Wedged in the far northwest corner of Europe, and the most Northern part of Great Britain lies the land of the brave, Scotland. Home to tartan, tweed, whisky, bagpipes and haggis; Scotland is a country with many treasures crammed into its compact territory, and a rich, multi-layered history where every corner of the landscape is steeped in antiquity. There’s nothing quite like the freedom of being able to explore the never-ending back roads, and wide-meandering country tracks of the Highlands other than by embarking on a road trip.
Even if you’re planning a short visit to Scotland, it’s still possible to combine a stay in either Edinburgh or Glasgow with a brief foray into the Highlands. It goes without saying that the more time at your disposal, the more opportunity you’ll have to experience the beauty of the varied landscapes Scotland has to offer. The more remote the region, the more time (and money) you will spend.
I was fortunate enough to experience this trip with my parents, who were visiting us from Australia in January this year. We had five days to venture as far north as we could to explore the Highlands, the craggy castles, the deep lochs, the wild glens and the lively capital.
DAY 1: EDINBURGH TO LOCH RANNOCH
Arriving from London, we landed at Edinburgh Airport and were greeted to our mode of transport for the next three days: a luxurious, brand-new Land Rover Discovery, courtesy of 4x4 Hire Scotland. We headed north-west along the M9 to through to Stirling, and up the A9 and A85 until we hit the traditional market town of Crieff in Perthshire. Over the years this picturesque town has developed a reputation for gourmet food with an amazing choice of cafés and restaurants for fine and casual dining. We had our first traditional Scottish lunch at the Tower Gastro Pub (which I would highly recommend, especially the haggis) before making our way through the most picturesque countryside I have ever seen, to our hotel for the night, Dunalastair Hotel Suites, in the village of Kinloch Rannoch along the shores of Loch Rannoch.
The drive to Loch Rannoch via Stirling from Edinburgh Airport is around two and a half hours, but I would suggest you plan to have a little more time to be able to relax and travel steadily, so you can take in the landscape.
DAY 2: GLENCOE TO LOCH NESS
We made our way to Loch Ness via Glencoe; passing through frosted quaint villages such as Fearnan, Killin, Argyll and the Bridge of Orchy, until we spotted the Three Sisters of Glen Coe and passed through the Great Glen Way.
With more history and breath-taking beauty than really seems fair, Glencoe is without doubt one of the worlds scenic highlights and the most iconic of all Scottish Glens. Here lies a magnificent world of mountain peaks and ridges, rushing rivers and the vast sweeping pass; all of which are part of Great Glen, an ancient geological faultline which cuts southwest across the region from Inverness to Fort William.
The area around Glencoe provides a wonderful pantry and inspiration for chefs and other providers of food in the region. You will find a whole range of places to eat; from characterful team rooms and coffee shops filled with colour and delicious traditional Scottish baking, through to pubs and bistros which provide tasty food with a local but contemporary feel. Most dining options put great emphasis on the fresh and local produce available from fish and shellfish to local meats, game and cheeses. We made a lunch stop at Laroch Restaurant, in the village of Ballachulish on the shores of Loch Leven just off the A82. The food was impeccable, and the service was excellent.
We continued our journey north passing Ben Nevis (Great Britain’s highest mountain), Fort William and Fort Augustus until we reached Loch Ness and began our search for the elusive monster, Nessie. We spent the night at the Pottery House, on the outskirts of the beautiful Loch side village of Dores (approximately 10 minutes away from Inverness). This gorgeous house is perched on a hilltop overlooking Loch Ness and features three modern, large and incredibly comfortable bedrooms, each with luxurious ensuites. We ventured down to the local waterfront restaurant and pub, the Dores Inn where we met some friendly local Highlanders who educated us on the history of the area and told us tales of Nessie.
We were blown away by the outstanding hospitality of the owners, John & Glen. They prepared us the freshest, most delectable breakfast I’ve had - with freshly baked homemade rolls, fruit, juices, and a diverse selection of main meals; it trumped any hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. They truly went above and beyond to ensure that we had a memorable and comfortable stay. If you visit this part of Scotland, look no further. This B&B is a must.
If you’re able to go further, cross the Great Glen and keep driving to the north and experience the grand splendour of the Highlands; the west and north coasts. This long chain of rocky Hebrides which necklace the Atlantic shoreline include Mull, Iona, Islay and Jura, famous for their wildlife and whisky; Skye, the most popular of the Hebrides; and the Western Isles.
If you are travelling through the highlands during the summer and are looking for unique accommodations, Loch Tay Highlands Lodges is the perfect place. We stumbled across this award winning Scandinavian inspired glamping-style accommodation on the shores of Loch Tay.
DAY 3: LOCH NESS TO DUNBLANE
On our third and final morning of our Highlands road trip, we waved goodbye to Loch Ness and made our way up to Inverness before travelling south through the mighty Cairngorm massif, which offers hints of the raw wilderness Scotland can provide. The Cairngorms National Park is the largest National Park in the United Kingdom and includes the largest area of native woodland in Britain.
We drove south on the A9 motorway until we drove right past an enormous white estate, the Dalwhinnie Distillery. We turned around as quickly as we could and made our way to the entrance of the famous Highland Single Malt Whisky distillery. We had a break from driving and took a tour of the premise which included a fascinating explanation of the traditional art of malt whisky distilling with an opportunity to taste all six expressions of Dalwhinnie single malts.
We were on the road again heading down and out of the Highlands towards the popular and vibrant town of Pitlochry. Lying on the River Tummel, this charming and quintessentially Scottish town provides a great base for exploring Perthshire and the Cairngorms. We continued south to past Dunkeld, Perth, and a couple of wrong turns later, we finally made it to Cromlix Hotel. Situated in the beautiful countryside just outside Dunblane and owned by Andy Murray, this luxury hotel was transformed from an elegant 15th century Victorian Perthshire mansion into a 15-bedroom, leading luxury 5-star destination in 2014.
Set on 34 acres of secluded woodlands and garden grounds with its own chapel and loch, Cromlix boasts a Chez Roux restaurant, two drawing rooms, a snooker room and much more. It has been re-designed to showcase much of the house’s original heritage and has been furnished with specially-sourced Scottish antique furniture. We could not have chosen a more spectacular place to stay for our last night of our road trip. It was a truly memorable once in a lifetime experience.
If time permits, and you’re beginning your journey from Inverness, the North Coast 500 route is the road trip of a lifetime. Be warned, it is recommended that you have five to seven says at your disposal to complete it. It weaves through some of Scotland’s finest coastal scenery, starting at Inverness, and follows the west coast to Applecross, then moves northwards towards the towns of Torridon and Ullapool. From there you’ll venture to some of the most northerly coastal points of the country, passing by Caithness and John O’Groats before heading south through Dingwall and back to Inverness.
CAR HIRE – If you’re thinking of hiring a car to explore this part of Scotland, make sure you confirm with the car rental company that mileage is included. We had 480 miles to play with over three days, so I planned our itinerary in great detail and calculated our mileage accordingly to ensure we did not use excess miles.
DAY 4: DUNBLANE TO EDINBURGH
Whilst we were blue for having to leave Cromlix, Edinburgh was awaiting. The last morning of our trip through the Highlands consisted of driving an hour back to Edinburgh. We spent our last night in Scotland at the Nira Caledonia Hotel. Click here to read my review of our stay.
Overall, Scotland is one of my favourite countries in Europe and has so much to offer all types of travellers. Not only is it easily accessible from London and all other cities in Europe, but the landscape constantly amazes me time and time again, the food is exceptional and the Scots themselves are wonderfully friendly people.