear great traditional music. The Hootananny in Inverness is also justly famous for its music: there’s trad music every Sunday to Wednesday, music of all sorts every other evening, and a ceilidh every Saturday afternoon.

But you don’t have to travel that far: Edinburgh is Scotland’s cultural as well as political capital and many of the pubs run weekly trad music nights. Sandy Bell’s and The Royal Oak, both near the Royal Mile, are a good place to start.

Edinburgh and Glasgow both have traditional music festivals; Tradfest in Edinburgh and Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Celtic Connections kicks off first in January. It’s an international festival that takes over venues all across the city, and has expanded into jazz and comedy as well as traditional music.

Tradfest covers all sorts of Scottish folk arts and culture – music, certainly, but also dance, crafts, film, drama and storytelling. Like Celtic Connections (and, indeed, the  Edinburgh International Festival in August) it occupies venues right round the city. Less international than Celtic Connections, it showcases young talent from all over Scotland. As with all festivals, not all the events are official, so it’s a great time for a pub-crawl to sound out some of the unofficial gigs.

Camping in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland, over Loch Morloch with snow on the ground

Camping in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland, over Loch Morloch with snow on the ground

Snow? ‘S no problem in Scotland! Crisp winter days and evenings, outdoors or in, have plenty to recommend them. And in a campervan or motorhome you can go where you please to meet and enjoy them.  Gritters and snowploughs keep the roads clear (though you will find snow-gates briefly closing off the higher reaches after snow-falls, while the roads are made safe) and the Scots are accustomed to travellers needing a warm pick-me-up after a day in the very fresh air.

Welcome to the Scottish winter and all it has to offer.

Edinburgh Christmas markets

Motorhome holidays aren’t just for summer: there’s plenty to do in Scotland in winter. Edinburgh and Glasgow are great places to visit on a Scottish motorhome tour, and both take Christmas very seriously. Edinburgh’s Christmas markets are deservedly popular with adults and children alike – and they’re not just about shopping.

Edinburgh’s Christmas markets run from 17th November 2017 to 6th January 2018, so you can enjoy them right through Hogmanay and into the New Year. And there’s so much more to see than just one market. Best of all, entry is free for the whole family!

Edinburgh’s official Christmas markets

The Christmas market itself takes up the area of East Princes Street Gardens that lies between the National Gallery, the Mound and the Scott Monument, with Edinburgh Castle towering above you. Here you’ll find food and drink, jewellery, candles, toys for grown-ups and children, art, hand-crafts and – of course – Christmas decorations.

For the perfect Edinburgh Christmas photo, climb up the Scott Monument and focus down into Princes Street Gardens and the market laid out below you. It’s a great viewpoint for photos of the Castle, too.

Cross Princes Street to the New Town and climb the gentle rise to St Andrew’s Square. Here you’ll find the Scottish Market, with traditional food, drink, crafts and plenty more ideas for present-buying.

Aromatic fruits and spice kits on sale at an Edinburgh Christmas market. Photo credit: byronv2

Aromatic fruits and spice kits on sale at an Edinburgh Christmas market. Photo credit: byronv2

St Andrews Square also has the Children’s Market, full of colourful toys. Not just the plastic tat that you could get on any High Street but high-quality toys of all sorts, from traditional to modern, that will make the adults’ mouths water as well as the children’s.

All three markets are worth lingering over, taking your time as you wander from stall to stall, admiring the offerings and chatting to the stall-holders, many of whom will have made the goods they’re selling.

Other markets in Edinburgh

Every Saturday you can buy local produce straight from over 40 producers at the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market on Castle Terrace in the Old Town. There’s also a weekly Saturday market, with more fresh produce, artisan bread, smoked fish, sweets, street food and crafts, in nearby Grassmarket, below the Castle. On the other side of town, Leith (on Dock Place) and Stockbridge (Saunders Street) both have weekend markets of food and crafts – great for stocking up your motorhome larder as well as buying presents and souvenirs.

Winter Wonderland

But Edinburgh’s run-up to Christmas isn’t just about the shopping and the mouth-watering food. Head back to East Princes Street Gardens to discover Edinburgh’s very own Winter Wonderland. Take a ride on Santa’s train and meet his elves in the grotto at the centre f the Christmas Tree Maze.

Edinburgh's Christmas markets and Winter Wonderland are conveniently located right in the centre of Edinburgh. Photo credit:Ross G. Strachan

Edinburgh’s Christmas markets and Winter Wonderland are conveniently located right in the centre of Edinburgh. Photo credit:Ross G. Strachan

You can build up an appetite for more food on the ice rink and liberate your inner child with rides on the helter-skelter, big wheel, roller-coaster and any of several merry-go-rounds and carousels. If that’s a bit tame for you, try the chair-o-planes, star-flyer or the drop tower, or give yourself a work-out on the Ice Wall.

Shows and performances

If the weather’s bad and you’d rather spend some time indoors, you’ll find theatrical performances for all tastes: Shark in the Park (in the Festival Square Spiegeltent), the Arabian Nights (Lyceum Theatre), A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline (Gilded Balloon) or the Christmas MagicFest (Traverse Theatre).

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a pantomime: Edinburgh has Cinderella at the Kings Theatre from 2nd December to 21st January. Equally Christmassy is Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker, on at the Festival Theatre 9th-30th December. If your young kids love dancing, Baby Loves Disco offers “dayclubbing” , 2 hours of bopping for parents and children in the Festival Spiegeltent.

Edinburgh is blessed with a number of fantastic theatres, including the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Photo credit:eltpics

Edinburgh is blessed with a number of fantastic theatres, including the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Photo credit:eltpics

For adults only, La Clique Noel, a cross between circus, comedy and burlesque, shares the Festival Square Spiegeltent with the Shark and the Baby Disco (though obviously not at the same time). Fans of Ice Age will love The Ice Adventure: A Journey Through Frozen Scotland in West George Street – but wrap up warm. To keep the ice sculptures intact from 17th November to 24th December the temperature in the exhibition is kept at -10°C.

Edinburgh after dark

For a somewhat warmer winter experience, try the Royal Botanic Gardens after-dark trail. The trees and glasshouses are spectacularly lit, there’s a Fire Garden, and you finish your tour with a warming cup of hot chocolate, mulled wine or spiced cider and roasted chestnuts.

Another after-dark attraction is the Edinburgh Giant Advent Calendar. This isn’t a paper-and-cardboard calendar. It’s a projection onto the General Register House building, with images from bygone winters back to the 1700s, showcasing a different year each day. It will be projected at different times each evening, between 5.30 and 10 pm, so keep your eyes and ears open to find out when it’s on.

For a light-show with a difference, head to Edinburgh Zoo’s Giant Lanterns of China show.  They’re obviously expecting it to be a popular event: you have to book your time-slot between 4.30 and 7.30 pm, and the it finishes at 9 pm. As well as the lanterns there are Chinese performers – and another Christmas market, this one with a Chinese theme.

And finally…

What else is on in Edinburgh in the run-up to Christmas? Something for pretty much any taste!  There are lunches with Santa, free film showings, tours of the Castle, art exhibitions, Santa-costumed charity fun runs … you name it. It’s definitely not a dull time to visit Scotland’s capital city.

One piece of advice: like many cities, navigating Edinburgh’s streets in a large vehicle and finding parking for it are not easy. They’re not made any easier when some streets are closed and thousands of extra visitors can be expected in town. So park up your motorhome and let someone else do the driving.  [Doing so has the added advantage that you can enjoy a “wee bevvy” (alcoholic drink) if you’re tempted to.]

Several of the local campsites are on bus routes. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the city’s park and ride facilities. One of the best is out by the airport, from where a tram whisks you right into the centre of the city and drops you in Princes Street, perfectly placed to make the most of Edinburgh’s Christmas markets.

Scottish National Tourist Routes: the Highland route

One of the attractions of a motorhome tour of Scotland is that Scottish roads offer two ways to get from A to B: the straight (-ish) and the scenic route. This route definitely comes under the heading of scenic. It’s not an easy road in snowy conditions – in fact one section, through the Cairngorms, is usually the first road in Scotland to be closed when the snow comes – but it’s stunningly beautiful.

It also has plenty of off-piste attractions: whether you’re a walker, mountain biker, climber, admirer of wild scenery, history buff, Jacobite hunter, golfer or whisky-lover, you’ll find your passion met somewhere along this road.

Starting at Aberdeen

The Highland route starts in Aberdeen, known to Aberdonians as the silver city. Non-locals are less complimentary, calling it the granite or grey city or just Scotland’s oil-and-gas capital. It has a fine old town and St Machar’s Cathedral is definitely worth a visit. There are several excellent golf courses in the area and a fine walk along the Esplanade, if it’s not too windy. Aberdeen is also known for its shopping, though prices reflect the salaries paid in the oil industry.

But as they said about Dodge City, the best road in town is the one that leaves it. You leave Aberdeen on the A944, heading west towards Alford. The first few miles through the city and suburbs are rather dull, but once you hit open country things improve immeasurably.

Shortly after Kirkton of Skene you’ll see the Loch of Skene on your left. There’s a car park and you can walk round the loch. It was originally dammed to power a tweed mill; it now powers a hydro-electric station and there’s plenty of wildlife to watch, as well as the local sailing club.

Castle Fraser is filled with family portraits and colourful personal histories. Garden and Grounds are open all year; the Castle is open for tours from 1st April to 31st October. Photo credit: Iain Cameron

Castle Fraser is filled with family portraits and colourful personal histories. Garden and Grounds are open all year; the Castle is open for tours from 1st April to 31st October. Photo credit: Iain Cameron

A little off your route, but worth the detour, lies Castle Fraser, a National Trust for Scotland (NTS) property that has featured in the TV series “Outlander”. The massive tower-house dates from the 15th century and the walled garden has been restored to how it would have looked in the 18th century. The nearby estate village of Monymusk is very photogenic, too.

A stop-off in Alford

The A944 continues to Alford, near the River Don and in the shadow of Bennachie and Coreen (both beloved of climbers). There’s also a motor museum, the heritage museum, a narrow-gauge railway, a golf course, plenty of walking trails, and an excellent camping and caravan park. So it’s a great place to park up the motorhome and take in the sights.

When you leave, cross the river at the fine stone Bridge of Alford and turn left, following the A944 along the River Don to its junction with the A97 near Mossat. Turn left here to visit Kildrummy Castle, the 13th century stronghold of the Earlsof Mar, now a spectacular ruin in the care of Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Cairngorms National Park

Continue south and west on the very scenic A97/944 to Strathdon, rising into the hills and the Cairngorms National Park; take care on the narrow bridges, where you may have to give way to other vehicles. Before you reach Strathdon the A97 heads sharply off to the left and the A944 continues straight ahead, still following the course of the River Don.

This is a peaceful part of the country, full of farms and forestry. It’s a restful area to spend time away from the hustle of daily life, and recharge your batteries. There’s good walking, mountain biking trails and plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, from black grouse, capercaillie and eagles to red deer and the elusive pine marten.

The A944 ends near Corgarff, at the junction with the A939. To your left, the old Military Road would take you down to Deeside; we follow it to the right instead, towards Cock Bridge.

Corgarff Castle surrounded by snow. The castle is open between 1st April and 31st October. Photo credit: a href ="https://www.flickr.com/photos/15097772@N08/3025524206/in/photostream/">Mason Taylor/Simon Taylor

Corgarff Castle surrounded by snow. The castle is open between 1st April and 31st October. Photo credit: Mason Taylor/Simon Taylor

On your left is Corgarff Castle, another HES property, visible for miles due to its pale colour, size and exposed position. Originally a mediaeval tower house, it was remodelled for use as a base for the army hunting down Jacobites and whisky smugglers. It has views for miles in every direction across the remote landscape and must have been horribly draughty to live in!

On top of the world

The road winds and climbs to what feels like the roof of the world with views half across Scotland on a clear day. Right at the top, 2,000 feet up, is the Lecht ski resort, which has a vast car park – never big enough during the ski season, but very handy if you want to park up when there’s no snow. Some of the ski runs become bike trails in the summer, and you can walk for miles in the surrounding hills; the chair-lifts will take you up, with or without a bike.

Scotland has a “right to roam” rule that allows you to walk anywhere as long as you do no damage, keep dogs on the lead, leave gates as you found them and take your litter home with you (but don’t walk anywhere you see a red flag flying, as it means there’s shooting going on).  You’ll find tracks criss-crossing the hills all around here, originally used by drovers, whisky-smugglers, Jacobites and local workers to get from place to place.

One of the places they were getting to and from is the Lecht mine, at the foot of the road from the ski centre. This was used first for iron ore and later for manganese; neither lasted very long. If you don’t want to walk all the way there from the top, there’s a small car park at the Well of the Lecht; you can see the mine from it, an easy half-mile walk away along the burn.  You’ll also see a stone monument to the soldiers who built this extraordinary road back in the 1750s.

Whisky country

View of the Cairngorms from the A939 (Lecht Road). Photo credit: John Mason

View of the Cairngorms from the A939 (Lecht Road). Photo credit: John Mason

From here it’s downhill all the way to Tomintoul.  Just as you get there, the B9008 heads right towards Knockandhu, Tomnavulin (where Tamnavulin whisky is produced) and Glen Livet. Most of these now-famous distilleries started out as illicit stills – the hills seem almost designed for concealment. The soldiers in Corgarff may have been able to see for miles, but they couldn’t see this far.

If you’re a mountain biker, the Glenlivet estate’s Glenlivet Trail Centre has miles of purpose-built trails for all levels of rider.

From Tomintoul carry on following the Old Military Road (A939) to Grantown-on-Spey, the centre of the Speyside whisky industry – not to mention some pretty fine trout and salmon fishing. This section of the road is very twisty and steep, so take it carefully. The final section is more relaxing. There’s a very good (though pricey) campsite at Grantown where you can recover from your exertions, and plenty of places to eat and drink.

Grantown (on Spey)

Grantown itself is an interesting place, built by the local laird to rehouse his tenants when he cleared them off their crofts (other landlords were much less kind). It was also the local market town, in an excellent position at the junction of the military road and the roads to several nearby villages.

There’s an excellent museum telling the town’s story; it also runs regular exhibitions and has research facilities for genealogy and local history. Anagach Woods has miles of cycling and walking trails and Grantown is also on the Speyside Way cycling route that follows the river from the Moray Firth to Aviemore.

If you’re not a mountain biker, the Malt Whisky Trail will take you round the local distilleries – this area has the highest concentration of them in Scotland. Just remember that Scotland has a lower permitted blood-alcohol level for drivers than the rest of Britain (50 milligrams alcohol per 100 ml of blood and 22 micrograms alcohol per 100ml of breath), so if you’re tasting don’t drive!

Speyside to Cawdor

From Grantown you take the Old Military Road north, taking the left fork, the A939 towards Ferness and Nairn, at the junction with the A940. By this time you’ve left the Cairngorms National Park and are in lower country  of rounded hills dotted with rivers and small lochs.

Just after Ferness you cross the Findhorn river and pass Loch Belivat as the A940 heads to Nairn. The tourist route doesn’t go into Nairn but it’s worth the short detour, a fine little town with a spectacular long, sandy beach and a strong maritime and fishing history.

The official route turns left after Ferness towards Cawdor on the B9101/B9090. The 14th century Cawdor Castle, with all its Shakespeare and Macbeth connections, is open to the public, and there are gardens, a golf course and walking trails if you want something more energetic.

Cawdor Castle has no fewer than three gardens to explore. The Castle and gardens are open from end of April until the beginning of October. Photo credit: Gerard Schmidt

Cawdor Castle has no fewer than three gardens to explore. The Castle and gardens are open from end of April until the beginning of October. Photo credit: Gerard Schmidt

Past Cawdor, at Clephanton, the military road proceeds straight north to Fort George, which is a very unusual visitor attraction, in that it is still a working army base as well as a museum. The ramparts are also a great place to try spotting the dolphin pod that lives in the Moray Firth, which surrounds the fort on three sides.

Culloden and Inverness

However that’s – again – not where the tourist route goes. Instead, it turns left at Clephanton on the B9006 towards Culloden Moor, scene of the appalling battle that marked the end of the Jacobites’ hopes in April 1746. The NTS has an award-winning visitor centre here where you can experience the battle in the immersion centre before walking out onto the battlefield itself.

South west of Culloden, the other side of the B851 and the River Nairn, lie the Clava Cairns, a 4,000 year-old burial site that remained sacred for centuries after its Bronze Age founders died.  Two areas of the complex are open to the public and you can also see the remains of a medieval chapel.

Back on the B9006, just follow the road into the centre of Inverness, capital of the Highlands and the end of the route. It’s a charming small city with several caravan parks to choose from.  There’s plenty to see and do, indoors and out.

One trip you really shouldn’t miss is a boat tour of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. If you’re not a fan of boats, you can follow the Great Glen Way or Great Glen Cycle Route signs along the Caledonian Canal towpath (the part nearest Inverness is on the road if you’re cycling but there is a traffic-free route for walkers).

You could drive this entire route in one day but what’s the point? You’d miss so much: history, magnificent scenery and views, extraordinary buildings, some of the best walking and mountain biking in Britain, whisky, the chance to chat to people, terrific food, great campsites… It’s not a road to be rushed, especially in a motorhome. Take your time and enjoy the show.

Motorhome Holidays: whale and dolphin watching in Scotland

Scotland is one of the best places in the world to go whale and dolphin watching. There are good viewpoints on both the east and west coast and in the northern isles and Hebrides, so you have a good chance of spotting them wherever on the coast your motorhome takes you. A motorhome holiday also gives you a lot of flexibility in your itinerary, and you can pick and choose the best places for a spot of whale or dolphin watching.

The main whale and dolphin watching season in Scotland runs from March to September, though it varies from place to place and from species to species (dolphins are often seen year-round). The great thing about Scotland, from the whale-watching point of view, is that it has hundreds of miles of coastline so your chances of being in the right place at the right time are enormously increased. It also has some terrific beach-side camping spots, both official and wild.

 

Moray Firth

Probably the most famous area in Scotland for seeing dolphins is the Moray Firth, from Fraserburgh to Inverness, where there’s a resident population of around 130 bottlenose dolphins. The Moray Firth is very wide at its mouth, so your chances of seeing dolphins improve from Findhorn westwards.

Dolphins so near land feed on the rising tide, so you need to know what the tide is doing. There are two ways to find that out: the EasyTide site, and the Tides Near Me app which is available free for both Android and iPhone. If you’re using EasyTide, remember that their times are in GMT regardless of the time of year, so you’ll have to add one hour in summer-time. Get to your chosen viewpoint when the tide is just beginning to rise to have the best chance of seeing something.

Chanonry Point

Calm waters off Chanonry Point. This spot is popular for spotting dolphins, but even if you don’t see any on your visit, it’s still worth going for the views. Photo credit: Carron Brown

The best viewpoint is at Chanonry Point, a spit of land opposite Fort George that almost closes the channel, where dolphins are regularly seen. There’s a car park here but it does tend to get very congested, so you’re better parking near Fortrose or Rosemarkie and walking down.

A visit to Fort George, the other side of the Firth, is also highly recommended. It has a large car park and you could do your dolphin watching from the ramparts, then warm up in the Fort café (this is a windy spot!). Alternatively, if you’re not into military history, park in the car park and walk down to the beach.

If you’re in the area between March and October you could also go to the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay, between Lossiemouth and Buckie. They have very well-informed staff who can answer all your questions, and there’s plenty to see, indoors and out, even if no dolphins show up. Seals, ospreys and otters live nearby, and they have the UK’s biggest icehouse, not to mention whale bones you can see and touch. There are guided and unguided walks and plenty for kids to do and, best of all if you’re travelling with the family, entry is free.

The rest of the east coast

The North Sea around Eyemouth and between Dundee and Aberdeen is well-known for cetacean sightings. You might see long-finned pilot whales, minke whales, porpoises and dolphins of all sorts, including orca (sometimes known as killer whales, though they’re actually the largest species of dolphin).

2017 has been a great year for cetacean sightings all down the east coast of Scotland, especially orca. A humpback whale, a rare visitor to these waters, was also seen in the Montrose area.  However, you’re most likely to see common and bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises feeding, breaching and riding the bow-waves of small boats.

The east coast orcas follow the herring fishing fleet south and stay to feed on seal pups, so the best time to see them are from May to August. Whales are occasional visitors, to be celebrated when you spot one. The dolphins and porpoises are resident, though, so you may see them and enjoy their antics at any time of the years.

Shetland, Orkney and the Pentland Firth

The waters around the north of Scotland and the northern island groups of Orkney and Shetland are teeming with fish and seals and with the sea mammals that feed on them.

Around Shetland, the commonest sightings are of orca, but you could also see long-finned pilot whales and minke whales. Other species regularly seen here include Risso’s and Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Despite being only a few nautical miles away, Cape Wrath and Orkney have a slightly different range of species. Here you’re most likely to see common, white-beaked and Risso’s dolphins, orca, harbour porpoises and minke whales.

Common dolphins are best found off the west coast in the Summer months. Photo credit: James West

Common dolphins are best found off the west coast in the Summer months. Photo credit: James West

The west coast and Hebrides

The orcas here are thought to be a different genetic population from the ones on the east coast and they are resident year-round, with a range that runs from the Outer Hebrides to Galloway. The 10 orcas in the pod are thought to be past breeding age, as no calf has been seen with them in the past 20 years. They hunt other cetaceans (up to minke whale size) rather than fish.

You may also see fin and minke whales, harbour porpoises and Risso’s, bottlenose, common and white-beaked dolphins. The best places to see them are from inter-island ferries, with specialist tour operators who know where to look (see below) or, on dry land, from Ardnamurchan Point, around the Isle of Mull and at Red Point to the south of Gairloch.

The other large marine beast you may see in the western waters (and sometimes round the northern isles, too) is not a cetacean but a fish: the basking shark. It’s largest of the shark family but poses no threat to humans because it’s a filter-feeder (it has no teeth).

These huge animals swim slowly, mouths agape, drawing in vast quantities of water and filtering out the fish and plankton. If you want to see them, and maybe dive or snorkel with them, Basking Shark Scotland in Oban is the specialist tour operator.

Whale and dolphin watching from the water

Pod of Common Dolphins

Common Dolphins are very social creatures. If you are fortunate enough to come across a large group it can be a truly mesmerising spectacle! Photo credit: James West

Numerous companies all around Scotland offer whale and dolphin watching boat trips. You may also see seals, puffins, otters, sea eagles and other wildlife, depending on the time of year.

Some of the best wildlife boat tour operators in eastern Scotland are Dolphin Spirit at Inverness and Ecoventure in Cromarty, both for the Moray Firth, and Pirate Boats in Dundee for the southern east coast. For the west coast and the Hebrides, you have plenty of choice: Sealife Adventures and Seafari Adventures, both near Oban; Hebridean Whale Cruises of Gairloch, near Poolewe; SkyeXplorer Boat Trips at Uig on the Isle of Skye; and Sea Life Surveys at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

There are no specific whale and dolphin watching boat trips in the northern isles, but you may see cetaceans as you tour Scapa Flow or Mousa sound or from the ferry on your way to and from the islands.

Wherever you go in Scotland you’re never far from the coast, so keep your eyes open and your binoculars handy and be prepared to stop when you spot something interesting.  A motorhome holiday gives you the freedom to move around and take to where the action is; good luck and happy whale and dolphin watching!

Scottish National Tourist Routes: Deeside

If you want to travel from Perth to Aberdeen in your motorhome, you can take the A90 dual carriageway, which will get you there in around three hours. Or you can take the much hillier and more spectacular Scottish National Tourist Route over the mountains and through Royal Deeside, which will take around an hour longer.

You could, of course, go one way and come back another and get an even better taste of what Scotland has to offer by way of scenery and things to do.

Before you start, it’s worth taking time to look around Perth, which calls itself the “Fair City” with some justification. The River Tay offers pleasant walks (when it’s not in flood), the setting is beautiful and the city is architecturally very interesting.

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

Perth also has plenty of places to eat and drink, good shopping, a swimming pool, a curling rink, several museums and art galleries, an excellent concert hall and a recently rebuilt theatre.  Kinnoull Hill, on the outskirts, provides excellent walking, and the Branklyn Garden, further down the hill, is famous for its rare and unusual plants from around the world. We’d recommend allowing a day to enjoy the city.

When you’re ready to head to take the Deeside road, cross the river away from the town centre and follow signs for Scone Palace and the A93 (don’t follow signs for the village of Scone, which is on the A94). Scone Palace (pronounced Scoon), original home of the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny) on which Scotland’s kings used to sit for their coronation, is open April-October. As well as the house, there’s a tartan maze to wander round and over 100 acres of grounds (which stay open most of the year).

scone palace

Scone Palace is a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Perth. The stately home has a rich history, and you can visit the Palace Rooms from April through to October. Photo credit: Aaron Bradley

The grounds of Scone Palace are also home to one of Scotland’s horse-racing courses; you may want to avoid visiting on racing weekends, as traffic can get very heavy!

From Scone the road meanders in and out of sight of the River Tay to the junction at Kinclaven.  If you turn right here, you can visit the historic textile mills at Stanley, which date from the 1780s.

If you continue along the A93 you pass a hedge at Meikleour. Not just any old hedge: this beech hedge is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest and tallest hedge on Earth. It’s 580 yards (1740 feet, or 530 metres) long and between 80 and 120 feet (24-36 metres) high, with an average height of 100 feet (30 metres). It takes four men six weeks to hand-trim it so, not surprisingly, it doesn’t get cut back all that often.

The hedge was planted in 1745. The man who planted it, Robert Murray Nairne, was killed at the Battle of Culloden the following year and his wife moved to Edinburgh. The hedge is now owned and cut by the Meikleour Trust.

The road continues past some of Blairgowrie’s many and famous golf courses; book ahead if you’d like a game. Blairgowrie itself is one of Perthshire’s largest towns and the centre is very attractive. Originally famous for flax (linen), it’s now the centre of Perthshire’s soft fruit production: between them, Perthshire and neighbouring Angus produce around a quarter or all British raspberries and strawberries.

Blairgowrie is the last town you’ll come to before you cross the hills, so it’s a good place to stop for lunch or a cup of tea. Back on the A93, you take a turn to the left shortly after leaving the main square and crossing the river: follow  the signs to Glenshee along the River Ericht.  At Bridge of Cally cross the River Ardle and follow the road right. The road on the left would take you over the hills to Pitlochry – a great trip for another day.

road glen shee

The road through Glen Shee. Photo credit: Bob Hall

You’re now into heather moorland, heading up Glen Shee. It’s a small part of the huge Cairngorms National Park, which covers most of the Grampian and Cairngorm mountain ranges and boasts some of the highest peaks in the country. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you pass through it: you may see capercaillie, ptarmigan, golden eagles, deer, snow hares and even, if you’re extremely lucky and quiet, wildcats.

In a snowy winter, Glenshee is Scotland’s largest skiing and snowboarding area, while in summer it’s popular with walkers and mountain bikers (you take your bike up on the Cairnwell chairlift, a spectacular start to the exhilarating 3.2 km run). There’s a huge car park, so there’s no problem parking your motorhome if you want to head into the hills.

If you want to “bag” a Munro (mountain over 3,000 feet) or two, there are several nearby to choose from and, because the road has already brought you so far up the mountain, their summits are much easier to reach than most.

The road through Glen Shee is an old military road, built after the Jacobite risings to enable the redcoat soldiers to root out the rebels. It’s a long climb to the top: this is one of the highest roads in Britain, though the former highest point (the notorious Devil’s Elbow) is now bypassed.  Once you’re past the ski centre you start heading downhill towards Braemar; the military road parts company with the A93 a few miles before the town.

Braemar has a 17th century castle, built by the Earl of Mar as a hunting lodge, garrison and family homes; it’s now owned by the local community and open to the public. Mar Lodge and Kindrochit Castle are also both open. The town is a good place to stop and enjoy what’s on offer locally.

The Cairngorms National Park includes several Munros, miles of bike trails, the highest golf course in Britain, fishing (you’ll need to buy a licence) and deer stalking. Braemar hosts not one but two Highland Games: the Junior games in July and the world-famous Highland Gathering, usually attended by the Royal Family, at the beginning of September.

Braemar Gathering

The Braemar Gathering has been running in its present form since 1832. Events include heavy lifting, pipe bands, dancing, tug o’ war and other athletic competitions. Photo credit: HandsLive

Rejoining the old military road and following the course of the River Dee, the A93 continues to probably its most famous point, Balmoral Castle. The earliest part of the castle dates from the 16th century but you wouldn’t think it to look at the building. It was completely remodelled for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852 in the sturdy “Scottish Baronial” style.

You can visit Balmoral’s ballroom, which houses an exhibition, and the grounds if you arrive at the right moment. They’re only open three months of the year and that obviously doesn’t include the period in summer when the Royal Family spend their holidays there.

Just past Balmoral is Crathie. The kirk is famous as the Royal family’s summer parish church; a visit to the nearby Royal Lochnagar distillery might prove slightly more relaxing.

From Crathie roads follow both banks of the River Dee; the A93 follows the north (left) bank and is the better choice in a large vehicle.

Ballater, the next town on your route, bills itself as “The Jewel of the Cairngorms”. It’s certainly a very attractive Victorian town, standing in the shadow of “dark Lochnagar” and Craigendarroch mountains. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, this is a good place to stop for a bite.

There’s an 8-mile footpath round nearby Loch Muick, part of the Balmoral Estate, which makes a for a good day’s walk. You can often see red deer, golden eagles and grouse here. Glen Tanar nature reserve also offers good walking and mountain bike trails, as do Drummy Woods. The Glen Tanar estate also offers highland safaris.

Red Deer Scotland

Red deer near Loch Muick. There are some excellent walks in the area and plenty of opportunities to spot Scottish wildlife. Photo credit: Vince O’Sullivan

At Muir of Dinnet you’ll find a National Nature Reserve with woodland, heath and open water.    There’s a family-friendly bike route from Ballater to the rocky Burn o’Vat in the reserve.

Once past Dinnet you’re out of the Cairngorms National Park, and the scenery becomes less spectacular, more gentle and prettier. You’re still following the valley of the River Dee, but the hills either side are lower, with more open fields and woodland.

At Aboyne you’ll find the Deeside Activity Park, which offers quad biking, go karting, archery and clay pigeon shooting if you want a change from walking, cycling and golf. Aboyne was built as a Victorian inland resort and still feels pleasantly relaxed, with good shopping and eating facilities.

Kincardine O’Neil, one of the oldest villages in Deeside, missed out on the Victorian building boom, which means it has kept a large part of its charm. It’s been a conservation area since 1978, so with a bit of luck the charm will continue to survive. The town made its money from control of one the main fords across the Dee. Later it was also on the coaching route from Aberdeen to Braemar: the route stopped at Kincardine O’Neil in winter because of the snow.

Banchory, the next town on the route, is a long, skinny town with some fancy shops and a locally famous garden centre. It’s also home to Crathes Castle, a romantic maze of turrets and towers, with exquisite painted ceilings and oak panelling, which is now a National Trust property.

Crathes Castle roses

Crathes Castle boasts romantic turrets and spectacular gardens. Photo credit: Nick Bramhall

Crathes has a fine walled garden, 300-year-old yew hedges and several marked trails. Wildlife spotted here includes herons, roe deer, red squirrels, woodpeckers and buzzards. It also has a “Go Ape” tree-top adventure trail, which is very popular in fine weather.

Drum Castle, between Crathes and Aberdeen, is another National Trust property. More solid-looking than Crathes, it’s one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, its history covering 700 years. The chapel dates from the 1500s, the main mansion is Jacobean and the library was remodelled in Victorian times.

Where Crathes has a walled garden and ancient yews, Drum boasts a garden of historic roses and an ancient oak forest where you might see red kites, deer, red squirrels and (at night, of course) badgers.

From Peterculter to Aberdeen the road becomes largely built up. If you’re heading south from here, and want to avoid Aberdeen altogether, cross the river from Peterculter to Kirkton of Maryculter and follow the B979 to Stonehaven where you can pick up the A90 (beware: there are humpback bridges on this route). You have to go through Stonehaven and out again towards Dunottar Castle to achieve this; Dunottar is worth the detour in its own right.

If you’re playing it safe, follow the A93 all the way to the Bridge of Don on the outskirts of Aberdeen. There are several car parks at the shopping centre near the bridge where you can leave your campervan, if you don’t want to drive it into the city.

If you’re heading south, cross the bridge and you’re on the A90, heading back towards Perth to complete your circuit. Or, if Edinburgh’s your destination, you could drive your motorhome down the East coast route south from Stonehaven that’s described in a previous blog

Scotland’s Northern Isles by Motorhome

When people think of Scotland’s islands, it’s usually the Hebrides they have in mind. But there are two other, very distinctive, island groups off Scotland’s north coast that are well worth the effort of reaching: Orkney and Shetland.

The best time to visit is during what Shetlanders call the “Simmer Dim”, midsummer, when the light never quite leaves the sky. Or in winter for the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) and Up Helly Aa Viking festivals. Or in spring, for the wildflowers. Or any time, really!

Shetland ponnies with landscape of Mainland, Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK

Shetland ponies relaxing on Shetland Island

There are three different ferry services to Orkney and two to Shetland, and it’ll take you a couple of days to reach the islands from Edinburgh whichever you use. If you’re visiting both sets of islands, the best way is to drive up to the north coast, take the ferry to Orkney, cross to Shetland, and return on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.

The Pentland Ferries catamaran from Gills Bay, near John o’ Groats, across the Pentland Firth to St. Margaret’s Hope, on South Ronaldsay, is the shortest, most sheltered sea route to Orkney; it’s also the cheapest if you’re taking a vehicle. There are four sailings a day, weather permitting (it doesn’t always!) and you pass several uninhabited islands on the way so there’s always something to look at.

Orkney Mainland

From St Margaret’s Hope you cross onto Burray and then the Mainland (largest island) by bridge. On your way, you can see three of Orkney’s major attractions. The Tomb of the Eagles is on South Ronaldsay; you’ll find both Stone Age and Bronze Age sites here, a little way apart. Then the ornate Catholic Italian Chapel, built in a tin shed by Italian prisoners of war during World War II (WWII), is just off to your right as you cross Lamb Holm.

detail of the Italian Chapel on Orkney

Inside the Italian Catholic Chapel at Land Holm on Orkney, constructed during the Second World War.

And you’ll be driving across the Churchill Barriers. They were part of the WWII defences of Scapa Flow, the sheltered water between the islands which was a major naval base. Scapa Flow is also the site of the sinking of the German WWI  fleet in 1919; the ships are very popular with scuba divers.

Orkney’s main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness are both on the Mainland. Kirkwall has St Magnus’ Cathedral, which goes back to Viking times, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are somewhat later, the Highland Park distillery, and a busy harbour and fishing fleet. It also has some fascinating museums, including the Orkney Wireless Museum. Stromness prides itself on its artiness, offering craft shops and art galleries galore.

You’re never far from the ancient world in Orkney. On the A965 between Kirkwall and Stromness you’ll see signs to the right for Maeshow, an extraordinary Neolithic chambered burial cairn. Further along the road the B9055 heads off to the right past the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle. This is the road to Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, which pre-dates the Pyramids. After visiting Skara Brae, carry on up the coast to the Brough of Birsay, which has Pictish and Norse associations, including an 11th century sauna! The nearby ruins of the Birsay Earl’s Palace are also worth a visit.

Six of the standing stones of Stenness a neolithic henge monument on the Isle of OrkneyScotland UK near the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Six of the standing stones of Stenness a neolithic henge monument on the Isle of Orkney, Scotland UK near the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Smaller islands

To reach Rousay, take the Orkney Ferries ferry from Tingwall (you’re advised to book their ferries in advance if taking a vehicle). The island has over 160 archaeological sites going back 5,000+ years, including a Neolithic settlement of seven houses, similar to Skara Brae. If you follow the Westness Heritage walk, you can cover the entire period from the Stone Age to the mid 1800s in a single mile of coastal path. Even in pouring rain it’s an amazing day’s walk.

If all this ancient history is too much for you, how about climbing a sea-stack? Hoy, Orkney’s second-largest island, boasts a decidedly challenging climb, the 450-foot Old Man of Hoy. It’s quite a hike even to get there, but there’s plenty of wildlife to look out for as you tramp. At the southern end of the island you’ll find the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, where you can find out all about the harbour and Orkney’s role in WWII. Cross the bridge and take the road past Longhope to Hackness to see one of the few surviving Martello Towers, part of the defences built to protect Scapa Flow during the Napoleonic Wars.

Westray, long and skinny on the map, is Orkney’s second-largest island. You reach it by passenger ferry (no vehicles) from Kirkwall, an hour and a half’s journey that can be enlivened by watching out for orcas, dolphin’s and sea-birds. Westray is famous not just for its archaeology (of course) but also as the home of hundreds of thousands of razorbills, guillemots and gannets, which nest by the lighthouse at Noup Head.

Male Orca Killer whale swimming, with whale watching boat in the background, Victoria, Canada

Male Orca Killer whale swimming, with whale watching boat in the background

At the Heritage Centre in the main town, Pierowall, you’ll find the Westray Stone and the Orkney Venus, two fine stone carvings, and a short distance outside the town is Noltland Castle, a fine but unfinished Z-plan fortress.

Other unusual attractions on the island include a crab processing factory and the world’s shortest scheduled flight: less than two minutes, across to Papa Westray, which is home to the oldest standing house in northern Europe, the Knap of Howar, dating back 6000 years. Papay, as it’s also known, has a rare patch of maritime heath, and the North Hill bird sanctuary has terns, puffins and great skuas (known in the islands as “bonxies”).

Orkney Ferries can take you to 13 of the islands – more than we have time or space to cover here. Their site provides a page of information for each island with ferry access, so if you have plenty of time it’s a useful aid to planning extra excursions. However, we have to move on.

Shetland mainland

Head back to Kirkwall to take the NorthLink ferry to Lerwick, capital of Shetland, Great Britain’s northernmost outpost – nearer to Norway than to mainland Scotland and, indeed, a Norwegian province until 1469. There’s still a very Norse feeling to the place, especially if you’re there in January for the Up Helly Aa festival.

As on Orkney, there’s a wealth of ancient history laid bare at sites all over the country and plenty of scenic beauty and wildlife, too. Lerwick is a good place to get your ear in for the distinctive local accent and dialect words, many of which go back to Viking times. The city’s been a major fishing port for centuries and the harbour is still busy – though now you’re as likely to see oil-rig supply vessels and ocean-going yachts as fishing boats.

In the middle of town you’ll find Fort Charlotte, a five-sided fort dating from the 18th century Dutch Wars. There’s also the Shetland Museum, with its Boat Hall full of ships of all sizes and ages. Or, if you prefer, sample some local beers at the Lerwick Brewery, a family run business that launched its first beers as recently as 2013.

LERWICK, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 24; Bressay Island and a boat viewed from Fort Charlotte Lerwick Shetland Scotland United Kingdom. View from the embrasure for the cannon. Taken August 24, 2012

View from Fort Charlotte, Lerwick Shetland, dating back to the 18th century

The Shetlanders have long been famous for their knitted lace and garments, and you can find out more in the Shetland Textiles Museum in the Bod of Gremista (the building’s as interesting as the contents). Shetland Wool Week, in late September, offers a packed programme of talks and events for textile lovers.

Down at the south of Shetland’s Mainland you’ll find Dunrossness and the Shetland Crofthouse Museum, which shows how crofters lived until the 1960s and later. Right at the tip of the island, at Sumburgh Head, you’ll find three attractions. The first two are from ancient history: the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village, and the more famous Jarlshof settlement. The latter has buildings of all ages, from Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, Pictish, and Norse to mediaeval and 16th century structures.

Sumburgh’s third attraction is right up to date, an RSPB site famous for its thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and other seabirds during the nesting season. The views out to sea are pretty spectacular, too, though you may find the site somewhat draughty.

Puffin emerging from its burrow, Sumburgh, Shetland

Puffin emerging from its burrow, Sumburgh, Shetland

Head up the west coast to St Ninian’s Isle and take a walk across the UK’s largest active sand tombolo (causeway). You might discover more of the horde of silver Viking treasure that was unearthed under the island’s church in 1958…

Of the 100 islands in the archipelago only about 15 are inhabited – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see on the others.  Back on the east coast, you can take a boat from Sandwick to Mousa. No-one lives there now, but they did once: Mousa Broch is an Iron Age tower, one of the most impressive and complete in Scotland.  You can climb stairs all the way to the top for fabulous views. At night the broch is home to swarms of storm petrels and it’s quite a sight as they come in through the darkness to roost.

Six miles from Lerwick, Scalloway used to be the capital of the islands. In the Scalloway Museum you can find out all about the Shetland Bus – nothing to do with public transport. It was the WWII scheme that used Shetland fishing boats to transport men, supplies and weapons to the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Norway. There’s also a castle built in the early 1600s by the local laird, Earl Patrick Stewart.

At Hillswick there’s a sanctuary for seals and otters and at Eshaness the Tangwick Haa Museum, another laird’s house full of local history, photos and artefacts. Eshaness also has a picturesque circular walk around the coastline, including the lighthouse (though that’s now privately owned and closed to the public).

Eshaness in the Shetland Islands stunning cliffs and dangerous sea.

Eshaness lighthouse (now privately owned) in the Shetland Islands, beside stunning cliffs.

Rona’s Hill, Shetland’s highest point at 450m above sea level, is a good place for plant lovers, with alpine varieties such as mountain azalea and spiked woodrush. There’s a chambered cairn at the top and you can see almost the whole of Shetland laid out below you – even as far as Fair Isle if the weather’s good.

Other islands

Shetlands Islands Council operates the inter-island ferries. From the Mainland you can reach Papa Stour from West Burrafirth; Whalsay and Skerries from Laxo and Vidlin; Bressay from Lerwick; and Yell (from which you reach Fetlar and Unst) from Toft. You can also get to Fair Isle, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, from Grutness. All the ferries, except the Fair Isle one, can accommodate motorhomes.

All the islands are different and all are worth visiting but probably the most rewarding for the first-time visitor is Unst. Unst, the UK’s most northerly inhabited island, is home to possibly the oddest bus shelter in Britain: it’s fully furnished, with sofa, table and curtains, and gets a new “look” every year. You’ll find it at Baltasound.

For winter visitors, the island has its own Up Helly Aa festivals (several of them), slightly later than the Lerwick one. Unst is a also great place to watch the northern lights (aurora borealis) and, later, otters, puffins, and other wildlife.

The island’s Viking heritage is everywhere – this is thought to be where they made their first landings in what is now Great Britain. At Haroldswick there’s a reconstructed longhouse and the Skidbladner replica Gokstad ship. More longhouses have been excavated at Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont. The sites are open all year.

If all this Viking heritage has worn you out, a visit to Valhalla (where fallen warriors were revived with a horn of ale) is obviously indicated. The Valhalla Brewery is Britain’s most northerly and produces a range of 7 beers. Take a guided tour and then buy your own take-away reviver package.

Shetland Ale from Valhalla Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the UK. Credit: Peter Schofield Flickr

Shetland Ale from Valhalla Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the UK. Credit: Peter Schofield Flickr

Blow away the fumes of the beer with a visit to a nature reserve. There’s Keen of Hamar or Hermaness, dramatic on its cliff-top overlooking Muckle Flugga and home to thousands of  nesting seabirds. You might see puffins, fulmars, shags, gannets and seals at the sea’s edge, and great skuas and red throated divers on the landward moorland stretches. Lovers of wild food should come later in the year, when the bilberries and crowberries produce their fruit.

On your way back to Lerwick for the NorthLink Ferry back to Aberdeen, take time to visit Yell’s white beaches and blue but chilly waters. If you haven’t yet had your fill of history, Yell also offers a folklore and local history museum at Old Haa, located in a 17th century laird’s house. The garden is also open and there’s a tearoom and craft shop, so it’s a great place to spend a few hours and stock up on quality souvenirs.

Camping

Camping in Orkney and Shetland is easy.  There’s a variety of campsites all over the islands, with anything from 2 to 80 pitches. Many are community run; some are just regular car parks with electric hook-ups added. Not all have pump-out facilities or water points, so use them when you find them!

Wild camping is also permitted. The islands are not heavily populated and the outlook is relaxed so, as long as you don’t outstay your welcome, you’ll be fine. Do make sure the ground is hard enough to take the weight of your vehicle, though – you don’t want to end up in a peat bog. Watch out for the weather, too: many of the finest views are accompanied by strong winds.

Orkney Camping Pauljennywilson Flickr

Orkney Camping Pauljennywilson Flickr

If you do the whole trip we’ve outlined here, it will take you at least three weeks – and there’ll still be whole islands you don’t have time to see. The more time you can take, the better. It’s a long way to travel and trying to “do” the northern isles in a week is just a waste. If you haven’t time to do both sets of islands, do one. But promise yourself you’ll come back and do the other soon.

There’s nowhere quite like Scotland’s Northern Isles, at any time of year.

 

Touring Scotland’s Outer Hebrides by Motorhome

The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles, Outer Isles or the Long Island) are one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, with white sands, turquoise seas and very few people. Life moves at a slower pace here, especially on Sundays, and the roads are quiet. The weather’s not always reliable, but this is Scotland’s Wild West, with climate to match.

Some of the islands are connected by bridges now but you’ll still need ferries to get out to the Isles and between them. The most cost-effective way to do this is to buy a Hopscotch ticket from Caledonian MacBrayne (better known as CalMac), who operate almost all the ferries around the west coast of Scotland.

A Hopscotch ticket allows you to travel for 31 days from the date of your first ferry trip and you can use it to go in either direction between the islands. It doesn’t guarantee you a place on a particular sailing (booking in advance is highly recommended during busy periods) nor does it save you money, but once you’ve bought your ticket you don’t need to shell out again, which makes budgeting easier.

The other vital piece of equipment for your Hebridean trip is midge repellent. The islands are a stronghold of the Highland midge, which prefers human blood to all other forms of sustenance. A hat helps keep the little blighters out of your hair, but you’ll need to slather all exposed skin in repellent. Legend has it that Avon’s Skin So Soft moisturiser is the most effective (and that this fact was discovered by the Marines!) but there are plenty of others to choose from. You can check out the current ‘midge forecast’ here: https://www.smidgeup.com/midge-forecast/

Some basics

Iona

The Hebrides are a diverse set of islands off the west coast of Scotland, featuring rugged scenery and stunning beaches. Photo credit: James Stringer

The northern Outer Hebrides (Lewis, Harris and North Uist) are largely Protestant, and you will find most shops and pubs are shut on Sundays and ferries do not run on the Sabbath except on very rare occasions when the weather has caused sailing delays and small island shops are running out of food. The southern islands (Barra, South Uist and Benbecula) are largely Catholic and Sunday traditions are more relaxed here.

Gaelic is still spoken by many Hebridean islanders and road signs are in both Gaelic and English. It’s quite fun trying to work out how to pronounce Gaelic place names by reading the English and seeing how many letters are “left out”.

Most ferry terminals have black-water emptying facilities, toilets and showers, though you may have to hunt for them. Some also offer good long-term parking if you want to spend a day in town.

Wild camping is allowed but it’s always worth asking permission of the local crofter(s). And please don’t park on the machair: it’s both legally protected and easily damaged. Machair means a fertile low-lying grassy plain in Gaelic and it’s one of the rarest habitats in Europe, occurring in the Outer Hebrides and nowhere else. It is very rich in wildflowers, birds and insects and the locals are understandably protective of it.

Mull and the Inner Hebrides

The classic Hebrides trip starts at Oban, with the ferry to Craignure at the south-eastern tip of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides. If you have time, a drive round Mull is very rewarding. You can take the short ferry trip from Fionnphort at the south-western tip of the island across to the early Christian sites on Iona, which offers peaceful walking and biking. Don’t take your motorhome across: go as a foot passenger and return to your van on Mull in the evening.

If you travel up the west coast of Mull, you’ll see signs offering boat trips to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, which inspired Mendelssohn. Its basalt columns are part of the same geological formation as the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the acoustics are very distinctive.  The island, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildlife.

Starting on Barra

From the famously painted waterfront of Tobermory you sail to Castlebay on Barra, the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. The bay takes its name from Kisimul Castle, home of the MacNeils since the 11th century. There’s also a community-run shop, Buth Bharraigh, which stocks local crafts as well as food and drink.

From Barra there’s a causeway to Vatersay, with its abandoned village of Eoradail and abundant wildflowers in the machair.

aeroplane at Barra airport

A plane on the sandy airstrip at Barra airport. Photo credit: James Stringer

Back on Barra, you’ll find seals at Seal Bay and, at Traigh Mhor at the northern tip of the island, the famous Barra airport. It’s the only airstrip in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach and are determined by the tide table. There’s an excellent airport café, open to non-flyers as well as passengers.

Nearby you’ll find the small Croft Number 2 Caravan and Camping site, which sits within 50m of the beach and has all modern conveniences for motorhomes, including a drying facility. It’s handily open all year.

South and North Uist, Benbecula and Berneray

From Ardmhor, near the airport, you catch the ferry to the small island of Eriskay, from which there’s a bridge to South Uist. There’s plenty to do here, whether you want to follow the Bonnie Prince Charlie trail, look out for golden and white-tailed sea eagles, grey and common seals and bottlenose dolphins, or check out the sweater-makers of Eriskay Jerseys. There are plenty of mapped walks and cycle routes to follow and, of course, there’s machair everywhere. If you prefer to see the sea, you can take a boat trip from Lochboisdale with Uist Sea Tours.

There are campsites at both Lochboisdale and South Lochboisdale that cater for campervans.  There’s nothing at the north of South Uist, but Benbecula offers the Shellbay Caravan and Camping Park at Liniclate.

North Uist has many monuments and ruins for lovers of ancient history. The Udal Peninsula is one of the most important archaeological sites in the UK, having been occupied from Neolithic times to the early 20th century. Eilean Domhnuill is an artificial island in Loch Olabhat that also dates back to Neolithic times; there’s another stronghold in the middle of the tidal loch of Sticir, connected by stone causeways to the mainland.

If history’s not your thing, follow the Bird of Prey Trail to see hen harriers, merlins and short-eared owls, which forage in daylight, or take a walk across to uninhabited Vallay Island at low tide – make sure you get back before the tide cuts you off! At Malacleit, at Traigh Bhalaigh (Vallay) on the north coast of North Uist, you’ll find a typically peaceful crofting village. You can also follow the Uist Sculpture Trail or sections of the Hebridean Way on foot or by bike.

From Lochmaddy you can take a CalMac ferry back to Uig on Skye and head home if you’ve run out of time. But there’s plenty more to see and do in the Western Isles first.

At the southern end of Berneray, for example, you’ll find the monument to Aonghas Mor MacAsgaill, better known in English as The Giant MacAskill, who spent most of his life in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and apparently topped out at 7’9” – the “world’s largest giant”. He was nearly as tall as the standing stone at Cladh Maolrithe, which is 8’ tall – at least the bit that you can see. The part underground is said to be just as big.

Harris

From Berneray you take the ferry across the Sound of Harris, with views over the Atlantic towards St Kilda, and land at Leverburgh at the south end of the Isle of Harris. It’s really the same island as Lewis, but there are geological and cultural differences between the two that make them feel completely different. The ancient rocks of the east coast of Harris, some of the oldest in the world, stood in for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey”.

You can walk and cycle your way round Harris on several well-laid out mapped routes. Or you could take a day-trip to St Kilda or the Shiant Islands, weather permitting, or discover maritime history at the old whaling station at Bunavoneader and the first lighthouse in the Western Isles on Scalpay.  St Clements Church, at Rodel, is also worth a visit. Dating from the 1520s, it has a surprisingly large tower and a peaceful, if scattered, graveyard.

Wildlife you might see includes otters, seals, porpoises, red deer, golden and sea eagles, hen harriers, golden plover and even corncrakes (though you’re more likely to hear those than see them). If you go in June, look out for the golden flowers of bog asphodel on the moors.

Luskentyre beach

Luskentyre is one of the largest beaches on Harris. Photo credit: Bob the Lomond

But many people go to Harris for the beaches: Luskintyre, Horgabost, Huisinis (Hushinish) and the others all boast miles of pure white sand and sea that could be Caribbean … until you dip a toe in. Some hardy folk come to the Hebrides to surf – the waves roll in from America with nothing to stop them – but it’s not a place for the casual board-rider. The sea provides some challenging fishing, too.

Then, of course, there’s the world-famous Harris Tweed. You can watch it being made at the Harris Tweed Exhibition at Drinshader, or buy it from the official shop and warehouse in Tarbert. Tarbert is also home to the island’s first distillery, which also has a canteen serving local food.  The distillery produces both whisky and gin with a distinctly maritime flavour, and is very much a local and social enterprise.

Lewis

Callanish standing stones

Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis. Photo credit: G Macfayden

Without doubt, the most famous thing on Lewis is the Callanish (Calanais) standing stones, one of the most complete sets in Europe and, unlike Stonehenge, not fenced off. Dating back some 5,000 years, they’re also earlier than Stonehenge, and the rock they’re made from (Lewisian Gneiss) dates back some 3000 million years. They’re particularly atmospheric at or just after dawn and dusk. There are three other stone circles nearby, prosaically named Callanish 2 (Cnoc Ceann a’Gharraidh in Gaelic), Callanish 3 (Cnoc Fhillibhir Bheag) and Callanish 4 (Ceann Thulabhaig).

Dun Carloway Broch, one of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, is about 5 miles from Callanish. It’s a double-walled stronghold with a staircase between the two walls and dates from the early Iron Age. At Great Bernera (not to be confused with the island of Berneray), there’s a reconstructed Iron Age house, excavated from the sand after a storm. The beach here is worth the detour by itself.

Further up the coast you’ll find the Arnol Blackhouse, a traditional straw-thatched house with no chimney (so the fire’s smoke blackened everything inside, where both humans and livestock lived. The walls are made of mortarless stone and the floor is just bare earth. Houses like this one were in use right up ‘til the end of the 19th century. Between Great Bernera and Arnol are the Norse Mill and Kiln, reflecting the Viking influence on the region.

Two places on Lewis are particularly good for spotting basking sharks: the Port of Ness and Mangersta Head. The best time to see these huge plankton-feeders is July and August as they trundle through the water, mouths agape for their tiny prey.

Also in July, you’ll find the Hebridean Celtic Festival in the Western Isles’ capital, Stornoway. It’s a family-friendly event showcasing all types of Celtic music in large and small concerts and free events all over town. Stornoway also produces famously good black pudding and is the ferry port from which you return to the mainland, landing at Ullapool.

You’ll find Celtic traditions celebrated all over the islands all year by the craft-makers who live there, selling their work either from their studios or through shops. Their works reflect the light and colours of the islands, their peacefulness and storms, and make unique souvenirs of your trip to Scotland’s Wild West, the Outer Hebrides.

Driving your motorhome on Scotland’s single-track roads

Many visitors to Scotland are surprised by how narrow some of the roads are, especially if they’re not used to driving a large vehicle like a motorhome. Even passing other vehicles on normal A and B roads can feel very tight. But some roads are even narrower: single-track roads with passing places are something of a feature of driving in rural Scotland, particularly in the Highlands.

Scotland's Highlands and Islands often use singletrack roads with frequent passing places. Photo credit: John M.

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands often use single track roads with frequent passing places. These roads are less manicured than larger roads, but often have the most spectacular views! Photo credit: John M.

Visitors from elsewhere in Britain may have come across such roads. They certainly exist in rural parts of England and Wales. But they are very rare elsewhere in the developed world, and can cause worry and confusion. So here are our best tips for safe driving on single-track roads.

Look out for passing places!

Passing places are usually marked, normally with a black-and-white pole, with or without a white sign and the words “Passing Place”. However, not all passing places are marked, so you have to keep your eyes open for them. They can be on either side of the road.  It is important to remember that in Scotland we drive on the left of the road (it’s easy to forget when there’s no other traffic to remind you). If the passing place is on the left pull into it; if it’s on the right, stop opposite it. Don’t try to pull into a passing place on your right – it’s one of the best ways to cause an accident.

Drive slowly and be patient

Not just for other drivers’s sakes but because single-track roads often lack fences and you may meet cattle, sheep, deer, horse-riders, cyclists and walkers. These roads are often so quiet that you have a good chance of seeing unusual wildlife, like pine martens. You may also meet hard hazards such as low bridges and tight bends, which can come up without warning. Should you meet a herd of animals, the safest thing to do is to pull in and switch off your engine until they have all passed. Horse-riders and cyclists should be allowed to pass you at their own pace; horses may be nervous of your large vehicle and cyclists are working much harder than you are! Think of your wait as a good opportunity to see the countryside, which can be difficult to do if you’re concentrating on the road ahead.

Anticipate when to stop

The general rule is that whoever reaches a passing place first stops. Look ahead as far as you can, and pull in to the passing place in good time – it will save you having to reverse. Use your indicators to show the other vehicle that you’re pulling in.  If they stop at the same time as you and flash their headlights twice, it usually means that they’re inviting you to drive on – but this is not a hard-and-fast rule, so don’t rely on it.  If they only flash once, it is usually a “thank you” and means they know you’ve stopped and they are driving on; you may also get a cheery wave as they pass you. They’ll expect to be thanked if they give way to you, too.

Passing places aren’t just for oncoming traffic

Keep an eye on your rear-view mirrors and use passing places to let any vehicles behind you overtake. The countryside may look as though nothing ever happens but a lot of people work there and they get very frustrated if they can’t pass you and get on with whatever they’re doing.  Very often drivers who have overtaken will thank you by using their indicators or hazard warning lights for a few seconds – it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.

Passing places are required to keep the flow of traffic moving along single track roads. So however tempting it is, you shouldn't park up in passing places to take a photo of the admittedly often beautiful views! Photo credit: Tom Parnell

Passing places are required to keep the flow of traffic moving along single track roads. So however tempting it is, you shouldn’t park up in passing places to take a photo of the admittedly often beautiful views! Photo credit: Tom Parnell

Remember that passing places are not parking spaces

Passing places aren’t for stopping to take photos, have a picnic or park for the night; the clue is in the name! Nor are gateways, cattle-grid gates or other apparently-unused entries.  You never know when a farmer or home-owner may need to use them – just because you can’t see a house doesn’t mean there isn’t one along the track, just over the hill.  So only park in places where other vehicles can get past you.  This applies overnight, too, since a home-owner may be coming home after dark or a farmer may be making an early start.  Make sure anywhere you stop for any length of time is hard ground too!

Be prepared to reverse to a passing place

If an oncoming vehicle is bigger or harder to manoeuvre than yours (for example, a tractor with a trailer), then it is usually a good idea to kindly reverse to the nearest passing place. Always use a passing place, even if it’s quite a long way back, rather than trying to climb up on the verge.  Road edges are often soft and narrow and can hide roadside drains, and you don’t want to get stuck. All our motorhomes are fitted with reversing cameras; make sure you’re familiar with using your camera and reading the screen before you need it.

It’s generally considered good manners to give way to vehicles coming up a hill towards you, particularly large and/or heavy ones. It is much easier for you to move off downhill than it would be for them to start moving uphill again.

Single-track roads with passing places are not everyone’s cup of tea but if you want to travel in the Highlands you will certainly meet them. The trick is to be relaxed but very focussed: think ahead, take it gently and don’t worry. The chances are that most of the vehicles you’ll meet will be smaller than yours and will wait for you to pass them. There’s no point in letting a quirk of British road-building keep you away from some of the most beautiful parts of the country.

(Having said that, some roads are simply not suitable for large vehicles. The Bealach na Ba’ pass to Applecross is one, as it is steep, narrow and very twisty. It is worth spending time poring over maps and deciding where you’ll feel comfortable driving – maps are half the fun of a road-trip anyway.)

Hopefully these tips will have put your mind at ease about driving on Scotland’s smaller roads.  As long as you relax, take care and drive courteously, you’ll have a great time. What’s more, you’ll see the full beauty of Scotland’s lochs, mountains and coast. What better motorhome holiday could there be?