Review: Rabbie's Tours
|[Rabbie's Tours minibus, and our tour guide Peter]|
When travelling around Scotland exploring new places, we can't help but notice the popularity of guided tour companies. For many visitors this is the obvious way to see the country, be it for one day or several. But I was sceptical. Could it be fun being stuck on a bus full of strangers, shepherded around roadside viewpoints with fellow passengers getting in the way of your photos?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Having spent a day with Rabbie's - one of the giants of the Scotland tour company scene - I can confirm that this is an excellent way to see the sights. A fixed, guided itinerary takes the stress out of holiday planning and lets you tick off must-see attractions without needing to hire a car. Read on for a trip report; all photos on this page were taken on the tour.
|[Glasgow City Chambers (taken at the end of the tour): the building's left side is Rabbie's Glasgow departure point]|
The west end of George Square was bathed in morning sunshine as I arrived bright and early in Glasgow city centre. It was sunny and already over 20°C (68°F) at 8 am - highly unusual for Scotland in May. But blue skies were perfect for the "Oban, Glencoe, Highland Lochs & Castles" Rabbie's tour I'd be joining today.
Finding the departure point at the corner of the square was easy, with a handful of coaches and minibuses parked up against the kerb from various tour companies. I got chatting to a man waiting, who explained that despite living in Glasgow he'd been going on guided day tours for years. Well, if the locals recommend it...
Everyone was early for the tour, so we were on board and weaving in and out of city traffic well before the scheduled departure time of 8.30 am. The vehicle - a 16-seat minibus which Rabbie's uses for all its group tours - was clean and comfortable despite all the seats being taken. My fellow passengers were a diverse group of nationalities and ages, united by a desire to explore Scotland's West Highlands.
|[Inside the minibus - single seats on the left, double seats on the right]|
Our tour guide and driver for the day was Peter, a friendly Scot with a passion for cycling and a wry sense of humour. As we trundled out of Glasgow he launched into a detailed and very interesting account of the city, describing centuries of fate and fortune from the tobacco trade, through periods of recession and decline, to its recent reinvention as a thriving service hub and tourist centre, with recommendations for specific visitor attractions to seek out.
It doesn't take long for the scenery to get interesting when you leave Glasgow. By the end of the history lesson we were cresting the Erskine Bridge, the city laid out to the east and the glittering Firth of Clyde to the west. Peter played some Scottish folk music (on a CD, otherwise that would be some seriously impressive multi-tasking) while driving the short remaining distance to Loch Lomond. He explained that this was Scotland's largest freshwater loch, part of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park - and yes, we did get to listen to the famous song: The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond.
Our first stop was the picturesque lochside village of Luss, with sandy beach, 19th century church and dozens of beautifully-kept cottages. Peter drove into the village by way of a scenic back road fringed by well-tended lawns; the huge windows of the minibus made it possible to snap decent pics even through the glass.
|[House on the way into Luss, taken through the minibus window]|
|[Loch Lomond at Luss]|
Luss can be a very busy place, but it was pleasantly quiet at 9.30 am, hungry swallows flitting across the narrow streets making short work of a few midges. Half an hour was ample time to wander around, and soon enough we piled back onto the minibus for the journey further into the Highlands. Despite being on a main road, traffic following us seemed to magically disappear whenever we approached a picture opportunity, allowing Peter to slow the bus to a crawl while we all took photos.
Escaping the confines of the crags surrounding northern Loch Lomond, the road opened out and the views did too - we were well and truly in the Highlands now. There were wonderful vistas of the hills around Crianlarich, fittingly accompanied by the theme tune from the 1995 film Rob Roy, about a clan chief who once called this area home. Beinn Dorain looked amazing, cloud just kissing its very summit. The distant Munro of Ben Lui still sported a snow patch despite the mild weather. Peter remarked that more lives have been lost here than on any other Scottish hill - slightly sobering as I'd climbed it the previous week!
Just before 11 am we stopped at the busy Black Mount viewpoint, with a stunning panorama over Loch Tulla and the hill range making up what's known as the Great Wall of Rannoch.
|[Loch Tulla from the Black Mount viewpoint]|
Back on the road we traversed the great expanse of Rannoch Moor: a vast and desolate bogland stretching for miles to the east. Hard on its heels came the Pass of Glencoe, guarded by the fearsome pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mòr. I'd liked to have stopped for a proper photo here, but we had to settle for a shot through the window.
|[Buachaille Etive Mòr through the minibus window]|
Further down the pass, a larger layby allowed a genuine photo stop taking in the trio of dramatic ridges called the Three Sisters. Add in a bagpiper and... well, can you think of a more iconic Scottish scene?
|[Three Sisters viewpoint, Glencoe]|
At the bottom of Glencoe we reached the west coast, with a quieter, pleasant drive south along the shores of Loch Linnhe. The next stop was a viewpoint for Castle Stalker: a romantic 15th century tower house (which featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) perched on a rocky island. 15 minutes here to wander down to the viewpoint, with gift shop and toilets.
It wasn't far from here to Oban, with the road crossing bridges over majestic sea lochs. The Falls of Lora tidal rapids were in full flow under a strong ebb tide. On the way into town, Peter gave us a run-down of where to get the freshest seafood, and a couple of suggestions for attractions to visit. I was regretting bringing my own squashed sandwich; it's just not the same as picking your own crab from the creels outside the Green Shack on the pier...
|[The Green Shack]|
|[View across Oban Bay]|
Oban is probably the most enchanting town in the West Highlands. You could easily spend a full day or more here, but 90 minutes was enough to get a taste of the place... literally. 2.15 pm and we were back on the minibus for the next leg. Peter continued with his commentary, covering some FAQ's of tourists visiting the Highlands for the first time. Just as I was starting to get a bit bored of the history of Scottish tree planting, we were saved by a herd of Highland cows bathing in the shallows of Loch Etive, well spotted by our guide. Cue an unscheduled photo stop, and another box ticked from the list of Scottish icons.
|[Highland cows at Loch Etive]|
The road took us back into more mountainous terrain, passing under the rocky walls of Ben Cruachan with Loch Awe on the right. There was less commentary now, with Peter letting the scenery do the talking. At the other end of the loch, we stopped at a roadside layby for a vista taking in Kilchurn Castle. 10 minutes was (just) enough time to navigate a soggy path down to the shore of Loch Awe for a superb, close-up view of an off the beaten track gem.
|[Kilchurn Castle & Loch Awe]|
A windy road through Glen Aray brought us to the whitewashed town of Inveraray, next to oyster-rich Loch Fyne. A single hour gave us the choice of either touring Inveraray Castle (for a fee), or just taking a photo and exploring the town. Everyone opted for the latter; it was definitely a day for being outdoors!
|[Inveraray Castle - view from outside the gates]|
|[Main Street, Inveraray]|
|[George Hotel, dating from 1770]|
|[War memorial & Loch Fyne]|
60 minutes and a full camera memory card later, most of us were back in the minibus, but a brief driving tour of the town was needed to round up a wayward couple. On the way back to Glasgow, Peter explained how Rabbie's came about, with a pre-recorded segment about Robert Burns - Scotland's National Bard (story-teller / poet) - which was the only "non-live" part of today's commentary. A corny recording of Auld Lang Syne followed. There was one more stop at Rest and Be Thankful: the top of a road pass in the heart of the craggy Arrochar Alps.
Traffic was miraculously light on the way back to Glasgow, and we got back a full half hour before the scheduled 7 pm arrival time. Despite this, I don't think anybody felt short changed: it felt like we'd been to a different world and back in a single day.
|[View down Glen Croe from Rest and Be Thankful]|
Overview & stats
An excellent trip. The 10-hour tour duration divided into 6 hr 20' inside the minibus and 3 hr 40' outside. That sounds like a lot of driving time, but once out of Glasgow the scenery was spectacular, so you're still "sight-seeing" throughout the tour, together with a running commentary which was mostly very interesting. The longest gap between stops was just over an hour, but usually less. Ample time was allocated at most stops, though I'd have liked longer at Kilchurn Castle. The small group size (16) was an advantage, meaning we didn't have to share views with a whole coachload of people. At least one couple had booked onto this tour after enjoying themselves immensely on one of Rabbie's other trips earlier in the week.
Finally, a big thank you to Peter, our wonderfully knowledgeable guide and driver. At the end I asked him how many years he'd been working with Rabbie's. I was astounded when he replied that he'd only been with them for two months!
Name: Rabbie's Tours ★★★★★
Location (Glasgow departure point): 266 George Street, Glasgow, G.R.: NS 594654 / hike look fend. Rabbie's also offer Scotland tours from Edinburgh and Inverness.
The basics: Rabbie's offer a wide range of tours around Scotland (plus the rest of the UK and Ireland), from single-day tours of varying lengths to 17-day epics, all in 16-seat minibuses sharing with other passengers. You book in advance and there are no minimum numbers - private tours are also available.
▲ Excellent commentary from tour guide; well-crafted itinerary
▲ Sensible amount of time at each stop; generally didn't feel rushed
▼ Inflexibility of a fixed itinerary; some passengers too hot & others too cold
▼ Commentary & music almost constant - if you prefer peace & quiet this isn't the tour for you!
Rabbie's Tours kindly provided a complimentary space on their "Oban, Glencoe, Highland Lochs & Castles" day tour. Brochure prices for this tour start from £39 (adults) & £36 (concessions).