My wanderlust addiction has seen me travel all over Scotland, but until recently I’d never been on a guided tour. Then The Hairy Coo invited me to join them on a Highland day tour from Edinburgh. They were 100% certain I’d love it. I wasn’t sure I’d like leaving the itinerary planning and storytelling to someone else, but I was willing to find out.
So, one fabulously sunny September morning, my Mum and I joined fourteen other day trippers of all ages and nationalities to embark on a ‘One day Loch Ness, Glencoe, Highlands & Whisky Tour’ with The Hairy Coo.
Meeting Colin and Margo
Colin our driver/guide was a larger than life character. He was as Scottish as they come. So Scottish in fact that he looked more like a Hamish than a Colin. He had:
- A big ginger (red) beard
- A thick Scottish accent
- A kilt
- The gift of the gab
It was immediately apparent we were going to have a whale of a time in his company.
AND if Colin wasn’t entertainment enough, we’d be touring the Highlands in an orange bus called Margo. Margo had ginger hair too and a pair of heilan’ coo horns. If you’re wondering what a hairy coo or heilan’ coo is, let me enlighten you. Hairy/heilan’ coo is Scots for Highland cow. You know, the muckle beasties that adorn Scottish postcards and shortbread tins?
Horrible history and tall tales
Our tour left Edinburgh at 8:00 a.m sharp – we had a busy day ahead. First came a lesson in speaking like a Scot. “Are we going to have fun?” Colin asked. “Yes” we replied. We were wrong (not about the fun), but we should have answered “aye”. So once more Colin asked “are we going to have fun?” – “AYE” we bellowed back.
As we headed north, we were regaled with tales of medieval skullduggery and mythical Celtic beasties associated with the places we were passing.
Colin was a natural storyteller with an obvious passion for Scottish history. And while he covered lots of history, it was shared in a way that made it fun and easy to follow.
Whisky tour – Deanston Distillery, Doune
Our first stop of the day was Deanston Distillery in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. We had time to grab breakfast in the distillery cafe and do a spot of shopping too. For an extra £8 we could also go on an optional whisky tour with tasting. Whisky for breakfast – these Hairy Coo guys were definitely my kind of tour operator.
We decided to start with breakfast and join the second tour running during our Deanston Distillery stop.
One bacon butty and coffee later, we were ready for something stronger.
The whisky making process
I love distilleries and find the whole Scotch whisky making process fascinating. I’m like a child in a toy shop whenever I get a peek behind the scenes.
The tour started with whisky barrels. Our guide Jason, told us about the various types of wood the barrels were made of, and how the wood added colour and flavour to the whisky.
Next, Jason walked us through the distillation process. My Mum was impressed with the shiny copper stills and wondered how they stayed so clean. I think she had visions of a wee cleaning lady with a cloth and tin of Brasso polishing like billy-o.
I was impressed by the fact that almost nothing goes to waste at Deanston Distillery. The by-products of the whisky making process are sold on to be used as animal feed and fertiliser. The distillery generates its own electricity too. Very eco friendly.
Scotland’s distilleries fight a constant battle with whisky guzzling angels who sneak into their duty free warehouses in the dead of night. I was shocked to discover how much whisky the light fingered, winged ones manage to pilfer.
Jason tapped on a barrel that had been filled in 2017. It made a dull knocking sound, indicating it was full. A 1974 barrel told a very different story. It sounded hollow and was only a third full. The angels had taken a large share. Once bottled, the contents of the 1974 barrel will retail for an eye popping £5,000 per bottle.
One (or two) for the road – hic
Our tour ended with a tasting. My Mum hadn’t touched a drop of whisky (whiskey or bourbon) since spending an evening with Jim Beam in the late sixties. Yet, as soon as Jason started handing out sample glasses her hand shot out like Oliver Twist.
We tried Deanston Virgin Oak and a 12 year old single malt. Both were good, but the Virgin Oak was my favourite. My Mum didn’t master the art of tasting enough, to avoid the dreaded throat burn. She’s still a work in progress, but I’ll make a whisky lover of her yet.
Jason was a superb guide, who shared lots of interesting stories and information with us during our tour. I’d highly recommend a visit to Deanston Distillery if you ever find yourself in Doune.
We left the distillery clutching brown paper bags. Not so we could swig whisky on the sly as we journeyed further north. The bags contained packed lunches, purchased from the distillery cafe.
Doune to Fort Augustus
Next, we were bound for Glen Coe. En route we listened to tales of selkies and the notorious cattle rustler Rob Roy MacGregor.
Arriving in the atmospheric glen, the terrible events of 13th February 1692 were recounted to us. It’s a date remembered as one of the most shocking in Scottish history. In the early hours of 13th February 1692 government troops turned their swords on the Macdonald hosts who had provided them with food and shelter for twelve nights.
We stopped briefly near Glencoe Village for a photo opportunity and comfort break.
Back on the bus we tucked into our packed lunches as we passed lochs and mighty mountains, including the UK’s highest, Ben Nevis (we caught a rare, cloud free glimpse of the summit too). Fab stories and spectacular scenery made for an extremely enjoyable lunch on the move.
Monster spotting with Loch Ness Cruises
At 2:30 p.m. we arrived in Fort Augustus at the south-west end of Loch Ness. We had two hours free to explore the pretty lochside village. We’d booked to go on an optional catamaran cruise (£14) with Cruise Loch Ness. There was no way we were going to pass on an opportunity to meet The Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie.
On a modern vessel, equipped with state of the art sonar technology we were quietly confident Nessie would make an appearance.
With the sun beating down, we decided to sit out on the open deck. It was hot, hot, hot, but luckily there was a bar onboard so we purchased a chilled white wine each to keep us cool.
We kept one eye on the sonar display monitors and the other on the loch for signs of the monster. We passed a spot where Nessie had slipped climbing out of the loch, leaving a scar on the hillside as she fell, but there was no sign of her.
Our cruise was drawing to a close, and although we’d really enjoyed learning about the loch we were disappointed that its most famous resident was going to elude us.
And then as if by magic, she emerged from the murky depths of Loch Ness – the big Scottish beastie first sighted by Saint Columba in the 6th century. And if you don’t believe me, I present to you indisputable photographic evidence – Nessie is real.
After 45 minutes or so on the loch we arrived back at Fort Augustus. We had time for a potter before hopping back on the bus. We used it wisely and sat on a bench eating chips as the sun beat down on us. Ah, the good life.
Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge
Back on Margo it was time for us to begin our journey south. We still had another couple of stops to enjoy though and plenty more commentary from Colin, including creepy tales about wizards and dark goings on by the shores of Loch Ness.
The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge was our penultimate stop of the day. It’s a beautiful spot with a bonnie view of Ben Nevis and the Nevis Mountain Range. The memorial depicts three Commandos gazing over the rugged mountain terrain where they trained during WWII. They look as if they could step off their plinth at any time and go charging off into the undergrowth.
It’s a beautiful and poignant depiction of men we owe so much to.
Cairngorms National Park
The final leg of our Highland road trip took us deep into the Cairngorms National Park. The landscape looked stunning, lit up by the warm glow of the late afternoon sun.
Colin’s commentary turned to Jacobite risings, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the native wildlife that lives in the national park. We kept our eyes trained on the russet coloured hills hoping to spot something. We were lucky – a magnificent golden eagle obliged. It was a fleeting glimpse but enough to fill us with awe.
Whisky ice cream, Pitlochry
Our final stop was Pitlochry, a lovely Victorian town in the heart of Perthshire. Colin took us to visit a popular wee sweetie shop that sells whisky ice cream. We’d started the tour with whisky so we might as well end it with whisky too.
My Mum, not yet recovered from her earlier dabble with Deanston malt played it safe and ordered Scottish tablet ice cream. Tablet is a traditional Scottish sweetie like fudge, it’s made with condensed milk, butter, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar and sugar. On Colin’s recommendation I opted for the whisky ice cream which had been made using single malt whisky from Pitlochry’s Edradour Distillery.
It was deeeeeeeelicious.
As we hurtled down the A9 to return to Edinburgh, the sixteen day trippers who’d left the city that morning as strangers, were returning as happy acquaintances, singing Scottish songs and playing pass the parcel with a bar of tablet and bottle of Irn Bru. It takes a special kind of tour guide to make that happen.
A Hairy Coo Tour – the verdict
The Hairy Coo have come a long way since 2010 when they launched their first day tour from Edinburgh. Back then, people thought they were mad when they decided to offer free tours using their only bus. The philosophy behind their idea was simple though – cost shouldn’t prohibit anyone from experiencing the beauty of Scotland. You could join a tour and pay whatever you felt it was worth/you could afford at the end. What a wonderful idea. The free tour still runs to this day.
If I was asked to choose three words to sum up our tour with The Hairy Coo they’d be – FUN, FUN, FUN. We loved it from start to finish. Although the tour was thirteen hours long, it flew by in the blink of an eye. At the end we were asked what our favourite part had been. For my Mum it was Glencoe. I loved that she’d chosen a simple ten minute photo stop as her highlight. For me it was the Deanston Distillery tour and tasting. Am I getting a little obsessed with whisky? Maybe!
So, if you ever find yourself in Scotland’s beautiful capital city longing for the Highlands, I can highly recommend a Highland day tour from Edinburgh with these guys. You’ll laugh so much your face will hurt, plus the scenery’s pretty awesome too.
Our tour and optional excursions were provided on a complimentary basis, however all opinions are entirely my own.
Until next time …….