Visiting Scotland (part 3)

This is part three of my three-part series of posts about what I recommend on a visit to Scotland. I’m writing posts because I get asked a lot and this is easier than repeating myself a bunch of times.

You can get part 1 of the series here – dealing with Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, and general links to agencies and our past photo posts – and part 2 of the series here – dealing with the Isle of Skye.

Part 3: Road trips

There are a lot of cool places to see in Scotland but I don’t have time to write a travel book or extensive posts about all of them (except the two previous ones). In this post I’m going to list some of my favorite driving routes that allow you to see a bunch of cool scenery and/or places along with a few pointers to specific items. I recommend getting the Ordinance Survey Landranger series of maps that cover the routes you’re going to drive as they list all kinds of interesting historical things to see. For all of these I also recommend doing more research of the routes and places to stop, depending on what you like to do. Many of the places listed here have whisky distilleries nearby or clan centers. I’ve put in wikipedia links (if existing) the first time a place is mentioned.

  • Glasgow to Crianlarich. This goes along the A82 road that skirts the side of Loch Lomond, one of the most picturesque, and the largest, bodies of water in the UK. For the adventurous, take a detour along the other side of the loch to Rowardennan and climb Ben Lomond. Luss is a pretty village to stop at – many times I’ve jumped off its pier into the loch. Make sure to stop at the hydro plant alongside the A82 (you can’t miss it – four giant pipes climbing the mountainside to the reservoir at the top). Crianlarich is a railway junction where the Callendar & Oban and West Highland railways converged. The next stop, Tyndrum, has two stations – one for the Oban line and one for the Fort William line.
  • Arrochar to Oban via Inverary. This is one of my most favorite drives in all of Scotland. Get to Arrochar on the A814 – either coming through Helensburgh (which is my home town in Scotland) and Garelochhead on the A814 past the giant submarine base as Faslane (the reason we moved to Helensburgh in 1977) or crossing over from Tarbet on the A82 using the A83. If you go through Helensburgh, stop at the Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The A83 skirts the head of the imaginatively-named Loch Long and then heads up the old military road to the pass called the Rest and Be Thankful. Stop and look down the hill at what you’ve just come up, and marvel at the old road which rises precipitously below you. Continue down to Loch Fyne and stop in at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar – a wonderful place to eat seafood. Continue along the road to Inverary. As you go over the bridge at the traffic lights outside the town, look to the right to see the impressive Inverary Castle, seat of the Duke of Argyll. Inverary is good to stop and walk around – lots of things to do. Continue down the A83 through excellent scenery to Lochgilphead. From here you can take a long detour down to Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre, from which you’ll be able to see Northern Ireland on a good day. You can also go a little north and go left on the B841 to explore the old churches, 700-year old grave stones and crosses at Kilmory and Kielmore, with excellent views to the Paps of Jura. You can walk down to the cool ruins of Castle Sween. Crinan is also worth stopping at – the start of the Crinan Canal. Continue up the A816 to one of my top five places in the world, Kilmartin. There’s an excellent visitor center here, along with 5000-year old stone circles, standing stones, and Neolithic burial chambers. Continue north to Oban, stopping every so often to see if you can see any sea eagles, particularly at the large marina, Craobh Haven. Oban is a cool place with lots to do – I recommend walking down the pier and getting some fresh seafood.
  • Oban to Crianlarich. The A85 from Oban passes through some cool little villages, with Connel Ferry being the first. There’s no ferry any longer since the bridge was built. Loch Etive drains into the sea here and the tidal rush can be extreme, especially when sea kayaking or in a boat. Taynuilt is worth stopping at for the old Bonawe Iron Furnace. Stop at the Cruachan power station and also take a detour to see a replica crannog in Loch Awe. From there it’s downhill to Tyndrum, unless you take a detour along the B8074 through Glen Orchy up to Bridge of Orchy on the A82. I once saw a pair of huge Golden Eagles in the road there.
  • Oban to Fort William via Ballachulish. At Connel Ferry, turn left on the A828 towards Ballachulish. A great little road – make sure to check out Barcaldine Castle and the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary – I took a school trip there by train from Helensburgh when I was 9. At Portnacroish you’ll see Castle Stalker, which is the castle at the end of the movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail. There’s also a great little luxury hotel with excellent food at Port Appin. From there you’ll drive up the side of Loch Linnhe, eventually joining the A82 at Ballachulish and heading up the nondescript road to Fort William. There isn’t a huge amount to do in Fort William – it’s more a place to rest and stay overnight if you’re skiing, climbing, walking or touring.
  • Crianlarich to Fort William through Glen Coe. After Tyndrum you’ll climb up into the mountains. When you reach the top of the hill, you’ll see the railway line and a trail on your right, which both go to Fort William. The trail is the famous West Highland Way, which starts just outside Glasgow – I’ve never done it, but my younger brother did a few years back. Continue to look on your right to see the horseshoe curve the railway line makes as it traverses three mountains. After passing through Bridge of Orchy, the road heads downhill to Loch Tulla. Here you’ll go through a distinctive bridge, which marks the south end of Rannoch Moor. The other bridge is at the entrance to Glen Coe. You’ll climb a steep hill and then you’re on Rannoch Moor proper. Make sure to stop along the way and get some reflection photos in one of the little bodies of water by the road. After cross the moor, you’ll see a giant mountain right in front of you – this is Buachaille Etive Mòr (colloquially known simply as The Buachialle pronounced ‘The Boo-kal’). A cool detour goes down Glen Etive, where I must have spent 20-odd nights over the years camped beside the river while hill walking. Glen Coe is steeped in history, most notably the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. It’s also got some of the most amazing scenery in Scotland – I think it’s best seen in overcast weather, when the mountains look like they’re brooding. There are numerous cool walks to take, from strolls to hard-core roped-up mountaineering – this is one of the most popular walking and climbing destinations in Scotland. Make sure to stop at the visitor center in Glencoe Village. From there you follow the road around to Ballachulish and up to Fort William.
  • Train to Fort William. Optionally, take the train from Glasgow to Fort William – a stunning ride through desolate countryside. It rides up high along the side of Loch Lomond too and goes through my home town of Helensburgh.
  • Ardnamurchan Peninsula. This is a great place to go camping, especially by the side of Loch Sunart. It’s pretty remote but has some wonderful beaches and plenty of camping space. You get there from the A830 almost at Mallaig or by taking the Corarn Ferry just south of Fort William (I’ve done both). Drive down to the ferry to the Isle of Mull, cross over to Tobermory (a very picturesque little town) and then head down to Fhionnphort and take the ferry to the isle of Iona to see the ancient Iona Abbey (which I’ve yet to do). You can also get to Tobermory by ferry from Oban (which is what I’ve done in the past).
  • Fort William to Inverness. This drive takes you along the Great Glen. Stop at Fort Augustus to see all the river locks. You can also rent a barge or boat and motor/sail between the town and the city. Check out the very cool remains of Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness and see if you can see the monster :-) There’s a visitor center in nearby Drumnadrochit that has a giant Loch Ness Monster that your kids will like. Inverness has a lot of cool things to see but I’ve never stayed overnight there as I much prefer being out on the West Coast.
  • Perth to Inverness. This follows the A9 road. Be careful when driving it as it’s a notorious accident blackspot. Places to visit include Dunkeld, The Hermitage, Pitlochry, Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, Aviemore, the Cairngorms, and all the whisky distilleries around the River Spey (collectively known as the Speyside Malts). I can recommend the Hilton Coylumbridge where they also have lodges for rent. Also checkout the Culloden Battefield and visitor center – the site of the decisive battle that ended the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.
  • Fort William to Kyle of Lochalsh. Follow the A82 to the junction with the A87, maybe driving up to the Aonach Mòr ski center just north of Fort William. On the A87, make sure to stop at the viewpoint overlooking Loch Garry, which from there looks like a map of Scotland. Loch Cluanie is very interesting depending on the height of the water. You can get down to the foot of the Cluanie dam and there’s an overlook too. At the far end of the loch, stop at the Cluanie Inn for some soup and a beer. You then drive down through picturesque Glen Shiel to Shiel Bridge. Here you can take a detour over the Man Ratagan to Glenelg (where there’s an excellent broch to see) and get on to Skye through the ferry there. Continuing along the A87 you’ll pass the world famous (from the movie Highlander) Eilean Donan castle – well worth a visit – before arriving in Kyle of Lochalsh.
  • Skye. See my second post in the series.
  • Kyle of Lochalsh to Torridon. This is another of my favorite drives in all of Scotland. It takes you through Lochcarron (maybe take a detour to Plockton on the way) and over the (in)famous Bealach-na-Ba road to Applecross, one of my top five favorite places on the planet. You can read all about that trip in my photo post from 2009. After driving north, with stunning views across to Skye and Raasay, you’ll come to Loch Torridon with stunning views of the Torridon mountains, eventually joining the A832. For a short trip, turn right towards the A890 and then right again towards Kyle of Lochalsh. For the more adventurous, turn left and head around the Gairloch pensinsula. Lots of excellent views and deserted beaches. When you get to Gruinard, look out at the island. It’s where the British government tested anthrax during WWII. It’s safe now, apparently… Also check out the excellent Inverewe Garden. When you reach the A835, turn right to head south towards the A832 junction to make a loop back to Kyle of Lochalsh.
  • Ullapool to Durness. From Inverness or Kyle of Lochalsh, you’ll eventually end up on the A835 if you want to go north west of Ullapool. Make sure to stop at Corrieshalloch Gorge. Ullapool is also the main ferry port for the Outer Hebrides islands. From Ullapool, drive north on the A835 and turn left when you hit the A837. Follow this north and then west to Lochinver. From Lochinver, take the B869 road around the peninsula and make sure to stop at Achmelvich. It’s a great place to camp and has a stunning beach – check out the little ranger hut too. The road is single-track, very twisty, and very steep in places – definitely for the adventurous. Whichever way you go, you’ll end up on the A894. At Kylesku you’ll go over the only bridge over the Atlantic and here was the one time I had to stop driving in the middle of the road because the rain was coming down so hard I literally couldn’t see, even with the wipers on full. Make sure you have a hat :-) Continue north through stunning scenery until you get to Durness. There’s nothing much at Kinlochbervie so I don’t recommend taking that side trip.
  • Durness to John o’ Groats. If you can, spend the day at Durness – the most sparsely populated area in Western Europe. There are utterly stunning beaches just a little east of the village and also just to the west of where the road enters the village. You absolutely must see the fabulous Smoo Cave just to the west of the village, where a 60 foot waterfall goes under the road and into a chamber you can access. If you can, go visit the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. This is driving along the Pentland Firth – one of the roughest bodies of water around the UK and partially what persuaded me not to follow my Father’s footsteps in the Royal Navy. You’ll go past Loch Eriboll where the German U-boats surrendered in WWII after the Battle of the Atlantic, Tongue (where you can cut south to Inverness), and Thurso – the main ferry port for Orkney and the nearest town to the Dounreay nuclear reactor where my Father was stationed for a small time. Take a detour to Dunnet Head (the most northerly point of the British mainland – check out the lighthouse and sea stacks) before heading to John o’ Groats (often mistakenly referred to as the most northerly point).

One other thing to consider if you have more time and are a bit more adventurous is to walk the famous West Highland Way from just outside Glasgow to Fort William. You can read a great write up about it, and other long-distance walks in Scotland, here.

There’s easily several week’s worth of things to do here and the driving can be done in small chunks as the country isn’t really big. You can get from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Kyle of Lochalsh in about 6 hours on a good day.

There are many, many more places to see – I didn’t even touch on areas south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, The Trossachs, or in eastern Scotland – but I ran out of time – the series took me about 6 hours altogether.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my series of blog posts and they prove useful to some of you!

6 thoughts on “Visiting Scotland (part 3)

  1. This Aberdonian is outraged at the exclusion of the Granite City from your guide, meaning that tourists will miss out on our famous attractions such as rain, sea fog, granite, rain, seagulls, heart-attack inducing pastries, a football team that got to the European semis in the early 80s, and rain. Be careful showing your face on Union Street, Randal.

    1. I spent 12 years in Scotland and I thought you made a great effort with your summary. My beloved was the Stirling area and I felt a nod to the Sherriffmuir Inn was required for tourists because there’s something quite “American Werewolf in London” about it, but of course it’s very classy, and a bit expensive. The restaurant is excellent (I had a nice Ostrich Steak there) and it has an open fire, but the best part is that it is in the middle of nowhere, you can’t even hear traffic from the M9. Beware in winter, the Sherriffmuir road is single track and very steep and you can slide in winter.

  2. As an Aberdonian DBA I think Paul is like our version of TV’s Craig Ferguson and it’s cool that he’s representing our country so well.

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