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Going ‘wild’ in Europe: Scotland by motorhome

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They say a change is as good as a holiday! You are a camper by nature, so why not try an overseas holiday? We did, and decided on Scotland… and it seems that most of Europe does, as well!

This is surely the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom and, as such, an extremely popular motorhome and caravanning destination. It’s the place where 2 000-year-old medieval castles stand, where kings fought against kings, and clan feuds were common.

The landscape along the coastline is as dramatic as the huge variation in the rise and fall of the tide, with one beautiful coastline replacing another, and one fascinating town replacing the next.

And in spring, it has green, rolling grass hills and woody forests; plus, it boasts absolutely pristine lochs, with dark surface waters (possibly hiding dinosaur-type creatures) that are as reflective as a mirror – and don’t forget that it also boasts the world’s best distilleries!

Having motor-homed in Southern Africa as well as a large part of Europe and Western USA, I came to the conclusion that if God lived anywhere on our wonderful planet, he would surely be in the incredible Yosemite National Park in the USA. It has millions of hectares of breathtaking pine forests, crystal-clear rivers, and sheer cliff faces that extend 1 000 metres straight up to the heavens.

But then I discovered Scotland, and had to change my mind. When God takes a holiday, he surely goes to Scotland.

For the caravanner or motor-homer, Scotland has so many extraordinary sights to see that it will leave you wanting to return time and time again, to enjoy the friendly hospitality, the sights and its intriguing history.

The Scots have their own language, one that seems almost impossible for an English-speaking tongue to pronounce, let alone for anyone to understand. For instance, “A bhuaile a-muigh” is Scottish for Great Outdoors, and they certainly do have an A bhuaile a-muigh!

Picture tall, stone-grey castle walls with narrow slit windows through which arrows or flintlock rifles could take aim at bearded marauders below.  If these hordes were not Vikings coming from afar, they could sometimes be opposition clansmen – wearing dresses called kilts – all keen on taking the head of the castle owner!

Think of chiselled stone ramparts with height-adding parapets; of dark, dingy dungeons; of warm kitchens bustling with the banter from maids, cooks and butlers in the cold stone-walled starkness brightened by the orange glow of cooking fires; of walls adorned with the likes of pheasant, rabbit and deer, all hanging up to season in order to feed the garrison of men hired for protection.

Gaze back at paintings of the various masters of the castle and their respective wives, and let yourself imagine what life might have been like so long ago.

Some castles are mere ruins, although some still stand besides the most picturesque of lochs, some in almost fairy-tale settings, and some have an imposing, menacing, military purpose. Others have been turned into wonderful must-see tourist attractions.

At the other end of the scale, imagine driving down narrow country roads in a motorhome that offers a big windscreen from which you can view the sights. Picture the greenest of grass fields, of pastures fenced with mile upon mile of ancient hand-packed stone walls that confine fat, woolly sheep, and sometimes strange-looking long-haired and even-longer-horned highland cattle; see quaint country villages, and breathe in the thick air from damp, leafy forests through which wide rivers gently flow.

 

Gaze in wonderment at the scenery, ponder stories of infamous river monsters, and explore the most picturesque towns. Enjoy the vibe of warm pubs offering huge varieties of beers and whiskies.

Scotland is all this, and so much more.

We counted 127 motorhomes and 87 caravans returning from this wonderland. This was on a 100-mile stretch of M6 highway leading up to Scotland’s border town of Gretna Green, once a small village that earned notoriety (in 1754) by becoming the wedding capital of the United Kingdom.

An interesting side story: English Law Lords prohibited under-21s from marrying unless they had their parents’ consent. Scottish law was different: one could marry on the spot, providing the couple were free to marry. Scotland’s Gretna Green therefore became the village destination for many run-away brides and grooms, some with the groom hotly pursued by the angry father of the bride!

THE BEST WAY TO TRAVEL

Advice from friends had ranged from catching the train from London to Edinburgh and taking bus tours to see the sights, to renting a car and using B&Bs. However, after calculating the cost of trains, guided tours, accommodation and three meals a day, we decided that a motorhome was a very good alternative.

 

There are many motorhome-hiring companies in the UK.  The one we settled on cost R6 892.18 for five nights, which worked out to be only R459.47 per night for three adults, and we had the bonus of our own transport! Accommodation and transport does not come cheaper than that.

It also meant that we had the option of buying food at supermarket prices, or eating out at places that appealed to us. And we could enjoy a hot shower, a flush toilet and a real, cosy bed. We could wake up when we wanted to, and depart at our leisure. It also gave us the freedom to stop when something caught our interest, and allowed us to visit obscure little towns with unpronounceable names, and to overnight when and where we wanted. And we got to meet the nicest people in the ‘touring’ caravan park.

HIRING A MOTORHOME

Finding a reputable hire company was our first objective. My reckoning was to use a company that came recommended, or one that advertises in a magazine (for the simple, obvious reasons that they must be legit). Paying money upfront is chancy, especially with so many internet scams around.

We found a company named Justgo, outside London, and travelled by train to their depot. The Brits surely have the most usable bus and train services imaginable, and which go to just about everywhere.

Since there were three of us, we settled on a 4-berth Fiat Ducato Team Roller motorhome, which proved to be virtually new with just over 2 000 miles on the clock. It had automatic transmission, a torquey turbo-diesel motor, came standard with a solar panel (for wild camping), two high-up rear fixed single bunks convertible to a double bed, another double bed that descended at the touch of a button from the ceiling, a separate shower cubicle and toilet compartment, a colour TV, a dinette, an exterior awning, and a cavernous storage area under the rear beds where bicycles could be stored if need be.

The motorhome comes with a full tank of fuel and gas, as well as crockery, pots, pans, an electric toaster, washing-up liquid, a washcloth and dishcloths. Bedding is extra at R663 for a double-bed combination consisting of sheet, duvet, duvet cover and four pillows. A single-bed combination costs R332.

You can also include an outside table and chairs and a generator for wild camping, but we decided to forgo these as we were not going to be in one place for long − and did not miss these basic items at all.

You will need to produce a valid International Driver’s Licence as well as your valid driver’s licence, plus a recent utility bill showing proof of your residence, before the hiring company people will hand over the keys.

And before they do this, they will also give you the full run-down on how the motorhome works.

One feature that we South Africans will not be used to, is filling the gas bottle. Our motorhome had a fixed gas bottle which you fill yourself, as you do with fuel at some petrol stations. Its convenient, but not all petrol stations have the specialised gas pumps!

PLANNING A ROUTE

At first, planning a suitable sight-seeing route proved to be difficult: we had never visited Scotland before, and were at a loss about how to find suitable caravan parks, let alone popular tourist attractions. But the more we discussed ideas, the more old songs began to surface, such as “…on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond”, “over the sea to Skye! – where are they on the map? ” Then there was the must-see Loch Ness, Inverness, Edinburgh, Fort William, and (of course) my favourite whiskey distilleries.

Working on Google Earth, we soon worked out a circular route with these destinations in mind. Many others before us had left photographs of sights (hopefully in the right places), which helped build a possible travel route.

A GPS is vital, especially one with Scottish map information. A South-African oriented GPS is useless, so pay the extra and include a GPS in your motorhome hire fee.

We discovered an amazing camping fact about England and Scotland: it’s called ‘wild camping’, which means that, unless there is a sign to the contrary, you can legally camp anywhere. The beauty of a motorhome is that you are fully self-contained and can do just that.

On our first night, we pulled into a service stop on the M6 and spent the night parked alongside two Irish Gypsy families. I made a point of introducing myself and telling them we came from the crime capital of the world… and I am told that this street cred was probably the reason that we still had wheels on the motorhome in the morning!

GETTING LOST IS FUN

There are just so many fascinating small towns, that getting lost and going exploring is fun. It kept the lady in our GPS very busy recalculating, but we never really got lost!

Returning from Inverness on the main highway to Edinburgh, we decided to take a side road that indicated Carrbridge, for no reason other than, “Why don’t we take a look down that road…?”

A river runs through the centre of this town, and right there, arching across the river, is what is left of a packhorse bridge built in 1717. The locals at the time were apparently inconvenienced when the river flooded and made it impossible for deceased people to be buried at the Church on the other bank. So, stipends from the local church were raised to pay a stonemason to construct the bridge, the remains of which stand today.

It’s stumbling across little gems like this that makes motorhoming such fun here.

On another occasion in the town of Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness, we discovered a pond with a huge model of Nessie. At first glance, your instincts tell you to grab a camera, for you have surely made the discovery of the century!

CAMPING AND CARAVANNING CLUB


The Camping and Caravanning Club has 106 Club Sites across the UK, and (through a partnership with the Forestry Commission) an additional 16 campsites in stunning forest locations.

Visitors from South Africa can purchase Temporary Overseas Membership (TOM) of The Club for R362.82*, plus R65.97 postage and packaging if sold in advance.

Membership is valid for three months from the date of travel, and gives campers discounts of up to 30% per night on Club Sites and 15% per night on the Club’s 16 Camping in The Forest sites.

Children under five camp free, and over 60s benefit from a special Age Concession Rate, with additional discounts during low and mid seasons on Club Sites, and across all seasons on Camping in The Forest sites. (Terms and conditions apply).

*Price at time of conversion 01/2017

ROAD SAFETY

The variety and volume of traffic on Scottish highways is something you won’t see in SA: there are the many huge trucks (from as far afield as Poland, and some transporting complete houses), the car and motorcycle traffic, and more motorhomes and caravans than you will ever see, travelling simultaneously.

Off the main highways, some of the roads are narrow − and I’m talking single lanes with hand-packed stone walls on the left and right of you and occasional pull-overs that you squeeze into so as to allow oncoming vehicles to manoeuvre past. We touched rear-view mirrors once, which had my pulse racing.

Road signs say that 50% of accidents involve motorcycles, so you are left wondering how on earth you pass another car or lorry. But you do, and sometimes it’s a bus, and you appreciate the refundable thousand-pound insurance you had to take out on your hired motorhome. Worth every penny!

CAMPSITES

Most campsites we stayed in consisted of an open piece of ground a bit smaller than a rugby field; some had level and some unlevel grounds, while other options were parking on a stone-chip surface or grass. Stone chip seemed to cost more than parking on grass. Some resorts charged a British Pound, some a Scottish Pound − both were R17 at time of visit.

Some included electricity in the park fee, which ranged from R301 a night for three adults, to R468 a night; others charged a Pound for a timed amount of electricity. It costs more if you have a dog and extra people.

Time and time again, we rejoiced at having opted for a motorhome. It was so easy to drive, and we were able to stop where we liked. There are campsites aplenty, and you can even enjoy short-term membership of the Caravan and Camping Club, which has its own campsites.

We wild-camped the first night; we had hot showers and a toilet. Our motorhome did not have a microwave oven, but what worked for us was a good breakfast consisting of the most delicious, creamy, ginger-flavoured yoghurt on the best muesli (I guess I am sounding like Donald Trump now), followed by a hearty pub lunch as the main meal of the day, and ending with a cheese sandwich and wine for supper. It kept housekeeping to a minimum and sight-seeing a priority.

As for Scotland, it was an experience we want to have again.  The best time is early spring and summer – June and July for us South Africans.

By Godfrey Castle

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