I tend to be attracted to things that are a little bit off the beaten path. I know that many people wouldn’t consider Scotland to be the most exotic destination, but I wanted to take the chance to see more of the country than just the cities. Edinburgh is great – but isn’t exploring the “wild” side of Scotland supposed to be part of the fun? The stunning scenery in Outlander certainly does an excellent job of drawing people to the countryside.
But how would I get out into the country? I didn’t have a lot of time, which meant that relying on public transit could be a frustrating endeavour. I certainly wasn’t about to drive myself – not only was it expensive, but learning how to drive a standard on the left hand side of the road sounds like a miserable experience.
Enter: Haggis Adventures.
This is a backpacker and budget friendly tour company, based out of Edinburgh, and affiliated with both Shamrock Adventures (located in Ireland) and Busabout, the company that I used during my 2014 Europe adventures. I had been very happy with Busabout’s service during the San Fermin festival (the Running of the Bulls) and assumed that an an affiliated company would be a solid option. Fortunately, I was correct!
There are a number of options, including shorter trips that travel to just the Highlands or the Isle of Skye, but I was interested in taking something that would be a bit more interesting. I was trying to decide between visiting the Orkney Islands or the Outer Hebrides, and the five day, four night Hebridean Hopper tour, also known as the “Heb Hopper,” ended up being the one I chose. The dates worked and the itinerary looked really interesting as we would be spending two nights in Stornoway, a night in Portree, and a night in Inverness.
Most tours start from the Haggis Adventures office in Edinburgh. There were several tours leaving on the same day, including the Compass Buster. This was a ten day tour that basically encompassed several tours – they started with us, venturing out to the Outer Hebrides, and then on our last day the Compass Buster crew headed off to the Orkney’s from Inverness. There are pluses and minuses to this sort of itinerary, but based on the Trip Advisor feedback I decided to stick with a shorter, dedicated trip. We also picked up a few people in Inverness who had gone up for a one night trip – they headed up with a crew on their way to the Orkney’s, then came back to Edinburgh with us.
So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what to expect, either on a Haggis Tour or, specifically, on the Hebridean Hopper.
Small Groups: Our bus was not full, and my trip departed in the middle of August. This gave us a lot of space to spread out on the bus, and meant that it was pretty easy to remember everyone’s name and develop fast friendships. The kind of people who are attracted to this trip are the kind of people you want to be friends with – everyone was quite laid back, friendly and up for sharing pints after a long day of sightseeing.
Fun Guides: We had Debs Irving, a passionate, fiery Scot. The bus drivers are the guides on these trips and she had a little microphone that she would pull over so that she could talk while driving. She was amazing. She eagerly discussed the history of Scotland, added in a of fun, personal anecdotes, and even shared some of the stories and mythology of the Highlands.
Shared Accommodations: When you register for the trip, the price you see is not the price you pay. That price covers the guide, the bus, ferries, etc. You can pre-pay for your accommodation (which is shared, single sex dorms) and entry fees, which is what I did and what I would recommend. If you book far enough ahead, however, you can upgrade your accommodation to B&Bs or private rooms. I loved my trip, but the hostel life is getting old for me… I would probably look into upgrading if I were to take a trip again. You also have the option to “pay as you go” – the hostel has beds set aside for everyone, but some people preferred to pay upon arrival. I would advise against this option – those of us who paid ahead were processed earlier and got the best bunks.
Sandwiches: One of the characteristics of a Haggis tour is a fairly active itinerary. We were constantly on the go and many of our stops were in less than populated areas. We stopped at a grocery store both mornings in Stornoway, and when stopping in Inverness on the first day. The grocery store meal combos are a great way to watch your budget and, despite the brutal winds of Scotland, it’s a lot more fun to eat your lunch by the sea. Plus – seriously – the UK is expensive, especially for those of us who are used to operating in Canadian dollars. I was okay with a few sandwich lunches.
Time Off the Bus: The longest hike we did was maybe one or two kilometres, but if you’re an inactive person I think you would be fairly miserable on a Haggis Adventures tour. Come with good walking shoes, proper clothes for the weather, and a willingness to go for a stroll. There are lots of hills, a few uneven footpaths, lots of sheep poop to avoid (seriously – I’m looking at you Dun Carloway), and lots of waterfalls to gaze at.
Rain or Shine: Haggis Adventures will go on, rain or shine. I brought the fleecy lined jacket alone with me that I wear in the Canadian fall or spring, and at times still wished I had more clothes. Or at least a toque. My small travel umbrella, which reached its last legs on this trip, was also incredibly useful. Our guide, Debs, actually seemed to be a bit surprised that we didn’t want to go back to the beach after being scared off by a torrential rainstorm… we were soaked through and the warm bus was a bit too comfortable to leave.
To Learn Something: Debs, our guide, was a fountain of information and a wonderful storyteller. She would tell us the history of Scotland in parts – a bit at a time – and we were all begging her to keep going. We visited ancient standing stones, a two thousand year old fort, traditional blackhouses (that were inhabited until the 1970s), Culloden battlefield…we listened to traditional music, heard myths and legends… it would be impossible to come away from this trip lacking an appreciation of all things Scottish.
What would I have liked to have done differently? Well, this was a bus tour which meant that the itinerary was fairly inflexible in terms of timing, as we had a lot of travelling to do. I would have liked to go inside the Culloden Visitors Centre to see some of the exhibits, but we really only had time to venture into the battlefield and walk around. I would have liked to visit a distillery, but in terms of fitting that in, you probably would have had to cut something like the Loch Ness cruise, which I really enjoyed.
Final Conclusions? I would wholeheartedly recommend Haggis Adventures for anyone looking for a tour that is a bit more active than many of the others that I saw. I had considered several tour companies and after seeing their buses on the road, and at sites, I knew that I had made the right choice by sticking with Haggis.
Also, I’ve developed a strong appreciation for the “harry coo”: