Castles, Lochs and Highland Cows: Discover Scotland on a tour from Edinburgh

Kilchurn Castle © Shutterstock / Swen Stroop

Kilchurn Castle © Shutterstock / Swen Stroop

With its captivating mix of history and culture, Edinburgh is a must-see on any trip to Scotland. From world-class museums and historic architecture to colourful festivals, eclectic dining and nightlife, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied during your stay. However, the Scottish capital is also an excellent base for exploring further afield – from the peaks and glens of the rugged Highlands, to the tranquil beauty of the Borders.

Many first-time visitors don’t realise how much of Scotland can actually be covered within a single day – especially if you travel with a guide who can take you straight to the most spectacular destinations. Several Edinburgh tour companies offer everything from day trips to longer expeditions covering more of the country’s scenic expanses. Whatever your itinerary, budget or interests, there’s a tour from Edinburgh that’s sure to add to your experience.

We recently caught up with one of Edinburgh’s leading tour companies, Rabbie’s Trail Burners, who specialise in small group tours with a personal touch. Our goal was to understand why this kind of tour experience stands out, and highlight the rich variety of sights you can discover on a day trip. Read on for more about our Highland adventures, followed by the best Edinburgh tours for getting an authentic taste of Scotland…

Highland cow

Highland cow

An Edinburgh tour company with a difference

Rabbie’s was founded in 1993 by Robin Worsnop, who started out with a single van and a passion for introducing visitors to the history and landscapes of Scotland. Right from the start, the focus was never on packing in the customers, but rather on delivering a unique, personalised experience that provides an insider’s view of this ever-changing country. By using smaller minibuses that can go places a larger coach wouldn’t be able to access, and by hiring guides who are skilled raconteurs with a vast knowledge of the area, Rabbie’s makes Scotland accessible in a new and exciting way.

“There is more money to be made on the bigger coaches, but we prefer the smaller buses because it’s a much friendlier atmosphere,” says Mackenzie (Mac) Dalrymple, who has worked as a Rabbie’s driver-guide for 10 years. “With the smaller buses you’re not limited in where you can go – that’s the joy of exploring with them. I’ve probably been down every cycle path in the country with the van. Anywhere a car can go, we can go. Ten years on, and I’m still discovering little backroads and detours.” Not that he would necessarily tell you about them: “There are certain places I don’t even tell my trainees about – I keep them to myself. One person tells another person, and before you know it, there’s four other tour buses there and your little hidden gem is gone. So there’s a few I keep to myself.”

The small group sizes also allow more interaction with local businesses along the routes, giving visitors the chance to experience local culture. “A lot of other tour companies own the hotels and use the same ones every time,” Mac explains. “At Rabbie’s we like to spread the wealth and use as many different hotels and B&Bs as possible.”

West Highlands scenery

West Highlands scenery

Every tour is different, and each day on the road brings new adventures. “My first trip with Rabbie’s was a Loch Ness tour in February, with 40 mile-an-hour winds and deep snow,” Mac recalls. “We got interviewed by a news team asking if we were crazy. We go out whatever the weather!

“You see so much on the road. So much can go wrong. There was one time I broke down in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, we have many buses on the road, so another bus came and picked up my passengers, but I was left stranded. Thankfully the passengers gave me food, crisps and water to keep me going, and despite breaking down, they all tipped and thanked me for a wonderful tour!”

Fortunately, such experiences are pretty rare, and most tours are memorable for all the right reasons – even unexpected ones. “This year was the first year I’ve ever had someone propose on the tour,” Mac says. “It’s nice that they chose to do it in Scotland, on a Rabbie’s tour, so it feels kind of special. One guy asked me to choose the nicest spot, so it was quite a lot of responsibility! Another couple just did it out of the blue. The girl asked me to take a picture, as I’ve done thousands of times before. And then she dropped her knee and proposed to the guy! Thankfully he said yes, and I was their official photographer for the day.”

So which destinations do passengers tend to get most excited about? Mac says that Loch Ness and Skye are the most popular destinations, attracting ever larger numbers of visitors in search of stellar scenery and romantic history. But Rabbie’s also cater for a number of niche interests – for example, Mac notes, “Golfers love St. Andrews, and Outlander fans love all the castles.”

To get a thrilling glimpse of all the views and attractions you can reach in a single day, we set out on our own day trip from Edinburgh, joining Rabbie’s popular West Highlands, Lochs and Castles tour.

Discovering the lochs and castles of the Western Highlands

Departing the capital on a slightly misty morning creates just the right atmosphere for the epic landscapes to come. Our driver-guide, Stephen, recounts a lively history of Edinburgh as we go, from its 12th-century origins as a strategic cliff-top stronghold, through to its Enlightenment status as a wealthy beacon of learning and culture in 18th-century Europe. This is no dry spouting of names and dates, but a colourful narrative that paints a picture of Scotland’s sometimes troubled but always fascinating history. As much storyteller as tour guide, Stephen peppers his descriptions with humour and the authentic pride of a born and bred local.

Our Rabbie's driver-guide, Stephen

Our Rabbie’s driver-guide, Stephen

Kelpies, cows and Stirling Castle

Along the way, we pass the steel equine sculptures of Kelpies beside the Forth and Clyde Canal. In Scottish folklore, these mythical water horses were said to drag unwary passers-by to their death beneath the waves – but the sculptures are modelled on the much friendlier Clydesdale draft horses that were bred in the region.

As Edinburgh falls further and further behind our minibus, Stephen tackles one of the most turbulent periods in Scottish history; the Wars of Independence. The cast of characters includes legendary figures such as William Wallace, Andrew de Moray, Robert the Bruce and Edward Longshanks, and the story is timed perfectly with our approach to Stirling, the site of Wallace and Moray’s famous victory over the English at Stirling Bridge.

Here we have our first stop of the day in the imposing shadow of Stirling Castle, where we get a chance to stretch our legs and photograph some shaggy Highland cows – Scotland’s iconic animal ambassadors – with the castle on its crag in the background. It’s an impressive view, but the best is still to come…

Shaggy cows at Stirling Castle © Shutterstock : Kay Roxby

Shaggy cows at Stirling Castle © Shutterstock / Kay Roxby

On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond

Further northwest, the landscape changes noticeably, with the mountains looming on the horizon. After entering Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, we scoot past beaches and along winding forest roads. At 23 miles long, Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s biggest and most famous bodies of water – immortalised in the stirring refrain of the classic folksong: “Where me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.”

Gardens and cottages in Luss

Gardens and cottages in Luss

In the pretty conservation village of Luss, on the shores of the loch, we stop for views of the mountains beyond. The quaint stone cottages look like something out of a storybook, with masses of blooms climbing over walls and overflowing from colourful pots and gardens. There’s a visitor’s centre, a handful of shops and a wharf where you can sign up for boat tours and water sports.

Loch Lomond near Luss © Shutterstock / Naughty Dog

Loch Lomond near Luss © Shutterstock / Naughty Dog

Through ancient mountains and modern forests

Pressing deeper into the Western Highlands reveals the first stretch of really dramatic scenery; that sublime landscape which so enchanted the Romantics. Craggy cliffs with barren slopes tumble into the water as we dip and weave along the shores of Loch Long and through the Arrochar Alps – now a part of the Argyll Forest Park. Stephen explains that the softer, more rounded silhouette of Scottish highland peaks indicates their age. These are old mountains, much more ancient than higher ranges such as the Himalayas or Alps, and they’ve gradually been worn down by the passage of glaciers during Scotland’s three ice ages. Today, the forests are populated by deer, but no large predators, although there have been efforts to reintroduce species such as lynx and wolves.

The view from Rest and Be Thankful Pass

The view from Rest and Be Thankful Pass. The unusual moniker came from the soldiers who built the road leading through this scenic valley, who paused at this point to survey their work and feel the satisfaction of a tough job completed.

Inveraray: a lochside town and fairytale castle

Inveraray is a picturesque royal burgh on the banks of Loch Fyne which is also the seat of the Clan Campbell. As we enter the town over a humpbacked bridge, we get our first glimpse of the picture-perfect Inveraray Castle, location of the fictional Duneagle Castle in the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas special. A lunch break here offers a chance to visit the castle and explore the main street, before pausing for a tasty pub meal in The George Hotel, an atmospheric 18th-century inn with plenty of old world charm. The comfortable interior is all rustic stone walls, fireplaces and antique furniture and paintings – ideal for a chilly autumn night – but on this sunny day we opt to eat in the flower-lined beer garden.

Inveraray Castle

Inveraray Castle

Kilchurn Castle: a romantic ruin

Heading north again, our journey continues towards the shores of Loch Awe and Kilchurn Castle, an atmospheric ruin that at first glance appears to float above the waters of the loch. Built by a branch of the Campbell clan in the 15th century, it commands an impressive position with views of the mountains beyond. We join the stream of tourists meandering along the path to the castle, while a heron flaps lazily overhead and children splash in the loch nearby. Up close, the castle may be crumbling, but it is still solid enough to climb to the upper storeys and survey the surrounding countryside. A half-hour visit give us plenty of time to explore the various rooms and vantage points.

Approaching the ruins of Kilchurn Castle © Shutterstock : Stefano Zaccaria

Approaching the ruins of Kilchurn Castle © Shutterstock : Stefano Zaccaria

Straths, glens and a royal route

As we loop back toward the east, the landscape begins to change. The scenery is still imposing, but grows softer and greener as we journey through a series of steep-sided valleys carved out by ancient glaciers, and back into Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.

After Loch Earn and Loch Lugnaig, the road begins to twist and turn abruptly, rising and falling in a rollercoaster pattern as we cross the geological fault line which separates the Highlands from the Lowlands. Suddenly, the vast mountains are hills again, and the scenery turns more agricultural as we approach Callendar, one of several historic market towns in the area which became popular tourist destinations with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s – and even more so once Queen Victoria visited the area and enthused about the welcome she received. Eventually we come to the final stop on our tour – the enchanting village of Doune, formerly known for its cattle market and pistol-making industry, as well as its medieval castle.

In the footsteps of stars at Doune Castle

Doune Castle © Shutterstock / Radek Sturgolewski

Doune Castle © Shutterstock / Radek Sturgolewski

Doune Castle‘s towering gatehouse is an impressive sight, and may be familiar to fans of film and TV – the structure featured in both the cult comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail and, more recently, the popular time-travelling TV romance Outlander, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, in which it played the fictional Castle Leoch. It is also one of several locations used to depict the Stark family home, Winterfell, in the epic TV series Game of Thrones.

Monty Python star Terry Jones narrates the audio guide, which in addition to the castle’s history, provides an inside look at the Pythons’ experience of filming at the castle. Several new sections are narrated by Scottish actor Sam Heughan, who plays the 18th-century warrior Jamie Fraser in Outlander.

After admiring the views from the castle battlements in the late afternoon sun, it’s time to head back to Edinburgh. We’ve covered an incredible amount of ground, and learned much about this beguiling and complex nation thanks to Stephen’s engaging stories – all in a single day out from the capital.

More Edinburgh tours

Interested in other tours in and around Edinburgh? Here are a few other options to consider:

The Jacobite Steam Train

Travel through Highland scenery, including Ben Nevis and the Great Glen, on a historic steam train journey from Fort William to Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast. Pass striking beaches, towering mountain ranges and attractions such as the Glenfinnan Viaduct on this 84-mile round trip.

Seafari Adventures

Nature lovers can get up close to a variety of marine life on these scenic wildlife boat trips from Oban, on the west coast. Spot whales, puffins, porpoises, eagles, otters, basking sharks and more, or get a fascinating look at the famous Corryvreckan Whirlpool, the third largest in the world. A variety of small group boat tours are available to suit specific interests.

Mercat Tours

Test your bravery and learn about Edinburgh’s dark and murky past on a ghost tour with Mercat Tours. Explore the shadowy wynds and closes of the Old Town with your guide, before descending beneath the city streets to experience Edinburgh’s famous underground vaults, known for their paranormal activity. Mercat Tours also offers history walks and private tours.

Vertical Descents Adventure Activities

If you’re after a tour to get your adrenaline pumping, Vertical Descents has several locations in Scotland offering a variety of outdoor activities, such as canyoning, surfing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, abseiling and more – all with a spectacular backdrop and close proximity to other popular attractions.

Jacobite Loch Ness Cruises

Sail the legendary waters of Loch Ness and learn about its mysterious history on spacious, comfortable tour boats. Visit historic Urquhart Castle, admire the landscape and hunt for the famous Loch Ness Monster with live, on-board sonar – you never know what you might spot!

North Coast 500

If you’re keen to do some driving yourself in the north of Scotland, the North Coast 500 route encompasses more than 500 miles of roads along some of Scotland’s most dramatic coastlines. Discover quaint villages, historic sites and widescreen views at your own pace.

Plan your trip to Edinburgh and beyond

If you’re feeling inspired to discover the wonders of Scotland and its historic capital, Virgin Atlantic offers a range of affordable flights to Edinburgh through our partner, Delta Airlines – so book your flights now, and get ready to embark on a tour full of adventure.

About Virgin Atlantic USA

We are the Virgin Atlantic digital team in the USA, bringing you stories and views on our favourite destinations around the globe. Our aim is to make you feel like a local, by immersing you in stories on culture, the arts and of course… cuisine.

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