Driving the open roads is by far one of our most favorite ways to explore any destination—especially one as stunning as Scotland. Remember our article about exploring castles on a Scotland roadtrip?
Guest contributor Shaly Pereira from traveltoes85 has already taken us to beautiful Stirling, but now she’s here to take us on a Scotland highlands tour. You’re going to love this adventure-filled road trip through rolling green landscapes, mysterious lochs and even a blue sheep or two.
Tips for a Scotland Highlands Tour
Of all the scenic trips one can take in Scotland, the Highland Tour is perhaps the most rewarding for any nature lover. The terrain is unspoiled and draws you in at first sight—wide open green plains, cottony clouds hanging really low and a crisp nippy breeze that brings a rosy glow to the most tanned of skins. And of course, if you go in winter, there’s snow—lots of it—and it dazzles even when the sun’s brilliance is dimmed by those clouds.
An ideal place to start a Scottish highlands tour would be from Bridge of Allan in Stirling. Known as the ‘Gateway to the Highlands,’ Stirling holds the highlands and lowlands together like a tightly wired clasp. And it’s only a short drive away from Loch Lomond and Scotlands first National Park—the Trossachs.
This self-guided route through the Scottish Highlands includes Bridge of Allan – Glencoe (Ballachulish – via Callander and Crianlarich) – Fort William – Fort Augustus – Cairngorms Reindeer Park – Dalwhinnie – Kirriemuir – Dundee – St. Andrews – Stirling. (Distance: 382 miles, Driving time: Almost 10 hours with overnight stays in Fort William and Kirriemuir.)
Day 1: Glencoe is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands
From Bridge of Allan, a two-hour drive will get you to Ballachulish on a scenic route via Callander and Crianlarich. At Glencoe, the massacre of 1692 conjures up images of battling clans and bloodshed. But Glencoe also has an impressive history of myths and legends that boggle the mind.
Use this town as a base to get to the Highlands. You’ll discover lots of available accommodation in the Glencoe area.
To get to Loch Lomond, Scotland’s biggest loch, take a detour at Crianlarich via A82 and drive for another 40 minutes. While you gaze at the beauty of this loch, you begin to forget about old Nessie at Loch Ness.
Cross the bridge from South Ballachulish to North Ballachulish (as we did) and drive around Loch Leven. This area is surrounded by volcanic mountains. In fact, Glencoe is known as the glen of volcanic origins.
Exploring Fort William and the UK’s highest peak
Drive for a further 27-minutes to reach Fort William. The gateway to Ben Nevis, UK’s highest peak, Fort William is a town on the shores of Loch Linnhe.
The Glen Nevis Valley is also home to ski runs and forest trails organized by the Nevis Range Mountain Resort. Stop at the Ben Nevis visitor center, then walk along the wooded trail near Ben Nevis.
Plenty of blue streaked sheep will keep you company. Once we were done walking, we headed to the town center for a meal at the The Glen. Checked into our accommodations, then did a bit of bar hopping as we were too excited to sleep.
Day 2: Fort Augustus and the search for Nessie
You may have to tell the folks back home you had at least attempted to look for Nessie so head to Fort Augustus at the bottom tip of Loch Ness. When we left Fort William around 6.30 am it was still dark and we drove 45 minutes to reach Fort Augustus.
The lake was beautiful in the moonlight and the red glow of our car taillights did throw up some shadows that looked a wee bit like monsters. The extra drive was totally worth it.
Say hello to Cairngorms Reindeer
The Cairngorms has been the reindeer home since 1952, a wild picture postcard expanse of 10,000 acres where more than 150 wild reindeer roam freely. You need to spend at least an hour with the reindeer – they are magical. So magical, that I had to write a complete article on this visit. Click through to read more about my Cairngorm reindeer adventure.
Stop in Dalwhinnie Village for a dram of Scottish whiskey
Inspired to take a road trip adventure? Check out our favorite favorite boomer road trips around the world!
To the west of Cairngorms park (20 minutes) is Dalwhinnie, the coldest village in the UK, home to the noted Dalwhinnie Distillery. Recipient of the Best Distillery Tour in 2017, it is open from 10 am – 3:45 pm.
It usually costs 12 pounds but if you visit from November to March and choose the ‘tasting two drams paired with highland chocolate’ tour, you get it for free. Whether you’re a connoisseur of fine Scotch whiskey or not, you’ll still want to spend a lot of time here.
Head to Kirriemuir for Peter Pan and good food
Next head out to Kirriemuir, a small burgh (town) in Scotland, about two hours from Dalwhinnie. A statue of Peter Pan in the town center attests to the fact that this was the birthplace of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. The town also has some cool witch-related history, dating back to the 16th century.
But after the mountain trek and whiskey tour, witches were the last thing on our minds so we booked into our lodging, and crossed the road to The Thrums, where we ravenously dug into homemade lasagna, pork fillet, lamb curry and barbecue spare ribs.
The next morning as I looked outside my bedroom window I noticed our cozy little room was practically in the middle of a graveyard. Oh well, it was good to realize some of us woke up on that beautiful morning.
Day 3: Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland
If you leave around 8.30 AM from Kirriemuir, you can reach Dundee just in time for some traditional Scottish breakfast. We had ours at Bridgeview Station Restaurant—an old converted Victorian railway station that overlooks River Tay.
The waterfront view is amazing. So are their fresh scones and black pudding. Outside the restaurant is an authentic 1870’s railway carriage which operates as a takeaway outlet. Dundee is known as the sunniest city of Scotland so if time permits, you can explore Dolphin spotting trips, kayaking, water skiing and wind surfing on river Tay.
Explore St. Andrews for history, beach walk and whiskey tasting
After breakfast, head to St. Andrews, a historic town in Fife, best known for its golf courses and the prestigious St. Andrews University. Also definitely worth a visit is St. Andrews Castle and the ruins of the St. Andrews Cathedral.
If you have just a few hours in this town then do as we did—walk on the West sands beach (where the Chariots of Fire opening scene was shot), then explore the cathedral grounds and the town center, and finally stop at Eden Mills distillery for a gin tasting and tour (pre-book).
Be sure to arrange a ride back to your accommodations. We were pretty tipsy by the time we left here!
We reached Stirling city center in one and a half hrs, just in time for dinner and Pub Quiz night at the Kilted Kangaroo, an Australian themed restaurant. Beer, Steaks and brainstorming was the perfect way to celebrate the end of our successful highland tour.
If you have more time to explore the Highlands trail
Depending on your time schedule, Balmaha and Balloch are two towns on the highland trail that can be easily fitted into your self-sketched route. We did the Balmaha – Island of Inchailloch – Balloch route on a separate day due to lack of time on the primary route. You can begin this route either from Stirling or Glasgow, the driving distance is about the same.
Visit the quiet fishing village of Balmaha
Taking the Bridge of Allan as a starting point drive for about 47 minutes (53 mins from Glasgow) to Balmaha, a quiet little fishing village. Park at the spacious Conic Hill Car Park.
You can walk to everything nearby including the boatyard. Right across the parking lot are the ‘Loch Lomond and Trossachs’ building—nothing much to see here except some maps and taxidermied animals. Since we were not interested to see dead stuffed animals, we hung out for a bit at the St. Mocha Coffee Shop and Ice Cream Parlor across the road.
There are plenty more lodges and restaurants around this town. Walk for 5 minutes down to the boatyard and enjoy the view from the dock or engage in some rowing or fishing (boats can be hired at the dock).
Go hiking on Inchcailleach Island
Getting to the Island of Inchcailleach is easy. Just hire a powered boat (5 pounds pp) from the dock and in 15 minutes you reach the island—52 hectares of oak woodland with a rich habitat of flora, fauna and resident wildlife.
There are two hiking paths, one wraps clockwise around the island and the other leads to the summit from where you can enjoy stunning views of Loch Lomond. Besides picnic spots, the island also has an ancient history associated with 13th century Christianity, so don’t be surprised if you come across a graveyard as you hike around. An hour on the island is sufficient for hiking and exploring.
Shop till you drop in Balloch
When you get back to the Conic hill car park, drive for 25 minutes to get to Balloch at the foot of Loch Lomond. Explore this pretty little town and park by the Loch shores.
There’s a mall here with upscale boutiques and restaurants. We picked The Kilted Skirlie to have a leisurely meal—the staff helped us choose signature Scottish dishes. Unfortunately, the restaurant has closed permanently.
The busy area around the shores also has a Sea Life aquarium, an Aerial Adventure Course and a Bird of Prey Centre. It took us an hour to get back to Stirling but you can get to Glasgow via M8 in 40 minutes.
Photography by Shaly Pereira