We’re High From The Scottish Highlands!

After six days in London, our little family embarked on 9 days of a road-trip adventure through Scotland! That is a wee bit deceiving to say, as our first day was technically still in England, spent in the Lakes District, but it’s worth lumping together with Scotland because this trip was all about beautiful mother nature – and boy did she put on a good show! Here is our wild 1200+ mile (nearly 2,000km) tour through the splendid northern United Kingdom!

Day 1: London to the Lakes District

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The summit of Todd Crag, overlooking Lake Windermere

Hiking Todd Crag

We took off early from the Heathrow area heading north on the lovely left side of the road.  By now Derek was getting good at navigating the roundabouts backwards! It was about a 5 hour drive to near Clappersgate where we parked to hike up the Todd Crag trail, overlooking Lake Windermere.

The last hour of the drive through the Lakes District was slow going but beautiful! I was taken by the sudden influx of sheep pastures and walls. Walls, walls everywhere! All made of stone.  Additionally many of the buildings in the Lakes District appeared to be made of stone too, so it gave a really interesting historic feel to the area.

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The road that leads to Todd Crag hiking trail

There is a parking lot between Waterhead and Clappersgate we parked at and then walked a short distance to the road leading to the Todd Crag hiking trail. We realized that the road itself seemed to be a popular place to park, so we’d recommend just driving up Under Loughrigg Rd and parking where the signs permit. It’s free and a shorter walk to the trail head! The weather was cloudy, chilly and damp – not the best hiking weather – but we were pretty anxious to get out of the car and get our legs moving so we decided to do it rain or shine. And boy are we glad we did! The resulting hike was breath-taking and so rewarding. The kids did AWESOME!  (And we were very glad to have amphibious shoes!) Things we noticed: sheep (which means watch out for poop!), stone walls, grassy hills, boggy areas, great views going up AND down, and a few deer.  One in particular was a baby we helped steer to safety when it got stuck between two fences it couldn’t get through. Phew! It was stressful for that little guy but we were happy to see him find his way back to mama. The kids will remember pretending to be sheep, discovering how painful stinging nettle stings can be, avoiding sheep poop, and conquering their first big hike in the UK!

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Great view of the stone walls over the rolling hills! Can you spot the sheep?

…and then the sun started to peek out!

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Can you spot the sheep up on the hill?
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Chilly water!
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It feels like a fairy tale!
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“I’m flying!”
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I love this so much!
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“You can see Grammy’s house from here!”
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It was well worth the walk.

It took us a little over three hours to complete the journey up and down and we didn’t retrace our steps.  It wasn’t a very long hike but we took our time, and since we seemed to have the entire hill to ourselves, we spent a lot of time exploring once we reached the top. We took a steep, nettle-filled descent on Ambleside and came out on a little shortcut we noticed on our way up, with cement steps leading up into the woods. I’m glad we didn’t take this on the way up because it wasn’t a clear trail at all but was much easier to follow on the way down!  What a memorable day on the Crag! Our destination for the evening was Cartmel, an adorable tiny town in the Lakes District about 40 minutes from the top of Lake Windermere where we finished our hike.

Greenbank Farms B&B, Cartmel, UK

Derek chose this place to stay because he knew how much I love Fresian horses. Greenbank Farms B&B is also known as “The Fresian Experience,” and, had we more time (and a bit more money), and had I room to pack riding gear, we would have booked time to get to know them and ride them! Maybe next time.  This time, going for walks along the stonewalled narrow roads and meeting the horses was enough to make me feel like a kid again! The kids made great friends with Bailey, the little boy who lived at the farm, and he showed us the best places to view and meet the horses.  Fresians are SO friendly and intuitive. It was extra special to watch them move and run and interact! The farm has been in this family’s ownership for over 100 years, but the farm itself was built in 1663. It was a magical piece of the Lakes District we will never forget!

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What an evening!
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Lets go down and see the horses!
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They’re amazing creatures!
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SO HAPPY!
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A view from the farm from down near the horse pasture.

We drove down the road into the town of Cartmel to look for dinner. Walking through quaint Cartmel was like being back in time. All of the streets, buildings and land looked like it hadn’t changed in hundreds of years.  We understand why people fall in love with the lakes district! It has a palpable historic charm. The pubs down in London had memorable names, but one here stood out called “The Pig and Whistle.” We would’ve liked to try it but it was packed!

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The King’s Arms

We decided on a great place called The King’s Arms for a late dinner. The kids got a proper introduction to fish and chips (DELICIOUS), Derek tried a local beer (average), they saw what “mushy peas” are, and also tried the local specialty for desert – “sticky toffee pudding” which tasted pretty good!  I would describe it as a molasses-like cake with sauce and ice cream.

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Fish & Chips!

Willow fell asleep on the one mile ride back so we all decided to hit the hay and prepare for another road trip day. The weather was calling for rain, but that’s pretty typical in these parts. We all slept well and enjoyed a really lovely breakfast prepared by our hospitable host. We took a nice walk in the morning  so we could visit the horses one last time before taking to the road. What majestic animals they are! Thank you for a memorable visit, Greenbank Farms!

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Beau woke up with the sun and ran out to take this photo! It was so cute! (Also, great orb!)
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Beautiful morning at Greenbank Farms!
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Goodbye for now, Cartmel!

Day 2: Cartmel to Glasgow

Scottish Owl Centre, Whitburn, Scotland

After visiting the horses we drove up to the Glasgow area, less than 3 hours away from Cartmel. As it was a gloomy chilly day, we decided to nix our ambitious plans to hike Conic Hill over Loch Lomond and head to our Plan B destination, the Scottish Owl Centre instead! We were so satisfied by yesterday’s brilliant hike up Todd Crag that a long, cold, rainy ascent sounded undesirable…and besides, an OWL CENTER??? Anyone who knows Willow knows (because she has told you) that her “spirit animal is a snowy owl,” she is obsessed with Hedwig from Harry Potter, AND she has an owl costume she wears regularly so she can “be” the owl. This was going to be a big hit! We were excited to check it out. We knew from reviews that its not a super high-quality attraction but that didn’t matter. We wanted to see OWLS! And so we did…take a look! (Sorry, I lost track of all of their names. Someday it will be fun to look them all up!)

When we arrived there was an awesome indoor flight demonstration happening and it mesmerized the kids! Willow was wide-eyed and her jaw dropped when a massive owl flew over her head (brushing daddy’s head!), displaying its beautiful wings and LONG legs. We had never seen so much owl memorabilia! There was a playground inside the facility and one outside as well.  It was sprinkly and chilly, so I’m sure that kept most people away – so it wasn’t busy at all.  It was for sure a bit dated and tired, but the owls seemed well cared for.  We got to HOLD an owl, listen to them hoot and squawk, watch them perform and watch them EAT!  Willow remembers the “feely boxes” you put your hands in to touch real owl feathers and what owls eat, and we learned a whole lot about their adaptability and habits. Fascinating! If you love owls and want to see “the largest collection of owls in the world” and it’s not too far out of your way, go check out the Scottish Owl Centre in Whitburn, Scotland!

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FINALLY! Willow is holding her best friend.
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“My hooter is cuter!”
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“Its so light!”

We left the Owl Centre and wanted to get in some hotel swim time (every chance we could get!) so we went straight to the hotel. When we arrived we saw a wedding was happening there that night and all the ladies had these adorable tiny hats on! The girls thought they were soooo cute and we learned (from thick-accented folks in the hot tub) that these types of hats are traditional in Scotland for fancy occasions and you can buy them anywhere! Splendid! IMG_2623After swimming, Derek ran out to a local sporting goods store to pick up some amphibious shoes that he realized were an absolute must in this climate and with the kinds of activities we were doing! We all have Keens and he grabbed a pair of Merrells. He will tell you he’s awfully glad to have had them! We were so tired that hotel room service was in store for dinner. Of note is the interesting addition to the club sandwich I ordered…it was good, but I can’t say I’d ever thought of adding egg salad to my chicken club! Scotland, you’re so creative!

Day 3: Glasgow to Ft. William

Hiking Pap of Glencoe

It was less than three hours to Fort William from Glasgow where we stayed, and the weather was brisk and overcast. Nevertheless, we were excited to take the drive up to the official “highlands” via Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park and get in a good hike today. The drive itself was beautiful, too!

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Meeting of the Three Waters Waterfall
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See the person at the top? Its a pretty big drop!

We arrived at the parking area for the Pap of Glencoe trail (Sgorr na Ciche) fairly early – there were only two other cars there. Although it wasn’t busy, we encountered a few hikers going up and down as we made our ascent. The best part about this hike was that the views were impressive the entire time up the mountain. On such a windy, cloudy day, we were ambitious to attempt the actual summit, and it ended up being too much for the kiddos and really not worth it with the cloud cover, but the four hours we spent on the mountain were well worth it! The hike was fun – over little streams, up narrow steep paths and even some scramble ares! The kids did great. Beau took it upon himself to go WAY out ahead of us, which is ok as long as we could see him, but he ended up out of sight for maybe an hour of the trek and that is a big no-no! We weren’t worried as there were enough people on the trail, but it was a good lesson for him. Derek and I eventually decided to split up when Willow got sleepy – he turned around with the girls and I headed up to get Beau, however far up he made it. With about one hour left for the final ascent Beau was waiting for me on the trail. “I could see you the whole time mom!” Haha oh Beau. I guess that navy blue rain jacket really blended into the mountain side! We had a nice hike back down together to the car. Here’s the hike in its entirety…you can tell how windy it was but there’s no way to get a feel for just how impressive the view was, even with all that cloud coverage! Great mixed terrain – challenging but not too much for these kiddos. We could see the “Pap” of Glencoe from the bottom of the trail, but the higher we got, the more it disappeared behind the other hills and the clouds.

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A rewarding view!
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Mountain Goat (I mean Papa Bear!)
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And into the highlands…
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A fun hike for the family!
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The highest we got! Less than an hour from the top.
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I found you Beau!
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Willow loves to hike and talk about dinosaurs. Didi loves to be the leader!

When we finished our hike we were ready to explore the town of Fort William and have dinner at a nice Scottish pub. Walking from our Air B&B into town was pretty quick and easy despite our weary muscles from our hike. I was glad to finally settle into a place for two nights, which allowed me to do about four loads of laundry and clean our well muddied Keens after all that hiking. The town was mostly one street and was really cool! There were so many pubs and places to eat, great little shops along the streets and a nice view of Loch Eil from most everywhere.

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Fort William Walking Street

Here we noticed that signs were in English AND Gaelic. Very cool! We also noticed that there were traditional Scottish goodies EVERYWHERE and it never got old. Apparently “Jimmy Hats” are a thing here, and you can’t go two feet without seeing a place to buy Gin and Scotch!

We chose “The Tavern” to have dinner. I had the fish and chips (again! Yum!) and the kids each had burgers. Derek tried the classic Scottish Steak & Ale Pie with a side of Scotch Whiskey…even though the Haggis Neeps N’ Tatties looked awfully appetizing. Hahaha! Something I’ll remember well is when I went to clean a speck of dirt off Willow’s ear and realizing it’s not dirt…it was a tick! It was the tiniest micro tick I have ever seen, and we ended up finding two that night when we checked over the kiddos. It’s a good thing we were on high alert! Ticks are the worst!

We were pretty tired after the long hike and exploring the town so we had a piece of local fudge, watched a Netflix special on Scottish castles, and hit the hay to rest up for a big Harry Potter themed day tomorrow!

Day 4: Exploring the Ft. William Area

(My FAVORITE Day!)

Nevis Gorge Hike & Steall Falls

We were eager to get an early start for this jam-packed day so we left early to get a good parking spot at the Ben Nevis and Nevis Gorge trail head. There weren’t many people there when we arrived which was good because it was a narrow hiking trail. The trail itself wasn’t difficult and we felt safe despite the signs warning us of the dangers. IMG_2631The weather was quite chilly and damp with low cloud coverage but the day called for clearing and warm sunshine so we knew it was worth going, even if the clouds didn’t end up lifting during our visit.  It’s hard to describe how beautiful this area is as the photos really don’t do it justice.  Glen Nevis is a rocky path hike along a gorge with the soundtrack of water rushing, falling and trickling all around. The trail leads to a clearing where the great Steall Falls can be viewed – and on a clear enough day, massive Ben Nevis looms behind the falls like a great big brother. Even without a view of Ben Nevis Mtn, we were in awe of the beauty of the area, and the falls, at 120 meters (almost 400 ft) is the 2nd highest waterfall in the UK! Ben Nevis, on the other hand, looms large as the tallest mountain in the British Isles. We were a little disappointed we didn’t get a good look at it but well enough impressed by his little sister, the falls! Of special note is that this waterfall and mountain glen is depicted in a scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry is competing against the dragon in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Check it out! This is what Steall Falls looks like without cloud cover, and with snow.

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Copyright WalkHighlands.co.uk

Our trek was extra special as we got to try the rope bridge that hovers over the river, the Water of Nevis, in the clearing. It’s not necessary to cross the rope bridge in order to reach the falls – I just walked across with my shoes in a shallow area, and then mucked through the boggy marsh to the base of the falls – but it was certainly fun to try our hand at balancing across! Beau was just tall enough to try it and he did great! The kids absolutely loved tossing rocks into the river from the river bed, stacking rocks, jumping from stone to stone, and playing in the sand. It WAS chilly, but they didn’t seem to mind! By the time we left it was starting to warm up, and that was drawing all sorts of people onto the trail. Overall it was a memorable visit!

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Beautiful stone paths…
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Does anyone else see the face in the rocks?
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Just big enough to cross!
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Fun in the riverbed!
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I decided to go for it…and crossed the river!
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You could hear the roar but the photos just don’t do it justice!
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Its SO high! See those trees? Imagine a person by them. Steall Falls is THAT big!

Even though we missed the clearest part of the day, we were glad we decided to move onto our next sight to get great views with blue skies!

Glenfinnan Viaduct & Jacobite Train

This is a classic “must do” when in the Scottish Highlands…especially for Harry Potter fans! When we arrived around 2 o’clock, it was apparent how true that statement is! Only about 40 minutes from Ft. William, Glenfinnan is a town entirely dedicated to the Jacobite, or the Scottish loyalists.  The Jacobite Train (also known as the “Hogwarts Express”) is a trusty steam train that makes its trek across the Glenfinnan viaduct twice per day – and if you’re not sure when its scheduled to cross, follow the crowds! A statue of a lone highlander (also referred to as the Bonnie Prince Charlie Edward Stuart) on top of the monument overlooking Loch Sheil is something to tip your bonnet to. It is the figurehead in the beautiful view of the valley.

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The Glenfinnan Valley, with the Monument visible on the shore.

We managed to find a parking spot amidst the crowds and despite an impromptu nap by Willow, we began hiking around the viaduct to find *just* the right spot to view the “Hogwarts” train crossing. It turned out to be a bloody muddy mess up on the hills with all the foot traffic but we still scored a decent view – and just in time for the train to strut her stuff and choo-choo her steam engines across the glen! It literally moved me to tears. It was that special!

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Before the train…
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As she made her way across!
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THE JACOBITE TRAIN IN ACTION!!! So moving!
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Down by the Glenfinnan Monument

We enjoyed this area so much, we made a quick pitstop on our way back through in the evening. Here is the viaduct and Glenfinnan valley from a different view point, just before sunset.

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Glenfinnan Viaduct
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Glenfinnan Valley with the Monument watching over Loch Steil

What a magical place! It sure left an impression…it was inspiring to say the least! We didn’t leave without any tears…the kids LOVED the “Harry Potter Train” but Didi ended up tripping on the path and bloodied her knee and hand up pretty badly. Luckily we were well prepared with band-aids and there are no shortages of streams and springs in the highlands so we cleaned her up well and she was a great sport about it. It will be her little knee scar from Glenfinnan!

Glenuig Beach

We left Glenfinnan around 3:30 to drive another 40 minutes or so to Glenuig Beach on the east coast of Scotland. We had decided on a whim (“Hey its going to be GORGEOUS today. Lets find a beach on the coast and just GO!”) in the morning when we saw the weather forecast that we should squeeze some beach time into this rare perfect day. It was the best feeling to pack into the tiny car and drive the narrow roads straight to the Atlantic Ocean. The coast was rocky – it reminded us somewhat of Northern Maine – and it had views of mountainous islands in the distance. Sheep were everywhere, of course, and we found a perfect little beach that the kids didn’t hesitate to dive into – literally! – even without swim suits! We climbed along the rocks, walked through the mossy forest by the ocean, played in the sand and clear waters and forgot about our worries. There was no reception here so we couldn’t even check if we made it to our destination (we did) and we didn’t care! What a breath taking day we will never forget!

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Didi was the first one to swim…
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Then Beau followed suit!
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And Willow stayed on the shore and made sand houses!
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Derek, taking in the scenery…
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A rocky coastline, reminiscent of Maine
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They are true Mainers – swimming in the ocean no matter what the temperature!
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Hello sheep friends!
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Goodbye for now, Glenuig!

Day 5: Ft. William to Cairngorms National Park

This day was all about Scottish history and lore, as well as indulgent stops for two devout Outlander fans! It was a picturesque day as we left Fort William in the rear view and I was especially excited to see that most of Ben Nevis was visible as we were leaving town.

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Ben Nevis with slight cloud coverage
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What a view!

It was a truly beautiful drive along the A82 and we couldn’t resist stopping from time to time to take in the scenery. Loch Lochy has a perfect little stop to stretch our legs and skip rocks.  We didn’t usually need to stop unless someone had to pee because we were well prepared with food. Unless otherwise noted, we were eating mostly healthy road snacks from TESCO and quick breakfasts on this trip to save time and money and it served us well!

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Loch Lochy
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How’s the water, Beau?
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Get a good skipper, daddy!
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He is proud of his balancing act!
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Mom for the record!

After enjoying the scenic route, we arrived at the parking area for Urquhart Castle. It was already very busy by about 10:00 so we had to park a mile down the road and walk up to the castle. We didn’t mind but we knew that the castle was going to be buzzing!

Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

We had been talking about the legend of the Loch Ness Monster to the kids on the drive and they were so cute and excited to see the lake and visit Urquhart Castle, situated neatly on a hill overlooking Loch Ness.  The views of Loch Ness were ok along the road but the views were really lovely once we parked and headed up to the castle. On the way, Beau and Didi took turns pointing things out in the water, swearing that they saw Nessy! Willow was taken by the whole idea – totally smitten – and Beau was matter of fact and practical about the whole thing: “Well it just doen’t make any sense. Its impossible, how can Nessie survive all of these years?” he would say.

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Made of Scottish Heather stems

Didi loved the wonder of it all and was fully willing to buy into the magical lore of the highlands!  We noticed Nessy wasn’t the only famous mythical creature in Scotland…it seemed that unicorns, dragons, fairies, and whisps were popular too, to name a few! When we entered the castle information booth to pay for our visit we learned of the Scottish Explorer Pass, which was a good deal for us as we planned on visiting a number of castles over the next few days. (We ended up saving around 40 euro by buying the 3 day unlimited family pass.) Anyhoo, the kids got their little trivia sheets and we headed through the castle! It was busy, but it got even busier just before we left, about an hour later. I ended up buying a beautiful necklace with a tree symbol overlaid on Scottish heather – something that is traditional in these parts. I love it so much! Here’s our trek around Urquhart…

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Walking the mile-long path to the castle from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill.
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The view of Urquhart from the top of the hill.
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“Keep off the grass”
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I can be a princess!
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Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness in the background

When it got too crowded, we “made haste” and zipped up to Inverness. We hadn’t eaten gelato in a while, so…

Exploring Inverness

Inverness was on our destination list mostly because we just wanted to see the city Diana Gabaldon made a centerpiece of her Outlander stories. Derek and I have been Outlander fans for a while now, so all of these locales felt extra magical having read about them and watched them in one of our favorite couples TV shows. Kids, I’m sorry…you’re probably not old enough to watch that show just yet! Inverness turned out to be a pleasant surprise – charming despite its size, beautiful in the historic and well-preserved details, and oh-so Scottish! If we had more than an afternoon we definitely would have gone to visit the Highlander’s Museum nearby. Next time! For now, enjoy the castle, street and river views, and just imagine bagpipes playing in the background. Our serenading duo were children! The kids were amazed! That is something they’ll really remember…plus the bouncy bridge!

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East side of the River Ness looking north
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Inverness Castle from across River Ness
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West side of the River Ness looking south
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Honestly, I have no idea what this is, but it says Fraser, so it got me excited. #OutlanderFan

Culloden Battlefield

Fueled by gelato, we made our way to another historic and reverent Scottish site, where the fateful Battle of Culloden took place on April 16, 1746. The Jacobite forces fought valiantly on behalf of their “Bonny Prince Charlie” (Charles Edward Stuart) whom they wanted to see overthrow the Hanovers occupying the British throne.  They were, however, outnumbered and outarmed, and it was a slaughter. Somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 Jacobite soldiers lost their lives that day on the battlefield, and it put an end to the uprisings. This particular time period was well documented in Outlander, and we couldn’t wait to set foot on the hallowed ground. I was surprised to see that a Fraser stone actually existed – making the historical fiction feel all the more real. Walking the battlefield was eerie and chilling. Derek has family who are MacIntires (in Scotland its still MacIntyre, sometimes MacIntosh) so seeing their name on stones and occasionally on Scottish memorabilia also gave us pause. Its impressive to imagine how life was 250 years ago…

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Culloden Memorial
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Clan Fraser! But no Jamie…
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Many Clan stones with mass graves were strewn about the battlefields.

Clava Cairns Stone Circles

Our next pitstop was indulgent indeed. Outlander is a story based on time traveling through standing stones, and supposedly the author, Diana Gabaldon was isnpired by the stones at Clava Cairns. These are the oldest standing stones in the British Isles, believed to be erected in the Bronze age (around 4500 years ago). Pretty much everyone who was visiting them was giggling about Outlander and we were no exception! (Don’t worry, we didn’t pass through any!) The ones in the actual show weren’t real – they were erected just for the set. But these? These were VERY real.

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The day ended with us pulling into our camp-style, rustic “resort” in the Cairngorms (and being hilariously disappointed by what felt like false advertising) and having a less than satisfying dinner… but then not caring because the kids didn’t notice, AND they ended up having awesome playground time, swim time, and supervised “Fun House” time so we parents could have some adult time!

Day 6: Cairngorms Nat’l Park

The cool part about being at this “resort” (it deserves quotations) was the wide variety of contrived fun available on the property. The kids got to swim in the morning, play on the outdoor playground again, AND go check out the rock climbing wall and sky bounce – all before lunch time!

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WOW! Little monkey!
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Monkey see, monkey do!

All of that activity got us hungry so we ventured into Aviemore to grab some lunch. Annnd of course we ended up finding a terrific little tavern called “The Winking Owl.” After Derek made some funny comments about possible innuendos in the name, we sat down to a nice lunch! IMG_2645Derek also did a little shopping in town and ended up buying some fancy Scotch at a local distillery.  I also got very nervous when my phone ring (I attached to the iPhone 8Plus on the back to make sure I don’t drop it) fell off…so I was on the hunt for a replacement. Those aren’t exactly popular in these parts, but I did manage to find a “pop handle” for the back of the phone that gave me peace of mind for the rest of the trip – and ALL the photos I end up taking as we go!

The day started off kind of gloomy but we were noticing a break in the clouds, so we decided to drive up Cairngorm Mountain to take in the views and then head back to Loch Morlich to check out the beach.

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View from atop Cairngorm Mtn
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Loch Morlich visible in the distance

Even on a chilly day the kids LOVE playing in the sand and often will even go dive in the water! They really amaze me with their adventurous spirits! The last time we went to a beach, we were unprepared and didn’t bring towels or swimsuits. It didn’t matter (other than a messy car) but this time we went prepared. Beau, however, swore he wouldn’t “swim in THIS weather” so he didn’t bring his swim suit! HA! Of course after Didi took the plunge (she ALWAYS leads the way! Fearless!) then he had to, in his skivvies! It was a really fun afternoon.

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West side of Loch Morlichh
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Hi ducky!
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Windy day but beautiful views!
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Beach babies!
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You can see how windy it was! Unreal!
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Beach runner and Lake swimmer!
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Bury me good!

Once the sun went under, we decided it was time to pack up and hunt for some Highland Cattle, or as they say locally – ‘Airy Coo or “Hairy Coos!” We had heard there was a farm nearby so we set out to find it! Once we got the right directions and dodged the high priced “tour” they try to get you to buy, we learned you can basically see them from the road and didn’t need to spend $50 to drive through the farm. Ohhhh this tickled me so! I just love these hairy buggers and they’re a sight to see up close. They are just adorable. Look at those toes! And that coiffe!

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Munch munch munch…
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“Who, me?”

We made it back for another (very subpar) dinner at the “resort” and the kids had another chance to play at “The Fun House” so it was an extremely full day. I think we did just about all the things to do in that area except for the Cairngorms Mountain Funicular Railway, which, after seeing the price, viewing the vista from the top of the mountain, and comparing it to all the other places we had been so far, we didn’t feel like we were missing out much! Thanks for the memories, Cairngorms NP!

Day 7: Cairngorms to Aberdeen

This was a fun little road trip day that we didn’t have much in the way of expectations for. We headed out through the Cairngorms National Park, east towards Aberdeen with the intent on stopping whenever we saw something cool. On our google maps we had each marked a few places that looked interesting, but ultimately it was just a day to drive and enjoy the journey. We saw some funny things (like a sign for “Cock Bridge”) and some impressive things (more stone walls and dogs herding sheep! Amazing!) and we ended up deciding to stop at Balmoral Castle, near Ballater, Scotland.

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It was a beautiful drive!
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Corgarff Castle
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Magestic views!
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Lovely, approaching Balmoral Castle

What we didn’t realize was that the QUEEN OF ENGLAND had taken up residence there, as she does for about 10 weeks at the end of each summer, so the castle was closed to visitors and tours. We saw the queens guard and heard some great stories about the restoration of the area thanks to some very friendly staff who worked in the gift shop and information center.  We had a lovely talk with Fiona (of clan Robertson), a local who had lived there all her life and now, a retired teacher, enjoys working at the gift shop and talking to tourists. She told us she used to take her students skiing on trips to Maine back in the day! I was so impressed that she knew Sugarloaf and Sunday River! It was a special visit even though the only view we got of the impressive Balmoral was this poster:

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(This is not Fiona) She told us all about the Queen!

I was interested to hear first hand from these locals that they really do love the royal family, ever since Queen Victoria. Apparently it was she who fell in love with Scotland and began spending time there regularly, and loved Balmoral Castle. The history is fascinating! Prince Charles also has taken the small town nearby under his wing, and after a devastating flood 5 years ago, he spent royal funds to spiff the town back up and the locals love him for it! We stopped for lunch in Ballater at the brand new restaurant in the refurbished train station. Such a treat!

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Glenmuick Church, Ballater, Scotland

We continued onto Aberdeen and made it there as the rain was passing over the cliffs on the coast. We sat in our parked car for about an hour just watching the storm go out to sea. It was pretty special! Also it was nice to know it was clearing up, because we wanted to go check out the beach again! Derek was very patient with me as I wanted desperately to GET TO THE CLIFFS and in order to do so, I would need to trek solo through very wet fields of stinging nettle. Still, as these views show, it was well worth it!

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The coast, just south of Aberdeen in Cove Bay
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The cliffs are much larger than they appear – see the factory on the hill in the distance for scale!
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Massive cliffs overlooking Cove Bay!
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Gorgeous coast of Scotland – Imagine living in those homes!

We went from the cliffs at Cove Bay a bit north to the city.  Aberdeen was bigger than we expected, and getting to the beach took a while. We didn’t care, because by then it was full sun and even though it was chilly, we had a great time walking along the beach, picking up special rocks and treasures, and saving jellyfish – large AND small! The kids will remember seeing the harbor seal poke its head out of the water while a man was taking a chilly swim in the waves. That was so cool!

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“Look what I got!”
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“I found another jellyfish!”

Aberdeen had a tired, sort of carnival-ish feel to it, and we were feeling kind of worn out from the travels. We decided to go see a movie – Incredibles 2, SO cute – and then go to TGIF for dinner. It was kind of fun to see a movie in English and eat at a familiar place. I can’t say we miss much yet about “home” but it was comforting to have everything feel familiar. It was another late night for the kids, so we hit the hay and got ready for a castle-viewing day tomorrow!

Day 8: Aberdeen to Edinburgh

‘Tis a day of CASTLES!

“Huge knots of seaweed hung up on the jagged and pointed stones, trembling in every breath of wind; and the green ivy clung mournfully round the dark and ruined battlements. Behind it rose the ancient castle, its towers roofless, and its massive walls crumbling away, but telling us proudly of its own might and strength, as when, seven hundred years ago, it rang with the clash of arms, or resounded with the noise of feasting and revelry.” – Charles Dickens

Dunnottar Castle

We left the hotel early as we had A LOT on the agenda today. The first stop, about 40 minutes away was Dunnottar Castle.  We saw tons of castles and landmarks on this trip, but if you ask us, this is probably the most beautiful and impressive of all of the castles we saw! Dunnottar is impossibly situated on a peninsula bluff with steep cliffs overlooking the ocean. Its a well preserved and well protected piece of history from the 15th century and we loved learning all about it!

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Dunnottar Castle
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Gorgeous cobblestone entrance

Looking through two windows of the castle…

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Looking out at southern cliffs from the castle
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Looking out at the northern cliffs from the castle (Hi Beau!)
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Great pano of the coast!
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Another view of Dunnottar, east coast of Scotland
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Impressive from every angle!

We left Dunnottar just as it was starting to buzz with tour buses and lots of people (yes! Nailed it again with timing!) and headed down the coast to our next stop, Doune Castle.

Doune Castle

Doune is one of those places that is impressive because of the familiarity of it. We had seen plenty of castles so far, but this one stood out as the one from memory.  That’s for very good reason! Many famous movies and television shows were filmed here. Doune served as the backdrop for many scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it was Stark homestead of Winterfell in the pilot of Game of Thrones, and of course served as castle Leoch in Outlander! It was fun to walk the walls and rooms of the 14th century castle and listen to the audio guide explain what took place in each location. Its clear to see why such a versatile and iconic castle became the best choice for so many period pieces!

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Doune Castle
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The famous Trojan Rabbit scene at Doune Castle from Monty Python!
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Interior courtyard transformed for the set of Outlander!
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Doune is this Outlander backdrop!
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An impressive fortress!

We left Doune and headed toward Stirling, past the David Stirling memorial. He was a decorated Scottish officer in the British Army who founded the Special Air Forces and served in WWII.  It was situated on top of a hill in a lovely location and commanded respect! I was struck by how LARGE it appeared atop the hill, but how humble it was as we approached it on the road. Beautiful!

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David Stirling Memorial

Stirling Castle

Our next stop was a very famous and impressive castle in Scotland. We drove by the National Wallace Monument in Stirling on our way to the castle, img_1953.jpgto quench Derek’s Braveheart fandom.  William Wallace is legend in his eyes! The monument is beautiful and sits atop a hill in Stirling overlooking Stirling Castle. Its also really expensive to get tickets to go up and see it, so we decided to skip it and head straight to Stirling Castle instead.  Stirling is one of the largest and most significant castles, both historically and architecturally.  It began construction in the early 1100’s but most of what we see today was built between 1490-1600. Stirling is a grand, impressive sight. It looms large over the town of Stirling and is best known as the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots was raised. The rooms and memorabilia are beautifully preserved. Although we ended up with a quick rain shower during our visit, the reward (and highlight!) was seeing a gorgeous rainbow arching over the valley and the Wallace Monument. Its a picturesque location and the kids enjoyed frolicking about the castle! I would say this is probably the most impressive castle we saw and great for families. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the area!

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The great Stirling Castle!
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Many courtyards
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This is one of the larger ones
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Stunning view from the castle looking north
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RAINBOW OVER THE WALLACE MONUMENT!
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How it might feel to be royalty?
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Cute little prince and princesses!
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Derek, waving over the walls!
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Looking west
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The great Stirling Castle!

Spent from all the castle viewing and with more to come tomorrow, we headed into Edinburgh, checked into our Air B&B, ordered pizza and watched a movie! HA! All of this bloody history can really take its toll…I’m glad it goes *mostly* over the kids’ heads for now.

Day 9: Edinburgh

We were told this city is a “must see” while in Scotland, and that’s the truth! Its such a gorgeous place – and the lay out makes it easily walkable between all of the historic sites. Its clean, neat and bustling. Busy for sure, but not so crowded we couldn’t see or appreciate the space. IMG_2059We moved from our Air B&B and into our hotel into the center of town first thing in the morning so we could make the most of walking through the chilly city (and especially the castle) before it got too busy! It was a real treat to be able to stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in Edinburgh for FREE on our last night in Scotland thanks to Hilton points! It pays to collect rewards!

We took a walk along Princes street and did a little shopping and grabbed breakfast at (probably) the most beautiful Starbucks I’ve ever seen! The kids each picked out little souvenirs and we snagged a few gifts for later. Then we made our way to Edinburgh Castle by way of the park!

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Ross Fountain
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Currently dedicated to Children’s Cancer

While we were in the city there were two major festivals going on – Fringe and the Air Tattoo. The Fringe festival is basically a celebration of all arts, comedy, stage, music, etc. The Air Tattoo is a Royal Air Force event that celebrates history, service and sacrifice. For the Air Tattoo event, Edinburgh erected a massive stadium just outside the walls of Edinburgh Castle to hold ceremonies and shows, including a great music, light and fireworks show I was able to view from outside the castle walls!

Edinburgh Castle

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The stadium for Air Tattoo
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Views from the castle
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Courtyard, Edinburgh Castle
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We toured the prisons, exhibits and all the great rooms of the castle!

The Royal Mile

We walked from the castle down the Royal Mile, but first took a quick detour onto Victoria’s Street, which is known as the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter! I can see why – its so colorful and titillating!

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The infamous Royal Mile!
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There were so many street performers we were overwhelmed!
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Nothing like the bagpipes!
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While the Royal Mile was bustling, this quaint side street beckoned…

IMG_2155 As we neared the end of the Royal Mile we noticed it was threatening rain AND our tummies were ready for lunch so we ended up ducking into this terrific restaurant called The Grand Cafe, located at The Scotsman Hotel. It was so fancy and ornate inside, complete with marble columns, a mezzanine, velvet booths and chandeliers galore that we thought it would be expensive – but it was totally reasonable! The best part was the kids menu, which came in a little booklet that was custom made for The Scotsman. Just delightful. It was delicious, we stayed dry, and fueled up for our next trek up to Calton Hill! The kids sat at lunch coloring in their little books, reflecting on all the sights they saw on the Royal Mile – a “juggler” who used a crystal ball, the “wizards” who seemed to float in thin air, the magicians and acrobats, the inspiring bagpipes and thick-accented Scottish singers, and even a small stage with an excerpt from a musical playing! We were too overwhelmed by crowds to try to find JK Rowling’s hand prints but with everything we got to see, we don’t feel like we missed out!

Calton Hill

The kids, especially Beau, were getting pretty tired of walking by the time we made it to Calton Hill, but its one of those things you just can’t skip when in Edinburgh. The views from here are unparalleled!  They were so impressive, Willow fell right asleep…

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Dugald Stewart Monument, Conic Hill, with Edinburgh in the background
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National Monument
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View of Salisbury Crags
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Tuckered out explorer…

We beat feet back to the hotel and took a nice swim and relaxed together before dinner across the street at Wagamama (noodle restaurant!) in the rain. Swimming was fun, and dinner was lovely…but my favorite part of the day was when I slipped out at night when the kids were sleeping to walk around and take photos of castle glowing and even catch an unexpected fireworks display! What a wonderful way to wrap up a magnificent vacation!

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Victoria Street at night
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Glowing and magical!
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Walking to the castle I ended up with a great view of the lights projected onto the walls from the stadium. And OH the music!
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A beacon on the hill…
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Thanks for the memorable send-off, Edinburgh!

The next day was a long drive from Edinburgh back to London, but we were basking in the glow of gratitude, reminiscing about every magical moment of this once-in-a-lifetime vacation. We know we are so fortunate to be able to explore as a family like this and we didn’t want to take a single moment for granted! Saying goodbye to Scotland was hard as it captured our hearts, but it also quenched our wanderlust and filled our souls! Thank you for such a beautiful vacation, Scotland! We’re high from the highlands!

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Near Cockburnspath, Scotland – east coastal drive back to London

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