This article is not paid for or endorsed by MacBackpackers Tours. It reflects the views of the author only.
Simply put, there are people who take bus tours, and there are people who do not. I’ve always landed firmly in the latter camp, despite never actually having taken a bus tour. I would much rather wander a place on foot, exploring narrow streets, popping into shops as they strike my fancy and meeting whoever chance might have me encounter along the way. The idea of sitting on a bus and being told about a place as I’m driven through it seemed totally contrary to my travel ethos.
Yet, I booked a bus tour. I desperately wanted to see the Scottish Highlands, especially the Isle of Skye. However, public transport to and around the North fo Scotland is very limited, especially in the off-season. I was also financially and mentally unprepared to rent a car and drive it on the opposite side of narrow mountainous roads. I spent hours upon hours reading reviews and checking itineraries of the many different Highlands tour companies and eventually settled on the three-day Isle of Skye Tour with the travel company MacBackpackers.
The time I spent traveling through the Highlands and on Skye with MacBackpackers ended up being my favorite part of my trip. This was largely because it was NOTHING like what I imagined a bus tour to be. With that said, here are the top reasons a MacBackpackers tour is the Highlands bus tour for people who hate bus tours (aka, me).
1. Covering major ground
We started in Edinburgh, where our guide Neil actually picked our group up from the hostel where I was staying – hello convenience! From there, we drove north to make it to Skye by the end of the day, swinging to the East. We spent all of Day Two on Skye, and on Day Three we drove all the way back to Edinburgh, this time curving to the west so that we could see different places as we wound our way back to the Lowlands. I couldn’t have come even close to seeing this much of the Highlands if I’d tried to do it myself via trains and buses, so it was a definite advantage.
2. Time spent off the bus
This was my biggest concern, as I wanted to spend my trip hiking and immersing myself in Scotland’s natural beauty; I definitely wasn’t disappointed! We rarely spent more than an hour on the bus without getting out for – at the very least – a coffee and snack stop in a small town.
On our way north on Day One, we stopped in the town of Pitlochry and at the Cairngorm mountains, Culloden Battlefield, a quiet section of Loch Ness, Lochalsh and at Eilean Donan Castle.
On Day Two, we spent even more time exploring since that was our main goal, rather than covering ground to get from point A to B. We hiked the Fairy Pools, Lealt Falls, the Quiraing and took shorter stops at the Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock and in Portree. It was an unbelievably beautiful day spent hiking and adventuring through unimaginably immense landscapes.
On the final day, we stopped at a good lookout spot to see Ben Nevis (The U.K.’s highest mountain), hiked and picnicked in Glen Coe and toured Doune Castle. Though it’s not historically important, Doune has been used in many films and T.V. shows, including “Game of Thrones,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Outlander.” I feel so lucky to have visited so many places I had wanted to see and others I had never heard of but am so happy I didn’t miss out on, which brings me to my next point.
3. Neil the driver/guide/storyteller/historian
This trip could never have been so incredible if it weren’t for Neil, our fearless leader! While skillfully driving our bus on roads that were perilously narrow and close to the cliff’s edge, he regaled us with endless stories about the adventures and misadventures of his clan, the McClennans, and of Scotland’s history. He spoke of legends of fairies and giants and selkies, the tragedy of the Five Sisters of Kintail and the reason the Fairy Pools will give eternal youth to those who dip their faces in the water for seven seconds. Meanwhile, he took the time to learn a bit about each of us personally and was interested in our pasts and reasons for visiting Scotland.
Far from taking us to tourist-laden spots, Neil went out of his way to take us to lesser-known spots that weren’t so busy. When we all agreed we wanted to see the (famous) Fairy Pools, he convinced us to leave early enough to make it there by 8 a.m. As a result, I hiked alongside the pools in the quiet, hearing little but the rush of water and the crunch of icy ground beneath my feet as the sun’s rays broke over the top of the Cuillin Mountains surrounding the glen. As we left, dozens of people were just arriving. Other times, he steered us toward less busy, equally beautiful locations. This way, I rarely (if ever) felt “touristy,” which had been one of my biggest fears about taking a bus tour.
4. Meeting people
I was traveling 100 percent solo on this trip, but found friends both in my hostels and on this tour. As I sat on the highest peak I’d been able to scramble up in the Quiraing, I was joined by a German girl named Laura. We spent the next hours talking nonstop, finding that we had everything in common from our love of Ed Sheeran to high school experiences. MacBackpackers tours are for people ages 18-40 who want to get out and adventure, so I was able to get to know people who had things in common with me and people who didn’t, all of whom were cool and had come on the trip wanting the same things I did- to experience the Highlands.
5. Keep it local
Lots of tour companies are multinationals, and some don’t even hire local guides. MacBackpackers is a Scottish company and all of their guides are Scots. Whenever you can, keep your tourism local, send your money back into the communities you’re there to see and tour with people who call Scotland home!