As its small group tours launch in Manchester, Rabbie’s takes Vicky Smith beyond the guidebooks
Admiring another of West Harris’ beaches, I could see why someone had sneakily used a photo of this coast to market Thailand: with the paradisiacal cliché of blue sea and white sand, it was a dead ringer for Southeast Asia. Then a gust of wind interrupted my reverie, reminding me where I actually was: Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
We’d spent almost three days on these islands of ancient tradition, arguably just as exotic, where children learned Gaelic and the most famous export - Harris tweed - was one of the world’s few cottage industries, spun in the households of weavers. Here meteor showers were at their most spectacular, ancient brochs at their best preserved and stone circles older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Here WW1 memorials extended to New Years’ Day 1919, commemorating the tragic Iolaire Disaster, and sculpted Kings evoked the famous 12th century chessmen found on a beach in Lewis.
Past the bleak beauty of northern Lewis, where Stornoway gave way to peat bogs littered with bothies for sheltering peat-cutters, the scenery had become ever more mountainous on descending south and entering Harris. From here we’d sail for Skye, our final stop before returning to mainland Edinburgh, the charming Georgian capital from which our Rabbie’s journey had begun. And what a journey.
But who, you may ask, is Rabbie’s? Well it’s one of the UK’s leading tour operators, renowned for ethical small-group adventures that take travellers ‘beyond the guidebooks.’ Founded by Robin Worsop, whose vision began with an old Sherpa van back in 1993, it’s since amassed over 800,000 happy customers (not to mention an impressive clutch of awards) and now operates from several departure cities across Britain and continental Europe. The team sums it up its success here…
You learn from the best storytellers in the world. And this is no overstatement. Our driver-guides are world famous for their knowledge, facts, quirky stories, history, and fairy-tales. They truly take you beyond the guide books and into your adventure.
You explore in top of the range 16 seat mini-coaches. This means you never get lost, you always take the scenic route, you have great views through large windows, and you’re free to sample the local tipple without worrying about driving.
You support the local communities. You do this because we take you to the lesser known attractions and recommend locally owned accommodation. What’s more, for every ton of carbon we use, we donate £10 to environmental and community projects.
Guaranteed departures: you book, you go. When you choose to book with us, you’re going - no minimum numbers.
Guaranteed experience or your money back. If you feel you’ve not had the experience you deserved, and we’re at fault, we’ll give you your money back.
Having now sampled the famous Rabbie’s recipe, I could attest to all this and more. Our kilt-sporting guide Andrew was full of interesting anecdotes; from geology to geography, history to whisky and infamous figures galore. He also had a wicked sense of humour, made ample photo stops (including some wee surprises) and gave us a handy orientation on reaching each place. Our nimble Mercedes vehicle was super comfortable - even boasting nifty USB ports - and we learned that, such is Rabbie’s ethos, guides often volunteer on local projects.
Its commitment to customer welfare also impressed me: most companies require a minimum passenger number but Rabbie’s guaranteed departures ensure that no customer will be disappointed (with many international customers, it also saves anyone booking a flight only to find out their tour has been cancelled). Another rarity is that tours don’t include accommodation - instead, customers can book their own or have Rabbie’s suggest and reserve venues based on their budget. Neither are compulsory attractions or restaurants shoehorned in, again letting customers be flexible about what they want to spend. Genius really.
Anyway, back to the trip and Harris’ Tarbert, an isthmus named for the Vikings who used to drag their longboats from one watery side to the other. Two years ago, it had another unusual visitor in ‘Wally the walrus,’ the region’s first sighting of these Arctic creatures since the 1960s. Perhaps it was after a tipple…Tarbert is also home to the esteemed Harris distillery, currently producing a seaweed infused gin that even Harrods wanted to stock and whose 2017 ‘gin draught’ (owing to a bottle shortage) caused panic amongst locals. The distillery’s first whisky, currently in maturation, will no doubt prove as popular.
A short ferry ride from Tarbert took us to the island of Skye, greener than its Outer Hebridean relative, and the pretty ‘capital’ of Portree, whose multicoloured harbour buildings were originally painted to ward off evil. The next day saw us explore this beguiling island of Hollywood panoramas, beaches scattered with dinosaur footprints and rocks that resemble giant kilts. Ascending the Quiraing to the sound of The Gael by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards made for a stirring pre-lunch stop; followed by an afternoon of ancient castles, lounging seals and the imposing Cuillin Mountains - one of which a barefooted Gurkha famously scaled in just 37 minutes.
Aptly, our explorations ended in the Talisker whisky distillery, where we enjoyed a snifter and learned more about the Scottish bevy. It’s now such big business that one bottle of Scotch fetched almost £850,000 at auction.
In fact, passing yet another distillery on our final day, we learned its product so impressed Al Capone that he used to smuggle it during the Prohibition. Now a plush hotel, it recently hosted Kanye West and - in one of his many funny stories - our guide Andrew told us that the local newspaper had given more column inches to a kayaker who rescued some sheep. Now that’s an island with its priorities right.
After crossing the Skye bridge, accompanied by an obliging rainbow, we bid tiaraidh an dràsda to the Hebrides and madainn mhath to the Highlands. Our first day’s journey to Ullapool’s scenic fishing port and the Stornoway ferry had seen us ascend from Lowlands to High via Dunkeld, Cairngorms National Park and Loch Ness (whose celebrity monster sadly kept her distance). Passing some of Scotland’s best known trademarks - red deer, leaping salmon, verdant glens - we’d learned of everything from warring clans to eccentric armies in this bonny yet bonkers land.
Now it was time for some further Highland exploring before making our way back to Edinburgh. First stop? The impossibly romantic Eilan Donan Castle, a favourite location for films like James Bond and Highlander - not to mention countless shortbread tins. Then came ethereal Kintail, the mythical land that spawned the legend of the five sisters, and the UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis (thankfully no climbing involved, just an impressive viewpoint). Apparently some Dundee furniture men once took a piano up, a feat surpassed only by someone once who brought a car...needless to say, the journey uphill took a lot longer than down.
After lunch in outdoorsy hub Fort William, and a peek at the Hogwarts Express, we passed through Loch Lomond and Glen Coe; both tragically beautiful thanks to their respective tales. As the Trossachs ceded into the Lowlands area known as Scotland’s waist, Andrew told us of its skirmishes with the English before we glimpsed Doune Castle - featured in the likes of Outlander and Monty Python - and royal Stirling Castle, which witnessed Scotland’s first flying attempt in 1507 (he landed in a cowpat). Despite hitting the motorway, even our journey’s last leg was interesting, taking in Andy Scott’s sublime Kelpies and the UNESCO World Heritage Forth Bridge we’d crossed on day one.
Arriving back into Edinburgh, even as Andrew played The Proclaimers’ upbeat I’m Gonna Be, I felt a little sad our six-day Outer Hebrides & Skye Adventure had come to an end. Not only were the places fascinating but Rabbie’s was everything I enjoyed in a tour experience.
The plus side? Rabbie’s has recently started tours from Manchester. Split into minibus and rail journeys, these take in some of northern England’s best sights and can even be joined onto its famous tours of Scotland in case I’ve whet your appetite.
Short on time or just fancy somewhere closer to home for now? There are currently five minibus tours from Manchester, ranging from one day to three. One-day locations include Derbyshire delights like Castleton, Bakewell, Poole’s Cavern and Peak District; the stunning timbered city of Chester and nearby North Wales, home to the likes of Snowdonia National Park and Conwy Castle; and Lancaster and the Lake District, including England’s largest lake Windermere. Highlights on the three-day trips often take in a mixture, with highlights spanning Chatsworth to York and Robin Hood’s Bay.
The Lake District Explorer, meanwhile, is the basis for tours involving rail: this three-day tour returns to Manchester from Penrith, while all others go onto Scotland. At six days or more, longer tours include many locations I visited plus others like Arran, Islay and Mull; alongside special interest options like whisky, castles and Outlander. All finish in Edinburgh, from which you’re free to grab a ticket home or carry on exploring...perhaps even with another Rabbie’s tour, one that starts from Edinburgh like mine did.
As for me, I’m already planning my next adventure.
Vicky Smith went on the six-day Outer Hebrides & Skye Adventure tour, which starts and finishes in Edinburgh. Prices from £349-469.
Rabbie’s have recently launched tours departing from Manchester, including longer options that finish in Scotland. Tours depart from either Piccadilly or Manchester Airport.
PS: I learned so many interesting things on my Rabbie’s Scotland tour that I couldn’t resist sharing 10 of my favourite facts and figures…
- So different are Scotland’s Lowlands and Highlands that scientists believe they once belonged to different continents
- Edinburgh’s 1996–97 Hogmanay celebrations won the Guinness world record for largest New Year party. Numbers are now restricted for safety, but the Scots still love merrymaking so much they get the 1st and 2nd of January off work
- Ever wondered why Gaelic words are so long? It’s because the alphabet only has 18 letters, meaning more than one is needed to make certain sounds
- There is more water in Loch Ness than all the lakes in England and Wales. No wonder Nessie is so hard to spot…
- When Tesco cheekily tried to capitalise on Stornoway’s famous black pudding with their own ‘Stornoway-style’ version, a band of angry Lewis butchers took them to court…and won. It’s now a protected delicacy
- Scotland’s shaggy redheaded cows, affectionally known as hairy coos, are the Highlands’ most iconic resident - but they actually come in many colours. Queen Vic’s soft spot for the redheads, however, meant they were bred the most and have now overtaken black as the most common. You can find out more about the trendy beasts here
- Scottish surnames are rooted in four categories; family, job, location and appearance. Campbell, one of the most popular, means ‘crooked mouth’
- In 1941, the islanders of Eriskay won the whisky lottery when a ship bound for Jamaica ran aground on their shores. Its bounty? 264,000 bottles of Scotch. Needless to say, after Eriskay locals ‘salvaged’ the cargo it was never seen again - a tale that inspired the film Whisky Galore. Apparently a similar thing happened in Skye but with corned beef!
- Iron Bru is Scotland’s second national drink after whisky, making it one of very few places where Coca Cola isn’t the leading soft drink. Little wonder the recipe is top secret
- Some of the many things to be invented in Scotland include the television, telephone, bicycle and PIN number; it’s thanks to the latter’s wife, who couldn’t remember more than four numbers, that PINs aren’t any longer
- Saucy Mary, 1400s: Legend has it that Norwegian princes ‘Saucy Mary,’ who inhabited a now ruined 15th century fortress on Skye, would charge boats heading to the nearby Scottish mainland. She even hung a chain across the narrow channel to prevent unpaid tolls. As for why she’s nicknamed ‘saucy’? You’ll have to look that one up…
- Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1587: Poor Mary Stuart acceded to the throne at just six days old. Thereafter she had a tumultuous life (‘unlucky in love’ is an understatement) and was ultimately imprisoned and beheaded by her own cousin
- Brahan Seer, 1600s: According to legend, this predictor of the future was employed by the Seaforths - unfortunately he didn’t predict that informing Lady Seaforth of her husband’s affairs would result in his own barbaric murder. Many of his predictions, however, came true - causing unease about some of his unfulfilled prophecies even today
- Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1720-1788: Stuart claimant to the British throne, Charles’ majestic life didn’t quite go to plan - so much so he had to escape from Scotland by dressing as a maid called Betty Burke (long story). Apparently he repaid a captain who helped hide him on Skye with the recipe for Drambuie
- Flora MacDonald, 1722-1790: Famous for her role in helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape, MacDonald became a celebrity across Britain. Three thousand people attended her funeral on Skye, where it’s said that 300,000 gallons of whisky were drunk
- Robert Burns, 1759-1796: Scotland’s leading literary figure (and apparently a serial womaniser), Burns’ poem-song Auld Lang Syne is often sung on NYE and it’s after his after his moniker ‘Rabbie’ that Rabbie’s is named
- Sir Walter Scott, 1771-1832: A legendary wordsmith, Scott is credited with bringing tourism to Scotland thanks to his patriotic passion. Meanwhile his organisation of King George IV’s visit to Scotland, for which he was encouraged to wear a kilt, elevated the tartan garment in Scotland’s national identity
- Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919: A steel tycoon and one of the world’s wealthiest men, Carnegie ultimately spend over 90% on improving society; his legacy can be seen everywhere from libraries to universities and even a namesake dinosaur
- Sir Hugh Munro, 1856-1919: A founding member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, Munro’s pioneering list of Scottish mountains over 3000 feet has inspired generations of ‘Munro baggers’ who attempt to climb them all
- Steve Feltham: Not many people can say they’ve given up their job, home and partner to search for a monster - but Steve Feltham is one of them. Having watched from the banks of Loch Ness for over 25 years, he’s yet to spot Nessie. Now that’s what you call patience