© VisitScotland - Inveraray Castle © VisitScotland - Kilchurn Castle

Driver Diary 12 – A Private Tour of the Highlands

Hello Everybody, Welcome to my wee (means small in Scottish) Blog about a private tour to the Highlands.

My name is Michael and I am Tour Leader with a cracking wee Tour company called Discover Scotland Tours.

We do lots of tours throughout Scotland. Many of our tours are scheduled small group tours. This means we generally follow the same route every tour to reach a final destination.

So much has changed over the last few months and I think the one word on everybody’s mind in COVID19. That one word has changed life not only in this country, but, all over the world. We can only hope that sometime in the near future we will have a way out of this and get back on the road as normal again.

Anyway, onto something a little more interesting. Like I said we do lots of day tours around Scotland, we also do multi-day tours, where we get longer on the road to visit even more places around the country. One of my favourite tours are the private tours. These tours are normally booked by families or friends that want to go to a particular place in Scotland that we don’t go to. Alternatively,  they may want to just stop off at different places along the way. They are a nice change to our normal tours.

I’ve been lucky to have had my fair share of private tours. When the Boss (the man who pays my wages 😊) receives a booking for a private tour he then sits down and looks at what is requested and which tour guide he believes would be best suited to that private tour. We are all great guides, but we all have different styles and personalities when we’re on the road. Obviously I am the best tour guide in the company but, I think all the other guides would have something to say about that!

I have guided many interesting private tours but there’s one in particular that I wanted to tell you about.

There was a young man from the USA, we’ll call him Jim Graham, although his surname was spelt differently from the one above, which is the Scottish spelling. He had been talking to his dad and between them they had figured out that they belonged to the Clan Graham who originally came from Scotland and on moving to the USA, had changed the spelling of their surname. They don’t know the reason for the change and that will remain a mystery.

Jim had a pretty stressful job so had decided to take some time off and travel for a few months and was starting off in Scotland before moving onto Ireland and then Europe. He was trying to cram in as much as possible before returning home.

When I was assigned the tour I did a little bit of research. I found out that the Clan Graham originally had a castle close to where the now Clan Chief resides.

So as the tour wasn’t for a few weeks I decided to visit this castle. Mugdock Castle at one point was the home of the Duke of Montrose, the Clan chief of Clan Graham. The castle although still standing was no longer used by the Clan, and was no longer open to the Public, but was still an impressive building and you could just imagine how it would have felt to have lived in such a castle all those years ago. Alongside the castle there were still lots of outbuildings that formed part of the estate which were in a more presentable condition, and they were open. The castle sits as part of an estate which includes lands and parks which are open to the general public.

I went into the shop which forms part of the estate. There was a small cafe, toilets and a small gift shop. It’s a really popular place for dog walkers, cyclists, horse riders and locals just out for a quiet walk.

I got talking to one of the young ladies that works there. After asking her if she knew much about the castle and I was pleasantly surprised when she shared lots of information about the castle, the Duke and his family. I told the young lady about the young man that was coming over from the US, and how he had just found out that he himself was a Graham. Making throwaway comment how amazing it would be if he could get into the castle and walk where his ancestors had roamed all those years ago.

You can imagine how I reacted when she said she could arrange it. I literally fell on the floor! So I arranged the time and date and skipped out of the office knowing that Jim would think that Christmas had come early.

I didn’t tell Jim what lay in store when he arrived, but I knew he would be so impressed, knowing that not only would he get pictures from the outside but he would be able to tour inside too.

The day finally arrived, and it was just the both of us on the bus. This can be a little bit intimidating at first, especially if you find out he’s not much of a talker. Jim was great and we set off. He told me all about his family and I then shared that our first stop wasn’t going to be by a Loch (Scottish for Lake).  Instead, not only was he going to visit his ancestral home, but he was going inside. Like lots of Americans he went mad, telling me his father would go mental (Scottish for really really really excited 😊 ) when he told him, and it was the best possible start to the tour.

So off we went, and we got along like a house on fire, I think I was having more fun that he was. Jim also told me he loved Whisky, which made me like him even more.

We duly arrived at the castle and spent a lot of time in the castle and the young lady accompanied us and told us both lots about the purpose castle buildings, their history and how they all formed part of the estate to ultimately serve the wishes of the Clan Chief.

From there we drove along the West coast heading towards our final stop which would be Oban, and what do they have in Oban…that’s right a Whisky Distillery, really could it get any better, not according to Jim.

So the castle was just the start of our day together, when we left we hit the road and came upon our first Loch, which was Loch Lomond. Loch Lomond is the largest fresh water inlet in the whole of the United Kingdom by surface area, 24 miles long and 5 miles at her widest. A pretty impressive piece of water by anybody’s standards. The weather was great. This is something that you’re not always guaranteed in Scotland, particularly on the West coast. The sun Gods were on our sides that day, that’s for sure. Hardly any clouds in the skies which opened all the beautiful mountains that surround the Loch. We stopped by Loch Lomond and got some beautiful pictures. Jim was smiling so, on the bus and off we went.

At the end of the Loch we continued upwards towards another Loch, which was Loch Long, Loch Long is a long Loch not our longest Loch, but she is a long Loch, bit of a tongue twister that one.

Loch Long is long, but she is also straight and I explained the reason why she was so important that she had to be long, and that was up till 1985 it was where we had a torpedo factory responsible for testing the firing of torpedoes.

On we went still climbing up further into the Scottish Highlands. After leaving the city, the scenery keeps changing. Less roads, less cars, less houses and less people. The biggest change was the greenery around us. That’s probably because of all the rain that we get in Scotland, and we do get a lot. There’s a saying in Scotland which goes ” We look forward to the summer in Scotland…  the rains warmer”. I know what you’re saying “Michael don’t give up your day job” I know I’m funny just have to work on my material.

So after passing Loch Long we start a steep climb up in the Highlands, Jim’s loving it. Don’t know if it’s a collection of my Jokes, (see above 😊) my stories, or my music, but we are enjoying each other’s company, which is understandable because as I have already stated, I am the best tour guide!

Enough of me, onwards and upward we go. You really do notice the steepness of the climb when you pass Loch Long. We wind our way upwards towards our next stop, the “Rest and Be Thankful”. You have to see the road to know why it got its name. There’s really steep mountains on both sides of the road and Jim notices “Metal Curtains” on the right side of the mountain. I explain to Jim, firstly, not to get worried, and to follow it up by telling Jim that this Mountain has had lots of landslides. We quickly pass the curtains and reach the top of the Rest where we have a stop just to take some lovely pictures looking back down the Glen. The weather is luckily still on our side.

Back on the bus, back on the road and away we go to our next stop which isn’t that far away. Inveraray Castle is home of the Duke of Argyle, also known as the Clan Chief of Clan Campbell. When they come back to Scotland the Duke and his family still live in the castle. I tell him of the power that the Clan Chiefs had over their Clan members, this was demonstrated by the Clan Chief at the time when this Castle was built. He actually had the little village move from it’s then present position to where it is now. The reason: to give the castle some privacy, now that’s what you call power.

As we pass over the small bridge which gives you the best possible view of the Castle, I can see Jim is really impressed. He tells me that in America they don’t have anything like this because they are such a young country. This makes it all the more stunning.

Jim visits the castle and is smiling like a Cheshire Cat when he returns. He seems happy with his visit. He explains he visited the little cafe, and sampled some of their home baking.

On we go again still travelling through the Highlands the scenery just gets better and better. Our next stop is another Castle. Kilchurn Castle was built in the 15th Century. The Campbell’s started to expand their empire and it was the first castle they built. The Castle sits on an Island on another Loch, which is Loch Awe. We don’t get to go into the Castle, but we do stop by the side of the Loch, Capturing some great pictures to add to Jim’s vast collection that he’s already taken.

Back on the bus and it’s only a few minutes till we stop again. The next stop is something that is not part of any tour that we do, but it is one of my favourite places to visit in Scotland. The name, St Conan’s Kirk. I love it here, every time I’m there I find something else inside that I missed on previous visits.

I tell Jim the basic story which was about a man called Walter Campbell who lived on a little island on Loch Awe with his mother and sister. Walter was responsible for taking his mother to church every Sunday, and sometimes on other days. As his mother got older then it became more difficult for her to make the journey. So, like any son, he built his mother a church on the banks of the Loch. Now that’s what you call a thoughtful son. If you ever get a chance to visit Scotland this should be on your Bucket List. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

By now Jim is using multiple cameras, taking so many pictures and so fast it sounds like a machine gun. Back on the bus. Next stop Oban, Scotland seafood Capital. Jim by this time is in a daze, trying to take in everything he has seen so far, I tell him there’s so much more to sample.

Oban arrives, there’s just so much to see and do and just not enough time to do it. A must for Jim is something to eat. Any recommendations Jim asks, what you like? any good seafood places? You kidding me on? it’s the seafood capital I tell him.

This is so easy… The Green Shack, it sits on the pier. It gets its seafood from the boat 10ft away. Straight from the boat, straight into the Kitchen and then onto your plate.

That’ll do for me says Jim, and off he went. I knew Jim was going to have a great time. Especially as he booked on a Whisky tour at the Oban Distillery after he had eaten.

I parked the bus up and decided to follow Jim to see what he had ordered from the Shack. True to form there was Jim standing by a big table tucking into a seafood platter. With of course, the biggest smile on his face. He wasn’t just smiling at me when he saw me, he was smiling at everybody. It was as if he was saying look what I’m eating and you’re not getting any 😊.

I left Jim to enjoy his food and told him not to forget his Whisky Tour, thumbs up from Jim, he couldn’t speak, his mouth full of seafood, by now I’m smiling and I’m not even eating.

Jim eventually returns still smiling and we start on our return journey back to Glasgow.

I do tell Jim that I believe the best is still too come, which he finds hard to believe, after the food and drink he’s consumed.

I asked Jim if he is a fan of Monty Python. He told me it was one of his favourites, especially going through College with all those crazy students. Next stop Castle Stalker featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I then tell Jim that I have actually been in the Castle only a few weeks before. He looks so jealous.

I tell him the story about how the castle passed from Scottish Clan to Scottish Clan. Then I get to the really interesting part about the current owner Ross Stewart Allward. It was his father who was a prisoner of war during the second world war. Whilst in captivity he kept a secret diary. In which he promised himself that should he survive the war he planned to do three things which were 1. He would marry and have at least four children. 2 He would buy himself a Rolls Royce Motor Car. 3. He would buy himself a Scottish Castle. He completed all three things, purchasing the castle in 1964.

His father wanted to restore the Castle to its former glory by himself, which he did. The only professional contractors installed the roof. Family and friends helped complete the other renovations. They would come and stay for working holidays.

In 1975 whilst working with his father, the telephone rang. Ross answered it and a man on the other side stated he worked for Python Productions. Ross knew exactly who they were. He said it was lucky that he answered the phone because his father hated Monty Python. Python Productions wanted to use the Castle for a special scene in the movie. The scene when the French Soldier (John Cleese) taunts King Arthur (Graham Chapman).

Ross agreed and the production crew met him at the castle. Now this is where it gets really interesting, certainly for Ross. A director offered him the opportunity to star in the movie. What’s the chances of that. Obviously Ross said yes. When you do the tour of the Castle the first thing you see is a picture of Ross next to John Cleese stood at the top of the castle.

From there we moved inland and Jim noticed that the terrain had changed so much. The mountains became so much more dramatic and he was loving it.

Our next stop was Glencoe. I told Jim about the massacre that took place here on the 13th February 1692 and the tragic events that followed. I also told Jim about the Inn that was in the village at the time of the massacre, called the Clachaig Inn. The Inn has since moved out of the village. However, they do still have the original sign placed above the entrance to the Inn. It reads: “NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS”. This was a response to their involvement in the massacre. Jim wasn’t convinced so the best way to prove I was telling the truth was to pop in and have a look. We did just that. While we were there I treated Jim to another “wee dram” (small shot of Whisky ).

Then back on the road again. The scenery was now becoming breath-taking. Especially as the skies were so clear you could see for miles. I hadn’t seen it so clear for a long time. I actually felt that I should pay for being on the tour as I was having so much fun.

From the Inn we could see our next stop, commonly known as the three sisters. So if you ever hear people talking about the three sisters then you know they are in the Scottish Highlands. There are obviously 3 of them, each one has its own name which are Faith, Hope and Charity. They truly are awesome no matter what the weather is like. They stand dominating the skies. It feels like it wraps you in a big black blanket, keeping you safe and warm. Although in the winter it’s far from warm. It’s hard to believe that lots of people choose to climb these three sisters all year round.

Back on the bus and time for a little bit of soft music to carry us over a place called Rannoch Moor. They filmed scenes from Harry Potter and the James Bond movie Skyfall (2012) in this location.

So Rannoch Moor is the highest point of the tour. From there on it’s basically down hill all the way back to Loch Lomond.

It’s hard to believe that since leaving Glasgow at 9am, having stopped at all those places. We have had lunch and a whisky tour in Oban. Then left and made our way back towards Glasgow and it’s still only 4.30pm. We still have places to stop for more pictures and stories too.

Driving down of Rannoch Moor we stop at Loch Tulla. Most of our tours go up the way not down towards the Loch, but the view that you get from the viewpoint is stunning. Mountains overlook both sides of the loch. With the sun splitting the Loch in two, it looks like something from a movie.

Finally, we reach the Drover’s Inn our last stop. Built in 1705 it’s one of the oldest and certainly the most haunted Inn that we have in Scotland. We shared some of the stories that have originated from the Inn, and there are lots of them. I remember when I first visited the Inn many years ago. It’s easy to wonder if the interior is styled but it’s actually the original décor.

Believe me I finished my food and was quick to leave! Now I love going in there. Warming myself by the big log fire that’s always burning, especially during the winter months. True to form Jim has another “wee dram” just to make sure he truly does love the stuff!

Off we go. On our last leg back to Glasgow along the banks of Loch Lomond. The sun has started to set, but it does nothing to diminish the great scenery.

As we approach Glasgow, I ask Jim where he want to be dropped off. I was thinking it will be some hotel, so he can enjoy some downtime in the city. However, Jim actually wants dropped off at the Airport. He’s catching a flight that night to Ireland. From there he plans to carry on his non stop tour of the west. He doesn’t have time to waste.

Images of Loch Long, Oban Bay & Rannoch Moor © Visit Scotland

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