Road trip around Scotland: a Highland tour in a T3# Itineraries
Twenty days, one little breakdown and – the biggest surprise of all – just one single rain shower. A young German couple, Sven and Lena, travelled 4,000 km across Europe on their dream trip to the Scottish Highlands – in a 36-year-old VW campervan.
A VW campervan with a big steering wheel, a boxy feel, lots of room and a boxer engine bubbling away under the bonnet – l spent a long time looking for a campervan like this to take me on my travels and get away from my day-to-day. My dream came true when I met ‘Ellie’, born in 1983, bought from two older VW van mechanics in 2016. Inside Ellie’s engine compartment, there’s a 1.9 water-cooled, petrol-fuelled boxer engine with just under 78 HP purring away in there. The five-digit mileometer tells me she’s done the equivalent of 50,000 miles. According to the previous owner, it’s more like 100,000. But that doesn’t matter – as long as she keeps moving.
In 2016, she got a complete overhaul. Ellie has four seats, with adjustable driver and front passenger seats. Nice and handy if you need more space, particularly if there are only two of you. There are also four sleeping berths: two in the roof, two down below. As we don’t travel light, the roof is our storage space, and we sleep underneath. The camper has the original Westfalia kit: a sink, a stovetop and a fridge that can run on 12V, 230V and gas. All that makes self-sufficiency pretty simple.
Our road trip around Scotland: the journey
Twenty unforgettable days in September, almost 4,000 kilometres, four countries, 18 fuel-ups, half a litre of engine oil, a little breakdown – and just one single rain shower.
I plan the 20-day road trip with my girlfriend Lena. We’re heading to Scotland, the northernmost nation in the UK. Pure adventure awaits: uncanny landscapes, mystical lakes, Highland cows and that most notorious creature of all – the midge.
We can’t wait to discover the fascinating countryside of the Scottish Highlands: a landscape of rushing rivers, gushing waterfalls and – of course – endless lochs. It’s easy and cheap to get to Scotland from Europe, too. It can easily compete with other bucket-list travel destinations like Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It’s the perfect place for a road trip!
I began prepping my VW T3 for the journey a few days before we set off. The petrol pipes and the fans have been replaced, the oil has been changed and the camper has had a bit of a glow-up. I also fitted an auxiliary heating system. If it gets colder, we’re all set. (Spoiler alert: we ended up having to use the heater exactly once – and that’s because we forgot the hairdryer).
As expected, the weather in Scotland is capricious. But that matches the raw temperament of the place itself. The Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland is particularly known for how many rainy days it enjoys (in the loosest sense of the word). Thick clouds of mist cover the island now and again, so dense you can barely see your hand in front of your face. But it looks incredible too. And we’re well prepared, with clothes for every weather – from bathing suits to winter coats. Yet we end up being lucky: we get fantastic weather and are only surprised by one (yes, one) single rain shower the whole time we’re there.
Our route through Scotland
We want to discover Scotland’s true nature and set aside three weeks to do it. Our journey begins in Eppingen, our hometown in Germany, and takes us to Belgium, where we catch the ferry to England. At first, we have to get used to driving on the left, especially as we’re in a vehicle with right-hand drive. At first, coming upon oncoming traffic when turning right, we get a fright. We zip through the southern part of the UK. After about three days and two stopovers, we reach our destination: Scotland – we’ve made it!
We start off in Glasgow, where our route will take us via Loch Lomond, Oban and Glencoe to Skye. After our detour to this fascinating island, that somehow manages to resemble both Ireland and Mars, we head via Ullapool to the far north of Scotland and John O’Groats, the northernmost point on the Scottish mainland.
That’s where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman started their ‘Long Way Down’, a motorbike tour to South Africa, a few years back. We’re not heading quite so far south – just back down via Inverness and the Cairngorms National Park to Edinburgh.
Our road trip around Scotland: the highlights
On the A828 heading towards Duror, we discover Cuil Bay on Loch Linnhe, a stunning pebble beach that’s got it all: crystal-clear water, not a soul in sight, and a parking space just for us, with panoramic views of the Morvern Hills. We liked it so much, we put up our tent on the beach for two days.
Of course, this atmosphere calls for some classic campfire food: as the sun sets, we bake twist bread in the flames – evoking childhood memories.
Isle of Skye
Our first night’s camping in Scotland is on the Isle of Skye. A simple, no-frills campsite with breathtaking views of Glamaig. It costs GBP 15 per night for two people and a campervan – they throw the view in for free.
A tip: if you follow the river from the campsite towards Loch Sligachan for just 10 minutes, you’ll find a stunning waterfall with a natural wading pool.
The lively Seuma’s Bar is just a few minutes’ walk from the campsite. It’s a welcome oasis for hikers and walkers who find themselves in need of a well-earned beer and a hearty meal after a day in the Cuillin. If you’re looking to try a little ‘uisge beatha’ – Scottish Gaelic for whisky, or ‘water of life’ – or a pint of ale, this is the right place. After a wonderful evening at the bar, we return to our tent to find a few unwelcome guests: some midges have come to join us for an after-party. Not exactly what we imagined when we’d fantasised about camping in Scotland…
These little critters are similar to our mosquitoes, but instead of piercing you, these ones just bite – leaving behind itchy, unpleasant red marks on your skin. The only way to protect yourself is with a mosquito net for your head and long-sleeved clothes in bright colours you can fasten and seal. Traditional insect repellent doesn’t work on these persistent little creatures, unfortunately. The website ‘Scottish Midge Forecast’ lets you check out where in the country these little pests have chosen to infest at any given time. We try to plan our route flexibly to avoid running into them.
On the way to Neist Point Lighthouse, the most stunning part of the island, we stop at a little cafe on the high street that catches our eye immediately: a rustic little place with very friendly staff. It sells tea, coffee, local beer, a tasty lunch and a piece of homemade cake for after. It’s the perfect little refreshment as we prepare to climb Neist Point. The cafe has a shop attached where you can buy soap, creams and other souvenirs.
Quiraing, Isle of Skye
The high point of our road trip is the Quiraing, the northernmost point of the Trotternish Ridge. This isolated rugged landscape was created by a landslide. Just getting there on the single-track road across the plain from Uig is an experience in itself. Luckily, we’re not in a hurry, as the narrow roads require you to slow things down.
Nae bother – the ascent into the mountains offers magnificent views. Quiraing lies at the heart of the northern part of Skye – heading from Portree via the A855 along the east coast towards Staffin and on through the settlement. After Staffin, you turn left at the right-hand bend towards Uig and up to the pass via the narrow road. And we’ve made it.
We got up early enough to snag a parking space. These routes are popular among walkers and crowded, just like the Old Man of Storr. This particular viewpoint rewards us for our efforts, though: here, we can enjoy stunning views of Quiraing, the north of Skye and the bays that surround it.
A stunning spot by the beach
Heading up to the north coast of Scotland, we spend a day near Big Sand at the ‘Sands Caravan & Camping’ campsite, right on the Atlantic Ocean. Like many other visitors, we enjoy the view and the spot by the dunes, the crystal-clear water and the stunning sandy beach. Unfortunately, it’s too cold to swim.
We camp about seven metres away from our nearest neighbours. This lets us enjoy the dunes in perfect peace and quiet. When you go a little higher up, you can enjoy the whole view of the bay.
The campsite isn’t just designed for caravans or tents – you can also hire fully equipped camping pods. There’s also a great restaurant serving everything you could wish for from morning till night. Kids are also warmly welcome.
Lairg to Durness
Faraid Head is one of the best spots on the north coast of Scotland to see the charming, brightly coloured puffins that call it home. The birds come ashore to breed in late April and usually stick around until mid-August. Late afternoon is a good time to catch a glimpse. Now and then you’ll find them on island cliffs or bobbing about in the sea. We get comfy on the blanket we brought along in a little hollow sheltered from the wind and use our binoculars to watch this comical bird go about its business.
Our Scottish Highland tour was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. I’ve made some unforgettable memories. Scotland is now one of my favourite places in Europe. One thing’s for sure: I’m definitely coming back.
Copy and pictures: Sven Mack