Highlander for a Few Days

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.  Scottish Highlands 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.

Scottish Highlands
Our tour guide who was positively wacky! Loved her.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

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.

Needless to say, I found great use in my wide-angle lenses this entire trip. They were absolutely necessary to capture even 1/10 of what my eyes were experiencing!
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

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.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

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!
Scottish Highlands
Scottish HighlandsScottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

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.

Scottish Highlands 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.

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  • http://www.californienne.com/ Marianne

    Oh I have long wanted to visit Scotland and the Scottish highlands. I haven’t yet made it to the UK but it’s on my list. These photographs are just stunning. I took a couple day trips lead by tours in Ireland and I had a blast. I think it depends on the tour guide company, and the guide itself, whether or not they will actually be a good tour or not.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      It’s so close to you, Marianne!! I wholeheartedly recommend it :) I also took a few day tours in Ireland but they just weren’t the same to me… but I definitely agree with it all depending on the guide, haha.

  • http://www.clemandmarcella.wordpress.com/ Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld

    Oh woweeee! Your photos are beautifully stunning! I absolutely love mountains, especially those surrounded by water and blue skies. This looks like an absolutely amazing trip! Gorgeous!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks Marcella! I think if I had to live anywhere for the rest of my life, it’d have to be either near a body of water or near the mountains. And the Highlands has both! ;)

  • http://www.deutsch-bitte.net/ Natalye

    That sounds like such a cool tour! I also really love how vast and beautiful and pure everything looks. Sounds like a great trip!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      I know! Look at that water! Thanks, Natalye :)

  • http://www.tothedayslikethis.com/ Sammy @ Days Like This

    Amazing!! I am going to the Scottish Highlands in April. I really can’t wait. I did a guided tour in Ireland and it was good, but if I ever went again I would do it myself. I think they serve their purpose… but I like traveling by myself more! I would NEVER do a monster Contiki or Topdeck tour through Europe!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Yeah, I also did a guided tour in Ireland and that’s what made me question this tour at the beginning a lot. I did voice these concerns to the friend I met in the hostel, and she said that although normally, she never goes on tours either, this one was exceptionally good!

      Agreed to the monster tours though. Heeeeckkk no.

  • http://www.lostwithyvonne.com Yvonne

    Oh wow those are some amazing photos! The Scottish Highlands look so beautiful! I will have to check that place out!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks, Yvonne! Do it!!

  • http://lanivcox.wordpress.com/ Lani

    Breath taking photos. I wanna go!!! Yeah, some guided tours are just fine. We hired a driver to take us around a few sites in Northern Thailand and he was a wealth of information that you just can’t find in the guidebooks. They get a bad rap, but I think there are some good tours. Oh, and when we were in Vienna, we did an underground tour of the city (or something like that) and even though it was freezing cold and rainy, I’m definitely glad I did it.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks, Lani :) Ooh, was it just any driver that you found in the street? Yeah, usually the best is just to ask a local themselves!

      I love underground tours!! Those are usually the ones where there’s absolutely no way to see it without hiring a guide, haha.

      • http://lanivcox.wordpress.com/ Lani

        No, we booked the guide through the guest house. And yes, I wish we could go underground with out guidance ;)

        • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

          Haha, it would probably take a horror movie turn, though, if we did that :p

  • http://snowintromso.com/ Van @ Snow in Tromso

    Your pictures are so so beautiful!! I definitely miss Scotland and want to go back there asap!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks, Van! :) I know, I was getting super nostalgic while writing this post and I want to get back as soon as possible!

  • http://www.twofeet-oneworld.com/ Jessi @2feet1world

    Good lord that looks incredible. I want to go RIGHT NOW!!!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Right? I’ll sneak into your suitcase, haha!

  • Edgar

    This place looks absolutely stunning, images are awesome as well..you guys must have had a wonderful time enjoying in here..

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thank you! It was amazing :)

  • http://www.chicadeedee.com/ Dannielle @ Chicadeedee

    I absolutely loved the scottish highlands, and we only had a day to go around them so booked a bus tour, which I would also recommend! The tour guide was awesome and really funny, and we got to go to three different stop offs, and places I never would have seen otherwise. I can’t wait to go back, we want to do a camping trip there when we get time.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      YES! Camping in the Scottish Highlands would be absolutely PHENOMENAL! And when time is short, I do give tours more of a consideration than usual just because I only have this one chance! Hopefully you get to go back soon :)

  • http://alexfahey.blogspot.com/ Alex Fahey

    My friend and I took the same exact tour back in 2009, and we loved it! I want to go back and take my husband. I fell in love with the highlands. I am currently reading Outlander and I started watching it and I kept seeing all these places I had been to! I am so happy I found your blog!

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha, I have to read that again after having been on this tour! I think maybe that it would be a little more epic :) But also, I was HORRIBLE at remembering the names of the places we visited!
      Hope you stay for a while :)

  • http://www.crumbsinthebed.com/ Kerri

    I can’t remember the last time I went on a tour… I don’t think I’ve ever been on a tour now that I’m thinking about it. I prefer to just do my own thing, me and my map (although half the time I forget that). I do like the sound of this one! I’ve been wanting to visit Scotland for a few years now and this just makes me want to go even more!

    I always see the tour guides in our town, maybe Kris and I should think about tours more often. I always like the sound of the free walking tours, because I’m cheap and hate paying for someone to do what I can do for free and in the peace and quiet of my own company :)

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha, yeah I never really did so until reaching Ireland and then this one in Scotland… (not counting the free walking tours) I would still consider myself more of a “on my own” type of traveler because it’s clearly better, given you have enough time. You should go!!

      Oh you also said something about free walking tours. I always do them if possible when getting to a new place just because it’s a highlight reel and shows me places that I might want to return to on my own after the tour. I’m with you on being cheap, haha ;)

  • http://www.adventurings.com Cynthia

    Incredible photos! I’m with you, the Scottish Highlands are everything that I was hoping Iceland/Ireland to be. It sounds weird to say to other people, but I know you understand :) I only spent one night sadly on the Isle of Skye and it definitely wasn’t enough! However I did spend several weeks work-staying in the area and visiting other islands so I got a good overview. Scotland is magic.

    • http://mishfish13.com/ Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Thanks, Cynthia! Haha I definitely do ;) Ah! I was only there for 3 days and still it felt too short. Several weeks would be like a DREAM.

  • http://blog.jessicapei.com/ Jessica @ WONDERMENTARY

    Love these pics! I’ve been wanting to visit the Highlands after reading & watching Outlander too. It was pretty cool how you took that girl’s advice and went for this tour.

    WONDERMENTARY @ http://blog.jessicapei.com