To the American brain, we tend to figure a mile takes about 1 minute. In Ireland and Scotland, you can figure about half of that.
For the last 18 days, I was taking my parents on their first trip outside of North America. My dad had originally expressed some interest in driving and my uncle who came along has done driving in Europe before but upon arriving, it was clear that it was all going to be on me. Tight roads, especially in Ireland, are the norm. Imagine your typical rural neighborhood street with a 25-35mph speed limit but now the speed limit is 60 mph and it’s a constant stream of trucks, campers, and cars.
There were 2 cars on this journey. First was an Irish Golf TDI 1.6 with 115 HP and a 5-speed manual. Here’s the quick and short of it: it’s comfortable, boring, made with cheap materials, cannot under any circumstance shift from 1st to 2nd or 2nd to 3rd with any haste without making your passengers ill (heavy flywheel), and the biggest redeeming feature is Android Auto.
Second was a UK spec Nissan Xtrail Visia trim (FWD) with a 1.7 diesel making 150hp routed through a 6 speed manual. It was a large vehicle for European backroads. Shockingly, it comes in a 3 row configuration but we had the 2 (thank god for that). It was roomy enough, made out of plastic, had technology that made life worse, and had a similarly heavy flywheel. You couldn’t see fun from the front seat. A note on the technology: The pedestrian detection system went off at random twice in empty parking lots, the front parking sensors beep when you’re in reverse, and the car warned me 3 times about impacting the vehicle in front of me on an empty road. The 360 camera worked well. It has no android auto and the screen looked like it was from 1999. One of the times that the pedestrian avoidance system came on, it braked so aggressively that the engine stalled before I could get to the clutch.
Ireland was good. We landed at 7:30AM on the first day. My parents we not thrilled about the lack of sleep. We picked up the Golf and grabbed breakfast in a nice cafe in Swords called Look Mam No Hands. It had fun pictures of the 7 dwarfs with sayings about coffee. The AirBNB, which had originally said we could get in a little early, got in touch and said it would actually be at least an hour late (now after 4 pm) so I had to find a way to keep a couple retirees happy on no sleep until 4pm. We went and did the Guinness tour. It was fine. I don’t drink so I just kind of appreciated the building and story. Dublin is good for about two days. We did that, Christ Church Cathedral, St Stephen’s Green and Little Museum of Dublin while in the city.
Outside of the city was far more interesting. It was a 165 mile (1 way) drive to Cliffs of Moher from there but it was well worth it.
North of Dublin, you find a prehistoric site called New Grange. It’s one of the oldest man made structures (predates Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids significantly) at 3200BC. You can actually take a tour INSIDE.
It’s basically a small burial chamber, but it aligns with the rising sun for 6 days per year and has some insanely old carvings along with Victorian-era graffiti. Very cool. Also up that was Ardgillian Castle - basically a really cool estate with a cafe, self guided tour, and incredible gardens.
We hopped a Ryan Air flight to Glasgow. It was fine. My uncle joined the vacation as well. I got myself a black pudding burger (2 patties with black pudding in the middle) at Bread Meats Bread and all was right with the world.
I freaking love Glasgow. I should stop telling people because if other people find out how amazing it is, it will get ruined. The people are friendly, the food is incredible, the music scene is outstanding, there’s always something to do, the museums are free, and it’s incredibly walkable.
The Riverside Museum (known as “The Transportation Museum” by locals) is amazing. We got super lucky and got a tour from a local volunteer. I’ve been 3 times and that’s never happened. He walked with us for about 2 hours and gave us incredible knowledge about Glasgow’s coachbuilding past, cars in the UK, buses and trains in Glasgow, shipbuilding industry there, and the evolution of public transit in the city. In the end, this was one of the top couple highlights of the trip.
We also took a day trip to the Falkirk Wheel (which I already posted) and Stirling Castle. This the is the best castle to visit in Scotland. Like all the castles, there’s an admission fee but the guided tours are free and that means you don’t need to rent the audio devices. It’s well preserved/restored and is kind of the gem of Scotland when it comes to telling the historical story. Edinburgh castle is fine (we did that too), but it’s less cohesive and tells a much more modern tale.
Before we left Glasgow, we did dinner with my former colleagues who still work or live there. There’s a Polish restaurant that’s open to the public but buried deep in the basement of a Polish club. It’s easily one of my favorite places and it was great to see some friends that I hadn’t seen in some time.
Leaving Glasgow, we drove up through Loch Lomond and Glencoe. Glencoe is an incredible sight and has a nice visitors center. It’s basically a valley flanked by mountains and year-round waterfalls.
We also made a stop at Urqhart Castle - which is basically just a tourist trap on Loch Ness. It has nice views of the Loch and the remains of a castle. There’s next to nothing known about the castle so most of the information starts with “this MIGHT have been...” and that kind of became a joke.
We spent the next several days in Invergordon. It’s a town of 4000 people that sits North of Inverness. From there, we did the bulk of our driving. See, the thing about the highlands is - there’s not such thing as a straight road. It’s heaven for a Miata. At the same time, it’s also hell for an SUV full of retirees. We managed minimal car sickness and that’s good. However, it wasn’t without complications. One day, we drove for 2 hours only to find that the road was closed and the only other path required driving the 2 hours back and starting over. We found a coffee in the nearby village, stretched our legs, snapped some pictures of the town/loch, and headed instead to a placed called Inverewe Garden & Estate.
Even the detours are gorgeous in the highlands.
Most roads in the highlands are carriageways with a max speed of 60mph. Unlike the US, that’s really a max of safety. You’re lucky to average 40mph. Our route to Skyeskins (a sheep skin operation that we wanted to see) was under 100 miles away, but was nearly a 4 hour drive. Thankfully, there are stopping points in villages for coffee and we were able to break the day up (on our second try) by stopping at Eilean Donan castle.
It was rebuilt by a descendant of the castle’s owners in the early 1900s. The family still has apartment there. It’s pretty neat and very photogenic. The reason it was so very very destroyed prior to the 1900s is that it was a stronghold of the Jacobites. The king, smartly, just sailed a couple warships into the loch and blew it to smithereens.
A group doing the Coastal 500 in classic Volvo’s stopped by while we were there.
We took it easy on the final day. Walked around town, saw a cruise ship dock for the day, went to Inverness for lunch, and got ourselves checked in for our flights back to the US.
All in all, it was an outstanding trip. As most trips, it had its hiccups (detours, aging issues, hangry people, etc) but nothing major. We did a ton and ate a ton. I’ve left out most of the food, but it ranged from handmade pizza to haggis pakora, to fish and chips, to digestives, to some of the best chocolate I’ve had in my life. I’m a bit afraid to look at my credit card statement. I also didn’t mention our accommodations which were pretty great - particularly in Scotland.