The Scottish Highlands are home to some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery and make a wonderful part of any self-drive tour. They are also Britain’s least populated area so you often have much of it to yourself! If you have the time, it is great to spend a few days here but, as time is often short – and there is so much to see elsewhere! – read on to see how we’d recommend getting the most out of a visit on an overnight stop.
The main approach road into the Highlands is the A82 from Loch Lomond. This is a beautiful scenic drive and the mountains around you seem to keep getting bigger the further north you travel. Once the road climbs steeply and bends round to a give a lovely view back over Loch Tulla, you know you’re really getting there! Continue over the beautiful – if rather bleak! – expanse of Rannoch Moor to the first proper stop of the day in one of the Highland’s most celebrated sights: internationally renowned Glen Coe.
Arriving from the south, you’re welcomed to the start of the Glen by the massive pyramid shaped mountain of Buachaille Etive Mor. High mountain peaks, ridges, highland rivers and waterfalls are all around you as you continue down the glen, which, in addition to its obvious scenic beauty, has a rather sinister past. It was the scene of the infamous 1692 massacre, where the local MacDonalds were murdered by soldiers of the Campbell clan. A number of walks follow the routes used by the clans-people who tried to escape their attackers. On a lighter note, in more recent times, it has provided breath-taking backdrops for many famous Hollywood films including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Highlander, Braveheart and Rob Roy.
There are fine viewpoints from the two large car parks in the middle of the Glen over to the ‘three sisters’ mountains (although these viewpoints are often pretty busy so don’t expect to have this point to yourself!). However, if you want to get away from the crowds and fancy a short walk, there are wonderful views down the Glen from a rock platform called ‘The Study’ which stands above the road into the heart of the Glen. To get there, park up at one of the laybys as you pass the Buachaille Etive Mor mountain. There is an old military road which runs parallel on the northern side of the main road and provides lovely views down into the main Glen.
To find out a bit more about the geology and history of the glen stop off in the National Trust visitors’ centre which has plenty of information, including exhibition, viewing platform, cafe, shop and ranger information point.
Lochleven Seafood Cafe
By now it should be lunchtime and, if looking for fresh west coast Scottish seafood, then we would recommend you make a short detour off the main road towards Fort William to visit the Lochleven Seafood Café. After crossing the Ballachulish Bridge, take the second turning on the right signed Kinlochleven and enjoy the scenic drive along the shores of the loch for a few miles. Beautifully fresh Loch Creran oysters, razor clams, langoustine, mussels and clams all feature on the menu and can be enjoyed with views of the loch that much of it came out of. There’s a shop next door where all the daily catch is stored. The café is only small and does get booked up so it’s worth calling ahead if you want to be sure of a table.
Suitably refreshed, there’s then a choice to be made (which may depend on where you are staying the night!). If heading north, the route is up through Fort William (with the chance to detour into Glen Nevis), ending up in Glenfinnan. Alternatively, you may be taking the road west from Glencoe down the West Coast towards Oban.
Glen Nevis & Glenfinnan
Take in the lovely views over Loch Linnhe on the road north past Fort William - the self-proclaimed ‘Outdoor capital of the UK’ – and you will soon find yourself at the base of Glen Nevis – home to Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. This is another awe-inspiring glen and, if you would like to explore, there’s a good road running all the way down the Glen (although you will have to come back down the same road to get back onto the main road). From the car park at the far end of the glen, consider taking the wonderful walk (decent walking boots are recommended but the path is accessible) through the Nevis Gorge to the Steall waterfall. You can get up close to the falls by taking the precarious wire bridge across the river.
Once back on the main A82, drive back a short distance towards Fort William before heading west to Glenfinnan, for your final stop for the day. The Glenfinnan Monument was put up at the head of Loch Shiel to show where ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ raised his standard at the beginning of the Jacobite Rising in 1745 and there is an interesting visitors’ centre.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct, on the spectacular West Highland railway line between Fort William and Mallaig, is now of Scotland’s most photographed sights thanks to its Harry Potter connections - the huge viaduct, which the Hogwarts Express steams across on its way to the school, has featured in several of the films including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when the flying Ford Anglia lands on the viaduct. Loch Shiel also doubles up as the location of the fictional Black Lake in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Oban & Loch Awe
If heading west along the coast towards Oban, you will have plenty of chance to admire the stunning west coast scenery as the road hugs Loch Linnhe. You’ll probably want to make a stop for photos along the way, including over to pretty Castle Stalker sat out on a small island in the loch.
The small coastal town of Oban, sitting on a bay looking out to the Isle of Mull, makes a lovely place to end the day with plenty of eating and drinking options, as well as its own distillery if you haven’t had chance to try some whisky yet! Oban’s primary landmark, McCaig’s Tower, overlooks the bay and offers spectacular views if you climb the hill to reach it.
If you haven’t had your fill of seafood, the green shack on the CalMac pier near the ferry terminal (head right down to the end of the pier) may not look like much but the seafood they serve is fresh and wonderful. The mussels and seafood platters are excellent. It’s a great way to sample a variety of wonderful Scottish seafood for a fraction of the restaurant price. At the other side of the harbour, the Oban Chocolate Café has lovely views out to sea and is an essential stop for any chocolate fans! The chocolate is all handmade and the café offers some wonderfully indulgent options (try the waffles!).
If you have some time to spare (or a good option for the following morning), take the scenic drive east from Oban along the A85. Head for the top of Loch Awe and the atmospheric ruins of Kilchurn Castle, which dates back to about 1450. The castle isn’t actually signed from the road but once you have crossed the bridge at the top of the loch, there is a small gravel car park on your right. Park there and follow the path at the back of the car park under the railway bridge and you will soon see the castle in front of you! The ruins are open to the public and have a stunning position overlooking the loch and surrounding mountains.
If you would like some help planning your trip to the Highlands or would like us to create a tailor-made itinerary for your Scotland self-drive trip, please get in touch.