Our road trip through the Cairngorms National Park opens in St. Andrews and culminates with a selfie in front of the Royal Family’s Scottish home. Sandwiched in the middle, we hiked with Murray, explored Dunnottar and Balvenie Castles and visited the Elgin Cathedral. Plus we found a Highland Coo having lunch.
Cairngorms National Park Detour
Detours are a funny thing, they often lead to the unexpected which is exactly what happened during our 2012 Scotland trip. An accident had closed the road from Inverness to Fort William and we were detoured into the Cairngorms National Park. We didn’t have but a second to explore the park because we had to swing by the MacDonald House near Fort William to retrieve my coat, which I’d forgotten. That is another story. If Chuck were writing this post, I’m sure he’d have plenty to say about it.
Anyway, we were under a tight deadline as the rental car had to be in Edinburgh before 5 pm. Chuck was certain the world would end if we didn’t reach the car rental agency in time. We got caught in rush hour traffic with a nearly empty gas tank. To say it was dicey is an understatement. We made it with just a few minutes to spare. Turned in our keys and skipped to the Albanach. We drank a wee bit too much Scotch with an underwater welder from New Zealand and learned the difference between a peaty and a smooth drinker from a man who very much looked like a leprechaun. The experience left us with an overwhelming desire to return to Scotland. Not for another harrowing drive back to the rental car agency, but the Scotch and beauty of the Cairngorms we tasted for just a wee second.
“The Cairngorms National Park: Voted one of the top 20 places to visit in the World by the National Geographic Traveller Magazine” the Cairngorms National Park website boasts. I’d have to agree. I don’t think it is an accident the Queen has a home in the Cairngorms.
Driving in Scotland
Before we dive into the Cairngorms National Park road trip, you should know in the UK the driver is on the right side of the car but you drive on the left side of the road. The exact opposite of how it works in Michigan. Add to the equation, many of the roads in Scotland are a single carriageway road. In others words, a very narrow road. I mean a really narrow; like only enough room for a single compact car. But “passing places” provide a bit more room if you encounter another car. Luckily, passing places are often located near curves or steep drop-offs. Keep in mind, a passing place is just bulge in the road providing an extra couple of feet. Most drivers are very polite and follow proper driving etiquette when using the passing places.
I wish I had my own video. I found this one on YouTube and it isn’t too obnoxious. It provides a visual.
Our Cairngorms basecamp was a 19th Century church which was converted to a home. The place is so cool, it even has its own name; Kirkbeag. The AGA greeted us when we arrived. It is a big, beautiful, cast iron stove and it scared the hell out of us. Everyone loves Chuck, so we nominated him to befriend it.
By the second day, we were cooking eggs and toast and heating water for coffee. We Googled “AGA Stove” only to discover it was a $20,000 stove. Yes, you read that right. After that, we were very gentle for fear we’d break it.
If you are looking for the perfect basecamp in the Cairngorms, I strongly recommend the Kirkbeag. It is located on the Aviemore side of Kincraig. A perfect location for exploring the Cairngorms National Park.
St Andrews Golf Course
St. Andrews was the opener for our Cairngorms road trip. It was our first stop after leaving Edinburgh. We barely scratched the surface of St. Andrews and highly recommend My Voyage Scotland’s post on St. Andrews for a ton of great info.
Of course, it was raining sideways when we stopped at the famous golf course, St. Andrews Links. I’m not sure how Chuck managed it but when he snapped a picture from the top of the Pro shop, it had stopped raining.
St Andrews Castle
You can’t visit St Andrews Castle’s and not learn about the Cardinal Beaton.
Cardinal David Beaton lived from 1494 to 29 May 1546. He was Archbishop of St Andrews and the last Scottish Cardinal before the Scottish Reformation. A hugely powerful man, prominent in the turbulent politics of the day, he made many enemies and was assassinated at St Andrews.
At dawn on 29 May 1546 a group of Protestant lairds from Fife entered St Andrews Castle pretending to be stonemasons. The Cardinal was dragged out of his bedchamber, stabbed to death, mutilated, then hung from a castle window, in full view of the town of St Andrews.
So with that in mind, we wandered around the castle, took some pictures and pondered Scottish Reformation.
St Andrews Cathedral
I’ll admit I was cold and ready for a beer while we were touring the St Andrews Cathedral. Chuck didn’t let a little rain spoil the fun and grabbed some pictures of this majestic place.
Cri Pie at Criterion
When I am regaling friends and polite strangers about my trip to Scotland, they’ll eventually ask about the food. Haggis is not the only menu item. Our meals were always delicious, but the Criterion in St Andrews is worth a mention. This little gem of a pub is staffed by the most friendly folks serving up amazing food. Their Cri Pies are as delicious as they are beautiful. It is a bit like a pot pie. Chuck had the vegetarian Cri Pie. It was packed with squash, goats cheese and spinach. Friends are always surprised when I tell them I had more vegetarian options in Scotland than I do in Michigan. I came home 5 pounds heavier even with all the hiking!
The Balvenie Castle is a very cool castle but its primary attraction is that it is located across the street from Glenfiddich Distillery. The entry was free because we had the Explorer Pass, so it was a must-see on our itinerary. Its located near Dufftown, which requires lots of driving on narrow single lane roads where pheasants dive bomb the car. At one point, I got out of the car and shooed them off a bridge. I’ve never in my life seen so many pheasants. Try to find that in a Rick Steves’ tour book.
Originally known as Mortlach, it was built in the 12th century by a branch of the powerful Comyn family (the Black Comyns) and extended and altered in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The castle fell out of use in the early 14th century when the Comyns were reduced by Robert the Bruce. At some point in the 14th century the castle and the lordship of Balvenie passed into the earldom of Douglas. Nothing is documented as to how the Black Douglases first acquired the castle but the most likely account is that it came with the marriage of the heiress Joanna Murray to Archibald ‘the Grim’ , 3rd Earl of Douglas in 1362.
Angie saw her first Pictish stone at the Elgin Cathedral. Truth be told, it was the first Pictish Stone for all of us. This awe inspiring ruin is definitely worth an hour or two to visit. The museum is packed with information and even more cool pictish stones.
On our last day, we went to Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen to pound up and down several hundred steps to tour Dunnottar Castle which is perched on a rock on the North Sea. It was worth every painful step. We were still recovering from our hike with the Kingdom Guides to the top of the Cairngorm Mountain. We may have encountered one of the last remaining Scotsmen from the Jacobite rising of 1715.
After touring Dunnottar Castle, we drove to Ballater to queue up for a selfie in front of Balmoral, the Royal Family’s Scottish home. Chuck squatted in their garden, to take pictures of their sundial. I’m pretty sure this is the reason we were not invited in for tea. Chuck was pretty sure the Queen would have invited us in, if he had worn his kilt.
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Stop by the gallery for more photos of our hikes with Kingdom Guides.