I was chatting to a fellow camper, who said he always rushed up the eastern side of Scotland because there was nothing to see. Oh dear, I thought – our plans were to visit or stay mainly in the east on our trip!
Our first stop was Strathclyde Caravan and Motorhome Club Site. The best caravan parks in Scotland offer a location that is ideal for exploring the surrounding area, and that’s certainly the case here. It’s situated between Glasgow and Edinburgh, perfect for visiting The Falkirk Wheel, a short distance by car.
The Falkirk Wheel is one of only two working boat lifts in the UK and the only rotating boat lift in the world. It replaces a series of locks, long since disappeared, and connects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.
Next day, we caught the first trip on a canal boat, which the Wheel lifted to the Union Canal high above. There’s a brief journey through a tunnel, then the boat turned, and we got a second trip on the Wheel. There are great views from the top and, on returning to the start, there’s a visitor centre and café, where we enjoyed lunch in the sunshine.
Nearby are The Kelpies, 30m-high horse head sculptures made of stainless-steel cladding. The Kelpies celebrate the use of heavy horses in Scottish industry and agriculture, where they pulled canal barges and ploughs. There’s a visitor centre and café at this popular attraction, too.
Search for fish and chips
We later moved on to Stonehaven Caravan and Motorhome Club Site, just south of Aberdeen. After putting up the awning (see our best caravan awning guide if you’re on the lookout for one), neither of us felt like making dinner, so we drove into Stonehaven in search of the fish and chip shop recommended by the Hairy Bikers in one of their programmes.
Carron Fish Bar did not disappoint and we wolfed down the meal in our awning. It also offers the famous fried Mars Bar if you dare (we didn’t).
Next day, we walked on the promenade and boardwalk adjoining the beach. There’s plenty of seating, and sculptures of boats, an aeroplane and a lighthouse fashioned out of scrap metal. We arrived at the pretty harbour populated by leisure craft and a few fishing vessels.
The harbour is lined with cafés, bars, pubs and restaurants. We sought a refreshing cuppa at the Old Pier Coffee House. After lunch, we drove to the ruined but spectacular Dunnottar Castle. The surviving buildings are mainly 15th- or 16th-century and its claim to fame is that Scotland’s Crown Jewels were once hidden here, out of sight of the marauding soldiers of Oliver Cromwell’s army.
The coastal path continues on towards Stonehaven and a War Memorial, designed like a Greek temple, honouring those from the town who fell in the two world wars.
A couple of castles
Our next two days were spent visiting more castles, but this time not ruins. First up was Crathes Castle, situated near Banchory, to the south-west of Aberdeen. It was completed in 1596 by Alexander Burnett and remained in the family until 1951, when it was given to the National Trust for Scotland. The castle features magnificent Scottish renaissance painted ceilings and original furniture from 1597. I voted it a real castle because it has two spiral staircases, but the correct name is a tower house. The grounds are extensive and there’s a lovely walled garden.
The second castle, Craigievar, due west of Aberdeen, is also a tower house, but it’s much more than that – it’s the fairy tale castle you imagined as a child.
Painted a distinctive pale pink in 1824, Craigievar Castle was completed in 1626 and remained home to the Forbes family until the 1960s, when it was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland.
Consequently, a great deal of the fittings and furniture are original and until fairly recently, there was no running water or electricity. There is still no electricity on the upper floor, where paintings by Sir Henry Raeburn are displayed.
Craigievar also has two spiral stairs, one of which is also a secret staircase, leading out into a lower room.
After an excellent meal at The Marine Hotel on Stonehaven harbour, we took our leave of this pretty seaside town and motored on to Culloden. We stayed briefly at Culloden Moor Caravan and Motorhome Club Site, purely to visit the site of the Battle of Culloden, east of Inverness.
We opted for a battlefield tour and our informative guide, Valerie, made this large, open field really come to life.
Culloden was where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to a terrible end. Jacobite supporters, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, had sought to restore the Stuart monarchy to the throne and at Culloden on 16 April 1746, confronted the government troops, led by the Duke of Cumberland. In 45 minutes, the battle was over and out of 1600 slain, 1500 were Jacobites. This was to be the last pitched battle on British soil.
After a snack at the café, we toured the interesting, informative visitor centre, reading in detail about the battle’s history, told from both the Jacobite and the government sides.
Over to Orkney
Our next destination was Dunnet Bay Caravan and Motorhome Club Site in the far north-east of Scotland, just a little west of John O’Groats. This grassy seaside caravan park borders a huge expanse of sandy beach.
Having checked the weather forecast, we booked a tour to the Orkney islands. On a gloriously sunny day, we took the MV Pentland Venture, a passenger ferry that plies the eight-mile journey between John O’ Groats and the nearest island, South Ronaldsay.
Coaches were waiting there to take us to see key sites on the islands. We explored Scapa Flow, a huge natural harbour, where in 1939, a German submarine infiltrated and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak while it was anchored there.
After that incident, four causeways, known as Churchill Barriers, were built, mainly by Italian POWs. These barriers linked the Orkney mainland with South Ronaldsay via three smaller islands and prevented any further incursions. Today, there are road links between the islands.
We stopped at Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney islands, where we were free to explore on our own. Joe and I headed for St Magnus Cathedral, an imposing edifice built in 1137 from red and yellow sandstone in the Romanesque style. Over the years, the cathedral has been added to, making the substantial building you can see today.
Nearby are the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, and the Earl’s Palace, formerly belonging to the Earls of Orkney.
After a quick cuppa, we strolled down the winding pedestrian street which led to the harbour, where we stopped to admire the many leisure craft and fishing boats, with cruise ships anchored beyond.
We left Kirkwall and drove alongside Scapa Flow to Stromness, where we lunched in the sunshine on buns and ice cream from Julia’s Café. Our next stop was Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement of 10 houses made of flagstones and earth and occupied from around 3100 to 2500 BC.
Skara Brae was originally revealed after a storm in 1850 and subsequent excavations have verified its age. It is described as Europe’s most complete Neolithic village and has UNESCO World Heritage Status, together with other places in Orkney, such as the Ring of Brodgar, our next stop.
The Ring of Brodgar is a neolithic henge and stone circle comprising 60 stones, of which 36 survive today, and a large rock-cut ditch. There are many suggested explanations for its purpose, but nobody knows for sure.
We also stopped at the Standing Stones of Stenness, originally thought to number 11, but now with just four stones remaining. These are taller than the Brodgar stones and the Stenness site is considered to be the oldest henge and stone circle in the British Isles.
Our final stop was the Italian Chapel on the Island of Lamb Holm. This eye-catching building was constructed out of two Nissen huts, created by Italian POWs held in Camp 60, who had helped to build the Churchill Barriers.
One of the prisoners was an artist, who directed the work. They only had scrap materials to work with, but the result is magnificent. Later on, we caught the ferry back to John O’Groats and enjoyed a good dinner at The Northern Point restaurant.
Close to Dunnet Bay is the Castle of Mey, once the home of the Queen Mother, which we visited the next day. She bought the dilapidated castle in 1952 and set about restoring it to its former glory.
John O’ Groats itself is a small place. We had the obligatory photo taken under the famous signpost – although this isn’t actually the northernmost point, as that accolade goes to Dunnet Head.
We then drove east to Duncansby Head, to see the lighthouse and the stunning sandstone pyramids of Duncansby Stacks. These shores are a haven for seabirds.
We continued along the east coast in the direction of Wick, coming across more ruined castles. First was Keiss Castle, a tower house originally with four floors, an attic and a basement. Keiss village has a charming secluded harbour.
Further down the coast at Noss Head lie the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, north of Wick. This is thought to be one of the earliest seats of Clan Sinclair, ruined as a result of the warring clans.
Strolling around Wick, we came across a splendid plaque marking the Guinness World Record for the shortest street, Ebenezer Place (it measures just 6’ 9”).
Our final stop was Wick Castle, just south of Wick, of which there is little remaining. However, there is a pleasing coastal walk to its location, in a dramatic position above rocky cliffs and gullies.
We then cut across country, leaving the coast to go to Thurso. Notable places here are the ruined Old St Peter’s Kirk, founded around 1220 but closed since 1832, and the fishermen’s cottages. There are plenty of independent shops, but Thurso is mainly a base for touring the area.
We ended our stay at Dunnet with a good meal in the local hotel, Northern Sands. The sun was still shining when we emerged, so we turned down the next lane to Dunnet Head, to see the lighthouse. With the last rays of light disappearing, the views were stunning. These clifftops are also a good place for birdwatching. We even glimpsed the Old Man of Hoy in the distance.
It was time to move to our final stopping place on the east coast, Brora Caravan and Motorhome Club Site. This pretty campsite has access to a golf course, expansive dunes and beautiful Brora Beach.
Spotting a plan of Brora, we followed a walking route around the village, which takes you past the fishermen’s cottages. You can also find out about the area’s once-thriving salt industry.
Returning to the square, we treated ourselves to ice cream at Capaldis – don’t miss it, it’s delicious! We also visited two historical sites north of the village, a broch and a Highland Clearance village.
A broch looks rather like an iron Age roundhouse, but nobody is quite sure what their purpose was. Ousedale Broch has now been restored, along with the path running downhill to reach it.
The Highland Clearance village of Badbea was where Highlanders had been given land of poor quality after being forcibly removed from their crofts.
The land was steep and difficult to farm and in winter, they had to tether their cattle for fear of losing them to the sea in the high winds! Many of the men took to fishing because the land was so bad.
There’s less of the village to see as time goes by, but I felt very sad for the crofters who had been so badly treated.
There’s another, bigger broch just south of Brora, visible from the A9, which we visited before continuing southwards to explore Dunrobin Castle.
This is no ruin – quite the opposite, in fact! It’s been continuously inhabited since the 1300s by the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland. The magnificent castle is styled like a French château, has 189 rooms and is sumptuously decorated.
After our visit we had hoped to watch a falconry display in the grounds, but it started to rain heavily, so now we know that falcons don’t like to fly in the rain…
Earlier, I’d spotted a signpost to Big Burn, near Golspie, and we wondered what it was. Some research revealed a delightful walk, with a dramatic waterfall at the end of it.
The path follows the river, with bridges crossing it along the way. We’d had a lot of rain, so the waterfall was in spate and well worth the walk. On the way back, a deer stopped to stare at us before disappearing. That was the icing on the cake!
Next morning, at last, we had a decent day to go cycling. We loaded our bikes onto the car, parked in Brora and cycled up to Loch Brora and beyond. Later, we stopped for lunch by the river in an idyllic spot.
After our fellow camper’s comments, we were relieved to find lots to enjoy on the east coast – and plenty more that we could have visited, given a longer tour.
When to go to Eastern Scotland
May and June are usually the best months to visit, but be prepared – you can get all four seasons in one day!
Food and drink
Find out more
Where we stayed
Bothwell G71 8NY
Stonehaven AB39 2RD
Newlands IV2 5LA
Dunnet KW14 8XD
Dalchalm KW9 6LP
Lead image: Elaine Ormerod
Head to our Best of British: Touring Adventures section for more inspiration for your next trip.
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