Scotland: Hiking and Whisky

In May 2019, we had the opportunity to return to Scotland for a week of hiking and whisky. Starting in Inverness, we spent the first half of the trip hiking in the northwest Highlands. We then drove down the west coast, took a ferry to Islay, and spend three days visiting distilleries, trying whisky and exploring the island.

On our May 2015 trip to Scotland, we had been able visit many places we most wanted to see: Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Oban, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis, Skye, and Inverness.

When planning that trip, we had reluctantly cut Islay from the itinerary; it did not fit in the days we had available. So, when we started planning our May 2019 trip, we knew Islay, its distilleries, and its beaches would be a priority.

We then looked for a hiking destination to balance out the rest of the vacation. After researching many hikes, the Cairngorms and the northwest highlands emerged at leading candidates. The hiking in the northwest highlands looked most distinct from hikes we would do elsewhere, with mountains like Suilven rising dramatically from a landscape of lochs, just inland from the coast. We decided to spend half of our week hiking in Sutherland, Assynt, and Wester Ross.

The rest of this post covers planning our week in Scotland, including where we stayed and what resources we used. You can also read separate posts with details about each part of our trip:

Resources

As with our previous trip, we relied most on Walk Highlands for researching and planning hikes. With most routes unsigned, we found their GPS traces particularly helpful. The North Coast 500 website sections for Sutherland and Wester Ross describe some non-hiking sights in this part of Scotland.

For Islay, we relied most on the advice of friends who had been there. They also pointed us at the Islay Blog. The blog also puts out a brochure of tour times (see the downloads section of the website) for the Islay and Jura distilleries, which we used to puzzle together how to fit in the tours we most wanted to do with the time we had.

The Lonely Planet book we had picked up for planning the previous trip covered neither Islay nor the northwest highlands; it was useless.

Where we stayed

  • MacDougall Clansman Hotel, Inverness (Hotels.com | TripAdvisor). We stayed at MacDougall Clansman Hotel for a night before beginning the trip. We appreciated the convenient location, just a short walk from the train station and our rental car pickup, as well as near to the river, grocery store, and good options for dinner. Check-in was friendly and efficient, and the breakfast was tasty.

For our hiking days, we were torn between staying put and moving to see different towns and have shorter drive to hikes each day. Driven by a desire to explore further and by limited vacancies — even booking in late January for May — we decided to spread our four nights across three different accommodations and towns.

  • Tigh na Sith, Lochinver (Booking.com | TripAdvisor). Irene and David made sure we enjoyed our time in Lochinver, including a delicious breakfast (with ample choices), giving us an overview of dinner options and making a booking, and making sure we and other guests had ample information about local hiking and wildlife. Our bedroom was comfortable (and we enjoyed that a bird feeder was right outside) and we loved the location.
  • Harbour House, Ullapool (Booking.com | TripAdvisor). This was sort of an odd bed and breakfast, but we really liked it. Larger than most, the layout felt more like a hotel. We were greeted with a choice of whisky or sherry and shortbread. The room was well-appointed and comfortable. They had many good choices for a delicious breakfast, though it got a little slowed down as everyone decided to eat at the same time. The bed and breakfast also had a large lounge and outside area backing up to Loch Broom. A five to ten minute walk brought us to downtown Ullapool.
  • Loch Maree Hotel, Talladale (Booking.com | Hotels.comTripAdvisor). This hotel was built in 1872, and Queen Victoria stayed here in 1877. It felt, in many ways, like a holdover of that era. Our room was spacious with a good view of the lake. The hotel had multiple lounges, a bar, and patio overlooking the water. The bathroom had lovely finishes, but the shower was hand-held. Breakfast was efficient, and the hotel also served a reasonably priced, tasty, and efficient dinner — particularly helpful since the nearest alternatives are a 15 minute drive way in Gairloch.

In contrast, for Islay, we decided to stay in just one bed and breakfast. This would accommodate slower, more relaxed days without a need to pack up, move on, and check in at a new place by any particular time.

  • Lagavulin Old Excise House B&B, Lagavulin (Booking.com | TripAdvisor). This bed and breakfast is in a great location for visits to Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig, each of which is within walking distance. Sheep fields surround the building, which used to be quarters for customs officers assigned to Lagavulin. Our room was particularly spacious, with good storage, and comfortable. Breakfast choices were more limited than some of the other bed and breakfasts, but what they prepared was outstanding.

With an early flight out, we also needed a night at a Glasgow airport hotel.

  • Courtyard by Marriot, Glasgow Airport (Hotels.com | TripAdvisor). This was a bit of a mixed review. The staff were friendly and the room was comfortable. However, parking was a bit crazy (they automatically ticket you if the cameras see your car in the lot more than 10 minutes without registering). Our room also had a step at the entrance to the bathroom that tried to murder us.

Best things we ate

  • Sean: The Passionfruit Soufflé and sorbet at the Port Charlotte Hotel (TripAdvisor). The lamb shank at Gairloch’s Myrtle Bank Hotel (TripAdvisor) was a close second.
  • Kyle: Lamb shank at Gairloch’s Myrtle Bank Hotel. Runner up: The beef filet at the Port Charlotte Hotel.

Best drams

  • Sean: Bruichladdich’s Black Art, which we had at the Port Charlotte Hotel. Runners up: Bruichladdich’s Octomore 6.3 remnant, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte MOC: 01 2005 valinch, and Casks 101 and 65 in Laphroaig’s warehouse.
  • Kyle: Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte MOC: 01 2005 valinch. Runners up: Cask 65 in Laphroaig’s warehouse; Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte 10.

Read on to notes on hiking in the northwest Highlands.

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