1811 | Highlands & Islands - the far north & Orkney

Vast landscapes, spectacular coastlines and a brief glimpse into our ancient past

Welcome to this adventure and to the exploration of the far north of Scotland, its gardens, its vast landscapes and spectacular coastlines and its warm and genuine hospitality, and welcome too, to Orkney, a group of some 70 islands lying off the northern tip of Scotland. Orkney brings a particular and extraordinary dimension to this tour, and we have two days to explore its unique and daily-unfolding heritage.

This tour is, in essence, a scenic progress around the very top of Britain, visiting stunning gardens in breathtaking locations, learning a little of its history and heritage, and enjoying a good deal of excellent Highland hospitality.

The far north
The far north is a vast, sparsely populated area with a few, mostly single track roads, crossing a remote and wild landscape; it is stunningly beautiful, with huge, strange shaped mountains, remote lochs and enormous skies. This is truly the Highlands, not just an ill-defined area on a map, but a mindset and way of life. A little understanding of the Highland Clearances, the seminal event of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Scottish history will not go amiss, and it is worth noting that Sutherland, this most northerly part of Britain, is Sutherland because it was the southern land of the Norse raider!

Five thousand years ago on Orkney, prehistoric man began constructing extraordinary stone monuments, a series of important domestic and ritual monuments which, individually, are masterpieces and, collectively, represent one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in western Europe. We will spend a day in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, learning a little of this fascinating ancient past. More recently Orkney's chief influence, like that of Sutherland, was Norse, and, together with its northern neighbours in the Shetland Islands, Orkney remained a Norwegian province until 1469.

A superb three-part BBC series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, was screened in the UK this past winter, and if you are able to watch it, I heartly recommend it. And this website, Orkneyjar, is useful for background reading - and, if nothing else, you will learn that it is Orkney or the Orkney Islands, but not the Orkneys!

The Gardens
Despite the remoteness and its northerly latitudes the far north has a surprising number of excellent gardens and we will take you to a selection of the very best, a range of gardens encompassing the different styles and sizes, and we do so unhurriedly, at our own pace. The charitable organisation, Scotland's Gardens, has a useful website and I remain indebted to Kenneth Cox and his wonderful book Scotland for Gardeners.

Sleeping & Eating
Because this is, in essence, a grand progress around the northern-most coast of Scotland we have placed an even greater emphasis on our comfort and convenience. All told, we stay in five establishments during our progress; all different, all individual, all in the Good Hotel Guide and, save for our first night and for Orkney, all known to us and well-liked by us.

Our first and final evenings - driving to and from the far north - are one-night affairs, and the middle six nights are spent at three hotels, each for two nights.

Our first night is spent just north of Inverness, at Coul House Hotel, Stuart and Susannah Macpherson's rambling 1820's mansion, bought by them in 2003, sight unseen! We then have Friday and Saturday nights on Orkney at, The Foveran, an award-winning restaurant-with-rooms and, frankly, the best table in town. Returning to the mainland, we have two nights at the wonderful Forss House Hotel, one of our favourite hotels and truly one of the best hotels we have ever stayed at, and then two nights in Ullapool, at The Ceilidh Place, a mildly quirky establishment, which I particularly enjoy, not least for its lovely residents' lounge, its honesty bar and its great range of local beers! Our final night is at the rather luxurious, and very comfortable, Roman Camp Hotel, within easy striking distance of both Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports.

We have chosen these establishments for several reasons, among them the fact that they have good kitchens, producing some superb food and we will dine-in every evening, with the possible exception of our second night in Ullapool - when we might go and get some exceptionally good Fish & Chips!

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At a glance
Scenic Heritage & Garden tour
9 gardens including:
2-nights on the Orkney Islands
Max group size 10
Castle of Mey
Skara Brae & other ancient sites
House of Tongue
Outstanding landscapes
Excellent hotels
Dundonnell House
Private visits
Superb food
Dunrobin Castle
Fully escorted
Day 1 | Thursday, 12 July

From Edinburgh to the Highlands, via Pitlochry & Blair Castle

Tim will collect you from the Hilton Hotel Edinburgh Airport, from where we will drive north, crossing the River Forth on the Queensferry Crossing, the yet-to-be-opened new road crossing, and driving through Perthshire, to Pitlochry, for a brief stop in this charming Highland town, and nearby Blair Castle, for lunch and an hour or so in the fabulous Hercules Garden, a 9-acre/3.6 ha walled garden, restored to its original Georgian design and named after the life-sized statue of Hercules which overlooks the garden.

Blair Castle is not quite halfway, and it's about another two hours to Coul House Hotel, where
we will arrive in good time to check in, relax and have a stroll around their gardens, before drinks and dinner at Coul House.

We have chosen Hilton Hotel Edinburgh Airport as a departure point because of its proximity to the airport and because it affords customers, who are not staying at the hotel, a comfortable and secure environment in which to wait. Moreover, I plan to depart the hotel at about 10am, time enough to get to the hotel from Edinburgh city centre and, indeed, from Glasgow city centre. See also Joining Instructions.

Today's total driving is about 170 miles/270 km

Thursday, 12 July
The Hercules walled garden, Blair Castle
Day 2 | Friday, 13 July

Inverness to Forss House, via Dunrobin and Dunbeath Castles

We depart Coul House and return to the main road north, for our first visit of the day, to Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Dukes of Sutherland, a dukedom once covering 1.3 million acres and the scene of some of the most notorious of the nineteenth-century Clearances. Easily the largest house in northern Scotland, the current house is an older building remodelled by Charles Barry, inspired by French châteaux with a Victorian twist and just a touch of Disney, it sits high above steep terraces, leading to two parterres, each laid out around circular fountains.

After an early lunch, at Dunrobin, we continue along the coast for an early-afternoon's private visit to the gardens at Dunbeath Castle, where head gardener, Neil Millman, will introduce us to the gardens: a pair of walled gardens, one either side of the drive leading to the fourteenth-century, clifftop castle, and one of them designed by Chelsea gold-medal winning garden designer, Xa Tollemarche. They are beautiful gardens, and widely regarded as among the best of their kind in Scotland.

We leave Dunbeath and drive directly to the Penland Ferries terminal at Gills Bay, for the late-afternoon, one-hour crossing to Orkney, and to St Margaret's Hope, our ferry's destination. From St Margaret's Hope, on South Ronaldsay, we drive across the Churchill Barriers, erected during the Second World War to protect Scapa Flow from enemy attack, to The Foveran, our home for the next two nights, where we arrive in time to settle-in before dinner.

Today's total driving is about 120 miles/200 km

Friday, 13 July
Dunrobin Castle from its garden below
Day 3 | Saturday, 14 July

The first of two days on the Orkney Islands!

After a leisurely breakfast, and armed with our Orkney Explorer Passes, we drive into nearby Kirkwall, the largest town and capital of the Orkney Islands, to visit both the Bishop's & Earl's Palaces, and the majestic St Magnus Cathedral, before lunch and some free time to explore the town.

Following the coast, we leave Kirkwall and head to the far north west of the island, to visit the Broch of Gurness, an impressive Iron Age complex and one of the most outstanding examples of a later prehistoric settlement in Scotland, and Brough of Birsay, a very special tidal island, reached only by a causeway, with Pictish, Norse and medieval remains to explore.

From Birsay, we cross the island, to Houton, to take the ferry to Hoy, and visit the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and, if time allows, the Hackness Martello Tower, but whatever we do today, we will return to The Foveran for drinks and a relaxed dinner.

NB. Today's itinerary is particularly flexible, not least because the Scope Flow Visitor Centre is planned to close for refurbishment and a temporary museum may be housed elsewhere, that and the Brough of Birsay is a tidal islet, and we have to time that correctly!

Today's driving is about 60 miles/100 km

Saturday, 14 July
The great west door of St Magnus Cathedral
Day 4 | Sunday, 15 July

A day in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site

We load the minibus and spend today exploring three of the four Heart of Neolithic Orkney sites, plus the hugely important excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, all close together in the centre of  the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. At some sites we will be guided, at some free to explore at will, and we have chosen today deliberately, because there are no cruise ships due - and we should have the island to ourselves, figuratively speaking!

In the morning we will visit the Maeshowe Visitor Centre, for a guided tour of Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, one of Europe's finest chambered tombs, built some 5,000 years ago, then The Ness of Brodgar, a hugely-important archaeological excavation at the Heart of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site and, finally, the Ring of Brodgar, one of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments in the British Isles, a stone circle and henge dating to the third millennium BC.

From the Ring of Brodgar, it is all of a 10-minute drive to Skara Brae, the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, built long before Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids, where we have plenty of time to explore this extraordinary site. Late in the afternoon we drive to Stromness, on the western side of Orkney, for the ninety-minute ferry crossing to Scrabster, on the Scottish mainland, from where it is about 15 minutes to Forss House Hotel, our home for the next two nights, and we will arrive there in time to settle-in before dinner.

Today's total driving is about 50 miles/80 km

Sunday, 15 July
The enigmatic Ring of Brodgar
Day 5 | Monday, 16 July

The Castle of Mey, John O'Groats and Dunnet Head

We spend a leisurely day exploring the north eastern corner of Scotland, starting at the late Queen Mother's private Scottish residence, the sixteenth-century Castle of Mey, where the high-walled garden reflects the Queen Mother's favourite flowers, many of which were gifts and, nice though the garden is, and it is, the real treat is to be conducted around the castle by all the Queen Mother's staff, who talk of their former employer with much reverance and great fondness.

After lunch, at Mey, we take the coast road to John O'Groats for our statutory group photograph by the John O'Groats sign, and return via the much wilder Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and, hopefully, a brief visit to Dunnet Bay Distillers for their late-afternoon tour and a sip of some very decent gin!

We return for dinner and a relaxing evening at Forss House.

Today's total driving is about 70 miles/115 km

Monday, 16 July
The late Queen Mother's Castle of Mey
Day 6 | Tuesday, 17 July

From Forss House to Ullapool, via House of Tongue

We say goodbye to Forss House and continue our anti-clockwise progress of Scotland's northern coastline, driving west along the top of Scotland for a private visit to one of Scotland's most northerly and isolated gardens, the House of Tongue, home to the 96-year-old Countess of Sutherland, where Head Gardener, Richard Rowe, will meet us and show us around this beautiful, isolated garden.

We continue west, until we are as far west along the road as we can go, and stop for a picnic lunch on the golden beaches at Durness, just about the farthest north west that one can go, and here we turn south, and head for Ullapool - for refreshment, sustenance and a comfortable night at The Ceilidh Place, a mildly eccentric establishment, created by the late actor Robert Urquhart. Today is a long, wonderful day on the road, and we will sleep well.

Today's total driving is about 130 miles/210 km

Tuesday, 17 July
The gardens at the House of Tongue
Day 7 | Wednesday, 18 July

A day out from Ullapool

Another leisurely day on the coast, visiting two private gardens south of Ullapool, firstly to the House of Gruinard, where head gardener, Fiona Clark, will show us around this amazing seaside and riverside garden - one of our favourite gardens. Having gone as far south as we intend to, we retrace our route northward, along the coast for a picnic lunch, to Dundonnell House, for a private guided visit at this splendid walled garden, dominated by a truly magnificent and ancient yew tree. Head gardener, Will Soos, formerly of Inverewe Gardens, down the road, will show us around.

Our final two stops are on our way home, firstly to see the Falls of Measach in the Corrieshalloch Gorge, and secondly for a brief visit to the Lael Forest Garden, a relic from the days when wealthy gentlemen sponsored plant-hunting exbititions around the globe and brought back the seed to create arboreta, like this one.

We return to Ullapool for dinner, either at The Ceilidh Place or elsewhere in the town.

Today's total driving is about 70 miles/110 km

Wednesday, 18 July
The riverside gardens at the House of Gruinard
Day 8 | Thursday, 19 July

From Ullapool to Callander, via Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness & Glen Coe

We leave the far north, driving south east to the shores of Loch Ness and to our first stop of the day, at Urquhart Castle. Once one of Scotland's largest castles, Urquhart saw great conflict during its 500 years as a medieval fortress and control passed back and forth between the Scots and English during the Wars of Independence, and the last of the government troops garrisoned there blew it up as they left!

We continue along the Great Glen, through Fort Augustus, to Fort William, where we will stop for lunch and a brief exploration of the self-styled 'Outdoor Capital of the UK', and then continue our journey into Glen Coe, possibly one of the most beautiful of Scotland's great glens, where we will stop for photographs and to take in the breathtaking views along the way.

We will arrive at Roman Camp Hotel, our rather luxurious hotel, late in the afternoon, for a relaxing evening and a sumptuous end-of-tour dinner.

Today's total driving is about 200 miles/320 km

Thursday, 19 July
A happy group at John o'Groats!
Day 9 | Friday, 20 July

And back to reality . . .

After a leisurely breakfast and one final loading of the minibus, we set off to Edinburgh Airport, some 60-minute drive away, where we plan to be by late morning, in good time to catch afternoon flights and afternoon trains from Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station.

Please note that if you need to be at the airport significantly earlier than this, we will be happy to arrange for transport to the airport, at your expense, and if you are staying on, in Britain, and don't wish to return to Edinburgh, but would rather be dropped off elsewhere, then please let us know, so that we may assist you in getting to your next destination.

NB. We will arrange transport for those of you wishing to go to Glasgow Airport or Glasgow itself, though this will be at the customer's own expense.

Today's total driving is about 45 miles/70 km

Friday, 20 July
Edinburgh Old Town
General Notes

During our tours, we endeavour to be as faithful to our itineraries as possible, but sometimes changes do occur, either necessarily or unavoidably.

Need some help?
We have prepared some helpful information - under 'Essential Information', and this information is designed to enhance your holiday. The pages are, 'An Introduction', 'Additional Information', 'Booking and Paying' and 'Travel Information'.

The tour area map
Click on the Google map of the tour area, and it will open in a new window. The various tour locations are marked GREEN (for gardens), ORANGE (for other attractions), RED (for pubs, hotels and restaurants) and BLUE (for transport) - and click on these markers for more information.

Tour Information
12 - 20 Jul
9 days
31 000,00
Single person suplement:
5 400,00

Suites and superior rooms may be available at both Forss House Hotel and at Roman Camp Hotel. Please see the hotels' websites for the range of their rooms, and contact us, if you would like such an upgrade.

Fully Booked - Highlands & Islands - the far north & Orkney
Please join this tour at the Hilton Hotel Edinburgh Airport in the morning of Thursday, 12 July, but please let us know if this will be difficult for you. It may be possible to arrange other collection points, but we won’t know this, until we know the travel arrangements of all the tour participants.

And please note that we do not endorse this, or any other, hotel and we use it as meeting point purely for practical purposes.
Whilst there are no specific notes for this tour, per se, though it is as well to note the fact that there are several long drives throughout the tour, sometimes on winding mountain roads.
Click to see where we visit