If you’re one of the 55% of visitors to Scotland whose main reason for coming is to enjoy its landscape and scenery – the most popular reason cited by visitors (VisitScotland, 2012) – then you’re in the right place. In this article I’ll take you on an insider’s guide to some of the most scenic routes in Scotland, and pointing out some great things to see and do along the way.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness
If you’ve made a special effort to travel to Scotland and only have a short time available, you want to ensure you make the most of your trip. If the journey matters most (according to Hemingway) then you want to be on the most scenic roads rather than wishing later on you’d taken a different route.
For a small country Scotland boasts some of the most scenic roads in the world. I remember talking to some US visitors some years ago who were surprised at the variety of the scenery in Scotland, and the fact that you could cover so much of the country in only a few hours. No part of Scotland is more than 50 miles from the sea as the crow flies and you can easily drive coast-to-coast in a day (… if you really want to). So while Scotland may lack the grandeur of the US or Canada, it makes up for in the quality and variety of its landscapes. And compared to the rest of the UK and many places in Europe, of course, it’s far quieter. Away from the built-up areas of the Central Belt there’s less traffic and you can easily escape the crowds and enjoy the views.
To see Scotland properly of course, means slowing down. This includes getting off the beaten track, allowing time to explore sights along the way, meeting people in village shops and cafes, and experiencing local culture. The ten scenic routes below give you the scope to do this. I’ve highlighted recommended places to eat and drink, plus things to see and do, which will encourage you to linger. (And just in case you haven’t got my ‘plug’ for rural tourism, please spend your hard-earned cash in the hard-working businesses that are the lifeline for their local communities all year round !).
The ten routes highlighted below are some of my personal favourites – and I’d be keen to hear if you think I’ve made any glaring omissions. Choosing the ten ‘best’ routes for a road trip in Scotland is clearly a difficult and subjective matter. However, I’ve selected roads from many corners of Scotland so please consider this a representative sample, designed to help visitors plan a road trip in the knowledge that they’ll enjoy some of the best scenery on offer together with some fantastic sights and landmarks.
To use the map below:
- Hover your mouse over each route to highlight it on the index
- Enlarge the map or zoom in more more detail
- If the map doesn’t work, click on the ‘larger map’ text (the new version of Google Maps doesn’t always work with WordPress).
10. Carter Bar to Edinburgh
Forget the busy M74 or the rather boring A1, the A68 is the by far the best road to take when driving north into Scotland. Of course, you won’t start your journey at the Scottish/English border (Carter Bar) but the best route is to follow the A68 north from the Tyne Valley along the straight lines of the old Roman road (Dere Street), with its stomach-turning blind summits, through the Northumberland National Park. By the time you climb up to the border at Carter Bar (hopefully, a bagpiper will be there to welcome you), you’ll see the shapely hills of the Eildons and other hills of the Scottish Borders stretched out before you.
These lands have been fought over for the centuries by the Picts and, more recently, the reiving families of the Borders. To this day, the Common Ridings in Hawick, Selkirk, Galashiels and other towns re-enact the tradition of riding the boundaries on horseback to protect their land. With the strength of community bonds still so strong it’s perhaps no surprise that Hawick folk will (only half jokingly) tell you in a thick Borders accent that “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted” !
North of Lauder you’ll climb Soutra Hill from where, on a clear day, you’ll get a great vista looking over Edinburgh with Fife in the distance. The views on this route are best when travelling from south to north.
See and Do: Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose Abbeys; take a walk to the top of the Eildon Hills; detour from St Boswells to Dryburgh and Scott’s View for the best views of the River Tweed and Eildon Hills respectively; the recently refurbished Abbotsford, former home of the author Sir Walter Scott (between Tweedbank and Galashiels).
Eat and drink: Flat Cat Gallery and Cafe (Lauder).
9. Perthshire to Royal Deeside
The A93 between Blairgowrie and Braemar is a favourite among (motor)bikers for its twisty climb up to the pass of Glenshee and the quick descent down the other side. But the route deserves to be taken at a slower pace, particularly for the section west along Royal Deeside.
The hills in the southeastern corner of the Cairngorm National Park are heather-clad and rounded unlike the more pointed mountains of Scotland’s west coast. But if it’s munro bagging you’re here for, there are around a dozen munros on either side of the Glenshee ski resort that are among the easiest and most accessible in Scotland.
It’s well worth a short detour west of Braemar to the Linn of Dee to see remnants of the Ancient Caledonian Forest; majestic native Scots’ pine trees standing proud in the broad valley with the Cairngorm mountains as the backdrop. Royal Deeside boasts its fair share of castles and of course, Royal connections at Balmoral. It’s an attractive drive alongside the River Dee with several good picnic spots along the route. Another recommended detour is south from Aboyne up into Glen Tanar, where walkers can climb Scotland’s most easterly munro, lonely Mount Keen.
Eat and drink: Station Restaurant, Ballater.
8. Loch Lomond to Lochgilphead
This route gives a great mix of lochs and hills en route to Kintyre and the islands of the West coast. Be warned though, this is a classic coach tour route and so you may want to avoid the kitsch in certain tourist hot-spots (notably Luss and Inveraray). Travelling north from Glasgow on the A82, you enter the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park at Balloch and soon see Ben Lomond towering over the east side of Loch Lomond. Turning off on to the A83 at Tarbet a short climb over the hill takes you down to Arrochar at the head of Loch Long, the first of the sea lochs.
Walkers may want to climb The Cobbler, one of the most popular of the Arrochar Alps despite not (quite) reaching munro height. The drive west from here climbs steeply to the wonderfully-named Rest and Be Thankful where there’s a popular layby and viewpoint at the top.
Inveraray makes for a useful stopping-off point on Loch Fyne, the drive along the loch to Lochgilphead giving fine views of water and pine forest.
See and Do: picnic spots along Loch Lomond; take a water bus from Tarbet across Loch Lomond to Rowardennan or Inversnaid; climb The Cobbler at Arrochar (allow 35hours up and down); Inveraray Jail; Inveraray Maritime Heritage Centre; Crarae Gardens (near south of Inveraray).
Eat and Drink: Loch Fyne Oysterbar at the head of Loch Fyne.
7. Trossachs Loop
Both the Trossachs and Arran (see below) are known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ for the sheer variety of scenery over a relatively compact area. Sir Walter Scott set his famous novel The Lady of the Lake at Loch Katrine in the Trossachs which helped fuel the romanticism and the emerging 19th Century tourism industry in this part of Scotland.
Starting out from Callander, one of the gateways to the Highlands, the A821 follows the north shore of Loch Venachar, a popular sailing loch with several good picnic spots. Shapely Ben Venue and Ben A’an grace the eastern end of Loch Katrine and it’s well worth a trip on the refurbished steamship, the SS Sir Walter Scott, on Loch Katrine.
The road south winds its way up to the summit of Duke’s Pass, notorious in winter weather, and down to Aberfoyle. The road back to Callander passes by the Lake of Menteith, the only natural freshwater body of water called a lake (rather than loch) in Scotland.
See and Do: See the curious Bicycle Tree at Brig o’Turk; climb Ben A’an, one of Scotland’s best small hills, with fabulous views; take a trip on the SS Sir Water Scott steamship on Loch Katrine; go for a walk and see wildlife via CCTV at David Marshall Lodge (near the summit of the Duke’s Pass); take a ferry (from the car park on the B8034) to the idyllically-situated Augustinian monastery dating from 1238 on Inchmahome island in the Lake of Menteith.
6. The Isle of Arran
Arran is the seventh largest Scottish island and the 55 mile circuit would make a great day’s journey, including stops. It’s worth noting that it’s a popular route for cyclists; fit cyclists can arrive into Brodick (from Ardrossan) in the morning and return before the last ferry back.
The north of the island is more mountainous (where Goat Fell is a popular climb) and there are fine views of jagged peaks. The east coast, between Whiting Bay and Brodick, has most traffic but away from these two settlements you’ll find Arran to be a relaxed and peaceful gem of an island. There are some sandy beaches on the west coast and on the south coast at Kildonan, where on a clear day you have views towards the granite outcrop of Ailsa Craig.
See and Do: Visit Brodick and Lochranza castles; see the King’s Caves at Blackwaterfoot; visit Glenashdale waterfall (a 140 foot drop), near Whiting Bay; visit the Machrie Moor stone circle on the west side of the island, erected 4000 years ago.
Eat and drink: Arran has a growing reputation for the quality of its food and drink. Follow the Food Trail along the east and north coasts sampling cheese, ice cream, beer, whisky, relishes, chocolates and other delicacies. Creelers seafood restaurant at Brodick and the Brodick Bar and Brasserie.
5. Fort William to Mallaig
The best mode of travel between Fort William and Mallaig is the train given that this section of the West Highland Line ranks as one of the most scenic rail trips in the world. Steam afficionados and children of all ages will want to come in the summer months and take the ‘Hogwarts Express’ on the 84 mile round trip, which passes between the mountains, by the small villages of Lochailort, Arisaig and Morar and over the impressive viaduct at Glenfinnan (as seen in the Harry Potter film).
While making the journey by car doesn’t perhaps give the same quality of experience, it does have the advantage that you can at least stop off along the way. A diversion to see the Glenfinnan monument, a poignant memorial to the final Jacobite uprising of 1745, is well worth a trip, as is a detour to see the fine white sands of Morar with views towards the small isles of Eigg, Rum, Muck and Canna beyond. These beaches, featured in the films Highlander and Local Hero really are stunning.
Eat and drink: The Old Library Lodge and Restaurant and Cafe Rhu, both in Arisaig. I enjoyed a fabulous breakfast at Cafe Rhu on a previous trip, using high quality local produce – highly recommended.
4. Highland Perthshire Loop
This 65km circular route takes in some of Highland Perthshire’s best scenery and sights, making for a great half-day excursion. Pitlochry and Aberfeldy are worth visiting in their own right but linking them with a route along the River Tay and Loch Tummel takes in some spectacular scenery.
See and Do: For the more adventurous, go rafting on the River Tay or bungee jumping at nearby Killiecrankie; visit Castle Menzies; go on a Highland Safari; visit the Fortingall Yew, thought to be between 1,500 and 5,000 years old.
Eat and drink: Highland Safaris Cafe.
3. Ardnamurchan Loop
I’ve previously blogged about Ardnamurchan being one of Scotland’s hidden gems. It’s off the main through routes, there are few must-see sights and comparatively few visitors venture – but when you get the right weather the views and scenery are superb. A few miles south of Fort William, take the Corran Ferry which transports you a short distance across the narrows of Loch Linnhe and immediately you get that ‘island’ feel.
The A861 takes you past Strontian and along the shores of Loch Sunart, where the road narrows. This is a frustrating road to take a caravan (and to be stuck behind one) but there are plenty passing places. For a real treat, turn off on the B8807 to the Point of Ardnamurchan (the most westerly point in mainland UK) and lovely Sanna Beach. But to take the scenic loop back to Fort William, follow the A861 as it turns north to Moidart with mountains to the east and gorgeous coastal views to the west. The faster A830 takes you past the Glenfinnan Monument and Viaduct which is worth stopping to see.
See and Do: Stop off at the village of Strontian; climb the Corbett Beinn Resipol for fantastic views to the Inner and Outer Hebrides; visit Kilchoan Castle; climb the Rois-Bheinn Horsehoe (three Corbetts)
Eat and drink: Glenuig Inn, Scotland’s exemplar green inn.
2. Stirling to Skye
For many people a trip to Skye will be on their itinerary and the A82 is the most popular route from the south. If you’re coming from Glasgow the A82 takes you up the western shores of Loch Lomond, a road which is narrow and windy in places, but from Edinburgh the best way to come is from Stirling on the A85.
The journey will take you about 3 to 3.5 hours drive time (excluding stops) but you will certainly want to make a day of it and see a number of iconic Scottish landmarks along the way. First, a visit to Stirling Castle situated high on its volcanic outcrop is a must, many people rating Stirling higher than Edinburgh Castle on their must-see list. Callander and Killin make for good stops en route offering places to eat. The road winds its way in among the mountains with Beinn Dorain in particular making an impressive statement just to the north of Tyndrum, with the loop of the West Highland Line immediately below.
The flat expanse of Rannoch Moor’s heather and lochans is finally punctuated by one of Scotland’s best-loved mountains, Buachaille Etive Mor, guarding the entrance to Glencoe. You will want to stop in Glencoe itself, either at the top of the valley where you can take a walk up to the ‘lost valley’ where the MacDonald Clan hid their rustled cattle valley or at the Visitor Centre a few miles further on. Ballachulish Bridge takes you over Loch Leven with the sea loch, Loch Linnhe on your left as you drive towards Fort William.
Unless you want to make a point of stopping off in Fort William, you may want to visit the Commando Memorial just north of Spean Bridge instead. The next section of the A82 as well as the A87 west of Invergarry allow quicker progress to be made as traffic thins out. Try to find the viewpoint as the road climbs and turns north just towards the middle of Loch Garry to see the shape of its western end – in the shape of Scotland !
Passing the Cluanie Inn on your left the hills start to close in around you as you descent into Glen Shiel with munros either side; a fantastic wild mountain landscape. If time allows you might want to consider a short detour over the steep Ratagan Pass to Glenelg from Shiel Bridge. Glenelg is a fine village which is also home to the Glenelg-Kylerhea Ferry (summer only) – and the experience of taking the ferry ‘over the sea to Skye’ beat the new bridge hands-down ! However, the most direct route to Skye takes you past Loch Duich and iconic Eilan Donan Castle to Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge.
See and Do: So much ! Visit Stirling Castle; see the Falls of Dochart (waterfalls) at Killin; climb Buachaille Etive Mor (or any number of munros along the route); take a walk to the lost valley in Glencoe; see the Commando Memorial just north of Spean Bridge; take a photo of Loch Garry’s ‘Scotland-shaped’ western end; visit Eilan Donan Castle.
1. Ullapool to Durness
With the possible exception of some sections of the Ardnamurchan and Arran loops, all of the routes described so far include popular roads where traffic can build up, especially in summer. However, the route up the far northwest of Scotland covers some of the most spectacular and quietest spots in Scotland. For many, this is Scotland at its wildest and most scenic, where mountains, lochs and small communities combine to give an experience not found anywhere else in the UK. This is a journey to savour, to stop off, linger and soak up the experience.
While not all are munros the Assynt hills are certainly some of the most distinctive in Scotland, and keen walkers will want to climb Suilven, Quinag, Foinaven and others. For others, detours (sometimes fairly long given the narrow, slow roads) are well worth taking. Trips to Achiltibuie (with views to the Summer Isles), Lochinver and Kinlochbervie (to walk out to Sandwood Bay) are highly recommended. Take a detour past Durness also to visit the lovely beach at Ceannabeinne.
See and Do: Use Ullapool as a departure point for ferries to the Western Isles; climb Suilven (or one of other iconic hills in Assynt); take a trip to Handa Island to go birdwatching; take a walk to Sandwood Bay, one of the most beautiful (and quietest!) beaches in the UK.