As usual, Mr Fletche took the driving mantle on our recent UK Staycation to the Scottish Highlands leaving me to a) navigate and b) gaze at the scenery in awe. I’ve leave you to guess which one of the two I’m best at…
There’s no doubt that the Isle of Skye deserves much more than a single day to explore, especially if you want to get outdoors and tackle some of the hikes which lead you to some spectacular viewpoints. Unfortunately, we visited on a particularly gloomy and foggy day, which meant we couldn’t really see anything past the front of our hire car at times.
So after a damp morning at the Fairy Pools (slightly damper for Mr Fletche after his unexpected dip in the stream…), we decided to take the drive to Portree, and then the A855 which loops around the North East of the island along the Trotternish Peninsula. Reluctant to pull our waterproofs back on on any more occasions than necessary, this becomes more of a driving day than a hiking day. If the weather has been clearer, then these are the sights that we should have seen along the way.
Taking the anti-clockwise route, we leave the relative civilisation of Portree behind and head north with the Sound of Raasay on our right. We pass Lochs Fada and Leathan, driving past the roadside Bride’s Veil Falls on the way. We see the signs for the Old Man of Storr, a popular hike among basalt spires rising from the land – legend states these are the fingers of a dead giant. There is parking at Loch Leathan but even on a gloomy day with hardly any other traffic on the road, the car park is overflowing so we decide not to stop.
The landscape gets decidedly craggier to our left, and visibility to our right gets decidedly worse. At Kilt Rock – apparently, in clear weather – you can gaze across the Sound of Rasaay to the mainland whilst Mealt Falls cascades into the ocean below. With more hours in the day, and less gloom in the air, we would have loved to have done the hike to the Quiraing, an otherworldly landscape of volcanic rock formations, crags and bluffs dating from the Jurassic period. Instead we carry on through small towns like Staffin, Digg and Flodigarry. We park up briefly at Duntulm Castle, but rather than the castle, we are fascinated by a ewe and her very newly born lamb as she nudges her baby to stand. It’s like a scene from Bambi. But with sheep.
The weather clears a little as drive back down the western edge of the peninsula, however this may be because we are a little more inland. The A855 joins with the A87 at Uig, which is an ideal base for exploring the Fairy Glen, Rha Waterfalls or taking a ferry over to the Outer Hebrides. However, we continue making our way south on the A87, via a quick stop at Sligachan for a viewpoint of the Black Cuillin Mountains.
We leave the Isle of Skye by the magnificent Skye Bridge connecting the island to the mainland at the Kyle of Lochalsh. The aforementioned Loch Alsh is on our left as we travel eastwards towards Loch Duich and Eilean Donan Castle – one of the most famous landmarks of the journey. The best view of the castle – “that” view – is actually from a parking lot before you cross the bridge over Loch Long. There’s also free public toilets here which is a result. Unfortunately the weather and light didn’t play ball, so we were unable to get any great photos.
The small town of Shiel Bridge is the gateway to Glen Shiel, This is where the drive gets quite ridiculously pretty, with the Five Sisters of Kintail on our left-hand side pointing proudly into the clouds above. Like many areas of the Highlands, battles were fought in Glen Shiel with Jacobites clashing with Government troops back in 1719. We follow the River Shiel for a while, before the landscape widens a little from the narrow mountainous pass and we approach Loch Cluanie.
From the east end of the north shore of Loch Cluanie the A87 diverts southwards, past Loch Loyne and Loch Garry, before joining the A82 at Invergarry. The A82 south takes you down to the Nevis Range and Glencoe; we continue north-east past Loch Oich and finally to the west banks of Loch Ness.
After skirting Loch Ness once more, the A82 continues past the imaginatively named Loch Lochy. Visibility isn’t great once more on the morning as we pass, but Mr Fletche has evidence from his trip last September that this is a wonderful place for reflections. Not today though.
The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge is well worth a stop on your drive. The bronze statue of three World War II commandos recalls the efforts and sacrifices made during the Second World War, and overlooks the training ground of this elite band of soldiers. Ben Nevis and the Mamore mountains can easily be seen from here, and the clouds began to lift for us here.
We bypass the town of Fort William with Loch Eil on our right hand side and make our first official stop of the morning at the Ballachulish Visitor Centre where we take a short stroll around the slate quarry, climb the first part of the Brecklet Trail above Ballachulish, and then take the paved path around the peninsula behind the Isles of Glencoe hotel with great views over Loch Aber, Beinn a’Bheithir, and Eilean Munde, a graveyard island used by a number of different clans.
Continuing on along the A82 brings you to the small pretty village of Glencoe; driving through the village leads you to the parking area for the Glencoe Lochan trail. Back on the A82, the scenery from here just gets prettier and prettier as mountains begin to close in on either side. The River Coe flows into Loch Achtriochtan, where a perfect white guesthouse nestles against a backdrop of the Bidean Nam Bian range. A little further and we come to the Three Sisters, voted one of the best views in the UK in 2017. We drive past the picturesque cascades of the Meeting of the Three Waters, and continuing on, one of Glencoe’s most impressive peaks, Buachaille Etive Mor, looms on our right-hand side. There is a side road where you can follow in the steps of James Bond and M, but it’s no use looking for the Skyfall mansion here as it doesn’t exist.
We end our eastwards drive on the A82 at the Glencoe Mountain Resort; the ski season may be (almost) over but there are still a few skiers and boarders gliding over the snow on the last weekend, and when we arrive there is an extreme mountain biking event going on. Mr Fletche and I take the more leisurely option of a chairlift ride, a 12 minute ride soaring above the valley with views over Ranoch Moor and towards Buachaille Etive Mor. There’s plenty of walking options once you reach the top and it’s a beautiful place to sit, amid mountain scenery, and contemplate your existence.
And once we’re back down to ground level, it’s time for us to do the whole drive again westwards, taking in all the stops we missed on the way.
Plodda Falls is part of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, and whilst the moderately easy hiking trails are well maintained, the road to reach them is not. Our little Fiat 500 almost got swallowed up by potholes more than once, and the drive was a very slow slalom from start to finish. It’s an area worth exploring though but be prepared for one hell of a bumpy ride!
It will always take twice as long to get anywhere than you think, so don’t trust Google or your online map of choice. There will be many many stops to capture the magnificent scenery – and there’s always another, more magnificent scene around the bend!
Explore the local area on foot once you’ve parked up – some of the best views can be found just a short walk from the official car parks if you’re willing to pull on your hiking boots (and waterproofs)
Weather changes quickly and we definitely experienced four seasons in one day! So if you’re driving, chuck a load of layers in the car, you’ll be grateful in the chilly mornings and evenings, and can peel them off when the sun finally makes an appearance!
These are common tourist routes, but rather than hunting down towns and cafes for lunch, make like a boy scout and be prepared! We brought crackers, cheese, cooked meats and chicken drumsticks from our local Co-Op and took a packed lunch with us each day – it also means we got to eat our picnic in some very pretty locations!
Roads are often narrow and are quite often single-track only with frequent passing places. You’ll need to judge the road ahead more often than normal, and get familiar with your reverse gear…
Check your fuel levels and make sure you know where gas stations are along your route – in some places they are few and far between so don’t risk it – top up your tank whenever you can.
We hired our Fiat 500 rental car through Avis, but always use comparison sites to find the best option for you. Always make sure you have the appropriate insurance too. You never know when a pothole will swallow your car…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post recommending three great roads to drive in the Scottish Highlands, and hopefully I’ve inspired you to visit soon! Do you love road trips as much as we do? Where else should we explore in Scotland? Let me know in the comments and thank you for reading xx