One of the absolute treasures in my memories of my time abroad was a guided, 3-day tour of the Scottish Highlands. I know, I know. Guided. Tour. That goes against everything I’ve always stood for before I set off on my 6-week backpacking journey. Explorations of things were best self-guided; that way, your entire experience is yours and not crafted by a for-profit company.
That being said, due to my time constraints in Scotland, I decided this was the best path… and I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever (unlike those tours I took in Ireland). My original plan was to scurry from Edinburgh to London, where I would spend a full week. But after meeting a fellow American, who was not studying abroad but was actually going to a London college, in the hostel and having her wholeheartedly recommend this one tour company, Rabbie’s Tours, and the Scottish Highlands in general, I said why not! After all, the tour would include my next few days of accommodations, so I wouldn’t have to rebook at the hostel anyways.
“And, when you get to London,” she said, “I can give you a place to crash!” Deal. I was happy to know I had a familiar face waiting for me at my next destination. And this girl was cool.
Typically, you would want to book more than a day ahead of time for small tours like Rabbie’s, but one of the perks of traveling alone is that usually, there’s enough room for you. There were 14 of us in total and our expected itinerary was to explore every nook and cranny up to the Isle of Skye for 3 days, using Portree as a base for 2 days while we jaunted about. The tour company I went with boasted excellence in the amount of time we got off the bus, and I have to say that this is true. Not even 30 minutes passed since we had left the outskirts of Edinburgh when our tour guide stopped at the side of the road.
“This is one of my favorite views of the start of the Highlands!”
I got off the bus and was engulfed by beauty. The Scottish Highlands have a funny way of make you feel so so small because everything about them is so vast. Their mountains are huge; the bodies of water, huge; the pints of ale, huge. My stomach after eating generous helpings of Scottish breakfast, huge. Only 30 minutes into the tour and I knew that I was going to love it—not only because of my surroundings, but also because of my cute little Scottish tour guide (whose name seems to have completely eluded me, I’m sorry!). As part of the hiring process, Rabbie’s asked her to tell her favorite historical story, one that she would tell the people on her bus if she were hired. After hearing every story that came out of her mouth, and there were many, I have to say that this may be one of the most effective ways to find a quality tour guide. She was so excited to tell us all the tales of the Highland history, which was delightful on our end as her accent thickened with each word, that I couldn’t have fell asleep if I wanted to.
But actually I did when, nearing the end of the trip, the promise of more time off the bus meant became more of a threat than promise.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves on the Highlands’ beauty.
Of course, after reading Outlander a few years ago, this place was bound to be magical for me. (How cool would a reading tour be? A tour where you read a fiction novel while touring that specific place?) One of the most entertaining parts for me—other than the stories that our tour guide told us—was trying to imagine people living and traveling these huge lands. And they’ve kept it pretty well maintained in the Scottish Highlands; with only one road that you could take throughout the area, it helps you imagine what it was like back then.
The whole time we were on the road, she praised the good fortune we had with weather. And by the looks of these photos, could you imagine it? The wind was still a bit too biting, however the sun graced us the entire time, giving me a photographer’s wet dream. Did I just make photography gross? There were enough clouds to make it interesting, but not enough to obstruct the beautiful rays of sunshine.
This, you guys, was what I was expecting when I took all those Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry tours. Landscapes that swept my breath away as easily as the clouds that moved across the tips of the mountains.
This is definitely one of those places that I would gladly revisit again and again… At one point, she spoke of how she spent a summer backpacking through the Highlands and I was seized with a need to go and do that, screw the tour! Just leave me here! It would be like Wild, but in the Scottish Highlands and I’d develop this not-at-all creepy and forced Scottish accent. Just imagine: each day you’d wake up and be greeted with sights like these.
While I was sitting or standing there, on the precipice of a chunk of land, I was overwhelmed by how large&vast things were.
I think one large difference between the Highlands and the large&vast national parks that I’ve been to in the states were that you really felt free in your exploration (even though you were on a fixed tour). There were no fences telling you where you could and could not step; there were no distractions of man-made visitor centers on the peak of a particularly large hill. It was just… there. Existing. Being able to feel like you’re the first explorer on untamed land is a feeling that very few of us get to experience now. But, thankfully, the Scottish Highlands is still one of those places.
Although our tour was mainly in the Isle of Skye, at one point, we visited the fairy groves, which were magical. There were plenty of places to clamber up and once up there… the views were incredible, as were these touristic photos. Fairy things in general are mentioned quite a bit in any Irish and Scottish lore. Although I’ve been on multiple tours already, I still couldn’t determine what makes a place fairy-designated or not. Perhaps the strange configurations of the hills there. That didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy every ounce of these visit though!
And now, why was this tour worth it? Well, if you’ve notice in the photos above, a lot of them look just like… rolling hills. One way that a tour company can make a bunch of repetitive hills mean something to the brief traveler is to fixate a type of story onto these lands. For me, it was already there with the help of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (now a series on TV!), however Rabbie’s does do a fairly good job of getting you out of the car and putting these stories in your head so you can relate to the lands on an emotional level.
There’s a fine line in the tour business; allowing you enough independence to seek out this meaning yourself and putting enough in there that you come away with what you were looking for. They walked the line perfectly. I was free to tune out at any point that I wanted, yet also to seek out more stories if I were in the mood that day. At one of our stops, she just dropped us off, listed off a few recommendations of pubs and sights, and then drove off to have some well-deserved alone time. At this point, I’ll say that I admire overnight tour guides to be able to entertain large, diverse groups without going insane.
Rabbie’s also excel in cultivating really close groups. I became good friends with two of the Canadian girls that I met on the tour and we briefly considered traveling to London together afterwards. But things didn’t work out. One thing I was afraid of when handing over about 200€ was the demographics of tour companies like this. Usually, I find that like-minded people (travelers who love exploring things on their own and meeting other people—but also open to outside-group activities) don’t go on group tours… especially during off season. Thankfully, whether it was a fluke or my goddamn luck, our group was split evenly between those over 60 and those under 30. Half of those under 30 were Australian Jehovah’s Witnesses, so needless to say, I gravitated to these cool Canadian girls over our exasperated feelings of this one man on the bus.
This just barely grazes the surface of my adventure in the Highlands, but there isn’t anything specific that needs to be shared or told. Nothing extraordinary happened on this trip; the trip itself was simply extraordinary. Instead, I’ll leave some tips on how to cultivate a good tour experience.
Some tips on a good tour experience
- Go with recommendations; if a cool girl recommends a tour company and your ideology matches, go for it
- Multi-day tours allow more chances of making friends! Maybe out of necessity and desperation, but either way friends are a good thing!
- Ditto with small tours
- Check the demographics of the tour company (and how they advertise themselves!). There are elderly buzzwords and then there are young buzzwords
- Talk to people, obviously. Be the person that makes things happen!
Have you ever had a better-than-expected experience with a tour? Where?
Or, what’s your stance on guided tours?
Linking up with Travel Tuesdays.