When you look at the squiggly black line on a map, it’s hard to know what is in store for you on the road ahead. That 3cm patch of green ‘vegetation’ never quite translates to those tumbling fields of pastel green, the scraggly woodland thickets or proud lines of Scottish pines; that blob of blue is hard to interpret as the white rapids gushing from the black mountains above.
One of my favourite things about travelling the UK in a Wicked campervan is daily serendipity inherent in the adventure. No matter how much you read or plan or scour the map, you never quite know where you’ll end up, what you’ll find there or how deeply the unexpected wilderness will touch you.
The roads from Isle of Skye to Glasgow in Scotland seem made for such an adventure; they meander past grand views of the highlands and the UK’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, before skirting the glassy waters of Loch Lomond and into Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow. We covered most of the 200 miles in just a day, but the varying landscapes that we saw along the way were enough to fill a whole holiday.
Uncompromisingly rugged with its rich earthy palette, rocky slopes and wiry shrubs, the Highlands is where I felt I’d found the real Scotland. Within this bold wilderness you’ll find long-haired cows, multi-coloured sheep, broad Scottish accents and the traditional Gaelic tongue, all of which are apparently characteristic of the ‘Highlands’ that spread roughly north of Glasgow, Sterling and Edinburgh to the tip of the country.
We took the A87 road from Skye, through the areas of Skye and Lochalsh and Inverness, Lochness and Nairn, stopping often to take photographs and stare at gallant ranges and moody moors and marshes.
Fort William and Ben Nevis
Our original itinerary had included a full day to hike around Ben Nevis, but as we pulled into the nearby town of Fort William with the windscreen wipers pumping full speed, we were less than enthusiastic to get outside in our waterproofs. It was all quite disappointing unfortunately. The Ben Nevis area is well-known for outdoorsy delights – hiking, cycling, even skiing in the winter months – but it is also an area best enjoyed when the wind is not blowing sideways and rain is not nearing the ‘sleet’ stage.
Fort William serves as a very practical hub for activities in surrounding Glen Nevis (national park area) but otherwise has few attractions to note. We popped in for a quick coffee, then kept driving south, catching glimpses of the Ben Nevis peak through the shifting fogs as we went.
Reflecting the pink and green hues of the surrounding hills, Loch Lomond is a delight to the eye. We drove the A82 from Fort William to just outside of Glasgow, following the complete western edge of the glassy loch. As the road ducked in and out of mossy woodlands, the rain decided to clear, leaving the proverbial storm cloud behind us and only crisp, clean air to carry the peaceful loch views.
Being a couple of weeks into my career as a Wicked camper, I was particularly impressed by the frequent ‘Respect’ signs pinned to trees along the loch; a sign of Scotland’s healthy approach to the joys and rights of campers in their country. (Read more about the rules below).
Only an hour from the national capital, Edinburgh, Scotland’s big sister, Glasgow has a much more robust, matter-of-fact feel. While still offering a hearty menu of urban culture, a grungy nightlife and some pretty historical buildings, Glasgow does it all with a edge of industrialism and a charming tint of soot.
Sadly, Glasgow doesn’t offer much in the way of city-accessible campsites, especially in the winter months. So, unwilling to compromise on proximity, we decided to make the situation work for us: we drove Panda right on into the city centre, parked in a hotel and let her take a load off for a couple of days.
Once in the city, it was easy to scout the inner shopping district spurring off along Buchanan Street, where chain stores have spread like cane toads across the broad boulevards. We found the more vintage, boutique and quirky stores and eateries in West End, which is on the western side of the M8, about a 30 minute walk up Woodlands Road or Argyle Street.
After spending the previous five days in the Scottish wilderness, both Dave and I were craving some cafe time, some art and a bit of intellectual engagement. Glasgow provided all of the above, with book time in Biblocafe, floating heads in the aged but lovely halls of The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and an Aye Write lecture at the Mitchell Library.
Tips for travelling the road from Skye to Glasgow:
Know your wild camping code and local rules in the Loch Lomond area. Of all the places we’ve wild camped, the Scottish Highlands and Loch Lomond area seemed most open and accommodation to touring folk. There is a Scottish law of the land that you can camp in a tent anywhere, private land or no, if you follow the code. This doesn’t apply to vehicles, but there are plenty of places where a campervan is acceptable. The biggest thing to remember is that camping on the east side of the loch is totally banned in certain months. Check out these sites for more info – Outdoor Access Scotland and Loch Lomond Camping Byelaws.
Be prepared for wet, cold and rugged landscapes in the Ben Nevis / Glen Nevis area. We just rocked up hoping for weather to suit some walking, but with clouds covering the peak, soggy ground and an icy wind, we thought better of it once in Fort William. There are heaps of walks around, ranging from the hardcore peak climb (where is snows for many months of the year) to loch-side strolls. www.VisitScotland.com has good basic info and the tourist info centre in the main street of Fort William is well stocked with maps, brochures etc.
Take the subway to move quickly around central Glasgow. Glasgow is a little harder to walk around than neighbouring Edinburgh. Whether it’s the 30 minute walk between the City and West End, or the 20 minute walk around the centre district and riverside, keep in mind that Glasgow streets are wide and are bigger than they look on the map. You can take the subway around the centre district (£1.40 adult single). Hill Head is the nearest station to the West End main street, Byres Road. You’ll notice the subway is a loop and you can take the inner circle or outer circle, which just determines which direction you head in.
For a good bite to eat, a drink and a bit of atmosphere, go to…
- ifullcoffee – this friendly, cosy cafe sits between the city centre and West End but feels like a world away. They do a mean GF salad (and I don’t say that often) and have free wi-fi (although it was a little flaky when we were there).
- Bibliocafe – I feel like this was ‘the find’ of my Glasgow experience. Bookish, warm and serving a wide range of very yummy GF cakes, this cafe seems to attract those looking for a writing/reading nook combined with free wi-fi.
- Baby Grand – This thriving little piano bar in Elmbank Gardens was a bit tricky to find. In the immediate vicinity there are signs for Elmbank Street, Court and Lane… but alas, no Gardens. Just head down a lane towards the M8 and you’ll find it behind a mound of scaffolding for the nearby construction site. Despite the less than promising exterior, Baby Grand has a wonderfully soothing resident pianist, super friendly staff and smells amazing as you walk in the door.
- Otto – In line with all the other lovely eateries in Byres Road, Otto is a chic restaurant with delicious food. This was a bit of a splash out for us, but quite well priced for anyone not on a super tight budget. I enjoyed the salmon with asparagus, a glass of red and the flicker of black and white movies mixed with lounge beats in the background.
- Ashton Lane – this is where all the trendy Glasgow bars live. It’s hidden in behind Byres Road, the main West End restaurant and shopping strip, and offers art-house cinema, cocktail bars and traditional Scottish music. What’s not to love?!
You can also seek out Glasgow’s night life through…
- The List – this website and cultural mag lists events for both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
- The Gig Guide – there is a weekly list published for Glasgow. Check out the website and look for the guide in pubs and cafes.
- The Mitchell Library – this beautiful building is also the centre for some very cool happenings. I attended a free lecture on social justice in the media by International Network of Street Press (INSP) and Amnesty International Scotland as part of the Aye Write Festival. There are plenty of other cool, nerdy events going on, so check out their website or the information in their foyer.
For other tourist-like info, check out…
Stay tuned for the next leg of the adventure – we head across grey waters to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for more scenic drives and interesting cities.
A big cheers to Wicked Campers UK for the awesome van (Panda) and for making this trip possible. Every day offers more delights!