Arrive at Edinburgh Airport and transfer to the Grande Dame of the city center, the glamorous Balmoral Hotel. After check-in, it’s time to welcome friends old and new at a Scottish afternoon tea and Champagne party. After tea, sink into comfy chairs for our welcome orientation and talk by our study leader who will give us a brief overview of Scottish history providing a handy framework for the adventures ahead. Like to keep your legs moving on your arrival day to a new city? Join our easy orientation stroll around the ‘Athens of the North’, which will be bursting with color and energy as the famous Festival Fringe, the world’s largest art festival, will still be in full swing.
THE BALMORAL HOTEL (Afternoon tea, champagne reception)
It’s a relaxed morning start, bowing briefly to jetlag for our first day, before meeting our Edinburgh guide Alistair Hector, formerly principal of George Heriot’s School (founded in 1628 and a source of influence for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts). Alistair will lead us on a leisurely walking tour of the Old City, including the Upper Royal Mile and Grassmarket. If time permits, we will pop into Alistair’s school (aka Hogwarts) and visit the first post-Reformation church, Greyfriars’ Kirk.
Lunch will be at leisure, we will point out our favorite spots. Consider James Thompson’s light-filled Tower Restaurant, perched on top of the Museum of Scotland, with Castle views and a contemporary Scottish menu. Thus fortified, we start our afternoon with a guided tour of the national collections in the 1861 Royal Museum and its modern big sister the Museum of Scotland, admiring artefacts dating back to the Romans and Picts in the 1st and 2nd Century AD. We will then have free time to explore the international collection, which covers themes such as Discoveries, World Cultures, Design and Fashion (don’t miss Science & Technology – we’re in one of the world’s great engineering countries, after all).
This evening is a true once in a lifetime event. Experience a dazzling night at famous Edinburgh Tattoo (this is nothing to do with inking, by the way: pipes and drums used to sound a ‘tattoo’ for military personnel to leave the pub and return to quarters). The evening will start with being piped aboard Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia via the Royal Brow, an honor previously reserved for members of the Royal Family and Heads of State, before being welcomed into the State Drawing Room for champagne and canapés.
After a private tour of Britannia, where you will be given a unique insight into life aboard in days gone by, you will make your way to the State Dining Room for a silver service dinner. This is a magnificent location for an unforgettable evening.
We will then make our way to the Tattoo, to our VIP seats in the covered Royal Gallery where we will be joined by the Salute Taker, Tattoo guests and dignitaries. After the show, we have an invitation to the Producer’s post-show Champagne Reception held in the Royal Gallery. Cue the fireworks!
THE BALMORAL HOTEL (Breakfast (B), Dinner (D))
This morning we will explore the museum treasures of Edinburgh Castle, home to Scotland’s Crown Jewels and the mysterious Stone of Destiny that spent almost 700 years as the Coronation Stone of English monarchs in Westminster Abbey. You will see the Royal Palace, Great Hall and Edinburgh’s oldest building, St Margaret’s Chapel.
We follow that with visit to Stewart Christie & Co, the oldest bespoke tailors in the country dating from 1720, whose long family tradition has been brought up to date by the new owner, Vixy Rae, who will give us the lowdown on tweeds and tartans over lunch in her tearoom. There will be time to discuss patterns and cuts, should you fancy your own tweed outfit.
Our afternoon walk takes us through the elegant 18th-century terraces and squares of the carefully-planned New Town, including Water of Leith, Moray Place, handsome Princes Street Gardens, the Scott Monument (which, please note, can be climbed to the top), as well as Charlotte Square, the all-mod-cons Georgian House and the grave of the great Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith.
Your evening is yours - a great chance to see a Festival show (show recommendations will follow once we have the program).
THE BALMORAL HOTEL (B, Lunch (L))
Fancy a private tour of Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland? Yes please! On this special morning, we will take a privately guided tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse during the morning hours when it is closed to the public. Go behind the ropes in several rooms as our expert guide unveils the Holyrood’s dramatic past and the Palace’s important role today. Enjoy special access to the areas not normally open to the public such as the State Apartments and the West Drawing Room, used by members of the Royal Family as a private sitting room. Our palace tour will finish in the café with light refreshments.
We’ll also see the Edinburghian ‘Acropolis’ and unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill, the charming, private Regent Gardens, tucked behind grand Regent’s Terrace and usually accessible only to residents, and the New Scottish Parliament.
Lunchtime and the afternoon are free to do what you will, though of course we have some suggestions:
❖ Enjoy the last day of the Fringe Festival.
❖ Stroll in the 70-acre Royal Botanic Garden, founded in 1670
❖ Get tickets for the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland
❖ Find famous Scots in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – including the photographic collection
❖ Tour Mary King’s Close (‘Close’ is the Edinburgh word for alley), the lost world of the labyrinthine 18th-century city, hidden from view until the early 2000s
❖ Visit the extraordinary Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by the Da Vinci Code), just 30 minutes’ drive south, where every inch of stone is decorated.
THE BALMORAL HOTEL (B)
After check-out, depart for St Andrew’s, on the coast of Fife, via a stop at Hopetoun House, just an hour’s drive away. The house is still owner-occupied, as it has been since the late 1600s, and Lord Hopetoun and his family enjoy a magnificent 18th-century home with vast, colonnaded flanking wings - largely the work of Robert Adam’s father, the Palladian architect William Adam. For a leisurely stroll pick a trail in the 100 acres of surrounding grounds, complete with deer park.
After our break, we take the Queensferry Bridge over the Firth of Forth and drive north east to St Andrews, where we start with a visit to the British Golf Museum, which traces the game’s history from its origins in the 17th century to the modern day with the help of 16,000 different objects, from the oldest existing clubs to gutta percha golf balls.
We have free time for lunch – choose from the rooftop café at the Golf Museum, which overlooks the first tee of Old Course; the Royal and Ancient Club House, always busy with golfers arriving back from their rounds; the bar at the St Andrew’s Hotel (sister to this evening’s hotel, Gleneagles); or grab a pint at the Hams Hame Pub & Grill, all near – or on! - the golf course.
Your afternoon is free to take a tour of the historic course and stroll the charming town of St. Andrews to see its ruined 12th-century cathedral, the university where William met Kate and enjoy the little shops, either on your own or on a tour with our guide.
Golfers! If it has always been your dream to play at St Andrew’s, please let us know and we will arrange a golf day especially for you – you can play a round or take advantage of the excellent pros at the St Andrew’s Links Golf Academy to improve a specific part of your game. We won’t watch, we promise!
In the late afternoon, we depart for Gleneagles, a drive of an hour and 15 minutes through the glorious countryside of Perth & Kinross-shire, just as the leaves are beginning to turn. On arrival, we check into our rooms and have a generous two hours to explore, shower and change before a relaxed dinner together in the hotel’s popular Brasserie.
GLENEAGLES HOTEL (B,D)
Gleneagles is one of the great hotel experiences in a country famed for its love of country sports. Its vast estate is thrown open to guests – for walking, for playing golf, for learning to ride horses, shoot clays or fly fish, or simply to luxuriate in the spa – and for that reason this day is all yours, to do with what you will. Those of you still hungry for shops and culture may want to take a day trip to the handsome city of Glasgow, accessible by train, just let us know your desires and we will help to realize them.
Keep the late afternoon for us, though, because we are staging a true Scots Soirée at Gleneagles’ own hunting lodge, privatized exclusively for our event! Look in your rooms where you’ll find a surprise that you’ll be using this evening (yes men, you may wear underpants, though going native could be more fun). We kick-off the evening with a warming whisky tasting alongside a display of working gundogs (don’t worry--they’ll be searching for dummies not dead birds!). As it that weren’t enough, post-dinner we reel into the night with Scottish cèilidh country dancing led by rousing traditional band. Yes folks, we will even have a dance caller to teach us the steps, so grab your partner!
GLENEAGLES HOTEL (B,D)
This morning we will enjoy a private visit to Drummond Castle gardens, which claims to have the best terraced gardens in Scotland. Exclusively ours for an hour, Drummond, with its formal planting of shaped box and conifer and extraordinary hedge patterns, has all the spirit of a formal 17th-century garden, but has been restored in Victorian times and in the 20th century. Our tour includes commentary by the Head Gardener – who has great stories about the filming of Outlander on the estate, which stood in for “Versailles”.
Afterward, we will swing by Glenturret, the oldest distillery in Scotland, for a tasting or picking up a bottle for later. Back at Gleneagles, enjoy a few hours of free time for playing golf, clay shooting, fishing or biking – or the gym/spa, multiple swimming pools, riding or tennis.
Late-afternoon, we leave for the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre, built on the site of a great Scots victory against the English in the early fourteenth century. This state-of-the-art facility opened for the 700th anniversary in 2014 uses 3D technology in an interactive Battle Room to allow us to participate in the deadly battle between Robert the Bruce and the English King Edward II.
On leaving the center we will have a private battlefield tour with our Scottish Guide. Nobody is entirely sure where the battle took place, but they do know that it was protracted, lasting nearly two days, and it included single combat between Robert the Bruce and a young English aristocrat, whose head was smashed in the exchange.
Lastly, we drive to Stirling Castle for a late Thursday opening, something that only happens in August. Grey, turreted and battlemented, it crouches on a ridge known as the Stirling Still, brooding over its long history; it was besieged by the English before the Battle of Bannockburn. We will see the Great Hall, Royal Palace and Great Chapel (built by King James VI in the 1590s, just before he became King James I of England). After we visit this mighty fortress, we will retreat to the nearby Portcullis pub for a Scottish fish-and-chip supper.
GLENEAGLES HOTEL (B,D)
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, known for its fabulous collection of decorative arts and design, has opened a new branch this year: the V&A Dundee. We head east this morning to visit this newbie and enjoy its world-class design collection and the spectacular waterfront museum building – the first by Japanese practice Kengo Kuma & Associates in the UK – that looks as though it has flown in from a galaxy far, far away.
Lunch is light and bright on your own time. We recommend the V&A Café.
Our next stop is Scone Palace, only a half an hour away, which has for centuries been the crowning place of Scottish kings - from Macbeth to Robert the Bruce.
Scone Palace sits above the River Tay on the site of an ancient capital of the Picts (remember that handy tour of the National Museum of Scotland!). For centuries it guarded the Stone of Destiny on which monarchs were crowned. The palace is just south east of the abbey and Moot Hill, where coronations took place until the English King Edward I took the stone as spoils of war and housed it in Westminster Abbey. The palace has a replica stone and Coronation Chair – we saw the real stone in Edinburgh. For more on this story get hold of the 2008 movie Stone of Destiny on DVD.
We have arranged to have a private audience with Lady Mansfield in her home at Scone Palace. In a private room arranged for our group, we will take tea with Lady Mansfield and you will have the opportunity to ask her your burning questions about Scottish high society or what it is like to care for a historical Palace.
Weather permitting, we will also have a chance to stroll in the Pinetum, creation of the famous Scottish plant collector David Douglas and home to a towering Douglas fir raised from a seed he sent back from America in 1827. This is Perthshire’s ‘Big Tree Country’ at its very best, with towering redwoods and ‘Noble Firs’ planted back in the 1850s.
After all this enriching activity, we will return to Gleneagles in good time to freshen up for dinner: you are at liberty to choose from four wonderful restaurants, including the only Scots restaurant to hold two Michelin stars, Andrew Fairlie. If you think this might interest you, let us know in advance so we can secure your table.
GLENEAGLES HOTEL (B, Afternoon Tea)
This morning we wave goodbye to Gleneagles for an early drive to Mallaig and the Skye ferry, via the stunning Trossachs National Park.
The drama of this journey is difficult to exaggerate, for it takes in the lush Perthshire countryside, the tranquil beauty of the Trossachs and then crosses the wild, desolate expanse of Rannoch Moor, 50 square miles of bog, grass and standing water. The Great Moor guards the entrance to the valley of Glencoe, scene of an infamous massacre by the Campbell clan of their hosts the Macdonalds in 1692.
We stop at the Kingshouse Hotel, a tiny white house in the vast expanse of moor and mountain and a welcome sight for many a weary traveler in the past. This is our coffee stop before passing through the village en route to Fort William and Glen Nevis.
Late morning, we leap from our bus, picnics in hand packed by Gleneagles, for one of the most beautiful hikes you will ever do: an hour and a half circuit up Nevis Gorge to the Steall Falls (stopping first at the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre to use the facilities and orientate ourselves). Even if you are not in the mood to hike, picnic spots abound within easy walking distance.
It’s now time for the islands: our journey to the ferry will take just over an hour, with photo stops at Thomas Telford’s Neptune’s Staircase, the longest stepped lock in Britain, built in the 1820s on the Caledonian Canal; the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct (1901), which starred, with the Hogwarts Express, in the Harry Potter movies; and finally the Prince’s Cairn, where Bonnie Prince Charlie embarked for France in 1746.
If time allows we’ll take a break at the gastro Café Rhu in beautiful Arisaig before the last 15 minutes into Maillaig for catching the ferry. The views of the islands make it a spectacular crossing – and on arrival we will make a brief pilgrimage to Armadale Castle and its gardens. Visit the Clan Donald Museum or simply stretch your legs in the lovely gardens or take one of the woodland trails.
We leave Armadale as it closes to complete the last leg of our picturesque journey – a 45-minute drive north to our hotel, driving between the Black Cuillins to the west and the Red Cuillins to east to arrive at the pretty harbor capital of Portree and our seaside hotel where we will dine together this evening overlooking the harbor.
CUILLIN HILLS HOTEL (B,L,D)
This morning we head west across the island, which is, by the way, deceptively large, making for the working lighthouse at Neist Point, built by David Stevenson in 1909. It’s been working ever since, and although now unmanned still has the aerial mechanism used to winch out supplies. It’s a gorgeous trek by foot to the lighthouse and back—estimate 1.5 hours total.
While out and about, we visit Roger and Andrea at Skye Weavers, where a small team of experts turn local wool into gloriously soft and covetable items using a bicycle-powered loom. Checked scarves, anyone? Or throws, wraps, tweed lengths? Our advice - keep space in your suitcases. And never fear, there will be sheep and further photo stops as we go.
At noon, full of fresh air and laden with woolen delights, we reach the award-winning restaurant Three Chimneys, in the crofting center of Colbost, right on the edge of the sea loch Dunvegan with view of the treacherous stretch of ocean known as the Minch.
We’ve left plenty of time here: we need it to fully appreciate what chef Scott Davies calls his ‘fiercely seasonal cooking’, using Skye’s ‘authentic natural larder from land and sea.’ We think that means oysters that slip down in a breath of brine, roasted wild pigeon and tender Soay lamb (we’ll see the attractive, self-sufficient, soft brown Soays munching at the grass, as they have done since prehistory). Relax and enjoy.
Mid-afternoon we’ll make a little jaunt to Dunvegan Castle, the MacLeods’ family seat, to walk off our huge lunch and take a short boat trip to see hundreds of lounging seals (worth it, we promise). Enjoy a leisurely late afternoon back at our hotel with time for settling in for dinner together.
CUILLIN HILLS HOTEL (B,L,D)
This morning we will take a scenic drive right around the Trotternish Peninsula, north of the hotel and home to Rubha Hùinis, the northernmost point in Skye. Stop to see some of the island’s most famous landmarks - Kilt Rock, The Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing landslip and Flora MacDonald’s grave at Kilmuir.
After our morning of air and light and wild cliffs and seabirds and lunch at our hotel, we will drive via the hauntingly beautiful Cuillin mountain range to the famous Talisker Distillery, for a distillery tour and whisky tasting and a stroll along the lovely bay. Talisker is the oldest working distillery on Skye and produces an award-winning range of single malts with a distinctive, smoky-sweet flavor and more than a hint of peat.
We’ll be back in Portree in good time for a stroll around the harbor, a look at the shops for those who wish, and a free evening to dine in town.
CUILLIN HILLS HOTEL (B,L)
It’s an early departure today: we have a lot to see en route to Nessie’s lair. First comes a photo stop at Eilean Donan Castle, spectacularly sited on Loch Alsh. If it’s a still day it’s difficult to tell which is the castle and which its reflection in the water.
We now set forth for Fort Augustus, where Telford’s mighty Caledonian Canal joins the southern end of Loch Ness. In the middle of the morning we will stop at Bridge of Oich, an hour and a half’s walk along the canal into Fort Augustus, and those who wish can walk it with a picnic lunch. (Note: We can order a packed lunch for you from the hotel, just give us notice) The rest of us will head straight into town for a stroll by the loch and a potter around the shops with time for lunch.
We then board our private cruiser for a comfortable, two-hour sail on the famously deep (over 750 feet), 23-mile long, steep-sided Loch Ness. The boat has sonar and we can train our binoculars and cameras on the surface of the water, hoping for a glimpse of those serpentine monster coils – the first mention of which was in the 6th century.
Joking apart, one of the best ‘Nessie’ sighting spots is our disembarkation point, the magnificent red stone ruin of Urquhart Castle at Drumnadrochit, seized in its time by King Edward I of England, Robert the Bruce and the marauding MacDonalds. Now looked after by the National Trust for Scotland, it has a visitor centre and café, perfect for a cup of tea and recovery period after a hectic afternoon’s monster-spotting.
Our private coach will be waiting to drive us to the Culloden House Hotel, just outside Inverness, where Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite supporters stayed for three nights before their disastrous defeat by the English at Culloden.
After checking in and freshening up, we’ll enjoy dinner in our hotel’s elegant dining room. We suggest rolling into bed early, as it’s battle day tomorrow.
CULLODEN HOUSE HOTEL (B,D)
After breakfast and check-out, embark on a day of adventures en route to Edinburgh and a Scots farewell.
First, we have a profoundly moving tour of the Culloden battlefield site with a National Trust for Scotland historian, who will explain the lay of the land, the tactics employed by commanders on the English and Highland sides – and the resulting carnage, with the ‘flower of Scotland’ lying torn and bleeding on the battlefield.
Consider a reviving coffee and cake at the museum café, before we make a brief visit to the standing stones at Clava Cairns, constructed sometime around 4,000 BC but newly-famous because of their starring role in Outlander. Stand in the magic circle and imagine travelling back in time.
Making our way steadily south east, we stop for early lunch at the excellent Druie Café on the Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore, one of Scotland’s most popular resorts.
As we drive, we will notice the landscape softening into the Lowlands, and after an optional tea-and-cake stop at the Macmillan Tea Rooms outside Perth (run by a loyal team of volunteers, with all proceeds going to the cancer charity Macmillan, and known for its delicious Scottish teas), we’re very nearly back where we started.
We’ll reach Edinburgh late afternoon, this time checking into the gloriously and eccentrically opulent Prestonfield House south east of the city. Rest, shower, take in your rich velvet surroundings – and prepare for our celebratory farewell dinner!
This evening we assemble in our elegant private dining room for drinks and Goodbye Scotland dinner – your last chance to sample haggis, neeps and tatties – and to raise a glass to the Auld Country. Slàinte!
PRESTONFIELD HOUSE HOTEL (B,L,D)
It’s a half-hour drive to Edinburgh airport from our hotel for those of us leaving today. C&S will provide your transfer to the airport, and we will make any departure time work today. For those lucky folks adding on some time in Scotland, we can help you arrange transfers or extra nights in the hotel.
Whichever option is yours, we hope you take home many Scottish memories to treasure.