Highlands Part 1: Oban, Staffa, Glencoe

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Visiting the Highlands has been on my list for as long as I can remember, but for one reason or another I’ve deferred it year after year. It is every bit as glorious as I imagined, and then some. One of the first surprises for me as we pulled out of Glasgow on our way to Oban, through a land of lochs and fens, was just how lush Scotland is. I went there with mental images of what is probably the fading fall– the royal purple heathers and gold tipped forests – so I was really surprised by the springtime bounty: flourishes of rhododendron bushes in cascading sheets along the road shoulder, carpets of bluebells wrapping the forest floor and crawling down the stone walls, bands of glistening gorse blooming from the barbed tips of its thorny bushes.

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Rhododendron. I only previously associated rhododendron with a card game my grandma taught me as a little girl.

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Our drive took us through Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. It was a little painful just driving through – there were so many stunning views and trails leading away to others – but we already had an ambitious itinerary, and much to see in Oban.

Arriving in Oban: the still little harbour.

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One of our absolute first stops was the Oban Seafood Hut. Holy mother of God. They give you piles of seafood essentially at cost.

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Our mussels and scallops. You get 5 gigantic scallops for £8!

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Oban is reasonably touristy – the population grows from about 8,500 to 25,000 in high season – and this boy knows the spot! I wonder how rare it is these days to learn to play the bagpipe for Scottish children.

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We arrived in an incredibly unusual, nearly cloudless heat wave. Here’s Jack in the near-30 degree Oban sunshine on our way to get Innis and Gun lagers (the only time I’ve seen it on tap) at Markie Dan’s.

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Climbing up to see the sun setting from McCaig’s Tower, I found this bird watching its reflection.

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Just look at that glorious hillside!

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A pile of chattering dusk-time birds

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Looking out over the harbour from the windows in McCaig’s Tower.

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Harbour view from the top!

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McCaig’s Tower

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Oban is looking pretty spectacular in the golden hour.

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I love the way the sun catches the rims and frames of the boats and buildings around the habour. Pictured: the restaurant we went to the second night, highly recommended: EE-USK.

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Harbour boats in the sunset. On our way to a top dinner at the Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant (sic).

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The next morning, we were up super early to catch a ferry to Mull on our way to a three island tour. The tour we booked can be found here if you want to do the same! Essentially these companies are really handling the overall coordination of various ticket purchases and lots of little legs of travel so you don’t have to. You have to go to the office the day before, but they’ll just hand you a strip of tickets issued by the ferries, the bus company, the tinier boat that takes you to Staffa, and lay out a clear timeline for you to follow. You could buy each leg separately if you want and probably save a bit of cash. It’s also worth knowing that there is no ‘guide’ with you, so you’re going to have to rely on yourself to get lunch, arrive and return where you need to be and when, and read up on what you’re seeing separately.

The ferry left at 7:30 am for the tour and you got back around 7 pm, stopping in Mull, the Isle of Staffa and Iona.

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Here: the still blue early morning waters on the way to Mull.

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First Highland coos!

It was a shame to be taken to Mull, but then just driven right across it without enjoying what looked to be a pretty spectacular island, but there was a lot to take in and the real aim was to visit this fantastical place…

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… the Isle of Staffa, home to Fingal’s Cave and puffins!

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The island is made of hexagonally jointed basalt columns of glory, with shoots and columns leaning over depending on how quickly the lava cooled after eruption. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen (very similar to the Giant’s Causeway).

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Another view, sentinel on duty.

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Jack in Fingal’s Cave, also called the musical cave for its haunting acoustics.

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When I picked up my tickets, I was still pretty dubious that I would actually get to see these gorgeous little guys. “Will I definitely see them? … but are you sure?”

We only had an hour on Staffa with Fingal’s mind-blowing Cave in one direction, and the turfs of puffin burrows in exactly the opposite direction. I was so stressed about the time ticking, but when I crested the hill on the burrow side, I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were so close! And so tiny! This guy, my first pal, just teetered right over to me.

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oh so tiny and so sweet

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LOOK AT THIS LIL GUY! Pokin’ his head out of his house and home. They dig these little 1-meter deep mud caves and I guess they aren’t creative enough to go make another home when people find them. They honestly don’t seem to mind / know what people are.

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Is this real life

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Look at the floppy feet of the leftmost one as he flaps off! Oh my god those rubber chicken feet.

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Puffins spend 8 months of the year out to see, but there’s a short 4-month window between April and the end of July when they’re nesting and mating. I also hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the puffins beak and clown-like coloration is seasonal! Their beaks fall off and the white on their faces darkens. Look it up!

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I had absolutely no sense of time. At this point Jack gave me a five minute warning and my heart started racing.

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How could I ever leave tho.

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Look at that lil face!

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So much happiness.

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I had to get dragged away like this puppy having to leave the pet store.

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Goodbye beautiful island!

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A side view of the walk around the cliffside to Fingal’s Cave.

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Saddest of sad times leaving this beauty.

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From the Isle of Staffa, we made our way to Iona for a few hours. Most people seemed to go to the Abbey, but we strolled around the countryside and visited some great craft shops. I want to give a particular shout-out to the gift store to put all others to shame: Iona Craft Shop .

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Along the shore

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I had one image in my mind of Highland Cows, but their coats can actually range in colour from black, brindled, red, and yellow to dun. I really wish I had seen more fluffy babies.

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These guys were pretty excellent, too. I did nearly lose my mind with envy when I saw photograph of another cow in front of the Iona Abbey, but then a few hours after the photographer shared it, I realized he was from National Geographic, so. That’s okay.

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Sweet little guys

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The next morning, we set off away from Oban through Glencoe on our way up to Mallaig for our ferry to Skye! This guy was one super happy roadtrip guy with his upgrade from a basic Kia to a £21K Renault Kadjar. An amazing car to have for all the many hours of driving on this trip.

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This little home (or bothy) sitting at the feet of giants in Glencoe, near the Three Sisters. (And if it had been clear visibility…)

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Another surprise: Scotland has some pretty incredible beaches. This strip on the road to Mallaig.

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Mural of Fishermen in Mallaig Harbour.

Next up, Skye! Stay tuned…

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