I was more than a little curious when I read an online review that gave five stars to an all day, small group guided tour of the Scottish Highlands FOR FREE. There was an online booking mechanism with the odd caveat that, while the tour was FREE there would be a €1 charge against a credit card just to ‘validate the booking’. So we booked our tour with The Hairy Coo Tour Company and waited to see what the hook was.
Well, if touring around the Scottish Highlands in a bright orange mini-bus named Dolly with painted horns, driven by a stand up comic in a kilt with a fantastic knowledge of Scottish history and a thoroughly entertaining way of bringing it to life…then this tour is for you. What a grand day we had. (Did I just say that with a wee bit of a brogue?!)
If there is a draw back to this tour – but the only one – it was the early morning start. I recently gave up doing early mornings and I have to say the effect on my over-all disposition has been quite positive. But for this tour we were up at an unholy seven AM to meet our guide, Jonathan at a local coffee shop where we could mercifully fuel up for the day. Our first stop on the way out of Edinburgh was the quite unique Forth Railway Bridge, described by our guide as ‘seriously over-engineered’. It connects Edinburgh with Fife across the River Forth and is classified as a listed building, making it a heritage site.
Our route north to the Highlands takes us through the town of Stirling, often referred to as the gateway to the Highlands. Now, if you suddenly have cries of “Freedom!!!” running through your head that would be because this was the site of one the most famous battles fought by one William Wallace and his colleague, Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. Appropriately, this is also the site of the seriously impressive William Wallace memorial.
The memorial overlooks the lovely city of Stirling. This was really only a town or shire until Queen Elizabeth granted Stirling city status as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002.
And this is the imposing Stirling castle where the British holed up and waited for Wallace and Robert the Bruce to attack – knowing that they, the Brits would have positional advantage. Wallace et al – says our guide – were likewise holed up in the wooded hills opposite the castle fortifying themselves with Mars bars fried in batter with chips and brown sauce. Instead of charging the British in their well-defended castle, the Scottish rabble lured them down to a wee bridge over the River Forth, roundly defeated them and then went back to enjoying their Mars bars. Or something like that.
And all of a sudden we were in the gorgeous Highlands, weaving among the heaths and along beautiful Loch Venachar, Loch Achray and Loch Drunkie. The Highlands, says our guide were rife with whisky smuggling in olden days and from time to time bootleg whiskey barrels were concealed under the waters of these lakes. It’s said that the angel’s share wafted out of the barrels into the lakes and that the water from Lake Drunkie tastes like whisky to this day.
You cannot call it a Hairy Coo tour without including in your itinerary some hairy coos and here they are – a gorgeous wee herd of Highland cattle. This hardy breed is built for survival in the cold climate and scarce forage of the Highlands, with long hair for warmth and a lean build. If they look excited to see us it’s because our guide arrives each day with a lovely big loaf of whole wheat bread to tempt them over to the fence.
We were cautioned not to turn our backs on these cuddly looking but well-armed coos. Is it my imagination or does this coo look a little like our tour bus?
The tour goes as far north as the beautiful Loch Katrine, said to be the setting for Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. A vintage touring boat of the same name plies this eight mile long lake daily, and a gorgeous walking and cycling path weaves in and out around the bluffs on the eastern shore of the lake. The notorious brigand, Rob Roy MacGregor was born here and the crevices in the rocks along the southeast edge of Lake Katrine are said to be inhabited by forest gnomes. We didn’t spot any.
If you are a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus then Doune Castle will look familiar as the scene for much of the filming of The Holy Grail. Doune derives from the Gaelic ‘dun’ meaning fort, and there have been fortifications on this site at the joining of two waterways since the first century. This castle was built in the thirteenth century and is formidable even in it’s ruined state.
Our tour included an hour or so lunch stop in the Highland village of Callander and, just as advertised it was an all day tour bringing us back into Edinburgh around six PM – a long but definitely fabulous day. And did I mention FREE? True. This company is a startup by two young entrepreneurs who decided to try a different business model – offering the tour for FREE and encouraging customers at the end of the day to ‘tip’ what they consider the tour to have been worth, which we were absolutely happy to do. It was one of our most valuable experiences of Scotland. And we’re not done with Scotland yet. Stay tuned!