Life goal alert!
As any whisky lover will confirm, Scotland is the holy grail. It’s the place we all dream of visiting to taste the ‘Water of Life’ at it’s source, to experience the characteristics of our favoured tipple amongst the rugged landscape and in the chill sea air of the surroundings.
In Scotland, Scotch is more than just a drink; it’s a culture. For many people, Scotch whisky is life.
As travellers on a budget, Scotland can be a difficult place to visit, and when you factor in the price of whisky it can be daunting. Some of you might say “the words whisky and budget don’t belong in the same sentence”, to which I would reply, “sacrifice everything to budget for whisky”.
So, at the end of our savings towards the end of a four-month Europe trip, we set off to Scotland for eight nights driving and camping between distilleries. I’m talking tents and gas cookers, torrential flooding, sleeping in shelters and cars. But I’m also talking about a lot of incredible whisky experiences, distillery tours, lovely people and great times. We’re going through the Highlands, into Skye and down to the whisky Mecca of Islay itself.
The country is pretty, the camping is ugly, and it’s damn good whisky.
Click here to skip all the driving and camping info and go straight to distilleries.
If you’re planning a Scotland trip you should start in Edinburgh. Read the Edinburgh Guide and spend a few nights there, it’s a fantastic city with a lot going on, and is a great base for a Scotland whisky trip.
As with the Norway Guide, I’m going to share our driving route map here, talk about camping in the next section, including a brief piece on both Skye and Islay, and then break the trip down into a day-by-day itinerary with write-ups for each distillery we visited. I’ll include some costing throughout and add it all up at the end.
The markers are where we spent the night, the blue line is our driving route (minus a few detours), and the cocktail glasses are the distilleries we visited. Click here to go to the google maps page, where you can zoom in, get directions etc.
Before I get inundated with critiques of our route and the distilleries we missed. I know. There are just so many, and with limited time and funds you need to prioritise. For example, Dufftown and Balvenie were number one on my list and we missed them entirely. I couldn’t get a place on a Balvenie tour while we were there (even booking a few months out), which lead to eventually prioritising Skye and Islay over Dufftown. Boo-hoo. Click here for a comprehensive map of all Scotch whisky distilleries, so you can plan your own perfect trip.
We booked a rental car online from Arnold Clark in Edinburgh, two days before our trip. We ended up with a 5-door Toyota Yaris, which cost us £217 for nine days rental. Arnold Clark was by far the cheapest option in Edinburgh at the time.
To keep costs down we had purchased a travel insurance policy that included excess reduction for car hire, with World Nomads. The policy with excess reduction cost around £40 more than one without, whereas Arnold Clark would have charged £14 per day. We rented cars on three separate occasions during our Europe trip, saving hundreds of pounds in excess reduction insurance.
We had a TomTom GPS unit with us, which saved us hiring one from Arnold Clark, but we never used it. Since we had UK phones and data plans we just used google maps to find our way. Navigating Scotland was very easy and we really only used maps in the cities. If you aren’t from the UK you can download a Scotland map to your device to use offline; something like HERE WeGo would work just fine. Otherwise you can buy a sim card and a data plan, bring or hire a GPS, or just use a paper map.
In total, we drove roughly 950miles over nine days, an average of 105m per day. Petrol cost us £92.47 for the whole trip, that’s £10.27 per day, or roughly £1 every 10.3m. Not bad!. The Yaris did well in fuel consumption, and it looked awesome, but wasn’t a great car when compared to the VW Golf we had in Norway. It was underpowered, uncomfortable and generally just quite basic. If I were to do this exact trip again I would hire a better car without a second thought.
Not just a great way to save money on an expensive whisky trip; camping can be an exciting, freeing way to travel, and can offer an unparalleled connection with nature. Unless it’s raining all day every day. Then camping is an unending, damp nightmare.
Wild camping is legal in Scotland as long as you comply with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, and that was our goal for our trip through the country. We had tried and failed to wild camp in Norway, so we were determined to make it work in Scotland. We still had all our camping gear, plus an additional tent we had borrowed from some friends in Edinburgh. Here’s what our setup looked like;
I already had a pocket-knife and a lighter with me, and we had bought gumboots (welly’s), thermal t-shirts, beanies (wool hats), and insect spray. For a full breakdown of how much the camping gear cost us, check out the Norway Western Fjords blog.
Scotland is a wet country; in the areas we were visiting it rains on over 250 days of the year. We had optimistically planned our visit to be during the warmest part of summer, hoping to avoid the rain so that we could camp. No luck there. It rained so much in fact, that we spent more nights in our car than in a tent. We actually spent a night in a make-shift shelter in the community centre on Skye, due to torrential flooding washing out the campgrounds.
Because it was the peak season, all attempts to bail out of camping and find accommodation with a ceiling were fruitless. We actually took to driving around Skye, pulling over at every bnb sign to ask if they had mistakenly put up the No Vacancy sign. No one had.
Scotland is cold, with an average temperature of 15°C in the summer, so make sure you are prepared. At its worst we were quite happy in thermals, jeans, sweatshirts, rain-jackets and wool hats. Take good footwear and plenty of warm socks. On the odd occasion the sun did come out, t-shirts were ok. In Edinburgh a few days later we were walking around in t-shirts and shorts.
If you’ve got a car, a good idea is to keep the majority of your clothing inside the car while camping. Only take what you need for the night into the tent (assuming you’re sleeping in it!). This way the bulk of your clothing will stay dry; tents get very damp and being constantly damp gets tiring quickly!
Midges. Bastard midges. If there’s one thing in this world I truly hate, it’s these little nightmares-on-wings.
Highland midges are small flying biting little insects that are most annoying at dawn and dusk, but will bite you at all times during the day. They can’t be seen unless they swarm, which is pretty much their favourite thing to do, other than biting you. Midges are prevalent in wet, cloudy, humid conditions and the west coast of Scotland is literally the best place in the world for them to live and reproduce. A swarm can bite you over 3000 times in an hour, leaving itchy red bite marks all over exposed skin.
When you get up in the morning you will be covered by midges. Go near water? Midges. Bogs? (pretty much most of Scotland) Midges. Evening? Midges. I’m not exaggerating when I say they will cover you like you’re wearing a blanket. A disgusting, black, biting blanket.
To avoid midges, do the following;
During midge season in Scotland it’s not unusual to find yourself fleeing midge swarms in a panic over rough terrain.
Skye is a beautiful island just off mainland Scotland. The scenery is incredible and the island has a typical Scottish charm to its seaside villages. You can drive from the mainland over a bridge onto Skye, where you will find a village called Kyleakin on the left. In Kyleakin there is a lodge called Saucy Mary’s that has free toilets and showers. I kind of can’t believe I just typed that, but when you’re wild camping you take showers where you can get them.
Portree is the main town on Skye and has everything you could need. The fish and chips from the creatively named ‘Fish and Chips‘ on the harbour are an excellent example of the UK style.
Glenbrittle campground is a great place to camp in an astounding location underneath mountains and next to the sea. The camp shop also sells really good coffee.
The Fairy Pools are some natural pools with a mountain backdrop. They would be pretty if it wasn’t for the swarms of midges that terrorise everyone who visits.
Talisker distillery is in Carbost, where there is also a nice pub called The Old Inn, which serves good beer. Head past the distillery up the hill and look for The Oyster Shed, where you can get incredible oysters.
Talisker itself has a nice beach, about a 15 minute walk across some farmland. Portnalong is a seaside village that has the blackest water I’ve ever seen.
Islay is the place I’d want to live if I could handle relentless rain. Its rugged beauty leaves an impression on everyone who visits and if there’s one place in Scotland that truly reflects the flavour if its whisky then Islay is it. At the time of writing there are eight working distilleries on Islay, with three more planned. We visited six of them.
Port Ellen is the largest town on Islay, being only slightly larger than Bowmore. It’s a lovely place and has the convenience of the ferry link to the mainland. There are pubs, takeaways, restaurants, accommodation and a supermarket. From Port Ellen you can walk to Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig distilleries.
Bowmore is similar to Port Ellen but slightly smaller. Bowmore distillery is located in town.
The water on Islay is a dark brown colour due to the high concentration of peat on the island. The peat is what makes Islay whisky so unique.
We actually booked our ferry journey a few days in advance at the Portree information centre on the Isle of Skye. I’m quite sure you could ask at any information centre and they can make the call and book for you. This method provides paper tickets and receipt, no emails, so don’t lose them! You can book online if you have a reliable internet connection, which we didn’t at the time.
The Islay ferry is operated by Calmac. We got to the island on the Kennacraig to Port Askaig route, which took just under two hours and cost £91 for two passengers and our car, including our return journey from Port Ellen. The car is the big expense here, but you probably don’t want to be on Islay without one. We certainly didn’t. Ferry tickets are £13 per person and £65 per car return.
Make sure you book in advance, or at least check the ferry timetables in advance, as there are only two to three ferries per day on each route and they do sell out in peak season.
Islay public transport does exist, but it is sparse. We used the bus once during our trip to get from Port Ellen to Bruichladdich, which cost £3.45 each, and had a hilarious journey with a friendly bus driver. It is possible to visit Islay without a car, but you will be relying on an infrequent bus service and taxis to get around. If this is the case, I would get the ferry to and from Port Ellen and base yourself there, using the bus service and taxis to see the rest of the island and visit distilleries.
Actually, even if you do take a car you will probably use public transport at some point anyway, unless you have a sober driver. Most distilleries will remind you, but always consider how you are moving on from your whisky tasting and never drive if you have any doubt that you’ve had too much to drink. Distilleries are used to providing tastings in takeaway containers, or you can take your own!
Hint – Definitely take your own takeaway tasting containers if you are driving, more than once I watched distillery staff fill up much larger containers than they provide themselves.
What follows is my actual daily journal, without all the costings (see final summary). Below each day you will find descriptions, costs and advice about each distillery we visited.
Went to Arnold Clark & picked up the car, borrowed a good tent from Amy & John. Went to Tescos and got supplies, then hit Decathalon on our way out for camping mugs and propane. On the road around 15:30, drove north through Perth, past Aberfeldy (Aberfeldy) and Pitlochry (Blair Athol), up the A9 to Newtonmore, which as it turns out was totally full due to some festival. We stopped at Dalwhinnie distillery but missed the last tour of the day. It was absolutely bucketing rain and wind so we drove around for ages looking for a bnb without luck. Around 20:00 we pulled up at a nature reserve on Loch Lagan near Aberarder & a farmer told us we could camp in a field. Then our car broke down in said field. It was too windy & rainy to tent so we slept in the car. Thank fuck we brought food and wine.
Pretty average night in the car but not that bad. Another guy came down and told us off for parking in the field but we couldn’t start the car. We got a jump start from him. Turns out it was a loose battery connection, I didn’t check it last night because of the mental rain. On our way by 09:00. Stopped at a local campsite and had a shower etc then drove to Fort William for extra socks, an umbrella, coffee and scones. Drove to Skye & had lunch in Kyleakin then went to Portree. Topped up on petrol, beer and water, also booked our Islay ferry. Drove around a bit looking to wild camp but it was so wet we weren’t keen & ended up in Glenbrittle at the campground. Really lovely place by the sea, walked on the beach, cooked dinner & drank wine. Met a Slovenian couple who gave me homemade liqueur; lemon and sage.
Glenbrittle Campsite – £18 (two people + car) – Beautiful spot, nice people, good coffee. Recommended.
Woke up and got out the tent and immediately got attacked by midges. Porridge breakfast, showers, then drove to the Fairy Pools. Nice enough place but it was a nightmare with midge swarms. Got to Talisker distillery around 13:00 and booked a tour for 15:00. Drove up the road to The Oyster Shed and had lunch, amazing oysters, average crab rolls. Killed time in the pub near the distillery called The Old Inn. Talisker tour. Drove to Talisker beach, nice place, then down to Portnalong for the final sun of the day. Back to camp for another night, soup for dinner. So far our experience of Skye is either midges or rain at all times.
Our Talisker tour was free as we are both ‘friends of classic malts‘, awesome stuff. The tour was ok, a bit impersonal and brief. The tour guide was very young and seemed new but tried hard, very small dram at the end but they offer free tastings of any whisky afterwards. The whisky kind of reflected the tour, not my favourite. There’s an overall corporate feel to Talisker which we didn’t really care for. It was busy and the staff were rushed off their feet, which made them not rude, but very direct. Normally the basic tour at Talisker costs £10 each, so we saved £20 right there.
Woke up to all-day rain, had breakfast etc and was about to book another night at the campsite, until the guy told us there is a flood warning today and tomorrow. Got coffees and packed up in the rain. Nice and wet. Drove around searching for somewhere to stay without luck, apparently it’s the busiest week of the year! Haha. Also because of the rain everyone is desperate for rooms. Had a car-picnic (classic) lunch in Dunvegan, topped up groceries. Drove around more asking at roadside bnb’s, no luck. Asked at the info centre and apparently the Portree community centre is offering shelter, so we got booze and headed there. Set-up at the CC at 16:30 then had a car-party with beers and music. Got fish & chips for dinner round the corner, really, really good. Back to the CC for wine.
Weird sleep in the shelter, but better than the car. Bailed asap and went to the info centre for WiFi and ate cereal in the car. Drove to Kyleakin and scored free showers then drove to Fort William. Stopped to check out Ben Nevis distillery and had lunch in the car park, then drove down to Oban. Thinking about a bnb but everything is full so we are almost resigned to sleeping in the car until we find a Backpackers Plus hostel which had some beds free. We took them and settled in. Nice place. Had a distillery tour booked at 17:40 at Oban so we went early and had a few drams before the tour. Oban tour. Got fish & chips again for dinner and some beers and spent the evening relaxing at the hostel, which is an old church.
Backpackers Plus Hostel – £40 (two people) – Really good hostel, great facilities, friendly staff, free breakfast.
Another free tour thanks to friends of classic malts. Almost can’t believe the value. Our tour at Oban was excellent, they have a great vibe and brilliant staff. Got to taste a 12yr cask strength straight from the barrel and got a dram of the 14yr at the end, as well as free Oban branded glasses. The basic tour is £8 each so this tour would have cost us £16.
Decent night at backpackers Plus, up for the free breakfast, awesome, then showers. Hit Tescos on the way out of Oban to top up supplies. Also filled up with petrol. Made it to Kennacraig to catch the Islay ferry to Port Askaig. The ferry cost £91 for both us and the car return, and took 1h55m. Off the ferry and a five minute drive straight to Caol Ila distillery. Caol Ila tour. Drove to Bowmore to have a look and get info etc. Got beers and water then checked out Port Ellen and decided it’s the best place for a base. Looked at a nearby campground but it was flooded. Parked up by the beach & cooked nachos for dinner, then found a good spot across the bay to park and spend the night. It’s too wet and windy to camp. Bottle of wine then sleep.
Just another free tour. Caol Ila has been the most down-to-earth tour so far. It’s run by the actual whisky-makers themselves and they have all the time in the world to answer questions. It’s a nice place now but I think it’s about to expand in a big way more along the lines of Talisker (so they say). Anyway, good tour, good dram and a free glencairn glass. Normal tours here cost £6 so we saved another £12.
Ok night in the car, woke up at 08:00 & drove back to Port Ellen beach to clean up, make breakfast and park the car. Caught the 09:40, 450 bus to Bowmore, then changed to the 451 bus to Bruichladdich. The journey cost £3.45 each. Got to Bruichladdich and had a coffee, a look around the town then went to the distillery for a dram. Bruichladdich tour. Met a nice Kiwi guy on the tour, Finn, who agreed to drive us around since he was driving anyway. He took us to Kilchoman. Kilchoman tour. Visited the beach near Kilchoman then Finn dropped us back in Port Ellen. Waited a few hours to sober up a bit then drove to the beach between Bridgend and Bruichladdich where we spotted a great place to wild camp. Cooked dinner than had a classic car party waiting for the rain to piss off.
We did the warehouse experience for £25 each and it was absolutely incredible, probably the best tour we did. You go to an old storehouse and taste three individual expressions straight from the barrels. Just amazing. We tasted a 27yr Bruichladdich, a 64% Port Charlotte Sherry Cask and a 60% Octomore cask, all incredible. Our guide was very good, very funny. After the experience you are invited to the shop where you can taste any whisky for free. We tried the 8yr Briuchladdich and the Botanist gin they make which were both excellent. I seriously recommend visiting Bruichladdich and doing the warehouse experience. Normal tours are £5 each. Here’s a .gif of our group tasting the Octomore. Note the setting!
The ‘farm distillery’. We took the standard tour which cost £6 per person. Kilchoman is a nice, new, small distillery. The tour is good with a knowledgeable guide. They have a malting floor. You can taste the wash and the raw spirit at 78%. They give you two small tastings after the tour. Not my favourite whisky but I liked the distillery and the tour.
Pretty good night in the tent. Got up and drove to Port Ellen to cook breakfast, semi-shower and park the car. Walked to Ardbeg for our 10am tour. Ardbeg tour. Had lunch at Ardbeg then walked to Lagavulin. Lagavulin tour. Headed to Laphroaig for another tour. Laphroaig tour. Walked back to the car then had fish & chips for dinner on the beach. Sobered up a bit then drove to our spot across the harbour for the night. Checked out the lighthouse and Singing Sands beach.
We paid £20 each for the full-range tour and tasting. This is a tour of the distillery and a tasting that includes five different drams. Our guide was a life-long employee who’s family had worked at Ardbeg for generations. It was a pretty good tour, we were able to taste the wash. The tasting included the standard 10yr, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, Supernova and the Kildalton, and you got to keep your mini glencairn glass. The guide told us the history of each expression and the history of Ardbeg, as well as some really good local stories while we tasted. Great value. The Ardbeg café is really good and they let you explore the area around the distillery and next to the water. Normal tours at Ardbeg are £6.
We had the ‘sensory experience’ which cost £35 each. For the sensory experience we were taken with one other couple to an old function/tasting room at the distillery. They provide you with a ‘tasting kit’ which is a wooden box that contains five 50ml bottles of whisky samples and seven bottles of aromas and flavours. We tasted the 8yr, 12yr, 16yr, Distillers Edition and the ‘Feis’, which was a limited release. The other bottles contained dried figs, peat, vanilla, sherry infused wood shavings, malted barley, sea salt and lapsang souchong tea. The guide talks you through each whisky and matches it with aromas and flavours from the selection. You keep everything, including your glass. It’s a bit gimmicky but we loved it. It was great being able to taste the whisky and still take some away. A standard tour at Lagavulin is £6, or free if you’re a friend of classic malts.
BEven booking two days in advance, the only tour available to us at Laphroaig was the standard tour, which cost £6 each. The Laphroaig tour was probably the best we did, since we didn’t actually tour the distillery at Bruichladdich. The staff are very passionate and they really show you everything. We tasted the wash, walked on the malting floor, saw the kiln and the smoking floor, and there’s a few more cute aspects that I wont ruin for you. You get a dram and a glass at the end. You can taste any Laphroaig whisky for free at the bar, we tried the Select, Quarter Cask, 10yr and the Triple Wood. I was also able to claim my plot of land and rent owed (a miniature of 10yr), which was another gimmick but honestly just added to the experience. We loved it at Laphroaig.
The walk between these last three distilleries and Port Ellen is really lovely, I definitely recommend it. That last day (14th August) was honestly one of the best days of my life, it felt like both of our birthday’s combined. The atmosphere on Islay, especially on that day, will stay with me forever. Even the sun came out.
Scotland whisky tour for eight nights;
If you found this post useful, please consider donating to help keep Roam and Recon going!