Planning a Trip to Scotland, Part 3

by Keith Savage · 34 comments

Today’s post is part three in a series about planning a trip to Scotland. If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, you might want to read those first. If you’d like personalized help planning your trip, please take a look at my Scotland trip-planning service.

It’s all starting to come together now. Over the last two weeks I’ve provided information and recommendations on the right time to go to Scotland and where to spend that time. Today I’m just going to talk about time – as in how much is ideal for your trip to Scotland.

While Scotland is on the small side in terms of land mass, the country is incredibly dense with vistas, historical landmarks, and vibrant villages. It’s important to accept the fact that you cannot see it all in one trip or even ten. Attempts to cram everything into your trip will be frustrating and unfulfilling.

First, let’s look at some common trip lengths. Then I’ll provide my recommendation on the ideal trip length at the end!

Just Days

If you’ve only got a handful of days to see Scotland, it’s generally part of a longer backpacking stint around Europe or perhaps work related. With such little time, it’s important to draw your circle of possible destinations closer to where you’ll be: in most cases that’s Edinburgh or Glasgow. Time is short, so far-flung regions of Scotland’s highlands and islands are out due to the amount of time required to get to them.

With two or three days, Edinburgh makes an excellent base and a day trip down to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, over to Glasgow, or up to Fife and lower Perthshire wouldn’t be out of the question. Anything further afield, though, and the trip will feel rushed and you might fail to get a sense of the great city of Edinburgh. Even two or three days in Edinburgh will barely scratch the surface; I’m thankful I’ll have the chance to spend three weeks there next month!

Just a few days isn’t going to be enough for you, is it? Keep reading then.

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BrianNo Gravatar May 2, 2014 at 4:57 PM

I can’t believe the blessing of stumbling upon your website / blog. It is such a wealth of information. I have a sabbatical leave coming to me in the late spring of 2015 and my wife and I are hoping to spend 2+ weeks in Scotland. We were there in March 2009 (on the way back from 3 weeks in Tanz., E. Africa on a mission trip) and spent a week between Glasgow / Largs, Edinburgh, and Loch Lomond. Standing at the visitors center on the southern end of Loch Lomond we could see the Highlands and they seemed to beckon us to return. My father’s family is from Ayr. We didn’t get that far south, but of greatest desire remains to head for the Highlands when we return.

I’ve been searching on the Visit Scotland website for months and had laid out an itinerary and projected costs and I couldn’t believe how all of my previous figuring was confirmed over and over again here on your site. Can’t thank you enough for the peace of mind that gives us!

We were leaning toward a rail pass, but in all honesty we’d like to avoid as many of the ‘touristy’ places and get as far into the land and culture as we can. But we’re not up for a walking / cycling tour. So we are now planning to rent a car. This is to be a time of rest and refreshment for us both… probably the last time we travel before retiring and, as such, we want to make this trip extra special. There probably won’t be any international travel once we retire.

We’re going to head out of Glasgow as soon as we can and head up toward Inveraray, Oban (maybe Mull), Fort William, Skye, up the coast to Ullapool, then head to the East Coast (Bonar bridge / Train) down to Inverness, Pitlochty/ Blair Atholl, and back to Glasgow. We’re hoping to have 15 days in Scotland plus a day+ travel time on each end (to and from the East Coast USA). Planning on staying at at least 1 working farm, the rest of the time at B&B’s, some multiple nights to use as a base to travel out into the country in different directions before moving on.
Plus I have found that more than a few places give a discount for multiple nights stays.

Do you think this is too formidable an itinerary? We’re leaning toward the end of May / perhaps just into the first part of June 2015 for this grand adventure.

Again, thank you for the wealth of information that you have provided (and your blog followers suggestions as well!) everything has been a FANTASTIC help!!

Brian, from Maine

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 4, 2014 at 5:56 AM

Hi Brian,

I think your itinerary sound workable and enjoyable. In 15 days you can do it. Since you are looking to avoid “touristy” places, I should warn you against Fort William – it’s really not much to see, being little more than an over-commercialized backpacker haunt for Ben Nevis/Glen Coe. I would consider simply passing through Inverness, too. There are better places in that area (like Black Isle, Easter Ross, and the Moray coast). Finally, while I like Pitlochry, it’s also on the tourist trail as it’s a pretty town on the railroad going north. Just some food for thought.

It sounds like you’ve planned a great trip!

All the best, and thanks for the kind words about my site.

BrianNo Gravatar May 4, 2014 at 12:06 PM

Keith: Thanks for the informative feedback. I hadn’t heard that about Fort William, and I will indeed explore other more out-of-the-way-yet-beautiful areas around there and Inverness. We’ve always planned to shy away from the cities if we can. As for Pitlochry, well with a name like Blair, we feel almost obligated to at least make a quick stop at Blair Castle. My dad used to call it ‘the homestead’ although our family has no real connection to the place. He, my mom, and then my son (on a more recent trip) all have their names in the guest book.

After reading your suggestions about how gorgeous the drive up the NW coast is, I’m now leaning toward kissing off time in Ft. William and Inverness and maybe spending a bit more time heading a little further north before we turn south for the return trip toward Glasgow and, regrettably, home.

Thanks again.

WendyNo Gravatar March 23, 2014 at 11:26 AM

We are travelling to Scotland in May. arriving in Ayr, staying with family two days then planning to take train to Maillage and then go to Isle Of Skye for overnight , then train to Inverness and Aberdeen down to stay with friends in Edinburgh. We have 10 days. Apparently this train trip to Maillage is spectacular . Are we able to get off trains and spend time in areas on second leg to Inverness, Aberdeen etc? Suggestions on what to highlight within our time constraints ? Do the train trips show us the coastline and scenery equivalent to a car trip? My sister and I are not keen on driving there. We want to spent 4 nights in Edinburgh with our friend who are willing to drive us around. Never been there before and may never get there again! Thanks for help

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 23, 2014 at 8:34 PM

Sure, you can get off trains and get on others that come through. You’ll need to be familiar with the timetables and the potential cost of doing so, however, as depending on the type of train ticket you have you might need to purchase each ticket individually and that could get quite expensive. Train trips and car trips are inevitably different, but the train through the west highlands is spectacular and you won’t be disappointed. Take a look at my itinerary ideas and Best of Scotland posts linked in the sidebar – those should give you a bunch of good ideas to pursue in the region.

Kay CorsunNo Gravatar March 15, 2014 at 9:58 PM

Have you been to the Northern most county in Scotland, Sutherland County. I am planning to go there to learn more about family history.
Kay Sutherland Corsun

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 16, 2014 at 12:58 PM

Hi Kay,

I have spent a little time exploring Sutherland, really just the stretch along the east coast from the Dornoch Firth to Helmsdale. Brora and Golspie are nice, small towns. Dunrobin Castle is worth a visit as is Clynelish distillery.

LauraNo Gravatar February 4, 2014 at 7:20 PM

Have read all articles from series about planning a trip to Scotland. Thanks for great recommendations!

WynterNo Gravatar February 4, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Just stumbled on your blog! I’m hoping to spend 3 months in Scotland in early to mid 2015 …. Looking forward to seeing more of your advice and recommendations!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 4, 2014 at 7:49 PM

Welcome, Wynter!

WynterNo Gravatar February 5, 2014 at 8:40 AM


Deborah TaylorNo Gravatar December 29, 2013 at 9:58 AM

I am interested in traveling to Fyvie as well as Aberdeen. This is where my grandfather was born and grew up. Would information on how to plan this trip.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 29, 2013 at 7:19 PM

Hi Deborah. Why don’t you email me at travelingsavage [at] gmail [dot] com and we can discuss it more.

CandiNo Gravatar December 10, 2013 at 2:38 PM

Your website is really helpful! We are planning a three week trip to the British Isles in September 2014 and it will be our first time overseas. Visiting Scotland has been a lifelong dream so I would like to spend two weeks there then probably a week in London and environs. Friends of ours have been to Scotland many, many times and have suggested we skip Skye and visit Islay and Gigha instead as I am a Galbraith and Gigha seems to be our birthplace. I would like to spend 3 days? In Edinburgh, 2-3? in Glasgow, visit Inverness, Speyside, and possibly Orkney. My husband is not of Scottish descent but loves ale and Scotch! We don’t need to do every tourist thing and certainly not every castle but would like to get a good overview of the country. It may or may not be our only trip there. Thoughts? Suggested itineraries? We are very open to any transportation suggestions. We have Holiday Inn points so thought we would stay at them wherever we could in the cities and do whatever day trips we could to lower accommodation costs. Any suggestions you would have for itinerary would be helpful. Thank you

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 10, 2013 at 9:42 PM

Hi Candi,

You can’t go wrong with a visit to Islay, though I would say the same about Skye. Yes, Skye is more heavily touristed since you can drive there from the mainland, but Skye is also a very large place where more often than not I’ve found myself alone in the midst of gorgeous vistas. Of the two islands, Islay is the place to be for whisky and Skye is the place to be for scenery at a very general level. I can’t speak for Gigha as I’ve never visited!

You’ve picked out some nice areas for your trip. I would consider combining Edinburgh and Glasgow into a four-day stint. You could base yourself in Edinburgh and make the day trip to Glasgow (just a 45-minute train ride). Speyside is magnificent and you can easily dart into the Cairngorms National Park from there. Bravo for keeping Orkney on the short list – you won’t regret. The first time I visited Orkney my wife and I drove up from Inverness for a two-night stay before driving back down, so it’s possible to do it on a short timeframe. Speaking of Inverness…I’d skip it for anything other than a daytrip. Instead go to nearby Culloden, Cawdor Castle (MacBeth fame), and the Clava Cairns.

Other possible stops for you? Perthshire is great, places like Dunkeld and Pitlochry. Atmospheric, woodsy, and beautiful. Don’t forget about the beautiful Scottish Borders, either. My recent Best Of Scotland series will provide you more inspiration (possibly more than you want ;))

Lisa DeasNo Gravatar October 23, 2013 at 7:05 PM

We actually have seven weeks planned to spend in Scotland, hiring an RV to drive ourselves around.
At least one of those weeks will be spent around my Father’s home village (he moved to Australia 40 years ago and has not been back since, so there’s a lot of catching up to do!)
Just wondering, is seven weeks just far too much? Should we branch out to England, Ireland and Wales?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 23, 2013 at 7:19 PM

Seven weeks certainly gives you the freedom to see all Scotland has to offer. If you’re really into Scotland, you can happily spend all the time there. If, however, you view this trip as a chance to explore more of the British Isles/Europe, you definitely have the ability to wrap in trips elsewhere, too.

TreyNo Gravatar July 25, 2013 at 5:57 PM


First of all, excellent site!

I’m planning a 14 day trip that leaves in a month. My wife and I would like to see as much as possible, but we’re not trying to be exhaustive. We’re flying into Edinburgh. We would like to stay there for at least a few nights to get our bearings and explore some of the nearby cities and attractions by train. Then we are planning to rent a car and drive up to Aberdeen, then cut over through the highlands towards Inverness. From there we want to make a stop in Orkney, then skirt over to Skye, and eventually come back to Edinburgh.

However, as a whisky lover, I am having trouble leaving Islay out of the equation. Do you think this would be possible. I’m open to either ferry or plane, but I don’t want to struggle to include it if it will take away from enjoying the trip as a whole. I’d sincerely appreciate any feedback you have as to where our time would be best spent.



Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 25, 2013 at 7:42 PM

Hi Trey,

I dealt with the same dilemma on my first full trip to Scotland. While you could include Islay in your two-week trip, you would need to cut out more stops because the island is somewhat difficult to get to. I left Islay out and decided to sate my whisky fix in Speyside and I was not disappointed. Of course, I was pretty sure I’d be coming back in the future.

In two weeks, I don’t think you can do Orkney AND Islay while still doing justice to your other stops.

NinaNo Gravatar July 14, 2013 at 9:23 PM

I am planning a 4 day trip to SCotland flying in from Shannon. I really would like to see Edinburgh (Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh castle0, Fife and St,Andrews, Loch Lomond and Nessie and the Island of Skye
I understand my time is very very short but I may not be lucky enough to extend it or go again. Do you have a recommendation for me for the best way to do this? Am I better off in a bus tour or in a car?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 15, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Hi Nina,

You are certainly better off renting a car. It might actually allow you to make this trip possible, though I have my doubts. I suppose you could spend one night in Edinburgh, visit Fife and St. Andrews en route to Inverness. Spend the night in Inverness and visit Loch Ness on your way to the Isle of Skye. Then drive back to Edinburgh, visiting Loch Lomond along the way, and use your last night in the big city. Lots of driving and a tragic lack of time to soak in these places, but it’s possible.

Best of luck!

NinaNo Gravatar July 15, 2013 at 12:44 PM

Thanks Keith! Now have to convince the hubby to rent a car:)

EricaNo Gravatar February 28, 2011 at 4:07 AM

I drove on the other side of the road in Barbados… on a stick shift (but I learned on one). I can’t say that Shaun didn’t yell at the top of his lungs several times as I pulled into parking lots on the wrong side of the drive way. :X

I am super excited to get to know more of the ins/outs/details of Scotland.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 28, 2011 at 8:18 AM

I think passenger yells are pretty common when driving on the opposite side of the road – Sarah and I have had our fair share. Somehow driving is a lot more fun in Scotland than in the USA.

Spencer SpellmanNo Gravatar February 23, 2011 at 9:42 PM

This has been a brilliant series and helpful for my own plans Keith. Would love to see more of this in the future for other destinations. Love how you’ve split it up into several pages. It wasn’t so weird riding/driving on the other side of the road in South Africa, but it was weird coming back to the states and adjusting.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 23, 2011 at 10:34 PM

I’ve had a lot of fun writing this series. It’s knowledge right inside my wheelhouse and it feels good to share these recommendations with others. Hopefully this series will convince some folks to enjoy a trip to Scotland!

MikeachimNo Gravatar February 22, 2011 at 5:51 PM

You know your Scotland, Keith. Nice work.

>>” Quick question, tho – what side of the road do they drive on there?”

Depends on the time of day. After closing time at the pubs it’s both sides of the road AND down the middle. While driving backwards. (Singing).

Scotland is a place of magnificence silences. And it’s hard to take in silence when you feel you’re on a rushed itinerary. Whatever length trip you take, I’d always recommend deliberate gaps, around the most scenic spots, where you give yourself the freedom to clamber somewhere remote and just sit, and watch the land and the sky change and feel yourself change with them. The most magical moments I’ve had in Scotland (and Orkney) were the ones while I was just sitting, watchfully doing absolutely nothing.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 22, 2011 at 8:20 PM

Superb advice, Mike. I think you’ve really nailed an essence of what makes Scotland so special.

Andi of My Beautiful AdventuresNo Gravatar February 22, 2011 at 8:37 AM

You’re leaving in a just a few short days, sooo exciting!!! Have the most amazing time!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 22, 2011 at 8:19 PM

Thanks Andi!

Travis PattonNo Gravatar February 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM

Specially if your unfamiliar to driving a manual car, which makes it worse your using your opposite hand you would use in the US.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 22, 2011 at 8:19 PM

My inability to drive stick has made this an (expensive) non-issue for me. I’ve stuck with automatics on my travels.

Christy @ TechnosyncraticNo Gravatar February 21, 2011 at 8:01 PM

Oooh, looking forward to the next installment (cost)!

It seems like Scotland would be a phenomenal place to rent a car and wander the countryside. Quick question, tho – what side of the road do they drive on there?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 21, 2011 at 8:30 PM

They drive on the left side of the road in the British Isles, opposite from the USA. Additionally, the driver is situated on the right side of the vehicle. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it it feels weird to return to the USA’s style.

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