Scotland in a day – that’s what Rabbie’s likes to call its day trip to Loch Ness. And indeed, the additional stops at Loch Lomond, in Glencoe and Pitlochry, and of course various places along the shores of Loch Ness, this tour is a tour de force leading from the Lowlands to the Highlands and back again. Starting in Glasgow as early as 8am this promised to be a day packed with gorgeous views and fun activities, so one fine autumn day I grabbed my backpack and headed out to adventure. Together with my friend Frida I set out to hunt down the monster of Loch Ness, indulge in some Scottish single malt whiskies and soak up as many autumn views in the Highlands as possible.
First stop: Loch Lomond
Even though the sun was already on the rise, dipping the Glasgow morning sky into a glorious display of pink and golden hues, it was still fairly dark when we left the city behind to make our way north. The first stop would lead us to Luss, a small village along the shores of Loch Lomond, which is Scotland’s largest loch (lake) in terms of water surface. Although the sun had started to hide behind a thin layer of clouds, the views were gorgeous and we knew we were in for a treat of a day.
Seeing that we left Glasgow so early in the morning, Luss was a great first pit stop because there is a little cafe right behind the car park, where you can fill up on coffee and wee breakfast snacks.
At the Skyfall: Glencoe
The journey goes on deeper into the mountains of the Highlands, past the many lochs of of Rannoch Moor and into the dramatic mountain ranges of Glencoe. Scotland may have more beautiful glens (valleys) than you could possibly visit in one trip, but Glencoe is by far its most famous. A certain James Bond film has of course something to do with this, but even if you haven’t seen Skyfall, driving through Glencoe is a breathtaking experience. There is simply no weather in which the peaks of the Three Sisters or the ridge of Aonach Eagach don’t look breathtaking!
With every landmark we pass on our way to Loch Ness, our driver Graham seems to have a suitable story up his sleeve. Admittedly, many stories from Scottish history end with one or many people dead – just like the story of the massacre of Glencoe in which members of the Campbell clan killed 40 men of the Macdonald clan and another 40 or so women and children died of exposure as they fled into the mountains. It’s a terribly sad story, but one you need to hear on your way through Glencoe to understand how Scottish history is inseparable from its land. A moment of silence while you stop at this beautiful view point will give you the opportunity to remember the dead.
On to Fort William & the Nevis Mountain Range
Of course these stories lie far in the past and shall not affect your day out in the Scottish Highlands too much. Good, that it’s still a wee while until the tour reaches Loch Ness and there are plenty of viewpoints, stories and songs to take your mind off the bloody history.
Doing a tour with Rabbie’s really is a lot like munro bagging, only that you ‘bag’ views rather than mountain peaks. On our way between Glasgow and Loch Ness we stopped so many times for little walks and photo ops, or even just to take in the views and take an imaginary picture in our heads.
One of my favourite spots was definitely a spontaneous stop at Loch Linnhe right after the Ballachulish bridge. Graham mentioned they don’t always manage to stop there – only when Highlands traffic allows. We were lucky though, and could take in the serene views over the water.
Another photo stop brought us face to face with the Nevis Mountain Range by Fort William. While Ben Nevis – the UK’s highest mountain top – was hiding away in the clouds, the views down the Spean River were fantastic!
The Great Glen & Lunch in Fort Augustus
By now, Graham had shown us some of Scotland’s most famous landmarks and viewpoints, and it was not even lunch time yet. The final leg of our journey before reaching Loch Ness, was the road through the Great Glen, criss-crossing the chain of lochs and rivers leading in a straight line from Inverness to Fort William.
Millions of years ago, the part of Scotland north of the Great Glen used to be part of Canada, but continental drift brought the landmass slowly closer to Europe, until it eventually joined up with mainland Scotland. Today we can still see the diagonal rift cutting the Highlands in two, and seeing the glen from the road is as spectacular as you might think!
Fort Augustus is a small village at the bottom end of Loch Ness and except for a few restaurants and B&Bs there is not much to do or see. The village is a popular lunch stop on the way up the shores of Loch Ness, and that is exactly what we’re here for. We decided to try The Bothy, a restaurant serving traditional Scottish cuisine. While the mushroom pie wasn’t my favourite pie ever, it was a good place for a quick lunch before heading on for our Loch Ness experience.
Our Loch Ness Experience
When you go on a day trip to Loch Ness with Rabbie’s you will have several choices as to how you want to spend your afternoon by the loch. You can go on a nature walk up the hills on the western shore. There is a nice trail leading up with several viewpoints, and while you might not have enough time to make it all the way to the top, this is a great budget option for a dry day.
For the two other options you will have to purchase additional tickets from your driver. You can either go on a 1h cruise around the loch (£13), or spend an hour exploring the ruined Urquhart Castle followed by 30 minutes on the boat (£19.50). Because Frida and I both had been to the castle twice already, we decided for the 1h cruise option, which would also increase our chances to potentially spot Nessie – or at least have more whisky to increase the likelihood!
The cruise leaves a harbour around 20 minutes north of the Castle, but the boat swings back down, sails around the ruins for great views and returns back north. There is a brief stop at the castle jetty to let people on and off the boat who have purchased a combination ticket.
As they say, a wee dram might help you to spot the monster and there is a small bar on board selling small snacks, soft drinks and of course single malts from around the country.
With a drink in one hand, the other on the camera shutter; one eye on the water and the other focused on the sonar screen in the bar area (!) we hoped for the best. But I guess one whisky is not enough to make Nessie appear from underneath the surface…
Inverness, the Cairngorms & Pitlochry
Once the cruise was over there was of course no time for disappointment to settle in as Graham hit the road again. We zoomed through the town of Inverness and turned back south towards Glasgow. The road led us through the Cairngorm mountains, past the Dalwhinnie Distillery and into Pitlochry, the last stop on our tour.
Pitlochry rose to fame and popularity during the Victorian times, when it was chosen as a stop along the train line to the Highlands. Back then, all you needed was a train station. Nowadays the town is still a popular getaway for people from Glasgow and Edinburgh, because it is easy to reach and easy on the eye. Every autumn the city hosts a beautiful light festival in its forest called Enchanted Forest, but there are also many cafes, shops and two whisky distilleries to explore on a full-day trip.
Sadly, we had to leave the town again after a short walk and a cup of coffee, and reached Glasgow 1.5h later. Be reassured that this was not the last time I’ve visited Pitlochry though!
Tour with Rabbie’s
This was not my first tour with Rabbie’s – and it will certainly not be my last. While there are many tour companies offering single- and multiple-day tours around Scotland, Rabbie’s is the only five star provider, and they do a lot to make their customer’s experiences unique.
First and foremost, there are the driver guides who are the brain and heart of any tour. Graham was a fantastic guide, very knowledgable but also funny, never boring and always open for questions and suggestions. He managed to squeeze in some extra stops because traffic was easy, so we could see even more of the Highlands. And yet, timing was excellent and he managed to reach every stop of our tour just before the crowds broke lose. In Fort Augustus, we entered an almost empty restaurant, but within half an hour it was almost full – lucky, we got to order first! And the same happened again at the cruise harbour – when we boarded the boat, it was a leisurely crowd and finding a table by the bar was super easy. When we returned though and saw the masses waiting on the jetty, ready to flood the boat, we were happy that our early start in Glasgow meant that we would reach the boat before the big busses arrived.
There are three things Rabbie’s promises its customers: a maximum tour size of 16 people – if 20 people book for one tour, they will be split up on two mini busses; a no cancellation policy – even if you’re the only one booking the tour, you know it will still happen; and a money back guarantee if you really didn’t like your tour – I wonder if they ever had to reimburse someone…
With more than 65 diesel busses in their fleet there is of course a significant environmental impact and you might wonder how a company can justify to have 65 16-seaters instead of 21 50-seaters? Of course Rabbie’s is aware that its customers’ intimate travel experiences come at a cost, and has an Environmental Policy in place to try and counteract that.
Since 2008 Rabbie’s has been donating £10 per ton of carbon that they use operating their tours to environmental and community projects. This doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but it adds up to over £52,000 since 2008. Additionally Rabbie’s is working with the National Trust of Scotland and local councils all over the country. The company has sponsored trees to reforest parts of the Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve and its employees volunteered to help plant those trees. Volunteers also help maintaining the paths through the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye which is part of Rabbie’s Skye tours. Rabbie’s works with local businesses and councils to improve their customers’ experiences and to lighten the load these tours mean for the land itself.
I hope that in the future it will be possible to replace the diesel busses by electric mini-busses, but for now as far as I know there are no options out there that have the right size and appropriate reach.
So even though the environmental footprint of a mini bus-based tour company is rather significant, Rabbie’s is doing its share to reduce this footprint and give back to local communities.
So would I recommend you to try a day trip to Loch Ness with Rabbie’s as well, and see Scotland in a day? Absolutely! For more info on the tour and booking check out the website!
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Disclaimer: Frida and I were hosted on this tour free of charge, but all opinions are of course my own.
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.