Discover the delights of driving north of the border with three of the most scenic journeys in Scotland
1. Gretna to Ayr
While the recently-launched North Coast 500, Scotland’s answer to Route 66, gets all the attention, it would be easy to overlook the beautiful scenery in the south – which includes not just the countryside that inspired Scotland’s favourite poet Robert Burns but also the most accessible routes for visitors driving from England.
Our route is built around the Galloway Forest Park, whose epic and remote 300 square miles are sometimes referred to as ’the Highlands of the Lowlands’. But we start just over the border with England, at Gretna Green, the traditional destination for English couples running away to get married without their parents’ permission. The old blacksmith’s shop, where thousands of ceremonies were carried out, is now a visitor centre telling the whole story.
Half an hour up the A75 from Gretna is Dumfries, where Burns spent his final years, a fact commemorated by a museum about him in an old watermill on the River Nith.
On the banks of the nine-mile-long Loch Ken, on the eastern edge of Galloway Forest Park, you may be able to spot hundreds of the otherwise rare red kites, at feeding time on the red kite trail.
The country in and around the forest has, officially, some of the darkest skies in the UK: head north on the A713, to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory near Dalmellington to stop off and enjoy the magic of the night sky.
2. Aberdeen to Inverness
The Highland Tourist Route devised by Visit Scotland takes you through the Cairngorms National Park, voted one of the top 20 places in the world to visit by National Geographic Traveller magazine.
It’s a beautiful, fairly short afternoon drive in itself but, with the possibility of many stop-offs and detours, is also the basis of a terrific long weekend. Even if you’re just passing through, you will feel the magic of being dwarfed by the landscapes of Britain’s largest National Park.
If you have time to stop, you might spot wildcats or red squirrels, ospreys or golden eagles: the Cairngorms is one of the richest areas in the UK for rare species. A visit to the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in Abernethy Forest will increase your chances. And, if you cheat, you might even see a polar bear en route…
On the way, Pitfichie Forest is great for walkers and mountain-bikers, with a marked 10-mile trail. But alongside its natural beauty, this part of the world is also best known for its whisky – there’s 14 distillery tours on offer: you can go round Glenlivet, just north of our route, for £10. But if you’re a real connoisseur, you might fancy the Legacy Tasting Experience, with the chance to try a range of rare and aged malts, for £60.
Our last stopping point before Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, is possibly – Loch Ness aside – the most famous in Scotland: the site the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the last battle on British soil. There’s a visitor centre and the windswept battlefield itself is dotted with memorials to fallen soldiers, with daily living history displays bringing the epic scene back to life.
3.Glasgow-Oban-Fort William: island-hopping along the west coast
The 100 miles along the A82 between Glasgow and Fort William is one of the most magnificent stretches of road anywhere in the world, following the full length of the 20-mile western shore of Loch Lomond, the UK’s biggest lake, and ending in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the UK’s biggest mountain. On the way, there are subtly changing landscapes and driving conditions, from empty open roads to twisty-mountain-side concentration tests to crawling behind farm vehicles. The views over and on Glen Coe, nestled in dramatic peaks, have earned it the reputation of the Scotland’s ‘most romantic glen’ and this is a trip that will invite you to slow down, park the car, and breath in the views. Nonetheless, it could still be done easily in an afternoon.
However, to turn an afternoon’s drive into at least a long weekend, we suggest a western detour, coming off the A82 and onto the A83 at Tarbet, halfway up Loch Lomond, and heading for Oban, the Gateway to the islands. This route takes you first to the magnificent, Gothic 18th century Inveraray Castle, set on the glass-calm Loch Fyne and then, via the A819, to the ruins of Kilchurn Castle at the northern tip of Loch Awe. Join the A85 to Oban, which can be your base for exploring the islands, with the help of the Calmac car ferries. Some of the islands are too small to accommodate cars or roads, but the single-lane track that circuits Mull makes a great day out in itself; it feels beautifully remote and you may see seals and red deer and sea eagles en route.
Returning to Oban, follow the A828 north along the coast to Glencoe, enjoying views over the islands to one side and views of the inland mountains to the other all the way to Fort William.