Exploring the Scottish Highlands with Cosmos

Multi-destination, one centre relaxation and discovery tour

This 5-night tour of the Scottish Highlands with escorted tour expert Cosmos proved a total antidote to the curtailment of travel over the last year and a half. 

If overseas trips are still feeling a step too far for you at the moment, roaming through the uplifting scenery and romantic history of the Highlands on this wide-ranging and well-organised tour will open your eyes to the beauties of the British Isles without need of a passport. 

Inverness’ river Ness runs past the Mercure hotel, which can be seen on the top right. Based at Inverness, the tour follows a star-fish pattern, heading out in different directions each morning and returning to the hotel each afternoon with no need to pack. This made for easy tempo on the tour, setting off between 8-9 am each day, rather than the much earlier starts that changing hotels each night can involve. Time for independent exploring was built in, including a full day off where optional excursions were offered, or you were free to enjoy some time out from the tour. 

With travel just getting back on many people’s agendas, there were only 15 of us aboard a spotless 44 seater coach, so social distancing was built-in, but would have been part of the plan. Broadly, the guidance, whether on the coach, at the hotel or in restaurants and bars, was to wear a face mask while moving around but to remove it once sat down. This seemed to suit and reassure everyone and with so much of the trip based outside in the sunny Scottish weather, the tour felt safe and the mood relaxed.  

Home comforts

The Mercure Hotel, our home for the five nights, has an enviable position facing the river Ness one way and opening onto the heart of Inverness city, with its nearby castle, museum, shops and great range of eateries, on the other. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Inverness has been reckoned the 5th best place to live in the UK and, even with a population of just 60,000, is its fastest growing city. Our tour guide Margery and the Cosmos coach, which was kept immaculate throughout by our attentive driver Stuart. The hotel’s recently refurbished rooms featured everything needed for a comfortable few nights’ stay, kettle included, and with a lift to all floors. Fulsome hot or continental breakfasts set us up each day while tasty Welcome and Farewell 3-course dinners in the hotel restaurant (with menus including prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast and sticky-toffee pudding) gave the group, particularly its several solo travellers, the opportunity to gel. For solos the tour worked well, balancing group time together with the chance to enjoy your own space if you chose. 

This is the first year that Cosmos is offering UK tours for UK travellers but our friendly Glaswegian tour guide Margery was well-versed from conducting tours for overseas guests, and deftly struck the right balance between historical insights, local perspectives, musical interludes and practicalities. The stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highland Clearances certainly resonate differently when told in a Scottish accent.  

Scenery, greenery and history 

Blair Castle’s impressive frontage is complemented by an entrance hall bristling with muskets from the Battle of Culloden. A visit to the battlefield of Culloden where the 1745 Jacobite cause was lost made a memorable first day call for the tour. Imaginative visitor centre displays include an impressive life-size 3D re-enactment of the battle that put you right in the heat of the action, while the tussocky moor outside where the Highland charge foundered has a haunting quality still. 

The fall-out from the Jacobite rebellion resonates through Scotland’s many castles, none more so that among the turrets and towers of Blair Castle, where in 1745 one Jacobite son laid siege to this, his own ancestral home, in defiance of his elder brother’s government sympathies.   

Cawdor Castle and its beautiful gardens vibrate with different associations: in Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ the three witches cry ‘Hail Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor … and King hereafter’, prompting Macbeth to murder Duncan as he slept. The king would have done well to note Cawdor’s motto: ‘Be Mindful’! 

The 13th centre Eilean Dornie castle near the Kyle of Loch Alsh overlooks stunning scenery. The Bond movie The World is Not Enough, Braveheart and Highlander have all featured Eilean Dornie, Scotland’s most photographed castle and for good reason – it’s a loch-side delight. For Harry Potter film fans, Glenfinnan viaduct is the place to be – we arrived just in time to catch sight of The Jacobite, aka the Hogwarts Express, steaming across its 1,000-foot span with billowing smoke and much huffing of the engine. There were also beautiful views out over Loch Shiel. But for romance, little can rival ‘going over the sea, to Skye’, the lovely Isle where Flora McDonald smuggled Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety dressed as her maid.  

Wild Atlantic salmon are the icons of the impressive Falls of Shin. Seafood and Salmon hit the highs 

Scotland produces 2/3rds of the UK’s seafood – as the freshest of locally-produced rope mussels at the picturesque fishing port of Ullapool on the west coast deliciously illustrated one lunchtime. But watching wild Atlantic salmon leaping 12 feet to clear the thundering albeit picturesque Falls of Shin was even more impressive. The inventive new visitor centre, curled around its courtyard in the shape of a salmon, celebrates the extraordinary life cycle of these iconic fish. 

Whisky galore 

A wee dram awaits visitors after a tour of the Ben Nevis Whisky Distillery. No visit to Scotland would be complete without sharing a dram and the Ben Nevis Whisky Distillery, at the foot of the UK’s highest mountain, did the honours. After a short tour, it was a pleasure to wish the world ‘good health’ in Gaelic: ‘Slàinte mhath’! 

Top tips on tour 

Cosmos includes a generous breakfast each day and three-course dinners at the start and end of the tour. Be sure to make bookings early for the evenings where dinner isn’t included – Inverness offers a great range of independent restaurants, from budget to blow-out, all within easy walking distance, and they do tend to book up fast.  

The statue of Flora McDonald, who smuggled Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Isle of Skye, looks out from Inverness Castle. Inverness’ compact and flat city centre makes it a pleasure to get around on foot. The river Ness has a number of elegant suspension bridges for pedestrians, so you can zigzag on pretty riverside walks to make the most of the views back over the Castle and city.  

Cosmos coaches have a rotation rule so that everyone has the chance to sit at the front. The coach was kept immaculate throughout by our friendly and helpful driver Stuart, and for my transfers from and back to the airport I had the whole 44 seater coach to myself!

The Mercure hotel has a lift to all floors and adapted rooms available for guests with walking difficulties.  

There are more opportunities to join Cosmos for a Scottish Highlands Explorer tour this September and October with no single supplement for the first four solo travellers. 5 nights from £549 excluding flights. Adults must be double vaccinated. The Scottish Highlands Explorer tour will also operate between April and October 2022.

For a well-organised overview of the scenery and history of the Highlands, this enjoyable tour is a real winner.  

Gill travelled as a guest of Cosmos Tours.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cosmos.

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Gill Haynes

Traveller, writer & Associate at Silver Travel Advisor

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